Category Archives: Important Issues

Against the Dark Lord (Always)

I’m back. Because I could not be silent. I know that I put the blog to bed a while ago but recent events have upset my ability to let it go…

On this blog, I have been a huge supporter of Adventurer Conqueror King System. It is an amazing game and incredibly well-written, designed, and implemented. Unfortunately, it is also in bed with the notorious internet troll and alt-right hack, Vox Day.

Without belaboring the point, here is the outline.

  • Autarch has a new kickstarter for two books for the ACKS line.
  • Autarch worked out an agreement with Vox Day to provide a “bonus” reward to Day if his followers took up the battle cry to include content, “for the Dark Lord.” This also might or might not include adding money to their pledge specifically for this bonus reward.
  • Vox Day advertised this by mentioning that one of the pieces of art he’d commission for his reward was, a picture of vile minions eating SJWs.
  • A few – and I admit it was only a few – of us who are fans of Autarch spoke up about our concerns about this.
  • We were very politely told that Vox is a big supporter and paid his money so that is it. The company (and owner)’s stance is strictly apolitical.

Before I go on, one thing is important to clear up… Alexander Macris, the man at the heart of Autarch… has always been excellent in my dealings with him. I worked the Autarch booth at GenCon last year because I believe in the product and wanted to be a part of sharing it with the world and gaming community at large. Alex has always been extremely straightforward and professional in our dealings and until this incident, I would not have believed that I would ever be speaking against Autarch. It’s a shame.

But life and business are not, in fact, apolitical. Providing Vox Day with a new soapbox is not a move I can support. He is abhorrent and espouses openly hurtful views under the guise of “rationality” and “standing up against the intolerant left.” His crusade – specifically against John Scalzi – borders on obsession. (Though even I must acknowledge that there is one area where Vox Day and I agree — Scalzi is a terrible writer.) Saying that you are being apolitical is a way to wash your hands of the other guy’s sins while still taking his money.

Alex and I then engaged in private communication. I will not delve too much into what he said as it was between us and not in a public forum, but there are two issues in his response which I feel compelled to take up.

First, Alex listed off to me a history of his business decisions which led him to his current stand on the issue of Vox Day. I understand the list he provided and the decisions he discussed. I appreciate him taking the time to provide such a personal response. That said, there is a fundamental difference and misunderstanding between many of his previous decisions and this current one. In almost every previous case, his decisions involved parties that were doing no harm and were simply, “objectionable” to one group or another. There is a fundamental difference between that and the active anger, disdain, and hatred propagated through Vox Day’s community and his own writing. Day has taken an active stand to be a troll and an extremist. He does harm by his actions. Alex said that the protest is about “who Day is, not what is in the book.” That is a fair point. But unfortunately, you can claim to be apolitical but you cannot claim that working with Day is the same as previously employing someone that others claim to be objectionable when they are harming none. That is a false equivalence.

Second, just briefly, I am going to quote one very small part of Alex’s letter to me. It is in the interest of speaking to it directly.

private economic boycotts over differences of identity and politics are harmful to civil society...  I know that many disagree with me, and believe it is better to cause those who espouse unpopular views to suffer for them because they deserve it.

This is important. I do not believe that it is better to cause those who espouse unpopular views to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. What I do believe is that my private boycott of a product (also, not so private as I voiced my concerns in the Autarch forum before writing to Alex privately) is about not being willing to associate myself with the objectionable person or content specifically because of their actions. I don’t care about someone’s identity or politics in the abstract. I care about how they manifest those actions in the world. Vox Day is an internet troll who actively chooses to take a harmful road with his words and actions. His site and writing are not merely “words” they are calls to action. To say that you are apolitical but still associate with him because he has money and has said nice things about your work is not apolitical – it is willfully choosing to endorse, tacitly or not – the messages that he spreads.

Again – Alex Macris has always, always been excellent to me and I have a great respect for his hard work and the product he has created. Autarch’s ACKS is, really, the best D&D style game I have ever played and I’d rank it one of the best games in the market. And again, to be fair, Alex has repeatedly stated that he is in final control of the content and will be certain that it is appropriate to the tone and mechanics of ACKS. I believe him completely when he says that.

