Exploration, Pathfinding, and How to Know the Difference

Inspired by my recent playthrough of Star Wars: Fallen Order, I have been pondering how the term exploration gets used in videogames and tabletop roleplaying games. Exploration is one of the Three Pillars of Dungeons & Dragons along with Combat and Roleplaying/Social Interactions, and I find it is the most challenging to define. Exploration implies that there is uncharted territory that the players can either uncover or even create new information to fill in the blanks. The DM and the players sit down at a table and must create…. something.

Exploration (in theory) gives the players an infinite canvas – you can go anywhere and do anything. Exploration (in reality) fills the canvas through one – and usually a combination – of these three things:

  1. A published setting
  2. The DM’s homebrew plans
  3. Collaborative worldbuilding between DM and players

I imagine most games are run on the settings that are published by Wizards of the Coast with DM homebrew plans coming in second place with collaborative worldbuilding sprinkled in.

This has been on my mind after reading a review of Fallen Order that said the game is less of an action game and more of an exploration game. I recoiled at this description. It’s not exploration, it’s pathfinding!

What’s the difference?

Continue reading “Exploration, Pathfinding, and How to Know the Difference”

Ten Turns 30

This is dedicated to Ti-Lin Todd Sun. I’m forever grateful for him telling me to listen to his cassette tape.

I started to draft this article over six years ago and could never navigate my brain and heart well enough to find the right words to adequately describe why Ten became so meaningful to me when I was a kid and how it remains a pillar of my interpersonal development. I realized this week as Pearl Jam is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album that I could spend another six years tinkering with words and it’ll never be perfect.

I have to settle with offering a glimpse into my mind back in 1991 when I was an incredibly anxious teenager trying to figure out who I was and how to comfortably and confidently be myself. The following is my relationship to a few songs on Ten and I hope – at the very least – an expression of appreciation and gratitude for all it has meant during my life.

Once (upon a time)

I was born in 1976 and the music I consumed throughout the 1980s was a combination of pop, rock and metal. The topics covered in most songs were about partying, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Meanwhile, older bands that had songs with deeper themes seemed outrageously old at the time. Anything released before 1980 felt like the Stone Age; even Queen seemed like a relic from the distant past and they released a studio album in 1991 – the same year as Ten.

It all started with a cassette tape that a friend convinced me to listen to earlier in the day. I listened to the cassette on a beat-up Walkman in the dark that night in my den. What I did earlier that day or in the subsequent weeks, I have no idea. But I remember the first time I listened to Once kick in. It sounded so good and different from the type of music I usually heard. A couple of songs later, Alive immediately caught my attention and captured my imagination.

It has never let go.

Continue reading “Ten Turns 30”

Ego Check with The Id DM – Teos Abadia on Adventure Flowcharts & Visual Aids

Teos Abadia

Teos Abadia joins me once again to present his thoughts on visual aids in D&D adventures and how they may not accomplish their intended goals. He offers examples of graphics and flowcharts that do not seem to add helpful information to the DM as they attempt to run an adventure. We discuss player choice and the *illusion of player choice and how to incorporate both in a campaign. Teos address some common pitfalls in published D&D content and how that might be remedied in the future.

It was a great conversation, and I’m really pleased that he agreed to spend some time answering questions about a topic that has weighed on my mind recently!

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Game Design Lessons in Star Wars: Fallen Order

After thoroughly enjoying Hades during the pandemic and breaking up with Hearthstone earlier this summer, I had some space in my life for a new game. Star Wars: Fallen Order intrigued me for obvious reasons – it’s Star Wars and the buzz about the game seemed to be positive after it came out. I recall people speculating that the main character, Cal, might appear in the second season of The Mandalorian (hold this thought) so it seemed like folks overall enjoyed the content. I envisioned the game as an action-adventure that allows you to mow through Stormtroopers and other foes with a lightsaber and some Force powers, so I purchased the game and leapt in!

I finished the playthrough this week, and the following are some lessons I took from the experience regarding game design and my preferences.

Gaming Expectations

I learned there is SOME action and adventure in Fallen Order though much of the time is spent navigating to the next destination on the map through a variety of special abilities, most of which are not available to you until later in the game. The introduction to the game features Cal jumping, climbing, and searching for a way forward interspersed with some elaborate cinematic set pieces. Fallen Order provides a tutorial on how combat and navigation controls function by introducing new obstacles and offering the solution to those obstacles. As Fallen Order moves past the introductory mission and gets to “the meat” of the experience, the controls for navigation become more necessary than combat skills.

Cal looking confused. I’m right there with ya, buddy!

