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.