But the fundamental disagreement here is not about politics or identity. It’s not about whether Vox Day is a “good person” or not. I frankly don’t care. I’m not always a good person. The issue is that Vox Day actively creates a hostile atmosphere in our community and acts to sow discord, disdain, and spite while frequently patting himself on the back for same. And that is not something that I can associate myself with. If you have reservations, I hope you will express them as well.


Skill vs. Skill (Part Two)

This is a follow up to my last post concerning the nature of character skill vs. player skill at the gaming table and the various interactions that entails. Several comments on my last post raised specific points I intend to address as I write this, Part Two, and I have some additional ideas I hope to develop here.

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Skill vs. Skill

This topic is fairly well-tread in gaming circles but this post is emerging from the response I started to write to a comment on my last post.

Of all the dubious debates in the gaming community about how to play, what to play, and a million other theoretical discussions, one issue remains compelling to me because of how hard it is for me to come down clearly on one side or the other. And that is the issue of Player Skill vs. Character Skill.

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Failure is Interesting

Failure is an interesting consequence. I have been reading Dungeon World lately – and on Free RPG Day I had a long conversation about it with a local GM who was running a demo of the game. He made a comment that I hear often. He said, “Hey, even when you fail a roll, something interesting happens.” This statement always catches me off guard because…to my way of thinking, failure is an interesting consequence.

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Bothered by…

So, this is a post that is going to probably upset some folks. I’m taking a dissenting opinion on a topic of great interest to the gaming/geeky community right now (or so it seems to me). I want to explain that I am not taking issue with anyone in particular and that I’m not even going to go so far as to say that my opinion on the topic is fully fleshed out… more that this post is an exploration of my feelings to try and make some sense out of the topic for myself. I hope to be respectful and I hope to be careful in what I express here… and if you disagree or would like to help me explore my feelings, I hope you’ll comment.

This is not what I meant to post about today. This is not what I wanted to post about today… but it’s been rattling around in my brain for a while (ever since the explosion of “women in reasonable armor” images/posts a while back). I decided to write today after seeing this pop up all over my Facebook the last few days… “Drawing the Impossible? Fully Dressed Superheroines

Now, don’t get me wrong – the art is cool – and this guy did a good job of making sure to say that his intent was in no way to push a moral code. Bravo to you Michael Lunsford, I really do appreciate your work here. I think my problem stems from the fact that the discussion (look at the editorial comment at the link I posted) and many of the Fb shares of this are exactly that – trying to extract a lesson out of all this. And that may be as simple as my disdain for these efforts gets – I’m upset by the smugness I often see accompany these images and memes – the idea that if you disagree you are sexist, or you hate women, or you don’t welcome women into the culture/subculture…

So maybe that’s really what upsets me. But I’m still exploring so bear with me please. I’m a gamer and a guy. I don’t really identify as a geek. I like things that others have decided are geek things, like gaming, but I haven’t really faced a lot of social stigma because of those things because, well, one – I don’t self-identify as a geek and two, I don’t really give two tugs what a portion of intolerant people think of me or my way of having fun. I will admit, I have been subjected to harassment over the nearly thirty years of my gaming life by people in my extended family, workplace, and personal life telling me that gaming is evil, that it is a tool of the devil, and that I’m a tool of the devil if I do it, I just never let it bother me. Since my mom sat me down at a young age and let me watch The Last Unicorn and bought me books on mythology alongside my first D&D Basic Set I feel like I know that I am secure as a gamer.

