Why I Gave up Video Games for Tabletop Role Playing

Don’t get me wrong. I used to get excited about video games. My first system was an Atari 2600, followed by the Nintendo NES, Super Nintendo, GameCube, Wii, Wii U and the Switch. I’ve owned a Saturn, a Dreamcast, an X-Box, X-Box 360, a Playstation, a PS2 … 3 … 4, not to mention the ten grand I’ve plopped down on gaming computers. Among my favorite series is The Legend of Zelda and Street Fighter. But my feeling of tediousness has been steadily growing over the years, and now unopened games just sit on my shelf for months. At some point in time, gaming became a chore. When I look at an inventory screen to get bombarded by a hundred little empty boxes, I just think to myself . . . work.

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After almost four decades of tapping away at controllers, I feel that I’ve seen and done it all. There are very few original ideas in gaming, and even when you come across the occasional weird indie title (Typoman comes to mind) the question then becomes: why would I want to play that? Almost all games fall neatly into a genre: platformer, action, role-playing, racing, fighting—and they are ALL, with little exception, painfully similar. For someone who immerses themselves in gaming culture, the slightest innovations appear to be groundbreaking, but more often than not, these are little more than tweaks. Nintendo’s Wii, with its motion censors, was perhaps the only genuine revolution in recent memory, but then for some reason it was abandoned. Virtual Reality has also failed to wow the general public, because really, who wants to pretend to go to work?

The biggest new idea in shooters, to my knowledge, is auto-cover, a mechanic made popular in Gears of War, and it felt fresh and exciting upon its release, but looking back at it now, much of what you actually do in the game is the same as in every other shooter—running, taking cover, and shooting—just like in Doom, Duke NukemRed Faction, HaloMass Effect and in about a thousand other clones and sequels. RPGs, if you can even call them that, are no different. Whether it’s World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Oblivion or The Witcheryou are like a hamster on a spinning wheel, repeating the same actions over and over ad nauseam: killing monsters to collect XP, so you can level up to kill more monsters. Rinse and repeat until the boss is dead and a cut scene comes up to let you know the game is over. Sometimes there’s a decent story in there, but for every Eternal Darkness, The Last of Us or Deus Ex, there are about a hundred titles with zombies/demons/aliens invading [insert fantasy realm here] for no damn reason. Even when the story is passable, I am forced to do so much grinding that my life feels wasted. A few years ago I gave up on a game with great animation, engaging characters and a lot of unique ideas, Ni No Kuni. Beautiful though it was, I simply could not play it. After spending the better part of a night trying to kill the first boss, I realized that I needed to grind to progress in the game, and for those of you not in the know, grinding is the process of fighting the same repetitive creatures, in the same repetitive way, while watching the same repetitive animation, sometimes for hours or even days, just to become powerful enough to win. It’s like trying to watch The Lord of the Rings, and having your Blu-Ray player breakdown so that the same scene plays ten times in a row before moving on to the next scene.

The last game I had the patience to sit through was Star Wars: Battlefront for the PS4. Now I know this isn’t the best example of great game design, but it really isn’t so different than any other FPS, where you are ducking behind walls, taking aim and shooting, like I’ve been doing for the past two decades. Quite frankly, I am sick of it. I AM BORED!!!

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Now I won’t go into why tabletop RPGs (real RPGs) like D&D are superior to video games, nor bother explaining how they are tangible, or allow you infinite freedom, or are more social. You can read that here if you want. But I do want to explain why D&D excites me, because with D&D, I get to do different things. Really different things!

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Fun with real people!

Part of the fun for me is creating the game. I get to be a storyteller, an artist, and a level designer. Our current campaign is set on Middle Earth, and the first thing I did was research Tolkien’s world, picking up The Silmarillion, Beren and LúthienThe Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin. Keep in mind, nobody was telling me to read these books. I read only so much as I was enjoying it. To simulate the war against the Witch-King of Angmar, I bought a 3D puzzle of Middle Earth. Again, I could have bought a simple foldout map from Amazon, but I wanted the 3D mountain pieces. Then I went to a hardware store to get a custom cut of plexiglass, and after careful measuring, added squares to the glass using ribbon tape, resulting in a clear chess board. Placing the board over my Middle Earth map, and chess pieces to track the movements of each unit, I ended up with a layout of the war. This was a personal quest I had set out to achieve. Nobody had told me what to do or how to do it. And it involved a lot more thought than simply following an arrow on a screen. The final product is something I truly feel proud of—an actual, real-life achievement.

