Why I judge for the RPGA (and why you should too)

Starting at 8 am on Thursday, I had just 76 hours to give to GenCon. Due to scheduling constraints, my husband and I had to leave Indianapolis by noon on Sunday. In this time, I had to sleep, eat, play games, hang with friends, and network. As it was, I had so little time to do everything I wanted to do, and yet I gave 10 of those precious hours to the RPGA. Some of my friends have asked me why and I'd like to answer their questions here.

Giving Back

I've received numerous kindnesses from members of the D&D community, especially from RPGA members. I met Mark ( @AsmodeusLore ) at PAX East and he encouraged me to ask Wil Wheaton and Scott Kurtz for their autographs and shared in my excitement when they signed my DMG. He also encouraged me to run some games that weekend, particularly the DM Challenge. And he was kind enough to put my husband and I up for a night during our great GenCon road trip.

Marcel ( @Mudbunny74 ) and Dustin ( @WolfStar76 ) are both my go-to community guys whenever I have a question about online D&D resources. Both have encouraged me to become more active in the community and in the RPGA. Dustin is the person who threw me to the delves when my learn to play group finished early, giving me the confidence I needed to give it a shot.

These are just three of the people who've nudged me to give public play a try. And I know that by participating and running games, I'm paying forward that kindness to others. I'm reminded each time I run that not everyone has a home group, at least not one that will play 4th edition. During PAX East, I heard a number of people waiting in line express that this was their only chance to play for the foreseeable future. Giving a little over 10% of my time to make that happen doesn't seem like that much of a sacrifice to me.

Leveling My Game

War often changes the cultures of those involved in interesting ways. Back when travel was difficult and information scarce, war provided one of the few opportunities for large-scale cultural exchanges. The crusaders brought back technologies and spices from the Middle East just as G.I.s returned with a love of tiki drinks and pizza.

Fortunately, war is not the only mechanism for such exchanges. While many of us play with just one or two home groups at a time, the running and playing games with the RPGA gives us the opportunity to play with many different people in a short time span. Only after experiencing a number of different players, from different backgrounds, is it possible to grok what the different play styles mean and how they influence game play.

Besides, I love analyzing how other people play or run games and see what ideas I can steal from them. And I love it when someone tells me that they are going to steal an idea from me. While the Internet is a great forum for information exchange, nothing can replace seeing it in person, being able to interact with it and have a conversation right there about it.

Additional Benefits

The RPGA is a real community and they are very welcoming of those willing to spread the love of the game. In addition to these highly personal perks, tangible rewards are often given as well, everything from books to passes to hotel rooms.

So, that's why I give time to the RPGA even during my first GenCon. I hope you'll consider volunteering as well.

Gender Bending

I mentioned on Twitter today that when I first started playing, I almost went with a male character instead of a female one. Someone replied that he knows a woman who refuses to play anything but a male character. This preference confuses him a bit and he asked the reasons why I had the same initial preference. 140 characters are a bit too few to explain my reasons completely (particularly when I'm in the middle of a game) so I wanted to explain a bit more here. I want to warn my readers in advance though, this isn't a pleasant topic and I'm going to show a bit of my soul here. I can't tell you that any other woman has these same reasons; I can only attempt to explain myself.

Gender Roles

My parents raised my brother and I in about as gender neutral of an environment as one can get. I got matchbox cars as well as dolls as presents and the only reason they were concerned about me playing sports was due to my heart condition. My brother and I had the same chores and I often was my dad's helper on construction projects.

Most of my town, however, didn't show the same outlook. I was told my love of sports was a phase that I would soon outgrow. When I wanted to play basketball against the wishes of the boys in my class, I was offered the position of cheerleader. When I brought out the classroom ball, the boys attempted to take it away from me and dragged me across the playground. I was told that as a girl I should have known better and just let them have it.

All of this resulted in me hiding my gender for much of my youth. Since only boys were allowed to do the things I loved, I took on the look of a boy. I had my mother cut my hair as short as she could bear it and wore boys clothes. Of course, this confused many adults and some of my classmates, but to me it made perfect sense. Of course, this was in elementary and middle school. By the time I hit high school, I had convinced enough people through sheer force of will that I didn't have to do this anymore and could just be myself.

