My Memory Is Your Memory

Mi casa, su casa. My house is your house.

A phrase meant to make someone feel welcome, to tell them that they’re free to treat your home as their own because you’re their guest and they are, based on this phrase, an amazing host. One who is there to accommodate your every need.

So what does this phrase enshrining that ever so important kindergarten lesson about sharing have to do with rolling dice with your friends a few times a month? Well, like the title states it has to do with memory and more specifically a memory aide we all came to love in school; notes. Notes are important for a number of reasons but chiefly among them is because the ability to remember everything that we experience is an exceedingly rare thing. Even if we don’t forget an event entirely it’s easy to mis-remember small details which even minimal notes can help avoid. A name, location or short description can help spark a complete recollection of an incident where just trusting your raw memory can leave you scratching your head.

Anyone who has spent time playing D&D, who doesn’t have a photographic memory, can attest to just how important notes can be to maintaining an adequate recollection of game continuity. D&D and especially long running games that may span months, years or decades even have the additional wrinkle of forcing you to remember what is effectively a second life. All the little details of your ordinary day communicated through little other than verbal roleplay and the occasional use of handouts or miniatures. Overall it’s very little to help us recall what can often be hugely expansive worlds with multi-layered and tangled stories that cover large periods of time.

A game journal of notes has been for a long time the accepted remedy. Now you might be asking why I bothered writing this up since that seems to be all there is it to it, right? Yes and no, a couple months back I came across this post on Matt Colville’s subreddit from a DM who was having trouble with a couple players who refused to keep notes of any kind. This results in them constantly asking to be re-filled in on details from previous sessions either by asking the DM, other players or in game NPCs. I want to stop for a second and make absolutely clear that I have no problem with players needing to be reminded of certain details, as a DM I also need to be reminded occasionally so I can’t very well hold that against my players. I don’t think anyone else should either, when I get to my opinions on this coming up it’s important to remember that it is a game that we play for fun so being too strident on any particular rule is a quick way to kill the vibe, man.

So, why is this a problem? Unless your players are running a character that suffers from Anterograde Amnesia there is little precedent for them constantly bothering NPCs to remind them about things that have happened. This isn’t 50 First Dates: Faerun. From a meta perspective this is effectively just interrogating your DM by proxy which means you’re just annoying me with an extra step involved. Outside of the game this is just wasteful because unless you’re teenagers with a lot of free time then the hours you squirrel away to be able to play these games with your friends are valuable. Scheduling and starting on time is already a challenge without wasting thirty minutes at the top of every session revisiting what you’ve already done. This is over and above the normal session recap because inevitably these questions will continue to crop up all through the game. In any productivity analysis one of the biggest killers is the phrase, “It’ll just take a minute…” which may be true but by the time you finish doing all the things that only take a minute three hours have passed and your day is wasted. A four hour session can very quickly become little more than two to two and a half hours of actual play if you’re not careful.

If a player can’t be bothered to take notes because they themselves don’t care then it can help to remind them that they are not the only ones affected by the lack of note taking. D&D is often referred to as a game of Co-Operative Storytelling which is absolutely is but that also means that at some point or another everyone present must participate. Hard to do that effectively if you can’t remember what has happened previously.

Personally in my view of it, like some people in that thread, is that your notes are your memory in the game with some leeway because of the reality that things will be missed and not because of malice or laziness. In my home game we’ve recorded every session of it for our own amusement and I have stated in the past that I’d prefer that my players not use the recordings in order to take notes after the fact. My main reason for this is that using them effectively grants the characters a photographic memory which while convenient for them it sort of removes the ability to forget naturally. Much like missing a hint about a trap, failing a perception check the act of honestly forgetting something can lead to good storytelling opportunities. As a DM I don’t do this out of malice or to punish my players but because it serves as a natural possibility in this world that I have designed for them to play around in. I want them to have the chance to be surprised by something that happened long ago and then resurfaces. If it doesn’t happen that’s fine too but there should always be the possibility which is hard when your players can never forget. It’s also important to remember that the outcome of this is not always bad, that person you did something nice for so long ago? They might show up in your time of need to repay that debt. It can also provide players with the incredible feeling of a “Lightbulb” moment when they happen to remember something no one else did in a moment when they’re stuck for a plan.

One possible solution to this problem I saw suggested was making players roll for the requested information to see if they could recall the details. Sadly while this mechanizes the out of game problem it leaves the overall issue alive and well. Whether you are having this discussion in or out of character it’s still eating up time and bogging down the game, even worse you’re adding time to it by including a series of dice rolls. I understand why some DMs would choose this route as it saves them from having to tell a player “No” and instead shifts the blame for their lack of memory to the dice. It’s a nice way to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation but the other players at the table are still stuck sitting there waiting to move on.

