Tag Archives: games

On the Occasion of My 1st D&D Game

On a writing retreat in the Misty Mountains, I mean the Cloudlands, I mean the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I had an opportunity to play my first game of D&D.

Oh, the EXCITEMENT this incited in my Facebook Flist! I haven’t gotten so many approving like-emoticons since getting married!

Many people asked me, “What took you so long?”

My answers varied from, “My native reluctance,” to “An instinctive wide-eyed wariness of anything new,” to “Because I pretty much SCARPER every time someone MENTIONS RPGs!”

I’m not necessarily proud of any of those answers; I feel a bit cagey about them, but also honest.

Other people asked me, “What did you like best about D&D?”

My answer? “The limitations.”

Several friends invited me to expand on this, so I’ve been thinking about it.

I find it really interesting that people think I’d be a “natural” at D&D because I’m an actor with improv training, and a writer with storytelling training. The reality was that those aspects of D&D were the least interesting to me as a player, partially because D&D, mechanically, seemed to be more about decision-making through dice and combat protocol through dice.

There I was, with a heap of dice in front of me I didn’t understand, and a character sheet (pre-made, as this was a one-off game) that had so much information on it it was hard to absorb it all, and suddenly the game had started. It was a simple storyline, and our characters were fairly stock. Still, I could tell there was a lot of room to explore within those cut-outs–sort of like Commedia dell’arte, eh?

But even though I had the dice, and a heap of information at hand, I did not know how to use them, or what it all meant. It was a learn-as-I-go sort of situation.

A game, to me, is most enjoyable when I understand the limits–or maybe I should say “the structure.” In my brain, there is a kind of pleasurable click, as when I learn a new formal poetry structure. Until I understood about stresses and syllables and rhymes and lines, a sonnet was just sort of a neat little maybe kind of boring and occasionally incomprehensible slag pile of words. A sonnet became much more interesting, however, as I grew older and started studying the ARCHITECTURE of it, word by word, line by line.

(Sort of like, come to think of it, when a building becomes much more than just an antiquated heap of bricks belonging to a political celebrity when you think, “Gosh, to build Monticello, Jefferson first had dozens of enslaved people level a frikkin mountaintop and then make the bricks of his house OUT OF THAT DIRT.” That house becomes more interesting, certainly–and more awful, more endowed, more worthy of study, of a lasting emotional connection–which is as much rage as it is awe. . . Can you tell I was just in Virginia?)

Right, back to games.

So, as a first time player, thrown into a game that was pretty short by D&D standards (2-4 hours?) but long by my standards (games longer than 40 minutes with no visible count-down mechanic–as in Mysterium or Fiasco, where you are watching the game end even as you play it–make me, still kind of n00b to games, a trifle anxious), the most interesting things about D&D for me were not, in fact, the improv or the storytelling.

With the first, I was not familiar enough with the game, or comfortable enough in my character, to improv with ease. Individual turns were short, my understanding of the decision-making process still fairly muddled. With the second, plot-wise, the storytelling was mostly in the hands of the Dungeon Master–and those of the players who really knew how to use their dice. I contributed some, but not enough to be wholly invested in the outcome of the story.

What I did enjoy:

  1. Watching other people–the expert players–sink their teeth into the game. The way they consulted their dice verged on the oracular, and they seemed to take such a distinctive, unholy glee is rattling the bones and casting them down. Very sensual!
  2. Learning on my feet: that each individual die has its own distinct function and meaning; that the Dungeon Master has all kinds of secret stats on NPCs that effected game-play in unpredictable ways; that I could use what I found on my character sheet to influence my decisions–that the function of the sheet was to both impose limits on improvisation and to act as prompts for improvisation.

In this way, I actually had fewer decisions to make than I thought, but could make more powerful, specific decisions using the character sheet. But I had to figure all of that out as I went. Because I was learning the game, it was different than really playing it. My enjoyment came more from learning than from playing.

People have asked me if I will play D&D again, and have offered many RPG alternatives to D&D as well.

They are very excited for me–which I find endearing, but I also feel guilty because I can’t quite match that excitement yet. It’s all still too new for me, and new things make me more wary than excited. I will try to be different, and better, and change my attitude, but that’s more of a life-goal, so . . . WE’RE WORKING ON IT.