To invite my players to our game, I wrote a letter imitating Tolkien’s writing, urging them to send reinforcements for the impending war. It was printed on faux-aged paper, and sealed with the Tree of Gondor, before being sent through the mail. This was a real letter, dripping with ink and melted wax, that you could actually hold in your hands. Unfortunately, I received zero response from my hardcore gamer friends, because when a real letter comes in the real mail asking to embark upon a real-ish quest, I suppose they got confused because there was nobody there to tell them what to do.

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A real letter!

For our most recent D&D session, I made a fort and a giant stone head using styrofoam, caulking, Play-Doh and paint. I am always on the lookout for things to make, or unique things I can do, to play outside the box, and by box I mean X-Box.

 

Now you may be thinking, Nick, I don’t really like making things. I don’t like painting, or sculpting, or being creative in any way. And that’s fine. TRPG’s aren’t for everybody, and I suppose there will always be those who prefer multiple choice gaming: Picking between Door A or Door B. Me? I’ll choose to break down a wall every time. The thing about D&D, and tabletop games in general, is that they can be whatever you want them to be. You can even incorporate video games into it, if you want. I actually did this once, using Super Smash Bros. for a Zelda themed campaign. But D&D never forces you to slog through the same repetitive actions over and over, unless you have a bad DM, in which case you can tell him, “Hey, this is boring. Let’s do something different.” And the best part is, every game is unique. NOBODY else is playing your adventure but YOU. Millions of kids have been Link and Mario and Master Chief and Geralt of Rivia. But only I have been Sir Marek the Brave! And this makes for a truly special experience.

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Sir Marek the Brave

In a few weeks, I am planning a kayaking trip with my players. Yes, a real life kayaking trip, and this is going to be part of the game, because we need to get down the Anduin River somehow. Anything goes in my games, and that will always be more exciting, for me at least, than pressing buttons.

5E D&D Race: Ilmar

thelana_2015_by_alexey_lipatov_by_ageofaenya-d8ait4hThe ILMAR (plural) or Ilmarin (singular, descriptive) go by many names: savages, barbarians, wild humans. Though few true Ilmar exist, they are viewed by most civilized people as more animal than human. This view is perpetuated by the little that is known of their culture. Due to fear and misconceptions regarding their humanity, Ilmar are often forced into wars or labor camps, or become beggars. A small number become wives, adopting local customs, while keeping their heritage secret.

Ilmar are great survivors, and can make their homes in the harshest of environments. They exceed at hunting, foraging, and making simple tools from the simplest of resources. Due to their primitive natures, Ilmar can go without food and water, and endure extremes climates better than most other races.

 

ILMAR TRAITS:
Ability Scores. Strength and Dexterity increases by 1, Constitution increases by 2, and Charisma decreases by 1.
Primitive Survival. The Ilmar can survive one cycle (ten days) without water and 3 cycles without food, can walk across the most rugged terrain without footwear, and can survive (without clothing) in temperatures close to freezing.
Armor of Flesh. Ilmar abhor clothing. In light, medium or heavy armor, you have Disadvantage on all attack rolls and Dexterity based skill checks. While going completely nude, you have a heightened sense of awareness, adding your Proficiency modifier to Perception checks. Wearing no clothes and carrying no shield, your (natural) base Armor Class is 13.
Alignment. Ilmar tend toward chaotic and neutral alignments.
Size. Ilmar are human sized, weighing between 100 to 180 lbs. and standing between 5′ and 6′ tall, tending toward more muscular and slender physiques.
Speed. Base walking speed is 30 feet.
Languages. The Ilmar speak common and their own unique dialect, but literacy is uncommon.
Preferred Classes. Ilmarin characters are limited to the following classes: barbarians, fighters, monks, rangers and rogues. This is due, primarily, to the setting, in that magic is virtually unknown to Aenya. Monks and rangers draw their power from “spiritual” and “quantum” sources. In a different world, Ilmarin PC’s may choose a spell caster class, but they lose connection to their deity in any other setting, and consequently, any special racial abilities.
Starting EquipmentNone

 

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An Ilmarin barbarian fighting a Yuan-Ti

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES: Once subsumed by other cultures, Ilmar are difficult to distinguish from other humans, aside from their light, almost translucent eyes. Despite evolving in an ideal climate, their skin is thicker than most humans and the soles of their feet can be hard as leather.