The most consistent piece of advice I, or anyone else, can give to DMs and players is that communication is paramount above all else if you want to maintain a healthy, long term game. In the spirit of that if you ever have this problem at your table be sure to sit down and discuss solutions, I’ll be damned if there has ever been an issue that some fix couldn’t be devised, this is no exception.

If you’re a player who hates taking notes then its time to see if there is someone else at your table who doesn’t. For instance while it may not perfectly represent the characters memory I wouldn’t have a problem with one player using another player’s general notes for a session. In any group you can probably find one person who loves or is at least ambivalent about note taking so let the group use those if they want. Optimally the group will always be together anyways and will generally share most information they get between everyone. It may require a little editing to remove personal details, observations or otherwise before being passed out but if they’re being taken digitally that should be a minimal amount of work. I’m sure there are also players out there who have trouble taking notes while simultaneously assimilating what else is happening at the table and it can be frustrating to feel like you’re missing things while trying to ensure that you don’t forget an important detail. Nothing wrong with being sensitive to players who want to be attentive in the moment instead of focusing on keeping notes.

I’ll keep saying it because it will always be relevant but no solution will work 100% of the time for every table so be open to new ideas even if they run contrary to your original feelings on the matter. Even writing this I find myself reconsidering my stance on my players not using our recordings to supplement their notes. I don’t think I’ll change my stance on it, yet, but it certainly reinforces the fact that opinions and rulings can always change in the face of new evidence.

The pop quiz will be on Friday, I hope your notes are complete.

Until then, happy gaming!

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The Friday Wrap Party

Happy Friday folks! Let’s do a little rundown shall we?

There seems to be a new consensus about the No Man’s Sky: Next update that say it finally delivers the game that was promised two years ago. Watching the trailer I can’t say that much looks very different to me except for the very conspicuous presence of players together on the same planet with the ability to see one another. I know it’s a little disingenuous because of the overall tech involved in the game but, hooray! Welcome to gaming… 20 years ago? Even more actually but twenty is a nice round number that sounds strong when you place some emphasis on it. 20. See?

The trailer still starts off by reiterating that everything in the game is created with procedural tech, which is cool, but overall has never really managed to be a good selling point. It sounds really nice and like it will do wonders for any game that uses it but almost universally it ends up being a disappointment instead of a standout feature. I do think that procedural systems will be absolutely integral as games continue to grow and push boundaries but for right now its just not ready to be the face of a game. Outside of, I think, the underwater stuff, multiplayer and, freighter ships it looks a lot like a redux of their E3 trailer from so long ago.

To be up front, at the top of the third paragraph, I haven’t played No Man’s Sky and I don’t think I plan to so anything said here is strictly an outsiders opinion. I don’t think anything I have to say is particularly controversial or something that requires me to have actually played the game but certainly let me know if it is, or does, or did. Tense is hard. Anyways, I find myself in a weird situation with regards to the comments I made in previous posts, like last Friday, about companies like Ubisoft sticking with their games after rocky releases. Yet reading about how far No Man’s Sky has come I don’t feel the same level of forgiveness for Hello Games and even after ruminating on it for a week I’m not exactly sure why. The best guess I have is that I absolutely could not stand the way they handled the backlash to their release “issues”. I put that in sarcasm quotes because one of the biggest knocks was the shocking realization that multiplayer was not a thing in any sense of the word. Something that is far worse than a bug or mechanical failure but an outright misrepresentation of their end product coming to light. The reaction to these issues started with Sean Murray exclaiming how “Amazing” the community was for achieving the purported nigh impossible task due to the sheer size of the game within a week of release. Despite calls for clarification on why the players couldn’t see each other or why the functionality was missing Hello Games essentially shut down on the PR front and retreated to their offices to work on the game. An admirable goal all things considered but with little or no attempt to take responsibility for the state of the game at release or address statements made prior to release. Leaving fans and gaming media to debate among themselves and dissect interviews given about whether or not certain features had actually been promised.

For my money if your fans are even engaged in that debate then you as the developer have done something wrong, either by intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting your product or outright lying about what you could deliver. None of those options are good and barring a complete group psychosis on the part of your fans and the media they probably didn’t hallucinate those expectations. All said and done I’m happy that the fans of the game finally have a mostly complete product that they can play and enjoy as they more than deserve it for sticking with them this long. I do hope that Hello Games and Sean Murray specifically learned some lessons with No Man’s Sky which will result in their next game being one that I will want to buy. I love this genre of game and desperately wanted to want to play this one right up until the shit hit the fan and that is coming from someone who was assuming the game wouldn’t deliver what was promised up front.

Now, onwards!