Beyond this highly-personal learned behavior, when I play, I don't want to feel like the girl of the group. I don't want the male players or characters to feel like they need to heal the girl over anyone else or to protect her from the evils of the world. Many guys are more than willing to treat me as an equal, but when I'm in a group of people I don't know, I like the neutrality of playing a male character.

Power Dynamics

No easy way exists to discuss this topic. For a subset of players, and I think it's actually a really small minority, playing a fantasy game like D&D brings out their dark side. I'm well acquainted with how dark things can get, although I haven't had it happen to me at the table.

When I was in middle school, honors students were given passes that allowed them to go outside early during lunch and study hall, without adult supervision. I loved this as it gave me an opportunity to play sports. However, boys that age aren't always nice, and for months I had to undergo a number of tortures, everything from pretty detailed descriptions of what some of the boys wanted to do to my mother to threats, by some of them, that they were going to rape me in the woods by the school.

One day they finally broke down my will and my cousin could see I was upset during class. After I told him what was going on, he convinced me to tell the principal. So here I am, in 7th or 8th grade explaining to my male principal the bullying I was undergoing. After he heard my story, he told me that the only way he could do anything was if I repeated my allegations in front of my tormentor. Except it wasn't really in front, he sat the boy next to me. The end result was the boy got two days of in-school suspension and, while the overt sexual tone decreased, the bullying got worse.

Now, I know there are many wonderful men who would never do anything like this. And I have enough wisdom now to know that this was more about power than sex. But I always have that fear when I meet a new group of guys. So, at least in my mind, playing a male character is a protection mechanism against this darker part of society. It may not be fair and it might not even work, but it is what it is.

So those are the two main reasons why I might prefer playing male characters to female ones and, to a large degree, why gender issues are so important to me.

Blogs I Love: Robert J. Schwalb

I can't believe the amount of time that has elapsed since I last wrote one of these. However, I'm ecstatic about breaking this drought by talking about Robert Schwalb's blog.

From the start of my D&D "career", I've heard wonderful things about this man. I followed with glee the tweets and blog posts of those who were lucky enough to meet him. He's a prolific writer and while I try to read everything he writes, I still have a lot of catching up to do. And his blog is making this even more difficult. Recently I've felt like I should take down my little shingle and just direct people to his posts because they are that good.

Not only are his posts full of good advice, he lets his own personality shine through. He talks about his fears, his gratitude, his weaknesses, his industry and his preferences. Whenever I see that he has a new post up, I feel compelled to stop what I'm doing and read it. His productivity is hurting mine.

Recent Posts

I hope you give his site a try and enjoy it as much as I have!

Sarah Facts

For much of college, I lived in a coed fraternity. As it is, parents are often weirded out by this and, well, possibly with good reason. So to help ensure that our friends didn't reveal interesting tidbits during the inevitable family or friend visit, we often would circulate what we called "facts." These were often a list of facts or activities that an idealized version of ourselves would do. For instance:

Tracy Facts
* Tracy brushes her teeth and flosses in the morning, at night and after every meal.
* Tracy _never_ wears pajamas to class. In fact, she always wears freshly pressed khakis and a button down shirt.
* Tracy never plays pong and is always asleep by midnight at the latest.

Well, you get the idea. The nice thing about these facts is that they help illustrate not only what is important to the person but also to those around her. They describe the characters we often play to our family, particularly at that age.

In case you are interested, here are some Sarah facts:

* Sarah has never had a crush on a dwarf.
* Sarah never coup-de-graced anyone.
* Sarah always bathes alone, fully clothed.
* Sarah is not a warlock.
* Sarah writes letters to her family every night. It's just that the postal service around here sucks.

I'm thinking of creating a list of 10 facts about my next character. It should be interesting to say the least. What would your character's "facts" look like?

Good, Bad, or Indifferent

I'll admit it upfront, I'm so incredibly happy that alignment by and large went away in 4th edition D&D and I tend to fight anyone who wants to bring it back. Well, if they want to bring it back for their group, that's cool, but I'll still cry a little on the inside.