After some trial and error I read some articles about the game and was smacked in the face with sentences like, “….you’ll spend the majority of your time in Fallen Order solving puzzles, platforming, and exploring. We didn’t know that going in, and it made the first couple of hours confusing.”

Yes, it WAS confusing!

The other tip from the Polygon article above that turned out to be essential was, “Your map is a three-dimensional hologram, which is helpful because so many levels and paths have a lot of verticality to them. It feels like navigating like a bowl of spaghetti sometimes. You’ve got a great map. Use it.” This is the best description of playing Fallen Order that I can now imagine. Each planet you visit has multiple levels that twist and turn and stack on top of each other. I would be hopelessly lost in those levels if not for the map, which also has a bit of a learning curve in terms of how to comprehend and manipulate it effectively.

Perhaps a good thing for me to do in the future is to read more about a game before I commit to it. That sounds rather simple and easy though it has not been my practice too often. I played Horizon Zero Dawn on the recommendation of friends and loved it; same with Battle Chef Brigade and other games like Golf Story. I had in my mind that Fallen Order would be one experience and it offers something else; it’s more Tomb Raider than Dark Forces, which is fine once I settled into it.

Continue reading “Game Design Lessons in Star Wars: Fallen Order”

Dr. Katie Gordon on The Suicidal Thoughts Workbook

In the latest episode of Ego Check with The Id DM, I’m joined by Katie Gordon, Ph.D. as she talks about her new book, The Suicidal Thoughts Workbook: CBT Skills to Reduce Emotional Pain, Increase Hope, and Prevent Suicide. I spent the past few weeks reading through the text and have already started to include exercises from the workbook in my clinical practice.

Katie Gordon, Ph.D.

The book is wonderfully practical and conversational. It normalizes depressive symptoms including suicidal thoughts and provides the reader with detailed strategies to reduce suffering, find meaning and increase hope. Dr. Gordon talks about her initial interest in suicide research and how that evolved into writing the workbook. She describes how the tone of the book became more conversational with the reader over time and how the text has resonated with clinicians and patients since its release.

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How to Run Session 0 in Strixhaven (Literally!)

A new setting for Dungeons & Dragons is on the horizon, Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, which introduces….

….the fantastical setting of Strixhaven University, drawn from the multiverse of Magic: The Gathering, and provides rules for creating characters who are students in one of its five colleges. Characters can explore the setting over the course of four adventures, which can be played together or on their own. Each adventure describes an academic year filled with scholarly pursuits, campus shenanigans, exciting friendships, hidden dangers, and perhaps even romance.

SIGN ME UP!

One element of running adventures or campaigns that feels intimidating to me is the expectation of scale – the notion that the adventuring party will bounce around to various towns, far-flung locations or even planes of existence. A good part of me wants to keep the players in a smaller area for a long period of time so they can get to know it and feel like they have some agency in what is happening around them. Instead sessions seem to advance into a series of “Go here, and do that” quests that take them all over a map or seven.

Another element that can be challenging is absorbing all the lore and information in recent D&D hardcover adventures. The adventures are a few hundred pages that the DM needs to be familiar with; and I’m aware you can pick and choose what you like from any one of these hardcover books – it remains heavy lifting to get started on settings that you might not know a lot about. I have not been able to juggle various factions, pivotal non-playable characters, and important locations when the setting feels otherworldly.

Stixhaven seems to provide a solution to these concerns in my mind because the setting is incredibly tangible – school!

I was a student for approximately half my life including graduate school. Rather than the party being a collective of adventurers off to seek fortune and fame (or some form of revenge/redemption), the party becomes a bunch of students on a campus. That makes sense to me.

The Strixhaven Club

What a glorious shift in the stakes!

The setting allows a DM and players to focus on goals that might link to experiences they have had as a person. How many D&D players have traveled the world battling monsters, explored ancient ruins or navigated trap-filled dungeons? Rather, how many of those same players have dealt with a teacher they adored or despised, faced a rivalry with another student or school, or stayed out late one night and got into a situation that became very complicated? Strixhaven gives gaming groups a greenlight to explore those situations while still being able to say, “Hey, let’s schedule a time to play D&D.”

I’m finding that to be a delightful idea, and I encourage folks to learn more about the Strixhaven setting through this free primer written by Anthony Joyce.

