Corey and Lori's Quest Log

Corey and Lori’s Quest Log

Posts Tagged ‘D&D’

The Tale of Eric and the Dread Gazebo

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

A good friend of ours, Richard Aronson, wrote a little tale – based on a true gaming event – that turned into a monster. We think the “tale of the tale” is almost as interesting as the original story, so we’ve invited Richard to be our guest blogger this week.

The GazeboI met Richard through Mensa in the late 70’s. We had both recently gotten into D&D, and I had started up a game for the Los Angeles Mensa group. Richard started his own campaign and introduced me to a couple of other groups. The Cal Tech players had developed their own D&D variant called “Warlock” with more detailed combat rules. And there was Ed Whitchurch, who ran a store called Le Maison du Guerre (that’s “The House of War” slightly misspelled). Ed ran a unique campaign that mixed fantasy gaming and tabletop wargaming, not to mention as odd an assortment of players as you’d find anywhere.

It was in Ed’s game that Richard picked up the story of “Eric and the Gazebo”. Richard added a few embellishments and wrote it up for a few newsletters. And then it spread. Lori and I were amazed to pick up “Knights of the Dinner Table™”, and find the characters retelling the story… without crediting the original source. Later, the characters in Nodwick had a gazebo adventure. And in the online RPG RuneScape, you can build a Gazebo. If you examine it, the game says, “Run away, it’s the Gazebo!”.

When we did a “humorous stories” panel at DunDraCon and asked how many in the audience had heard of Eric and the Gazebo, nearly everyone raised their hands. Just four hundred words, but they turned into a worldwide legend. Here’s Richard’s story of the building of the Gazebo.

The Tale of the Tale

by Richard Aronson

Back in 1985, I told Lee Gold and her RPG group a story. That story, of course, was “Eric and the Gazebo”. And Lee told me, “Now you have to write it up for ‘Alarums and Excursions.'” [A&E is the oldest and longest-running fantasy role-playing game publication, started in 1975. It recently published issued #400.] Since she had the power of life and death over my characters, I did so.

Then Corey and Lori Cole read it in A&E. They reminded me that I was supposedly contributing editor to “The Spell Book”, the magazine of Mensa’s RPG SIG, and they’d cut my salary by half if I didn’t write it up for my column. So I wrote it for them, with some minor tweaks.

From “The Spell Book” it was reprinted in Corpus Christi Texas’s newsletter (which I was told about when I received a copy of that issue) and then it was reprinted in a Mensa newsletter in North Carolina that never told me or asked my permission. And then “The Mensa Bulletin” sent me a letter; they’d read it in North Carolina and wanted to reprint it nationally. Oh, and if I could make it maybe 50-100 words longer, then it would completely fill a page.

“The Mensa Bulletin” ran it in 1989. And John Chu, a Mensan teaching at the University of Buffalo, asked me if he could reprint it on the Internet. In 1989, the Internet was not exactly public. It was used by academia and defense contractors. I was making a very nice living coding proprietary encrypted email for a Fortune 100 because there was no alternative. Ah, simple times. So I told John Chu, “Sure, as long as you spell my name correctly.”

Roughly five years later, I was a professional game designer working for The Sierra Network. I was on a humor panel at DunDraCon in San Ramon. I told “Eric and the Gazebo”. After the panel, an irate and less than fully hygienic (but scrawny and therefore not scary; I am many things but scrawny is not one of them) accused me in a loud voice of having stolen the story from his friend.

Plagiarism is a relatively minor concern to a professional programmer. It’s very serious for a professional game designer. So I had to start regaining control of my copyright. When I got back home, I did a Yahoo Search (I don’t think Google even existed yet) for “Eric and the Gazebo”. As I recall, there were over 3,000 hits. John Chu’s was there, and it attributed me properly. Most of them didn’t.

In order to protect my copyright, I had to contact these people and tell them to give me credit or remove my story. Most of them had no problems with giving me credit. A few asked for some proof of copyright. That cost me some stamps, unless they were willing to believe John Chu’s attribution as being the earliest version on the internet. A Google search today shows 13,000 hits for “Eric and the Dread Gazebo”. Included in the top 10 was an Australian web site which did not have attribution.

Okay, so my characters in Lee Gold’s game avoided some rotting diseases.
Some people got some laughs, and I’ve met some folks that were, for the most part, worth meeting. So I’d do it all over again. But next time I’m arming myself with a torch of gazebo slaying first. Plus FOUR.

The Original Story…

Here’s the version we printed in the Fall, 1987 issue (#13) of “The Spell Book”:

Richard Rambles On

by Richard Aronson

Humor is hard to define. Vocal humor is always easier than written humor, and acted plus vocal humor easier still. Think of how many movies/plays/TV shows you have laughed out loud at, then think of the surely smaller number of cartoons/comic books you have laughed at, and the yet smaller number of books (without pictures) you have laughed at. So I have been handed a tough assignment — make people laugh with only the printed page for my instrument.

Actually, if I could draw, I’m sure I’d be allowed to use a graphic device, and perhaps one will be inserted by ye Editors, but ever since they moved out of L.A. I’ve had much less input into the actual production values of The Spell Book, so I really cannot do more than suggest, whereas in times past I was able to say: Hey, look, right here should be a picture or an ink blob or something to liven up this otherwise drab piece you wro…. But I digress. While I can recount many tales that would (and have) make (made) people laugh out loud, I can think of only one that might, might mind you, work in this altogether restrictive setting: Eric and the Gazebo.

Let us cast our minds back to the early days of Fantasy Role Playing, back when ye Dread Gygax was loose upon the land. Funny how humor and horror can start out so alike. Let us go still earlier (yes, it is permitted to breathe sighs of relief) to the days before Gygax (and the courts) thought that he owned FRP. In the early seventies, Ed Whitchurch ran “his game,” and one of the participants was Eric Sorenson, a veritable giant of a man. This story is essentially true: I know both Ed and Eric, and neither denies it (although Eric, for reasons that will become apparent, never repeats it either). If my telling of it does not match the actual events precisely, it is because I’ve heard it many different ways depending on how much of what type of intoxicants Ed had taken recently.

