Increasing Immersion with Obligation

We started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EotE) campaign last year, and one of the more interesting components of character creation is the Obligation system. Obligation is introduced during character creation and remains an ongoing device throughout the life of the campaign that can be used by both player and game master (GM) to facilitate storytelling, increase tension, and introduce surprise action. I believe the Obligation system is an example of how mechanics can affect the amount of roleplaying and immersion at the table.

When building a character in Edge of the Empire, one of the steps is selecting the character’s Obligation. Quite simply, no one in the Edge of the Empire is a self-starter; every character owes somebody something.  While some players may enjoy forming a backstory – complete with layers of drama and intrigue – creating a detailed backstory is not something all players (or GMs) enjoy. For example, a player does not have to create any meaningful backstory for a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons character; the character is built by selecting desired attributes, powers, and gear. The player is asked to select Alignment to designate his or her moral compass, but after that initial selection is complete, alignment rarely comes into play for most groups. In other words, creating a backstory with any detail for a 4e D&D character is up to the discretion of the player and GM; Edge of the Empire’s Obligation system forces players to create a bit of backstory for their character.

Prologue Comics Wookiee Life Debt

I believe the Obligation system is something that could be used by other roleplaying game systems to enhance character creation and increase immersion. It forces the player to not answer answer the question, “What do I want my character to do?” But to also answer, “How did my character get here?” I will discuss the benefits of consequences of the Obligation system below.

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WWJD – What Would Joel Do?

Spoiler Warning: Like my statistical review of The Games of Thrones novels, the following post contains massive spoilers for the Playstation 3 game, The Last of Us. By all means at your disposal, play the game first and then come back to read the article. You have been warned.

What would Joel do?

What would Joel do?

The Last of Us is a remarkable game. Playing the game over the course of a few weeks resulted in some anxiety and nightmares as I replayed a few of the creepy-as-hell sequences and brutality of dying repeatedly while trying to fall sleep. For example, nothing can quite prepare you for quietly creeping past a host of Clickers in a dark room – or that first time a Bloater rips your face open in shockingly-close detail. While the game travels well-established mechanics of cover-based combat and stealth in yet another post-apocalyptic setting, it is the acting, characters, and story that set the The Last of Us apart from titles with similar gameplay. The journey of Joel and Ellie is riveting, and the conclusion to their story is unlike any experience I’ve had with a videogame in the 20-plus years I’ve been an avid consumer of such entertainment.

After completing the game, I scanned around for other reactions to the game, which I had previously avoided for fear of spoilers. Some of the commentary was surprising. A discussion of the game by the site Polygon used the following terms to describe Joel at various points in their commentary: sociopath, psychosis, disturbed, and spook. Meanwhile, the New York Times commented that “Joel grows over the course of the game into an admirably complicated protagonist” between paragraphs that blast the game for its handling of gender roles. The later is I comment I disagree with slightly, but my thoughts about Joel are more in line with the Times’ take on him.

By the end of the game, I felt completely immersed in Joel’s experience of the world. I empathized with him. The following is my attempt to justify the actions of Joel at the end of the game – and rationalize why my thoughts were completely in line with his actions when I/he burst through the operating room to find Ellie about to be killed.

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Introducing Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

Beautiful book.

Beautiful book.

Now that my gaming table is complete, I have started up a new campaign and our group has selected Star Wars – Edge of the Empire as our system. Expect numerous posts in the future about the gameplay, mechanics, and other issues that arise while playing the system. The first item I wish to discuss regarding Edge of the Empire is a great idea that was introduced to our group by our DM (and licensed Lucasfilm artist), Grant Gould.

During our first session, our “pitiful little band” met to create characters with the guidelines provided by the Core Rulebook. This process lasted a couple of hours as we traded ideas on how to balance our three-player party. I stuck with an early character concept – a cross between an interrogation and medical droid who had parts of his memory wiped and was stolen from Black Sun. Now the droid, EIT-27, has been reprogammed to help instead of harm, and somewhere deep in the circuits of his chrome brain are essential details on Black Sun operations. The rules allowed me the flexibility to take skills in multiple Careers to build a Droid who could function both as a healer and techno-savvy brain for the party.

