Articles | The Digital Tabletop Experience
Louisoix strokes his chessboard.
It is evening. A year ago, I was fighting to save a cat's life. Two years ago, I was producing Black Sun: Retribution. Three years ago, I nearly died to pneumonia. An uneasy air hangs over my environment, a darkness that has entranced and swallowed my world since the dawn of 2014. For two and a half years I fought for stability of home, animals, and finances, with few victories. My casting stagnated, my development died off the heel of Retribution, and 2016 was shaping to be a truly miserable year. Tonight, things are a bit different. I'm oggling an Elf, whose player is currently under a bus somewhere, as a halfling and a dwarf reminisce about fire. I'm about to throw a torch at a tent with a gigantic bonerman inside of it, and I'm going to need to roll a Precision dice to ensure I actually hit it; an ability normally reserved for actual combat, with a bow.
A few months ago, a chance comment set me off into a CC sister site, the most active of the communities that spawned nearly two decades ago alongside Starcraft. This community is rather under the radar, given that its forum is private and most of its members never really talked about it outside of the circle. While I was distantly familiar with some of the members of this community, only two members did I really "know". I joined mostly to read on political and religious discussions and laugh at their futility, but something else caught my eye pretty quickly.
Several of the members were avid D&D players, and one was an accomplished DM. They were running an online campaign, and in the forum remained one of the few active threads discussing it. There was something very bizarre that struck me as I began reading through the forums, something that seemed extremely alien given my history of time in websites like Campaign Creations, Staredit, and Sc2mapster: most of the people here were creators. As history has demonstrated time and time again, communities like Mapster and Team Liquid simply don't attract people interested in Custom Content, because the games themselves don't. Most of the people on this site were very old members of the first generation of sites that had spawned with Starcraft customs, so on one hand my discovery was not completely unexpected. It surprised me in many ways yet, though, and would continue to surprise me the deeper I went in. Perhaps it is simply because Mapster has conditioned me to expect that only 1/10 people actually attempt to educate themselves in custom content they involve themselves in, and of those handful maybe only one or two individuals actually do anything with those skills. This was a community of creators, one of the only ones I know to still exist in any corner of modding.
It wasn't simply that there were people playing a Dungeons & Dragon game, there was people putting a considerable effort into doing so. Despite starting off on a prebuilt campaign with a preset series of character sheets for a quick start, any given player had put considerable effort into producing backstories, summaries, and other interactions in the thread. It wasn't long before I was given keys to the game itself - run on a website called Roll20 - and the entire chat log for the game. I had no idea what to expect walking into it. On one hand, I expected amateur hogwash, and didn't really expect to be able tor read the entire thing very quickly. It was one of the few times my predictions had been completely wrong, predictions based on unfamiliarity with the kind of people that contructs like D&D attract. In hindsight, I can't blame myself for being wrong. It was much akin to expecting a quality product from Blizzard after releasing Diablo 2 Classic. You'd think they could do it, because they've done it in the past. But education shows you many details that end up determining the equation more than superficial appearances.
Superficially, I thought of D&D as little more than a distraction for the mild mannered absent-minded teenager. This was because there was so little exposure of the system or its individuals to the general gaming world. The concepts of character customization, interaction, and choice and consequence are entirely alien things in all corners of digital game design. And, indeed, it was from this perspective that I had first been introduced to D&D so many years ago, and why my viewpoint on it had been, at the best of times, skeptical.
A moment of promise that will spiral this entire session into a hysterical trainwreck.
Prior until now, I've had no experience with Dungeons & Dragons besides Neverwinter Nights. NWN, being a Bioware game, was not of a particularly noteworthy quality. With clunky controls and very poor actuation of D&D's power as a system design, the most it accomplished was opening road to a wide variety of custom content constrained within its messy file management and tight, hardcoded limitations. Nonetheless, NWN succeeded in consuming much of my time despite endless troubles with it, although it was a poor introduction to the founding father. Unfortunately, NWN never saw an honest attempt at a sequal, and remains the only true standout in the PC games industry as an attempt to create a designer-oriented foundation for D&D. Bioware would proceed to commit sepukku after handing the NWN franchise to the chucklefuck shadow company known as Obsidian.
Behind all the miss streaks, instant death to traps, and Ice Storm butt slapping, NWN attempted to crunch the intense numberwork of D&D 3rd edition. Along with the still exceptionally popular 3.5 Pathfinder edition, D&D split apart with later releases, producing a controversial 4th and strippled-down 5th edition. The campaign being run by the CC sister community was set in 5th edition, and it was quite an alien world compared to my time with Neverwinter Nights. Indeed, I had to shed all of what I construed as D&D and start entirely from scratch. Not simply in how the game mechanics "worked", but how you worked with them. What you did with them.
As the introduction video in my D&D section details, Dungeons and Dragons is, as a set of mechanics, entirely polar to the conventions of most platforms I typically involve myself with. Even the RNG-dependent Diablo 3 and Divinity: Original Sin don't quite met up to a world that relies exclusively on the pairing of prose and dice rolls. My first reflex to this system was, of course, disdain. I have grown up in a gaming world where RNG has only served as a detriment to game designs, commonly being used by Western developers to take control out of the hands of players and promote grind; the American's keystone expression of gaming. D&D, however, presented me with an extremely bizarre game world very much detached from the games systems for much of the player's time with it. A world whose driving mechanisms almost appear to void it of the grind demon.
The roleplaying world.
Players assemble at the appointed time. I'm testing my recording environment, and casting the Journals provided to us by the DM and players both. For the next 4-5 hours, I won't be IskatuMesk, the prolific toucher of fluffy tails. I will be the fluffy tail.
Something immediately struck me as I sat down reading the thousand-plus pages of Lost Mines of Phandelver text log; a string of dice rolls, descriptions and, most importantly, player interactions. From the humble beginnings meeting Gundren in the Inn, to Algernon floundering with Goblins, to stuffing Glasstaff into a sack, to meeting the Banshee Agatha, the party's adventures were nothing short of an epic. Countless times I was brought to tears by the banter between Giles and Denigar, the shameless heroics of Weldric, and the Rinthing of Louisoix. The moral competitions between Algernon and Weldric felt genuine to read, and when I reached about midway through the text, I had already begun to formulate what I would have done were I in their shoes. I realized something, then. This text had stirred a heart that had been dead for years, especially so since the failings of Retribution.
