Monday, May 8, 2017

The Games We Play Part 2: World of Darkness.

Oh the World of Darkness. My first contact with tabletop role play was through the World of Darkness games, specifically Vampire the Masquerade. Picture it if you will; 1998, a high school kid obsessed with the whole goth thing, and in particular vampires. By sheer fate, he stumbles upon a game, no, a world that held boundless potential for imaginative exploration; White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade.

This game was nothing short of mind blowing. Players took on the roles of, yep you guessed it, Rodeo Clowns.

No, just kidding, you played the roles of vampires, namely young inexperienced and often (under their elders influence) manipulated vampires existing in a dark reflection of our own modern world. These characters tried to carve a niche for themselves in the secret Machiavellian society of the undead. There were rival clans of vampires gathered in rival sects governed by rival ideologies. Despite all this fierce predatory tension within this secret society, a set of ancient traditions and etiquette kept civility among monsters. Or at least attempted to.

"Vampire" is truly an amazing game, but only one of a group set in a wider world of darkness. There were Mages, who struggled with the forces of magic. Werewolves who were the protectors of the natural world against the steel and concrete monster of "progress." There were Wraiths that could not let go of the horrors that brought about their deaths; even Fey that held their own mystical court on the periphery of mortal senses. The World of Darkness would later go through a re-imagining of the older games from the ground up, separating the game series into Old World and New World. That though, is another discussion for another time.

Skill Check
Vampires and werewolves and mages oh my! Whereas D&D cast the players in the role of hero's and adventurers (yeah you could play villains I know), World of Darkness is a game system where the players took on the role of monsters in a hopeless, cruel and morally ambiguous world. Hey, the tag line for the series was "Games for Mature Minds" for a reason. As with The Games We Play Part 1,
its time to take a look at the strong points of World of Darkness as a teaching tool for Skill Centric Role Play

  • Oh the humanity!!!: A central concept in the World of Darkness game series, Vampire in particular, is morality. These games are designed to give players difficult choices that are often without any truly positive solutions. In Vampire a morality roll is made when a character chooses or is driven to do an inhuman act. Failing the roll makes the character less human and if morality ever reaches a 0 out of 10, that character is no longer playable. This creates an amazing opportunity for players to examine decision making and the impact of consequence on both self and the world around them.

  • The first rule of Monster Club...: There are no such things as monsters. In the World of Darkness, a large responsibility of all supernatural entities is maintaining the illusion of a world free of stalking monsters. Discretion is paramount. Mindfulness and general awareness can be key to surviving the night; skills readily explored in the World of Darkness series.

  • Tradition: As with games like Dungeons and Dragons, the World of Darkness if full of groups and factions that exist outside the human experience. Vampires for instance are broken into ancient bloodlines called clans, each with tradition and protocol dating back to ancient times. By introducing these elements into a game, players can explore ideas related to tradition and divergent values. When are traditions enriching? When are they cumbersome...when are they dangerous?  

In closing I would say that The World of Darkness series are fantastic for exploring the human condition by means of contrast and comparison. They seek to emphasize the beauty and tragedy of what it means to be a person by examining what its like to no longer be. As the tag line says "Games for Mature Minds."

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Games We Play Part 1: Dungeons & Dragons

With a bit of tweaking, I believe that any tabletop RPG can be used as a teaching tool. However, I have found that some game systems are better suited to particular skill/skill groups, whether due to the background material or the rule mechanics. I've decided to write a bit about some of my favorite systems, and give a review of the advantages of each as pertains to the teaching of various life skills. I had previously wrote an entry about the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu entitled "Whatever you do, don't say Hastur!" today I will begin with a tride and true classic of tabletop RP. The grand daddy of them all; Dungeons & Dragons.

A bit of background
I, like many other role players, have a very special place in my heart for D&D. Though it wasn't the first RPG that I've ever thumbed through (that would be White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade), it was the first that I ever facilitated. D&D is a medieval fantasy role playing game set in a world of myth and magic. The Participants in the game take on the role of wizards, fighters, rogues and other archetypal fantasy staples. Their characters may be human, or they may be one of a variety of fantasy races such as elves, halflings or my all time personal favorite dwarves. The characters somehow meet up, join forces and set out on quests, battling monsters, bypassing traps and exploring lost ruins in search of power, riches and glory. Dungeons & Dragons was the brain child of the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson,

two war game enthusiasts. War gaming in Gary and Dave's time was largely the simulation of historical battles. Players commanded armies of painted lead miniatures across scaled terrain using a set of rules to govern the enacted combat. These rules which sought a high level of historical accuracy were transformed by Dave and Gary to incorporate fantasy elements. In this new vision, rather than playing the part of a General moving squads about, the focus shifted to individual characters. Check out the documentary below, it provides a great overview.