With character creation completed, our DM turned his laptop around and told us to gather around the screen. Click below to find out what he showed us!

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Ego Check: Spencer Estabrooks, Creator of One Hit Die

I did not realize what was missing in my life until I received a press release for One Hit Die, a new webseries that combines “the journey and adventure of a Dungeons & Dragons game with the intimate aside interviews of The Office.” I quickly followed the link, watched the first four episodes of the series, and fell in love with the concept. Considering how much of my blog is dedicated to navel gazing the various levels of communication involved in roleplaying games, One Hit Die is a critical hit on my sensibilities.

One Hit Die LogoI reached out to the creator of One Hit Die, Spencer Estabrooks. He has directed numerous short films in the past and was able to fund One Hit Die by earning a grant through the Alberta Foundation of the Arts. He is in the process of raising funds to advance the show, and was kind enough to share some of his time to discuss the genesis of the series – and some of the wonderful moments in the first four episodes currently available online. Before reading the interview, I suggest you first watch the first four episodes, which will be time well spent!

When previously asked about your inspiration for the series, you responded, “It came out of a desire to relive my early Dungeons & Dragons gaming experiences . . . we always had a lot of inter-party treachery, and I thought it was fun, and wanted to do a show based on that.” How would you describe the world of One Hit Die, and how does it relate to your early gaming experiences?

I grew up in a small town, and we played D&D and other games with very eclectic people. Everyone played with different ambitions, but it started to get fun when characters passed secret messages to the DM. It went like this:

  • Player A passes message to the DM
  • Player B asks, “What was that?”
  • Player A responds, “Your character wouldn’t know.”
  • Player B grumbles

Which is why I like focusing on the characters in One Hit Die, not just on their class and race. I started with the four standard classes, because what’s interesting is how people play them, and how that effects interactions with others.

So to sum it up, One Hit Die is not about games as much as it is about how people play them.

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The Decoupage Dungeons & Dragons Gaming Table

Before moving away from my Dungeons & Dragons gaming group, I enjoyed the unique privilege of routinely playing sessions on The Ultimate Gaming Table. The purveyor of the “Avenger” table also hosted a huge assortment of miniatures and terrain, and I no longer have those tools at my disposal. The task I set for myself – now that I’m firmly on the ground in my new surroundings – was to purchase or build a gaming table for my house.

My new gaming nook.

My new gaming nook.

I briefly flirted with the notion of buying one of the amazing Geek Chic tables for the targeted gaming space. Even their “less-expensive” models are north of $2,000 so while it was fun to daydream about the Emissary in my house – it was never a realistic option. As I was lamenting the cost of a gaming table in a conversation with my wife she provided the following support, “I will help you decoupage our old table.” I began to think about how her idea might provide a “gaming” table that was not just a space to draw grids and maps but a proclamation of my nerd interests and a celebration of artwork I adore from old D&D modules. The following post provides a step-by-step guide for how to build your own eye-popping, inexpensive gaming table for less than $50 through the wonders of decoupage.

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Game of Thrones: By The Numbers

SPOILER WARNING: The following post contains massive spoilers for the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series of Game of Thrones novels in the form of an analysis of the books’ content. As such, it also contains massive spoilers for future seasons of the television adaptation of Game of Thrones seen on HBO. Anyone who is not interested in learning about major plot points and the progression of the characters from the series should not read the post below. You have been warned.

You Know Nothing, Id DM

Original art created by Grant Gould. Arya Stark is awesome. Carry on.

Original art created by Grant Gould. Arya Stark is awesome. Carry on.

Numerous friends have encouraged me to read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels for several years. After holding out, I picked up the first novel leading up to Season 1 of the show appearing on Netflix (we do not have HBO). I enjoyed the writing and some of the characters although I could not believe that Eddard was killed – off camera no less. I kept waiting for him to reappear later in the book – perhaps the execution blow was a literal feint (keep this sentence in mind later). But poor Ned did indeed die and I ventured on to the sequel, A Clash of Kings. The second novel followed the same basic template and culminated in the riveting Battle of Blackwater. However, by the time I got to the third novel, A Storm of Swords, I was in the midst of moving cities and changing jobs.

