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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"Whatever you do, don't say Hastur!"

     I just picked up a copy of the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules at my local game store. Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop RPG based on the works of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The in-game events depict the struggle of people (often average people) against unfathomable horrors from mind warping realities and alien worlds. With a default setting of the roaring 20's, Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorite tabletop RPG's of all time. It is designed to evoke feelings of dread, horror and uncertainty in the player characters (referred to as "Investigators"), and if done well, the players themselves. This style of play is fairly different than what would be found in the typical game of say Dungeons and Dragons.
     In a game of D&D, the players usually portray somewhat above average, trained adventurers who through magic and uncanny swordsmanship can take the fight directly to the monsters terrorizing the town or haunting the nearby ruins. In Call of Cthulhu, even looking upon a creature of the Cthulhu Mythos can result in debilitating loss of mental faculties. In essence Call of Cthulhu is a game of cautious approach, of keeping direct contact with otherworldly beings and their human servitors as a far and absolute last resort. This often results in the goal of foiling your enemies plans to summon a eldritch horror rather than confronting them.
     So, as a Game Facilitator seeking to teach life skills to Participants through tabletop role play, what does a game like Call of Cthulhu bring to the table as opposed to a game like D&D? In choosing a game system to teach life skills, are some systems better for teaching particular skills than others? Well yes and no. It really comes down to mechanics vs. story.
     Tabletop RPG's can be divided roughly into two parts. One is the rule mechanics of the game being played. The other is the story that will be told through group collaboration. Some RPG's have mechanics that lend well to cavalier heroes facing swarms of enemies and, more often than not, returning to tell the tale. Others, are not so forgiving. In Call of Cthulhu, players have a small pool of hit points and few defenses against earthly injury with almost none against the other worldly. Not only is an Investigators body at risk, their very mind is subject to the ravages of alien forces.
     Perhaps the most well known mechanic in Call of Cthulhu is sanity (SAN). Simply reading the wrong book or seeing the wrong thing can render a character physically unharmed, but mentally overwhelmed. Risk assessment in such a game is paramount to continued survival and the maintenance of sanity. Another skill which Call of Cthulhu teaches well through its mechanics is the value of research and preparation in facing the unknown. The Library skill is indispensable to Investigators hoping to survive the eldritch horrors of the Mythos.
     However, though these mechanics support the teaching of particular skills like risk assessment, or act as an emphasis for the value of research and preparation, their prevalence during play is ultimately dictated by the challenges presented. So, a D&D game could present a situation that evokes terror in the PC's (and hopefully a bit in the players), and a Call of Cthulhu game could tell a tale of brazen Investigators throwing caution to the wind and strapping chainsaws to their wrists (groovy). As the facilitator of a skill centric game keep this point in mind; in the end the mechanics are used to tell a story, the story is used to impart skills, and skills are used to lead a fuller life.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Skill Centric Role Play manual is here!!!

     At long last the Skill Centric Role Play manual is complete! Tabletop role play is a fantastic tool for the teaching and strengthening of life skills. For people who have played these games whether Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu or any of the many other great systems out there, the power of role play as a teaching tool is unquestionable.
     There you are, sitting at a table with your friends telling tales of brave heroes questing for riches and renown in a medieval fantasy setting. Through the story and the lives of your characters, unimaginable possibilities are achieved. You eat some snacks, make a lot of pop culture references (and Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions), have a great time and then go home hopefully itching to return and pick up the story at the last cliff hanger. These are all typical RPG experiences; but what was learned in-game?
     In the pursuit of riches and renown, the characters had to start somewhere. Perhaps they went to ye old tavern and used effective interpersonal skills to question locals for information on the town and the surrounding lands in hopes of learning a rumor that would lead them to forgotten temple or a dragons lair. The characters may have entered a trackless wilderness and had to rely on critical thinking and deductive reasoning to navigate back to civilization after taking a wrong turn. Maybe the characters ran into a hungry troll and were pressed into combat needing to recall from memory the trolls weakness to fire and its ability to shrug of wounds from nearly anything else. Ethan Gilsdorf gives a terrific overview of Dungeons and Dragons during his Tedx Talk, highlighting many skills which that particular tabletop RPG can teach, including how it has impacted him personally.

     The many skills which tabletop RPG's teach are often learned passively.  The Game Master doesn't set out to do so. Players learn just by being at the table among the group collective, taking part in the collaborative story. Whether delving into dungeons in games like D&D, or confronting eldritch horrors in 1920's Boston while playing Call of Cthulhu, tabletop RPG's teach invaluable life skills because they are a simulation of life, choice and consequence. The Skill Centric Role Play manual provides a structure which facilitators can utilize to actively teach predesignated skills to participants through the collaborative story and rule mechanics of Tabletop RPG's. What stories will be told? What skills will be taught? As with the in-game events that teach them, the possibilities are endless.