HISTORY: The Ilmar are believed the last vestige of proto-human, the earliest humans to have evolved on the planet. According to an inscription found within a Septheran ruin, the first word for human was ‘ilma’, which the Ilmar use to denote their species, as they do not recognize themselves as a separate social group. The proto-human lived peacefully for one hundred thousand to one million years until the arrival of the Septhera c. 10,000 BGM. Finding the dominant species of Aenya defenseless, the Septhera conquered the planet with ease, enslaving all of humanity except for a small population hidden in a region in the mountains of Ukko. There, the proto-human continued to thrive, oblivious to the changes occurring beyond his borders. It was not until 5 BGM that the people in the river valleys of Ukko were discovered by a Zo researcher. Known as Kjus, the researcher became so enamored by their simple way of life, he abandoned his own society to become one of them, naming the people ‘Ilmar’ and the land ‘Ilmarinen,’ meaning ‘land of ilms’ after the unique flower of orange and violet growing in abundance there, or possibly, ‘land of humans’. Kjus taught them of Zo science, history, philosophy and medicine, but made certain to not pollute their way of life with the excesses of his own civilization. Kjus later built a monastery high in the mountains, and before his death, founded the Order of Alashiya, who are also known as the Keepers.

CULTURE AND SOCIETY: Knowing nothing of war, crime, or government, the Ilmar live a simple agrarian life. Since everything in their community is shared, they have no concept of currency or wealth or poverty. As one saying goes, “No man is poor who wants for nothing.” Much of their day is spent farming and gathering, though Ilmar are known to hunt during food shortages. In their leisure time, they enjoy singing, dancing, and conversing. Through song and dance, they relate their myths and their history. The holiest time is the Solstice Night, the longest night of the year, when families throughout the land join to celebrate life, love and creation. It is during this time that boys and girls of a certain age, showing hair about the loins, pair off to jump the sacred bonfire, after which the pair is forever joined. It is believed that during this ceremony, the souls of lovers from past lives find one another again. Contrary to what many believe, the Ilmar do not engage in orgies or fornicate recklessly, but only with those with whom they are joined. When Solstice Night ends, it is expected that the female move into the male household, and by the following year, that she bear him a child. Having many children is regarded the highest honor for women. Despite their duty as mothers, however, females are given greater status than males, since it is the female that has power to create life.

The Ilmar lack many technologies, but are skilled woodsmiths and clay workers. Their artifacts include elaborately carved farming tools, throwing spears, atlatls, and pottery. They also excel in the shaping of trees to produce “living homes.” Giant camphor and oak are hollowed out to make bedrooms and kitchens, though eating, bathing and grooming is typically an outdoor activity. As they are without any concept of crime, the Ilmar typically do not have doors or locks, though partitions may include curtains of bead or bone.

LANGUAGE AND CUSTOM: For the Ilmar, nudity taboos do not exist, and for this reason, they do not typically wear clothing of any kind, nor produce material that may be used for clothing. The Ilmar are not, however, without a sense of style or individuality, and will decorate their bodies with flowers, bones, semi-precious stones like jade or lapis lazuli, and with elaborate mud patterns called henna. Neither sex cuts its hair. Women wear a single braid which can reach down to their ankles, while the men can grow their locks to the middle of the back, either loose or done up in multiple braids.

RELIGION: To the Ilmar, all life is sacred, from the smallest insect to the greatest camphor tree. They make no distinction between human or sentient life and animal or non-sentient (plant) life. All are part of a singular essence known as the Mother Goddess, or Alashiya. The goddess is thought to exist everywhere and in all things, even in non-living matter, such as in the wind, in sunlight, and in the earth. Alashiya is never seen or heard, but can be “sensed” through the skin. According to myth, the Goddess was born of two elder gods, Anu and Eru. At the beginning of time, these primordial deities danced through the astral void, singing to one another and making love continually, birthing new worlds in the process. After Aenya and Alashiya were created, the elder gods moved on.

The Ilmar do not consider dreams separate from reality. Each and every dream is a literal experience. By grinding the ilm flower into a fine powder and drinking it, ritual leaders embark upon purposeful dream journeys across time and space, into other dimensions, and to worlds beyond death.

In death, the Ilmar become one with Alashiya, as they were before birth. The body is marked by a cairn close to home, typically under a tree, which is then absorbed into the soil to become new life. Due to limited medicine and nutrition, the average lifespan for the Ilmar is sixty years.

ILMAR and other races: The Ilmar tend to be loners, in that they are shunned by most other races. Humans and dwarves in particular find their constant state of nakedness off-putting, whereas elves, gnomes and halflings are more accepting. In a party of heroes, an Ilmarin will keep to him or herself, dressing appropriately where the culture demands it. Others may find the Ilmar to be the best of companions, in that they are fiercely loyal allies, trustworthy to a fault. Perhaps more importantly, an Ilmarin has little interest in possessions (rogues steal to survive) rarely partaking in their share of treasure.

ILMARIN NAMES: To foreign ears, the Ilmarin language sounds hard and clipped as they often use conjoined consonances.

Male names include: Xandr, Baldr, Heimdl and Borz.

Female names typically avoid the conjoined consonant and end in an ‘a’. Examples are Thelana, Aliaa, Amina, and Anja.

