Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Role Playing Games, part II

Or

How We Fix the Problems, I Hope


So, many years ago my kids began to play games with me. They started with video games, and then began to include tabletop games, like Pokemon CCG, and Yu-Gi-Oh. That was about the same time that I was getting involved in Magic, the Gathering, too.

Soon after, they began asking if they could play Dungeons and Dragons. I was very nervous for all of the reasons that I spelled out in the last post. It really has the potential to teach impressionalble children the wrong concepts. On the other hand, it can also teach teamwork and goodness. It can enhance creative thinking and problem solving.

In that sense, role-playing games are very much like life. What you get out of it depends very much on what you put into it. I definitely didn't want them to be playing under a GM that didn't understand this, or the nature of consequences for acts and choices. But then, did I really want to be the GM for a system where I had so many fundamental problems?

Years went by, and every so often, my kids would remind me how much they wanted to try it out. Sometimes I'd flat out turn them down, other times I would put them off. I looked at the newer edition rule books, and found that, even though there had been some changes, most of my core issues with the game were still in place.

I had some stock responses, like how I didn't have time to make up an adventure, or how we didn't have enough money to buy the books, or any of a number of excuses.

Finally, this last year, I could see that they weren't going to give up, and I could see that, at age 16, I wasn't going to be able to deny my oldest for very much longer. I also had been more active in game design, having worked through some years on Seeker's Quest Scripture Card Game.

Finally, I decided that I would make an RPG system that would deal with my fears and issues, and allow us to have a great time bonding and playing. So, last July, I wrote out a few quick pages of rules and tables and got started.

The rules themselves have undergone significant revisions already, and the core keeps getting more and more balanced. The adventure we've been playing has continued to grow and develop. We've had times where we've had to stop and rework the characters to reset the game balance, and there have been times when we've suddenly thought of great new ideas of things to add. There is still much to do.

But it has been a wonderful bonding experience with me and my children, and we'll continue to work on it.

Here's how we've dealt with the four issues:

The Focus on Fighting over Story and Character

First, from the very beginning, we began creating the characters by inventing their back story. Who is this? Where is he/she from? Why is he/she adventuring? What motivates him/her? What does he/she want to be when "grown up"? Then, rather than randomly rolling numbers for attributes, the players used a point system to develop the attributes and skills that fleshed out that backstory.

Secondly, I approached the entire adventuring process from the perspective of a story line. As the Game Master, I used the backstories of the newly formed characters to create the world and the opening situation. Then, as the characters began exploring this world, they encountered adversaries and others that made sense within that world. I constantly asked myself, "Why?" Why would these monsters be there? What is this Non-Player Character trying to accomplish?

Story became a very integral part of the game from the first session, and it grew from there.

The System for Magic, Spells, and Dieties

In order to fix the fundamental difficulties I had with magic, I had to abstract the system. We came up with five different kinds of "Powers" (I didn't even want to call it "magic"), and some basic abilities within each one. Each player that had powers had a certain number of "Will Points" that he/she could use in a day. The player would then be faced with a situation, and would think of an action within that type of power that might solve it. He/she would describe the action, and I, as the GM, would tell the player how many WP it would cost to do that. The points would be subtracted, and the dice rolled.

This made it so that the source of the power was vague, even inconsequential. There was no detailed incantations or "eyes of newt" to be thrown into bubbling cauldrons. The character simply willed it to happen, and if the die roll was successful, it happened.

The Alignment System

It was my son that suggested something that would end up fixing the idea of good or evil characters. He didn't even know it at the time. As we were creating the first character sheets, he said, "You should have a 'luck' attribute." I thought about that, and decided on "Karma Points". As the players did good and helpful things for each other and the NPC's in the world, they would gain KP. If they did horrible things, not only would the NPC's get upset and possibly attack or capture the characters, but they could be docked KP. The KP's could be used to artificially alter a critical die roll that failed.

As a result, the players began to conciously do things that would gain them Karma and avoid being bad guys.

The Overall Complexity and Inflexibility

Games have a tendency, over time to become more and more complex. That's the nature of game design. It's kind of an "opposite entropy". You encounter a problematic situation in the game design, and you fix it by adding some rules. That's OK, that makes it so you can get back to playing. But then, those new rules bring up other situations that beg for more rules, and more rules, etc...

I'm working to keep this game simple with guidelines for Game Mastering. This does mean that the GM has to really take charge, but it also frees him/her up for making the story happen instead of twiddling about looking up and administering the rules. He/she simply decides what's reasonable within a framework and goes with it.

