D&D: A Memoir: 3rd, 4th and 5th Editions


So the beastmen have taken off with Celine Botissea. They have her on a spit and the fire is roaring. Soon she’ll be roasted alive, like a human marshmallow. Her only hope is Juraviel, the wizard, but he is at a loss for what to do. The village is enclosed by tall wooden posts, like Jamestown circa the 16th century, and the poor wizard can think of nothing but to knock. Beastmen are bigger and stronger than humans, so when they answer the gate, it quickly dawns on him that there is no hope of killing them, and killing them is the only option that pops into his head. “I just don’t know what I am supposed to do!” he cries in anguish, as the beastmen sharpen their knives and forks inside the camp, preparing to dine on paladin, and the wizard’s friend. Of course, the keyword here is: supposed. It never occurs to Juraviel to do something unexpected, like start a fire, or use a simple spell to impersonate a deity, ala C3PO in Return of the Jedi. Fighting is the only thing that comes to mind, because my friend, Steve, is unaccustomed to this kind of gaming. He has been raised on a steady diet of video games, where options are preprogrammed, and therefore, limited. The infinite possibilities of a true, tabletop RPG are beyond his capacity to grasp. Not to worry, though, with enough prodding from the DM (that’s me) he eventually burns the village down, and as the beastmen run for their lives, Botissea escapes. 


Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition

Just when I was 100% certain I would never game again, TSR is bought by a company called Wizards of the Coast, the makers of a very popular card game, Magic: The Gathering. WoC produces a vastly superior form of D&D with 3rd edition, which offers more possibilities than ever before. Monster and character stats share the same format, so it becomes easy to role play just about any creature, including a genie, a sexy female genie I later make for Steve. Also, Armor Class (the number you need to roll to hit the enemy) is a positive number, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than (-10) being good and (+10) being bad. And the shiny new covers, with their faux spell book designs, is just too enticing to pass up. I even mailed a set to Evan, who ended up feeling frustrated by his inability to play.

Me.

With 3rd edition, I wanted to go back to basics. No more superheroes or demon characters or space travelers. Our adventures took a page out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so I was Celine Botissea the paladin (my first female character) while my friend was Juraviel the wizard. I was deep into my second novel at the time, The Dark Age of Enya, which features a race of nudist protagonists, so I also came up with Tezrah, a naked monk. This is when I came to discover that when it comes to RPGs, technology can be a double edged sword. From the Internet, I could steal remarkable, inspiring images of heroes and landscapes to make my childhood self’s jaw drop; but at the same time, a greater number of people were dropping dice in exchange for keyboards. For a lot of people, D&D was simply outdated. Why use your imagination when you can watch the action unfold on your computer? Thing is, I am no stranger to electronic RPGs. I bought my first computer, an AMIGA 500, just to play Dungeon Master. But for me, tabletop games will always remain the real deal. After decades of D&D, World of Warcraft and EverQuest is like role playing Thomas the Train Engine; you are just stuck on the tracks, following a predetermined course. There is no more “open world” than a tabletop game. But show a bunch of dice and graph paper to someone raised on computer games, and they’ll look at you with pity, like your some clueless grandfather reminiscing about “the good ol’ days.” Still, I convinced my friend Steve to give it a shot, and we ranked up to 6th level, and defeated Yog Sothoth, a cleric, psionicist mind flayer. Sadly, it was the last hurrah for Celine and crew, due to a random encounter with a girl named Hynde. She was a human student from the land of Morocco, of neutral good alignment, with a high intelligence, wisdom and charisma score. Also, she had a special magic ability, a charm Greek writers spell, which acted in a 10′ radius, or within visual or auditory range, even from the phone, and it lowered all of my attributes, especially my constitution. So my days of gaming were cut short, only this time, willingly.  


Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Everyone agrees 4th edition was a disaster. It was so bad, the fans were divided in half, like the great Catholic/Orthodox schism of 1054, and a 3rd edition knock-off was created known as Pathfinder. In an attempt to cater to video gamers, the makers of D&D had attempted to emulate MMORPGs, essentially robbing the game of its most defining quality: infinite possibilities. Now, fighters had a set number of “special” moves they could perform a certain number of times per day, since, just like in real life, once you do something once, the laws of physics prevent you from doing it again until after a short rest. There were many other, technical details I didn’t like, but I bought a whole new set of books regardless. My nephews, Arthur and Fonda, were just about old enough to be introduced to the game, so I bought the older one a starter set for his 10th birthday, which he politely thanked me for, before tossing it in with Battleship, Monopoly and the pair of socks from his aunt, while ogling Soul Calibur IV for his X-Box.

My wife.

We played 4th edition for approximately one hour. My wife was Princess Isadora, Arthur was Demacharon, and my younger nephew, Fonda, was a ninja (he really wanted to be a ninja) named Hadoken. Isadora was the ruler of Mythradanaiil, but her jealous step-brother wanted the throne, hiring Hadoken to assassinate her. Spellbound by her beauty and charm, however, the ninja was unable to carry out his mission, and soon he and Demacharon were fighting an army of archers, down a huge flight of stairs, to save the princess’ life. They made it out of the castle, but we never played after that. Oddly, this tiny adventure turned out to be the most important game of my life, inspiring my current novel, The Princess of Aenya


D&D 5th Edition

Having a mortgage, a restaurant, two kids and literary aspirations, my biggest problem is time. I am always rushing to do things. The days of 1st edition, when my friends and I had 3 months with absolutely nothing to do, seem like a dream. Now, I watch movies and play games only if they’re short, and MMORPGs scare me like doing heroin. But my need to touch a d20 persisted, like an ex-smoker needing a toothpick in place of a cigarette. And yet D&D, I realized, was just too damn complicated to explain and time consuming to play. Then I came home to my seven year old daughter, Jasmine, who was making her own board game. She was inspired my Mario Party, and as I started to help her with it, I realized that by adding a few numbers and dice, I could make a board game for people who love D&D but just don’t have the time. That is how QUEST FOR THE TALISMANS was born. I spent years refining the rules, up to a 5th edition of my own, using D&D mini figures and a greatly simplified combat system. Arthur invited dozens of his friends from high school to play it and we all had a great time. Despite his continued obsession with video games, he enjoyed the social aspect of tabletop gaming. But deep down inside of me, I knew, it just wasn’t the same. The board game was too limiting, and my real love was for creating things, not playing them.

When 5th edition came out, just last month, I was skeptical. Over the years, D&D has become more complex with each new iteration, with more rules to learn, which only served to put off newcomers. What the game desperately needed was streamlining, simplifying, and that was, to my surprise, exactly what the makers of 5th edition did. Here was a game I could introduce to my now ten year old daughter. And who knows, maybe the seed of a new book will come from it. Our first campaign is this Saturday following Thanksgiving. Jasmine is Lilliea, an elf sorceress.  