I think I would be willing to do another D&D campaign–albeit a short one. I’d like to go in a bit more prepared. Now I know, for example, that D&D is a combat-heavy game, and the mechanics are dice and stats. I don’t know that, on the whole, I’m really very interested in episodic combat quest games. I know that I don’t have any desire to meet for a long-running game, but I would at this point be willing to devote an entire afternoon/evening to a single long game, just to say I’ve done it.

And yes, I’d be willing to play other RPGs, but it’s not because I fell instantly in love with the idea of them.

Again–none of my actual enjoyment came from the highly trained (and maybe a bit stuck up) acting and writing parts of me, but from the audience and student parts of me, which are more generous and interested in trying new things as a rule.

Perhaps the other stuff will come in time.

But, actually, what I think I’m finding–and this may not prove ultimately true, as I try to remain flexible and be open to surprises–is that, in the realm of games, my preference is for short, humorous, medium-strategy party games.

I like a 40 minute game that’s fast and elegantly designed. I like card games with interesting art and intricate lay-out. The cards, you see, are the poetic limitation, but within that limitation, a game can be infinite. I like a game that’s easy the first time, but gets more complicated the longer you play it. I like tile games, and decoding games, and I really, really like collaborative games.

Theatrical impov, voice acting, storytelling? Not so much.

See, those are my JOBS. AND I LOVE MY JOBS. But I pretty much give everything I have to them.When I go to games, I’m not really interested in WORKING. I want to play. And that might mean, in the end, that I just like a different kind of game than an RPG.


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It’s a Ludic Kind of Love: On Games, Dates, Playtimes, and Poems

9781495607394I’ll tell you something about my beloved, if you like.

First of all, he wrote this book. But that’s not what this blog is about; he wrote that book WELL before we ever met, so I had nothing to do with it. (Although he did read it aloud to me, story by story, and that was very fine. I shall blog more on THAT, later. My short review is: “Wholly Irreverent Holy Beauty.” Which requires some unpacking, I think. Story by story.)

This blog is about games.

Because if there’s one thing Carlos Hernandez (AKA “Doctor Doctorpants, Professional Professor”) is about, it’s games. (Except he’s about other things too, like all of us, “containing multitudes.” Even his Twitter handle speaks to his tripartite vocation: @writeteachplay!) And since he writes and designs games, among all the other AMAZING STUFF he does, he likes to play them too.

Now, I… I am not a gamer. I have gamer friends. I have occasionally sat down (twice, actually) with buddies at a table (once at a coffee table, the other time, we all just sprawled on big fat embroidered cushions on the floor) to play an RPG. I used to play, like, “Clue” and “Yahtzee” as a kid. As an adult, I don’t know. Do I still even remember the rules to “Go Fish”?

That said, the gentleman, he likes games.

And during his semester, he gets very busy. He wakes up between 1 AM and 4 AM to grade and plan class. He’s editing pedagogical periodicals, he’s fine-combing the ARCS of his forthcoming collection, he is sending me FABULOUS TEXTS. So. He does not get to play them very often.

PREVIEW_SCREENSHOT4_463278_1437744645So then I thought, “Why don’t we have a little Sunday afternoon DATE, with some PIZZA, and I could learn a bit about GAMES, and he could play something FUN, and it’ll sort of be like being a kid again, when my brothers all played ‘Frogger’ on ATARI and’Donkey Kong’ on some way-early-version of NINTENDO, and it was all super interesting??!!”

We’d intended that he play Fallout 4, because that’s what EVERYONE and their MAMA is talkin’ about on the Facebooks. But in the end, on GAME DATE DAY, we ended up playing two other games entirely.

We played “N++” and a thing called “Journey.” The first deals with ninjas solving puzzles and getting blown up a lot. And the second is, just… Almost indescribable.

Indescribably beautiful. The strange serenity of isolation, unexpected friendships communicated solely through sound not words, the ebullience and joy of an infinite horizon, ruinous depths and impossible heights, and gods who bend down to show you your life as written on the wall.