The GazeboThe gist of it is that Eric, well, you need a bit more about Eric, or else I won’t fill quota. Eric comes quite close to being a computer. When he games, he methodically considers each possibility before choosing his preferred option. If given time, he will invariably pick the optimum solution. It has been known to take weeks. He is otherwise in all respects a superior gamer, and I’ve spent many happy hours competing with and against him, as long as he is given enough time.

So, Eric was playing a Neutral Paladin (why should only Lawful Good religions get to have holy warriors was the thinking) in Ed’s game. He even had a holy sword, which fought well, and did all those things holy swords are supposed to do, including detect good (random die roll; it could have detected evil). He was on some lord’s lands when the following exchange occurred:

ED: You see a well groomed garden. In the middle, on a small hill, you see a gazebo.
ERIC: A gazebo? What color is it?
ED: (Pause) It’s white, Eric.
ERIC: How far away is it?
ED: About fifty yards.
ERIC: How big is it?
ED: (Pause) It’s about thirty feet across, fifteen feet high, with a pointed top.
ERIC: I use my sword to detect good on it.
ED: It’s not good, Eric. It’s a gazebo!
ERIC: (Pause) I call out to it.
ED: It won’t answer. It’s a gazebo!
ERIC: (Pause) I sheathe my sword and draw my bow and arrows. Does it respond in any way?
ED: No, Eric, it’s a gazebo!
ERIC: I shoot it with my bow (roll to hit). What happened?
ED: There is now a gazebo with an arrow sticking out of it.
ERIC: (Pause) Wasn’t it wounded?
ED: Of course not, Eric! It’s a gazebo!
ERIC: (Whimper) But that was a plus three arrow!
ED: It’s a gazebo, Eric, a gazebo! If you really want to try to destroy it, you could try to chop it with an axe, I suppose, or you could try to burn it, but I don’t know why anybody would even try. It’s a *)@#! gazebo!
ERIC: (Long pause. He has no axe or fire spells.) I run away.
ED: (Thoroughly frustrated) It’s too late. You’ve woken up the gazebo, and it catches you and eats you.
ERIC: (Reaching for his dice) Maybe I’ll roll up a fire-using mage so I can avenge my Paladin.

At this point, the increasingly amused fellow party members restored a modicum of order by explaining what a gazebo is. It is solely an afterthought, of course, but Eric is doubly lucky that the gazebo was not situated on a grassy gnoll.

That is the story of Eric and the Gazebo. It’s funnier when I tell it in person. Isn’t it always, though. Be seeing you…

How Lawful Are You?

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

LawIn the beginning of time as we know it (1973), Dungeons & Dragons had a single alignment scale – Law vs. Chaos. Law was mostly synonymous with Good, and Chaos with Evil. Four years later, AD&D added a second scale, Good vs. Evil, so a character could now be Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil.

D&D Paladins are unbending, unwavering goody-two-shoes. They always do what’s right, escort little old ladies across streets, and never run a red light. They stay in the extreme “Lawful Good” corner of the alignment chart.

Lori and I had a different vision of “what is a Paladin?” when we created Quest for Glory, and that affects the School for Heroes view of a Paladin as well. Our Paladins are total individualists. They do what they believe to be Good regardless of laws or conventions. A Quest for Glory Paladin is closer to Neutral Good than to Lawful Good.

Most people consider “law-abiding” and “good” to be like cake and icing. They just naturally go together. If you’re one, you’re probably the other. But what do you do when these ideas are in conflict? What action do you take when a law forbids what you know to be right? For that matter, how do you behave when a law is merely inconvenient to you?

Who Wrote These Laws Anyway?

Not all laws were created with the wisdom of Hammurabi. Some range from poorly-conceived to downright stupid. If you drive at night on a rural road in Pennsylvania, there is still a law on the books that requires you to stop every mile, shoot a flare, and wait ten minutes before proceeding. That gives the local farmers time to get their livestock off the road. How many Pennsylvanians – or visitors to the state – have any idea that law exists? How many would even consider obeying it if they were aware of it?

You may laugh, but how lawful are you when it comes to more reasonable traffic laws? Do you scrupulously drive under the speed limit at all times? Do you come to a full and complete stop, then look both ways and wait, before continuing at a stop sign? Have you ever downloaded software, videos, or music from a pirate site or copied a friend’s CD or MP3?

There’s an old joke about a policeman pulling a woman over and asking her if she knows what a yellow traffic light means. She answers, “Of course I do, officer! It means drive like Hell because the light is about to turn red.” How about the opposite? I read a story in the Fresno Bee about a man who stopped suddenly when the light turned yellow. His car was rear-ended by a police cruiser, and the officer told him that he was at fault for driving unsafely.

Joke again, right? No. It happened. I remember the story because I almost had a similar accident at that same intersection. I stopped for the yellow light and the car behind me slammed on his brakes, then swerved to pass me (after the light had turned red). Contrary to the California Driver’s Handbook, apparently a yellow light does mean, “Drive like Hell.”

I wonder how well engineers in Indiana (this may be apocryphal – I’ve heard it told about other states) were able to do their work after the state legislature decreed that Pi = 3. Or whether anyone has been arrested under the Blythe, California ordinance that makes it illegal to wear cowboy boots unless you own at least two cows.

The thing is, legislators are people. The fact that they have discussion and debate before passing laws does not mean they get it right all the time. Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they get caught up in their own “authority”, and maybe they even get bored occasionally and throw something in as a joke. In any case, all laws are not created equal, and some aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed. Yet our legal system insists that “law is law” and we must obey every single one of them to the letter… even those that most of us have never heard of.

