Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Season for Fantasy

Around this time of year I’m reminded how the holiday season always seems to herald a time ripe for fantasy across the full spectrum of books, games, films, and television shows. For gamers, who feast on many of these similar mediums, the holidays remain one of the prime periods of the year for indulging in their  hobby.
The general spirit of the December holidays (which really begin around Thanksgiving) contributes to the illusion that anything is possible despite the darkness of the days and the times. Let’s face it: the notion of a jolly obese fellow flying around on a reindeer-driven sleigh delivering gifts to everyone around the entire world in one night is sheer fantasy unto itself (and I’m not even touching the nativity story with a 10-foot pole, though obviously un-American and heretical skeptics might classify elements of that tale as hopeful fantasy, too).
Everyone’s tempted toward fantastic expectations for expected and presented gifts, holiday displays and decorations, plans for parties and feasts, and the overall joyousness of the season. Our unrealistic gift expectations are inspired by an increased flood of commercials, catalogs, and sales for toys (both grown-up and child-level) and manifest in requests (sent by mail or in person at the mall) to the aforementioned jolly obese fellow for unrealistically fantastic gifts. Fantasy of all types abounds.
Enough pontificating; suffice it to say that the holiday season already predisposes everyone toward fantasy, and gamers in particular indulge in this excess.
The holidays bring a host of fantasy related media into our homes. Every year visions of our favorite holiday-themed tales waltz out of the television, from the stop-motion delights of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town to mere animated fare like Frosty the Snowman and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. New holiday-themed movies premiere in theatres at Thanksgiving and play relentlessly until Christmas (and often beyond); former holiday film releases, like Will Ferrell’s delightful Elf, run constantly on television.
But holiday-themed fantasy offerings often pave the way for more traditional fantasy material at this time of the year. While the summer, and particularly Memorial Day, has been the territory of action and science fiction film releases, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has recently brought a horde of fantasy movie premieres. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films were released in theatres the weekend before Christmas in 2001, 2002, and 2003; both parts of his film version of The Hobbit (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again) are planned for similar December releases in 2012 and 2013. Although only four of the eight Harry Potter films were released in November (the others hit theatres during the summer movie season), several usually appear around the holidays on a major television network (not to mention cable).
Rankin/Bass’ animated version of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first broadcast on Sunday, Nov. 27, 1977, on NBC, at the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend that year. Such science fantasy fare as Star Wars was not immune. Though the films all released on prime summer movie weekends, the three made-for-TV specials all first aired around Thanksgiving: CBS first broadcast the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on Nov. 17, 1978; ABC aired Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure on Nov. 25, 1984; and that same network broadcast Ewoks: The Battle for Endor on Nov. 24, 1985.
The holiday season also brings a break for kids -- both high school and college -- when they spend time at home with family and friends they can subject to such frivolous and fantasy-themed time-wasters as roleplaying and board games. Unlike the summer, that other “season of gaming” when kids have loads of time and friends around (yet often balanced by family vacations or summer jobs), the holidays offer time off without many expectations for productive use of free time, especially when playing outside remains limited by one’s ability to withstand intense cold.
I fondly recall my first Christmas after discovering Dungeons & Dragons, for I received such appropriately themed gifts as module A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, Grenadier Miniatures’ Wizard’s Room miniatures box, and the soundtrack to ET the Extra-Terrestrial, which I found as inspiring as almost any other John Williams score at the time.
As a young gamer I reveled in the two “seasons of gaming” throughout the year: the holiday fantasy season and the summer vacation (it also helped that the bounty of gaming-related Christmas presents was balanced by a host of gaming-related birthday presents for a boy born in July). Christmas always seemed a bit more festive for me as a gamer; call it a combination of the magic of the season, the infusion of game-related gifts, and the immediacy of a shorter break that didn’t linger as tediously as the hot summer days yet required.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Magic of Discovering D&D

When gamers of my generation first delved into Dungeons & Dragons back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”) we experienced a particular excitement and enchantment playing the game for the first time (and in many cases not quite knowing what we were doing or if we were doing it right). For me D&D captured the core elements of the fantasy genre and invited me to explore them. I’m dabbling with a roleplaying game project parents might use to introduce medieval fantasy roleplaying gaming to their kids, and I wanted to examine what excited me most about my early experiences with Dungeons & Dragons to see if and how I might incorporate those elements in my own project.