It has been challenging to find the internal balances in those guidelines. There have been a couple of times when the system has essentially broken down, and we've had to rework the characters to keep them from being too powerful. In those circumstances, we've had to struggle with being responsible game designers while we like playing powerful characters!

In the process, however, we've really bonded as a family, and I haven't had the problems come up like I had feared. It really has been great fun.



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Mark has a lifelong testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his Dutch Oven blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: name post, name post,

Role Playing Games, Part I

Please forgive my self-indulgence.  These next two blog entries are about as geeky and nerdy as can be. It's all about my history as both a gamer and as a member of the Church. It's also a setup for some things to come.

Way back in the day, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine introduced me to this cool new game he had just bought called "Dungeons and Dragons".  We were thrilled, and both started playing regularly. As a game, it was a totally new paradigm. It was based in your imagination. You pretended to be characters in a party of mideaval fantasy adventurers, and you fought and wizarded your way through dungeons, killing monsters and collecting loot.

It was also the first game I'd ever played where you didn't "win", because you just survived and grew. You could "lose" if you died, but you never really "won". Some of my friends would look at it and say, "how do you win?" because that's usually what people want to know about playing a game.  But in reality, in role-playing games, you win by having a great time making a cool story.

This was at a point very early on in the history of the game. As I grew up playing more and more, later editions of the game became more elaborate and thorough and brought with them more and more extensive rule books.

It was a large part of the reason why my high school and early college grades were so bad. I was more into gaming than I was studying. I was a total geek. The problem was that, unlike today, "geek" was not even close to "cool".

Not only did D&D get in the way of my schooling, but it clashed with my religion as well. As it became more popular, and more well-known, many people handled it badly (iincluding many of the players), and it often got a reputation as something evil, or satanic.

In spite of all this, I often look back at my gaming life and friends and say that it is what helped keep me off drugs. I was with a group where I was accepted, and my need for creativity, weirdness, and exploration was encouraged and valued. Who needs drugs?

Then I went on my mission, and served The Lord for a time. Not long after that, I moved myself out to Utah, and soon after that married life and adulthood (jobs, etc) filled my life with practical reality. There wasn't time to devote to finding a good adventure group and developing stories, dungeons, and adventures.

As I became more and more fully devoted to the Church and the gospel, looked back at my gaming life, and though I had many wonderful memories, there were certain things that nagged at me. These were things that also made me uncomfortable about D&D in particular, and even about role-playing in general.

The Focus on Fighting over Story and Character

All too often, our adventures degenerated into die-rolling slug fests, and the victors would be determined more by the dice than any really creative problem solving. The winner was the biggest, the baddest, and with the most plusses on his/her magic sword.

I had already been playing the game for many years before I had an adventure campaign that was truly based on storytelling. I wish I could say that I was the Game Master for that one, but I have to give props to Rick, who did a fabulous job of setting scenes and encouraging interaction and real character development, not just adding up experience points. That was, sadly, a rare experience.

It's true that this aspect of the game is more related to those playing it, but I also feel that the intracacies and detailed nature of the rules of D&D created a situation where storytelling was de-emphasized. The system also had greater rewards for fighting and conquest.

The System for Magic, Spells, and Dieties

I had three problems with the way Magic was handled in D&D. One was that each type of spellcaster had a list of detailed and unique spells that he/she could choose from. They each did very specific things, and nothing else. It was very clear to everyone playing, from the GM to the newest beginner, what each spell did. This didn't allow for much creativity on the part of the player to create clever solutions to problems and situations.

Another problem I had was the details of the spells as set out in the rules. Each spell could have a verbal, somantic, and/or a physical component, many of which were written out and listed in the rules. This kinda gave me a strange feeling as a member of the Church because it began to look like a magic instruction book to me. In my mind, I could dismiss it as "just a game", but that level of detail bothered me.

A third problem dealt primarily with the Clerical spells. These were the healing and other abilities that were granted to the characters by dieties. This was the internal religion of the game. In order to "charge up" their spell lists, the cleric character had to spend so much time each day meditating or praying to his/her chosen mythological diety. These were derived from all kinds of sources, and in many cases were even evil. Clearly, as a member of the church, having any of the players around me praying to a demon in order to get their spells was a bit disconcerting, even if it was "just in the game".

The Alignment System

Which also leads me to the next issue that troubled me which was the Alignment system. This allowed players to decide if they were going to be, essentially, good guys or bad guys. I can still remember a long, extended campaign adventure that I GM'ed of all evil characters. Eventually, role playing turned to mistrust and infighting, and several real-life friendships (of many years) were almost destroyed in the proces. At that point, I swore to myself that I would never play an evil character, nor to GM for evil characters again.