In the wake of it’s absolutely crushing success the game, God of War 4 is getting it’s very own novelization written by none other than… the game directors father! On the level of pure synergy this is just so cool however if he doesn’t dedicate the book to some version of “Boy” a great opportunity will have been missed. I haven’t played the game yet but I look forward to checking this out in hopes that they’ll take this opportunity to expand even further on the lore behind Kratos in this new setting. Instead of just regurgitating a step by step re-telling of what the player experienced in their playthrough.

In the wake of still getting my ass handed to me by likes of Hollow Knight and Dead Cells I don’t think I really need a new 2-D platformer to play but if I did it might look something like Salt and Sanctuary. There is just something truly endearing about that paper doll style animation that I really like, even when the overall aesthetic of the game oozes nightmare fuel.

I am a huge, huge fan of Magic: The Gathering and by default this means that Richard Garfield is high up on my People-I-Love list which means that his latest game called Keyforge: Call of the Archons piques my interest. The only problem is that for every game released which isn’t Magic: The Gathering I never get past the stage of having my interest piqued. It’s not that these games don’t look good or aren’t good in practice it’s just that they all inevitably end up being stacked against objectively the best TCG to ever exist. I know the argument people will make is that I must judge each game on it’s own merits but it’s hard to not use games I already like as a reference point. Keyforge is touted in it’s description as–

From the imagination of legendary game designer Richard Garfield comes a game unlike anything the world has ever seen—a game where every deck is as unique as the person who wields it and no two battles will ever be the same.

Unfortunately MTG already does these things and because of it’s long history it almost inevitably does them better than anyone else. The sheer longevity of the game makes it infinitely more varied and unique than anything new both in builds and matchups.

In fact, in just the first set of KeyForge, Call of the Archons, there are more than 104,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible decks!

That is a huuuuuuge number and something really impressive to put on your box except just take a moment to google how many possible MTG deck combinations there are and you get results like this. I’m far and away the worst choice of someone to come to if you need math equations interpreted but I think the argument ends with MTG’s number is probably more ridiculous.

At any rate, all of this is in service of me saying that at some point I should really buckle down and give one of these new TCG’s a try because chances are there are some new and fun mechanics out there that I would enjoy. This includes the upcoming card game from Valve called Artifact because it is also a game Richard Garfield collaborated on and because I’m an inveterate Valve lover in spite of my attempts to be objective. I haven’t played DOTA 2 in quite a while but the lore and art seem to me to be prime candidates for the beginnings of a TCG, digital or otherwise.

What cool things have you seen recently and think I should also see? Leave a comment!

Apologies for this wrap up being a bit rambly but I’ll cut it off there and wish everyone a nice, relaxing weekend filled to the brim with your favorite activities and I will see you next week!

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Whats In A Name?

Whether it’s in fiction, marketing, D&D or those less important things like children the name you give something can be very important. A name is one of the first impressions that people get in many circumstances and whether you chalk it up to amazing coincidences or not there could be some important consequences to those names.

Who knew that the real problem with your kids was that you didn’t name them “Musician”, “First Baseman” or, “Responsible”? Ah well, Dave and Jennifer will have to make do with what they got.

I’ve thought often about one of my weird creative quirks which is that I can take anywhere from five minutes to several weeks in order to name anything ranging from streets all the way up to entire worlds. Its imperative to me that a name fit and feel right which is fantastic when you’re trying to explain your process to someone who was nice enough to ask. Waiting until something feels right in a creative sense is like telling someone to complete a puzzle while wearing a blindfold.

“I dunno, it’ll just feel right when you get it.”

I’d tell me to go fuck myself at that point or at least glare pointedly. Unfortunately a lot of the time its kind of the truth at least, I think, for the majority of us. I have heard people who can name things creatively and uniquely straight off the dome and its fascinating every single time. I want nothing more than to take a peek inside their brain so I can witness the process that formed their answer, not because it would reveal any secrets but because like watching an episode of “How It’s Made” I just want to see the machinery in motion. I remember vividly an episode of the Penny Arcade Podcast where Mike asked Jerry to come up with a cool alien insect name on the spot and without hesitation he spouted the name “Broodax” (Skip to ~28:30) which ended up spawning one of their all time funniest comics.

So how is it done?

I’ll tell you this much straight up, I don’t actually know. 

I can already hear the disgusted scoffs wondering why I even bothered to write this, which is fair, but that answer was not to say that I don’t at least have a couple basic ideas which I would love to share. The other thing I wanted to briefly say is why I think its important to write about things that I may not have definitive answers for, to let others who may struggle know that its not unusual to get stuck. Whats more is that its not bad to get hung up on things you think are important because you want them to be good, memorable or evoke a certain feel. The fact that we care enough to get stuck trying to really nail some particular aspect should not be a reason for frustration but rather an opportunity for some introspection. If for no other reason than because we’re passionate about it. We may not be able to adequately enunciate why that is but it might be worth exploring.

