Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Furt Partakes in RPG Blog Carnival, July 2018: Tabletop Tales.

The Carnival is underway!
Hello, dear Burrowers.

I learned something the other day. Apparently, instead of being a once-a-year event, the RPG Blog Carnival is a monthly topic! Last year, when my blog had been much more nascent, I wrote something on the prompt of how magic works in one's game world. But this time, it's something quite different that they're asking for.

For July's entries, the Carnival is being hosted by Pitfalls and Pixies of the RPG Blog Alliance. From the nebulous topic of "Tabletop Tales" I've decided to pull the idea of telling a story about my first (and so far, only) attempt at playing a tabletop RPG in person with other living, thinking beings.

As you shall see, it was a bit of a bizarre experience. Fair warning: there is as much early aughts teenager angst in this post as there is genuine tabletop encounters.

First, let's turn the clock back to the '09-'10 school year, back when I was in my junior year of high school and I left my house more than once a week without fearing the sounds of chattering teeth. In our podunk mountain valley town's adjoining middle and high school buildings, there wasn't a whole lot to do other than keep your head down and do your own time. There were a few sport teams, and at least a theater and debate club, but there wasn't much that appeared on my radar while I existed in that weird, liminal state of being part of no groups or circles, but being auxiliary to several. One of those groups was the lunch table I sat at, fairly close to the center of the cafeteria.

I ended up mostly sitting with seniors who had such busy extracurricular schedules that my lunch period was pretty much the only time they could eat. They were very welcoming of me though, and it seemed genuinely not to bother them that I was a three-feet-tall lime-green embodiment of anxiety who still thought the band Manowar was cool.

I guess it helped that YouTube music videos rarely showed their album covers.

The lunchfellows I most clearly remember were a big, boistrous member of the aforementioned debate team, a reedy redheaded guy with a laughter-inducing laugh who was trying to get a school Quiddich team going, a libertarian firebrand who always brought this really great jam back home with her from family visits to Switzerland, and a member of the theater group who was so uncompromisingly pleasant and milquetoast that people found her equally endearing and infuriating. This story will be about the debate team member.

In my usual way of quietly complaining about things without wanting to entirely fix the issue, I one day lamented to the table that I couldn't play D&D. As it happened, the debater also had an interest in D&D, as well as a friend who was an experienced DM. After a few more talks and deciding to go with 3E (hating on 4E was in vogue at the time, even in a town where so few people played anything), we decided to form a group. I proceeded to jump the gun (and the shark) by printing out several copies of those really heavy-duty three-page character sheets for 3rd edition and handing them out to anyone else in the hallways I thought might be interested, probably driving a few people away with my uncharacteristic earnestness in the process. But we managed to get a group together in the end, comprised of us, his two younger siblings, and another senior. Because three out of five members lived in the same house, we decided the sessions would happen over there for the most part.

The cold evening of the first game night came around finally, and after a half hour of failing to find the entrance to their house surrounded on all sides by foreboding woods, one of my parents graciously dropped me off. I knocked on the door, was welcomed inside, crushed underneath the family's very friendly and very big dog that I think may have been part yellow retriever, part horse, and then finally made my way down into the basement where the group was meeting.

There, I finally saw a glimpse of our DM.

A small, crimson red flip-phone placed in the center of the old table.

For you see, our DM was native to an even more rural town several miles away from ours, and lacking transportation or internet, the only way he was able to participate was through a phone call set to loud speaker.

Of course I'd been told about this beforehand, but it wasn't until I actually saw it in practice that I realized just how weird this was going to be. The days of Roll20 and other virtual tabletop software hadn't yet come, and for it to be only one member of the group, especially one who needed to be able to illustrate and explain so many details, we wouldn't be able to play very normally. But play we did.

The first night was entirely dedicated to actually making our characters. I wanted to play a follower of the Planescape deity Meriadar, but the DM was too unfamiliar with that material to want to allow it. Most of us ended up picking from the Book of Exalted Deeds as far as deities were concerned, and that was going to be an important part of the campaign.

When all was said and done and the Level Adjustment was balanced for, I had rolled up an orphaned, reformed, and morningstar-wielding bugbear cleric named Muldar Strongpaw.

Somehow, he was still the most mundane member of the entire party.

My friend rolled up a half-celestial fighter/wizard, his younger brother a half-dragon paladin, and his sister a half-drow vampire ranger. The other classmate made a half-elf bard, but vanished within one session because her owner probably realized how botched this was all going to be and decided to politely bow out.

By the end of the first proper gaming night, personalities were developing (and clashing). The gish styled himself as a theatrical gentleman hero, the dragon paladin was highly aggressive and on the verge of breaking his code and falling on several occasions, the ranger was withdrawn and secretive about her condition to the point of appearing flat from a distance, and my cleric was a begrudging grumbler who felt like it was his job to chaperone this class field trip of an adventure.