And Strixhaven will allow DMs to include aspects of Session 0 in the game world. For those unaware, Session 0 is a term used by tabletop roleplaying enthusiasts to describe the initial meeting of the gaming group where ground rules can be discussed and agreed upon before the game is played. Key elements of a Session 0 include expectations for the style of game that will be played (“Do we want all combat, all the time? A lot of story and roleplaying? A combination of both?”), house/table rules (“Are all rolls in the open? What’s the policy on attendance if we have to miss a game?”), and consent and safety tools (“What are topics you want to avoid at all costs during the game – such as graphic horror or abuse, suicide, racism, sexism?”). The discussion of expectations and agreeing upon ground rules by the players is a wonderful way to ensure that everyone at the table is aware of the game they – and everyone else – is playing.

Session 0 is incredibly useful, and it typically takes place outside of the gaming world. For example, a group of friends getting together to start a Ravenloft campaign might share some emails ahead or time and use the first session to work out expectations and boundaries mentioned above. After the flavor of the campaign, house rules, and consent/safety is agreed upon by the players, the DM might then transition to running a quick adventure in the gaming world before the end of the session. In my mind, Session 0 is about working with the players to set the stage so the adventure or campaign can begin with the greatest chance of success.

Strixhaven offers a unique setting that allows DMs to cover essential Session 0 content in the gaming world, which has spectacular possibilities! I discuss two options below.

Continue reading “How to Run Session 0 in Strixhaven (Literally!)”

Lost in Loki

My enjoyment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is something I’ve documented previously. The consistent quality of the films (for the most part) has been a wonder to behold. A question that loomed when the Disney+ shows were announced was, “Will the MCU transfer that magic to a smaller screen?” Now that WandaVision, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, and Loki are here to consume, it is safe to say the answer to that question is a definitive YES.

This morning, I set my alarm for 5AM so I could watch the finale of Loki before work. I lost faith that I could control avoiding spoilers a long time ago so it was either 1) go internet-dark for at least an entire day or 2) wake up early. The choice was clear! While watching the series season finale some gears whirled and clicked in my brain. I felt transported to another time and place when mysteries abounded and a cast of characters were figuring out how to wrestling with their glorious purpose.

Not the multiverse, no.

Lost.

Ever since the initial promos, Lost was a show that captured my attention. The dramatic voiceover teasing the show, a catchy premise, stunning visuals, a soaring score, and with Merry from The Lord of the Rings prominently involved – I was hooked. For all its eventual flaws (we’ll get to those in a moment), Lost excelled at establishing a setting that allowed attractive, charming and talented actors to tell entertaining stories and delve into a variety of intra- and inter-personal relationships.

Sound familiar?

The high-water episodes of Lost stack up with anything from Prestige TV that has come since. The voilà transformation in Walkabout, the vibrating urgency of The Constant, the incredible build-up and execution of Through the Looking Glass, and the hilarity and sweetness of Tricia Tanaka Is Dead stick with me 15 years later. On that last point, we named our son Hugo because there are worse things than having your namesake mutter, “Let’s look death in the face and say, ‘Whatever, man.’ Let’s make our own luck.”

The Marvel Mystery Box

With my enjoyment of Lost as a backdrop, let’s return to the journey of our multiverse-crossed pair, Loki and Slyvie. Having cleared a path through Alioth to reach the Citadel, the two finally get to meet The Man Behind the Curtain. The introduction of Kang The Conqueror into the MCU has been rumored for almost a year. Where WandaVision ended with a otherwordly display of magical powers and action, the majority of Loki’s finale was exposition from Kang and watching how Loki and Slyvie would respond.

All that was missing were the fish biscuits.

Kang now replaces Thanos as the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), which allows the characters throughout the MCU to respond to a new threat. The Lost parallels truly clicked for me after the post-credit scene simply displayed the stamp: LOKI WILL RETURN IN SEASON 2.

For either good or bad (it’ll take years to play out), the MCU as we know it triggered not only a massive, multiversal war but also a significant paradigm shift with the audience. The MCU has been fueled by spectacles on the big screen and the shows have given previously-underutilized characters a place to shine so they can take on more prominent roles in future films. Loki coming back for a second season truly breaks that mold because the finale functioned more as a tease of what is to come than the culmination of specific plotlines.

The MCU is its own multiverse now – versions of itself stacked on top of each other with the sole purpose of consuming our attention. There will be mystery boxes, BBEGs, character development, and – yes – seasons of shows to continue the vast, episodic, and relentless worldbuilding. It has the potential to be amazingly and staggeringly beautiful – an arena where talented creators and artists have an unlimited palette to craft critically-acclaimed stories that can be inspiring, heartbreaking, or simply triumphant.