D&D Infinite Edition

Maybe I really am an old fuddy-duddy. Maybe in a few decades, nobody will be playing tabletop games anymore, except to be nostalgic, the way people still watch plays but secretly wish they were at a movie. Perhaps, with enough computer power, future MMORPGs will find a way to offer near infinite options. As for me, I sometimes dream of the time when I’ll be an aging retiree, somewhere in my seventies, having all the free time in the world. Maybe I’ll be living in a nursing home, or hopefully a nudist resort. That’s when I’ll dig out my fifty year old d20 (I still have it), get a pen and graph paper, and find out what the heck those damn lizard men were doing all those years ago.  

My daughter

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 2nd Edition: Hell Breaks Loose!

mansion800600
Climb up to the roof! What’s the worst that could happen?

By this point, Dr. Van Richten was begging. “Please, please I don’t want to; I’m scared of heights!” But Dr. Van Helsing was insisting, and he was holding the shotgun. Somehow, they needed to learn what was going on in the mansion, and Helsing was not about to barge in through the front door, guns blazing. 

They were supernatural investigators, enemies of the undead, and on many occasion the two of them had slain zombies and werewolves, and even thwarted the plans of princely vampires. But this was a threat like never before, a maniacal doctor hell bent on bringing the dead to life, through science! And yet, how could they be certain what was going on, without evidence? So Helsing continued to insist, rather forcefully, “Just climb up to the third floor window and tell me what you see!” Despite his dread fear of heights and lack of dexterity, Richten acquiesced, slowly beginning the climb. He reached the second floor without much difficulty, but the windows were too dark, and he could see nothing. From the safety of the ground, Helsing urged him on, and Richten, trembling and with vertigo, clamored up to the third story window, and that’s when it happened . . . He slipped. Clawing desperately at empty space with a blood curdling scream, Richten tumbled from the balcony, falling headfirst into the ground. Helsing rushed to his side, to his friend and comrade, but it was too late. Dr. Van Richten was dead, below zero hit points, at which point my friend and I looked at each other, and burst out laughing. What cruel, hilarious irony! Twenty years have passed since we played that game, and one of us will be like, “Hey, remember when Van Richten fell off the roof and died? After he kept saying, ‘Please, please I don’t want to go?'” Hilarity.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition

Mike Wilson

After my long ordeal, losing my best friend, George, to Satan and skateboarding, I was certain my RPG days were over. Sure, I tried some less satanic games, like the Batman RPG, but it was stupid. “Hey, who do you want to be? Batman or Robin? Ooh, we get to fight more thugs!” Then, as a senior in High School, I met Mike Wilson and Tommy VanDyke, who were into comic books and D&D. It was a shock finding other human beings interested in the game, and that even a second edition existed! The rules were slightly different, but for me, D&D had always been about playing pretend with math. Tommy had been the DM, but as his campaign was boring everyone, I quickly took over. Thing is, after my 1st edition days, I lived in fear of losing players, so I decided to go nuts and throw tradition out the window, doing the most outrageous things imaginable. After four years without D&D, I let my players be superheroes. Mike was Wolverine and Tommy was Sabertooth. Soon, five or six kids crowded into my parents’ kitchen, and I was Dr. Strange, a 9th level wizard, while a very annoying sophomore kept muttering, “I’m the Haaaalk!” because he was the Hulk. My mom grumbled something about satanism, but I just blew her off, because I was seventeen. She eventually chalked the whole 1st edition ordeal to, “Well, I guess your Greek teacher was crazy!” It quickly dawned on us, however, that being superheroes wasn’t as fun as we’d thought. We were gods cutting through the toughest monsters with ease.


The Hunt for Demogorgon

There was a baddie in the 1st edition Monster Manual that I always dreamed of killing. This was Demogorgon, Prince of Demons, the ultimate boss monster, with 200 hit points and a -10 armor class (which is, like, a lot, trust me). This guy could rot your arm off just by touching you and make you insane just by looking at you! Also, he had two heads. As a DM, this was to be my magnum opus; I called it the The Hunt for Demogorgon. There was Mike, Tommy, Craig (Hulk kid) and their friends, and with the help of the Greek demi-god, Dynotus; Namor the Submariner (don’t ask); a monk named Akira; and a newly resurrected Sir Marek the Brave, we battled a lich king, a red dragon, and crashed a Demon Convention. It was the most satanic game I had ever run, but we weren’t worshiping Satan; we were kicking his ass and taking names. The final dungeon drove the players insane (literally). I had them going back to the beginning of the campaign (in an illusion) and fighting their future selves. Eventually, Demogorgon fell, and a new demon prince took over, Chernobog (the Slavic god of evil) from Disney’s Fantasia (we watched the film). 

Disney = Satan




Masters of the Universe

We played a few more crazy adventures, including one where we were demons named after heavy metal bands, so I was Metallica and someone else was Megadeth, and another kid insisted on being White Zombie (a demon named zombie?). And we stormed the gates of Heaven, at which point, you could argue, the game was satanic, but again who cares. Then after high school, we went our separate ways, except for Tommy and me. Aside from killing Demogorgon, I’d always wanted to play as my childhood inspiration. I remember asking Mike Von Kreninsky, back when I was 12, whether I could be He-Man, but he scoffed. He-Man was just too powerful. But now? Rules went out the window. I spent a good year recreating the Masters of the Universe universe into D&D, making stats for every character, maps for Eternia, and dungeons for Snake Mountain and the Fright Zone and Castle Grayskull. Tommy played six super powered heroes at the same time! Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, would likely have been spinning in his grave, had he been dead. When Tommy stupidly opened an airlock, and all his characters got sucked into space, I had six more ready to go! He eventually met He-Man to fight Skullgrin, a villain of my own creation, a guy who could give Satan nightmares, who wiped out half the party with the cone of disintegration coming out of his eyes! Of course, Skullgrin was destroyed in the end, because, you know, HE-MAN!

I win!


The Game Grows Up

A serious debate among kids is whether Superman can beat up Batman, or Goku, or any other hero. For whatever reason, boys are obsessed with power, and not the kind involving electric bills. In Marvel’s The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos wants to become the most powerful being in the universe, not the most respected or well loved, only the most powerful, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. It makes perfect sense when you’re 12. It never really occurred to us to think what, exactly, would someone do with all of that power. This is why, after defeating Skullgrin, there seemed to be nothing left to do, but take on more gods of evil. We didn’t exactly give up D&D, but I remember going through room after room of monsters, bored beyond belief. Here I was, doing what I loved most, and hating every minute of it. Imagine being in the middle of sex and thinking, “Gee, I can’t wait for this to be over.” Eventually, we stopped being friends over something stupid. Maybe it was that Tommy was a horrible DM, and I just couldn’t find a nice way to break it to him. I honestly thought, “This is it, Nick, you did everything you wanted.”