NOTABLE ILMARIN HEROES: Xandr, Thelana


Starting character sheet:

Featured Image -- 14252Thelana

Strength: 12 +1
Intelligence: 11 +0
Wisdom: 11 +0
Dexterity: 18 +4
Constitution: 17 +3
Charisma: 12 +1

Race: Ilmar
Class: Ranger
Level: 1 (+2)
Armor Class: 17 (nude)
Hit Points: 13
Duel Wield: +6 / 1d8 +4 (short sword) + 1d4 (dagger)
Longbow: +6 / 1d8 +4 (range 150/600)
Alignment: Chaotic Good

Saving Throws: Strength +3, Dexterity +6
Skills: Athletics +3, Nature +2, Perception (nude) +2, Stealth +6
Special: Natural Explorer, Favored Enemy: bogren (goblins), horg (orcs)

Equipment: Short sword, dagger, longbow, quiver, arrows, cloak

BACKSTORY: Thelana is born in the river valleys of Ilmarinen, the middle child in a family of twelve. Her eldest brother, Borz, is sold into slavery when she is very young. As the dark hemisphere continues to creep eastward, the resulting famine forces Thelana into the wild. Her life is spent on the edge of survival, hunting for prey while hiding from predators. Wounded by a cannibalistic half-man, she is rescued by Captain Dantes and taken to a nearby military encampment, where she proves her archery skills and is recruited into the Kratan army. Years pass until, on the Plains of Narth, their forces are decimated by the bogren and horg, and Thelana, torn with longing for the life she knew, abandons the battlefield. In Ilmarinen, she finds the crops and ilm flowers have withered. There is no trace of her family.


 

To learn more about the Ilmar, please check out the Ages of Aenya.

Aenya News Update: 11/29/16

A few months ago, I put out a request for artists for the upcoming 2017 edition of Ages of Aenya. After a bit of vetting, by which we produced the Avian and Horde (below), I settled on the talented Zhengyi Yu.

I chose Zhengyi for his painterly style, which better suits a novel, I feel, than the more cartoony styles of my other, albeit equally talented artists. Mr. Yu also impressed me with his landscapes. When I see a book with some impossible, otherworldly terrain, it draws me in, igniting my imagination, and I hope to capture readers in the same way. More importantly, Zhengyi has been wonderful to work with, being attentive to my needs and more than willing to brainstorm and make changes. If you’re looking for a talented illustrator, look no further! Also, be sure to check out his awesome gallery at Zhengyi Yu

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Thelana overlooking Hedonia

Here we find Thelana overlooking Hedonia. The massive pyramid temple of Sargonus eclipses the background. Depicting our heroine in her natural state, without triggering any censors, was a challenge. I wanted her in a normal looking pose, not too sexy or bashful, and without any comically placed leaves in the way. And she had to be dynamic, to show her power and fearlessness. She’s naked in a city of thousands and yet she does not feel vulnerable! That being said, Zhengyi and I are working on an alternate cover, with Thelana draped in her trademark jade cloak (hey, she gets cold sometimes). That way, you can read about the Ilmar on the subway without getting any weird looks!

OK, you may be thinking, all this is fine and good, but when can I read it? Glad you asked! As the old adage says, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and while I don’t believe this to be 100% true, story remains the most important thing, seconded only by the quality of the writing. Without those things in place, you can’t hope to sell a million copies, unless of course you’re writing bondage porn.

I’ve spent more than a decade building this world, its history and geography; fleshing out its races and its characters. Nine years alone I spent editing, as I ran a restaurant and helped my wife raise our two kids, but even the best of us need another set of eyes. If I could give myself amnesia, I could do it all myself. But it’s impossible to judge yourself objectively, to judge any story really in a non-biased way. Nobody can. But finding an editor you can trust isn’t easy. An author’s story is their baby. Giving it up, I am forced to wonder, will the editor tear it up for the sake of tearing it up? Will they maintain my voice? Avoid their own biases? This is a legitimate concern for me, as I’ve had professors try to “correct” my work in the most inane ways. One of my teachers actually suggested that the nun in my short story, Anna and the Devil, masturbate. After all, Satan can’t touch you so long as you abstain from carnal thoughts. His PHd, not surprisingly, was in religious studies.

Then I met Ava Coibion. Ava offered me a free sample edit, of my prologue, and we talked over the phone about our favorite writers, literary styles, and the best way to edit without encroaching on the author’s art. I found her to be intelligent and sensitive. And also, she had this to say,

 

Nick,

There are a thousand praises I could sing here, and with your permission, I’d love to at least give my friend Frank Beddor a sample of your novel to review, or perhaps put you in touch directly with him. But for now, here is the edit for Book One. I was determined to complete the work before Thanksgiving, in hope that you might have a little down time to review my suggested changes. In truth, I devoted this last week and a half solely to the completion of the edit, not because we are on a deadline, as I know you aren’t concerned with a timeline on this, but because I simply couldn’t stop! The prose is intelligent, poetic but often nicely spare/concise, and full of emotion. A true pleasure, and even if you don’t take me on for Books 2 and 3, I will read forward on my own because I simply must know what happens next . . .