I don’t know what it is like to be a female cosplayer who gets groped and insulted at conventions. I think it’s ridiculous and awful that such things happen and I fully support efforts like CONsent and I wish them the best of luck in raising awareness – and I’ll be more aware too when I want to take a picture at a convention (heck, I’m super nervous when I ask a cosplayer for a picture anyway, I always feel like I’m bugging them no matter how nice they are about it). But reading what the CONsent folks had to say, as well as the article they link to, is good information to know. I also realize that there is this whole “fake-geek-girl” thing and this weird backlash against girls in gaming in some quarters… To those people I can only ask, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Why would anyone take all the time, energy, and money to craft a costume, be brave enough to wear it, and spend their weekend at the freakin’ convention if they didn’t want to be there just as much as you did? (I’ll admit, I wish I was brave enough to cosplay – I follow several cosplayers online and find them completely inspiring.) I’d hazard a guess that many of them might want to be there more than you… they are committed in a way you wish you were.

But I’m digressing a little. I’m always bothered by the discussions of how women are depicted in gaming… mainly because the conversations seem very one-sided and most involve groups of people who only want to vent into their echo chamber and god forbid you have the temerity to disagree. And as a guy who identifies as straight – I’ll say this with no shame at all – I don’t really understand people’s beef with skin, male or female. Heck, show it all off if you want, as long as you are respectful of the opinions of reasonable people in public places, of course. I don’t particularly feel the need to cater to the fringe or the unreasonable – but I accept that there are wrongs committed in gaming and comic art in some people’s eyes, and as long as they are reasonable in their discussion I think we should all keep listening and learning.

I mean, is this reasonable armor?

I mean, how is this reasonable?

I just don’t really see how the “women in reasonable armor” or “fully clothed superheroines” discussions are in any way “helping.” I much prefer to see someone who comes out and says, “you have the right to dress however you want and no one has the right to abuse you for it.” [Please note: this video could include triggers and the part I’m interested in here kicks in at about the 3:40 mark.] That’s the education we need to give in this discussion – not changing appearances, but rather, changing attitudes.

But let’s really get back to the discussion of fully-dressed superheroines for a moment. First of all, my spell-checker doesn’t like the word superheroines and frankly, neither do I. I prefer just to call them superheroes and move on with it (can I be silly and call them metahumans?) Anyway…

So, my wife loves Tomb Raider (at least the old Tomb Raider, the verdict is still out on this new reboot). She loves the old games, she’s read the comics, she even likes the movies… I give her a bit of a hard time for liking the movies… I’ll admit. And Lara Croft is often a poster-child for the supposed ills of depicting women in fantasy/scifi. But I always get a laugh out of this because that’s not the first thing I notice about Lara Croft. The first thing I notice about Lara Croft is the fact that it seems highly unlikely to me that someone that thin would be able to do the extreme adventuring she does. Where’s the muscle mass, the fitness, the fat reserves for endurance? Right, no where to be found because she has to be drawn like a Victoria Secret model. You want to get into a discussion of drawing reasonable or realistic women in comics? I’d love to see a version of Alex Ross’ painting of Batman, covered in the scars of his life that depicts the Huntress or Black Canary in the same way. You know how many times the Huntress has been shot, stabbed, clawed, burned, electrocuted, and just plain beaten up? Draw me a superhero who looks like she lives the life and that’s something I can believe in.

Something that caught my eye when looking at the superheroines in full clothing was that I noted the only one who seemed to have a costume that closely echoed her male counterparts was Power Girl. I love the costume he created for Power Girl by the way and I love that he kept her muscles and her toughness right up front in the picture too, but I wonder if those muscles didn’t prompt the costume to seem more like her male counterparts? I could be wrong about that. It was just an immediate thought that occurred to me as I viewed the images.

Ultimately, I feel like my takeaway is that I’m glad that there are more females in my little corner of the subculture… it means more people to game with. I’m thankful that I’ve always had the opportunity to game with and enjoy the company of excellent females – geek or not – and I’m thankful that there are more high profile female geek icons. This awareness is a truly wonderful development in our hobby and whenever I have the opportunity to welcome another female player to the table, I’m happy to do so. And I’m appalled at some of the ridiculous examples of idiotic behavior that belittles or outright abuses women for being a part of our culture (and frankly, more than women, anyone who has to suffer in a group they have chosen to identify with). And there is nothing at all wrong with art projects like the one depicting the Fully Dressed Heroines… (except when paired with stupid tag lines like “Drawing the Impossible”). My crisis with these types of things, when they pop up, is the smug bandwagon effect that seems to accompany them. I’ll admit freely, maybe that’s just that I get my news and reactions from the wrong sources… I hope, more than anything, that we continue to educate people to be more mature, more open, and more accepting in all phases of life. I may not particularly identify as a geek (despite running a gaming blog, right) but I love being a part of a thriving community of gamers, cosplayers, artists, and writers who are sharing wonderful imagination with each other and I would hate to lose any of the voices because they have been shouted down – no matter which side of the aisle you are on.