In the light of almost 30 years of gaming, and in the retrospective, nostalgic haze of memory, what were those iconic Dungeons & Dragons gaming elements that seemed to capture my imagination and inspire my further explorations of fantasy adventure gaming beyond the novelty of the game genre and form?
Rolling Dice: D&D gave dice a magical quality in form and function. The traditional d6 so many of us knew from traditional board games was relegated to one of several on a new pantheon of polyhedral dice. These dice maintained a magical power over characters -- whether they’d triumph or fail in combat, how many hit points they’d get leveling up, what kind of treasure they’d find -- and I and those in my neighborhood gaming group were slavishly bound to those die rolls like heroes bound by fate. Die-rolling in the game was law determining exactly what happened in combat, interaction with non-player characters, and looting. Any dispute was resolved by the roll of a die, and the result was sacrosanct. We wanted to roll dice for everything; and thus we wanted tables for everything, from encounters and treasure to terrain and weather.
Character Creation: From a player’s perspective the character creation procedure served as one of the main gaming activities between actual games. While I’d later compare complicated character creation instructions to doing my taxes longhand, at the time I immersed myself in the process, carefully and reverently rolling the dice to see how they’d shape my character’s ability scores, weighing options when resolving the disparity between the gold pieces at my disposal with the weapons and armor I desired for my character, and choosing that defining first spell for clerics, elves, and magic users. Given the high mortality rate our characters experienced, it soon turned into an exercise unto itself, cranking out hordes of characters to have on hand lest a favored hero meet an untimely yet fully expected end during an adventure. As a dungeon master I found this reserve horde a good library of non-player characters from which to draw during various impromptu moments during the game, usually in taverns (“Forget everyone else in the tavern, I walk up to the elf sitting in the corner. What’s his name? I want to try to kill him….”).
Maps: Visual representation of adventuring locales -- whether subterranean, open wilderness, or urban -- remained a core concept for my early D&D experience. Like the authoritative quality of the dice, maps contained the definitive depiction of our adventuring environment. In fact, my first experience watching someone play D&D consisted of two neighborhood kids looking at the B2 The Keep on the Borderlands map and figuring out where the lone adventurer wanted to explore next (“I look behind that secret door…”). After pouring over maps included in published adventure modules, I often drafted maps of my own for dungeons, villages, cities, and entire regions; though writing the keys often took a bit more time and was not as glamorous a task as the actual map-making. (I’ve previously discussed the allure of maps in gaming in another Hobby Games Recce post.)
Artwork: The artwork in the original Basic/Expert D&D materials captivated my imagination and inspired me to pursue further gaming activities. I modeled characters from those I saw in rulebook illustrations I thought were cool (“I want my fighter to look like that guy with the axe….”) and designed encounters around scenes I liked, such as the iconic rulebook/box cover illustration by Erol Otus depicting a fighter and magic user confronting a green dragon rising from the waters in a treasure-filled cave. While the game has produced some amazing full-color artwork, I found some of the line art in products like the Basic and Expert D&D rulebooks and earliest modules (particularly B2 The Keep on the Borderlands) possessed all the richness of grayscale illustrations thanks to careful use of cross-hatching patterns, varied line weight, and engaging subject matter. New sourcebooks, modules, and Dragon Magazine issues fed me a constant stream of new and inspiring artwork from names like Roger Raupp, Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, Dave Trampier, and the aforementioned Erol Otus.
Periodical Inspiration: New and established players, myself included, fed on a constant stream of new material thanks to TSR’s solid release schedule for new modules and supplements. Dragon Magazine, whether purchased in the local hobby shop or received in the post by subscription, provided a monthly treasure trove of new material to inspire gamers. I’m referring particularly to the earlier issues of Dragon before issue #100; aside from roaming across the full range of D&D-oriented topics, these earlier issues also covered other roleplaying games and included a well-balanced dose of short fiction, adventures, and comic strips (particularly Dave Trampier’s excellent Wormy) in every issue. The periodical illustrates D&D’s development in its earliest years, as many articles or letters debated issues relevant to the game (should clerics be able to use edged weapons?), presented new rules, spells, and classes, offered advice for dungeon masters, and clarified rules and answered questions. Dragon offered guidance on further explorations in fantasy, science fiction, and gaming through game and novel reviews and plentiful ads for new games, miniatures, and other accessories. Module-writing contests provided the magazine and its readers with a steady stream of new adventures for the coming year, conveniently laid out in the center of the saddle-stitched periodical for easy removal and use at the gaming table. I started getting Dragon Magazine right after diving into the D&D Basic set (with issue #66), and consistently enjoyed them for a few years; after issue #100, however, they became only a passing interest. (I explore my nostalgia for Dragon and other classic gaming magazines at an old Hobby Games Recce post.)