My brother-in-law works for a small college with many students from abroad. Being Greek, he decided to take a poor aspiring graphic designer from Athens under his wing. His name was Evan Kyrou and we were both in our early twenties. At first, we talked video games, because that’s what people do, but the subject turned to RPGs, and he casually mentioned a preference for “the real thing.” I couldn’t believe it, another D&D nut! And like no other friend I had before, he was a creative genius. His style of play focused on story, and only very little on combat, and it quickly dawned on me that power did not matter. What makes The Lord of the Rings interesting isn’t how much of a bad ass Frodo is, but how a simple, unassuming hobbit can find the courage to face overwhelming obstacles at great personal sacrifice. D&D was exciting again, not because we were killing gods, but because we were role playing and not roll playing. My first campaign was based on my novel, The Nomad, in which Evan’s character, Dynotus, searched for his kidnapped wife in a Greek/Arabic setting. Dynotus later traveled to Asia (I used my dad’s National Geographic Book on China for its amazing photos), where he met a gold dragon monk named Akira; defeated the emperor, a red dragon in disguise; and went on to defend Greece against Mongol invaders. 

For my birthday, Evan introduced me to my favorite author, H.P. Lovecraft, and we started playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG, with some minor tweaks to the D&D system. I had him living with the Albertsons (loosely based on my own family), as one by one, each family member died in horrific ways. Evan’s character had to find the murderer, though it turned out to be (spoiler alert!) himself (or was it?). Sanity is a big theme in Lovecraft’s writings, so in a followup adventure, he had to escape from an insane asylum after killing dozens of doctors and nurses (or were they demons?), and as fans of metal, we blasted Metallica and White Zombie during the game. 

Satan is my bitch.

My goal to do everything in D&D didn’t end with modern day hospitals. But where hadn’t we gone? SPACE, that’s where, the final frontier! I made a random solar system generator, using a real astronomy map, so that Evan could explore the universe. He played a female warrior with telekinetic and psychic powers named Marina Lucien, and years later, by some amazing coincidence, Evan (in the real world) met and married a girl named Marina. A planet of snake men went on to inspire The Serpent’s Eye in Ages of Aenya

The best part about playing with Evan was that I enjoyed being the player as much as DMing. His favorite setting was Ravenloft, based on classic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein, and that’s when poor Dr. Van Richten fell to his death, perhaps my most memorable D&D event.    

Sadly, Evan graduated from college, and returned to Greece. I was left alone again, making rules out of boredom for martial arts and for decapitating people (roll a d12 on an ‘effect chart’.) But this time, it really did seem my gaming days were over. Of course, 3rd edition was right around the corner. 



   

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 1st Edition

DMsGuide
My first D&D book!

Once upon a time . . . there lived an elf named Hektor and a half-orc named Lattice. Hektor and Lattice were strolling through the woods when they came upon a group of lizard men. Lightning streaked the sky, and shortly after it began to rain, but the elf and the half-orc continued to spy on the reptilian gathering. The lizard men were standing over a stone circle set into the ground. One of them came forth holding a staff. He appeared to be a priest of some kind, enacting a ceremony. The circular stone was etched with runes, at the center of which was a hole. Now the wind was gusting and the lightning falling furiously. Hektor, being young and lusting for battle, rushed headlong into the scaly host, as Lattice, rolling his eyes at the predicament he was being drawn into, followed with mace in hand. A few bloody rounds later, all of the lizard men lay dead or dying, and the elf fighter and half-orc cleric victorious. But what was the ceremony all about? Was the staff meant to go into the stone circle, perhaps to open a stairway into some secret dungeon? It was at that point that the Dungeon Master, Michael Von Kreninsky III, got out of the booth, saying that he had to go. “But we only just started!” I complained. “Sorry, I’ve got a date,” he said, leaving my friend and I to wonder what would have happened to Hektor and Lattice had they completed the ritual. It’s been almost thirty years now and I am still wondering. 

This was the summer of ’87, a primitive time before YouTube, iPhones or DVDs. All we had were Fridays at the movies and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the only thing worth playing was Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. My friends and I were getting too old for toys and desperately needed something to keep us busy for three months. That’s when we met Michael, an eighteen year old college student working for my dad as a pizza cook. He introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, giving me a binder of adventures he had made in the seventies, along with his beat up copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I held that book in my hand as if it were magic, because for me at least, it was. Such a book could open pathways to any place and time, allowing us to be anything, do anything. We were bound only by the limits of our imagination. Unfortunately, Michael did not stick around to teach us how to play, so I spent weeks struggling with rules, never realizing how poorly written those seventies books were, or that I was missing some key components like The Player’s Handbook.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition

Eventually, my friends and I learned the game. It was me, my friend George Lakiotis, and Mark Carlisimo. We would hang out all day in the back room of my dad’s restaurant, drawing maps and rolling dice. I’d always been an imaginative kid, but this was like a powerful hallucinogenic bringing everything in my mind to life, the DMT of games. And I was Sir Marek the Brave, a human fighter, who eventually became the “Nova Knight.” 

Sir Marek, drawn in 1988, photoshopped 2010

George was a wizard named Heraldo, who looked a lot like the news pundit, and Mark was the half-orc cleric, Lattice. My first world, I’m ashamed to say, was Nick’s Realm. It included wonderfully inventive places like Elf City, Dwarf City and Human City. But we eventually set sail from Nick’s Realm to explore other worlds, hacking and slashing our way through countless dungeons and monsters. In Egypt, we suffered the curse of Anubis, after looting his temple. In Greece, we met with Heracles and Bellerophon, from whom Sir Marek earned his magical Spartan-like helmet. In Norway, we helped Thor find a magic jewel that had fallen from his hammer, Mjolnir. There wasn’t a mythological setting beyond our reach! Then, as we were preparing to storm the gates of Orcus, Prince of Demons, Sir Marek and Heraldo got into a fight. You see, for the longest time, I had been a jerk to my friend, putting him down for his lack of effort, even though he did manage to DM a lot, including the time Sir Marek killed a red dragon to gain a +4 Sword of Defending. I also tended to insult him when he couldn’t find a solution to a puzzle. But the larger problem was that we were growing apart. George only cared for skateboarding and hanging out with his skateboarding buddies. I owned a skateboard, mostly for his sake, and could do a 180 without much difficulty, but George excelled way beyond me, rail sliding down stairwells and ollying small dogs and doing other crazy shit I simply did not have the dexterity for. So, while I wanted to throw dice, he just wanted to gleam the cube.

George had the skills. Me, not so much.

But what really put the nail in Sir Marek’s sarcophagus was what would seem today utterly ludicrous, that thing being SATAN. No, I’m not talking about the impossible boss from Ghosts n’ Goblins, but the very real Satan, the same guy religious people believe in. 

That’s right . . . SATAN!

At the time, my mother was forcing me to take Greek lessons, but when it came to God, my tutor was bat shit crazy. Now it wasn’t as if I had no experience with fundamentalism. For eight straight years, I attended a Baptist School, where I was forced to wear ties on Wednesdays and thank God for every damn pencil and eraser I brought to class, and where I was told not to watch He-Man or Transformers because they were satanic. But my Greek teacher took things to Scarlet Letter-levels of insanity. This was a woman who, after the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, told me, in all seriousness, that the astronaut crew had been killed for “trying to reach God.” 

God’s divine punishment. Hey, who’s the good god here?