I blame it on my misspent youth. In college, I was a government major, specializing in law and philosophy. I spent years studying various governmental systems, the philosophies behind them and how they shape the societies they govern. Add to that background my senior seminar, focused on democratic institutions in a pluralistic society, and you might forgive me for having a hard time with the good versus evil alignment in many role playing games.

In the end, I keep asking myself what is good and what is evil. I know what good and evil are to me and I have some examples I consider to be universal, but I know in the course of our human history, the lines have shifted often. For instance, today we have a hard time putting someone to death for stealing seed corn. Given modern transportation infrastructure, replacement seed can be obtained and we have an abundance of it, at least in the US and other industrialized nations. However, back when such a theft was punishable by death, stealing seed corn meant that while your stomach might be full for an evening or so, the whole town would starve that winter.

Besides, many times the most evil acts are committed by those who think they are doing what is right. The Spartans thought they were doing the right thing by refusing to rear the deformed or weak. The Church thought it was doing God's work by killing the heretics and forcing the conversion of millions of people. But I'm not sure how many players would feel comfortable calling these characters or actions good today.

But something should take the place of alignments. I'm far from the only person to advocate the use of personality traits and a character's personal moral code rather than alignment. By expanding beyond a simple one or two word summary of a character's world outlook and motivations, everyone at the table gains a better understanding of the character. And if these traits are discussed with the group as a whole, it's much easier to have a party of mixed values without having it devolve into a series of arguments.

Actually, this type of character building is what appeals to me in the FATE system. In games built from those rules, characters have aspects, a word or phrase that describes them, that can be used to gain bonuses in play through the use of fate points. From my understanding, if the player wants to do something and it's in line with one of the character's aspects, she can spend a fate point to try to make sure it happens.

Let's say that my character considers herself a real charmer. She tries to talk her way past a guard and, well, I don't roll well enough. But she really wants to get past them. If I have a fate point, I can tell my game master that I want to try to use the charming aspect of my character to help me get past the guards. We would then resolve the action, allowing me to reroll or add 2 to a roll result.

What's nice about the system is that there is both a limit to the number of fate points and a way to replenish them. One way to get fate points is through the compel mechanic. The GM can ask a player to do something that might be detrimental to the character but fits with the character concept. For instance, if a character is stubborn, he might continue to argue a point long after it becomes clear he will not win. As a result, he probably suffers a negative consequence, anything from a physical altercation to losing the support of the other character. This rewards the player for allowing his character to have complications placed in his way and gives him the tools to overcome those issues down the road. And, for many groups, having these sorts of complications makes for a better story.

Such a system easily could be incorporated in many D&D games, perhaps with a similar reroll or bonus mechanic. At the very least, I find this sort of character building far superior to any alignment system. As an added bonus, it completely ignores trying to create universal definitions of good and evil which are bound to be a bit overly simplified and arbitrary and highly influenced by our own prejudices.

Why Don't We Roll Our Scores?

Today I posted on Temporary Hit Points the next article in my Player's Guide series for newer players. This post centered on how ability scores are created in 4e. In response, a few people replied on Twitter that they missed the old days where such scores were rolled instead of created through a point buy system or its subset, the arrays.

A funny thing happened when they mentioned this system. Instead of my normal full body shiver, I just shrugged my shoulders. Truth is, some things happened during my Gen Con trip that totally changed how I feel about certain aspects of gaming. I grew a lot as a player during that trip and finally shook free of a fair bit of my newbie fear and outlook. The biggest thing I realized is that the things that scared me most about the "old school" way of doing things came down to one word, trust.

Now, I've discussed trust a lot in the past. But the truth is, I had never experienced a game where I had complete and absolute trust in the DM and my fellow players. And, ironically enough, I finally felt it during the Dark Sun game I played with Chris Sims on Friday.

Yes, my party was defiled repeatedly during that game, but the truth is, it made total sense for the character and I wouldn't want him to play it any other way. And yes, my character killed the defiler, but I think the player would have thought less of me if I hadn't (at least that's what I tell myself). And Chris challenged our party beyond our limits and a number of us died, as in negative hit points dead, but I never felt like he was our enemy or out to get us.