The creator's heart.
The players had mixed levels of experience, with this game being Lavarinth's first encounter with D&D. Yet at no point did I objectively feel like I was reading amateur text. This text was all spot writing, by far the hardest form of roleplay literature, and yet I felt as though I was reading something that no "game" had ever come close to. No game. Yes. That was the distinction that truly set out to me walking away from reading the chat log. This was a game. A game unlike any I have ever seen. It took me quite some time to mull over my thoughts and form them into a cohesive format, but I wasted no time in figuring out the mechanics of the world, the rules and conventions. Soon I made my first character - Nadia.
Though the fierce writing world of Apex was still fresh in my mind, I opted for a fairly low-key entrypoint. Truth be told, I was scared. As an extremely anti-social person, any and all social encounters on the internet leave me in a state of perpetual panic. Furthermore, as someone with a history of writing, I had a reputation to hang onto - yet D&D, an experience built on interactive storytelling, relied on Spot writing, something I had never done before. My character was also not a prebuilt one, so I had to get jogged through the ropes of building a character's stats and all the class' features. I didn't think that, half a year later, I'd be looking at multiple characters and spending days finding just the right portrait graphics for them.
Naturally, I hit the record button once I got confident I could cast and play at once. It was not nearly as easy as I was expecting it to be. Also, there has yet to be a good Desktop recording software produced at the time of this writing (Feb 2017), so I encountered all kinds of problems along the way. It really consumes quite a lot of time.
Before I knew it, two weeks had passed between when I first started learning D&D and when I had a character sheet in my hands. It consumed me, pulling me out of the darkest periods of 2016. It was the first time since Retribution that I had found a purpose in something. It was a promise to be able to create something and, furthermore, enact on something I had created. After so many countless years producing drivel that saw no functional conclusion, it was a nice distraction. The stress of social anxiety trouled me for a time, but eventually I saw the interactions for what they were, and I was able to overcome it as I had during my time raiding in World of Warcraft. Of course, our time in D&D was something very different. It was like approaching something I had done my entire life from an angle I had never seen before, because that's effectively what it was. I did not do well. I couldn't expect to do well, either. But that's why I designed my character as I did - to be fairly low key. I considered it a testing of the waters, so to speak. I had no idea what to expect walking into it. I know I didn't expect it to become a really big thing.
I had walked into D&D expecting to get salted by dice rolls, but, to be quite honest, even the worst dice rolls, like those that lead to the conclusion of The Train, were not unsalvageable were it not for player decision making. There is a fluidity to the D&D game world, and the primary reason why I wanted to write this article. It was something I had always known, but never known the words to describe, even though I surely touched on it in my reviews.
Prose is the only role-playing game.
I've played plenty of RPG's, including Final Fantasy and Earthbound, and MMORPG's, like WoW, Aion, Lineage 2, Final Fantasy 14, ARPG's such as Diablo, DMC, God of War, etc. And in none of these games are you actually roleplaying anything. At all. Ever.
So-called "Games with consequence" hand you a branch to pull a twig from. A branch whose shape and form are pre-determined. No matter how many twigs you add to the branch, the results of those twigs are pre-determined. The illusion of choice is only that. This is why I have always preferred linear games to games that attempt to hide the fact they're linear by calling themselves open world. MMO's are the worst culprits for this, as all progression in MMORPG's is linear and therefore the ability to wander adds nothing but grind instrinsic with time wasting. "The Bethesda Standard", as we refer to.
D&D, however is very different by extent of it being a prose format. To be honest, I would struggle to call it a game. It has mechanics, like a game, but those mechanics are only as stone-set as the DM behind it. For my most recent game, I was given the power to customize a class to better fit the zany background for my character. I gave Ryel's Warlock class some custom attributes from a Homebrew Dragon Pact class, some attributes from the Sorcerer's Dragon Lineage, and some of my own fluff. The actual power of the class really didn't change too much, but some gameplay options altered and better fit my idea. If I had wanted to do this in any digital game I would have been given the finger unless I modded it. With modding being a dead platform outside of very specific titles, that simply isn't a desirable option for someone like me who has no artistic or programming skills whatsoever. Not to mention, few games are mod friendly for someone without reverse engineering skills.
After all, no matter how much I try, I have years of work ahead of me in Unreal 4 to make any kind of real game concept. Even if I should make such a game concept, I can't simply change things on a whim. Only with writing, only with prose, do you actually obtain a real "open world". Rather, attempting to do so with most of the digital platform is a complete waste of time and resources better spent making an actually good game. No such restrictions or constraints exist in the mind, though, and the mind is every bit the driving element of D&D as it is actual writing. They are hand in hand. Except here you are holding hands with some other nerds, and, perhaps most noteworthy, the DM. But the DM only makes so many choices. Players make choices for him more often than not. The DM to me is more a background voice, a body underneath the bed covers that offers you a sand box. But that's been predominantly my experience with the one DM. I've heard others are much more inclined to railroad you, or neglect most of the roleplaying altogether. I suppose I was fortunate to be able to start with such an experienced senpai. He, of course, also had many amusing tales to spin. Even superficially, they offered a window into how the dynamic of the same game world evolved simply from individual choices.
In the offline version of this exact same campaign I was starting, the DM's players had a long-winded fued with one of the early antagonists, Glasstaff. In our online game, the players convinced him to hide in a sack and then fed him to a banshee. From this difference alone the entire game world changed in ways no traditional game has ever conveyed. In digital Cargo Cult RPG's, like the social justice muck that is Ass Effect and Dragon Ass, you would be handed a specific set of options for a conversation and these are your "choices". Choosing one of the options may effect the game world, such as an NPC dying or living, but only in prescripted maners - and manners that, often times, make no sense or are inflexible. The end result and means to conclude the game is almost always the same, though, with different endings resulting in different color shades for the final cinematic.
Of course, D&D as a platform is only as coherent as its players and its DM. I was fortunate in that I was given access to a group of players with such a level of experience and professionalism as these ones. Skimming any kind of public material on the subject can fill one with a sense of dread and hopelessness, and I certainly wouldn't consider playing with people I don't know unless they were recommended to be by one of our existing players, which has happened. As for our LMOP campaign, though, things remain very homely in a way.