Asking the Wrong Question – Getting a Right Answer

So my last post was all about a fishing analogy… and as it turns out I feel as if I was definitely asking the wrong question. In that post I was asking the question – what do we really mean by Gaming in an RPG and what do we actually need in a game. As it turns out, Kevin from KORPG had a really good answer waiting for me – and an article I read gave me a better handle on the question I really wanted to ask than my ruminations on the act of fishing.

My wife sent me this article about the new E-book by Mark Z. Danielewski because she knows how much I enjoyed “House of Leaves” a few years ago. I won’t go into all my feelings about the article or the forthcoming e-book other than to say that it really doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. Now, there might be some folks out there who will love this kind of thing – and more power to them – I’m not saying it doesn’t have it’s own merits… but it’s definitely not for me. As a friend of mine likes to say, “some folks like 3D movies… some folks like movies.” Okay, that second one is a little more judge-y than I mean to be. I just realized, as I was reading the article that the reading experience was – for me – more about interacting with the words through my imagination rather than having the author manipulate those words with special effects – no matter how slick those effects might be from a technology standpoint. And so what he plans to do with “The Fifty Year Sword” seems very, very gimmicky and silly to me and would probably not “enhance” my reading experience. I’m actually almost certain that when words start falling off the page I might actually just be more annoyed than anything else.

But in terms of gaming – I tried to ask a similar question, “What does a game really need to be a game – or – what does a gaming experience really need to be a gaming experience?” I think now this was the wrong question. I think what I was really trying to ask was, “How can a game be created to give everyone involved – players and GMs – what they need to feel that they have gotten a good gaming experience?” I’m probably still not expressing that as well as I’d like to because I realize that it’s nigh impossible for game to be all things to all people. I get that. But I have found over the years that quite often, games can provide a wide range of players a great experience even if the core of the game doesn’t immediately fit their preferred play style.

I want to strip this question bare and really dig my teeth into it a little bit. I have two games I’m actively working on right now in my free time and I find myself stumped, vexed you might even say, by this problem.

For example – I often find myself wondering how you can empower players without creating a corresponding sense of entitlement. I’ve often wondered how you can empower GMs without creating a corresponding sense of competition. I’ve found myself wondering many different things (those are just two of the more extreme examples) about how I approach the experience of gaming and how to share it without also demanding it. It’s a delicate line to walk and one I feel very comfortable with in “other people’s games” but one I struggle with when trying to give others my words.

I envy those who are capable of just putting their own vision of gaming forward and staking a case with it. Whether I agree with them or not, I envy that.

But Kevin, as I mentioned above, said something really enlightening (at least to me) that helped me shift my thinking a little…

Seek to understand how your system helps players commune and interface with “the game” and you’re on the right path.

This resonated with me because of the specific word choice. That word, “interface” is a really good word. I really like this idea. I think it’s an important idea. Interface. I’ve been thinking for a day about this idea of how thinking about how players interface with the game and use the game to interface with the GM (and the world/story) and it is something that we all (I think) do already – but rarely look at so directly.

I’m a think out loud kinda guy. I ruminate. I wonder. But I appreciate very much the insight of those around me because it’s often a little thing that can spark a better line of thinking. ANd sometimes you have to ask the wrong question to get the right answer.

Thanks for reading.

GM: Never Too Old to Change

So I’m running an Amber game for a mixed group of players… some who know Amber well, some who are totally new, and some who are reading the books even as we play our first few sessions. I always love the amazing joy of the first few sessions when people are reading the books and learning about Amber as we go… I’ve always found it to be a magical place, one that I can return to again and again and it never gets old.