Not too long ago I was faced with something like this myself when my friend Nate, who plays in my D&D campaign, offhandedly told me following a description of a centaur’s hair-do, “You’re like the George R.R. Martin of hair.”. I didn’t dwell on the comment much in the moment but ever since then whenever I’m writing up a description I have to laugh because that seems to be the one characteristic I expound on the most.

Why? Even if I wanted to spend time in this article explaining it I honestly couldn’t if I tried. It’s not something I do on purpose but of all a characters mundane physical details I apparently like describing their hair. I don’t put in any particular effort or extra time to do it, it just sort of… happens. If you find something like that by accident or someone points it out to you, explore it. Embrace it and have fun with it, whatever it might be.

At any rate, back to the subject at hand… which was—Ah, right,

It may be because you’re a perfectionist or simply so that you can avoid situations like this one that Matt Mercer found himself in on Ep 44 of their Tal’Dorei campaign. Or Wil Wheaton’s somewhat legendary meltdown (~00:45) and ensuing running joke over Mike instantly ruining all of the work he put in to naming his character. Effort he hope would save him from a stupid nickname but only resulted in being called “Al” fifty seconds into his first session.

Either way what this is all meant to say is the time spent on finding the right name for whatever it is you’re doing is a worthwhile endeavor and something that I think most creators struggle with from time to time. I cant even imagine the stress you’d have to go through naming a newly discovered species of something, I mean that thing is real and that name will exist forever, at least for me the things I name generally stay confined to my Google Drive, a notebook or my kitchen table and a group of inebriated players.

So if we’re going to put in the effort to make good names then what are some tips about how to do that?

Read. I don’t mean that to sound like the whole “It’ll feel right” thing we discussed earlier but it really is true, read and read a lot. Part of creating regardless of your field is understanding what else already exists in the space within which you work. If you’re lucky enough to have such a unique idea that you pioneer an entirely new area then this shouldn’t really apply to you, you get to set all the rules going forward. For the rest of us it helps to see examples, patterns and discover naming conventions that we like. For instance I went through a period of my creative life where I really, really like having apostrophes in the middle of all my names. No joke, first name, last name, both, single or multiple apostrophes, it didn’t matter, I liked the way it looked but I wasn’t actually concerned with how it would sound. A lot of this came from reading and not really saying the words out loud to myself, it was a visual exercise that didn’t extend much beyond that.

Now, its important to note that you’re not looking to simply take the things you like and use those or imitate them as closely as possible with the stuff you create but it can provide helpful starting boundaries for you to push beyond. The easiest way to explore into new territory is by taking a look at what has been discovered already. By no means do you have to to go looking for new territory to play around in as the styles, tropes and, conventions that have already been discovered are perfectly valid frameworks to use.

History. Read some history, especially cultural history and the important figures therein as well as geographical information to see how they named their cities and landmarks. Were they named for people, events, landscape or some myth born from the area? These can help you build your own lore and identify when a name or style feels right for what you’re designing. If you want to really get into it you can look into how naming conventions changed as populations began moving and mixing more, as well as how it lead to the consolidation and shortening of surnames.

Random Generators. I know it can feel a little like cheating to use these and I’m not saying you should use them as your own original ideas but they can certainly be a good resource when you’re stuck and need something to get the wheels turning again. Sometimes you get stuck on the rails of an idea and before you know it you finally disengage in the middle of nowhere with zero idea how to get back. Use these to get the idea train back on track. The same goes for rolling on dice tables for name generation. I rarely if ever use the actual result from it but it can sometimes spur an idea for a name I really do like. As much as we all love Bob the NPC there are only so many times you can get away with it and once you introduce Bobbina with a straight face its time to up your game.

Most importantly beyond all the reference materials and tools to help inspire you the biggest thing to remember is that you connect with it. That it feels right for your intention and evokes the feeling that you had in mind. It may sound funny to others or may not have the intended effect but like in every other endeavor a 100% success rate is little more than wishful thinking. It’s not an argument to keep you from aiming high but don’t be discouraged if you fall a bit short, everyone does now and then, it’s part of how we learn to improve.

Have fun with both your successes and failures, take inspiration from the discussion the names prompt and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when something you come up with is unintentionally funny. Mark my words, it will happen.

If all else fails, the group doesn’t really have to survive their next encounter, do they?

As I said at the beginning for me this is a difficult process to put into words but what about you? What tips and tricks do you use to fill up your maps and lists of characters with interesting names?

Until next time, happy rolling!

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