She also refused to attend her own son’s wedding when he married outside of the Orthodox Church. So, naturally, when she learned of my gaming habits, she made it her mission to put a stop to it. As far as she was concerned, my friend and I were spending our weekends worshiping Satan. Of course, I could not have cared less what the batty old lady had to say, but my mother took the whole thing seriously. She forbade me from D&D, and what’s worse, George’s mother caught wind of it and did the same. Despite my attempts to explain RPGs, I could not convince my mother that the game was just a game and nothing to fear. 

Unfortunately, I was still at an impressionable age being brainwashed both at school and at home, so that after a while, paranoia started to creep in, and I got to thinking that maybe there was something to this satanic stuff. After all, I’d been taught since kindergarten that demons were real. In retrospect, Dungeons & Dragons posed a threat not to my soul, but to my indoctrination. I mean, the Monster Manual treated demons and devils like any other made up creature. Logic follows that if the unicorn on p. 200 is imaginary, why not Asmodeus, Lord of the Ninth Plane of Hell, found on p. 10? This was especially challenging to my faith, because I was raised to believe in the Bible, not just the realistic parts, but even the Book of Revelation with its seven headed dragon. If some of it turned out to be fiction, so could all of it . . . and maybe even God was just another deity from Hebrew mythology. But I was far too young, and unprepared, to handle such an existential crisis, and it led me to having nightmares, and to tearing out the pages of demons and devils from my Monster Manual. Sure, it might sound extreme, but this was a different time, when even the media occasionally lost its mind over supernatural nonsense. I remember being in the library with my D&D books, when a strange lady stopped to warn me of the dangers of fantasy. Even journalists, who should have known better, got taken in by the hysteria. According to the article, “The Most Dangerous Game,” D&D can lead to suicide! Of course, this cause and effect argument is the oldest in the proverbial book of fallacies. Using the same logic, if you like to eat peanut butter and kill yourself, we can all blame peanuts for suicide. But remember, this was the eighties, long before Doom and Diablo and World of Warcraft, back when parents fretted over everything and anything their kids were doing that they did not understand, so even TSR, the makers of D&D, bowed to the pressure, releasing a 2nd edition without any mention of devils or demons (they went by other names).

Ultimately, I was forced to quit reading and writing and drawing and being creative in so many ways, but religion wasn’t entirely to blame; it was also my best friend, who had suddenly grown a conscience. And that was what really infuriated me. This was a guy who never went by the rules, a true rebel without a cause, getting an earring (a big deal at the time), smoking and even stealing his mom’s car. But when it came to D&D, he just had to obey. Despite so many happy memories, the game tore our friendship apart. Only later did I realize my role in our falling out, for putting him down all the time. We simply had different ability scores. His was for skateboarding, and mine for writing.

I continued Sir Marek’s adventures in my Novel of the Nova Knight series, but my gaming days were over. That was, until, my senior year of high school, and Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

Why Roger Ebert Needs to Play "The Last of Us"

This isn’t Pacman, Roger.

I do not typically review games. The last time I did, with Mass Effect 3, I was attacked by a gang of hater nerds, and it took me a good few months to get rid of them. I review books, on the other hand, because I have insight into authors’ mental processes, understanding what choices were made and why, and how things might have been improvedThough I’ve played through hundreds of games, I have no real expertise in the matter. But books themselves, binding and paper, have no innate value, only what they can convey. Books are more likely to contain superior story telling in that a blank page offers the greatest freedom from constraint (all games, by definition, necessitate a goal, something for the player to do). However, I am just as passionate in defending a story telling medium from the literary snobs who thumb their noses at comics and movies. I adore Shakespeare and Steinbeck, but feel no less love for Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Recently, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad proved that the very best fiction can sometimes be found on TV. Still in its infancy is the video game. As the newest medium to tackle this age old form of expression, it has yet to prove itself to the high brow community. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert has gone so far as to state that video games are not art and will never be art. Now there are many amazing examples that contrast this view, but perhaps the most compelling, to date, is The Last of Us. If I could tie Mr. Ebert to a chair and force him to play one game, this would be it. Whatever emotional impact one hopes to attain from a great work of art, whatever inspiration or perspective, it all can be found in this game. Without hesitation, I will say that The Last of Us earns its place on the same mantle as Citizen Kane (sorry, Roger) and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. So while the focus of my blog is not games, every now and then two of my passions will collide, and the very best story will come out of a game.

The Last of Us rises above its roots because of Neil Druckmann, who penned the story, and the actors providing the voice talent (yes, I said actors). For anyone who’s TV and computer have been in the shop this past decade, The Last of Us takes place in an apocalyptic future overrun by zombies. Now I’ll be the first to admit to zombie fatigue. After so many Resident Evil titles, the abysmal World War Z and starting-to-put-me-to-sleep Walking Dead, I could go the rest of my life without another zombie reference. But the undead only sets the stage for the characters and the struggles they overcome, and I found myself rushing to the conclusion not to see how many zombies I could kill, but, as with any good book, to learn what would happen to the characters I love. The game could just as well have been set during a nuclear holocaust, as it is partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, with only minor changes.

Ashley Johnson plays Ellie, a young girl who somehow becomes immune to the zombie virus, and Troy Baker voices Joel, a father who loses his only child earlier in the game. Both actors play their roles with subtle pathos and subtext. You can truly hear the fatigue in Joel’s voice, the horrors and loss he must have endured. He’s no hero, nor is he an anti-hero, but rather, a genuine and complex human being. As for Ellie, she walks a fine line between innocent child and someone who has lost and must lose their innocence to survive. Last of Us tackles some of the deepest subjects in fiction, exploring how humanity is transformed after tragedy on both a societal and personal level, and it does so with intelligence and compassion. Often, the smallest details will stir the heart, like the crayon drawings in an abandoned, makeshift preschool in an underground bunker; or the herd of giraffes roaming a college campus, offering Ellie a temporary reprieve of childhood wonder. Unlike most games in the end-of-the-world genre, The Last of Us is not about death and destruction, but how we deal with those things on an emotional level. It’s not about heroics, but sacrifices. It’s not about overcoming the enemy, but finding the courage to love someone in a world where the people you love are too easily taken away. Finally, The Last of Us throws us an ethical curveball in its climax, something that pushes us to think and to ask the really tough questions about life, and isn’t that what great art is all about?

Thelana Character Sheet

CLASS/RACE: Ilmarin
LEVEL: 1
MAX HEALTH: 9
ARMOR: 11 (nude)
Bow Sword: 3
Longbow: 3 / 6 range
AGILITY +2
STRENGTH +1
WISDOM +3
ENDURANCE +4

Skills:

  • Athleticism—+1 initiative (if lightly armored), Move 4
  • Armor of Flesh*—You endure suffering better than most. *As a racial bonus, add Wisdom bonus to Armor. Clothing and armor negates this ability.
  • Heal: Heal self completely after 1 day in nature without fighting or traveling.
  • Wilderness Survival: Negate penalties of forest travel. Make fire. Find water.
  • Hunter—Reveal hidden monster from 3 spaces or another room. Find food

ITEMS:

  • Bow Sword: 3 dmg (melee); 3 dmg / 6 (range)
  • Jade cloak
  • 50’ rope and grappling hook

XP: 0


What’s this? If you’re thinking you’ve stumbled across the wrong blog, don’t worry! Every summer, I take time out from my hectic writing schedule to delve into one of my guilty pleasures: Tabletop Role Playing Games. And by the looks of this article from the New York Times, it appears that I am not alone among fantasy authors who find inspiration in games like Dungeons & Dragons. This year, I thought it’d be fun to marry my Quest Role-Playing Game to the literary world of Aenya. Who knows, perhaps some future gaming session will inspire the next Ilmarin adventure! Using my character building system from Quest, I present my first Aenya based character, Thelana!