So what do I learn when reflecting on the magic of first exploring Dungeons & Dragons as a kid? The elements above -- in some form -- remain core to the gaming experience. Certainly other factors contribute to the fun and success of a fantasy roleplaying game (setting, presentation, emphasized themes), but those above should remain key to gameplay and continued support. Incorporating interesting die-rolling mechanics, character creation processes, maps, and artwork still fit within the standard roleplaying game publishing paradigm; but support through a print periodical has certainly changed in our nascent, evolving Internet Age. Such support in the future remains the territory of blogs, website updates, and links through social networking venues, still fully unexplored fields with greater potential for reaching a wider audience.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Early Fantasy Gaming Inspirations

When I look back on my formative years I can point to a few casual, childhood interests that predisposed me to focus on the roleplaying gaming hobby. I’m trying to recall what subjects captivated me and channeled my youthful excitement toward medieval fantasy and other fanciful genres. (This subject has occupied my mind lately as I’m developing a roleplaying game project parents might use to introduce medieval fantasy roleplaying gaming to their kids; though it’s also my intent to provide a basic rules set open for expansion for players seeking a more rules light approach.)
I’m grateful that my parents provided for me a safe and inspiring environment with plenty of toys powered not by batteries but by imagination. They exposed me to a great many interests, not a few of which fostered enthusiasms for subjects leading to a focus on roleplaying games. Here are a few activities that inspired my imagination in the direction of gaming:
Family Trips: My parents were always taking us on trips, both day-long excursions to fascinating sites or museums as well as longer summer vacations. We visited many national parks and a host of historical sites, some of which had adventurous themes: Fort Ticonderoga, the USS Constitution, Colonial Williamsburg, the battleship Massachusetts, and the Cadet Cathedral and military museum at the West Point Military Academy. Living close to New York City we usually took at least one day trip to Manhattan each year, most of which included time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art wandering the inspiring medieval hall of armor and weapons and the fantastic Egyptian galleries, complete with a mastaba tomb and the actual Temple of Dendur. Perhaps the most stimulating experience to my impressionable, young, pre-D&D mind was our trip to German, Austria, and Switzerland the summer before I immersed myself in roleplaying games; what could be more inspiring for medieval fantasy roleplaying than visiting authentic-period castles, medieval towns with walls, towers, and gates, museums stocked with armor and weapons, and magnificent palaces. Among the notable highlights were the iconic Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein, a Rhine river cruise to the ruins of Castle Rheinfels (largest along the river), Heidelberg with its medieval cityscape and baroque castle, and Hornberg Castle. A book of legends about the Rhine River helped further inspire me at home.
Music: I inherited a love for classical music from my father, particularly for the more romantic composers. Some of the early recordings that fired my spirit of imagination were Holst’s The Planets, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Wellington’s Victory, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and excerpts from Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walk├╝re; the liner notes outlining the characters and plots of those operas inspired me to further research the original mythology. (I’d already enjoyed several movie soundtracks, particularly for Star Wars, but hadn’t truly started exposing myself to genre films and their inspiring soundtracks.) I have a particularly fond memory of sitting at my desk listening to Holst’s The Planets on a cheap turntable we bought at a neighborhood tag sale while reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Savage Pellucidar (also acquired from said neighborhood tag sale).
Toys: Our parents provided us with a solid collection of toys that catered to our interests and fostered our imaginations; and though we often felt at the time other kids had more and better toys (who doesn’t, even as adults?), in retrospect they made sure we had a good pile of toys we truly enjoyed without overindulging us too much. Among the ones that possibly encouraged me along the path toward roleplaying games were the obligatory Star Wars action figures, a small host of plastic army men and vehicles which battled in dirt patches in the back yard, a small host of Britains Deetail Toy Soldiers medieval knight figures (admittedly belonging to my brother), and Lego building bricks we used for a variety of fantastic projects, from building ships and cars to military vehicles and castles.