But running an Amber game is different than many games. It’s a game that involves a lot of talking, very little fighting, and by default it is very (sometimes painfully) player-driven. And sometimes, as a GM, you can learn new things, try new things, no matter how long you’ve been gaming. Last night was our second full play session (not counting the auctions and character creation). And we were stalling a little. Sputtering might be a better word.

I don’t prep for Amber. I mean, I have a vague outline of some plot elements I can hit. I have some vague NPC interactions rumbling in my head. But Amber is so player-driven, so fundamentally open, and so ridiculously simple to learn mechanically, that prepping too much is actually worse.

But I’m not always good at conveying to players what Amber needs. And we’ve had a few false starts. We’ve drifted a little. I think sometimes players are expecting there to be a “PLOT” and they are looking for “RESOLUTION” and as a GM I’m really mediocre at the first and really bad at the second. I’ll admit it. It’s part of why Amber works for me – I riff off of what the players want and just try to make it as awesome as I can. I give the players a LOT of freedom… maybe a paralyzing amount at times.

And I’m not a person who is good at explaining the “feel and flow” of a game. But we were sputtering. And I felt like it was my fault, not the group’s. And then a player asked a question (thank you Poppy/Jillian). She asked if her character noticed anything. It was a broad, open, weird question with too many options for answers. But she turned the wheel in my mind a little – got the gear cranking over, as it were – and I just paused the game, took a moment to collect myself, and explained in a very simple, direct way what kind of freedom the players had. I was able to express how – through asking questions – they were able to really control the flow of information. I forced myself to be very transparent about the way I run, what my expectations are, and how I wanted them to be in total control of events. They responded. We stopped sputtering. Players who had been largely silent became vocal, one of the New-to-Amber types completely erupted on the session – walking the Pattern, disappearing on the party altogether, and finding out about her mother and father in completely unforeseen ways.

And I found an NPC they seem to like. He’s exhausting and a joy to play as the GM. But they really came up big – and I’m so happy for them and for our game. I’d like to take the credit – but all I did was correct a bad behavior I’ve long held as a GM. They made it work.

But ultimately, I think – between my new approach to my current Pathfinder game and now Amber – that they real takeaway for me is that I’ve gotten a chance to actually improve as GM. It’s easy to develop habits “behind the screen” both good and bad. It’s easy to blame the players (and sometimes it is their fault, right?), but it is never to late to try something new, to change your approach, or to take a risk.

I love GMing. I think the reward for a campaign (or just a session) that goes really well is magnified exponentially for the “man behind the curtain.” I think I get more out of being involved in games as the GM than I do out of any of my other social outlets. But after being a GM for a long time I was in a rut. So thank you to my Amber group (and my Pathfinder group) for helping me to experiment and take a few chances with my GMing style. So far it’s paying off well.

So, you know, I suppose the payoff here (so I can be better about RESOLUTION) is that I’m going to encourage all GMs who read here to do the same. Start a new game. Start it with new players. Get out of the rut, take a few chances, incorporate mechanics and ideas from other games than the one you are running… do whatever it takes, just do something new.

As always, thanks for reading.

The Endless Quest

So, MiddleAgedDM put up a great, introspective post about getting older as a gamer. As someone who has been gaming since the early 80s myself… well, I understand and I really enjoyed the read.

But it brought something to mind for me. You know, I still have a ton of my Endless Quest books. I have a ton of Choose Your Own Adventures, and Twist-a-Plots, and the Indiana Jones licensed ones, and Intergalactic Spy, and… well, you get the idea. And I loved those books. To be honest, Rose Estes probably shaped my perception of D&D (and fantasy in general) as much as Robert E. Howard, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tolkien, Eddings, and Beagle. (Well, maybe not as much as Beagle…).