It also has the potential to become a never-ending series of unfulfilling stories. The flaws with Lost are that it changed the questions a few too many times and suffered from a lack of adequate answers. Lost asked fascinating questions with the Smoke Monster, The Hatch, and The Others; some of those answers were magnificent and others…. eh, not so much. It also knew how to shake the snow globe for its characters. Need to inject some new life to spice things up? We have survivors in the tail of the plane! The MCU is using a similar bag of tricks and has demonstrated that they can build up and pay off the investment of fans. It would be foolish to doubt their ability to keep up this quality though the slew of shows and movies on the horizon will put those abilities to a greater test.

The danger is that fans burn out on the MCU moving the goal posts one too many times. Let us build up the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and get you invested in what that might be only to show it’s a conjuration of Kang the Conqueror, who is just one version of Kang and you’ll have to wait for that story to unfold over years in future shows and movies. Loki and Slyvie (and the audience) got some answers in the finale, though I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions!”

4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 Billion Served

The success of the MCU is more impressive by how other franchises have so utterly failed to maintain their hold on pop culture. Harry Potter once dominated and (weak prequels aside) that property is complicated to enjoy due to viewpoints by JK Rowling. Game of Thrones lit itself on fire and has quickly faded from relevancy. Star Wars is in a weird and sad place where they cannot seem to escape the shadow of three films from nearly four decades ago or animated shows that aired to a small audience years ago.

As I sat through the trailers before Black Widow I was struck by how it’s All-MCU-All-The-Time. The trailers for ShangChi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and The Eternals played back-to-back. A piece of me worried that our films are getting funneled through a narrow output machine and another is ready to embrace the glorious purpose of the MCU.

The ambition of the MCU architects to dream this big and execute it all so well….

Where are we?

Breaking Up with Games That Never End

I seem to have quit Hearthstone.

Last month I traveled to visit family in New Jersey and my intentions were to be mindful and focus on quality time with my wife, son and extended family. Squeezing in Hearthstone games to knock out Daily or Weekly Quests did not seem aligned with the “quality family time” value so I took a break from opening up the app on my phone.

I have not opened Hearthstone in weeks and it feels – liberating.

Like more and more games in the past decade, Hearthstone is a game that never ends. One could say that Chess never ends either, though Chess does not have the allure of frequent expansions that promise new pieces and mechanics to revitalize the game. Hearthstone resides in a perpetual state of being…. there. I rarely played while sitting at a computer even though I dabbled here and there with streaming it. It’s been primarily a phone game for me – jamming games while on a walk, eating lunch, watching sports in the background, and likely between many other activities that I should have my full attention.

It’s fair to say Hearthstone became a habit (not an addiction), and that habit is now broken. Interfering with the behavioral chain has given me some space to decide if I want to return to the game. I still follow the same community of players and developers online and know a new expansion is on the horizon, which promises a new Tradeable mechanic that will introduce more deck-building strategy and in-game decision making. I find myself not terribly interested, and again that feels pretty good.

Similar to how I’m evaluating my relationship to tabletop roleplaying games, I’m examining what I get out of playing Hearthstone these days. There is a bit of fun to be had; it’s nice to win games and check off Quests. There has always been a nagging question with Hearthstone though, “To what end?” I had some fantasies about becoming a Hearthstone streaming personality and never seriously worked to make that happen. I’ve likely spent $1,000 or more on the game and my digital collection of cards is worthless; I cannot sell them or trade them in for anything else. That money did provide a good deal of entertainment over the years, though should I really devote so much time to playing the same game for a year – or five?

Or forever?

How and When to Cut Ties with a Game That Never Ends

My goal is not to decry Hearthstone; it remains a fine game and there are talented, dedicated people who are attempting to make it the best product it can be. After playing the game for years and achieving the goal of hitting Legend, the game feels stale TO ME. The repetition of expansion release, honing in on a deck or two to learn, absorbing changes to new and past cards, and hoping I had enough dust to field more than one competitive deck got increasingly expensive and frustrating. I stopped pre-ordering expansions over a year ago, and that also changed what I felt comfortable playing. Since I no longer had a collection that allowed me to field more than one competitive deck in Standard per expansion, I moved to Wild. It remained fun for some time though the returns were diminishing.

Continue reading “Breaking Up with Games That Never End”

Was Elita-1 in Transformers: War For Cybertron That Irritating?

Last summer I was excited to watch the new series, Transformers: War for Cybertron: Siege. I grew up with the toys and cartoon series, which was appointment viewing after school each day. Transformers: The Movie arrived in theaters the year after my father died; I recall being in the theater with my mom when Optimus Prime died. I was nine-years-old, and there are some moments that just sorta hang around in your brain….

