Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons (And Me): Part Four

Fourth Edition Is Here, Everybody Cheer  I Need A Beer
Although I have no hard evidence to back this up, anecdotal evidence seems to imply that D&D Fourth Edition (or D&D 4E for short) was without a doubt the most divisive version of the game ever put out. Gamers as a whole are resistant to change, but this one really polarized players. Some loved it; many hated it.

Gamers express polite displeasure at 4th Edition.
What most people seem to agree on is that Wizards came out with 4E in order to lure in the World of Warcraft crowd. Rules were streamlined, things were dropped out, new destructive abilities were dished out, making for a game that was actually a very good miniatures system; but the soul of the game had been gutted. It was the gaming equivalent of the Dawn of the Dead remake: a good product, but it failed to capture the essence of the original and what made the original so great.

So, in essence, Wizards was taking a gamble here by trying to appeal to the people who had dismissed paper and dice role-playing games in favor of online gaming, while simultaneously alienating the loyal RPG fan base. People like yours truly.

Pathfinder To The Rescue
Wizards took D&D 3.0/3.5 and made it an Open Gaming License. Paizo Publishing, which if you remember took over Dungeon and Dragon magazines, took the rules system, really cleaned it up nicely, added some of their own touches, and released it as Pathfinder.

Now, this little bit here is not opinion: Pathfinder eventually ended up dominating D&D 4E sales-wise. One may possibly infer from this that Pathfinder was more like Dungeons and Dragons than Dungeons and Dragons itself was.

The Return Of Hawkhaven
In the past, it's been customary for TSR/Wizards to shake up the Forgotten Realms every time a new version of D&D comes out. I got my hands on the Forgotten Realms for 4E and eagerly looked to see what changes they had done. After the screaming stopped, I concluded that they had gone too far, changed too much, and that many of the changes quite frankly stank out loud.

We had already decided to jump to Pathfinder, while still holding on to some concepts from D&D 3.5. But what to do about the campaign world? I know we could have kept the old Forgotten Realms, but there's something about gaming in a "current" setting that just makes you feel more a part of the overall game; it's hard to explain. But the changes had me too pissed to want to stick with the Realms.

"This is crap," I muttered. "Hell, I could put together a better setting than this!"

At this point, choose the revelation bit that suits you best:

1. The sound of a needle scratching across a record while I look up with wide-eyed realization.
2. Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder saying "Hang on.....!"
3. Groo from Despicable Me saying "Light buuuuulb!"

Not only could I put together a better setting, I had done so already! I dashed downstairs to the cellar, past the laundry stuff, the haunt props, and the collection of litter boxes known as Cat Poop Alley, to the back of the cellar, where all of my gaming stuff lay in boxes and plastic storage tubs. All of it. As in, 32 years' worth.

Hey! Leave us out of this!
We're talking every edition of D&D (except 4th), scads of other gaming systems, a briefcase with every character sheet from the late 70's to mid 80's, even the people who were one-shot players, and also my big collection of lead gaming miniatures (please, no one call the EPA, ok?). And one other box: Hawkhaven. All of the gaming material. The old dungeons, the old timelines, the non-player characters, everything. Well, except for the big map I used to have (and of course the one thing I really wanted above all else!). But no worries, I could reconstruct it from memory! It was only about 30 years ago, right? I got this!

After I got the material together I brought it upstairs and began working like a man insane. OK, well, maybe I'm insane anyway, but whatever. Since I had learned so much in the decades since I last ran my old campaign, I had to retool it and change a lot of things. Added a lot of things, too! I winced as I read some of the stuff I had actually presented with a straight face 35 years ago. I toned things down, but also added some stuff that should have always been there.

One of the big things that definitely needed changing was the timeline. I wanted to avoid the possibility of any of our veteran players wanting to play their old AD&D characters, once converted to Pathfinder of course So I pushed the timeline a bit; like over 2,000 years! All the old characters, all of their strongholds and castles, all of it, is gone. The old empire that had been created at that time of our first campaign as a beacon of good and law had collapsed centuries ago. Some of the old characters' names and deeds live on in what's now legends and outright myths. Most, however, have been forgotten.

This was the tabula rasa that I used to bring in a new group into what I like to call Hawkhaven 2.0. And on May 1, 2010, we began that new campaign. Hawkhaven was reborn!!