I say “we” played because, even though I didn’t actually PICK UP the controller, I was actively involved in WATCHING.

journey_by_kuro_mai-d5d32aqWatching is a TOTALLY plugged-in experience when one’s beloved ninja-thief keeps getting BLOWN TO SMITHEREENS in puzzle mazes (N++), or is a gorgeous, genderless, childlike desert-spirit skidding along sand dunes and riding updrafts of air with a scarf billowing behind it in the wind, all illuminated in runes, and there are pretty colors and interesting music, and, and, and…

It utterly excites my brain. It makes me want to play. I was not ready that day; I’m shy of new things. But I’ve been thinking about playing ever since.

All of which to say, I had the most moving, sometimes terrifying, sometimes oddly peaceful, certainly captivating afternoon, all the while engaged in a medium I don’t usually bother to give the time of day to.

I started thinking about things I’ve never had to think about! What makes a game different than a story? Different than film? What is happening in the brain when your own personal agency meets an alien atmosphere created by unknown collaborators; when you must abide by rules in a win/lose situation and you must learn those rules as you play; when you suspend disbelief and engage in pretend like you’re a child again, but you problem-solve like an adult; when death is so ubiquitous and entertaining it loses all meaning; or when death becomes, through repetition, a luminous and transcendent mystery once again?

Gosh, it was cool.

Hernandez and I write poems and songs to each other when we have time. We try to make time as best we can in these busy days.

That week, I asked for poems about his game experience on our date day, and he sent me these.

I treasure them. He gave me permission to share them with you.

Actually, Vicariously
by Carlos Hernandez

I kept dying. I’d land
On a mine and explode and
My head would bounce off the black pixel walls
In entertaining ways: even in death, physics is fascinating. Or
I’d miss a jump and the height of the fall
Would cause the sticks of my body
To fly in six different directions,
Artistic blood blooming to emphasize the failure.
Ha ha ha, I said: dead again.
Once more, then; that goal isn’t going
To reach itself. A running start,
X to jump, finesse the landing with
The joystick. Or not. Or dead again
And try again and so on.

I’ve learned not to take my death so hard. It’s just feedback
From a world that is, by design,
Forgiving of fatality. Try again
And die again until I don’t and learn
And move on to level two. But you:
Barefoot, dressed in morning light
And a diaphanous scarf that from the side of my eye
Were indistinguishable from one another,
Curled on the couch and watching with a cat’s intensity
My leaps and launches and experimental
Forays into unanticipatable reactions with
Robot enemies and springboards and homing missiles and
That tracking laser that was
Particularly frustrating, particularly good
At killing me–Love, you love me,
And even in this life of two dimensions,
When failure simply means reset and
Take another try, you bit your Venus’s mound
And clenched your whole body like a flexing bicep
And yelled when I died and died and
Only after remembered it was a game, so even
In this hypothetical space of play
Your love arrived and took too hard–thank you for taking too hard–
the hyperbolic suffering that’s only there in games
to make winning that much sweeter.

By Carlos Hernandez

My voice is a flute.
I want to tell my friend
That our insectival pointed legs
Can surf the dunes, and
It is such joy to soar over the dunes,
But the breathy tones that I generate,
Though pentatonically incapable of dissonance,
Could mean anything.
I long to be understood; it is
So joyful to surf the dunes.

The gods wear robes of gold and white,
Mostly white. The masks they wear
Have beaks that never open.
They are so large. They radiate a casual terribleness
That is wholly belied by the way
The circles of their eyes blink to serene lines.
I summon a god–the same god as before?–and the god
Reveals a fresco of my past and of my future.
We stand for a moment in wordless audience
With one another before the vision
Vanishes and I move on to other altars
From which I may summon more gods.

I am alone mostly.
The landscape is mostly dunes
Convinced of their own featurelessness.
There are markers that may be graves.
My life began as a falling star;
Was is wise to leave the sky and come to this place
Where loneliness is a kind of reverence?

I have traveled through aqueous air,
Flown on the backs of carpet kites as playful
As fairies or hounds, been attacked by the terrible
Mechanical dragon with the red cyclopic eye that shines
A light that hunts me, seen the scarf that is my life,
That holds the words of power, shrink to almost
Nothing. Now, as I seek the mountain, snow. Deep, slow,
Enervating. The globe of life contracts around me.
My robe and I ice together.
I freeze to death like a cricket in winter.

Again a star!

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