Can I even begin to count the number of times I read Pillars of Pentagarn? Return to Brookmere is actually a book I still pull of the shelf and flip through when I need inspiration. And the art… oh, the art in those books. That was… That IS still what I think of as D&D when anyone says, “Dungeons and Dragons.” And beyond the Endless Quest series… I can’t really tell you how many car trips to grandparents’ houses were spent playing through Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Trial of Champions. And when my parents divorced and I moved to a small little place far from my original gaming friends, it was four years before I found a gaming group again… I gamed a lot on my own at 11 and 12 years old.

But here’s the real question in all this… I read a lot about needing to get new blood in the hobby, getting kids involved. I read all the hoopla about how 4E was “the fantasy the younger generation wanted.” That’s great, and I love gaming, and I’ve loved D&D since I was 8 years old. But as much as I’ve loved gaming all these years, those books were what I mostly had for a long time. So what do we have now? What’s the Endless Quest equivalent for the modern age? The thing is – Wizards of the Coast talks about wanting to bring kids into gaming – so give them gateways. They don’t have to start with D&D to play D&D. But what do they have? I realized today, I genuinely don’t know.

Whose Fun is it Anyway?

I’d never heard of this blog until today. Still haven’t had time to read much of it, but I always enjoy sharing a great post.

This is a valuable insight. I always enjoy the pang of envy that accompanies reading someone else say what you’ve been searching for the words to say. I’ve never felt responsible for my friends’ fun. I mean, I want them to have fun when we game — why would we do it otherwise? I want people to leave the game table feeling excited, energized – I want them to be chomping at the bit to get back to the table the next week. And I do believe that it is part of the trust my friends place in me — by choosing to be players in a game I’m running — that I will do my part to make sure that everyone is having fun. I accept and embrace that aspect of being GM. And the fact is – I’m almost always the GM.

That said, I’ve always just taken it on faith that players show up to the game for more than just to “have fun.” Like fun is something that will happen TO them. What makes RPGs so special, what makes this my favorite thing to do with my friends, is that it is a social endeavor. It is a give and take. Everyone is putting in. This is not a passive entertainment. I have those. I love comics, and books, and movies. Heck, I’m super excited about the Expendables 2 coming out this weekend… but if I had to choose, I’d always choose RPGs. Because it is not a passive entertainment.

I write here about how I love to empower players to invent details, to be as involved in setting the scene and building the world around them as the GM is. But it’s more than that. I actually expect it. I take it on faith that players are as “into” the game as I am… that’s why we’re all together. If a players shows up to one of my games waiting to be “entertained” then they won’t enjoy my games at all. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I have friends who are comfortable with roleplaying to a greater and lesser degree. I have friends who love the social aspect more than the game aspect, etc. I am accommodating in my tastes and preferences at the game table — but when I’m a player — I make my own fun. Why does a player need an “incentive” or a “reward” for contributing to the game? Contributing to the game is the reward. Everyone wins. Everyone has more fun.

My goal as a GM is not to make sure that everyone has fun. My goal is to give everyone a framework (my campaign ideas) to hang all the details they want to on top of — to build their own fun. I don’t care if I’m running a sandbox, an adventure path, or even a one-shot. I’m not a provider of fun, merely a facilitator. Like many things in life, you get out what you put in.

So I expect my players to be responsible for their own fun, just as much as I am responsible for my own fun — because if we all contribute — we all have fun.

Games Should be Hard

Inspiration comes in funny ways. I opened a box at work today, and right on top was a torn up piece of newspaper with half an article about hard video games. I was so intrigued by the bit that I read, when I came home I searched the internet and found the original article in its entirety.

If you don’t want to take the time to read it now, here’s the important gist: Hard games offer more than easy video games. They offer more in the way of challenge but also more – in very special ways – in the way of storytelling. And I tend to agree. When it comes to video games, I’ll admit – I’ve been lulled into that sense of playing games where I’ll turn down the difficulty, “to experience the story.” I get that. And it can be fun sometimes to lay waste to screens full of enemies with no real chance of failure.

But the real value of the article for me is to consider it in the context of table top RPGs. I missed a big chunk of the explosion of the video game era because I already had games that were a million times better — I had friends and I had the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Call me a Luddite snob if you will (I do play video games these days) but I’ve yet to play any video game that has the social and entertainment value of a table top RPG.

