How Dungeons & Dragons Brings Us Together

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One of my favorite things about puzzles and games is the way they bring people together. It could be gathering around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons, enlisting a friend in unraveling a tricky crossword clue, or swapping jigsaws with a fellow enthusiast to share the wealth.

Recently, a story about Dungeons & Dragons went viral, but if you haven’t seen it, I’ll happily summarize.


A Twitter user named Antoine H. delivered his grandmother’s eulogy after her sad passing, but wasn’t able to devote the time he wanted to one important aspect of her life, so he took to Twitter later to do so.

At 75 years old, in the last year of her life, she started playing D&D at his suggestion.

terminatur

Her first character? A male forest gnome named Terminatur (a combination of “termite” and “nature”).

She helped her fellow players cleanse a haunted house, then made it a home, including inventing a new fruit that became quite popular. (It led to membership in an interplanar ecology organization, The Circle of the Green Hand.)

She even gave the adventuring party its name: “les Bijoutiers Fantaisistes,” the Fanciful Jewelers.

Although her cancer treatment would limit her opportunities to play regularly, she still kept on with the campaign whenever possible, adding delightful new wrinkles to her character.

Her last words to him? “Never change, never lose your family spirit, and keep on playing Dungeons & Dragons.”


As a longtime D&D player, I love this story. Because, as much fun as it is to play the game, it’s the connections you forge DURING play that mean the most. In fact, my favorite roleplaying game memory isn’t from an actual play session.

rpg-2009-berlin-2

It’s from a lazy afternoon hanging out with some of my players, just listening as they shared stories about their favorite moments from the game. (Since each of them had individual adventures, in addition to group adventures, they got to share stories the others hadn’t experienced.) Their reenactments were a pleasure to watch, knowing I had helped craft adventures that they enjoyed so much, they wanted to share them with others.

Getting to tell stories with my friends is an incredible gift, and I can only imagine how much joy it brought both Antoine and his grandmother to find this lovely, unexpected common ground.

You can (and should) click here to read the entire Twitter thread. It’s wonderful.

Also, please share your own stories of how games, puzzles, and RPGs have improved your life and friendships. I’d love to hear them.


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Building Better Bonds with Board Games

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[Image courtesy of Toy-TMA.com.]

Earlier this year, we discussed a study indicating that playing board games was good for your relationship. The results of the study revealed that the act of playing board games actually coincided with the creation of new chemical bonds of affection for the person with whom you’re playing the game.

Well, as it turns out, it’s not just romantic relationships that benefit from the board game experience, as another article suggests that social relationships also benefit from communal play like board games.

From the article on QZ.com:

Board games, along with role playing and table games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, allow players to enter into a controlled state of conflict. The process of engaging in that conflict is fun even when you lose, and the outcome is likely to be different the next time around.

A good board game builds in enough chance so that any reasonably skilled player can win. Even in chess, famously associated with warfare and military strategy, the emphasis is not on who ultimately wins, but on the ingenuity that players display in the process.

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[Image courtesy of Den of Geek.]

It’s a simple combination, really. Board games offer not only an achievable goal — something that can feel rare in our ever-complicated world — but a sense of fairness to the proceedings that might feel equally rare. Everyone is operating on the same footing, everyone is capable of the same actions, and (ignoring previous experience with the game) everyone has a fair chance of succeeding.

Heck, in most games, taking turns is built into the game. Board games are orderly affairs. Even the chaotic ones operate under a standard set of rules that are reassuring and clear. Life is rarely so simple.

In addition, there is the comfort-building social aspect of getting together to play games. Conventions like Gen Con and holidays like International Tabletop Day are designed around the joys of shared play, and more and more, you see game stores, hobby shops, libraries, board game cafes, and other locations offering game night activities and bringing people together.

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[Image courtesy of Review Geek.]

I wonder if there are any games that are commonly regarded as strong relationship builders. I’m sure cooperative games would rank higher than most, but then again, sometimes the spirit of competition can also bring people together.

Fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, is there a particular board game that you prefer for family or friendly game nights? What about games you enjoy playing with your significant other? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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A New Gaming Opportunity for Opportunity?

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Last month, the world collectively mourned the loss of the Opportunity Rover, as NASA declared that the incredible machine’s marathon body of work on Mars had officially ended.

Its mission was meant to last 90 days. Opportunity vastly overperformed, delivering photos and data for a mind-blowing fifteen years of service. The Little Engine That Could has got nothing on the Opportunity Rover.

The outpouring of sadness and affection for the Rover surprised many, serving as a heartwarming reminder of the amazing things we can accomplish. It also represents our almost magical ability to come together as a people in appreciation of an icon, one we’d come to adore and anthropomorphize into a plucky, inquisitive adventurer.

[Image courtesy of Tom Gauld.]

As you might expect, a character with this much esteem couldn’t pass into history without the game community immortalizing it in some way, shape, or form.

Thanks to WalrockHomebrew, an independent content creator for RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the Opportunity Rover can now be part of your roleplaying campaigns!

Creating not only full stats for Oppy as a neutral good construct but a plausible explanation for how this real-world scientific device has found itself in a magical universe, WalrockHomebrew has crafted a fun fictional legacy for the much-loved rover.

Understandably, Oppy isn’t much of a fighter, though it can use its rock abrasion tool to scratch at any potential foes. It’s far more capable as an observer, seeing through magical illusions and glamours.

It can even see invisible creatures and creatures in the Ethereal Plane. As far as we know, the actual rover couldn’t.

Though, if it could, I suspect its reports to NASA would’ve been front page material every single day.

