Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Dungeons and Dragons: Wednesday Withdrawal

Sword and dice

Mid-February. Massillon, Ohio: One of the players, Tom, had brought a celebratory cache of cheap foam weapons – short swords, axes, hammers and even flails – along with his usual giant bag of fresh popcorn. The resulting silliness helped offset a little undertone of sadness to this particular Dungeons and Dragons night, because it was going to be this group’s last session, at least for awhile.

I came to this group at Backlist Books as the new guy back on Sept. 7, 2011, and I was a little nervous. The only person I knew at the table was Fred, the store owner and Dungeon Master, and I hadn’t played D&D since summer 2010. It was already week three of the Lost Crown of Neverwinter adventure, so in the interest of saving time, Fred offered me a pre-generated character in the interest of saving time, so I took up the bow of Belgos, a drow ranger.

Belgos was an enjoyable enough character to play, although I feel like I approached him a little coldly – leveling up was all about how he could get better in combat, and I was always more focused on doing well in battle than in actually role-playing Belgos. I’m sure that partly this was because I was the new guy in the group, and I was still getting to know everyone else, and partly because I really had no connection to my character.

Over the course of Lost Crown, though, spending Wednesday nights with this group of people I’d just met became a fantastic, energizing, bizarrely comforting ritual. I’d get home from work, have dinner with Jenn & Kelsey, gather up my dice, pencils and books, and take the back roads over to Massillon. Most times, I’d listen to mixes of 1980s music, because it put me in what felt like an appropriate frame of mind.

The early session was usually still wrapping up when I’d arrive at Backlist, so I’d sit down and pick something off the shelves to read, or sit on the couch in the front of the store, or, if one of our group was already there, say hi and catch up a little on everyday stuff from the past week.

Our sessions were supposed to start at 8 p.m. We were all there on time, most weeks, and yet most weeks, by the time we all caught up with each other, had purchased books or new D&D minis, and stocked up on our snacks and drinks for the evening, it was still closer to – or well past – nine o’clock by the time we actually started playing. If I got home at midnight, I didn’t care: Wednesdays were fine, fine nights in my book, no matter how the dice had fallen.

The group stuck together for the next 14-week adventure, Beyond the Crystal Cave.

This time, though, I wanted to create a character all my own. Thus was born my tiefling hexblade, Azathoth (the first Cthulhu Mythos name I found upon picking up a Lovecraft book). The core of his origin tale came to me almost immediately, and fleshed out a bit more over time as I played the character. I may even write it out sometime in a short story format, just for fun.

During the very first Crystal Cave session, as our characters got to know each other, I made a decision regarding Azathoth’s feelings and motivations, but I opted to keep it to myself and play it pretty close to the vest until about halfway through the adventure. When I finally did make the revelation, several weeks later – and I admit, despite the fact that by now I was really comfortable role-playing with this group, I wondered how it would be perceived – I was ecstatic that the reaction was amusement and support and a recognition that this would be fun to play out.

Our final session was, fittingly, the perfect mix of combat and role-playing and ideal dungeon-mastering that tested our characters’ mettle, allowed for some dramatic heroics, and felt very much like the final moments of a good cinematic story than the end of a game.

Example: My terrible dice rolls were a longstanding joke within our group, ever since Belgos once went for what seemed like weeks without managing to hit the broad side of a tavern with a single arrow. So when Azathoth unleashed an Eldritch Bolt (think “Force Lightning,” but, you know, from hell) that turned out to be the final boss death blow, it was a fun moment. Fred the DM let me keep the figure representing the villain – and though I don’t collect D&D minis, that thing still sits here on my desk like a victory trophy.

Even the post-battle story wrap-up presented opportunities for a few more truly enjoyable moments with our characters.

It’s only been a month since then, but I have missed my Wednesday night Dungeons & Dragons sessions. I miss showing up, seeing my friends, stacking character sheets and dice on the table, popping open a Coke, and passing around Twizzlers and popcorn. I miss sitting down and creating, from the same elements in use by players and DMs all over the country, a story that is totally ours.

I’d like to imagine that in the not-too-distant future, there’s a time when Azathoth finds himself sitting in a tavern reminiscing about that tale, only to have his thoughts interrupted by a familiar voice calling from the doorway…

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March 19, 2012 Posted by | Games, geek, Ohio | , , | 2 Comments

Dungeons and Dragons and Family and Friends

Back in May, still buzzing from the gaming high I got at PAX East and in the wake of reading Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I took my first steps back into the world of Dungeons & Dragons, a place I hadn’t visited since middle school.