The Dark Knight of the Soul

JusticeWe grew up reading comic books in the 60’s. Most of the heroes, including Superman and Batman, had a “code against killing”. They relied on the police and courts to put criminals in jail because killing the criminals would make them criminals too.

“The Dark Knight” questions that cookie-cutter morality. The Joker asks Batman, “How many have died?” The implication is that Batman is responsible for every criminal whom he helped imprison, and who later escaped or was released. It’s a little like the Chinese philosophy that, if you save a man’s life, you are responsible to him forever after.

“Thou shalt not kill” is a pretty straightforward law. And yet there are many exceptions. Soldiers are expected to kill “the enemy”. Criminals are put to death in many states and countries. Police are authorized to use deadly force when they consider it necessary. Is it immoral, unethical, or illegal to kill when that seems to be the only way to save your own life?

Put yourself in the boots of the Batman. What would you do when a despicable villain who has killed dozens of innocent people is hanging from a ledge and you have the opportunity to save him? Would you rescue him so that he can “face justice” (knowing that he has escaped from prison before)? Would you give him a push to make sure there is no escape this time? Or would you stand back and let destiny make your decision? What if the police are watching and you know you will be held accountable for your decision – Does that change your answer?

Life, Death, and Free Will

ChaosBreaking the law to “do good” is rarely an easy choice, for Heroes know that laws are important. Without them, might society descend into anarchy? Would “The Lord of the Flies” become our new guide to survival? Consistent enforcement of the law gives people guidelines for behavior that benefits society.

Striving for “the greatest good” is a challenge because we have neither perfect knowledge nor perfect ability to calculate tradeoffs. Nevertheless, as Heroes, we need to try.

The Power of the Tower

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Gather around the fire, my friends, and I shall tell you the tale of the Tower. It is the story of an innocent young man who was seduced by the siren song of the Goddess of Gaming. Risking the scorn of his players, and the acid words of the critics, he dipped his pen into the murky inkwell of Creation to create his own adventure. Yes, this is the story of how I came to write my first dungeon module, The Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, and how it changed my life.

Slay Them All!

The TowerI discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970’s while working on a computer project in Chicago. Jack Eilrich was the main DM, and ran a “killer game”, with the average life expectancy of a character maybe 3-4 sessions. Jack’s games were full of imagination, excitement, and challenge. We even managed to get in some role-playing, especially during the frequent roll-up-a-character process. One night, I rolled up three consecutive characters within an hour as two of them died before becoming old enough to quest.

Sitting in my hotel room one night, I decided to give DM’ing a try and put together my first full dungeon module. It was a beginning adventure set in a remote tower filled with puzzles and mystery. When I ran our usual group through the scenario, the players made very favorable comments on it. Of course, that might have just been because I didn’t kill any of their characters.

The Tower of What?

The original scenario consisted of the ground floor and the tower rooms and sprang from my head in a single sleepless night. Filling out the details, adding the underground area, and coming up with a title for publication took 5 more months.

I don’t quite remember how I came up with the title, “Tower of Indomitable Circumstance.” Probably it was something that just popped into my head, so I figured I’d use it as a working title until I came up with something better. Eventually I reworked part of the module so that the title made sense… sort of. (In case you didn’t know, “indomitable” means something similar to “indefatigable”.)

Lesson #1: Working titles take on a life of their own. When you try to change them, they fight back. It’s better to get it right the first time.

DM’s Get All the Girls

Since I preferred playing games to working for a living, I decided to turn Tower into a formal game module and become a professional game writer. I submitted it to Judges Guild, the major 3rd party D&D module publisher at the time, and waited.

At this point I was playing or running D&D games about 20 hours a week, as well as working full-time. I was too busy gaming to write any other modules, so my career as a writer began to look doubtful. I did have one major success with Tower, running it at the 1979 WesterCon in San Francisco for a group that included a lovely young lady named Lori. She was sufficiently charmed by my D&D game as to miss some of my other shortcomings. Yes, it’s true – DM’s get all the girls!

Several months later, when I called Judges Guild to ask if they were going to publish my module, they asked, “Oh, you were submitting that for publication? We’ve been playing it for the last few weeks in our in-house campaign. We love it!” Next thing I knew, I had a contract, and in 1981 Tower finally saw print.

Lesson #2: Publishers have a long turn-around time. If you want to make a living as any sort of writer, you need to keep writing while you’re waiting to hear about your first submissions.

Building the Tower

The Tower of Indomitable CircumstanceAs a D&D player with no dungeon master experience, how did I start writing a module? Obviously I was influenced by the games in which I played. I had also played Adventure and Zork at this point, and had some experience with a real-life quasi-religious cult. Looking back at Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, it has a lot more detail and puzzles than most of the role-playing modules I’ve seen.

Tower was designed to be an interesting adventure for beginning characters, so I based it on problem-solving by the players rather than on their characters’ abilities. I tried to give Tower the flavor of “something interesting in every room”, rather than having a lot of generic rooms full of inappropriate monsters. Many of the rooms of Tower have “On Closer Examination” sections to reward players for actively doing and examining things.

I also wanted a consistent setting. Many early dungeons seemed to be a random collection of traps and monsters. I wanted a “real” place, where everything had a purpose and fit in with the theme of the location and the adventure. For Tower, I accomplished this by creating a tower that was originally designed as an initiation tests for acolytes who aspired to become Priests of Math (the Celtic God of Magic). As a result, the tower is both a series of tests and of instruction in knowledge a Priest should have.

For example, two adjacent rooms have mirrors, one of which shows the viewers as extremely beautiful, the other of which makes them look incredibly ugly. Once the players have looked in both mirrors, a voice intones, “For after all, both beauty and ugliness are ethereal in nature, and the Wizard has both at his command.”

Lesson #3: If you start with an interesting theme, then keep the rest of your writing consistent with it, you will find it much easier to write something fun.

Posing a Passable Puzzle

I have a confession to make. I pretty much suck at “solving” adventure games. I come across a puzzle and say, “Huh? How am I supposed to figure that one out?” It could just be me, but I don’t think so. I think that most puzzle creators try to “beat” the players by coming up with puzzles they won’t be able to solve.