[WalrockHomebrew even offered rules for how to restore the rover in-game to full operational capacity. Pretty cool!]

This is a wonderful tribute to one of the most amazing devices ever conceived. Thank you, Oppy, for all of the wonders you revealed.

And thank you, WalrockHomebrew, for letting us hold onto that magic in an unexpected and delightful way.


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Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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Introducing New Players to Roleplaying Games!

A month or so ago, there was a marvelous article on Amazing Tales about how to make your child’s first role-playing game amazing.

Although the article was geared toward introducing younger players to the world of roleplaying games, the advice can be easily adapted and expanded to include new players of all ages. So today, I thought I would take the five points introduced by Amazing Tales and do just that.

So if you’re a new or inexperienced game-runner / dungeon master, or if you’ve only run games for people with previous experience playing roleplaying games, this is the place for you.

(And this advice should fit no matter what sort of game you’re running. Is it classic Dungeons & Dragons? Supernatural? Zombie horror? Space adventure? Knights of the Round Table? Explorers? Pirates? Monster hunters? Modern spies? Thieves in the Victorian era? No matter what setting or characters, this advice is universal.)

#1 Keep cool

It’s easy for the person running a roleplaying game to have high expectations for themselves and the story they want to craft. You want your new players to have fun. You want them to immerse themselves in telling a story. You want them to be excited and come back for more.

But that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and a stressed or nervous game master can lead to stressed or nervous players. So don’t set the bar so high. Sit back and let the players interact; sometimes, you can engineer a scenario that allows for this, like a tavern scene. Or you can create an instant threat and let them jump into the action and work together to solve a problem as a bonding experience.

Don’t be afraid to take opportunities to ask if anyone’s confused. A first game is introductory by nature, and if someone feels left behind early on, it can be hard to catch them up later, or to make them feel included if they’re not gelling with the other players.

Sometimes when I’m starting a new game with new players, I’ll hold what I call a “session zero,” a safe game before the game kicks off, where the characters can play in the environment, interact, and test out the actual mechanics of playing (particularly if there’s a magic system or some other aspect of the game that might not be intuitive).

#2 Keep it small

You want your players to feel immersed but not overwhelmed, so party size (the number of players) is an important consideration. I try to keep my number of new players to three or fewer, because it can be hard to give meaningful attention to a larger number of players. It’s like a classroom; you want the ratio of experienced voices to students to be as small as possible, so you can get that one-on-one time to answer questions and help them find their footing.

For me, the ideal group for a newcomer-heavy game is two (or three) new players, one (or two) experienced players, and myself running the game. That way, each new player is balanced by someone with greater experience. You can even have a buddy system to get them acclimated.

A smaller group also means less time for players to sit out while other players get the spotlight. Never let the new players feel shortchanged or like their voices aren’t as important as those of the more experienced players. After all, if you’re an experienced player, you’re going to feel more comfortable speaking up and venturing forward than a new player might.

[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]

#3 Say yes to their ideas

Now, obviously, you can’t say yes to every idea a player has or the story could descend into nonsense. But trust your players’ instincts.

Let them wander down the paths they find most interesting. It might not be the path you intended, and it might take them longer to get to the desired end point, but it’s always better for players to reach a story point organically, rather than railroading them to the place and time you want. Even new players can sense when they’re being strong-armed in a certain direction, and that can leave a bad taste in players’ mouths.

Be flexible. I’ve always found that, no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve mapped out an adventure, my players (both new and experienced) excel at finding paths I hadn’t considered. That requires me to be quick on my feet, and I enjoy the challenge of pitting my wits, improvisational skills, and imagination against those of my players.

A roleplaying game is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel writ large… whenever possible, let them feel in control of their players, their story, and their destiny.

[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]

#4 Take them where they want to go

This might feel like a repeat of the previous note, but it’s not. This point is a reminder to always consider the characters your players are playing. What are their strengths? What goals do they have? What are they hoping to experience and accomplish?

Plenty of game runners, myself included, can get so wrapped up in the story WE want to tell that we forget that it might not mesh with the story our players want to participate in.

Give them moments to shine. Give the fighters a chance to fight, give the magicians opportunity to ply their craft, and give the puzzlers puzzles to solve. If characters have wings, let ’em fly.

[Image courtesy of Digital Trends.]

#5 Make the ending awesome

No matter how simple the adventure starts — a theft, a murder, the discovery of a treasure map, the descent into a trap-laden dungeon — make sure the ending is memorable. You want the quest, however short or long, to feel worthwhile.

You can try the old cliffhanger trick in the hopes of leaving them wanting more, but that can come back to bite you if the players are dissatisfied that their first adventure doesn’t feel complete. Instead, give them a sense of accomplishment.

Martin at Amazing Tales said it well:

Make sure your child’s first ever role-playing game features an epic ending. Face to face with the villain on a cliff edge as the counter ticks toward zero; returning the stolen jewels to the temple moments before sunset while pursued by ghosts; wrestling the controls of the star-ship from the pirate moments before it crashes into the sun. That kind of epic.

You don’t necessarily need to go epic, but certainly make it memorable. Nothing sells a big win like giving the bad guy a funny line before he turns to ash.


Here’s hoping this advice encourages aspiring dungeon masters and storytellers to get out there, find some players, and spin some marvelous adventure yarns. (Or maybe it’s inspired some new players to try roleplaying themselves!)

What’s your favorite memory from your early roleplay sessions, fellow puzzlers? (Either as a game runner or player.) Let us know in the comments section below!


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