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Looking Back to Look Forward

It’s important to remember where you come from. I’ve been in reflection mode recently for a lot of reasons. I’m in the process of looking for a new job, my first pastoral call, and I’ve been reflecting on what the last eight years of seminary and ministry experience have been like for me and how they are leading me forward. It’s also been a season of lots of new games coming out and between all the Kickstarter materials I’ve picked up and other great games having just popped up or on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about what roleplaying games have meant to me and how my tastes have changed as a player and a DM.

I saw several other bloggers doing a questionnaire piece about their history with the big daddy of all roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons. I really liked the way that Dysons handled his by doing it all at once instead of spread out over a long time so I thought I’d do something similar as a reflection activity to look back at how I got into this whole business and how I have grown through it.

1. Who was the first person who introduced you to D&D? Which edition? Your first character?

Matt, my roommate from my sophomore year of college was the first person to introduce me to tabletop roleplaying games as a whole, but specifically to D&D with a 3.5 edition Christmas one shot where we all played characters based on christmas claymation and animation specials. I played a dwarven fighter named Yukon Cornelius and I was terrible at everything. It was hilarious.

2. Who was the first person who you introduced to D&D? Which edition? Their first character?

I introduced a group of high school guys to D&D 3. 5 right on the cusp of 4th edition’s release and we had exactly one session in that campaign. Especially since I one-shot the halfling rogue on an opportunity attack he didn’t stand a chance against. We don’t talk about that time. Right after that, I picked up the 4th edition books and we started a campaign that lasted a year or two. There was an eladrin warlord, a tiefling warlock, a dragonborn fighter, a dwarven cleric and an elven rogue. Glorious days.

3. What was the first Dungeon you ran as a DM?

The Keep on the Shadowfell of 4E introduction fame was the first dungeon I ever ran as a DM. It was silly and simple and railroady as heck, but it was fun and a great start to a fun little adventure.

4. Who was the first dragon your characters slew?

Believe it or not, it was a low level undead white dragon that was raised by a necromancer. It was an add-on to The Keep on the Shadowfell that I just kind of tacked on for fun because dragons are in the name and I thought that was important. It was way overpowered for the party, even though I tried to use the math and everything, but it was a true threat and really intimidated the party and made a sense of danger that was cool and that we still talk about today.

5. Who is the first character to go from 1st level to the highest level possible in a given edition?

This is an entire party actually in my 1-30 4e campaign, the second campaign I ran. Muffi the gnome artificer and starforged warrior, Hermy the half-elf paladin of the Raven Queen and sorrowsworn knight, Kildrak the dwarf barbarian and bearer of the primordial seed, Xune the dark-elf rogue and redeemer of the drow, Bettledex the human wizard and archmage, and Kyve the dragonborn runepriest/fighter and avatar of the platinum dragon. That was a great campaign.

Final Party Shot6. Who was the first character death? How did you handle it?

In that first undead white dragon fight I mentioned earlier, the human wizard got a little too close to the dragon and took a dragon breath to the face. It was the first time negative hitpoints made a big difference and the wizard found himself frozen completely solid. And dead. Everyone freaked because we hadn’t had to handle death rules yet. They were able to trade a favor for a local cleric to cast a ritual to bring him back to life, but it was something they actively didn’t anticipate and looking back now, I probably should have given some more teeth to the experience. One of the coolest (pun intended) parts was how the wizard actively decided how the experience changed him and started taking on cold elements to his spells and retrained some of his abilities to be more frosty. Eventually we worked it out that the whole experience actually morphed him and changed his power from his spellbook into his very blood and he became a dragon magic sorcerer instead. It was narratively fun and a good play experience change for him.

7. What was the first D&D Product you ever bought? Do you still have it?

I bought the core rulebook set for D&D 3.5 and I actually just sold the set to a used book store. I don’t use them, haven’t in ages, and we are trying to declutter a lot of our lives so it just made sense to get rid of it and make it available for someone else at a greatly reduced cost.

8. What was the first set of polyhedral dice you owned? Do you still use them?

I bought an orange lava-y set of dice when I was in college for my first D&D one shot and I still use them to this day. They are now my DM dice and they get a little mad at me if I use them as a player. (I have no real dice superstitions, but it’s fun to play into them)

9. What was the first campaign setting (published or homebrew) you played in?

I ran a game in the 4E “Points of Light” Nentir Vale setting. ¬†It was open enough with structure to help me work within to the best of my ability as a newbie.