That requires a high degree of trust, but that sort of trust can be so fleeting. It requires so much from the DM and the players that it's a bit of magic when it happens. You need to be willing to play a potentially flawed character, you need to trust in the dice, and, most importantly, you need to trust in yourself and your group.

And the always changing nature of this trust is one of the main reasons why we no longer roll our ability scores. Otherwise, we have to trust the reports of those who roll their scores privately or ask them to roll them publicly, easily read as a sign of distrust. And then we have to trust that the DM can pull together these characters of various skill levels and create an adventure that is fun and challenging for all involved. It seems like a lot to ask a group who just wants to get together and roll some dice for a few hours each week or two.

I'm not saying that rolling scores is wrong. In fact, I'm tempted to try it out now, particularly the hybrid system where the most important abilities are assigned and the others rolled. But to keep arguing that everyone should do it that way without discussing this issue just seems a bit narrow-minded to me. At least, that's how I view it. How do you feel?

Guest Post: Twilight: New Moon - As Seen in D&D!

GRAIN OF SALT (to be taken internally while reading this post): I am not a Twilight fan, and while I tried to give it a fair shake, I'm afraid a bit of sarcastic vitriol has worked its way into this post. Please bear in mind that my HIGH AND MIGHTY JUDGEMENT of the movie is not a high and mighty judgement of its fans. I'm glad other people like it, for it saves me the trouble of trying too hard, myself.

My first impression of the Twilight series was that it was about a girl named Bella and her struggle to choose which abusive relationship she'd rather be in: cold and controlling or angry and violent. I wasn't impressed with the characters, and found the idea of the central plot to be horrible. Recently, however, some "friends" of mine brought over Twilight: New Moon (and the appropriate RiffTrax as an accompaniment), and I finally sat down and actually watched it. The. Whole. Damn. Thing.

It's a terrible movie. Let's be clear about that. But even the worst movie has some redeeming moments and, in the proper context, can provoke discussion and interest, and New Moon is no exception. As I watched, I realized I'd seen these archetypes marketed to pre-teen girls and their mothers before. A pale, effeminate character who is vaguely aloof but very, very pretty? Legolas would only need a handful of glitter to translate into Edward Cullen. A dark and dangerous individual who, while being heir to an ancient legacy, still remains devoted to the one he loves? If Aragorn had a few tufts of fur on him...

It's not a completely cromulent comparison. Aragorn and Legolas had something that no character in New Moon has: depth. But the tweeny reaction to their onscreen presence? There are some very strong parallels to be drawn there. So, if we can draw lines, however tenuous, between New Moon and Lord of the Rings, and from there make the leap to D&D, then Kevin Bacon does so declare that I should attempt to mine New Moon for some sort of D&D trope application.

It was surprisingly easy. It only required a slight change of context and the removal of all of the horribly convenient plot devices that the author seems to rely heavily upon. Consider this: Vampires are hideous monsters. They are known to take to themselves a thrall, someone who becomes devoted to them due to the vampire's ability to psychologically manipulate the poor mortal.

If I look at the Twilight movies as the story of a thrall, told from the perspective of a thrall, many things begin to make much more sense. It turns Bella from a vapid, useless twit to a much more tragic character. Because the story is told from the perspective of one already socially manipulated to be devoted to her vampire master, it makes sense that Edward would be seen as a sympathetic character instead of the monster we know him to be. For all we know, vampires really do sparkle in the eyes of their thralls. If all Edward is doing is meant to break Bella further, to enslave her body and mind and ensure her complete, unshakeable devotion, then I say he's doing a damn good job at being a monster, as he should be.

With this, the context of the movie changes; I know there is no hope for Bella, but I can hope for her anyway, that she might break the enchantment of her vampiric lord. I can wait, breathless, as the shirtless Jacob almost manages to pull her from her doomed path, and question whether she'd really be better off with the shamelessly violent wolf-child or if her death as a thrall would be more humane. The sheer insanity of the movies becomes compelling fiction, if only we can remember that while Bella is a thrall, we are not, and we can tell the monsters from the men in the world.