Let me know what you think of my comments. I do think the final chapter could be split up into 2 or even 3 separate chapters.

All best,

Ava

 

I know I know, mere flattery. And I might be thinking the same thing, if it weren’t for the fact that, all of my beta readers have given me a similar response. Still, it’s great to get this from a professional, who no doubt has to trudge through literary swamps of poor storytelling.

So now, dear reader, you may be itching to get your hands on this bad boy. Well, the next step is working with Ava through the 170+k words, about 500 pages, until every “T” is crossed and “i” is dotted. Then I get to slap Zhengyi’s contribution over top of it, and last but not least, skedaddle on to the printers.

Ages of Aenya should be available sometime in 2017. In the meantime, my wife will be querying my latest effort, The Princess of Aenya, and I will be dutifully pursuing The Children of Aenya, the third book in the Aenya series, partly based on the Dungeons & Dragons campaign I have been playing with my friends and family these past two years. If you’d like to learn more about The Children of Aenya, and the game we are playing, feel free to join us on Facebook at The Hub of All Worlds.

 

 

 

The Witcher 3 vs. D&D

A while back, I wrote a post regarding my preference for tabletop role playing games to video games, and the ten reasons I feel D&D is the real deal. Today, I’d like to address the flaws I find in electronic RPGs like Dragon Age and Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved video games since the NES days. But when I switch from the real thing, with dice and paper, to a console, the effect can be jarring. The most noticeable thing I find is that, with an electronic RPG (let’s call them VRPGs) there is no sense of realism. Now it might be unfair to compare D&D to Diablo, which is little more than a mindless hack n’ slash, so let’s look at the cream of the crop, a game IGN gave a 9.3: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

What I find particularly perplexing about most VRPG’s is the canyon-wide dichotomy between the visuals (and audio) and basic logic. The Witcher is breathtaking in its detail, from the varied plant species to villagers going about their daily chores. Such sights and sounds are difficult, if not impossible, to convey in a dice and paper game. Stirring music and voice acting further enhance the immersive feel, and the end result gives the player the sense of really being there. Tabletop or digital, immersion is a sign of a great RPG, when you feel transported to another reality. So it boggles the mind to see how little attention is given to logic. The contrast is so stark as to pull me out of the experience every time. It screams artificiality. What does it matter that you can count the leaves on every tree, when a pack of wolves runs right past a peasant doing laundry and she doesn’t even notice?

My character, Geralt, is a legendary warrior with a storied past, a monster slayer for hire, a witcher. Villagers and soldiers alike speak to me with reverence and a measure of trepidation. Surely, I am a bad ass, right? Wrong! The first wolf I came across killed me, and it wasn’t even a close fight. I was eviscerated. By a lone wolf. Now, I’ve played enough of these RPGs to understand how they work. I am certain that by the end of the game, I’ll just look at a wolf and it’ll explode in a shower of blood and fur. But here’s the thing: this is not the story the game is telling me. If I had started off as a peasant farmer learning the ropes of swordsmanship, a solitary wolf might be a credible threat, but Geralt the Witcher, bane of monsters everywhere? The same thing happened to me when a random guard caught me looting. He killed me in two hits. TWO!!! This, despite my whacking him for about five minutes, with a two-handed sword no less. If this had been anything like real life, he’d have been on the ground bleeding and bruised, with deep gashes and broken bones. Sure, we have hit points in D&D, but I never imagine my hero just standing there like some invincible deity, taking hit after hit. Now I realize games aren’t meant to simulate life. Nobody wants to role play sleeping 6-8 hours a day, suffering the occasional bout of dysentery, doing menial tasks to pay taxes, having to quit adventuring over a herniated disc, and finally dying of the flu. But the goal of any RPG is to approximate reality enough to suspend disbelief. With my PS4 controller in hand, however, I am constantly being beaten over the head with the fact that THIS IS A GAME! You must level up before you can fight a wolf, never mind what the story says!