Part of the problem with the playing of evil or even neutral characters is that the GM is not always prepared to nor interested in implementing consequences for evil behavior. Even though killing people brings the wrath of other people, that can often distract from an existing story line, bog it down, or simply require additional tracking and effort. It's often easier to just let it go. As a result, players can have a great time being dominant and powerful, spreading mayhem and taking whatever they want with very little negative results. With the wrong GM, the game can actually teach that it's exciting and fun to be evil.

The Overall Complexity and Inflexibility

My final problem was the intricate detail of the rules. At first, it was fun reading through all of the spells and the monster listings (that was a completely bound book, in and of itself - the Monster Manual), in the end it was frustrating because the players could access it as well. If I threw a scene at them with a two Hobgoblins and twelve Orcs, they knew immediately the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. And, if I did something wrong, or made a judgement call, they were quick to point out that I had done it wrong, and that according to page 212 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, THIS was how it SHOULD have worked.

Ultimately, it was still a great game that I loved playing. But all of these things nagged at me over the years, and I finally decided that it was good that I stopped playing. Besides, I spent some time enjoying miniatures gaming, and then I discovered Magic: the Gathering, so I still was quite the gamer.

I was, however, not prepared for how to answer to the next challenge: My kids!



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Mark has a lifelong testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his Dutch Oven blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: name post, name post,

Monday, September 08, 2014

How to Have Safe Sex

OK, this is going to be a hard one to write, for several reasons. One is that I’m still sorting out a lot of my thoughts on the topic, particularly as it relates to many of my friends who don’t share my faith. Another reason is that I know I’m going to make some people mad, and there will be many both in and out of my faith that will disagree with me.

I’m OK with that.

I’m going to tell several stories and experiences which have shaped my life and opinions on sex and relationships. It’s kinda funny, because I don’t feel like I’m particularly qualified to be giving advice on this topic. I’ve never been all that great at relationships. I get really focused on my own baggage and sometimes forget that other people need me for things. So, I’m not sure why I get to write this, except for the fact that I’ve been married, now, for 27 years, to the same woman, and she hasn’t kicked me out, yet. I guess that means something, right?

I started thinking about the nature of sex and relationships more in the last few weeks because of this video clip (please watch it before reading on):



This guy nails a lot of the frustration men and women have been feeling in recent years as we struggle to deal with issues like sex, modesty, rape culture, respect, blame, and a whole lot of other things that circle around the way we live together.

As I watched it, I saw how important it is to respect one another, and to treat others, men and women, with that kindness.

I also thought of an editorial cartoon I saw many years ago, and I tried to google it, that I think spoke to the issue. There was a young kid, talking to a pharmacist, and the pharmacist says that he has something that, when used as intended, would guarantee him 100% safe sex. He was intrigued. What was this miracle drug?

A wedding ring.

I grew up and came of age in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In spite of all of the sexualization that was rampant even in those decades, I was a virgin when I married my wife. She was, too. Since that time, we’ve had our struggles, but we’ve remained faithful. She is the only woman I’ve ever been with, sexually. We’ve had to adapt to each other personally, physically, and emotionally, it’s true. That’s what marriage is. A few weeks ago, we celebrated our 27th anniversary. She makes me, and our family, complete.

And I thought about that video, with all it’s confusion and chaos and the need for “The Rules”, and I wondered (here’s the controversial part) how many of those nagging confusions would simply go away if people, men and women, would commit to each other, and make sex exclusive to that commitment.

Imagine if men were taught, and believed, that women were sacred and to be respected. That sex was something she gave him, and he gave her as a part of their promise to make a lasting life together. Imagine if women were taught that men were to be respected and not to be manipulated, teased, or used and discarded as toys. What if she were taught early in life that sex isn’t currency used to buy status or security, but a beautiful part of connected lives.

What if, as single men and women socialized with each other (especially as teens), then dated, they didn’t have to worry about the complications of a sexual relationship? What if there were no need to guess if your date was going to pressure you or not? What if men didn’t want to drop drugs into girl’s drinks? What if the immediate need to sleep with someone tonight was replaced with the deeper desire to wake up next to a partner for years to come, knowing that this partner had promised the same thing to you.

It seems so often that people want the convenience of casual sex and the meaning and mutual respect that comes from commitment. I'm not sure that you can have it both ways.

To me, when sex is reduced to a party game, it’s no wonder that we have so much confusion over “The Rules”.



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Mark has a lifelong testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his Dutch Oven blog.

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