This, then, applies itself far more liberally to a D&D plot. A poor girl's family beseeches help, as she has recently turned moody and violent, with screaming night terrors. Further investigation allows the players to realize that she has been visited often by a dark and mysterious figure, whom they discover is a terrible vampire. Perhaps the girl tries to dissuade the party from confronting the vampire; her defense of him would be vigorous and committed. The party can decide whether the girl is worth saving, both from the vampire and from herself.

This puts the party in the role of Jacob, then, which seems appropriate. It's not hard to translate one murderously violent character into four or five murderously violent characters who also seek fame, fortune, and adventure. If the party pursues the vampire regardless of the girl's feelings, finds his lair, and fights off his other minions, then finally confronting him could be the epic showdown in D&D that I kept praying for over and over while actually watching the movie.

Who knows what other otherwise dismissable media might contribute to our games? What sort of things have you sourced ideas from that may have been utterly ridiculous but you still managed to translate into an interesting and compelling plot?

Jennifer Snyder is an awesome all-around geek girl and a great proponent of tabletop RPGs. When she isn't busy playing games or wreaking havoc on Twitter as @Level30Yinzer, she works on the outstanding RPG-focused non-profit she and her husband founded in 2009. You can find more information at Level30Yinzer.com.

Running Red Box at Gen Con

One thing I love to do is to give back to the D&D community, especially since it has given me so much. While I do this in many ways, writing my blog, participating in podcasts, one of my favorites is judging for the RPGA at conventions.

So I made sure I signed up to judge a couple time slots at Gen Con. I contacted the organizer for the event and explained my background. He suggested I run Learn to Play which is something I really wanted to do at PAX East. As the con approached, I learned something even cooler, I would be running Red Box!

Although I've played for only a year and a half, I understand what Red Box is about. For many D&D players, especially the ones slightly older than myself, the original Red Box was their first experience with D&D. At PAX East, Wil Wheaton described in his keynote how that original little box changed his life. While I knew I was already initiated, by the blood of my character, into the fraternity of D&D, I still was full of excitement, wonder, and antici-pation over the new version of Red Box. I wanted that moment of wonder and fear that I had denied myself nearly 20 years ago.

When I was handed the box on Wednesday night, I couldn't wait to open it, to see the wonders inside. Most importantly, I wanted to know what adventure I would be running in a little less than 12 hours. I could tell right away that pretty much everything I needed to run was right there. There were two booklets (one for players and the other for dungeon masters) a sheet of tokens (both monsters and player characters), a few blank character sheets, a few sheets of power and magic item cards, a double-sided map and a set of dice.

After taking stock of the contents, I needed to prepare to run this thing for the next morning. I have to admit, I streamlined the adventure a bit to run it for the con. Preparing eight encounters on 4 hours of sleep was asking a bit much of me. With a fair degree of sadness, I decided to ignore half of them. My players didn't mind and it allowed me to work within my comfort level.

Something to note about the adventure is the abundance of opportunity to explore and interact with the environment. Runes need to be understood, crates need to be busted open, and bodies need to be looted. This sort of detail fills my heart with joy. Similarly, they present skill challenges in a way that promotes conversation and the integration of challenges within the story line rather than as something that pulls the players out of immersion.

Overall my players really enjoyed the adventure and I enjoyed running it. I'm still not sure if it's something that someone relatively new can just pick up and run, but I think a new DM would be able to run it with not much more effort. This is particularly true if they are willing to wing it and not worry about the rules too much, just the way most people did with the first Red Box.

So, the big question, is this 4.5? My answer is no. Nothing felt different about running the adventure and while the character classes definitely had a different feel, they did not feel foreign to me. If pressed, sure, I'll say it's similar to a point release or a service pack, something that improves the system, fixes a few bugs, but is still completely recognizable as the original system. To me, they are just new builds of some classic classes, full of the goodness that came after PHB1. The rules are streamlined a bit to help new players (something I wish I would have had when I started) but the game felt the same way there as it did at my weekly table.

So what questions do you all have? I only have Red Box (thanks Wizards of the Coast!) and I don't want to spoil too much for you guys, but I will try to answer what I can.

