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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My 4th Edition Mindset

Outside a smattering of voyages into a few modules from earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons when I was still a teenager, my tabletop roleplaying game experience has been shaped by 4th Edition D&D. It was not until this past weekend I realized how much 4th Edition has influenced my view of how games should play and run.

Readers of the blog will note that I have spent some time playtesting a new roleplaying game called Blade Raiders. The game is very different from 4th Edition D&D and it still feels great to play. During the start of a new campaign with the system, I found myself slipping into a “4e” mindset – for better and for worse. Below, I process a few observations about habits learned while playing (almost exclusively) 4th Edition over the past two-plus years and discuss our first session of a Blade Raiders campaign.

Building a Badass

When I created a character for our playtest earlier in the year, I experimented with the Blade Raiders system and chose a combination of non-magical and magical talents. I certainly wanted to create an effective character but I was more interested in learning the system and trying new approaches to character design. But for the campaign, the “4e switch” flipped in my head and I was dissecting the various talent options in a surgical fashion.

  • How can I get the greatest bonus to hit? 
  • How can I max out my damage per turn?
  • What talents will be most useful to me in the most circumstances?

Character optimization is not unique to 4th Edition D&D, but it is where I learned that craft! The Character Builder was (and remains to be) a wonderful tool to experiment with character creation; with a few clicks, one can see just how effective his or her character will be in combat and non-combat situations. It teaches the player the importance of statistical bonuses from a combination of skills, feats, traits and powers. And perhaps more importantly, it encourages and rewards that type of optimizing behavior. After all, why wouldn’t a player choose the options that produce the most damaging effects in combat?

Bryce Brevard, The Brigand of Burnigon
Bryce Brevard, The Brigand of Burnigon

So I examined he options in Blade Raiders and based my choices on the questions above. I chose talents that gave me bonuses to attack and damage rolls. I basically created a 4th Edition Striker in the Blade Raiders system. And my character, Bryce Brevard, was absolutely death on wheels. While I racked up kills and rejoiced in my ability to slay foes quickly, I experienced a creeping doubt that I was being “that guy.” You know, that guy on a basketball team that takes all the shots and celebrates the win by himself while his teammates look on in annoyance. It dawned on me that other people around the table were playing Blade Raiders – but in many ways, I was still playing 4th Edition D&D.

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Blade Raiders Playtest: Gameplay & Game Management

Earlier in the week, I discussed the opportunity I had to play Blade Raiders, a new roleplaying game designed by Grant Gould. In the first segment, I outlined the step-by-step process of building a character in the system. The rules break away from many conventions such as “classes” and give the Storyteller (DM) and players a great deal of flexibility to customize characters. However, Blade Raiders was designed primarily with an eye toward accessibility – how quickly can players new and old create a character and get into an adventure.

Blade Raiders Banner

I encourage you to read the first part of the review to learn more about the character creation process. Below, I turn my attention to the experience of playing the game and my thoughts on what it would be like to run a group of players through a brief adventure or long-standing campaign.

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Blade Raiders Playtest: Character Creation

I was fortunate over the weekend to shake the dust off my stored-away-for-months dice and play a new game, Blade Raiders, which is designed by Grant Gould. You may recall that I interviewed Grant last year about his freelance illustration work for such companies as LucasFilm and Topps. In the interview, Grant provided details on the Kickstarter he organized to fund the design and art for the Blade Raiders Core Rulebook.  Grant has been playing roleplaying games for over 20 years and decided to build the type of game he wants to play. Many people talk about building a game from the ground up, but Grant has actually done it. Regardless of the outcome, I applaud that level of dedication. But it also turns out that Blade Raiders is really fun and introduces several unique components to typical RPG gameplay.

Blade Raiders Banner

This week, I will post my thoughts on our playtest of Blade Raiders. Below, I share my initial impressions on the specific topic of character creation and the components that are involved in character progression throughout the course of a campaign. Later in the week, I will present information about a variety of interesting tidbits on gameplay and game management.

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Ego Check: Grant Gould, Freelance Illustrator

In Spring 1999, Pacey Witter was a season away from kissing Joey PotterPresident Bill Clinton was dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Star Wars fans around the globe were camping out to buy tickets to the long-anticipated Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Remember that feeling of anticipation? There’s going to be a new Star Wars movie! And we’re going to see it on the big screen soon! At the time, I was in the process of completing my first year of graduate school at University of Minnesota – where Jesse “The Body” Ventura was residing as Governor of Minnesota. Looking back, it was a strange time!

Being a huge fan of Star Wars and not wanting to miss out on getting a ticket to the first show, I searched online for the nearest organized line – a task that was not as easy as it sound because social media like Facebook and Twitter didn’t really exist yet. I found a nearby group through an online message board and not knowing what to expect, I left class and drove 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis to a suburban theater. I immediately connected with the other guys and girls in what became simply known as The Line. There was a shared language we all understood – we were all nerds, damn proud of it and the enthusiasm and camaraderie was contagious. During the following days when I wasn’t in class, at work or home sleeping – I was at The Line.

New roleplaying game in development from Grant Gould.

One of the great people I met in that movie theater parking lot was Grant Gould. Grant is currently a freelance illustrator and developing a new roleplaying game, Blade Raiders, but back in 1999 he was just another guy camping out in line for Star Wars tickets. We shared many of the same interests and he and his friends were hilarious. If you’d like to read some truly unfortunate quotes – including several from yours truly – from The Line regarding Star Wars fandom and the build-up to Episode I, then check out this issue of The Minnesota Daily – the student newspaper for University of Minnesota – which profiled the people waiting in line to buy tickets. None of us knew about the trainwreck that was thundering in our direction. How could we have known!?

Grant and I stayed in touch after the hoopla of Episode I died down and he invited me to a party the next year in June 2000. I had recently graduated with my Masters degree and was leaving Minneapolis for good, but I really wanted to see all the people from The Line one last time. I decided to stay an extra week in town for the party and leave the next morning. At the party, Grant introduced me to his cousin, Emily. Four years later, Emily and I got married and we celebrate our eighth anniversary tomorrow. Without Star Wars – I don’t meet the love of my life – and I owe the equivalent of a Wookie Life Debt to Grant Gould.

Below, I interview Grant Gould about his journey from standing in line for Episode I tickets to working officially as a freelance illustrator for Luscasfilm and other big-name franchises like The Lord of the Rings. He talks about his long history of playing roleplaying games and his motivations for designing his own game, Blade Raiders. I’m obviously biased, but Grant is good people – and if you feel so inclined, then please check out his Kickstarter page for Blade Raiders.

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