But what about “hard” and “easy” when it comes to RPGs? And am I talking about “hard” mechanics or “easy” mechanics? Am I talking about the expected challenge level of the gameplay experience based on the mechanics? Or am I talking about group interaction? Honestly, I’m talking about all three but I think the last one has the most value.

Hard and Easy mechanics – This is easy enough to tackle. I don’t think a game should be hard to learn. It can be hard to master, but it should not be hard to learn. I like to be able to go from reading the rules to playing in the same day. To make your rules or writing obtuse is just silly. I’m not saying that a game can’t have complexities in the rules. I just don’t think a game should make a habit of leaving potential players and GMs scratching their heads instead of playing.

Expected Challenge Level based on the rules – I’ll just call a spade a spade. This is the D&D4E problem. 4E is not the only game with this problem, but 4E represents this problem very well for my playing groups. In 4E, the game has a built in tendency to heavily favor the PCs. The game is “easy” and challenges are designed with the expectation of victory. More importantly, the challenges are designed with an expectation that victory can always be achieved through applications of the rules. Now, don’t get me wrong – I realize that a clever group easily avoids this outcome. I also realize that certain initiatives (like Lair Assault) address this (to an extent) but even Lair Assault only addresses one half of the problem. But overall, the core expectation of experience with 4E is a group of superhero PCs who should function like a highly trained commando squad and should be able to solve any challenge in the game through rules application. I’m less of fan. Again, don’t get me wrong, I went through a phase where I loved the idea of a game devoted to mathematical balance and perfecting the encounter mix. But when I actually played it, well, a lot of the experience just felt pointless.

Group Interaction – perhaps I should express this more as player/GM interaction or player/world interaction. But honestly, as I think back over the groups and games I’ve loved the most, some of the most important and challenging play has been between players – leaving the GM to watch in awe just like everyone else. When given the chance, I’ve found that players will surprise even the savviest GM with the immensely poignant decisions they’ll make. I think that players can challenge each other, challenge the GM, and challenge the “rules” and that they should do that whenever they can — in a respectful way to their fellow gamers, of course.

I remember one Star Wars game. We were playing Jedi. One of our number had unwittingly set off a dark side doomsday device underneath a planet. The surface and the people who lived there were doomed. We were frantically trying to evacuate the planet, keep as many people as we could safe, and fight off the dark side. The session after the disaster, a new player joined the group. He played the role of a young Jedi, fresh from the Academy, a little arrogant, and a little sheltered by his master. When he got to the planet and saw what had happened, he basically started his first conversation with our existing PCs with something like, “well, based on what you’ve done here – it’s a good thing some real Jedi are taking charge of the situation.” It was awesome. Words were exchanged, tempers (in character) flared. Our frazzled, exhausted Jedi who had been on the front lines were incredibly challenged by this guy. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep it up. After that first encounter he just fell in with us and kinda stopped pushing our buttons. It was odd. We told him how much we loved his challenging us, that we thought it was awesome… but he didn’t keep it up. I would have loved to have seen how that all played out if he’d kept that edge – that intensity. Of course, it was his character, so we only pushed so much, but what a game it might have been if he’d shown us that side a little more.

Examples aside, I think that gaming, RPGs, like anything else take practice and commitment to be good at. And even though I’m a big fan of lots of different games, I really don’t think that “system mastery” is what I’m talking about. I’m talking about developing the skill and confidence to show up at the gaming table and “bring it.” To ham it up and be willing to share a potentially difficult, emotional, social experience with other people. I think the challenges, whether they stem from the rules interaction or social interaction should be hard. And if you need to lose, sacrifice a character, or whatever, remember – the story is not about your character (singular) its about you playing as a player (and if that means characters (plural) then so be it).

Is there a place for “easy mode?” I think so. Some nights I just want to kill Stormtroopers. I get it. But if most sessions are like that then what’s at stake? What are we – as players – getting out of the experience? Play Hard. I think its a lesson we could all do well to remember sometimes… myself included.

As always, thanks for reading.