DOWNLOAD THE AENYA ROLE PLAYING GAME FOR FREE:

AenyaRPG

ADVANCED COMBAT

These are my rules for advanced combat in Quest for the Talismans and the Quest RPG. You can also add these rules to any d20 gaming system. For more about the Quest Gaming System, choose the RPG link above.
The QUEST RPG motto is “if you can think it, you can roll it.” This mechanic allows for literally infinite possibilities during battle. With this motto in mind, players are encouraged to work with the GM to create action packed scenarios. 
The GM’s Role: As with standard actions, the GM sets the Difficulty of an action in combat, but must also determine the effects of the action and possibly the consequences of failing that action.
There are three types of Combat Actions: Directed Attack Rolls, Combat Action Rolls, and Defensive Actions: Evading, Parrying, Rolling and Absorbing.  
DIRECTED ATTACK ROLLS
An example of an Attack Roll is rolling the d20 to hit—but players may opt for more interesting attacks by chancing to roll higher numbers; this is called a Directed Attack Roll. Examples of Directed Attack Rolls include: 
  • stun (s); enemy loses 1 round 
  • double damage (dd) 
  • knock prone (p); enemy loses 1 round and -5 ARMOR for that round 
  • blind (b) enemy loses 5 ARMOR permanently 
  • (k) enemy is killed       
For instance, when fighting an orc you could
  • Just hit him! / Penalty: +/- 0 / for Basic damage
  • Aim for his elbow / Penalty -1 / Stun
  • Aim for his kneecap / -2 / Knock prone
  • Aim for his head/ -3 / double damage + stun
  • Stab out his eye / -4 / dd + s + b
  • Decapitate him! / -5 / Kill (instant)
  • Aim for his potion / -3 / Potion falls before he can drink it.
Once the player calls the action, if the hit misses with the penalty, even if it would have hit normally, the attack misses completely. In most cases, attacks to the body deal normal damage including the desired effect. If the damage causes an unexpected kill—such as when rolling the knight’s epic blow—the GM may describe a more dramatic scenario; for instance, rather than wounding the kneecap and knocking the orc prone, the GM could say, “You swing for the leg and drop the orc to the ground. Blood gushes from the stump where its knee used to be.” 
COMBAT ACTION ROLLS
With Combat Action Rolls, the player makes a Difficulty check before the attack roll. Some actions require only that you roll equal to or higher than the Difficulty, while other actions require a competing rolls. For example, if you wish to wrestle an ogre, you must roll higher in Strength than the ogre rolls; such actions are marked with a v. (verses) after the Difficulty. To determine a monster’s Strength bonus, divide its HEALTH by 2: an ogre’s Health is 10 so its Strength bonus is 5.

When creating actions, players should try to think like the character they are playing and not tell the GM what bonuses or penalties the action should do. For example, you could say, “I want to . . .

. . . jump off the wall Difficulty: 12 If you succeed gain: +2 dmg.+reroll initiative If you fail you lose -1 round
and backstab that
orc”

DEFENSIVE ACTIONS 
Normally, when it’s the enemy’s turn to attack, you rely on your armor or agility to avoid harm—either your shield takes the brunt of the blow or you manage to dive out of the way. This is called an Evasive Action, but in some cases the player may choose more advanced defensive techniques, such as Parrying, Rolling or Absorbing.
PARRYING: AGILITY vs. STRENGTH or AGILITY
To perform a parry, use Agility vs. Strength or Agility vs. Agility. Your weapon must be the same size (or larger) than the thing (weapon/arm/maw etc.) attacking you. A giant’s club or a dragon’s mouth cannot be parried, but an ogre’s mace, while slightly larger than a longsword, can be parried. You are allowed one parry per round for every 3 points of Agility. If you fail the first parry against multiple attackers, you cannot make a second attempt. To perform a parry, you must state your intent to do so before the enemy’s roll. Since you are not avoiding attack, ARMOR is not used in a parry, so the enemy needs only to roll higher than your d20+ Agility roll to do damage. If the attacker tries a special action, apply penalties to their roll.
Steel vs. Flesh: If you parry a limb with a bladed weapon, like a monk’s fist, the monk suffers his own damage. If the damage is significant enough to drop the attacker to 0 Health, the limb is severed.   
Steel vs. Stone: If an attack roll of 20 is parried (possible with Agility Bonus), whichever weapon is weaker, regardless of whether it is attacking or parrying, breaks. For instance, if a steel sword hits with a 20 and a stone club parries it, the club shatters; likewise, if the stone club is parried by the sword, the club still shatters. If both weapons are of equal strength, neither breaks. Weapon strength is based on damage, so a weapon dealing 4 is stronger than one dealing 3, and so forth.
ROLLING: AGILITY vs. d20
Often, when a monster is too big to parry, the player can opt for a defensive roll. This technique uses the monster’s size to your advantage as you roll under its claw/club/legs, etc; it also becomes crucial against huge monsters with BASH—such as from a giant’s foot or an elder dragon’s tail. For the most part, shields and helmets are useless against BASH, so players must move out of the way or take damage. To do so, roll d20+ Agility vs. the monster’s attack roll.     
ABSORBING
In unusual circumstances, players may choose to throw themselves into an attack, using the brunt of their armor to absorb the damage. This action may be called at any time (attack rolls are not made) and can be used only by characters with body armor. Damage is absorbed equal to the ARMOR bonus of the item, so a +3 cuirass absorbs 3 points of damage. The downside to this tactic is that for every point of damage the armor takes exceeding its bonus, it permanently loses 1 point of defense. For instance, a cuirass absorbing a hammer for 4 damage loses 1 ARMOR (target takes 1 damage), becoming +2; if hit again, it becomes +1. Once the armor’s bonus reaches 0, it falls apart, becoming useless. If the cuirass is used to absorb a smaller weapon like a dagger (which deals 1), it will take 3 separate hits before becoming damaged. Damaged armor may be repaired for half its original price.        
MAKING NEW SKILLS
A good way to make new skills is to discover them by the Action Rolls you use in game. If, for example, you grow fond of “dive between enemy’s legs to escape” you can make it a skill by purchasing it through XP.
Once an Action Roll becomes a learned skill, you can attempt it without worrying about the effects of Failure. In addition, invented skills add to your Action Bonus. To determine a new skill’s Bonus, divide its Difficulty by 10 (rounding down) and add to the corresponding Type. For example, “jump off the wall and backstab enemy”—let’s call it Wall Jump—would add +1 (12 / 10 = 1.2) to Agility.     
To calculate the XP Cost of a new skill, multiply the Action’s Difficulty by 10. To learn Wall Jump, then, you would need 120 XP. Keep in mind that the GM may limit your skill based on situation (for example, if there is no wall nearby for you to use Wall Jump).     
WHAT DO ALL THESE NUMBERS MEAN?
— CHARACTER SHEET —
MAX HEALTH: (Number of points of damage you can lose before dying)
ARMOR: (Other players/monsters must roll this number or above on a d20 to hit you). Armor is calculated using a base score of 8. Bonuses are added from items (such as a helmet) or skills (such as Speed which adds +2). For example, a knight with chainmail +1, a helmet +1 and a kite shield +2 (8 +1 +1 +2) has an Armor of 12. If a better item is purchased, subtract the old bonus before adding the new one. Bonuses do not stack for same type items. The amount of armor you can wear is determined by your Endurance score. With max Endurance +10, Armor tops at 18. Armor also affects Agility (see below).
WEAPON/DMG: (Number of health points you subtract with each successful hit) Endurance determines the types of non-magical weapons you can wield (see below).
STRENGTH: Add this number to your d20 roll when grappling with an enemy. See Advanced Battleoptions. This attribute may also come in handy depending on the monster you are fighting. See Sir Marek’s Guide to Monster Hunting. The maximum amount of Strength a character can have is +10.
WISDOM: Wisdom helps you make good choices and avoid obstacles. In Quest for the Talismans, add this bonus to your Story Space roll. Wisdom also increases your chances of stealing, assassinating, haggling, persuading others, and anything requiring mental acumen. This attribute may also come in handy depending on the monster you are fighting. See Sir Marek’s Guide to Monster Hunting. The maximum Wisdom a character can have is +10.    
    