Edit: One thing I would like to note. The pregens used at the convention gave the wizard magic missile and the only power that required a die roll was his daily. As a result, the players just used magic missile the entire time and their turns were over rather quickly. I won't say that the speed of their turn wasn't fun, but I'm not sure they enjoyed the characters quite as much as say the people who played the rogues.

I Was Defiled By Robert Schwalb

So if you are wondering if I fell off the face of the earth or something, worry not. I spent the last week traveling to and from Indianapolis and my first ever Gen Con. I thought PAX East was amazing and yet Gen Con exceeded even that. One of the big reasons I had such a great time at Gen Con is the Dark Sun game I played in on Friday, run by Chris Sims.

Chris is an amazing Dungeon Master. I hope one day I can be as good as him, particularly when it comes to confidence at the table. He's also an awesome story teller and I felt more connected to his game than any other game I've been in.

Beyond Chris, I had the chance to play with two people I knew from Twitter, Jared von Hindman and NewbieDM. In addition to them, Robert Schwalb played with us. Rob was on my list of people to meet at Gen Con so it was a great honor and privilege to play at a table with him, even when he insisted having his character, Taewyn, constantly defile us, which meant we kept taking damage whenever he used certain powers.

Of course, he wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't keep healing him with my shaman, Malamac, a good shaman and one who was particularly close to 3 other party members. Yet, he was doing so much damage, I justified it in that a living party was better than a dead one.

However, at the end of the adventure, I got my revenge. We defeated the big bad guy before he could finish his evil ritual. At this point, Taewyn thought it best to take over the ritual in case it would make him powerful instead. Since he had just killed, as in negative bloodied hit points, Malamac's close friend, I had to avenge the death. As a result, I attacked Taewyn, rolled a crit, and killed him.

So that is the story of how I was defiled by Robert Schwalb and how I killed his character. It was an awesome game and one I'll remember for a long time. Now to design some t-shirts for my group.

Gen Con Schedule

All the cool kids are doing it so I figured I would post mine as well. Fred and I will be arriving in Indy early, probably Monday or Tuesday. He's a big open-wheel racing fan so we have lots to see and do outside of the con.

7 pm - RPGA Judges Meeting
After that, hang out and meet some peeps.

8 am - 1 pm: RPGA Judge Learn to Play
2 pm - 4 pm: Monster Building Workshop
4 pm - 6 pm - Design & Development: Presented by D&D Insider
8 pm? - ?: DMing a D&D Hooters GenCon Interactive Adventure

8 am - 1 pm: RPGA Judge Learn to Play
1 pm - 6 pm: Hanging out in the hall and maybe a seminar or two
6 pm - 10 pm: The ENnies

9 am - 10 am: What's Coming from Open Design
10 am - 12 pm: Dungeons & Dragons Preview and Q&A Show
2 pm - 7 pm: Chris Sims' Welcome to Dark Sun, B!#@&s! game
8 pm - 10 pm: Media Meet & Greet

Leaving early to drive back, but should have some time free in the morning.

I'm really looking forward to this grand adventure and I'm glad to be sharing it with Fred. This is our first Gen Con and second convention ever (PAX East was our first). Yeah, we're a bit spoiled.

In particular, I can't wait to run Learn to Play and hopefully convince some people to play 4e D&D at home. I'll get to see the new Red Box in action and hopefully make my saving throws against sleep. I may even give voices a try. :)

The monster builder workshop will be a great time too. My understanding is that Greg Bilsland will walk through the monster creation process. (At least, that's my hope.) Greg is a great guy and I can't wait to see him again.

While it may seem strange to have me DM a game in Hooters, I think it's a really funny plan and is going to be awesome. This cartoon (NSFW!) sums up how I'm viewing that game. Hopefully my story will be able to hold their attention long enough to get through a game.

And finally, I'm so honored to be able to play in Chris Sims' game. He even created a character just for me (at least that's what I'm telling myself), using a concept I sent him.

Beyond those planned events, I would love to run my lumbermill delve while I'm out there. I also need to meet a large number of people and thank them personally for all of their encouragement and advice over the last year or so. So if you're going to Gen Con, send me an email tracy [at] sarahdarkmagic.com or a message on twitter. I'll also be tweeting and posting the best I can with my crazy schedule. Hope to see you there!

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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