All of the players have roots in the old community, and many of them continued to produce some extent of custom content from beyond my ken. Aekenon performed voice acting for one of the other member's RPGMaker games, Mac was involved in Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 custom content, and Mucky continues to develop physics systems for big purple men and upside-down elephants in Cockfighting Arena. The main thing that unites all of them, however, is an innate involvement in creating things. They aren't simply playing D&D because "let's play D&D!!!" they are simply continuing down a long road of gaming relationships that have existed since the years I first started modding. Coming from a community that has been all but dead since 2003, I still find it baffling to this day there's any pocket of activity left anywhere.
This D&D campaign was hardly the first experience this community had with Digital Tabletop, though. Previous "Forum Games", including one based on Fate/Stay Night, had occupied years of time in the past. I went through reading the text of one of these games, a hundred-sixty forum pages worth, as well as the equally long Out of Character thread, in a two-day non-stop binge. As a result of my efforts, I produced an enormous analysis of the game and its players. I learned more and more about the process and draw of the Digital Tabletop, which allowed me to look back at my limited time with D&D from more attuned eyes. It also gave me a window of insight into the players whom were sharing their few hours of spare time a week with me.
Lavarinth, known mostly as a generous, calm, and low key member of the community, wrought with a dull work life, tended towards Chaotic Evil characters, and in both the forum games and in the D&D campaign he took on a more sinister and, often times, disruptive role. As an escape, his malicious wizards provided some of the largest and most positive points in their respective games, producing countless clashes with parties, and hilarious situations with the game world. Above all, he acted as a powerful force of initiative, stirring roleplay beyond what might have been considered a standard trend. The most infamous example was when the party met some guards at the front of a castle gate, and Lavarinth decided to throw a fireball at them as opposed to continue discourse, to prove a point. The result resulted in a massive chain of events that effectively defined the game. Though there was some OOC clashes over this, most were minor, and pretty much everyone agreed that he was instrumental in giving the game identity.
Lavarinth represented a potent force of initiative, paired with AA7's Paladin whom served as his polar in many cases. These two often clashed, generating friction in the party, and sometimes in the game world, but not quite enough to tear it all apart. In many ways, this game was more about this inner conflict than the rest of events going on, even though those events eventually, indirectly, brought the game to an end. This game was a high lethality game, with one of the players suffering two character losses back to back to different forms of tentacle therapy because they traveled alone.
Meanwhile, though sheer luck, I've only lost one character in my games so far. I have, however, been at death's door, and watched other characters scarcely survive. I have also executed goblins, encouraged Billy to eat a deathtrap of a duck, and indirectly assassinated a fugitive through a non-combat instrument. Each and every game is wrought with silliness, ridiculousness, and a level-headed roleplaying approach that makes you forget about the names behind the portraits. A world in which those entire 4-5 hours can easily be lost just talking about letters and apples. An entire session can go by without a single dice roll, just living a comparatively carefree day making rounds about town between bloodbaths. Yet no one walks away dissatisfied, because they've played the game - they've roleplayed. I knew then what it was that the attraction offered. Why these were the kinds of people drawn to it, and why they were of such a different caliber than those drawn to get-rich-quick schemes like those Blizzard promoted during Sc2's alpha.
It was more than just Lavarinth escaping from the slog, or Mucky tabbing out of Jasshelper's incessant problems, or Aekenon sneaking apple investigations on company coin. The roleplaying experience was to literally detach oneself from their personal conjecture just as they would writing a novel. They weren't escaping a routine to play game, they were embracing an alternate life to roleplay as a new person and embrace that life in all its splendor and troubles. The very act of creating was roleplaying, and roleplaying was creating. I realized then that dice were more intrinsic with a mental impulse to create design arcs, rather than a game mechanic designed to impede. As the DM described to me, rolls helped him build designs in the forum RPG. It was less "The game is fighting me", and more "You keep missing this guy because he's actually a master swordsman". He preferred to use the dice as a constructive, positive element, even when the results would impact characters negatively. It was a mindset you could never explore in the digital software platform outside of world simulators like Dwarf Fortress. Indeed, D&D has more in common with Dwarf Fortress than it does Final Fantasy or Warcraft.
Dwarf Fortress' World Builder can spew some hysterical things by twisting and turning knobs and, much like most of the rest of the game, it's easily modded.
Extremely few things have ever actually immersed me. The first was Starcraft. The second was Diablo 1 and 2. The third was Heroes of Might and Magic. Then Dwarf Fortress. The last, Digital Tabletop - D&D and the forum game known as Fine Day Blue.
With a short history in text-only RPG's known as MUD's, I am accustomed to a low-graphics storytelling experience. I am not accustomed to doing it with other players. The results have been unexpected, to say the least. I had to come to terms with knowing that I really just didn't know anything in this domain. I was beyond my element.
I realized what had happened when I concluded my reading of the forum game. I had come to care for the characters and their fate, and that their story was left unfinished troubled me enormously. Many things had accounted for its ultimate death, which I had considered a tragedy. As for digital games, I rarely ever care for the writing of something, as you well know. I go through the lengths of recording dialogue and lore where it feels necessary, but few games ever go through even the minimal effort required to establish a setting. The worst is so-called "deep" games, like Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2, that make an utter mockery of writing whilst somehow burning millions of dollars on it. Here, in the middle of buttfuck nowhere between a handful of individuals who scarcely have enough playtime in the week to make the cut at all, writing of a quality unseen by the Games Industry flourishes. It is because they genuinely give a shit about what's going on.
This was the heart and soul of the Digital Tabletop experience, I concluded when I set down my analysis for the forum game. A group of individuals whom of which wanted to embrace a vessel to carry themselves beyond the confines of restricted archetypes like game software, and co-depended on each other to create that vessel. For, without the players, the DM's world was empty, and without the DM, the players had no guiding light. Players could, and often did, create their own light, though - which allowed the DM to grow his world in unexpected ways. Despite all the years behind the craft, we still regularly catch him off guard.
Looking back at my LP list, it's hard to imagine how any of those games could ever call themselves RPG's, given that the entire function of a roleplaying experience is to play a role, to roam freely, and not to be confined by someone else's idea of a character and his or her decisions. It only further reinforces the observation that you should either do something right or not do it at all, especially in the context of gameflow. And, so far, I've yet to see an RPG that offers anything even remotely comparable to what Roll20 and a few people does, even software based on the exact same system. The very fact we have yet to see intelligent map editors, even today in 2017, shows that those who genuinely care about giving people the tools to create a genuinely immersive experience aren't the ones involved in making digital games.