ENDURANCE: Your Endurance determines the heaviest armor you can wear and the heaviest weapons you can wield. Armor weight is equal to its bonus and weapon weight to its damage. With Endurance +5, for instance, you can use a weapon that deals a maximum DMG: 5; you can also upgrade your armor up to 5 points for a maximum ARMOR: 13 (or 15 with Skill bonus). The maximum Endurance a character can have is +10.

AGILITY: Add this bonus to jumping, climbing, tight rope walking and anything requiring physical dexterity. ROLL: Make a d20 + Agility vs. attack roll to avoid damage from monsters with BASH, since BASH attacks disregard Armor. For each point of non-magic armor, subtract 1 point from Agility. Minimum Agility +0 / Maximum +10.

QUEST: ADVANCED SKILLS

Updated 10/08/2015

The QUEST System is all about simplicity, creativity, and imagination. The goal is to maximize fun while minimizing complexity. To start playing, you must first make your own hero (or villain):

Guidelines for Making Your Own Hero (or villain):

  • STEP 1: Who do you want to be? There is no wrong answer—no choice that isn’t available. Want to be a ninja with fire powers? An undead pirate? A fairy like Tinkerbell? Why not?
  • STEP 2: Get creative! Give your character a name, a back story and a quote—something that makes him or her memorable.
  • STEP 3: Get some class. Decide whether you wish to make your own class or use an existing one. Unlike most games, you are limited only by your imagination!
  • STEP 4: Get some skills! Starting with a base of 2000 XP (experience points), purchase Health and Skills. Normally, Health should not exceed 15. You can even make your own skills as long you get approval from your GM.
  • STEP 5: How high can you jump? Add up your Action Bonuses to calculate your four basic Ability Scores: STRENGTH, AGILITY, WISDOM and ENDURANCE
  • STEP 6: Grab your gear! Depending on which game you are playing, ask the GM what weapons you are allowed to start with. Normally, ARMOR should never exceed 15 and starting damage should not exceed 4.

SKILLS THAT KILLS

QUEST begins the character building process with skills. After all, people do not choose to learn Kung-Fu because they are agile already—they learn Kung-Fu to become agile. The same logic is applied in QUEST.  If you want to be a great warrior, practice your sword techniques first, then go out into the world and bash some heads.

 

To advance new or pre-made characters throughout gaming, players need only to keep track of their XP. XP is gained by:

  • Killing a monster = 1 XP per HEALTH, x2 for * or x3 for **
  • As partitioned by GM’s during an RPG session for acts of heroism or creativity.
For every thousand points of XP, your character levels up, at which point you can purchase skills or make new skills. XP can only be lost by spending it on character advancement. Certain skills require lesser abilities or levels to be reached before purchasing its upgrade, or can only be used if certain items (like a shield) are equipped. Advanced skills cannot be purchased at the same time as its lesser component. For example, a player could not obtain both Slide Maneuver and Aerial Maneuver at level 2.

DOWNLOAD THE AENYA ROLE PLAYING GAME FOR FREE:

AenyaRPG

Hideo Kojima’s Quiet, meet Thelana . . .

Sexist or just silly?

Internet land exploded recently when a Bungie employee (makers of Halo) in an interview described the design for a new Metal Gear Solid character as “disgusting”. I remember being a huge fan of Hideo Kojima’s work after I played his first game on the original Playstation. I was especially enamored by the many philosophical concepts he tackles in his series, things you don’t typically find in a stealth/action game. While Kojima’s name will likely never be brought up in any Philosophy 101 course, it’s nice to know that games can deal with more grown-up fare from time to time. Now it seems Kojima’s name has become synonymous with sexism and everything wrong with our male-dominated society. While I consider myself a feminist to some degree, I do get defensive when certain women go into rage mode regarding scantily clad characters. With regards to income inequalities, intrusive medical mandates and our overall beauty obsessed magazine culture, sexism is a continuing problem in our society, and yes, popular media tends to fuel this problem. But any discussion regarding depictions of women in the media should be focused on “objectification” meaning “to make an object” or to “dehumanize”. While sexy images, particularly those in smut magazines like Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler do objectify women (Penthouse is particularly bad, calling their centerfolds “pets”) it isn’t the nudity itself that is the problem, otherwise, feminists would also have to complain about the Venus de Milo or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 

Conversely, a female character can be fully dressed and be objectified. I sometimes finds things sexist that most people do not even notice. Am I the only one, for instance, who felt that the real hero in Harry Potter was Hermione? The author is a woman, oddly enough, so you cannot blame her for intentional sexism, not consciously anyway, but still, Hermione is the real hero of that franchise; Harry just bumbles along and everyone calls him the “chosen one”. Being the father of two daughters, I encounter sexism in video games all the time. Whenever I pick up a Wii title for my 9 year old, the first question she asks is, “Is there a girl in it? Can I play a girl?” It saddens me when I have to say, “Sorry.” It’s also frustrating having to explain why in Super Mario Bros. Wii and Wii U, you can play as Mario, Luigi, and two male Toads (count them, two) but no Princess Peach or even Toadette. There is a very subtle message here: girls are helpless victims and must wait to be rescued by a male figure. Super Princess Peach aside (and even in that Gameboy exclusive, her chief ability is crying), I’ll take a bikini clad warrior who kicks butt any day.

