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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Dungeons, Dragons and, Beginnings

Since I started this blog or overall the idea for writing anything its always been in the back of my mind to write about one of my all time favorite hobbies, D&D. Just today Gabe (Mike Krahulik) from Penny Arcade posted a write-up about his ten year anniversary since he was paid to play in his first session. Reading it over it brought back my own memories of following along in his journey as I was also at the time reacquainting myself with the hobby after a long hiatus. For people who were familiar with Mike and his feelings on D&D prior to this game we got what we mostly expected from that first episodes, he seemed to treat the whole thing largely as a joke via naming his character Jim Darkmagic, of the New Hampshire Darkmagics. Tycho (Jerry Holkins) and Scott Kurtz definitely approached their characters with a somewhat more serious attitude as they already had a long history with the game at this point. The difference in the approaches I think illustrates something important about the game itself wherein a variety of personalities and viewpoints can occupy the same table without it being an unplayable mess. Real life groups of friends or colleagues share this dynamic of conflicting but also complimentary views on life and how to approach it. I’ve often told my players when they are making their characters or deciding on their party’s overall goals that while keeping everything homogeneous might be easy it can also be somewhat boring. Personality conflicts can help characters grow and change over time as they come to understand the world from different viewpoints.

At roughly 26:45 in that first episode we reach the point where Mike rolls his first ever d20 in a tabletop roleplaying game and I have to say the results of it are one of my favorite things in all of the recorded D&D I have listened to since. They’re looking for an Orc they know only as “Irontooth” which is about as classic a first quest for D&D as you can get, which is great. On the stairs as they descend their DM Chris Perkins tells them that they are stepping on small animal bones to which Mike quips, “Maybe we should check to see if any of them have iron teeth.”. As a side tip for DMs pay close attention to how Chris handles this joke, instead of laughing and just letting them continue he turns it into a moment where he can introduce Mike to one of the subtle joys of this game by asking him for a perception check. After some back and forth Mike says the following:

“So I’m actually rolling because I said I wanted to look and see if they have iron teeth?”

Everyone confirms that is whats happening and he goes through the process of learning to do the math for the first time. Scott even points out what Chris did by turning Mike’s joke into a teachable moment as well which I deeply appreciated. As the dice gods are want to do they gifted Mike with an impressive 19 on his first roll modified to 20 with his perception. Mike then continues:

“Okay so what? I’m like able to look and see…”

Chris then explains what the result of the roll it,

“You’re able to take a look at the bones and you are able to see, you don’t see an iron tooth, but you’re pretty sure that these scattered bones were kinda left here deliberately and that they have been gnawed on. That something lives down here and it basically feeds on animals and scatters their bones on these stairs. And you also notice as you’re going down the stairs that you’re stepping on a few of them and making soft crunching noises.”

Jerry chimes in with his interpretation that it seems to be an alarm system of sorts for whatever lives down below. He then wants to roll his dungeoneering skill to see if his character can glean any additional information from their surroundings. His roll reveals that most likely the creatures who live here that are clever enough to make this type of alarm system are goblins. What follows is a Mike connecting the dots from how his offhand observation and joke led to them gaining some actually helpful intel on what they faced below.

Mike, “Okay so we saw the bones..

Jerry, “You saw the bones.”

Mike, “I saw the bones and I investigated them and was able to determine that they’re some sort of alarm, they crack when I walk on them. Then you (Jerry) were able to deduce what ate them.”