Even the wordiest of RPG's break up their text for the user interface, resulting in an experience distinctly unlike an actual novel. Being able to level information to the reader in a concise yet informative fashion is a critical skill necessary for game development no matter the platform. I thought it wouldn't be too hard for me to do, given my Apex and RPGMaker experience. I was wrong, again.
D&D serves as more than just a release for people like who seek to touch fluffy tail, however. The writing skills necessary for proper contribution are not trivial, and the only reason this campaign has smooth sailing is because of the players and the DM all having history in the subject of content creation. Indeed, some of the things that seem commonplace and innate to us - such as spending hours having lawful neutral conversations about apples - would infuriate other D&D players who prefer to push on ahead, ignore fluff, and try only to find main "quest" points.
Over time, some players have mingled with fragments of our group that didn't originate from them, and had entirely different styles of play. Sometimes it is subtle, like a player not knowing how to, or desiring to, involve themselves in apple investigations. Other times, they may rather avoid the discussions entirely. In many cases this can come simply from a result of having never been in a game managed by someone who promotes and facilitates this kind of interaction. Yet, everyday mingling and banter is a critical portion of life in general, so why wouldn't it be in a roleplaying game? Even the games that are crunched down to facilitate only one or two sessions - so-called one-shots - can feature a large amount of non-combat roleplay. Many can even be resolved without combat at all. There have been some disagreements between these players as a result, but so far all of the individuals involved have been mature enough to not allow it actually degrade into real drama. I haven't seen a game explode due to player fighting yet, nor do I really expect to. That certainly isn't something many players can say for their time with D&D.
On the opposing end, there is a distinct satisfaction in building a character. Whether it's something with a few custom elements, like Edward Taylor and his harpoon gun-esque crossbow, or something that conforms more strictly to official content, like Nadia, you find art and potentially music for your character (roll20 offers music playing services through Fanburst since soundcloud went America) and of course your stats and personality traits, as well as your history, that can help the DM facilitate you in the world - or vis versa. Most importantly, though, you are designing a living, breathing entity you will embody beyond a few lines of script. It can be something you find idyllic, something you find curious, or something that you wouldn't consider behaving or living like normally.
Recently, I started making my first Pathfinder character. The systems in that ruleset are much more granulated and diverse than those in 5th edition, and there are many more mechanics to consider. I decided I wanted to continue to step out and make exotic designs, and I eventually ended up with a lycan brawler that has 5 different shapeshifting forms and some serious sneak attack damage. Our party will also have a diva, a battle maid, and a celestial Paladin called a "moeblob" by some. It's going to be amazing. In a previous game, I played a Goblin King, and tied another character to his kingdom and lore later on.
Even though these characters and games never malleate into anything outside of the community or the videos I produce, that I've been able to involve myself in creative design once more with realworld feedback and engagement from it has been a welcome break from the hopeless mire of everything else going on. I would say that D&D has changed my life at this point, because if things had continued to go downhill as they were in 2016, it's very likely I would have done something extreme again.
The Landscape of Comfort
Today I face some crossroads I don't have answers for. The trials of LMOP are temporary at a respite, and our characters have finally returned to town. I have some D&D experience under my belt, now, in the form of three oneshots and many LMOP sessions. However, my exploration with characters in the one-shots has pushed me closer and closer to my hotblooded, initiative-driven characters of Apex. In many ways, I have based my characters on Apex. The most noteworthy of which probably being Flogdanov, the Goblin King. As an experiment of my comfort level, I decided to design a character that would try to take center stage in confrontations, dive in fearlessly, and speak more often.
Returning to LMOP, I felt my "low key" character design had missed opportunity to take advantage of my strongest writing abilities. Abilities I had not felt confident in trying to bring to D&D previously were now starting to manifest in the one-shots, and I began realizing I had outgrown my original design style for the campaign. I face a challenge now that another player of the game faced in an unrelated forum game.
A dying interest in a character.
Constant feedback I have seen and been told regarding backgrounds and characters is ensuring they have a driving element in the world. For my latest one-shot characters, I did that and more. Flogdanov needs gold to build a 200-foot golden statue of himself. Kingly duties, for sure. The other is a reincarnated dragon seeking to figure out a way to actually become a dragon again, all the while also amassing riches. For these two characters, the simpler goals pan out into aggressive and opportunistic personalities. Nadia's is more low keyed and subdued, with nothing in the world actually holding a great deal of value to her other than combat itself. It didn't help that the background I had designed didn't offer a huge amount of interaction at the layman's level. Flogdanov is a King and lives by example, while Ryel is a half-fiend dragon constantly looking for opportunity.
This other player that I mentioned previously may have faced a similar challenge, though I don't know the specifics. During a brief discourse on the matter I told him to find a way to re-invigorate the character. Starting over from scratch with a different character in both cases seemed like a possible solution, but I now ask myself, "Is that not destructive to the writing world as a whole?" Indeed, were it so simple to rewrite who I am in real life, I wouldn't be looking at living the last of my days on the street really soon. Just because we have the power to do so in D&D doesn't necessarily mean we should. As the DM would tell me when it came to designing weapons and specific items, "The PBH (player handbook) and rulesets are just a starting guide. They don't contain everything that the world could possibly have. The only way you'll know what is out there is by finding it." Which is his way of saying "If there is something that isn't in the rules that we want, we can simply add it". Of course, the process of "adding it" comes down to actually roleplaying out the process of discovering or making something.
For Ryel, my Warlock, I wanted to dual wield a dagger or sword with the magical Flame Blade that she can conjure as a spell, because the magical weapon has no bonuses to lose when wielded as an Offhand Weapon. But she needs to be holding a wand or material in her free hand to conjure the Flame Blade to begin with. She can swap out her hand, but it takes an action, and isn't a very good use of an action at that. Ideally, she'd be able to have a Finesse weapon that she has proficiency in that also acts as a spell focus. The recommendation was to "ask ingame". The goal with character creation isn't to shore up weaknesses on the sheet, after all. It gives leverage for character and world development if I attempt to create something non-standard. The dilemma with the actual characters and losing interest in them isn't too different, though it's certainly a grave you can dig for yourself if you aren't alert. The problem for Ryel is there isn't likely to be a free moment in the game to ask a merchant about this kind of thing for a while. The problem for a character itself can be similar; you may not simply see an opportunity to grow them as a personality into something that more suits what you are after. The death of many of my writing concepts, for example earlier concepts of Alkhazir in Apex A, are for that reason. Perhaps I am merely too picky.