Point is, a scantily clad or nude female character is not inherently sexist and a fully dressed character certainly can be. Naturally, sex sells, and feminists can cry foul for a million years and never change the fact that men enjoy looking at women, more so sans apparel. This is design by evolution. But desire for sex does not fall exclusively into the male or female domain (see Fifty Shades of Grey). Rather, lust is just one of many emotional facets that makes us human. The problem derives when eliciting desire becomes a female character’s only quality (I am looking at you, Red Sonja). In this case, the character does become, in the eyes of male viewers, an object, which is admittedly disgusting and degrading. So is Hideo Kojima’s character, Quiet, unrealistic? You bet! Ridiculous? Definitely! Representative of an unfair double-standard? Probably. Sexist? Not so fast . . .

Take Thelana. This girl could be deemed the very epitome of sexism, and yet, she is anything but an object in Ages of Aenya. In this character we have the whole gamut of human emotion, from fear, sorrow and pride to love, jealousy and compassion. She is courageous, intelligent, and every bit as capable as any male hero. She is a farmer, a warrior and a thief. Incidentally, she never uses sex as a tool, and beauty is not her “primary virtue” as feminist Susan J. Douglas might argue, but rather, climbing and archery. We even get to know Thelana’s father, mother, and eleven siblings by name. The only thing that really sets her apart from most female characters: she’s nude most of the time, as in no clothes whatsoever. Why? Why couldn’t she be all those things and keep her clothes on for heaven’s sake? Two reasons  1) Nudity is beautiful and the heroic nude is a tradition that dates back to Ancient Greece, and  2) More importantly, Thelana is a naturist (as is the author) and if you’ve never experienced the joy and connectedness that comes from experiencing nature in the buff, you cannot really comment on it, which is why many of my female naturist friends identify with Thelana, because they are neither whores, strippers, or objects of male desire. And before any feminist gets all up in arms about double standards, Xandr, the male hero, is just as naked just as often, because there really is a double standard when it comes to male vs. female nudity.

Thelana is completely naked. Is she a sexist character?

As ridiculous as Hideo Kojima’s new heroine appears, let’s not rush to judgment here. Let’s play the game and see what this character is all about, while keeping in mind that the most insidious form of sexism is more often found in places where it has the most damaging influence, in the minds of young girls, particularly with the dearth of role-models for young girls in video games.

Quest for the Talismans: Monsters!

I love monsters!

What’s a great role playing board game without monsters? And the more the merrier! My fondest memories from the early days of D&D is how much I loved my Monster Manual; it was a dusty old book from the seventies given to me by a cook at my father’s restaurant. The brittle, yellowed pages only added to that sense of mystique about the game. I used to gaze long and hard at the flat, black & white sketches and fantasize about the day when my character, Sir Marek the Brave, might have to battle them. Of course, the artwork looks pathetic by today’s standards, and any search for monster art on deviantArt will almost certainly garner superior work. But keep in mind this was the eighties and the Internet was a thing undreamed of.

What I like about the monster system in Quest for the Talismans is its simplicity. You only have to know a few numbers, so it’s easy to make your own monster from your imagination or from images you find around the Web. I collect miniatures used for gaming at hobby shops. To encourage players to think creatively, some monsters include action rolls, because hacking and slashing at a creature until it drops dead is just plain boring, not to mention unrealistic. As a writer, I have always had a hard time imagining a knight stabbing a dragon to death. But what if the knight could climb on the dragon’s back? Reach for its head to drive his magic sword through the dragon’s brain? Now the whole battle seems more feasible, but there are no mechanics in D&D to set that in motion. I suppose there are players who imagine just such a scenario, but the dice doesn’t account for how difficult it must be to jump on a moving monster’s backside.


Now that I have switched over to WordPress, I can offer the complete QUEST FOR THE TALISMANS BOARD GAME for free as a downloadable PDF file!

Quest for the Talismans 5.0

Books vs. Video Games: Round 1: FIGHT!

 

DISCLAIMER:

So as not to incur the wrath of the Mass Effect 3 people who keep visiting my literary blog for some reason, I need to make a few points clear: I don’t want any comments stating that I am comparing apples to oranges. Yes, the mediums are different, but I can still compare the two (example: apples are crunchy, oranges not so much). That leads to my second point: Don’t bother telling me it’s all my opinion; duh, I already know that. Everything is opinion. Third: Don’t bother telling me I can enjoy both. It adds nothing to the discussion and I know that already, and I do (enjoy both).

Let me also begin by stating I am a gamer. While I don’t play as much as I used to, I frequented the arcade every weekend before home consoles were a thing (Atari doesn’t count). I remember chugging 15 dollars worth of tokens in one sitting just to beat Adon from Street Fighter (1, not 2). I owned the Atari 2600, the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and every Nintendo console since (this Christmas I got the Wii U). I owned the Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, Playstation 1 and 2, an X-Box and the X-Box 360. I’ve spent close to ten grand upgrading various computers just to play games. My first was a Commodore Amiga with 500 Kilobytes of RAM. Long story short, I know games. But I also know books. I love both, but in the end, books edges out games for me by a slim margin. Here’s why:

Books have better stories: Most games have very little story or none at all, or if they attempt something grand, the plot is often nonsensical (I am looking at you, Japanese RPG’s). Even games with great story telling (Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid, Red Dead Redemption) typically manage to meet only the basic criteria for written fiction. As gamers, we often give video games a free pass in the story department, as if we cannot expect too much from something that requires colored buttons or a keyboard. Sure, put Deus Ex Machina up against 50 Shades of Grey, and I’ll take the action RPG any day, but we’re talking about the majority here. Put it this way, a good story in a game is a plus, but in a book it’s mandatory. That’s all the book has to offer. Story always ranks high on gamers’ list of priorities. It’s always a series like Mass Effect that gets people riled up to the point where they’ll argue endlessly on other people’s blogs and make YouTube videos to prove a point. Story matters to gamers, but the best stories aren’t found in games. Now you may be thinking: Books have better stories now, but just you wait until the future; games are getting better at it everyday, and I agree. But story in gaming will always be limited to the strictures of play. No matter the game, every developer needs to give the player something to do, some way to interact with the images on the screen. But this is a double edged sword, because the freedom of control also limits what can happen in a story. Imagine a game based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. SPOILER ALERT: The story ends badly, really badly. Not only that, but the protagonist, Hester Prynne, doesn’t do a damn thing about it (Mass Effect fanatics who hate nihilistic endings would be very angry about this). Hester Prynne is, in essence, a powerless character that no gamer would put up with (again, see Mass Effect 3). It’s a no-win situation, a lose-lose scenario. Powerlessness is the theme of the novel, but you can’t build a game around powerlessness or quiet, internal suffering.