I created a character, found myself half-dreaming scenes from his family history, got excited about buying dice, and eventually sat down at the table for my first real D&D adventure.

But the best part of all was sharing the three-session adventure with Jenn & Kelsey, and out of that came this piece I wrote for GeekDad this week.

I have +2 Family and Friends of Awesome

Click the picture to visit the article at Wired.com's GeekDad.

Some other bits and pieces not in the GeekDad post:

  • Kato observed on the first night that the females at the table outnumbered the males, so screw that stereotype.
  • I found myself thinking more than once that I can remember my parents at 39 and couldn’t for the life of me imagine them sitting down to play Dungeons & Dragons. Then I thought of all the nights they got together with the neighbors and played cards or Scrabble, or later on when my brothers were older and we all played Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit with friends and family and I thought, “No difference. Game night is game night. Period.”

The whole experience – inspired in particular by Ethan Gilsdorf and Michael Harrison and Natania Barron and made possible by our awesome friends Kato and Wendy – just went far beyond my expectations as both a player and a husband and a dad.

I can’t wait to get the next adventure under way.

July 29, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Games, geek, Weblogs, writing | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

In Which the Adventure Begins Anew

An elf, a halfling, a half-orc and a human walk into a bar. The halfling starts smart-assing a nasty dragonborn. And that’s where the fun begins.

(Okay, technically, the half-orc was already in the bar, but why clunkify the setup?)

It's a trap! (No, really - it IS a trap. A giant spider trap.)

Photo by Wendy, map by Kato, surrounded cleric by Aoife.

So I returned for real to Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday, Jenn played for the first time ever, and our daughter may join the party next time around. All in all, a seriously amazingly fun afternoon.

Kato & Wendy were not only superbly gracious hosts (honestly, I may run out of superlatives and have to start making them up, so be warned) – I mean, they gave all three of us sets of dice in our favorite colors as a “Welcome to the Game” surprise – but they also made our adventuring an absolute joy.

For starters, Kato is, it turns out, a truly kick-ass DM. He created this one-shot adventure from scratch, starting it in the town of Fallcrest and taking our characters’ brief background stories and weaving them into the setting with a great setup. And as things unfolded, he struck a fantastic balance between enthusiasm and teaching the rules and keeping things moving.

Wendy, being an experienced player, just rocked her half-orc fighter – whom we met when she stepped in to keep that dragonborn from turning my big-mouthed halfling into ground chuck – and got into character and the game without Jenn & I feeling out of place.

From the perspective of someone who last “played” D&D in middle school (and the quote marks are because there were only two of us, and neither of us really wanted to learn all the rules – we just dug the maps and the monsters and the dice, so it was mostly just exploring and fighting monsters and always winning), this new version of the game was awfully easy to learn. I remember back in the early 1980s, for instance, things like how scarily plausible it was for a first-level magic user or cleric to die with one roll of a d4.

I couldn’t help but think that if we’d had this d20-based system of checks and skills and attacks back in the early ’80s, maybe my friend Mike and I would have put more effort into playing by the rules and gotten as much enjoyment from actual gameplay as we did from designing ancient forts and unexplored lands on graph paper. And using the miniatures and a battle mat definitely made combat far easier this time around.

When lowered our weapons after our first group encounter and decided it was time for pizza, a few hours had passed in the roll of a die, and we were just having a blast.

Already well into the evening, it made for a good stopping point, and our friends Keith & Marcia popped by around the same time as dinner, so we all spent another few hours hanging out.

As excited as I was about playing D&D again, I was really wondering what Jenn would think, and desperately hoping she’d have a good time. While I’m not going to speak for her, I will say that a) a certain cleric has a lovely Irish accent and b) when we got in the car to head home, Jenn almost immediately started saying things like, “I wish I’d taken a closer look at that scroll,” and “You know, I should have used my Elven Accuracy to re-roll one of those attacks.”

I tried to send a psychic message to 12-year-old me, somewhere in the rear-view mirror with his Basic D&D Set, rolling up characters he’d never get to send on their own quests: “Have fun. Don’t worry: Someday, you’ll get to play again and it will be awesome.

Thank you, Kato and Wendy: Natural 20s all the way.



May 24, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Games, geek | , , | 2 Comments

A story in the middle of the night

Somewhere between 2:30 and 3:30 this morning, I was in that kind-of-awake state that wasn’t full awareness but still enough that the missed sleep caught up with me later in the day.

There was an idea. Really just a snapshot series of images and a few sentences of story, and I think I fought falling back to sleep entirely because I wanted to make sure I had them right, and I wanted to remember them later, but at the same time, getting out of bed to write them down would have disrupted the chain of thought. And I could see this character and the setting, and the weather and his casual, knowing grip of a sickle during a confrontation outside a stable.