Skill Check
So, what can a game about wizards, dragons and magical items teach more effectively than say horror based or sci-fi? What are the strengths of D&D as a vehicle for skill acquisition? Before jumping in I'd like to say that much of what I'm highlighting here is true for most medieval fantasy games regardless of a specific title, not just D&D. That being said, here's a quick breakdown of a few strong areas that I find key when using Dungeons and Dragons (any edition) as a system for Skill Centric Role Play:

  • Any Thing Is Possible In D&D: In a multiverse governed by magic, not physic's or even logic at times, anything is possible. This presents an invitation to apply some truly out of the box thinking in regard to problem solving. A collapsed corridor in the way? Having trouble getting by? Cast "Reduce Person" and squeeze your way through. One time a group I was running found the stout resident dwarf fighter Agar stuck and unable to fit through a passage. The group thought it through, not having reduce person at their disposal, they did have lantern oil. Agar stripped down to his under garments and slicked up to be pulled through, a bit humbled but no worse for ware.

  • Memory Recall: How do the rules for grapple work again? What are the race granted bonus's for an elf character? D&D (especially 3.5) can be a bit heavy on the rules which require a constant challenge to memory. Though the ability to recall rules is a part of any RPG, D&D in particular takes it in a whole new direction. From how spells work, to what dice to roll, memory is constantly tested at the gaming table. 

  • Reading Comprehension: Teleport 3.5 is my go to for examples of long winded descriptions of rules and game effects. The entry for teleportation in the 3.5 Players Handbook is nearly 1,000 words! For one spell! That's the lower end word count of a short story. As a player or a DM such spells challenge reading comprehension as the spell entry consists of various uses of the spell as well as limitation and special exceptions to use. The need to consider the situation in which the spell is being used along with the spells parameters requires a bit of close reading and case by case interpretation.

  • The Celebration of Diversity: The members of an adventuring party are rarely from similar backgrounds. In fact they are often from disparate species. Elves who champion the natural world, living within cities built in symbiotic unity with surrounding forest. Dwarves who live within the depths of great sprawling mountain halls. Humans who, so highly adaptable, stake their claim wherever the world will accept them, yet always eager to expand and explore. These  and many others put aside their differences to embrace both their unique gifts and common goals. The concept of diverse people finding commonality is a staple of fantasy that is well represented in D&D, acting as a analogical reflection of what it could mean for us as humans to see past our difference to a greater end we all share. Gets me a little misty.

The above examples are just a few of the striking merits D&D has as a teaching tool. If you haven't played this all time classic of RPG's...what are you waiting for!? Get out there, gather a party and delve into dungeons deep! Up next World of Darkness, but until then I leave you with an old Dwarven classic...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Constructing Stories

The events of tabletop RPG's unfold by means of a collaborative storytelling process between those participating. These stories can take place in any time, any region and any reality, from the cold dark depths of our galaxy, to the deepest dungeon of a medieval fantasy world. Likewise, the characters in such stories can be just as varied. Dwarves on a quest to regain a lost kingdom, Space Marines out to expand the galactic territories of a new earth, or maybe coworkers at a nonprofit organization.

In traditional tabletop role play, a Game Masters decision on how to construct a story usually begins and ends with the groups interest. If everyone is hyped about the newest season of The Walking Dead, the game that will be run this week might be "All Flesh Must Be Eaten" or "Zombie Apocalypse". The GM would then develop a fitting scenario to present to the players. Stories would be told, dice would be rolled and, hopefully, everyone would leave amused and itching for a sequel.

When designing a Skill Centric Role Play session, a Game Facilitator must take into account some additional elements, namely, what will the story teach through the in-game events and challenges presented? Though I am a strong believer that every game system and setting is capable of teaching any skill that another could, I must concede that some systems have a greater predisposition for certain topics. One could teach resource management in a Dungeons & Dragons style game, or  World of Darkness. However, a zombie survival horror game, like those mentioned above, have mechanics that are specifically designed to evoke a sense of scarcity which lends well to teaching resource management allegorically. It is the ability to present vital, but often less than entertaining subject matter in strange and interesting ways that evokes a desire to engage and interact; to learn by doing. This is one of the many wonderful qualities and advantages of tabletop RPG's as teaching tools.