For the other individual who wanted to swap characters in the forum game, though, a deeper problem remained than simply the character's established place in the world. When a character dies or leaves, they take with them all of their accomplishments and achievements in the world. Even if you replace that character with another equally or more powerful as an entity than them, you've still lost a significant amount of work in the form of whatever the previous character did during the game. The forum game, which we'll refer to as Archetype, was even more significantly bound to each character than D&D might normally be.
Archetype was a competitive game despite its roleplaying nature, and each player represented a bubble of their own actions and identities until they encountered one another, ultimately with the end goal of killing each other. They had many reasons to hide their interactions as a result, but they were still playing in the same game world. That meant that the DM was managing a huge number of independent forks, and had to, at the same time, ensure that they remained chronologically aligned with one another. Despite the considerable logistics labor and the inconsistent playtime between players, Archetype had actually managed to survive for over a year before unrelated problems began to bog it down. At that stage, the player previously mentioned had come to a similar crossroads that I had come to with Nadia in D&D - a losing interest.
In the worst of cases, I could justify Nadia's departure from the party and try something else. In Archetype, however, each character represented more than an island of sorts. The chronology and everything related to the actual systems of the game were dependant on those characters. This was a game in which players started by summoning NPC fighters that they then controlled indirectly (Based on Fate/Stay Night), and the classes and identities of those servants were unique. Furthermore, every action they had done as a character to that point had shaped the world, and it didn't make sense to suddenly pull them out of it. A heated discussion surrounded this debacle, far greater than what this article touches on. Eventually, the DM ruled that they would not be allowed to restart with another character - it didn't fit the game, and they should seek In Character means to try to advance their persona. At that point the game had already effectively died, so I don't know for sure how the player would have addressed the problem, should he have desired to. Without a conclusion to judge by, I can't know for sure what is the decision I should make, if any, in regards to any similar issues I might encounter within D&D.
Is it so simple for LMOP to consider its writing flow "different" than Archetype, though? Because none of the PC's have died yet, and the only person to actually "leave" was a character who was there only briefly anyways, the spotlight of the campaign has been very much focused on this small set of very recognizeable names. To lose one of those names would be a significant blow to the campaign. It could also, however, be a major turning point in the writing and serve to spur the campaign on to greater ends. The consequences are hard to predict. They haven't happened yet though. They've gotten close, but it's a bridge that yet remains unknown. Although my contribution to that picture has been negligible thus far, we all started somewhere, didn't we? At that stage, I consider decisions as my character would. Would they leave, or would they stay?
Allegedly, some players simply seek suicide missions to swap characters, which seems like it could easily be considered out of character. SaintKerrigan, who had to tap out of the campaign early in because of real life commitments, used his heated moral debates with Weldric as an excuse to part ways with the party - this was a very believable and well-done transition. For me, the sanctity of the writing body is paramount above everything else, and the formation of the end result and overall experience is more valuable than any single character's contribution. Without knowing the game surrounding this other player's character they lost interest in, it is hard to know for certain how that situation could have been remedied. I do know, however, that I underestimated what I would really like to play as when I started.
"How does one solve this conundrum, then, when the players have all been on the same characters they're playing for nearly a year already? None of them seem bored..."
Because the characters, although based on starter sheets, were styled to their playstyles already. Louisoix shares many similarities with Veigar, Lavarinth's prize yordle shit disturber from FDB, and he'll likely never tire of smirking. As I made more characters and experimented with styles in one-shots, I started to garner a greater understanding of what it was that naturally intoned to my limited spot writing capabilities. It is why I always play as DPS in League or Heroes, or any given MMO. Why "low key" never really seems to work out for me, even if I consciously adhere to it. I had, at the dawn of my time with D&D, considered that style would not function in a group environment. At least so far it actually has been the opposite - working out rather well.
Rather, I need a driving element in the world for my character to pursue, and I need that element to make sense for her to pursue. Were this Apex, that would be easy. But it isn't. This isn't my design, I am building an arm of an existing design, and that arm still needs to function as a part of that body. Furthermore, the arm needs to be able to reach the duck to backwards crawl into it while making slurping noises.
Making characters and writing them out has been something unanimously expressed as being one of the most difficult parts of making any kind of creative venture by almost everyone I have talked to. Until D&D I never had issues that have held me up for as long as they have had here. Plainly put, my style doesn't conform well to real-time linear writing. I will have to improve significantly as a writer if I am survive.
My strategy for producing the vast number of characters in projects like Apex or CPGA is to build a personality, and then jump to a mid or end point of their timeline and goals, and give them something that they wanted to work for. It can be something asinine or short-term, but it's something that defines them and their actions. You can do this in D&D, but it's far, far more difficult to fabricate point to point content out of that. Which is why the goals and everything related tend to work out better for you if they aren't constraining. You are also largely working from the ground up when you play in the game, which is a wholly different experience than I've ever had with designing a character. I missed the mark on Nadia by a tremendous amount, because I was building her for an anticipated playstyle rather than how I generally design my personalities. The way in which I typically mold around such problems can't be performed after I've already pulled the trigger in a living game world. If I am to preserve the sanctity of both LMOP and my own standards, I will have to overcome a writing challenge that has repeatedly killed projects of my own in the past.
"I'm starting to like this character sheet more," a player that will be joining our LMOP sessions soon tells me, "my previous one didn't really have a lot to do out of combat. Mac [the DM] liked my previous one, but the more I've worked on this one the more I like it instead."
This player, prior to participating in our games, predominantly played in campaigns and one-shots run by individuals who focused on very linear, combat-heavy structure. She was caught off guard by our much lengthier, wordier bouts of non-combat activity, but started to warm up to it when given the spotlight. By now, she had reached the point where she had an extremely strong grasp on designing builds for characters in both 5th edition and Pathfinder, and was instrumental in helping us prepare for the Pathfinder campaign. The roleplaying experience and character design remained an integral part of her time with D&D, but the campaigns she had played themselves were typically light on flavor, as per the DM's style of design.
"Flavor" has been an interesting thing in our LMOP campaign. Hardly has the mundane been so, with plenty of goofy side characters and side arcs to draw interest. The DM has a fondness for explorative gameplay and plenty of threads exist, waiting to be discovered or followed on.
