Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Tao

It was, I think, a Saturday night. I called up a friend, asked him what if he wanted to do something and he told me, “I can’t, I’m playing D&D.” I had never heard of it.

A game? Yes. “Can you explain it?” I asked.

“No, I can’t,” he said. “You have to play it.” Whereupon he invited me.

That has always been the condition of the game. It really can’t be explained, not in a few hundred words. I once saw a rather brilliant effort done about twenty years ago, but I’ve long since lost my copy and I can’t find it on the net. Sadly, what there is on the net is such a disastrous collection of inbred opinionization (to which I am adding at this moment), the uninitiated will not learn much from a general search. The best is probably that found on Wikipedia.

My first time playing, I did not understand anything. I was told to be a fighter (it was the easiest to play); my “equipment” was rattled off at me, most of which I was unfamiliar with, and which I wrote down as a list on a sheet of paper under my “abilities.” Lengthy explanations of these things were not given, as that would have held up the game. Watch and learn I was told, and watch and learn I did.

They explained to me that I was on a field (please to use imagination) and that there was something lizard-like in the distance. I was on my horse. What did I wish to do? I answered that I would lift my sword and ride straight at the beast. A weird looking die (which many more than six sides) was pushed into my hand and I was told to roll it.

And thus was transformed into stone, as I had failed my saving throw. The beast, I was told, was a basilisk.

So for the rest of the night, for about three hours, I sat around as a stone statue and watched other people play, until they were able to get the fellow who could say a few words of mumbo-jumbo over me and transform me back to flesh.

I utterly loved the game. It has been a love affair, which has probably condemned me to the vocational status at which I now reside—comfortable, but certainly not a wild success. I have known others who lived in parent’s basements because they could not kick the habit. It is engrossing, satisfying and enlightening. Not because it is about some other make-believe world, but because it is problem solving at its best.

Today, I continue to run half a dozen players as often as I can, once every two weeks. For a long time I played every week, but I have too much on my plate for that (freelance writing contracts, a full-time job, She Who Must Be Obeyed and so on). One of these players is my daughter, who is grown up now and whose childhood was spent listening to others play (I would not let her play when she was very young, because I believe it requires a mature, thinking teenager to grasp the game’s essentials). As it happened, she began playing first with others her own age, while I had pretty much stopped playing for some years because my peers had either moved beyond reach or had “grown out of it.”

She asked me to start my campaign as she was desperate to learn how to play first edition (everyone she knew played third)…and the word got out that I was willing to run the original game and players appeared. This campaign has been ongoing for almost two years. The players are 6-8th level.

Just a word about that. I’ve always thought that a character, run once a week, should make 8th level in the space of one year; and the game has pretty much followed that line, except that we only run half that often. Any faster advancement and there’s no appreciation for the character—I’ve seen a lot of campaigns destroyed that way.

When my daughter began asking me how my world works, I began thinking I should start writing down my general thoughts. I have hundreds of tables I’ve constructed on my own, but the way these tables work together is pretty much in my head. My intent is to use this blog to coalesce the process into diary form, so that someday she might be able to piece together my ideas.

First, however, I’m going to talk about how my fascination with the game grew and how I got to where I am now. And then I’ll get down to the meat of things.

I know that most blogs about the subject fail. Most who take the step to put “their world” on line get about as far as a few disjointed pages. I think that’s because of the lack of coherence I’ve associated with just about every world I’ve encountered…but also because online offers nothing in the way of feedback. If there isn’t someone out there patting you on the back for putting all this shit into digital, why bother?

For me, this is a responsibility I owe to myself. I won’t find it easy a lot of the time…but it’s something I should try to do before I die. Of what use it will be to anyone I don’t know. But that’s the way I’m thinking of it.

So. This will be the way I play. I will get quite pedantic at times, but that is only because I don't wish to gloss over anything.


  1. Break a quill!


  2. I've read all your posts and although I don't agree with everything you've said (and how would that be any fun at all) you've made me seriously re-consider how I run my games.

    I used to view the use of modules as a weakness as you do. In the last 10 years or so, I've come to rely on them more and more. Part of it is laziness on my part. Part of it is that my players enjoy well-defined, computer game-like adventures. Part of it is that the materials that come with the module like the maps, the location backgrounds and the area descriptions are not necessarily better than what I could do on my own, but they are oh-so-convenient. You posted about the shame imposed on you for playing a child's game into your adult years, and I've felt that, too. In this case, I think you've shamed me into abandoning published modules for good. Thanks for that. I'm already starting to feel better about my next session.

    Like you, I've been playing since about 1980 when I was 10. I started DMing high-school, but I didn't really learn the finer points how to play until after I'd graduated and fell into a group of much older players. Now I'm beginning to question whether I've ever really had a handle on it, and what I'm going to do about that.

    I've been playing D20 since it was released. I ran a hybrid of AD&D and 2nd Ed for several years, but I never bought much in the way of materials outside of the Player's Handbook and DMG. I liked 2nd Ed at first, but as the supplements started rolling out I realized that the game was being marketed to min/maxers and, "my character can kick your character's ass" types and I was disgusted. 3rd edition to me represented a better, more flexible game system that made mathematical sense and had a brilliant central mechanic (the D20 roll). I find that the 3.x tendency to have a rule for everything offends the beauty of this mechanic, so I've deviated substantially from where the game itself has gone and as in AD&D, I adjudicate rather than fall back on the rule books.

    I'm not interested in 4th Ed. I think it represents the final push to make DnD into a computer-style game. I think this will only get worse as this new system matures.

    I, like you, believe that DnD is a game about living vicariously through a character and the game within that is creative problem solving. The DM represents the world in which the characters exist.

    I've had mixed success with player-driven games, which I believe are what you're describing in your posts. Some players of mine have been dynamic, and I've needed to do nothing more than lay out a setting and then react to the player's choices. Other players of mine are clueless about what to do given an open world and an infinite number of choices. Analysis paralysis takes hold and I have a table full of people desperately waiting for me to drop a plot hook that they can latch on to. I'm hoping to change that, and I'd like to read more about your approach to DMing.

    Thanks for the blog. I look forward to reading more.

  3. Carl,

    I want to say that I deeply appreciate your comments. I am not accustomed to their nature; they are incisive, compelling and most kind.

    No, I don't need complete agreement, ever. Nor was it my desire to "shame you" into anything, but I'm glad you're feeling better about your next session. Yes, it does require a terrific amount of fore work to get ready...even if you don't build
    "modules" for your players to run in.

    I'm constantly seeking ways to appeal to the player's interest while remaining as referee like as possible. Sometimes the players get confused about what to do...but I find that if their imaginations can be fired, they will "drive their own game."

    I drop plot hooks all the is only that I try to make the sort of casual things that happen in the real world...much as its done in film. The players run into two factions already fighting with each other, and get dragged in. Mistaken identity. Con artists. Blind luck (stumbling across a sack of gold and thinking its free for the taking). That sort of thing.

    I've struggled with the mental-position of the young, who see every kind of adventure in terms of its solve-problem-face-final-monster design--the "mario brothers" campaign. Encourage your players to see some old movies, stuff that's strongly plot driven (50s/60s war pictures for hack and slash players, 60s/70s spy films for intrigue players). This effort will take time, but education never happens swiftly.

    Again, thanks for the comments. I hope to see more of you.


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