I look at puzzles a different way. I think the purpose of a game designer is to challenge players in a fun way. That means you want them to solve your puzzles – after some thought – not get frustrated by them. I also try to create puzzles that are closely related to the setting and the story. This helps give players the context they need to solve the game.

To create the puzzles in Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, I started out – as I still do today – with a character who has a problem. The demigod Math has seen his temples destroyed and followers persecuted because people distrust magic. He wants students and worshippers, but he can’t just advertise for them. So he creates a challenge that will let qualified adventurers test themselves and learn the principles of his “religion” before making a choice.

Tower introduced a few innovations, such as the then-radical idea that a Priest should actually have a religion. It was also a strongly puzzle-oriented scenario as compared to the mostly hack-and-slash nature of most D&D adventures. Finally, Tower was designed to solve a specific problem – Getting new characters started without killing them off on the way to the dungeon. Our wilderness encounter charts in those days were completely random, so beginning adventurers were as likely to be eaten by Dragons as to fight Kobolds.

Lesson #4: Don’t create puzzles only you can solve. A strong setting will tell you where the puzzles and decisions need to be made.

Belay Those Birkenstocks!

Not all of my puzzles were winners. One of the first ones in Tower involves trying to open a locked door. Near the door is a Japanese-style stand with several pairs of sandals. The players are supposed to figure out that this is a temple, and the priests do not want it soiled, so they should take off their boots and put on sandals before attempting to open the door. I’m not sure any group for which I ran the game actually solved this one. In one case, I noticed on a character sheet that the mage was wearing sandals, so he was able to simply open the door and walk through. It took the rest of the party about an hour.

What happened there? I knew the solution before I posed the problem, but the players could only work with the information I gave them. I needed to add more clues so that the players could “see” the room as I saw it in my mind. “Muddy footprints lead up to the chest, where you find an old pair of boots and several clean pairs of sandals. The area between the chest and the door looks totally clean.” You don’t have to hit the players over the head with this sort of thing, but additional hints can be essential if they’re obviously stuck.

Lesson #5: Shoes Wisely! Don’t assume your players can read your mind.

Turning Points

So there you have it. One lonely night in Chicago, a muse caused me to try something new, and my life changed as a result. Because I wrote Tower, I met my wife. Because I had a published RPG module, Sierra hired us to create Quest for Glory. If my life had gone a different way, I’d probably be a retired, ex-programmer spending my evenings playing World of Warcraft. (Not everything has to change in an alternate future story.)

Lesson #6: Some decisions are more important than others. Some are turning points that alter everything that happens afterwards. These are the most interesting places for puzzles in games, and they’re also the most interesting and meaningful moments in the game of life.

Tower Power

[If you’re interested in trying out my first role-playing module, Tower of Indomitable Circumstance has long been out of print, but (being unable to find my own copy) I was able to download a very readable can of the module from RPG Now for $3.00. If you decide to play it, let me know what you think and how well it converts to modern RPG systems and the 21st Century.]

A Game Master’s Guide to Life – Friends

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

A strange group of people sit around a kitchen table, chattering and snacking on chips and Cheetos. They talk about history and rules; bitch about politics and life. One by one, they each place a hand-painted figurine upon the hex-squared map that covers most of the tabletop. Then, as the last miniature is placed, the Game Master begins the arcane ritual. Through the magic woven of words, the group is transported from this mundane living room to a land of terror, trial, and triumph. The Game begins.

So, my fellow Adventurers on this world of Earth – what wisdom can be gained by gaming? I have been a Game Master and player from the dawn (well, technically speaking, the mid-morning) of D&D. I have laughed and loved, cried and raged at the casting of the dice. I learned of love and life from cooperative fantasy role-playing.

So now, I’ll step out from behind the Game Master shield that hides the dice and GM notes (or in my case, the laptop computer screen with the dice rolling program and text editor) to share some of what I’ve learned over the years.

Get a Good Group

Advice DiceD&D requires the willing suspension of disbelief that the two-hundred and twenty pound man is actually a delicate Elf Maiden and that the tiny lead figure on the board is actually a huge, ravenous Wererabbit with nasty, sharp incisors. However, it isn’t just the storytelling ability of the Game Master or the imagination of the players that makes for the best role-playing experiences. It is the dynamics of the group.

The real magic of a Fantasy RPG occurs when everyone in the group is intensely involved in accomplishing a quest. All of the characters are using their skills and wits toward a common goal, and the energy and excitement build with the events in the game. If the group is too small, the energy never develops. If some of the players are cracking jokes or reading the latest Phil Folio cartoon, the energy is dissipated. If you have too many people at the table, everyone is waiting impatiently for their chance to do something in the game, and the energy is charged with frustration.

Everyone in the group must be involved in the story. They all need to have skills to contribute to the whole. That’s why traditionally D&D parties consist of a carefully balanced mix of character types. It means that each player has something different to contribute to the game.

So what does this have to do with real life?

Life is not a solo computer game. You are surrounded by people you need to interact with. If you want to really enjoy the experience of life, you have to find people you care about and do things with. These are your real friends.

Nor do you want only friends who are just like you. The greatest synergy in an RPG comes from everyone having something different to add to the game – the Priest chants a protective spell as the Warrior swings his glowing great sword at the Fiery Demon. The Troll Hunter sends his rhinoceros – named ‘Preposterous’ – charging at the Demon’s minions to bowl them aside (er, well, he would if we were playing the World of Warcraft RPG).

No two people in real life are alike, and yet we all have things in common. Many of my best friends have widely different political views and outlooks on life. We come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. We vehemently disagree on many topics. (Rabid Republicans, devoted Democrats, and leftish Libertarians all playing together at the same table – scary thought!) And yet, we travel for miles and waste hundreds of dollars to get together every once in a while to play a game together.