Story's are perhaps the oldest means of not just teaching, but connecting with other people. Storytelling is a commonality shared by all; it is part of our human heritage. When constructing your stories, remember that fun isn't a byproduct of learning, rather its the fuel that drives it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Easy Button Rolls

     I am not a big fan of social based skills in tabletop RPG's. No, I'm not  talking about the use of effective interpersonal skills by the Participants between each other out of game, or those exercised in-game with the NPC's. What I am referring to is social based character statistics. Depending on the game you are playing they may have names such as Intimidation, Bluff, Fast Talk, or Discern Lies. I call these "easy button skills". Why? Picture this scenario:

Game Master: "You find yourselves at the gates of Theranor. The sun has crept behind the Adder's Tongue peaks to the west and the lands east of them are now blanketed in shadow. 'Halt!' A voice shouts from the ramparts 'State your business strangers, we are loath to let in travelers after the suns retreat!' You see an anxious looking guard staring down from the wall. What do you do?"

     What indeed? Do the Participants state their reasons for approaching the gates honestly? Do they try to bamboozle the guard? Does the fearsome barbarian in the party step forward and threatened the fires of the hell's for standing in the way of their quest? Or do cooler heads prevail?

Player: "Lets see, I have a 10 in bluff, I will make up a reason for approaching the walls so late."(Player rolls a die and adds the 10) "21 what happens?"

     Now there are different ways to handle how social rolls are made in-game. Some Game Masters may choose to have the player "earn" the roll through role play. If they feel the player made a reasonable attempt at bluffing for example. Then the player will roll their bluff skill to see if they are successful.Some GM's will just have  the player roll and let the dice and the characters stats speak for themselves.

     As the GM of a traditional tabletop RPG, either of these approaches are fine, the players are after all not their characters and the two will have different skill sets. But, as the Game Facilitator of a Skill Centric Role Play session designed to teach social skills to the Participants involved, the first consideration is how to do this. In the first case of earning a roll, what if the player "William Shatner'd" the role play (by this I mean reached the very pinnacle of acting brilliance), earned the roll, but rolled poorly? This method for the purpose of building social skills leaves success and failure too far from the Participant. The second method removes the connection to the individual completely, weighing all on a combination of statistics and chance. I propose another method. When running scenarios involving social skill based role play, I use what I refer to as the "push" method. Picture this scenario designed to teach negotiation and effective interpersonal skills:

Game Facilitator: "You find yourselves at the gates of Theranor. The sun has crept behind the Adder's Tongue peaks to the west and the lands east of them are now blanketed in shadow. 'Halt!' A voice shouts from the ramparts 'State your business strangers, we are loath to let in travelers after the suns retreat!' You see an anxious looking guard staring down from the wall. What do you do?"

Participant: "I... I mean we...that is our group...what should I say?"

Game Facilitator: "Well, you are standing before a gate to a town after dark, the guard seems nervous and hesitant to let anyone in after the sun sets."

Participant: "Oh, I say to the guard 'What worries you so, good soldier, that you would turn away enterprising adventurers such as us?'"

Game Facilitator (speaking as the guard): "Tis a dangerous time. Strange and horrific creatures have been seen in the surrounding woods. It is rumored that they can wear the skin of humans. You are adventurers you say?"

Participant: "Yes, that we are. Adventurers on a noble quest to save the kingdom from dark sorcery. We are in need of supplies before venturing forth, will you allow us to enter your town."

Game Facilitator (speaking as the guard): "What proof can you offer to show that you harbor no ill intent, nor are horrors of the dark?"

Participant: "Ah...well, proof you say...

     In the above scenario the Game Facilitator presented a situation which challenged the Participants current understanding of negotiation and effective interpersonal skills. Rather than having the Participant roll to see how well their character did in-game, the Game Facilitator used a combination of in-game challenge (when speaking as the guard) and out of game coaching to guide the Participant through the interaction. At the end of the session, the Game Facilitator and the Participants discuss the events that took place in game, going through what methods were effective and those that weren't. From this post game analysis, lessons are derived that can be taken into the real world.