10. What was the first gaming magazine you ever bought?

I’ve never bought a physical gaming magazine, but I’ve been a D&D Insider subscriber for years and followed along with the Dungeon and Dragon articles daily. Excellent investment for my game and I learned a lot from those who had gone before.

11. What was the first splatbook you begged your DM to approve?

I honestly never purchased or used a splatbook as either a player or a DM. I’ve heard the horror stories and have little interest in 3rd party stuff. The closest I would say is when I was in a one-shot of Dungeon World and asked to use the Mage playbook from the Alternative Class Playbooks and was told no. It was no problem because the DM was learning how to use the rules and it made sense to keep it simple. I just really like the way they handle spellcasting in the Mage book as opposed to the spell list model of the Wizard in Dungeon World proper. I wouldn’t say I “begged” to use it though. ūüôā

12. What is the first store where you bought your gaming supplies? Does it still exist?

I started buying game stuff (game supplements, dice, and miniatures) at Black Diamond Games in Concord and it is a thriving friendly local game store that is adding a second story to add more gaming space and is a favorite of mine. It’s just a little out of my way so I’m there a lot less than I would like.

13. What were the first miniatures you used for D&D?

I bought a big sample pack of the official WOTC D&D minis on Ebay when I first started playing 4th edition so I’d have a smattering of kobolds, goblins, and the like for the Keep on the Shadowfell and I started hunting down individual minis over time to be the set piece critters I’d need for other combats. I also printed out imagery and glued them on bases, used coins, numbered pencil erasers, and even toyed with a digital projection set up, but the plastic minis always did me right.

14. Did you meet your significant other while playing D&D? Does she still play?

I didn’t meet my wife while playing D&D, but I got her involved and invested pretty quick. We ran our 1-30 campaign with her family right after we got married and it became a staple of our married life as a family. She plays from time to time when we have a game night, but nothing like we used to. Having a kid takes up a lot of our time and our gaming has had to take the back seat to being parents.

15. What was the first edition of D&D you didn’t enjoy? Why?

There are a lot of things about the various editions I am not a fan of. This past year, I found rules sets for all the editions with the intent to create a character in each to see how it went. Since 4th Edition was my first real setting that I dug into, I had an obvious bias to it and I wanted to see how the others compared. 1st Edition was too bare boned. It was hard to tell how I could try and do something if there wasn’t an explicit rule to make it happen. 2nd Edition had kits that helped make sense of that and I actually really liked that, but starting getting overwhelmed fast with the amount of material and options that became available. 3rd Edition was almost too granular with skill points and I found myself flipping back and forth to figure out just what I could do and how much things cost. 4th Edition was really time consuming without the Character Builder. D&D Next has many of the difficulties of 2nd and 3rd edition where I found myself getting bored from all the flipping back and forth to figure out what I could and couldn’t do in character creation.

16. Do you remember your first edition war? Did you win?

I do remember my first edition war and it was very much 4E vs Pathfinder. I don’t think anyone wins the edition war, but I think I came close. I walked into a new game store and was perusing the various board games and RPG products and struck up a conversation with the store owner. He asked me what games I had played and I told him about my level 1-30 4th Edition campaign. The first words out of his mouth were, “Oh you played 4E? Have you ever heard of Pathfinder?” I was taken aback a bit and explained that yes I had heard of Pathfinder, but that my group really enjoyed our 3 year campaign that we took from start to finish and that it was really a great experience. We chatted a bit more and I asked him about his home Pathfinder game and parted amicably. Sometimes the comment of “And what kind of fun did you have? Oh that’s great, sounds awesome!” is more than enough to defuse an edition war before it can fully grog.

17. When was the first time you heard that D&D was somehow “evil”?

There was a radio episode of Adventures in Odyssey, a Christian radio drama show for kids that I listened to religiously (again, pun intended) and they had an episode that talked about the spiritual elements of the game and how it encouraged actual demonic energies to get involved. It was some of my first thoughts about the game, but eventually I grew up and realized how ridiculous that was and how much I had learned to see Christ in storytelling and how powerful the stories of Tolkien and Lewis were using magical worlds with potentially dark spiritual beings that could still point toward a Christian (ish) message.

18. What was the first gaming convention you ever attended?

I have actually still never been to a gaming convention. I hope to rectify that some day soon.