Now, after stabbing this damn wolf about a hundred times, my sword breaks. I find this odd. Historically speaking, weapons of iron and bronze broke much more frequently than games and movies let on, but this had less to do with usage and more to do with physics. Whack your gladius hot off the forge against a rock and it’ll shatter. Smack it against a soft furry pelt and you can pass it on to your grandsons. OK. So my sword is broken. This is a serious problem, my being a witcher and all, so how do I fix it? Does anyone in town know a good blacksmith? Well, if this were medieval life, or D&D, I could ask someone. Later in the game, I meet General So-and-So, who needs me to take care of a griffon that is eating his men. But here’s the thing: his men are far more powerful than I am! Which brings to mind Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. The guards in that game kept chasing me through hell—literally hell—over an apple. One, lousy, apple. Tamriel is being overrun by demonic forces, and all anyone cares about is shoplifting, random guards who could, for some reason, kill the entire fighter’s guild. This was a story-breaking design flaw for me, turning Oblivion into the tale of the poor thief (me) fighting to feed himself.

So General So-and-So asks me if I need anything to kill this griffon. Yes, I need my damn sword fixed! But I am forced to watch an irrelevant cut scene instead. And here’s another problem I have. Scripted events. You do as the game dictates, not as you want. When it comes to consoles, I sometimes wonder whether I am actually playing the game or if the game is playing me. More often than not, any sense of control or decision making is illusory. Sure, I can choose which way I run up the hill, but I still need to get up that damned hill. Dragon Age 3 was the worst in this regard. Like playing a train simulator, you’re just stuck on the tracks, going along for the ride. Even in The Witcher, I have no sense of embodying my character. In D&D, I could truly be Geralt, or come as close to it as possible without a holodeck. I could, for instance, decide not to look for Yennefer, get hitched to the barmaid instead. And why the hell am I collecting plants? I am sure they’ll come in handy somehow, otherwise the game wouldn’t let me collect them, and yet this further breaks the illusion of reality. I do things simply because the game lets me do them, which clues me in to the fact that I should be doing them, whether it makes sense or not. Now imagine walking out of your house and grabbing every random thing in sight: sticks, small lilies, dollar weeds, the neighbor’s mail . . . Am I a hero or a hoarding kleptomaniac?

Video RPG’s like Skyrim, Dragon Age and Witcher are my surrogates for the real thing, been playing them since the mid-80’s. Games like Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder and Black Crypt for the Commodore Amiga. It’s often a poor substitute, and yet there’s no one who will drop my house at 2:00 in the morning to roll dice, and most of my friends and family think me deluded for preferring pen and paper over billion-pixel graphics. So . . . it’s back to the Witcher for me and, fuck, I just walked off a bridge and died. Time to reload.

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A classic!

 


 

UPDATE! 

OK, so I’ve put over 100 hours of play into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and think I know enough about the game to make a fair assessment, and my original impression stands. While The Witcher 3 serves up an impressive feast for the eyes, it pales in comparison to the genuine sense of adventure you get from a traditional role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons.

Again, the standout feature in The Witcher 3 are the jaw-dropping visuals. Even after a hundred hours, I can’t help but want to stare at it. It’s hard to believe that a team of programmers added that much detail, from a stray cat prowling the streets to kids playing in a field of sunflowers, to a family of geese crossing a dirt path or an old lady sweeping her front porch. But for all its vast beauty, there simply isn’t much to do. As a player, you feel stripped of options, a passive onlooker. Gameplay boils down to two things:  1) Kill something  2) Buy something. Sure, there’s an epic story to explore, but it’s a convoluted mess, like a hundred different authors got together to write one book, with hardly any agreement between them, so what happens in one chapter becomes meaningless in another. For example, I helped elven master smith, Hatori (from Kill Bill, apparently) in exchange for a sword of unparalleled quality. Turns out, when he presented me with this weapon of ultimate craftsmanship, I owned a dozen better swords already. And this leads me to the problem of realism, because while the creators of the game felt it necessary to showcase a hundred different flowers, they failed to make the mechanics of play echo that same realism. Why is it that I still, even at level 36, cannot use a god damn sword made by the village blacksmith? What magic prevents me from just picking it up and swinging it? If the developers didn’t want me having a weapon that deals 500 damage, they should not have put it in the game, or have those weapons sold all over town. It makes me wonder, if the guy who saves the world can’t put on a pair of gloves, who the hell can? Who’s buying all these god level-items? And don’t get me started on the random guards, who are far more powerful than the demonic elf gods invading the world!

None of this would be such a problem if at least I had some agency, some sense that I am making decisions for my character. Geralt is in love with Yennefer, not Triss. If this were Dungeons & Dragons, I would’ve dumped that bitchy sorceress for the sexy red-head without a thought. The Witcher forces you to do things, and in a very confined, particular way. We call this railroading in D&D, and it’s the mark of bad DMing. Last night, I nearly fell asleep playing, I was so bored.

So why play at all, you may ask? Mainly, it gives me something to do, and it’s still more engaging than watching TV. And that really seems to be what the Witcher is, not a game per se, but an interactive show.