Our Group Today
Some of our gamers. My two sons are the first and second
guys on the left, back row. Yours truly has the rule book.
The group today consists of a roster of fourteen players, not counting Yours Truly. Not all of them show up at the same time, thanks to real-life obligations, so we usually average about two-thirds attendance. It works perfectly. The group is made up of Carol and my two sons (both daughters have bowed out, though our youngest, Rhiannon's, boyfriend is intrigued about D&D and wants to learn more; mwahaha), a bunch of veterans of past games, at least one player from The Beginning, a returned player from the Second Schism, and two friends who we met and got to know from our haunter hobby. It's quite a cross-section of people, and the variety makes it all the more fun. All ages, all walks of life.

Of course, everyday obligations have cut into playing time, and scheduling an every other week game was proving to be problematic. Carol suggested that we choose just one Saturday a month, but make it an all-day affair. Play from one in the afternoon till about nine or ten PM. When you get right down to it, that's about two sessions worth of net playing time.
Another one, this time with my Better Half, holding
the Necronomicon

And so, that's what we do. People bring munchies and beer, and they can come over as early as an hour before and hang out, work on characters, or just schmooze. We start at one (more or less), play till about six, order out for food and take about a half hour break, then resume till anywhere from 930 to 1000.

We're on our third batch of Hawkhaven characters. Traditionally, we play one campaign for about a year, maybe a little more, then create a new group of characters in the same setting, but a different locale, and do another adventure. After all, when the characters get too powerful, things lose a little of the tension and thrill of danger. Then, every so often, taking a page from what I used to do with the old Forgotten Realms campaigns, I have a Great Crisis that lets people each select one character from the various campaigns we've played thus far and play them in a combined adventure.

People from the Old Days coming into our campaign would still recognize a lot of what we do. A lot of terms like Initiative, Critical Hit, Fumble, all of that is still there. There's just a better D&D in place now, with rules that cover actions that were not allowed in the past because there was no way to adjudicate them (e/g/ "What do you mean I can't take a swing at that bad guy who's walking right by me? So what if I already took my turn!? HE'S RIGHT THERE!"). People can still have their characters select God as their deity; I simply pulled a Narnia and changed His name on this world to Adonai, the big Kahuna of Lawful Good gods.

Oh, yeah...and there's also cats. And definitely more beer.

As for the old characters, yes, they're all dead and gone, but Easter eggs abound. One of the Kevins in our group, the friend who married Carol and I, played Nahac, a Gnome in the bad old days, and that character is now revered as a Gnomish folk hero among the race, a sort of Gnomish George Washington. Another friend, also called Kevin, played a character called Kedar, one of the most enduring (and frustrating) anti-heroes in the old campaign. Nowadays, he's morphed into a almost-immortal Tiefling (part human, part evil outsider), and still exists on a layer of Hell, having carved out his own little fiefdom. We even had a character ascend to sainthood. Hooday, an annoying gnome with a blue mohawk and a hideous laugh, is the only known Gnomish saint. Here is the player who played him. A classic case of D&Der makes good, goes to Hollywood and becomes a writer and producer.

Last year, the players actually stumbled upon the ruins of Manderley, the stronghold of Toriane and Aragorn, two characters from that very first group of five players I ran back in the late 70's. Yes, Manderley, as in from "Rebecca". And did I happen to mention that our old campaign also had a Castle Roogna, and a kingdom of Leah? Had. Past tense. All gone now.

And as for that character of mine, Noro, the elvish tavern boy who became my first adventuring character, well, he survived all of the dungeons and indignities that insane DMs like Joe could throw at him, and in the waning days of the old Hawkhaven campaign, he organized all of the elves in the general campaign area, and led them on a westward march to set up a forest kingdom, away from the eyes of so-called humanity (yeah, ok, I was heavily under the influence of Tolkien). Twenty-three centuries later, the now old elf stepped down from his throne in favor of his grandson and, with a final wave and a wink, wandered off along with his faithful black cat familiar into the deepest forests of the elvish kingdom of Hanael to his final, ultimate rest.

At least, that's what the stories say. No bodies have ever been found... Kind of makes one wonder.

Conventional Thinking, Part 2
Sometimes, Carol runs Gaslight Cthulhu
A bunch of players in my group and I attended ConnCon (held, appropriately enough, in Connecticut. Duh) for many years. I stopped going after 2000, having lost interest in it. I haven't been to GenCon since it moved to Indianapolis, and have vowed to make it out there at least once, provided I get the time and money together, and am sure that my immediate reaction to every setback there won't be "It was better in Milwaukee". Hey, I'm aware of my limitations, you know?

These days, the only gaming convention I do is OGC, held in Nashua itself in the middle of the summer. Every year, in my role as de facto special guest, I run multiple rounds of classic 1920's Call of Cthulhu. I also do my yearly skewering of modern culture by running multiple rounds of Paranoia, wherein I put my players through the wringer, including making them stand in a chorus line and sing show tunes.
Attention, Citizen! You are about to play Paranoia!
Please check your dignity at the door! Thank you!