More than that – we learn from one another. I know more about the “War of Northern Aggression” than I was ever taught in school as the ‘Civil War.’ I have listened to first hand experiences from Vietnam War veterans. I know how hard it was to grow up black, brilliant, and poor in an inner city where everyone else looked down on you because you were smart. My friends are experts on many things I never thought about before.

When we game, we put aside our differences and, through the power of imagination, work as a team to accomplish great deeds. The things we have in common in real life – intelligence, creativity, and the love of the game – make our disagreements irrelevant. What we have in common is more important than how we differ. Yet, because we are so different, the game evolves through interplay of our varied thoughts and opinions. The game goes places none of us could have originally imagined.

Life is that way too… You never know where your road will lead or what you will find there.

Don’t Go it Alone

One of the worst ways to break up a game is to have people go off in separate directions doing their own thing. There was the time long, long ago when Corey and I were dual GMing a marathon Halloween Night dungeon using the original “Ravenloft” module by Tracy Hickman. We had eight players at the table. One of them was someone we had met recently when we ran a tournament game at a convention and awarded him the grand prize for role-playing.

Ravenloft is a moody, Gothic horror game set in a place much like Mordavia in Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness. (Coincidence? I think not.) I was dressed as the Gypsy Fortuneteller who guides the player characters into the game. The table was lit by candlelight. The characters were all trapped in this land of mists and shadows. The only way to escape it was to first defeat Strahd von Zarovich, the Vampire Lord.

The players were all experienced RPGers and the party soon entered the darkened castle of the Vampire. That’s when the newcomer decided that his Half-Orc rogue wanted to do some scouting all by himself.

Bad adventuring decision. Even though we tried to discourage him, he insisted that his character would do just that. Still, the GM’s aren’t there to force players to act a certain way. We just set the scene and tell players the results of their actions – wise and unwise both. So Corey and I took him aside in a different room and played it out.

The lone rogue soon got caught by the Vampire. He was charmed and then dressed in an illusion of Strahd and ordered to sleep in the Vampire’s coffin. As a result, the rest of the party murdered the Half-Orc thinking that he was Strahd, while the real villain got away. They only learned of their mistake after the game was over.

We can Make it Together

The moral of that sad story is that no one should go wandering through the dark unknown by themselves. While you seldom run up against Evil Undead Overlords in the average city (Los Angeles being a notable exception), you will sometimes find yourself caught up in events that are unpleasant and could have equally dire consequences. You need someone at your side.

Corey and I met when he ran a D&D game at a WesterCon Science Fiction Convention. We’ve been together ever since. We work together, play together, and sleep together at night. We also have our occasional arguments and disagreements. (It’s Wednesday –where’s the blog? Um… I… er… the werewolf ate it?) We’ve been through the Sisyphean Nightmare of working 12 hour days for Game Companies who then released our precious creations still riddled with bugs. We have been through periods of time with no work, little money, and no work potential. We’ve also shared the best moments of our lives in the birth of our son, the release of Hero’s Quest, and the creation of the School for Heroes.

The important point is that we do things together. We seldom go off adventuring alone when it comes to important things. We talk to one another and let each other know our deepest feelings.

So when you find the person who is your perfect complement – do what you can to make that relationship last. Treasure the personality traits you share, and value the differences. Be a team rather than a boss and employee. Do things together that you both love. The bonds formed by shared happiness can last a lifetime.

The Play’s the Thing

Clearly, the shared experiences are the best experiences. When our oddball playing group comes to the climax of an exciting adventure, we all feel empowered and thrilled by what we have done. Likewise, going out to a movie together and sharing a meal and discussion afterwards can be a great time. (The movie doesn’t even have to be a good one – we spent hours mocking the inconsistencies and bad science of Jurassic Park.) These shared times make life richer and more fun.

Bruised, battered, and beaten, the last adventurers stand before the dark altar. Most of her acolytes and the rest of the party lie dying on the cold marble floor. As the High Priestess of the Spider Goddess Lolth begins her final incantation, the Mage and Cleric look at each other grimly, and cast their last remaining spells.

The ceiling above the Priestess softens into mud in response to the mage’s arcane gestures. The High Priestess laughs exultantly, knowing that pitiful spell cannot stop her ritual. She has won!

Or has she? The Cleric completes his incantation – Dispel Magic – and the mud hardens into rock once again. Encased in stone, the High Priestess – and her smile – are frozen forever, her ritual stopped. The party has triumphed where any one individual would have failed.

So if you want to have a life that is full of adventure and great times, find some good friends and do what you can to stay together. Our gaming group is scattered for miles across several states, and sometimes years pass between games with our friends. However, we have all been friends through the decades and still enjoy playing together.

With friends like these, the fun will last a lifetime.

Hearts and Heroes

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Cards and flowers, chocolate and everything pink; love is in the Air! But what is Love, and what does it have to do with Heroism?

Heart AttackWhen I was in grade school, we made Valentine’s Cards for everyone in class so that nobody would feel left out. If you love everybody, do you really Love anyone?

The Greeks had five words for love – Eros – passionate, sensual love; Philia – love, respect, and brotherhood with your neighbors and family; Agape – having a close connection with everyone around you, the New Testament Biblical love; Storge – affection for your family; and Thelema – desire for status, possessions, or accomplishment.

Love, Lust, and Longing

“Love Ain’t Nothin’ But Sex Misspelled” – Harlan Ellison

Thelema was popularized by Aleister Crowley in the early 1900’s. Crowley translated Thelema as “Will” and made it the keystone of his system of Magic – “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Crowley was renowned for his dissipated lifestyle of sex and drugs. He believed in Lust, but not particularly in Love.

Still, Crowley made some good points. Much of the time, “I love you” translates as “I want to have sex with you”; or “Let’s go make love,” when there is already a sexual relationship. Much of the ritual of Valentine’s Day, and “courtship” in general, is about trying to establish or strengthen a sensual, sexual relationship. I’m not quite sure about the symbolic grade school orgies implied by kids giving cards to everyone else in the class; I guess it’s actually practice in overcoming shyness in approaching other people… or maybe camouflage for the real relationships that actually go on there. As a kid, I had no clue.