Now if you enjoyed the Witcher and you really want to take control of Geralt’s story, here he is in D&D form:

geralt

 

For a Dungeon Master, these games are inspiration, so I also made rules for playing as a Witcher in D&D (you’ll need this to play Geralt!), in this easy to reference PDF. Enjoy!


Witcher Class for D&D 5th Edition

 

 

 

 

D&D and the Fantasy Author

Roleplaying games, and by that I mean “real” roleplaying games, the kind with dice and paper, can be a powerful resource for any writer of fantasy, a great source of ideas and inspiration. My most recent novel, The Princess of Aenya, was inspired by a one-day 4th edition D&D campaign. In the game, my wife played Queen Isadora, a cleric. One of my nephews was a ninja/assassin sent to kill her, and my other nephew her protector, Demacharon. I imagined an enormous stairwell spiraling down a chasmic tower, with arrows raining down on them from all sides. Years later, that exact scene made its way into the first chapter of my novel, except Isadora was now Radia, and the ninja assassin appeared later in the story. Incidentally, Radia and Demacharon would later come upon a monster in a crypt, the tetra-claw beast. I first drew the tetra-claw beast when I was twelve, for a 1st edition campaign, and there it sat in my brain for 30 years, waiting to emerge on the stage of chapter 3 to pounce on my heroes!

The beautiful thing about roleplaying is that it allows you to create without having to worry about being judged. Too often, writers are discouraged by the literary world. Want to write a story about a knight saving a damsel in distress? No way! That’s both cliche and “sexist”. Want to have a ninja teaming up with a robot for a swashbuckling adventure? Not if you want to appeal to older, more jaded readers of “serious” fantasy like Game of Thrones. But in D&D, you can do whatever the hell you want. Write like nobody’s reading. Dream like you’re twelve again. And then, as is often the case, lightning strikes. An idea is born that germinates into something great. All it took for Harry Potter to happen is for JK to board a train.

Sometimes in this hyper-competitive market, we forget just why we read, why we write, and why we play. And the reason, in case you’ve forgotten, is because life is just too short and the world just too small for our human-sized brains. The fantasy enthusiast craves more than one planet to explore, longs to step outside the boundaries and limitations of this one-time existence. This is what novels and RPGs have in common; they are the gateways to something more.

If you’re a gamer, or just curious to read an adventure in a different way (this is where the oft-disregarded second-person narrative thrives) you can download the file below. Whether you’re new to D&D or a seasoned veteran, you may find it useful. And, unlike in the literary world, everyone is free to steal!


 

Heraldo the Great

5th Edition D&D Adventure

DMT and D&D

I’ve been sitting on this post for years. Part of me really didn’t want to write it. And as a non-drug user, I felt unqualified. But the story has been nagging at me, ever since a friend told me about his DMT experience.

Now, I don’t do drugs. Never have. I grew up in the 80’s, with the “Just Say No” campaign, and the message really hit home. Except I took it to the extreme. I avoid anything that might artificially affect my brain in any way. So I abstain from alcohol, and I mean, ZERO alcohol. Haven’t had a sip of Bud Lite in my life. Nothing. Zilch. (OK, maybe whatever’s in Nyquil). My brother spent most of my teenage life trying to convince me otherwise, that I’d never find friends who don’t drink, or end up with a wife who doesn’t drink. Well, jokes on him, because my closest friend doesn’t drink and neither do our wives! By extension, to think that I could ever be pressured into pot or crack cocaine was hilarious. I was beyond peer pressure. Then again, I never felt any real pressure to do drugs. Sure, a few people asked me, but I said “No thanks” and that was it. It got to the point where I often wondered how anyone could end up an addict. Weren’t they forced to watch the same anti-drug videos I did? Now I know better, that drug-use is more often a symptom of depression or trauma or anxiety. But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. Working in a restaurant, you’re pretty much surrounded by users. If you’re in your mid-thirties and scrubbing dishes for minimum wage, chances are you made some bad decisions in life, or you just really, really like washing dishes. But here’s the odd thing: a lot of people over the years, including some crack heads, assumed I was an addict. One time, after taking a break outside, an employee asked me, “How was it?” I hadn’t had a hit. But, I am slowly starting to realize, I may have been doing drugs all my life without knowing it.