19. Who was the first gamer to just annoy the hell out of you?

In that Christmas one shot I played, there was one guy who felt the need to explain every nuance of his character every time he did something. He was so proud of what he’d constructed, but I just couldn’t wait for him to shut up about every little thing he did. His turns took forever because every little piece had justification behind it and none of us could care less. Fortunately, it was a one shot.

20. What was the first non-D&D RPG you played?

I actually started in a non-D&D RPG and moved to D&D after that. I started with the Big Eyes Small Mouth anime themed RPG doing a supernatural based game set on the college campus we lived in. ¬†I played a character who wasn’t all that different from myself in real life and it was a ton of fun. The way it captured my imagination is part of what led me into tabletop games as a whole.

21. When was the first time you sold some of your D&D books, for whatever reason?

I sold my 4E Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual 1 back to a game store that was doing a promotional deal buying back corebook sets for store credit at a pretty good deal. Given that I was a DDI subscriber at the time, the books didn’t do me much good anyway so I figured I could get some new materials I could work with it was ¬†a good trade. And it was.

22. What was the first D&D based novel you ever read?

Robert Salvatore’s “The Orc King” in the Drizzt series. I picked it up in an airport for some pop reading and was kind of drawn in, but it was so far down a particular series that I wasn’t particularly drawn to read more.

23. What is the first song that comes to mind that you associate with D&D? Why?

That rousing song from The Fellowship of the Ring when the theme swells just as they set off from Rivendell and it’s all exciting as a new quest begins in earnest. It’s good kick off music to an exciting adventure. Most of my gaming groups want to be the Fellowship of the Ring so it is something that comes up pretty regularly.

24. What is the first movie that comes to mind that you associate with D&D? Why?

Conan the Destroyer is what comes up first believe it or not. It has a great sample adventuring party, classic quest tropes, and the promise of adventure to come. I also saw it well before I started playing roleplaying games and a lot of what I play is based out of that experience.

25. What is the longest running campaign/group you’ve been in?

The three year 1-30 D&D 4E campaign I played through the Scales of War adventure path is by far the longest game I’ve run and been a part of. It was tremendous fun and an achievement I’ve very proud of as well.

26. Do you still play with the group that introduced you to the hobby?

Sadly no. My old college roommate who taught me how to play lives on the other side of the country so we don’t play anymore, but he and his wife did include me in their webcomic once!

27. If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything different when you first started gaming?

I think I may have spent less on miniatures and game supplements than I did (since I had access to all the content of the books via DDI and used the adventure paths from the Dungeon articles) and I would have done a lot more of my GMing while standing up. I’ve found it was a big help for my energy level over the course of the 1-30 campaign. I also would have been less afraid to ¬†break the system and hack away. When broken combinations of powers started getting abused too often, I should have clamped down and done something more interesting and exciting than just rolling with it. My players wanted challenge and I didn’t give them enough of a challenge that they deserved all the time.

28. What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned from playing D&D?¬†

It’s a game. It’s a great game that facilitates time together and great play within the fields of our imagination, but it’s just a game. Giving it the time a game deserves would have left me a lot more time to invest in the people at my table and while it was a great experience, I would have loved to have deeper relationship with them because of the game when it was all said and done. I love my players and we had a great adventure together, but the game sometimes took over the space our relationships should have filled. Some of that is just stuff I have learned about my own sense of focus and where I invest time in the game, some of that was the way that I had fun while playing the game, but some of that is a sense of priority that looking back I wish I had invested in more relationally with my players especially the shorter campaigns where I wonder how much long term friendship I missed out on now that the game is over and the relationship isn’t nearly what it was. ¬†Weird reflections.

So yah. I played D&D for quite a while. I learned a lot about myself and what I like. Looking back, I have thoughts on how I would do things if I ran a game in the future, which I do plan to do. I love systems that give me the freedom to invest in the game to a point, but also the space to invest in my players as friends outside of the game itself. I’m learning what it means to do that as a player in an online game now and in a monthly face-to-face game I run, I’m taking those lessons to mind.

What about you? What’s your history with the game and what can you learn about yourself from a bit of looking back?

Hovering Over the Waters

Campaign settings fascinate me. There is something about the way we frame and build and construct an entire world in an RPG that is incredibly satisfying. Even fleshing out and discovering the secret in-between places of an established published setting lends itself to some incredible gameplay. Playing within a campaign setting offers an opportunity to say something about the nature of the world and in many ways the setting is the character the GM brings to the table.