Pushing the Participants with a combination of coaching and challenges, allows a Game Facilitator to get the best skill "performance" during game. This is akin to a director trying to get a grade A Shatner level performance. Could you imagine what would have been if those who directed William Shatner just simply called for a roll? We would be robbed of the full realization of his brilliance...

Friday, October 28, 2016

City of Inspiration

I recently went to New York City for the first time. Wow. New York is one of those places that gives you no choice but to be inspired. It is the eternal muse, setting the imagination ablaze with imagery and verse. I was impressed. Today's post is about the value of a good setting for the purpose of teaching through Skill Centric Role Play.
A setting is in itself like a character. It is most arresting when it has a gripping story, a personality and at least a couple of personal "flaws". A setting in a tabletop RPG has two very important tasks when presented to the Participants; to engage and entice them. A good setting fires the imaginations of both the Participants outside of game and their characters in-game. Some of the most beloved novels and films have settings with names that provoke reflexive imagery; Hogwarts, Mordor, Cloud City. These settings are as unique as the characters that exist within them.
For the purpose of skill acquisition during skill centric play, an engaging setting further acts to build investment on behalf of the Participants. Their characters may develop friendships with NPC's or long standing rivalries. They may stand in defense of their home city against the onslaught of an undead army, or they may raise an army of their own to free the land from an oppressive sorcerer king. Developing a world that lives and breathes, teaches cause and effect through the in-game narrative. The setting responds to the in-character actions of the Participants which can later be reviewed during the Session Debrief at the games conclusion.
An engaging setting stays with the Participants after they leave the table as well. It gives them a place to look forward to visiting in their imaginations, even when their personal lives might be at a difficult point. A good tabletop RPG setting bestows a sense of agency that might not be readily found in our day to day lives. Its empowering to act and watch the world ripple.
New York is an amazing city, an amazing setting from which to draw inspiration. It pulses with its own life and echoes the dreams of countless characters. What is your setting? How does it inspire you?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Empathy for the Summoned Celestial Black Bear.

     I would like to take a moment to acknowledge an unsung hero. A team player who though never given the credit or respect he so rightfully deserves, has always been there, willing to step in and do what was needed no matter how dangerous, horrifying or just plain foolish. An ally who often times literally took slings and arrows in defense of, or simply for the amusement of, the party members. A selfless being, sworn to obey the commands of the cleric who conjured him from the picturesque mystical forest of the plane of Celestia where he roamed; only to spring into existence in a dark dank dungeon or in one instance, inside himself. Summoned Celestial Black Bear, this is for you.
     The Celestial Black Bear has become a running gag that has endured almost as long as our 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons campaign. For almost the entirety of the 10 years we have played in the world of Tubbnia, the Celestial Black Bear has been the punchline of many a memorable game. Much like Kenny in South Park, the bears most notable (and notorious) act is meeting a grizzly end during session...see what i did there. The bear, however, isn't really killed. As a summoned creature it is returned to the plane of Celestia no worse for wear, remembering the events like a dream; a terrible, terrible dream. The bear then waits until the  cleric summons it once more.
     So, what can the repeated destruction of a summoned creature teach Participants in terms of life skills during a Skill Centric Role Play session? In one particular case, it was used to teach empathy. The cleric who had summoned the bear, often marching the creature to its doom, found the whole thing quite amusing, until the day the shoe was on the other foot.
     The party found themselves in a dungeon, as they often did in those earlier days. They stumbled across a throne room, sitting on the throne was a skeleton, aged and in disrepair. The skeleton was however without a head. The skull laid several feet from the the throne, it seemed to smile with a rictus grin.
     One of the party members decided to walk over and pick it up. No sooner did they do this then they realized they weren't standing where they had been. Looking about, they saw their body several feet away, kneeling over the skull looking around as confused as they were. It soon became apparent what had happened; they switched bodies. The party tried to figure out how to fix this problem and came up with the idea of passing the skull until everything was as it had been. It would have worked too, if it wasn't for that summoned Celestial Black Bear. The cleric got the skull and switched bodies. When he looked at his own body through a pair of new eyes, he saw his face grinning wickedly back at him. When he looked at his hands he saw paws.
     Just to give you an idea of the level of retribution floating around in the bears head, here's a short list of bear deaths.
  • The time the party cast water breath on the bear and tied him to the bottom of a raft to act as a propeller. The bear was eaten by a megalodon
  • The time the bear was commanded to charge through a noble's garden to distract the residents while the PC's looked for documents. The bear was riddled with arrows by guards.
  • The time the PC's found an orb of annihilation and "just to be certain" it was one, they had the bear touch it.
  • The time they sent the bear down a hallway to retrieve a Lich's phylactery. The phylactery was on a pedestal with a pressure plate that when triggered caused sneezing powder to fill the room; a room which was made of mirrors and magically attuned to amplify sound several thousand times.
  • The time the bear was summoned inside of itself causing the first summoned version to explode while the second summoned version screamed in horror. All just to see if it was possible.
     The Celestial Black Bear gained control over the cleric as the cleric once had over it. Eventually everyone was returned to their correct bodies, but not before the topic of empathy, illustrated by this in-game example of walking in another's shoes, was explored. Though the tale of the Celestial Black Bear, if literally taken, is impossible and has no relevance to any real life experiences the Participants were likely to encounter; as with the happenings of a fairy tale or fable, a bit of wisdom was buried in the details.
     Using the events that transpire in-game to teach life skills analogically allows Participants to learn by their own example, albeit in character. The impact of learning in this fashion can be tremendous. Looking back over the events of sessions played and considering the effect of personal actions  on others and how others can affect us, are concepts which work to foster empathy. Separating the raw life skills presented in sessions from the in-game narrative, and reviewing those skills with the group, allows even the most outrageous and over the top events to function as effective teaching tools. A lesson the summoned Celestial Black Bear has taught well.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Theater of the Mind vs. Miniature/Tactical Play.