This morning, I got up and wrote it down as part of the backstory for the Dungeons & Dragons character I’m creating, and doing that – just sitting at the keyboard and making something up – was something I felt like I hadn’t truly done in a long time, and it felt awfully damn good.

I sent those briefly-fleshed-out notes and my halfling rogue’s stat sheet over to the guy who’s going to be overseeing this adventure to see if I’d worked the numbers right and to get feedback on the way my character is shaping up. I also confessed to being a little bit intimidated by the rules and calculations.

See, over the weekend, while I was finally finishing up repainting the office – which I started almost a year ago – I started listening to the Penny Arcade / PvP / Wil Wheaton D&D podcasts as a kind of psyche-up and to get a feel for how the game flows (I started with Series Three, but the first two are archived here). And the podcasts have been absolutely stellar in the way of getting me excited about the game, but man – they figure and refigure their bonuses and penalties and actions and options with a blazing speed that leaves me saving vs. HeadSpinVomit. I mean, I don’t mind doing a little math in gameplay for strategy’s sake, but what have I gotten myself – and my lovely wife – into?

Kato responded with an Email of +10 Reassurance, some important notes about my character stats (several of which I had, in fact, not quite nailed, missing a crucial adjustment), and a few other pointers.

He also said he liked the little bit of backstory – That vivid scene, incidentally? My character’s not even in it: It’s his great-grandfather.  –  which felt like the first fiction I’d written in too long.

Absolutely worth an hour’s lost sleep in the dead of night.

May 11, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, Games, geek, Ohio, writing | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Epic quest: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks landed on my “I-should-check-this-out” list when fellow GeekDad writer Michael Harrison reviewed it last year. I never got around to it, though – not even after a subsequent GeekDad interview in January brought it back into the “Oh Yeah, I Really Meant to Read That” zone.

Image: EthanGilsdorf.com

Of course, I forgot all about it again until Friday night at PAX East, when Fantasy Freaks author Ethan Gilsdorf joined the GeekDad panelists to hang out for a couple hours. I enjoyed talking with him so much that I ordered a copy as soon as I got back from the convention. It arrived Thursday, April 1, and for the next two days was my “Two free minutes? Gotta read!” go-to book.

I have mentioned before that while I had a huge interest in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games when I was in middle and high school, I never managed to find enough like-minded kids to support a gaming group. Still, I’ve always liked reading RPG reference books and gaming modules and playing with polyhedral dice, even without the Experience Points to back me up.

So as soon as I saw the graph-paper dungeon on the end-papers and Ethan’s hand-drawn fantasy map opposite the Table of Contents, I knew I was in for a good read.

And I loved this book. Part of it’s a generational thing, I’m sure. Ethan’s got a few (not many) years on me, but the cultural backdrop of his childhood – the last years of the Cold War, worries of nuclear war and the Evil Empire, the mind-blowing release of Star Wars – is a familiar one. Even though the book as a whole isn’t a coming-of-age recollection, making that connection at the beginning put me in the right frame of mind for the quest which follows. (For me, this was a bonus, but I want to note that it’s definitely not a book geared solely to the children of the 1980s, so don’t let my nostalgia for that era oversell that angle.)

What you get in Fantasy Freaks is a great story about, well, just what the subtitle says: “An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” And it’s not a dry sort of academic journey: Ethan’s in full-on geek mode (albeit sometimes reluctantly) as he revisits the books and games and culture that shaped his teenage years and gets back into their modern counterparts. Then he checks out previously-unexplored aspects like Live Action Role-Playing, convention attendance, World of Warcraft and the real-life tourist draws of New Zealand in the wake of The Lord of the Rings.

Ethan tells the story well, both as a geek and as a journalist, letting his fandom drive the journey without dominating it, and connecting with the real-world characters he meets along the way while never fearing to ask tough questions of himself, too.

There’s a lot of cultural crossover in geekdom anymore, with comics and science fiction and fantasy and gaming all appealing to a pretty broad group of people, and I think maybe that’s why someone like me, who’s never even played a true game of D&D, can still get so much enjoyment out of a book like this.

A couple weeks back, I started reading the D&D Fourth Edition rules at the invitation of some friends who run a semi-regular game and tell me it’s casual enough that I’m welcome to join in for a session and see how it goes. And when we were at PAX, I will admit that I looked maybe a little too long at some of the dice tables…

April 9, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, Books, eighties, geek, Travel, writing | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

   

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