“Dating” has changed a lot over the years, at least the way I see it. “Asking someone out” has always had the sensual, Eros component, but it wasn’t necessarily strictly about sex. You did things together, had a nice meal, watched a movie, or went to the park together to establish a bond of connection and mutual affection, a strengthened Agape. In time, perhaps it would strengthen to Eros, but it was built first on friendship. Advice columns used to be full of questions such as, “Is it ok to kiss on the first date?” I think the usual advice was to wait until at least the third. For women in particular, the advice was to keep a man waiting and wanting more.

Today, dating is a lot different. The “friendship date” is almost non-existent; instead, young people generally go out with a group of friends to do fun activities. They build the same sort of bonds, but it’s with several people, not an exclusive “someone”. When a sensual connection with one person develops, most people skip the long “courtship” stage and move directly into a sexual relationship. “Susan and Dave are dating” usually means they’re sleeping together (or not getting much sleep!) these days.

This isn’t as new as we might think. If anything, the ideas of courtship and romantic love are fairly recent developments – basically, since the early Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, it was often a requirement that a woman “prove herself” by becoming pregnant before she could get married. Many marriages were arranged; sex and friendship were not necessarily thought to be related. The association of Saint Valentine with the idea of romantic love began with Geoffrey Chaucer and other romanticists in the 1300’s.

Hearts? Heroes? What’s Love Got to Do With It?

“What’s Love Got to Do With It?” – Tina Turner

This may all seem unrelated to the ideals of Heroism, but there is actually a strong connection. The romantic ideals of the 14th Century were closely tied to the burgeoning concepts of chivalry. Women were no longer to be treated as chattels (as they had been through most of “civilized” history), but honored, respected, and loved. Knights went to the field of battle carrying the favors (love tokens) of their Ladies and went on great quests to earn favor with fair maidens. While women still held no property in their own name, they had increasing privileges with regard to family possessions and estates.

To be a Hero means to respect men, women, and children of all races and religions. Courtesy and chivalry are part of it. Philia-style Love is another important part. Treating everyone as an individual, and relating to each person on his or her individual merits, is the Heroic way to relate to the people around you. A Hero does not make assumptions about someone just because of race, gender, nationality, or other “group affiliation.” Heroism is person-to-person, one at a time.

When it comes to romantic love, Heroes build relationships based on their partners’ needs first, on their own desires second. Fortunately, the nice thing about love is that the more you give, the more you receive in return. Read “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry, for an amusing and touching take on this. If you just try to “take”, you will very soon find your hands – and your arms – empty. Love is about giving, and so is Valentine’s Day.

Love – A Gift That Keeps On Giving

“Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.”
– Dorothy Parker

When we think of Valentine’s Day, we think of gifts, but that’s where the resemblance to Christmas ends. A Valentine card or gift is a very personal present between people who really care about, and are close to each other. They could be lovers or friends looking for a closer friendship.

A Valentine gift is usually something small, but romantic. Flowers and chocolates are always popular. The gift might not be material – A handwritten “gift certificate” for hugs, massages, or (our favorite) D&D sessions can be more appreciated than any physical gift. Cadillacs work too. If you give a physical gift, make sure you include a card with a personal, handwritten message. The gift isn’t really the point; it’s the presentation, the effort you put into choosing it, and the romantic thought behind it that matter.

The point to a Valentine’s Day gift isn’t that it is a bribe to buy your friend’s favor. It is a freely-given present because you care about the other person and want to share something special with her or him. If you are “just friends,” sometimes a Valentine card suggests that you would like a closer relationship; just be careful not to read too much into it. If someone gives you a Cadillac, though, you can probably expect an invitation to the back seat soon after.

A Gift of Gaming?

If you and your loved one are gamers, why not share the gift of gaming? We usually spend our Valentine’s Day (or close enough to it) at DunDraCon, the longest-running role-playing game convention. We don’t actually see much of the convention (although we usually participate in some of the seminars), preferring to spend most of the weekend romantically in our hotel room… along with a half-dozen of our closest gaming friends.

Lori has run several “love-based” RP scenarios at these weekends. In one of them, we had to escort a young Prince to meet the Princess he was destined to marry. Keeping him alive through the journey was only half the problem. Once we got there, we could see that the two were not really meant for each other. The princess was already in love – with a frog (okay, so he was an enchanted frog). Fortunately, our prince fell in love with the princess’s sister, and the frog turned out to be yet another prince – so all’s well that end’s well and they all lived happily ever after. (Or would, if this were a fairy tale… but as a campaign world, well, who knows what will happen next?)

This weekend, we’re all set to do it again, and Valentine’s Day falls on Saturday. I guess that means we should have a Saturnalia. Or maybe just a Sauterne with supper. (Ok, I’m stretching; neither of us drinks… wine.) We’ve been a little too busy lately to think too much about what games we’ll be running, but it’s likely that love will lead the way. Of course, just being there is almost enough – Lori and I met over a D&D table at a convention, so that will always be part of our relationship.

As for sex and D&D, check out Phil Foglio’s What’s New comic strip, in which “Sex and D&D” was a frequent theme when it ran in Dragon Magazine, but it was never quite actually addressed. Eventually, even Phil and his wife Kaja got tired of all the teaser strips and came out with their own X-rated graphic novel series. We’ll leave finding that as an exercise for the adult reader.

Heart and Sole

This Saturday, do something special with the one you love. Go for a long walk together – It’s good for the heart, if a bit wearing on your soles. If you have no one to love right now, love yourself. Think about all the things that make you a valuable, lovable person and indulge yourself just for a day. Learning to love yourself is a vital part of learning to love others.