I’ve been inundated by amazing campaign setting ideas in the last couple of months. As I already wrote about before, I’ve got some campaign ideas I’ve been kicking around for some time now, but my direct inspiration for a seafaring island based campaign was Chris Perkins own Iomandra setting. I also got swept up in the work put into the 13th Age setting with the Icons and just how that defines the parts of the game with which the characters interact. Watching Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade build up his Thornwatch setting followed by his own game system was inspiring. Then over at d20Monkey, Brian’s¬†Karthun setting is shaping up to be a really cool change up from the cliche and static expectations of what a tabletop game looks like. Then on top of all that, I recently discovered Blade Raiders¬†and the setting from that game is fleshed out and full of unique little nuggets that define what works and what is expected within a game.

All of these ideas and creativity are awesome to observe (and to partake in myself) and there is something inherently right in this simple act of world and story creation. There is something in us that longs to partake in the creative act and I think it is something God puts in us because it is part of who He is. In the beginning of Genesis before anything else happens in the story of God interacting with the world there is a simple description of what God was doing. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surfaces of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” It is in the context of this that God begins setting the bounds of existence and all that is comes to be. ¬†Genesis also describes how in humanity, God does something special by creating mankind in the very image of God. I think ¬†a specific part of that image is the creative impulse. We as people have a drive to take part in the same activity as the One who made us. It’s wired in. For me, building a campaign setting gives me this weird satisfaction almost like fatherhood. I think it is awesome that as gamers, we have an unexpected output of playing with the divine that I think many would miss. So am I playing god? Maybe a little bit, but I think He’d be more than cool with it.

Challenging Divinity

David Flor (aka @BrainClouds) from A Walk in the Dark made this vector art of the 4E Pantheon

The concept of holiness is something used to describe the divine in both mythology and fantasy descriptions of divinity as well as within my seminary training to be a Christian minister. When something is described as being holy, it is often associated with purity or even a radiant cleansing light. There are not shortage of divine prayers or spells in fantasy that involve casting a holy light about to heal the injured, wound the undead, or to sanctify a location to a particular god. The Christian and theological definition, holiness means something entirely else: to be set aside or “other.”¬†The Bible describes God as holy in the sense that He is entirely set apart from everything else. He is completely unique and completely different from anything else we understand or know. The word is then used to describe those things that God would set aside for his own purposes, but specifically something that is given significance or purpose in relation to its connection to the God who is other. He Who Is Because He Is. Sounds like fiction, but it is straight from the Hebrew Bible.¬†There is something inherently different about facing a god of your campaign setting as opposed to an Ancient Dragon or even a Demon Lord. The gods have a special place and having to go toe-to-toe with one of them communicates something really major. Either something is terribly wrong within your campaign setting or with your party and either way there is something sacred about the task of taking down a deity.

If you peruse the DDI compendium of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition epic tier threats, there are quite a few deities on the list. Unfortunately there are a larger number of the various pantheons that have not been statted out. At this point Bahamut, Tiamat, Lolth, Torog, Bane, Vecna, and Maglubiyet are all statted out with full combat abilities. Tiamat is the final villain of the Scales of War Adventure Path (which I’m intimately familiar with) and¬†reformatting¬†and statting out a god is no simple feat. Just look at most the options, they’ve had to be changed or fiddled with and most are almost unusable as is. Since I’ve already reworked the logistics of a combat against a god, it’s something that intrigues me as there are so many other venues of interesting encounters embodying the major deities of D&D. Each of the gods in 4th Edition have a set of domains and intentions for the world so it could be very interesting to see just how an adventuring party would approach and challenge the gods themselves. I am going to try and tackle that challenge and it may not be as combat centric as you think. Some of the gods have other goals and facing them on a level that is not combat based may be more suiting.

I wanted to let you know that I’m going to take a stab at trying to peg down these “other” movers and shakers of the D&D pantheon. Some of them could make for interesting antagonists/encounters for an Epic Tier that really needs help and some of these deities and demigods really have a butt kicking coming. So whether you want to find a challenging side story towards the end of a long campaign or just want to go hardcore God of War style and purge your pantheon, this might be a help. I mean, who doesn’t want to kick in Moradin’s door and show him who’s boss?