The Future of D&D
This is all speculation, but here's what my gamer and marketing instincts tell me regarding the upcoming new system. Thanks to 4E, Wizards lost a lot of people to either Pathfinder or even to retro version gaming. D & D Next, aka 5th Edition, aka D&D: The Apology, is supposed to be an amalgam of everything awesome from the first four versions.

Problem is, and I'm really trying to be objective about this, who determines "awesome"? Oh, wait. They're depending on feedback from the gaming public. Because all gamers agree on what's awesome, right? Right?

I don't know. It may work. But I see the law of decreased marginal utility kicking in, or perhaps the law of diminishing returns. One of those, anyway. Every successive version of the game released results in fewer people playing it because there is a greater number of previous versions they can cling to. In other words, while I see D&D Next definitely doing better than 4E, I think the damage has already been done. And do people really want to sink more money into yet another version?

Throw in there the continued success of Pathfinder, the proliferation of third party companies, the way the
Internet and social media make it easy to create and release new original material, and I forecast doom for the corporate approach to D&D.

Wouldn't it be a riot if someday D&D went back to its roots, a game put out by a small group of dedicated people operating out of someone's house? Would that really be so bad?

The Future Of Me
What can I say? Life is good. We game once a month, and things are great. I freelance still, but not in the gaming world (hint: the real world pays WAY better than the gaming industry). I have a "regular" job as an editor in a non-gaming field. Carol and I are thick as thieves. Rhiannon, the youngest, lives with us. The other three, Adrienne, John, and Chris are now in various stages of living adult lives. My ex and I have a good relationship as well, and she comes up for some of our parties and sometimes for Thanksgiving. She and Carol have always gotten along, and it's nice that we can all get together every so often as one big, strange, House of Terra family unit.

Some church-going folk are still convinced that D&D
is the Devil's screwdriver, or something like that
And although my experiences with churches have left me still quite gun-shy, I know it's not an "if" but rather a "when" we return to one. It's just a matter of finding a church that won't string us up for enjoying gaming, horror movies, and Halloween. In the meantime, my faith has healed up nicely, though my dogma no longer leans to the conservative side; more like moderation, with a healthy dose of "Hey, maybe people out there should just mind their own damn business and tend to their own lives." Yeah, a radical concept, I know.

Will I keep gaming? Sure, why not? I recall, back in Seekers, an exasperated critic of role-playing asking me "What will you do when you're 50!?" My reply was something along the lines of "I'll be 30 years older than I am now, and still playing D&D!" God willing, I have a few more decades of this.

Decades. Man, that's mind-boggling with a side order of awesome. I think one of the reasons I put this blog series together, other than being inspired by the 40th anniversary of D&D, was indirectly a way to sort of take stock of where I've come from and where I am, and plot out what I hope is the second half, the second round, of the adventure.

Sure, my zeal for the game has moderated somewhat, and I'm into a lot of other stuff as well, but gaming is still my number one pastime. Some people may look askance at that, but let me tell you: I've also been running since 1980 (and boy are my legs tired! Ba-doom!), and yet no one considers it strange. So why should gaming be any different?

And when the Ultimate DM decides that I failed my Fortitude save for the last time, well, it will have been a good run. Will any of my kids follow in my footsteps and be a DM? Hard to tell. I do know that my younger son, Chris, has begun running some of his friends at UMass through some Pathfinder stuff, and used some maps copied from Hawkhaven as a setting. Hmm, a bunch of college kids getting together to roll dice and play role-playing games. Where have I heard THAT one before? So yeah, there's hope that it won't end with me, after all.

Do you know the one thing I'd love to see happen gaming-wise before I go? I'd LOVE to see a huge game, where the current group of gamers meets a collection of some of the more notable veterans of yesteryear for a Great Crisis to end all Great Crises. Sure, it'd be disorganized and chaotic (not to mention freaking crowded!) and who knows how much we'd really get done. But wow. The role-playing opportunities alone would make it worth it. Of course, since both groups are separated by several millennia, there'd have to be some plot device that somehow spans the years and brings them together, some wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey string pulling.

What Have I Learned From D&D So Far?
When you defend D&D as often enough as I have, you practically memorize the litany of benefits of the game: it teaches you math, it encourages reading and fosters comprehension, it exercises your imagination, it builds teamwork. These may sound cliche, but they're all true.