Books: In retrospect my youthful self did not have an intense affinity for reading -- and certainly not the voracious appetite for it I now maintain -- beyond that required for my schoolwork. Non-fiction certainly bored me since I hadn’t found any particular interests on which to focus, and I wasn’t yet aware of a fiction genre that grabbed my attention. But I found a few captivating books on my parents’ shelves and was given several that engaged my imagination. The National Geographic books Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World and Everyday Life in Bible Times contained enough illustrations -- photographs, maps, and wonderful conceptual drawings -- to inspire a curiosity in ancient civilizations and mythologies. Men, Ships, and the Sea also helped give me a sense of history and exploration. A two-volume set of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend helped guide further explorations into mythology.
Movies & Television: Despite my reluctance to explore exciting genres through literature, I fully enjoyed TV shows and films with fantasy, adventure, and science fiction themes (perhaps a symptom of the television-oriented society in which we grew up that worried we watched more TV than read books -- mirrored by today’s fear our kids spend too much time plugged into the internet than interacting in person with actual humans). This interest was actively fostered by the New York City secondary network stations that frequently ran such fare as King Kong, Godzilla movie marathons, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sinbad films and other Ray Harryhausen fare,  The Lost World, Ivanhoe, and even Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. Of course my imagination was inspired by such science fiction film fare as Star Wars and The Black Hole. I can’t recall whether I read The Hobbit before or after seeing the Rankin/Bass cartoon version aired on television; the cartoon and novel fueled my first true interest in the fantasy literature genre, though my real love for fantasy and science fiction novels didn’t truly manifest itself until I’d done some gaming and decided to explore some of the genre source material first hand (with the help of a friendly local bookstore owner).
I don’t pretend to understand how all these factors specifically pointed me along the path toward roleplaying games. At best I realize they predisposed me to the two events that first exposed me to Dungeons & Dragons: seeing some neighborhood kids playing the game (and subsequently creating my own basic version) and receiving the Basic D&D boxed set as (ironically enough) an Easter present from my parents in 1982. They’ve provided a focus for my imagination and creativity ever since.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November Is Gaming Overdrive Month

November’s a busy time for gamer types. Two web-based movements -- Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month and National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) -- aim to boost awareness about their particular facets of gaming (another event -- National Gaming Day @ your Library on November 12 -- seeks to promote the growth of gaming programs in libraries). These fantastic endeavors not only inspire gamers of all levels to challenge themselves to complete new projects, in many cases they result in free gaming resources or at least some additional awareness and inspiration about other gaming forms. But events with such deep participatory commitment coming all in the same month can overtax enthusiastic gamers and diminish the effect of particular movements.
November Gaming Endeavors
Claiming a particular month to raise awareness about a certain issue is an effective strategy in our society. So it makes sense that two particular movements in gaming choose a month; and while November makes sense for NaGa Demon, since it mirrors the novel-based NaNoWriMo movement, also in November, I’m not quite sure why November also became the banner month for solitaire gaming. These efforts have two main results: they foster discussion about games and they create new gaming materials, in many cases offered for free on the internet.
The blog Solo Nexus has declared November Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month with the goal of offering resources, rules, and reports to encourage new players to try solo gaming while energizing experienced players to try newer and more comprehensive solo gaming endeavors. The blog challenged gamers to publicly commit to some kind of solitaire gaming experience:
Plan to use the whole month to finally paint those minis in the box on the shelf or try that rule set you bought last year or complete a fully-documented solo RPG adventure or design your own solo CCG with that software you’ve had your eye on or create the best after-action report of a solo battle ever or - well, you get the idea!
During November the site’s charting its author’s explorations of playing Marvel Heroclix with solitaire rules; he also provides links to other blogs with reports about solitaire gaming. Other predominantly solitaire gaming blogs have also mentioned this challenge; for those aficionados of solitaire gaming, they not only provide a focus on that subject in November but all year round.
November is also National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon), inspired by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Writer, podcaster, and game designer Nathan Russell challenges gamers “to create and play your own boardgame, RPG, flash computer game, choose-your-own-adventure book, wargame, cardgame or other distracting novelty.”
Both challenges and their associated websites lack a core element to help build a community and foster dialogue: they don’t provide an online forum to serve as a community space for folks to discuss their activities (other than the comments section of individual blog posts). Interested bystanders and fellow participants must track down efforts or follow occasional links from the original challenge websites. For instance, Stargazer, principle blogger over at Stargazer’s World, has taken up the NaGa DeMon challenge and committed to blogging about it at the site; but savvy gamers have to track down that and other efforts to chart others’ progress in the challenge.