"I'll tell you about this dungeon my offline group played," he said, PM'ing me a recount of a hysterical chain of tragic events in some demon prison, "because they're on the other side of the world and you'll probably never go there." One of the players died in that dungeon, and the others became trapped behind a door inside the facility. This group had earlier suffered a humiliating defeat in Cragmaw Castle, the first major "dungeon" of the game, which our online party travelled through upon my arrival - as a level 1 character - narrowly avoiding death at several turns. In stark contrast to our campaign's lack of deaths, tonight I was informed one of the players is probably going to be on his 5th character soon in the offline variant.
Between all the things that can or have happened, one character is not likely to be very much the same character after a while if only because of the trials they endure and the countless hours of "flavor" that will surround them during those trials. Nadia began her involvement in the region by seeking an Orc bounty, but got caught up in the siege of Cragmaw, and had to chase Ardok and friends across the continent while being hounded by Undead and wizards before finally being able to return home. Here is where the line may end for her, unless I find something that would encourage her to remain in the doomed town of Phandalin.
"She's a soldier, a pirate, and something of a strategist," I remind myself. "Surely there is some benefit to staying where the fighting is at."
Since I started posting D&D videos several people have come forth and said something along the lines of, "there's these D&D groups where I am but I never thought it was that interesting until I watched this..." or "I was kind of curious but didn't know what it entailed..." and such. Others, like HKS, express an interest to an extent but detail that they would have a hard time with the roleplaying aspect. It is always these periods that the oddities strike me. Me, the most anti-social person I know, playing D&D with people I've really never met before and will likely never really "know". Three years ago I would have laughed if you told me this was where my life was going to be in 2017. "No way can things get THAT bad, and why would I be playing D&D?"
The truth is, of course, because it's a creative outlet. And, really, things were always that bad.
For years I have modded, written, and voice acted. But only at a few, extremely specific times did all my labor actually amount to anything. Retribution, 2014. Armageddon Onslaught, 2009. MFTGATRL and HK, 2004, and even those two are stretching it. That's it. For nearly 20 years of labor I have accomplished utterly nothing, rarely ever tasting the waters of actually having succeeded in creating something. I have felt detached, uninvolved, with my craft. It became robotic, automatic, a process I attempted to pursue in an effort to bring my dreams to life, destined to fail and disappoint time and time again.
Yet, here, I can and have created something. The smallest of things, never to make me fame or glory. But something I can be proud of. An experience that has taken me from the troubles of the moment and pulled me from the jaws of suicidal despair. To sit here now, considering the impact and fate of an imaginary face in an imaginary game, more intensely than the impending eviction and devastation that hangs over my head to this very minute, is something worth noting.
What the fuck do I even do?
So, I am not feeling like I really have anything to achieve with my character. I'm scratching my five chins in contemplation. What next? How can I turn this issue of my losing interest in a moment of clarity that pushes my experience as a body with tabletop further?
At this stage, the most important thing I can do is try to find or make points in the game that would be interesting to pursue for my character. They needn't be major events, but at least something that can keep my character legitimately interested until the next major fiasco happens. I'm not willing to give up on her just because I can't find an immediate solution and, as another player elaborated on in a discussion on the subject, people do tend to do things out of character that eventually shape who they become. An example given was his character changing his stance on dealing with an antagonist at the end of the chase across the countryside. Previously, his character had tried to reason with the Orc, but eventually he came to realize that he couldn't solve the problem diplomatically, and took up the sword.
Playing my secondary character idea might be more immediately rewarding, despite losing out on what my first character has established in the world, but I'm also missing out on potential accomplishments I could have only made with the first one. I simultaneously feel like I would be more free to take initiative with the second character and make more things happen to her benefit, though. It is a tough decision, and neither choice immediately comes off as being the "best" choice. Never had I expected to encounter such a mental struggle, especially so soon into my time with the subject matter. Indecision is my calling card, however.
I am not the only one who struggles with it, either.
Initiative is an important keystone in my assessment of player psychology in game design. From the table top to the professional Brood War scene, initiative can be seen everywhere. Most of the time it takes the form of an explosive single action that comes as a result of peer pressure. Passive playstyles flummoxed by undisciplined Spot Aggression are the standard of the vast majority of online games. You will see it in any given DotA clone, where the only people who eventually try to take initiative in a group of randoms are those who lead you down completely nonsensical paths, and playing against organized groups of individuals marching to the hymn of a shotcaller opens up things you've never seen in the game otherwise. MMO parties that take 5 minutes to start a boss fight because no one wants to be the one to tap it first. Players in D&D who wait to be handed something to do by the DM, rather than actively explore the world.
The latter mindset is what leads to the games railroaded by a DM that funnels you into combat, or players who ignore flavor conversations and seek out only the primary quest points. They get accustomed to trying to fight the lax initiative of other party members and simply automatically mold their playstyle into a motion of perpetual initiative. This can develop into a playstyle that ends up clashing with those players who don't necessarily lack initiative, but prefer to immerse themselves in the moment so to speak.
As the DM described to me, some other groups that ran one of the same one-shots I completed with a group in a single night ended up spending multiple nights on the same game because the players in one group had little initiative to take action or because players decided to scope out every possible side arc in the game. In our game, I was playing with a group of individuals outside of the community who took initiative to pursue the primary quest alone. While there was plenty of roleplaying and flavor conversations to be had, there were some other elements we ended up largely ignoring for the sake of the primary objective that I am certain our LMOP group would have handled differently. Myself, being a very flexible player and personality, didn't even really think of the game in this light until I was told about the other groups and their sessions. In my personal experience, nothing was wrong with our session whatsoever.
"I didn't find one approach better than the other," the DM elaborated in regards to the various groups' playstyles, "but it was interesting to see the variation between the groups". He could tune the gameflow to the pace of any group, after all, as he was effectively working with a set of maps, images, and hidden text. If one group decided to go somewhere other groups did not, it didn't cause issues, in much the same sense he could stay in one map and with one or two NPC's should it be necessary. Part of the process of preparing for a game on the DM's side is ensuring maps and material for potential avenues are set up ahead of time, even if they end up not being used in the end. Several of our one-shots spent most of a session in the exact same place just talking. So long as roleplaying was being performed, the game was serving its function. Bigger problems arise when players of significantly different mindsets and playstyles are in the same game.
