Friday, October 21, 2011

Overscheduled



My girlfriend and I frequently have discussions about scheduling and over-scheduling. While we have many things in common, which cause us to like each other (like, like-like), we also have several distinct differences. One very prominent difference is that she is a "planner" She likes her schedule orderly and full. If she hasn't started working on her Halloween costume by August, she starts to get nervous. She fills her week with classes, dinners with friends and other forecast events weeks and months in advance.

By contrast, I prefer to take a more casual approach to my activities. I can handle one or two weekly commitments, but I like having the option of sitting on my butt in front of the tube if I'm exhausted from work. I don't want to put myself in a position where I feel forced -dare I say, "railroaded?"- to hang out with friends or do something I would otherwise enjoy if I were approaching it on my own terms.

So, why this ramble about relationships and personality differences? Well, I realized during last night's D&D session that player characters in an RPG can be overscheduled as well. As a DM running a weeknight campaign (3-3.5 hours of play with a hard stop time) I get really wrapped up in moving the story along. I want to get my players to the next boss fight, the next town, the next big reveal. I worry that the pace of the story is dragging, so I crack the whip in my head and bellow, "Hyah mule! I say, Hyah!" In short, I regularly try to squeeze too much play time into our play time!

You have three waves of orcs to defeat before piano lessons mister.
You're having fun, dammit!
Last night, it finally hit home that much of my recent malaise over my campaign might be because I overfill my sessions. While I try hard to avoid railroading my players, to give them options for approaching different situations, when I try to fit four encounters into a three hour session, I find myself getting impatient when my players start deliberating over those options. My irritability starts to show, and my players don't get the time to reach some of their more creative and innovative ideas. The play starts to feel hack and slashy and downright bland.

Well yesterday's game was different. I didn't let myself worry that we have only been playing three hours a month for the last three months. I didn't try to force things along quickly and I presented my players with several very open-ended situations:

  • You know you are traveling through hostile territory, what's your plan for avoiding detection?
  • You know you will have to cross the enemy lines, how do you want to do that?
  • You've been discovered by a patrol that is suspicious of your alibi, how do you respond?
  • You've made it through the initial checkpoint, but need papers and/or authorization to make it through the next one, how do you get them?

Most importantly, however, I allowed my players the time to discuss their plans for answering each of these questions before moving on. I felt like the game play last night had a creative spark that has been dampened for a while. My players were thinking both inside and outside the box, and when I inevitably poked at the holes in their plans, they were quick on their feet to try and plug the gaps.

half-orc monk: "Oh, hey Mr. patrolman, I wasn't hiding behind this tree, I was just having a piss, what can I do for you?"

Loosening my death grip on the schedule for the night made the game actually feel fuller, like we got more done than during sessions where I line up the encounters like dominoes. Bonus: My players got to a great cliffhanger stopping point, which was right where I  was hoping they would end the evening. I liked that feeling. I was happy to be a part of it.

So, the plan moving forward... maybe... if I feel like it... is to worry less about driving the plot forward by cramming in the encounters, in favor of preparing to meet the creative approaches my players dream up.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In the Beginning

Being my second submission to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group:

That's it, no more monkeying around trying to write Shakespeare. The content writing phase of my big project at work has officially begun and I expect that my life between now and the end of February will be characterized by grumpiness; deer in headlights looks in response to otherwise reasonable requests; interesting, impromptu hairstyles; baggy eyes; frayed nerves; and an obsessive focus on a single subject... oh, and of course, writer's block.

Starting a writing project is always the worst part of the endeavor. No matter how much I tell myself, "The first draft doesn't have to be good, just put something on 'puter!" My mind can't let go of thoughts that belong two or three steps down the road. "Is this information best included here? or there? in combination with this? or that? or left out entirely?" My mental state quickly devolves into a self-directed argument about how over-thinking is going to slow down the process when there is a very aggressive, borderline-unreasonable deadline to meet, to which the response to myself is:
"well, at least I'm thinking about the project instead of nitpicking about how slow its going"
"Oh yeah, well you're nitpicking now, and because I'm actually you, you are just as bad as me, you self-righteous prick!"
"Who do think you are calling me self-righteous!?"
and on, and on...
And of course this usually happens when I am either trying to write or trying to sleep so that I can write the next day.