Get a balloon; visit a place (nearby or far away) where you’ve never been. See the world through new eyes. It’s ok to enjoy a little chocolate while you’re at it. Just don’t overindulge; save that for Easter. Smile a lot; it will make others happier and you’ll probably see a lot of smiles in return. Feel the love!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you from Corey, Lori, Moira, Silvia, Lorenzo, Mombero, Master Dragon, Mrs. E. Gulch, and of course The Famous Adventurer!


Tugging at the Heartstrings

Show Me the Gold – Game Economics 101

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Black SwanOne of the biggest Black Swan events in history has been the meltdown in the financial sector. Triggered by risky lending practices, unemployment, real estate inflation, and overextended insurance policies (the “Credit Default Swap ” insurance market), the United States is currently undergoing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of 1929-1933.

Games have their own forms of economic disasters. As with combat systems, game developers need to walk a narrow tightrope between giving players too much and not giving them enough. Inflation in gold, equipment, and character abilities is inevitable in a long-running game (either a game series or a massively multiplayer game). Careful designers put a lot of time and effort into balancing game economics so that the game is as fun as possible for most players for as long as possible. This can be done by restricting aspects of the economy, reducing restrictions in other areas to keep things balanced, or by providing bread and circuses so the players are distracted from economic issues.

How to Kill a D&D Campaign

Two of my early Dungeons & Dragons campaigns come to mind when I think about game imbalance. In one game, the beginning dungeon master tried to foreshadow the ultimate battle of the first few months of the game. Unfortunately, players tend to focus on the here and now, so we immediately went after an opponent that should have easily destroyed us. Unwilling to have the campaign end in its first week, the DM had an NPC lend us some powerful magic weapons. Using them, we easily won, nabbed the treasure, and found ourselves equipped with magic that should have come much later in the game. After that immediate gratification, the rest of the game was an anticlimax and soon ended.

In a game that I ran, I had a “Deck of Many Things” as a treasure at the end of the first major dungeon. One player pulled a card that jumped her character 5 experience levels, so we had a party of 2nd and 3rd level adventures with a 6th level Cleric. I could handle it these days, but at the time, I found myself completely unable to balance the fights. Anything that would be a challenge for the Cleric would inevitably kill the rest of the party. The campaign went on for a few more sessions, but then died out because I couldn’t keep it balanced.

Whoever Said That Making Sequels Is Easy?

The Wizardry computer game series ran into this problem. Following the typical RPG trope, players started out as very weak beginning adventurers. They gained spells, abilities, and magic items as the game progressed until they were demigod level by the end of the game. Wizardry 2: The Knight of Diamonds allowed players to import their Wizardry 1 characters and continue the game. While KoD was still a very fun game, there was much less room for variety in the game because the player characters started out at a very high level of power. Unable to keep that going, the authors set Wizardry 3: The Legacy of Llylgamyn a generation later, so that players created new characters and began again as beginning adventurers. Wizardry 4 had a nice twist – You play as the evil Werdna, trapped by the goody-goody adventures from Wizardry 1, and have to escape from your own dungeon … starting again as a weak character with few powers.

Dungeon Master CoverDungeon Master had similar problems when they created a sequel that continued where the first game left off. Lori and I loved Dungeonmaster on the Atari ST and spent many hours exploring it. We barely got past the first section of Dungeon Master 2 – It was just too difficult and stressful to be fun.

We kept these lessons in mind when we planned the Quest for Glory series. We intentionally masked the limits of the skill system by putting skills on a 0-100 scale. We figured that players would assume it was a percentile system and that 100 was the highest possible. However, we knew that we would be setting the limit to 200 in the second game, 300 in the 3rd game, and so on. Instead of letting the player wield godlike power by the end of the first game, we gave him a few abilities that would be equivalent to 1st, 2nd, or perhaps 3rd level spells in D&D. That left plenty of room for improvement in the later games.

Despite that, we still had issues with inflation. We had to balance the combat and puzzles so that a player who started in the second game had a character comparable to that of a player who imported her character from the first game. We tried to keep the game fun and challenging for all character skill levels, encouraging the player to practice skills, but not absolutely requiring it. There were flaws in this process. I think that by the 3rd game in the series, many players found it boring to repeatedly throw rocks until they had a high enough throwing skill to win a spear throwing contest, and so on. We relaxed the “practice makes perfect” requirement in the last two games to try to cut down on the tedium. Of course, in doing so, we also reduced the challenge for players who really wanted tough fights.

Oh Yeah, About That Gold

You might find it strange that I’m deeply into a post on economics and so far haven’t even mentioned money. While gold and silver are the most obvious economic systems in games, there are really multiple economies at work. I’ve mentioned character skills. There is also learning curve inflation – where a player gets so good at the game it stops being challenging – character abilities, equipment, pun tolerance, combat and experience points, and several other reward and challenge systems. If any reward comes to easily, it loses its value to the player. If it becomes too difficult, players become frustrated and might stop trying to get the reward.

In the original Bard’s Tale, no character class had a healing spell until (if I remember correctly) level 3. It was also possible to meet very dangerous enemies with your level 1 party, and it was difficult to earn silver. As a result, almost all of the characters’ money was spent on healing and resurrection spells at the temple. Most players ended up “cheating” by creating mule characters, adding them to the party, transferring all their money, then deleting the characters. Players had to work around the game system because the economy was too stingy.

World of Warcraft and similar massively-multiplayer games probably have the hardest time with inflation and balancing the budget. WoW has been running for over 4 years now, and many of the players have become jaded; it’s difficult to find any reward system that will keep them playing the game. Blizzard has relaxed many of the rules that originally created a tight economy because they know that long-time players don’t want to put in as much work for rewards that will soon be superseded. (Oh, and I learned how to spell “supersede” a long time ago in a Superboy comic book. Lana Lang became suspicious of a Clark Kent impersonator because he mistakenly spelled it “supercede”. Never let it be said that reading comic books is a waste of time – at least not all the time!) Dungeons that used to require long and arduous “attunements” before characters could enter them were opened to all players. This has allowed a lot of players in “second tier” guilds to experience content that they would otherwise never see (see The Burning Crusade paragraph below).