The following conversation actually transpired about one year ago:

Grant Gould: So did you finish the books yet?

Me: No, I’m on the third one. It just got really boring.

Grant: Boring? That is the best book in the series!

Me: I dunno. I stopped reading a while ago. They were at some wedding and it was just dragging on and on. I lost interest.

Grant: <private heart attack>

Me: Are you there?

Grant: … yeah, just trust me and start reading again. The second half of that book is insane.

Yes, I stopped reading A Storm of Swords for several months because I was bored about 66% through the Red Wedding chapter. When I finally did pick up the book again to read it, Robb was executed maybe a page or two from where I stopped reading. I find that hilarious, and I can only imagine Grant was secretly dying inside when I told him where I stopped reading. He was kind enough to allow permission for some of his artwork to be included in this post. Please check out his latest sketchbook featuring a terrific Game of Thrones mash-up cover, Djorah Unchained.

I devoted the last few months finishing the series and concluded A Dance with Dragons while vacationing in South Dakota last month. I was able to enjoy the books spoiler-free but I after I finished the series, I had numerous questions and challenges regarding commonly held assumptions about the series.

When in doubt, compile data! What follows is numerous charts breaking down the content featured in the Game of Thrones novels. The data demonstrate how the structure of the story has changed over time, and how George R. R. Martin’s reputation for killing major characters is completely inaccurate.

And seriously – if you want to avoid spoilers – STOP READING NOW!

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Flashbulb Memories: The Pinnacle of Gaming?

September 11, 2001.

9/11

If you were born prior to 1990, then you likely remember this date in history. You probably recall what you were doing that morning and throughout that day. At the time, I was in graduate school and woke up from my telephone ringing. My girlfriend (now wife) called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center. Groggy and slightly disoriented, I ambled out to the living room and turned on the television to see live footage of two smoking towers. We stayed on the phone because her father was flying into Washington, DC that morning, so she had no idea if he was safe (he landed safely in Detroit). The clearest memory I have from that morning is being on the phone with her and watching the first tower collapse and being dumbfounded as she gasped in an agonized and empathetic voice, “Oh my god – all those people!?”

This is called a flashbulb memory – “a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.” In addition to 9/11, other commonly referenced flashbulb memories are events such as the JFK assassination, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the night O.J. Simpson drove his white Bronco down the highway. These specific memories are reinforced and strengthened because they are based on a shared experience – and in the examples above, they are shared with an entire nation.  

Flashbulb memories are a type of autobiographical memory. For example, most people may not remember what they did on October 30, 2009. But I know I flew from across the country to visit family and attend a Pearl Jam concert. My friend and I went to Tony Luke’s before the show, ate in the parking lot, found a way to upgrade our tickets and watched Pearl Jam blow the roof of The Spectrum. It’s an experience that I can recall with accuracy and reinforced by the fact that I shared the experience with a friend. (Side note, they showed footage from this concert in PJ20, which blew my mind when I first saw the movie!)

On this smaller scale of autobiographical experiences, tabletop RPGs provide a unique environment for flashbulb memories for those in the gaming group. One of the first things I noticed when I joined a long-running gaming group was the sheer number of shared stories about prior adventures they celebrated. The level of detail in the stories was interesting because they were routinely talking about earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons (that I never really experienced) and it was so nuanced. I cannot do the stories justice – perhaps one of my former gaming cohort will share a tale or two in the Comments below – but moments from gaming sessions taking place many years ago were recalled as vividly as if they just happened yesterday. And the memory was rehashed and enjoyed by others in the group who experienced the same unique event.

To put it another way, the players enjoyed telling their war stories. Below, I talk about a recent event in our Blade Raiders campaign that will live on for many years and how a DM can set the stage for flashbulb memories to “pop” for his or her gaming group.

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