dmt1

Truth be told, we can’t escape drugs no matter how hard we try. A “drug” is a general term for chemicals, and we’re pretty much made of chemicals. It’s in everything we eat and drink. If you enjoy chocolate, caffeine, or the high that comes from exercise and sex, you’re enjoying the drug-like endorphins produced in your brain. And this brings me to DMT. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest you read up on it. The stories are amazing. It’s a hallucinogenic, but far, far more powerful than LSD. One LSD user described his DMT experience as somewhat terrifying, and you would be too, if you’re action figures started talking to you and dancing on your desk. A close friend told me the same thing. To paraphrase, “You don’t realize you’re hallucinating. There’s zero difference between what you know is real and what you are experiencing. Sight, sound, smell … it’s all there, utterly convincing.” And it’s not just seeing some funny things bouncing into your living room. Far from it. When you take a DMT trip, you’re entering another universe. You meet sentient beings, commonly referred to as “machine elves,” and there’s a great sense of time dilation. So what takes only a few minutes in reality might feel like days or weeks by the DMT-clock. OK, Nick, you may be thinking, this guy was probably pulling your leg. So I did my homework, and everything I read confirmed my friend’s story. In his book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris posits that many religious experiences, including visions of life-after death, can be attributed to hallucinogens. The “light at the end of the tunnel,” is just a symptom. Now, this might not make much sense, considering how little the drug is known. Where did Abraham or Moses or Buddha get a hit of this stuff? But here’s the thing: DMT is naturally produced in the brain. The chemical has been associated with dreaming and imagination. When we die, DMT is released from your brain in a torrent, offering powerful, convincing manifestations of the after-life. Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, converted to Christianity after being pronounced brain-dead for “a week.” His description of Heaven sounds a lot like an episode of My Little Pony, with lots of colors, flowers and enormous butterflies. But, as Sam Harris points out, Eben’s experience closely mirrors those of DMT users.

I will admit, for a few days after hearing this story, I entertained the idea that maybe—just maybe—DMT acted as a gateway into another world. I truly wanted to believe. Who wouldn’t? Then again, the notion of other dimensions lurking beside our own can get pretty freaky. So I asked my buddy, “Is it real?” No, he didn’t think so. As a philosophy major, logic prevailed. Sadly, all evidence points to the fact that we only have one life to live. Unless you’re a fundamentalist, you know this is it. And it’s precisely because of this realization, I believe, people are drawn to imaginative endeavors. It’s our only escape from this mundane, everyday existence. Even if you’re the Dos Equis man, you’re going to want to step into someone else’s shoes, live someone else’s life. Why else do we spend so much time and money on movies, TV shows, books and video games? While there may not be an after-life, we can choose multiple lives within this one, and DMT, or some chemical like it, makes it all possible. After talking to my drug-venturing friend, we both came to the conclusion that the brain is far more powerful than either of us could imagine.

I am not a scientist, and even if I were, I think a lot more research needs to go into creativity and imagination and into how the firing of neurons activates those functions in our brains, but I know from experience how real the mind can make things seem. As a child, I managed to convince myself of some pretty impossible things. I could, at times, see and hear things I knew I’d just made up. It got me to worrying, for some years, whether I was on the verge of schizophrenia. My dreams have always been particularly vivid. I sometimes wake, feeling like I just watched a movie’s worth of content, enough to write a novel. Users of DMT report similar experiences, living lifetimes in the span of minutes, but the information quickly vanishes from memory, just as my dreams fade before I can get to pen and paper.

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This brings me back to books and the imagination. For much of my life, I have understood the technological drive to make things look and feel real. CGI effects, in movies and in video games, work to push reality away, to give the player the sense of really “being there.” I love what Lucas did with Star Wars, and what Jackson did with Lord of the Rings, and Skyrim just looks amazing on PS3. And still, we keep pushing the boundaries, desperate to throw more pixels on the screen to hide the fact that they are just pixels. By the end of this year, we will have affordable VR headsets to further the illusion. And yet, given the opportunity, I’d go with a tabletop game, like D&D, every time. Some people only see the pen and the paper. It never becomes real for them, and in their case, who’d want to sit around a table for eight straight hours rolling dice? But for me, D&D feels more real because my brain makes it real. The brain is, after all, a vastly more powerful computer system. The trick is learning how to activate it, how to bring it to its full potential. Am I suggesting taking a hit of DMT before a game? Hell no. That would be terrifying. But I do think we can learn to exercise that part of our brains—the part that makes the magic—through meditation, as Sam Harris suggests, or by simply turning off our screens and the endless everyday distractions tugging at our senses.

demogorgon

Demogorgon

 

In the Netflix original, Stranger Things, a girl with psychic powers is put into a sensory deprivation tank to focus her abilities. I believe this illustrates something we can all do, to hone the untapped resources of our own minds. Interestingly enough, the show references D&D and a monster called Demogorgon. When I was twelve, I was pretty sure Demogorgon was lurking in my bedroom. That never happened to me playing Diablo or Resident Evil. That’s the power of imagination. Nothing can match it.  It’s why I play, why I read, and why I write.