An interaction did occur during one of the games that I spectated that I feel is also worth adding to this effect. It was one of the Christemo games, particularly a long gauntlet of fights. During one of the few forks of paths in the game the party encountered a group of three demons fighting over treasure. The party had the choice of fighting them or moving on forwards. A discussion opened up in Out Of Character how to proceed, which lead to a momentary clash of player personalities. Most of the players wanted to ignore them and just move forward, but one of the players whom is otherwise known for ignoring "fluff", stated it was in his character's alignment to destroy demons, and proceeded to end up fighting them with the comment "metagaming is dumb". At this stage, as the fight started, the other players decided they then wanted to turn back and join, but the GM ruled they had their chance to initiate the fight with the other player and one person who followed him but didn't, so they could not join the fight.
It wasn't like any of the players were intentionally pursuing primary arcs as a means to trivialize a game or their characters. They remained in-character during in-character conversations. It's entirely that their playstyles were different than those I had come to learn the game alongside, and they were trying to resolve differences out of character. It was an interesting observation, and one I could draw several things from.
First of all, the freedom of the system allows players to do as they wish with the entire intent of sparking decision making like what these demons and alignments presented. The most major thing that defeats this system, however, is "metagaming". As discussed in my various reviews and such, "Meta" is a behavioral term. It describes a playstyle adopted for perceived or demonstrated effectiveness. Meta exists at almost every level of player feedback and experience.
In the case of D&D, it may be considered "meta" to assume certain interactions always lead to certain things. For example, in Pathfinder, apparently most merchants will just innately possess magic items at a specified or relative value. Because diplomatic modifiers can get extremely high, one of the party members, the "skill jockey" as they are called, may be assigned to speak to merchants to sell or buy items at a discount because they have the best skills to roll for an advantage in this discourse. At some point the GM may not even ask for a dice roll on the discount because their modifiers are so high there's no point even trying to contest it. 5th edition changed this by greatly nerfing magic items and generally changing the way they are received. For example, magic items aren't available off of merchants traditionally anymore, and they aren't even listed in the Player's Handbook. As a result, other than the items plundered off of Glasstaff himself, the party in our online LMOP campaign has only "found" a single magic equipment item by level 4-5. Instead, magic items are being introduced to us through other means - such as through family heirlooms after finding and talking to family members.
The meta for the players to assume initiative towards primary goals doesn't assume they will take this above the process of roleplaying out their characters. I believe it comes as a result of them assuming that if they don't take initiative to keep moving forward they will have nothing to do until they do so, perhaps because they simply roleplay for different reasons. It comes as a result of conditioning themselves to push ahead to find those particular reasons, even if it means going alone. To the observer such as myself, this almost seems as effectively a mechanics-oriented playstyle that tries to cut down the game content to contestion such as combat. This was observed in the Train 1shot mentioned earlier - one of the players decided to push ahead to the train to force it to stop, while I followed the one who decided to go to the rear and collect information. Immediately upon arriving inside the train our party split up to disasterous effect. Both players choosing sides took initiative in their own way, but they both had different ideas how to handle the situation. This gets more complicated when you consider that there are actually in-character justifications for these actions. Ultimately, splitting up was a far more disasterous thing to happen to us than the innumerable horrific rolls we received throughout the session, and yet no one could really be "blamed" for that result. Both of those players ended up walking away salty over it, though.
"One of the players was cornered by guards and refused to back down in a confrontation. He was just roleplaying his character. His death could have been avoided if he had surrendered, but it would go against the traits he laid out in his sheet and played by," the DM told me early into my character design process. "So consider when you are designing for a setting and existing party what alignment and personality your character will have, because clashes like that really shouldn't be solved Out Of Character. It is possible that you may not even be accepted into the party to begin with, and you can't really force it if it plays out like that. Also, the NPC's will have different reactions to different characters just like you would in real life."
Indeed, one of the players in his offline campaign, who played a Paladin, had his character leave the party because he couldn't stand for the increasing tendency towards evil in the group. This exact same conflict was also the spurring force between Lavarinth and AA7's characters in the aforementioned Fine Day Blue - except, instead of completely stepping past the line and destroying the party, they managed to scarcely tread the line, and this was a reinforcement to the initiative both players possessed. Since then, I have given a great deal of thought to my tendency for the exotic and the peculiar, because interactions to come from overcoming adversity tend to be the strongest power points for such groups. This resulted in the well-received creation of Flogdanov, the aforementioned Goblin King.
In Player versus Player non-combat, such as inter-party political clashes, initiative can lead to some of the most major moments of many games, D&D or otherwise. It's when the clashes occur outside of the game that salt sends to flow freely. I have plenty of experience with that in MMO's.
"The player that will be joining our LMOP campaign has a character that is pretty powerful," The DM was telling us recently. "So I wanted to know if you had any problems about that. Sometimes players have problems with differences in items or stats or whatever."
Of course, I had no problem. It's not like anything was being cheated from me or removed from me. In a game driven by dice rolls, circumstances beyond your ability to predict, and a whack of other things, you can't abstract raw stats into raw advantage across the board. As it would turn out, that character, had she actually played it, was very strong. It still didn't really matter to me. It did matter to one of our players, though. Not for the power in itself, but because she was starting at level 4 - while I, when I had joined, started at level 1, and endured all of Cragmaw's atrocities while being stuck at level 1.
"We all started at level 1, so why shouldn't she? Why should she receive special treatment?"
Additionally, as detailed in my videos regarding the 1shot sessions 5 and 6, there is an alternate method for stat allocation than that used for the prebuilt characters (and Nadia) seen in LMOP thus far. That is to roll for your stats. As I demonstrated in those 1shots, it is possible to obtain stats significantly higher than through the Standard Array, which allows you to only choose fixed values that are then only modified by your Race (or levels).
Again, I had no personal quarry with either point. However, the arguments made by the individual weren't necessarily something that should be completely ignored.
Until now, the only new person to join LMOP's campaign was my character. And, until now, the only person to not be using a character built from the framework of the starting characters was me - but I was following the identical rules to those characters with the exception of my custom race, which was very much fluff and offered no real advantage over any of the other race options otherwise available. Another option also exists - Point Buy. Since no one had died, no one had ever gone through the routine of making a new character for this campaign. The new player was going to be an exception, as she was using Rolled stats for her character.
"The thing is," I told the DM during the discussion, "even if you roll max stats across the board somehow it doesn't even give you THAT big of an advantage because the modifiers aren't really that high - that's why Proficiency Bonus, the level-based stat, exists."