Anyway, I am at the part in the process where I feel like this:

This video was made for a friend-of-a-friend by several of my friends. 
Read the previous sentence over and over until it gets too annoying to bear

The implications of my impending writing block/blitz for work is that my writing for pleasure--including the posts I pen for this blog--will likely be sporadic at best. If you enjoy what I have to say, stick around, because I'm not giving up on the blog, I'm just getting busy... awww yeaaaaah!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Ceremonial

Girls wave to a kamikaze pilot before he departs on his mission

cer·e·mo·ny   [ser-uh-moh-nee]  noun, plural -nies.
  1. the formal activities conducted on some solemn or important public or state occasion: the coronation ceremony.
  1. a formal religious or sacred observance; a solemn rite: a marriage ceremony.
  1. formal observances or gestures collectively; ceremonial  observances: The breathless messenger had no time for ceremony.
  1. any formal act or observance, especially a meaningless one: His low bow was mere ceremony.
  1. a gesture or act of politeness or civility: the ceremony of a handshake.

I've been thinking a lot about ceremony lately. In the past two months, I have been to three weddings, several birthdays, floated around the periphery of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and as my arguably warped mind is wont to do, thought about how such events can be applied to a fictional world like a D&D campaign setting, video game or novel.

Specifically, I have been thinking about how to use ceremony to breathe life into a part of my game world's pantheon that I find really dull--the lawful-good church that worships Heironeous, god of chivalry and valor. The D&D rulebooks present Heironeous in a way that resembles the medieval Christian church, but without all the dark, interesting bits. He is the god of knights and heroes and slaying of dragons. Always brave, with a strong arm and cleft chin. To me, this deity feels like he has the personality of a main character in a Shakespearean comedy, or -to use a more contemporary analogue- a popular kid at school (i.e. he is dull and intended to get by on looks alone)

Unfortunately, this particular stick-in-the-mud is hovering over the center of my current campaign. The kingdom that my players are trying to save consists of some of the god's most devoted followers, so I am forced to deal with the religion and turn it into something more interesting than a cub scout meeting with swords (which actually sounds really interesting, now that I think about it.) and I have come to the conclusion that ceremony is key to adding a sense of depth to an otherwise one-dimensional message of "do good all the time."

The September 11th anniversary manifests an odd phenomenon that could easily be applied to the shiny Heironean faith and which actually seems pretty perverse when you separate yourself from the emotional context: The human desire to sanctify horrific events. Why do we do this? Ground Zero is actually the site of a mass murder, and yet we often refer to it as "sacred ground" as though it were a church. Perhaps it is part of our coping mechanism when faced with human evil and mortality? Perhaps, by focusing on the selfless acts committed by those who were ultimately victims of murder, or attempted murder, we are able to wrestle control of that narrative? Examples of this sort of positive-spin symbolism are everywhere in human history, from the hallowing of Pearl Harbor, to the Crucifixion of Jesus (Easter is a celebration of ritual torture, execution and a missing body!), to countless tales of martyrdom in numerous religions. These events supply a comforting meaning to an otherwise horrible tragedy. "I'm sorry this happened, but your brother died a hero." One could easily use such events as an example to create fictional ceremonies and or beliefs for a faith like that of Heironeous. Perhaps his worshippers celebrate a 300-esque last stand, or have constructed a cathedral on the site of a mighty victory. While one could argue that such deeds were brave and good, hallowing such conflicts begs the question, what about the other side? Why was there conflict in the first place?

Memorials to conflict are not the only way to add shades of gray to an otherwise black and white belief. While thinking about Heironean ceremony, I also stumbled across the notion of putting on a public display of bravery in the face of pants-wetting danger and worry. A book I am reading for work talks about NASA's tradition of having the astronauts' spouses meet their spacefaring significant others at the launch site a few days prior to launch. It is a big press event intended to send the message "we are sending representatives of the wholesome American Dream into the cosmos!" Everyone smiles and waves and looks excited/unconcerned. What is not publicly shown is that the astronauts and their spouses often have tearful goodbyes prior to the launch, full of conversations of "just in case I don't come back". The spouses are even assigned a NASA handler to make travel arrangements for them, but also to act as a casualty liaison for the family should something go wrong. As I read about this ceremony, I immediately envisioned a procession of soldiers parading in front of their wives before going to battle.

These examples reveal something that can make a Dudley-do-Right religion seem much more dramatic and rich from a storytelling standpoint. Exploring the difference between a public show of bravery and meaning, and the inner worries and thoughts secretly harbored by individual members of the faith, opens up a world of plot seeds and rich storytelling possibilities.

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