     For me, the idea of "Theater of the Mind" style play is a bit romanticized. I always imagine a group of players sitting in a room, each on the edge of their seat as the Game Master describes in epic detail the dungeon corridor, dark alleyway or the inter-dimensional alien craft in which the PC's find themselves. Though the players have no visual representation before them, the GM's descriptions are vivid, so vivid that they draw the players out of the room and into the scene. The players can smell the foul odor of the goblin warren and feel the cool clammy air of the alien ship. These are the moments GM's strive for...but on the other hand, I do so love my Dwarven Forge pieces.
     Miniature/Tactical play involves the use of some form of character and environmental representation. These may be miniatures that the Participants have painstakingly painted by hand. They may be pre-painted miniatures bought in a randomized box, or flat tokens with pictures on them. The environment could be a roll out wet erase tactical mat that the GM draws chambers and passages on. Or it might be eye popping 3D terrain.
     GM's and players often have strong feelings around which method is most conducive to a deep and immersive gaming experience. One school of thought is that having physical representation can impede immersion into the world; that it can feel like a board game vs a collaborative story. Others claim that having pieces and visuals can intensify focus and further connect the players by allowing them to see their character. Miniature/Tactical provides a visual standard for spatial placement which prevents disagreements; disagreements that can break immersion.
     For Game Facilitators teaching life skills during a Skill Centric Role Play session, choosing whether to use Theater of the Mind or Miniature/Tactical play presents an additional consideration beyond those of aesthetics and story immersion. Namely, what do each of these methods offer as teaching tools?
     Theater of the Mind style play is dependent on effective communication skills by all at the table. The Game Facilitator must describe the environment that the Participant Characters are in with as much detail as necessary for the Participants to make informed decisions in-character. The Participants, must describe their characters actions as completely as necessary for the Game Facilitator to respond effectively through environmental events. This often requires asking for clarification when needed and effectively articulating intended actions and responses.
     Miniature/Tactical play allows Participants to have visual representation of their characters and the environment in which they find themselves. Being able to look at this physical display allows Participants direct access to the environment they are in. Accessing physical risk, for example, can be much easier for Participants if they are looking at it. Seeing a chamber with crates stacked in the corners may prompt Participants to anticipate an ambush as opposed to a solely verbal description.
     Depending on what life skills are the focus of a Skill Centric Role Play session, each of these methods have strengths that support particular skills. However, that's not to say that Miniature/Tactical play isn't an effective approach when seeking to promote communication skills, or that Theater of the Mind isn't an effective approach for teaching physical risk assessment. The beauty of tabletop role play as a means of imparting life skills is its flexibility as a teaching tool. Either of these approaches, alone or in combination, can certainly be used to teach any skill. As is the case with other aspects of tabletop role play, it is largely a matter of taste and preference.