The world which the game was set in was entirely custom-made by the DM and several friends. It combined elements of high medieval fantasy with shonen anime and the occasional splash of steampunk. One week we were fighting back an orc invasion of a Great Wall protected by lung dragons, and the next we were rescuing civilians from a guerilla warfare-blasted cityscape in the shade of a giant magical tree. It was sprawling, varied, and totally confusing to a beginner who had no primer manual. But we managed to get by, focusing on things one step at a time. An overarching plot of demons coordinating with a dark elf queen eventually formed in broad strokes, but there was no telling how much plot we missed due to our own choices or ineptitude. More than one deus ex machina occurred, either as the plot called for it or when the DM felt he needed to go easier on us. And since our practical knowledge of 3.5E was on the level where Toughness seemed like a decent choice for a feat, I kind of have to admit he was right.

One fond memory I do have is of when our trip through a forest ended in us surrounded by a pack of wolves. They outnumbered us significantly, and we had no means of escaping easily, so we tried to turn to our oft-overlooked skill checks and utility spells for an answer.When the paladin's player jokingly suggested that my cleric try to communicate with the wolves "because he's part bear" and I responded to that idea with in-character derision, the gravelly grumble that I made his voice came across as actual growling on the other end of the phone call, leading our DM to believe that I was trying to communicate with wolves.

He had me roll some kind of Charisma check- might have been Handle Animal, might even have been Diplomacy.

In either case, I rolled a Nat 1.

The alpha male was so unbelievably dumbfounded by whatever the hell came out of my character's mouth that it and several of the other wolves just sort of sat back on their haunches, tilted their heads, and stared at my bugbear in disbelief. Inadvertently, this ended up giving us the edge we needed to fight our way through and out of the forest.

The last hurrah of the game as far as most of us were concerned was the night several months in when the DM actually came to town. He came alongside his other group whom he DM'd in person, and whose player characters had appeared in our campaign a few times as NPCs. Of course they'd mopped the floor with us during a gladiatorial arena bout and taken a considerable amount of our money. They were all nice people though, and the night concluded with me winning back (or at least denying for the other party) the same amount of gold as we'd lost. This was done through a few rounds of a fantasy blackjack game with the other party while I was playing a minor NPC in a tavern- Old Seamus even managed to carry his winnings back home that night without alerting his wife to the fact that he hadn't been asleep on the couch that whole time.

There were less than fond memories made, though. The perpetually poor quality of the phone call meant that we'd sometimes get hung up having to repeat or ask for the same thing over and over again, and on nights when the phone wasn't all-the-way charged we had to play pressed up against a corner outlet in that poorly heated basement in the dead of winter. Having to get driven out there and back every week was also an inconvenience that I knew my parents weren't exactly thrilled of, even if they didn't voice it much. We spiced the location up once or twice by going to the new gaming shop that opened up around the corner from my house, but that place closed up in a matter of weeks after the owner and his father won two million dollars in lottery money, split it, and relocated to a prime spot downtown.

I also began to realize that the other members of the group didn't seem like they were enjoying playing much. I was the only one who was really comfortable with role-playing, and I think that endeared me to a bit of favoritism from the DM which I felt guilty for. Sibling arguments were frequent, occasionally leaving us down one member for that night's session. I got the impression that my friend was the stubborn glue keeping everything together, and that he was oblivious to the problems which we all had, but which we refused to express for whatever unreasonable reasons. For me it was my meekness and not wanting to disappoint anyone. So the game dragged on. My bugbear's monotone sarcasm started to take on more and more of a targeted edge toward the other party members, fueled by my resentment. I once did my best to make a windstorm during an airship ride into a "puke on the half-angel from motion sickness" minigame.

I can't believe an image as apropos as this even exists.

Eventually I tried to get out of the game, but at first I only succeeded at skipping a game now and then while getting lunchtime updates on what I'd missed in the interim. My commitments to other friends online suffered as I tried to pretend that I wasn't dividing my attention between groups, and my weekends started to feel draining all by themselves, even as they were sandwiched between weeks of testing in one of my rockiest semesters. Even when my parents realized that I was a nervous wreck that wasn't having any fun, I couldn't easily articulate that to the guy. And, since he was in the debate club after all, he was damn good at convincing me otherwise. Finally I snapped at him, and he gave up trying to convince me. He left the door open for me, but I didn't take it, and last I heard my cleric-turned-NPC was acting as the castellan of a small fortress the party had reclaimed, while also caring for a silver dragon egg that would eventually have plot significance. The siblings also quit, and eventually the campaign went back to the solo phone game between two friends that it had started off as, and maybe should have stayed limited to.

I gave a great sigh of relief finally, and wondered how I'd let it go on for that long. The desire to play D&D had been burned out in my veins, and it would take until I was in community college several years later to think of getting back into it. When I did though, I made damn sure that it was in the environment of a nice, evenly paced play-by-post game on a forum.

I'm glad that I've managed to stay or get back on good terms with everyone from the group, though it took the passing of our DM a year after I left to finally bring us back together on a common cause.

Now, as far more of a shut-in than I used to be, I wonder if I shouldn't try to make the magic happen again- that relocated gaming store is still in town, bigger and way better than it had ever been in our day. I could use the socialization, as well as the exercise of walking there and back, since real cars still terrify me (and I don't think a more appropriately-sized clown car would be street legal). But it's up to me whether to use this story as motivation, or as a precaution.

If there is any sort of moral in this story, I would say it has to be that clear communication--in all of its different forms and meanings--is key to making any tabletop game, or any kind of storytelling endeavor, enjoyable for all.

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