Thanks to D&D, I've been made aware of so many fine fantasy series that I would have otherwise overlooked. Because of the hobby and my role as a freelancer, my writing skills have been sharpened with practice, and by becoming an expert in role-playing, I've also gotten turned on to other aspects of the geek sub-culture. Thanks to the game, I got my foot in the door to become a published author and freelancer.

As a Dungeon Master, my skills at organization and planning have increased, and when I create a dungeon, my ability to anticipate what others may do has subsequently been sharpened.

And sometimes, those friends fly in from Australia
for a pint at the Peddler's Daughter
Thanks to D&D, I've met some absolutely amazing people, many who've gone from simply being players to becoming friends. And thanks to social media, I can actually stay in contact with them.

I met the love of my life thanks to this crazy game. And the game helped me forge some real strong enduring bonds with all four of my kids. Those two reasons alone make all of the hassles, all of the pains, all of the arguments, disappointments and grudges, more than well worth it.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Although my games are not morally preachy, there's little surprise in seeing that many of my adventures do turn out to be little morality plays, with good rising up to fight evil. I've learned that being good is not simply the absence of evil, but rather means actively going out there and standing up for what is right, for helping people, for resisting greed and corruption. D&D has shown me that it's possible to take a stand against wrong, and fight back, and with trustworthy dedicated friends working with you, it's a struggle you don't have to engage in alone. And although there's no guarantee that you will win every time, there's always hope, a fighting chance.

To me, D&D is the perfect place to illustrate the Edmund Burke quote: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Sure, not everyone plays a squeaky clean character, nor should they; it would get boring. A little mischief, a little chaos, can be refreshing. But when you get a group of people together who have different ideas on what to do and how to do it, and yet get them to move as one, that's an accomplishment worth being proud of.

I've also learned that some of the sweetest victories aren't the ones won by the sword, but by words. After all, it's far better to reform an enemy into a friend than to simply destroy him.

One of the most asked questions by people who have little to no idea about the game is, "How do you win?" You don't win. Its an ongoing struggle, filled with victories and setbacks. Just like life. And the decisions you make, the actions you take, have repercussions later down the road. You fight, you triumph, you become stronger through your victory, then you roll up your sleeves and get ready for the next challenge. Or if you lose, you learn from your mistakes, get up off the ground, brush yourself off, and try again.

All the while, you work to improve yourself, to become better than you  were the day before. You're always striving to be stronger, wiser, more capable. And even if you come up short sometimes, it's the effort that exalts you.

And, of course, D&D has shown me that there's a time and a place for everything, and that includes hefting a tankard of ale in each hand, calmly surveying the tavern brawl in front of you, yelling "Cowabunga!", and jumping head-first into the fray, consequences be damned.

Does it surprise anyone who knows me and plays the game to realize that my favorite class is the Paladin, and my favorite race are Gnomes? No, I didn't think so.

Here's my advice to you, to all of you, whether you play or not. Don't give up on the things that bring you joy simply because others may think you're too old. Keep at it. Cheer like an idiot every time Luke Skywalker gets that one in a million shot on the Death Star. Cry like a baby every time you see the Spock death scene in the real Wrath of Khan movie. Play video games. Play role-playing games. Dress up for Halloween. Dress up for not Halloween. Do the Snoopy dance when you watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Don't let anyone dictate to you how long you should pursue your hobbies, interests, and avocations. The only one fit to make that sort of judgement is YOU.

Be childlike, but not childish. Do right by your loved ones, your country, your faith, and carry out your responsibilities to the best of your abilities. Then have fun. Have a lot of fun. And don't let the miserable people drag you down to their level. Leave the sticks in the mud behind while you rush off to play Kick-the-Can. Cue Rod Serling.

Never consider yourself too old to learn something new, or perhaps revisit an idea that you've rejected before. And by all means, read. Read everything. Read books, game manuals, articles, blogs, cereal boxes, magazines, newspapers. Use your brain, use your imagination.

Yes, that's what D&D has done for and to me. That's what it taught me. May your passion, your mania, do the same for you.

Truer words were never spoken...
Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a few dungeon levels I need to put some finishing touches on. Those player character asses won't kick themselves, despite the amusing visual.

God bless, live long and prosper, and 'till swords part.


  1. Hey John, I enjoyed reading your series - good to reminisce and catch up. love the final pic - great T-shirt. My kids enjoy gaming in a much smaller capacity - but some do venture into dm-ing occasionally and stories of their campaigns remind me of our misadventures in your campaigns.

  2. Heya sis! :) Oh, those were some GREAT times!!!! :) And Charis was an absolutely awesome bard! Glad to hear that your kids play!