Blizzard initially made a number of good decisions to keep their economies balanced. Rewards for slaying monsters and completing quests were scaled throughout the game, so that each level of player tended to have just a little less money than they needed to buy everything they wanted. Blizzard also restricted magic items by giving them a minimum level for use and “soul binding” them – Once a character has equipped a magic item, it can no longer be traded to other characters. More powerful items are “bind on pickup”, which means that only the character who first picks up the item can ever equip it. These decisions meant that a player with a rich level 60 character couldn’t create a new character and have it instantly become much more powerful than its level.

Mojojoee and his pet MurkyWoW also keeps players involved by holding special events, often tied to seasonal or “real world” events. During the Olympic Games in China, participants in the battlegrounds became “competitors” and earned special tabards. Winning a battleground gave players a chance to win a “Spirit of Competition”, a Chinese Dragon pet that had no game purpose except to look cool. Other “critter pets” include the Invisible Wolpertinger, a jackalope-like creature that you can supposedly only see when you’re drunk, the Baby Murloc that was only made available to attendees of the first live BlizzCon convention, and many others. The rarer ones are highly prized; some are sold for hundreds of real dollars on eBay.

Black Swans Invade a World of Orcs

There was at least one “Black Swan” phenomenon in WoW that might have been obvious to Blizzard, but caught me totally by surprise. Prior to the release of The Burning Crusade expansion, characters were “capped” at level 60. Unlike in Everquest, where the maximum level was a goal attained by few, a high percentage of World of Warcraft players got to level 60 with their characters. In order to keep them active and interested, Blizzard provided a large amount of content designed specifically for level 60 characters. This included the three major “raid dungeons” – The Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, and Naxxramas – that required guilds to put together well-balanced teams of 40 players at a time to have any chance of success. Most of the big World of Warcraft guilds were structured entirely around the raid dungeons.

The Burning Crusade changed that dynamic entirely. Players who had spent a year or more at level 60 raiding the dungeons or fighting against other Level 60 players in battlegrounds now found themselves doing quests and exploring 5-player dungeons again. In order to encourage players to buy the expansion and try out the new Outlands content, Blizzard greatly increased the availability of gold and the power level of magical weapons and armor in the new environment. Instead of the level 60 raid dungeons gradually becoming phased out, they were all abandoned the day TBC launched. With 20-20 hindsight, we can see that much the same thing will happen with all of the level 70 dungeons after Wrath of the Lich King launches. A few guilds may visit one or two of them for nostalgia, but they will soon be entirely abandoned as players focus on reaching level 80, exploring the new dungeons, and find more powerful items than they could get from the level 70 dungeons.

Overnight, the big raid guilds splintered. Nobody had any interest in struggling for hours in a level 60 raid dungeon to have a small chance of winning an item only slightly (if at all) better than what they could find in a 5-man dungeon in Outland. Some guilds set up teams of 5 players to work together to “beat” the dungeon content and get “attunements” to the new level 70 raid dungeons and heroic-mode dungeons. Many of the guilds collapsed, because the 40-man raid dynamic was what had provided the social environment that held them together. Others survived by emphasizing role-playing or by working together to make sure that everyone in the guild could find fellow adventurers when they needed them. The entire gameplay for most of the players altered.

The Bird’s-Eye View

How do you balance a multiplayer game? Step 1 is to make good initial decisions. Always be aware of the dangers of a runaway economy and build balances and restrictions into the game. Step 2 is to create simulators. Set up test cases for characters of various levels (or skill development for a non-level-based game) and earned or purchased equipment. Run simulations of combats and other quest activities with them to see if the better-equipped characters are overwhelmingly powerful. If so, make adjustments. Step 3 is to put the systems into the hands of beta test players and play testers. Separate them into groups and present different rules to each group. Then keep the ones that are most successful. Finally, pay attention to your players once the game goes live. Gamemasters and community managers can observe the players to see if they’re having fun and where they’re getting frustrated. If there’s too much money in the economy, find things they can spend it on that give them marginal improvements. If there isn’t enough, introduce new quests or other activities that make it easier to earn money. If all else fails, release an expansion.

More than anything else, game balance is what makes or breaks a computer game. Creating and maintaining well-balanced economic systems for gold, equipment, character skills, tension vs. reward, and other aspects of games is essential to creating games that last. Keeping a game balanced while half the players are trying to find ways to unbalance it is one the most challenging tasks faced by game designers and developers. As Julia Ecklar wrote in her song Crane Dance, “Balance is to understand the crane while it’s in flight.” Cranes and black swans – Look at game economies from a bird’s eye view. You’d be bird brained not to.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) discusses rare, unpredictable, and catastrophic events that – after the fact – people say, “Oh, it was obvious that was going to happen.” The current government intervention into the U.S. banking system definitely qualifies as a Black Swan.

Unemployment statistics understate the real issue, since they do not generally include “discouraged workers” who have given up on trying to find work. As unemployment has grown, people have been unable to make their mortgage payments. That’s what is really meant by “high-risk” mortgages – Lending to people who lose their jobs.

The CDS, or Credit Default Swap, is a new type of financial instrument within the last 10-15 years. Companies insure lenders against customers who default on loans. The problem with CDS’s is that they are based on averages. That leaves the insurers (such as AIG) unprepared for catastrophic Black Swan levels of default. The current CDS market is estimated at $55,000,000,000,000 – that’s $55 TRILLION. CDS’s allowed a lot of lenders to overextend themselves with risky loans because they were insured. That didn’t help when the insurers couldn’t cover the losses.

This article was written by Corey and illustrated by Lori. Mojo is Lori’s Troll Beastmaster in the World of Warcraft game who is the proud owner of a baby Murloc.

Coming Soon - The School for Heroes