While its only voice and we can’t actually see the look on Mike’s face I have to imagine that it was at this point that he became actually interested in the game before him as something more than a reason to sit around with his friends for a couple hours. It reminded me so much of my fathers first interaction with the game years ago where at each step he would ask if he could do something and I told him, “You can do whatever you want to.” Each time he heard that there was a small blip of surprise when he wasn’t limited by some mechanical barrier or me just simply saying, “No.” Like every time he reached towards some preconceived barrier it would simply fall away revealing some new horizon to explore. Watching new players realize that the only limit to what they can do is their imagination is fascinating and rewarding every single time. Sure it leads to some ridiculous things like crazy acrobatics or attempting literally impossible feats but if not in D&D then where? What Mike learned in that moment is I think what eventually hooks people into playing at all beyond that first session, the sheer possibilities. From then on everything he did he knew had consequences, good and bad, which instantly makes the things you do matter. The worst thing a game can do when one of its central pillars is freedom of choice is make you feel like the things you say and do ultimately don’t matter. From the smallest character quirk up to life and death decisions, all of it can significantly affect and inform you and your characters journey through an adventure.

Its hard to quantify exactly why D&D has exploded so incredibly in popularity over the last decade especially after its tumultuous early life with controversy. What Mike experienced in that moment though I think is an important example of at least one of the major reasons. The depth of a given experience can be as important as the overall quality or uniqueness of it. Movies and books allow us to experience other places and events through the imagination and prose of their creators. Choose Your Own Adventure books and text based games like Zork took the concept and added the depth of interactivity where beyond interpretation your experience could also be distinct from someone else. Video games have done the same thing for visual mediums by placing you the player as the central actor and narrative driving force in a story that reacts and chances to the things you do within it. The limitations of both mediums are apparently even though they are slowly being done away with. The surprising thing is that some 47 years ago a game was created which did all of the above with little more than a pencil, some paper, a handful dice and a combined 112 pages describing how to use them.

I was watching Moneyball the other day and Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane had a line after watching tape of an unlikely minor league player hitting a home run, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” I’m not a huge fan of baseball but I still love that and several other movies about the sport. In the end I can’t help but agree with Billy. Looking at the breadth of experiences, joy and creativity that D&D has provided over nearly five decades, even if you aren’t a fan or just don’t actively participate, I ask, how can you not be romantic about it?

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Star Wars: Legion Releases!

SWLegion

Just a quick update since I’ve been talking about this for probably more than a week now, promises unboxing videos, painting and in general content based around this game.

Is it still happening? YES. 

But wheeeeeeen? SOON. 

For real though, it is soon. What I discovered today was that my lighting game, in the words of the youngins, was weak af. I thought I could get away with a bright light on my craft table, the ambient light in the room and maybe an additional light stand and get a decent starting quality video.

Just stop laughing for a second and let me continue, okay? I’m learning here. Like Jack Donaghy said, “There are no bad ideas in brainstorming, Lemon.”

That being said, hoooo-boy that didn’t go as I expected. 20180322_183730

Nice, right? That’s what I thought. My camera did not agree. The low lighting among some other quibbles I wasn’t ready for caused constant autofocus issues and made showing off the contents of the box difficult to say the least. This picture is also missing the boom arm for my mic as I moved it over to my computer desk for other work, I need to find better placement for that as well since the audio wasn’t quite as solid as I wanted. I may consider doing a voiceover after the fact just to clean it up but we’ll see, I have some options before I get to that point. I don’t really want to put out things that people have to work at to enjoy or get something out of. So I’m keeping the video as a learning tool and once the light kit I found arrives and I get it set up I’ll give it another go. This means I’ll be doing a couple maybe three videos in fairly quick succession, those being;

  • A quick unboxing and rundown of what you get, what they look like.
  • Pre-assembly prep, priming before gluing anything together.
  • My first foray into painting this set in addition to being the first time I’ll attempt to paint something on camera… should be easy, right?

Suffice it to say this stuff is still coming and I’m really excited to be doing it but you’ll have to be a little more patient with me as I navigate all the weird nooks and crannies of this undertaking.

I’m considering this weekend possibly trying to get a D&D centered video up as I’ve recently come across some interesting discussions that I’d really like to weigh in on but we’ll see how much spare time I have between trying to hit all of the deadlines currently cluttering my calendar.

For now, those of you who have Legion, have a blast with it as I’m not far behind! Otherwise have a great rest of your day and I’ll be seeing you soon!

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