On the Horizon
Several other challenges occur during the year; while I’m thankful they don’t occur in November, too, they serve as inspiring opportunities to dare ourselves as gamers to try something new and expand our creative boundaries.
Windhammer Prize: Sponsored by arborell.com since 2008, the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction encourages authors to write and submit their original solo gamebooks for the prize, awarded to the entry with the most reader votes. November marks the month when the site announces the winners; new guidelines are posted in March, while the submission period opens in August and closes in September, with reader votes accepted from mid-September to late October. The site provides extensive guidelines for entry formats as well as details on deadlines, prizes, and voting. While this contest provides a challenge to those seeking to design a solo gamebook, the Windhammer Prize also gives to fans of this genre a host of free gamebooks as many past and current award-winning or noteworthy entries remain available online for download.
One Page Dungeon Contest: This contest challenges participants to create an entire dungeon complete with map, descriptive key, and other notes all on one page. Participants submit their entries by the April 1 deadline, when a panel of judges reviews all dungeons and chooses the most notable entries in a variety of categories. Don’t let the contest page fool you…despite its minimalist look the One Page Dungeon Contest (1PDC) inspires a host of entries and publishes them in two PDF downloads, one featuring only the award-winning entries alone and another containing all the entries submitted. Some dungeons have truly amazing map artwork, while others incorporate innovative adventure designs. With dungeons eschewing game stats, gamers can incorporate them into nearly any game system. Hobby Games Recce has featured the One Page Dungeon Contest before as fostering a nostalgic love of maps and getting back to the roots of the old school roleplaying game movement.
BGG Solo Boardgame Contest: Over the summer the encyclopedic BoardGameGeek site hosted a Solitaire Print and Play Contest to encourage designers to create, discuss, and submit designs for solo board games. The contest page, being a forum post, offers a space where designers can discuss their works and the contest in general, but isn’t really a good home page for past or future contest information; to find entries available for download requires going to the game’s page at BoardGameGeek and scrolling down to the files section (though this assumes the game’s freely available and not adapted for sale elsewhere). The site doesn’t make it clear if this is the first year hosting the contest or if it will re-occur next year. Overall the challenge to design a solitaire print and play boardgame can inspire creativity and provide some free gaming material to fans of this genre; but BoardGameGeek could further encourage future efforts with a web page dedicated to the contest and more easily accessible from the BGG home page.
Scheduling Creativity
While these movements and contests can challenge and inspire game enthusiasts to pursue creative efforts, they can also prove discouraging to those who don’t normally work to a deadline or who wish to participate in more than one. Instead gamers should look at past contest deadlines and challenge themselves to creative endeavors on their own schedule, sticking to the other guidelines for the activity.
Creativity isn’t easily forced. Many times an idea germinates and percolates, but must wait for a combination of ample time to come out onto paper (so to speak) with a suitable spark of inspiration and enthusiasm. Sometimes these contests come at a point where a designer has a few ideas percolating that fit the parameters and can be further focused; other times these movements offer a different perspective to re-focus a designer’s course for a project concept.
For instance, I love the concept of a one-page dungeon, but the timing doesn’t fit with my hectic schedule and my limited free time for creative endeavors. So I incorporated the goal of creating a one-page scenario into my occasional task of designing new adventures to run at local conventions. I had three concepts for three different games I run; two produced one-page scenarios while the third (ironically enough the most dungeon-oriented of the three) ran to a page and a half. In my eyes I fulfilled the guidelines of the one-page dungeon challenge (though I doubt either of the two are award-winning) while also completing a task on my own gaming “To-Do” list.
Here’s another example. The challenge from Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month and my general awareness of the BoardGameGeek Solitaire Print and Play Contest coincided with some inspiration from a World War II magazine article and my nostalgic feelings toward Avalon Hill’s classic solitaire wargame B-17: Queen of the Skies (about which I’ve opined before). I started developing a table-driven game along similar lines for a different theater of the war. It’s taking a little longer to develop to my satisfaction, especially since I’m considering offering it for sale online for a nominal price when it’s complete; but I’d never have really considered it without prodding from outside influences.
In both cases calendar-based events inspired me to further focus my game-design efforts along lines I wouldn’t normally consider.