Books are easy: I love a good challenge, but I often find gaming to be a chore. The first time I booted up Skyrim, I was blown away. The visuals were absolutely stunning. But as first impressions wore off, after the detailed graphics and open ended world failed to wow me, I wanted to know more about my character. What was her motivation? Why should I care about anyone or anything in this Viking inspired world? And why do people keep calling her naked when I can’t even take off her underwear? In time, the story devolved to little more than collecting junk so I could trade it for money, so I could then buy upgrades to go back into the wild to kill more things and collect more junk. Just as with Mass Effect, the cut scenes tell a story, but those scenes do nothing but mask the repetition of game play. I often wished I could just skip the itemizing, buying, selling, trading, and not to mention clicking the right trigger until the monster on the screen keels over, and just get to the damn story. Some games, like Final Fantasy, are even worse. I remember spending close to a hundred hours (that I’ll never get back) in Greece trying to beat FFVII (considered the best in the series). Unfortunately, I wasn’t a high enough level to get to the end, and when I returned home from vacation, the stupid European save card didn’t work. YouTube aside, I’ll never know how it ends. Had it been a book, I could have taken the thing on the plane and read all about Cloud defeating Sephiroth.

Books are educational: Yes, I’ve learned a lot from games, like real world racing techniques from Gran Turismo and Roman war strategy from Centurion (really old game, don’t bother looking it up). But learning things from games is the exception. How much real world knowledge do you get playing Halo, Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter? If anything, you might come away with a very skewed understanding of life. Someone who has only experienced World World II via Call of Duty might think winning a war is aiming well and taking cover. Read a book about World War II, on the other hand, and you will no doubt be better informed about the politics, economy, geography, the supply lines, and all the other factors which determined the war’s outcome. Play almost any Sci-Fi shooter, and you will learn next to nothing about astronomy. There may be a bit of real science in Mass Effect, but it doesn’t compare to what you would learn from Ben Bova, Arthur C. Clarke, or Isaac Asimov. Oh, and don’t try punching and kicking a car to pieces, you’ll only break your fists.

Books are numerous: There are more than a million books in the world. Anything you can conceive of, you’ll find it, and plenty of it. Enjoy gritty, dark fantasy with real world undertones? There are enough authors churning out that kind of work, on a monthly basis, to keep you occupied for life. Games worth playing, on the other hand, are often rare; and if you have very specific tastes, say, a sexy vampire romance set in the 18th century Europe, good luck finding a game version of it (or a decent one at that).

Books are timeless: Remember how cool Doom was? With its amazing 360 degree first person perspective, its array of guns and all those scary demons coming after you—a true video game classic. But wait. How often do you play Doom? Or any video game classic, like Pong, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga? I am sure there are a lot of nostalgic gamers who will be leaving me comments like, “I love Doom! I play it every night!” But let’s be realistic. Doom is old and outdated. What made it popular, cutting edge technology, is cutting edge no more. Gamers today spend way more time on Halo, Gears of War or Bioshock. But someday, Halo will be where Doom is now, looking old and outdated, and only the few nostalgic people who want to relive their youth will be playing it. Look at it another way. Go into a game store. Any game store. Do they sell Doom? Probably not. If they do, it’s like ten cents. Now go into any bookstore. Do they still sell Frankenstein? Tarzan? Lord of the Rings? They sure do. What’s more, though Frankenstein was written in 1818, it frequently sells at new book prices, because a good story told well is unaffected by advances in book making technology. I like to know that when I am an old fart, I can still teach my grandkids about the literary classics, which will hold up just as well as whatever new novel about sexy vampires has hit the shelves. Zelda on Wii, on the other hand, will not look so impressive compared to the holographic-projection contact lenses they’ll be wearing.

Bottom line: I love games and I love books, but if I were stranded on an island, let’s say it’s a Greek island with a beautiful beach, and I could only choose to have a copy of Lord of the Rings or The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, I think I’d go with the book, or better yet, plenty of pens and paper to make my own books. Besides, no electricity.

Post Script: I hate to have to do this again, but this post is closed to comments. I had hoped to engage in some lively discussion regarding the merits of books vs. the merits of games, but unfortunately, I have to deal with immature, uneducated, and obsessive fans of Mass Effect 3, who plague my blog like a cancer. I never find this kind of radical thinking when I discuss books with readers. The flexibility of the blank page and the range of story telling it allows makes readers much more open minded to differences of opinion and perspective. I have yet to deal with enraged Game of Thrones fans who disagree with my criticisms; if anything, I’ll get a simple, “Well, I enjoyed it,” or “I didn’t feel that way” and that’s it. Even in college, no teacher or student ever tried to prove a story good or bad.

As for Mass Effect, I have never met people with such devotion outside of religious debate, abortion, the gun debate, and perhaps the Star Wars movies. For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone should care about a video game to such an extent. I think of the hundreds of wasted hours and the thousands of keystrokes lent to the task of proving something that cannot be proven, and I am saddened by the poor state of humanity. It would seem that in this country there is an overall lack of critical thinking skills, and that in our schools, we need to start teaching logic and stress the scientific method. One of my friends is studying to be a philosophy professor and this issue comes up all the time.

For me, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is about as important as a bag of potato chips. I understand that people have strong feelings because fiction is a powerful thing—it’s one of the themes of my blog, but obsessing over an action RPG like ME3 is like obsessing over the latest episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. It’s juvenile, plain and simple. I agree that the ending could have been better, but it’s hard for me to care when I never took it seriously for a moment. As I mentioned in this post, story in games suffer from the strictures of game play, and that is no more apparent than in Mass Effect 3. Imagine a novel where every single conflict boiled down to a shootout. How would that read?

Shepard ducked for cover. He pulled out his pistol, squeezed off a number of rounds. The alien from behind the crates on the opposite end of the hanger fired back. “More shooting . . .” Shepard grumbled to himself. Is there any end to it? If there was only another way to deal with conflicts. Why couldn’t they get some robots to do the job? Or buy some mechs? Hell, Earth had remote drones in the 20th century, yet here he was on foot, Captain of the Normandy, the last great hope for the planet Earth and his entire species . . . dodging energy blasts and without a helmet! To his left, Shepard could see Miranda, the love of his life, lying dead on the floor. It didn’t phase him much since it happened all the time. But without her help, he knew, he’d lack the fire power to fend off the Reaper onslaught. Quickly, he ran over her body, and just as quickly she jumped back up and started shooting again. Thank God, Shepard thought. 

Meanwhile, back on the Normandy, the rest of Shepard’s crew sat at their desks, staring blankly at their computer screens, unable to help their commander in any way. They were unable to violate “Einstein’s Third Law of Character Dispensation” which states that only three people can leave a spaceship, on foot, at any given time . . . even though, on occasion, they did leave the ship to go on shore leave on the Citadel. So maybe they were all just cowards, except when they weren’t . . .

See what I mean? If I wrote a story like that, I’d be laughed at by every editor, agent and publisher in the country. And yet, this is the great story preceding Mass Effect 3, the end of which somehow ruins the epic. Sorry, I never took it seriously from day one, which is why the finale did not ruin my life. It was a fun adventure. The graphics were nice. The action was intense. The story was existent, which is more than I can say for most games, and that was it.

If anything bothers me, it’s the fact that I have to define what opinion and subjective means, over and over, which may be symptomatic of a larger problem in our society. If people cannot even understand these fundamentals of critical thinking, how can they hope to apply themselves to the larger and more pressing issues plaguing our world?