So I was excited when the franchise was rebooted through live-action films though those quickly became a mess of computer-generated effects and flashes that resembled little of the characters I knew so well from childhood. I was pleasantly delighted by Bumblebee, which toed a similar line to Cobra Kai by updating a franchise from the 1980s for the modern world; it’s a fun movie, and worth your time if you haven’t caught it yet.

I never delved into the comic book versions of Transformers, so maybe the War For Cybertron series on Netflix closely aligns to that content; I would not know and I acknowledge my ignorance of the comic stories. As a fan most familiar with the animated series and toys, Transformers: War For Cybertron: Siege is a tough watch. The show is dark in every way imaginable from the color palette to the content. The show begins with the Autobots near extinction and running out of options. Energon is scare on Cybertron and the Decepticons are searching for a means to deliver a final blow to win the war. I cannot properly do justice to the grimdark setting of the show, though I’ll briefly try.

Ultra Magnus leaves the Autobots in hopes of convincing Megatron to end the war; Magnus is tortured repeatedly and dies. Bumblebee is not an Autobot but a freelancing energon scavenger; a fend-for-yourself mercenary that Prime pleads with to join the Autobot cause. The show elects to give the robots very mechanized voices, which makes sense considering they are robots AND it is extremely disruptive to trying to figure out what the characters are saying. It reminded me of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises; it’s a struggle to comprehend what is happening at times. The leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, is beleaguered and running on fumes and desperation. His confident (and maybe love interest though it’s never quite defined) is Elita-1. Of all the challenging things to endure during War For Cybertron, the incredible negative of Elita-1 was the most difficult.

I even make a joke about it!

Captain Panaka (better known in my brain as Captain Pessimism) is a minor character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace who brings such encouragement as:

Your Highness, this is a battle I do not think we can win.

If we can’t get the shield generator fixed, we’ll be sitting ducks.

You can’t take Her Royal Highness there. The Hutts are gangsters. If they discovered her…

Captain Panaka Pessimism

I somewhat chuckled at the negativity of Elita-1 and wrapped up War For Cybertron deciding, “Eh, that wasn’t for me and that is fine.” My stronger reaction to Elita-1 would creep back into my mind from time to time. Why did this show and – specifically this character – irritate me so much? Is this a sexism thing on my part? Would I have a similar reaction if Prime’s second-in-command was a male character with the same lines? Is it partially because the voice for Elita-1 is purposely shrill (and again, way too robotic sounding)?

It nagged on my mind so much that I decided to test my assumptions by going back to War For Cybertron to write down every line she has in the first six episodes. I know War For Cybertron has another season on Netflix, and I’ll likely give that season a watch at some point to see if it becomes a little less grimdark.

In the meantime, here is every line from Elita-1 from Transfomers: War For Cyberton: Siege:

Continue reading “Was Elita-1 in Transformers: War For Cybertron That Irritating?”

Is This a Hobby Anymore? Reflections on a Decade of Dabbling in Tabletop Roleplaying Games

My blog crossed the 10-year mark earlier this year to no fanfare. I knew about the milestone (and even tweeted about it) though the moment lacks any sort of significance other than a reminder of how much time has passed since I was eager to share my thoughts with the world about combat speed in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. At that time, my motivation for writing was to fill a perceived gap in the flourishing online discourse about D&D; I felt my background as a mental health provider and researcher could be unique, and that first article was enjoyable to write!

The community enjoyed the article, which provided me with reinforcement to write about other topics. A pleasant feedback loop started as I was playing D&D regularly, which would spark ideas for articles, which would get me to write for the blog, which would result in others in the community discussing or sharing those articles, which would result in me being more interested in playing D&D and other games.

My enjoyment of tabletop roleplaying games such as D&D took on a bigger role in my life. I went from not playing at all to playing with a consistent group 3-4 times each month. And not only was I devoting time to LONG sessions each weekend (4e combat speed, am I right?!), I spent a good portion of other free time writing, editing, and promoting my blog on social media – primarily Twitter. Looking back, that time was such a luxury!

I am proud of the blog, which has accumulated the following stats in the past 10 years (and two months):

  • 276 Posts
  • 1,521 Comments
  • 627,461 Views
  • 319,380 Visitors

The busiest day for the blog was on December 1, 2016 after Patrick Rothfuss shared an article I wrote about The Slow Regard for Silent Things on Facebook. That was cool!

And while I am far from the only person to get interested in podcasting, I figured again that I had a unique perspective as my clinical skill set helps me interview and move discussions in specific directions. I created Ego Check with The Id DM in 2016 without really knowing what I was doing (I probably still don’t).

Continue reading “Is This a Hobby Anymore? Reflections on a Decade of Dabbling in Tabletop Roleplaying Games”