I had something to say about starting at our level, as well.
"Starting at level 1 will only inconvenience us. It makes things harder for the higher level players because they have to babysit someone who is useless for a while (a long while). Meanwhile they don't really get to do anything in combat or whatever because they're too weak to contribute. It didn't matter for me as much in Cragmaw because the party wasn't really that much higher than me, and Cragmaw amounted for a ton of experience."
In the offline campaign, no rules existed to prevent players from using whatever stat generation method they wanted existed. The online campaign is now the same way. The discussion came to a peaceful conclusion and that was that. But it did highlight the difference in mindset this one player had compared to the others at the time. That we were able to attain a decisive and mutually agreeable conclusion is something that can't be said for any of the contestions within digital games. The difference, again, lays in mindset - no matter their playstyle, each player here is playing predominantly for the roleplaying experience. I had a sinking feeling I was about to see an explosion of drama, and was a little disappointed I was robbed of that.
"I had this problem in the offline campaign too, where the one player who has kept his first character alive all this time thinks the people who die should have to start at level one again. He thinks they're treating it as 'well if I am just going to be at my current level again when I remake a character what's actually punishing me for dying?' But the thing is you lose everything your character's done, too."
Nadia is on good terms with the Blacksmith of Phandalin because of the party's actions prior to her involvement. The names of the other player characters carry weight with the smith and by extension she is willing to do things for Nadia she wouldn't be willing to do for just anyone, like produce special weaponry that otherwise would be far beyond anyone's ability to obtain at this point. As part of my intent to make initiative, I struck up a deal with the Blacksmith that also landed me in possession of a spike grenade kind of device. It is not likely a new character would have been able to make that same kind of deal, at least not immediately.
In-character clashes are not alien to our LMOP group, either.
If everyone bent knee to your whim, NPC or otherwise, it wouldn't really be much of an accurate reflection of real life, would it? I know well the hostilities of people and their ideals. You have to remember that as a roleplayer, you are interacting with a set of personalities likely to be different than those of the player you know on the other side of the monitor. To make concessions just because you are a fellow player wouldn't be roleplaying. You should also realize that the further you get into playing the fursona fantasy edgelord of your dreams and the more distant you get from the goody goodies of the rest of the group, the more that may become an issue. In many cases you can turn this tension into good roleplay. But you have to always remember that it's still just a game, and clashes that invariably happen aren't personal attacks.
"Louisoix is going to be pretty angry with you guys for a while. Don't take it personally. :3" Lavarinth told us after we finally cleared Cragmaw. We had denied a hostile NPC access to a map I had found. I was willing to fight, and die, for it if necessary. She wasn't. Instead, she was offering the location of a shrine Lavarinth's character needed for a quest. Weldric and I didn't budge. Lavarinth never found his shrine, and we were whisked into a psychotic Orc adventure immediately after, denying us the opportunity to search for it in-depth.
The end result was that relations for Lavarinth's character and our characters soured substantially. It wasn't because Lavarinth as a player was angry at us. It's because his character was angry at our characters. It made sense. We slapped knees and had a jolly good time. A similar interaction in the forum game Fine Day Blue did not end quite as amicably. The death of two player characters came as a result of AA7's Paladin becoming a Death Knight at the end of a battle and his subsequent death. AA7 had never intended to have hostile actions against the party, but his character was now somewhat half-NPC - and one of the mandates of his new oath was never to let down a challenge. One thing lead to another, and another character turned himself - and AA7's - into stone, killing them both, to protect another character. AA7 felt terrible after that, having accidentally caused the death of two extremely major characters in the game. This was one of the catalysts for FDB's death - it never recovered from the loss of these important names that had been in the highlight of its motion up to this point.
During my analysis for the game, however, I could never feel that this interaction was negative. To me, it was the highlight of a saga and a dramatic conclusion to a buildup that had worked up over the game. I did not see how or why the players would feel bad about it, because the end result was a tremendous climactic finish. I reconciled with AA7 that moments like this were the kind of things that turned stories into legends. Unfortunately, I was far too late to mend any wounds that may have hurt the game, as it was already thoroughly dead long before I read its text.
I see motions such as this as opportunities to advance a story. At the same time, though, I can see how and why they make individuals lose interest. The TV series Game of Thrones is most well-known for its love of killing main characters to drive the narrative for the few. I found it extremely anti-climactic and damaging to the flow of the writing to constantly be building up characters just to kill them off. It added a level of realism and uncertainty to the writing, but it also embittered me to the point I had very little to tangibly value in the author's writing. The world felt intangible and sloppy. In much the same sense, Fine Day Blue was defined by its characters, as it should be, and losing several of them was similarly wounding for that game. As a standalone fiction, however, it was fantastic for me to read. If I ever manage to make an impact on these games that is as regalled as those in FDB then I have accomplished something my mods and video work never could.
Between all of the internal delegations and considerations, a single paramount point shines through the roleplaying experience. The point is that when one sits down and embraces this world, whatever actions they take are part of a world very different than that one currently resides in. The goal of everyone involved is to have a mutually fulfilling and enjoyable experience, and sometimes rules or concepts get bent for the sake of that enjoyment in either direction. As a co-operative storytelling experience in which individuals create worlds and characters and live out their lives, bringing too much outside delegation into the ingame world will result in a cheapened experience. D&D as a ruleset, and others like it, exist only to embolden the action of co-operative storytelling by handing individuals a framework with which to orchestrate their ideas.
There are times that conforming to rules can be nonsensical, too. The DM described me an incident in which one of the players was attacked while unconscious, but the NPC missed four attack rolls against his Armor Class. It made no sense that he would miss a helpless target, but the rules stated he still needed to defeat the AC to actually hit him. In some cases, especially in Forum games which use a much simpler ruleset, the DM may make exceptions to the rules where logic prevails. For example, attacking helpless opponents. Such was the case for one of our advesaries in LMOP, whom was finally felled by an attack that otherwise was not likely to have killed him, because he was incapacitated.
At the end of my analysis for all of the games and related content, sitting back I still could only see a group of veteran content creators pitting their creations with each other, sometimes against each other, to co-operatively build something greater than the sum of its parts. It was something I never thought I would see again come out of the Blizzard community since 2003, and it gave me a driving inspiration to continue my pursuit in creative engagement despite all the things that had happened in the last several years of my life.