Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gaming with Prince Arthur in Greg Stafford’s Pendragon, Conclusion

The final chapters of Pendragon concern matters of social status, faith, and wealth. After the
presentation of the game’s core mechanics, some might want to skip these sections and get down to playing. But in the world of Pendragon, the topics of religion and hierarchies are central. Nothing is peripheral in this game.
Amid his discussion of different levels of knighthood, Stafford presents a curious interconnection between players and characters. This builds to the curious idea that, to play a lord effectively, one must also learn the ropes of gamemastering: “For a player character lord to be effective, the player must acquire a wider view of the realm than a player of a simple adventuring knight. The recommended path to gain this overview is to require that each lord’s player must become a part-time Gamemaster for short-duration events. Thus, the lord must, at some time, sponsor an event and his player must run the required game session.” Once again, Stafford tries to cut off shortcuts: He wants this game to be deep, immersive, and thorough.
The advice about gamemastering is also put forth to afford relief to the gamemaster. Stafford realizes that running a full-on Pendragon campaign (which is perhaps the only way to run Pendragon) is a marathon: “[The Gamemaster] must mastermind the campaign and oversee adventures for a year or more of real time to sustain a King Arthur Pendragon campaign, and he deserves a chance to play characters occasionally without also having the Gamemaster’s responsibilities.”
The religion of Pendragon is a complex, contradictory soup of myth, legend, and fiction (with a sprinkling of history). Two forms of Christianity exist: a British variety and a Roman one. The British strand is steeped in apocryphal accounts and wildly speculative alternative histories. On this account, Jesus rubs elbows with druids and Joseph of Arimathea later travels to spread the good news after Jesus’s death. Joseph carries with him the Holy Grail.
Aside from having to negotiate (or perhaps choose) between these two varieties of Christianity, the group involved in a campaign also has to decide on whether the church will be represented as “good” or “bad.” That is, do you want your church to be an edifying force spreading education, comfort, and healing, or do you want it to be a corrupt institution that takes advantage of the innocent sheep? Varieties of paganism are also available for exploration in the game, and there is also the matter of determining how exactly good and evil will manifest themselves in the world. For example, evil can be quantitatively defined by certain traits (like Vengeful, Cruel, and Selfish), but it might also be present in supernatural demonic forces.
Oh yes . . . and then there is the faerie realm and the influence of druids. As with other dimensions of Pendragon, you start to dive into a topic, and the layers continue to unfold. The operation of magic in the game is mysterious with key aspects left intentionally vague: “The magic of Britain is extremely potent, partially because of its very mystery. Magic is also dangerous because it is hidden and subtle: Your character knows that it is more likely to drive him mad or age him a century in a day than it is to roast him with a bolt of lightning.” So the rules of magic are left rather undefined by the game: The idea is that player characters will not be wizards themselves (at least not in the core game), though they may come into contact with such forces.
The final chapter takes up the matter of wealth: Being a knight is an expensive proposition, and the game deals with the paradox that, while knights have far more wealth than the rest of society, they are in a curious way among the most impoverished because their expenses are so extensive. Stafford says, “Part of the enjoyment of the game, for some, comes from spending money freely and lavishly.” I’m not sure I would be in that party, but I would also see a group of accountants embracing the economic aspect of the game and having a blast.
The core rulebook ends with a number of appendices. The first of these points forward to the most important supplement, The Great Pendragon Campaign and outlines new classes of knights (such as the chivalrous one, the romantic one, and the Knight of the Round Table). More on the passions (especially that of love) is provided. Now catch this: There is a passion called Amor which is passion directed toward a person but which remains chaste. If amor is consummated sexually, then it becomes “Love (Amor).” The terminology is intentionally overlapping and is used to emphasize the era’s own changing view towards love both as a concept and a passion.
The appendix also discusses future changes in armor and technology, and this brings out another curious aspect of the game. A Pendragon campaign will span a number of years of game time, but the technological development that occurs in that span will be accelerated. So running the game will have the effect of some different timelines running along simultaneously at different paces. I might play a character that ages five years, but in that time frame, hundreds of years of technological innovation might occur.
Appendix 3 provides some introductory scenario, and it introduces what is, in my mind, the most glaring flaw in Pendragon: namely that the game seems to suggest a heavily scripted narrative. At least in the opening scenarios, the entire arc of the game play is established from the start. I can’t judge at this point whether this is the natural default of the game, but at least from this appendix, it seems that the game involves the players following along a narrative whose main beats have been predetermined. This type of play might not be inevitable, though the game’s strong grounding in Malory and other Arthurian literature means that it is strongly inclined to follow along with a standard story line.
The appendices wrap up with a consideration of special combat situations: namely, battles and jousts. And then there are some suggestions for further reading.
My final evaluation? Pendragon is like a gothic cathedral: it is ornate and complex, and its architecture appeals to both the intellect and emotions. My reservation with the game is less its elaborate structure than its inability to generate a genuinely original and creative game play experience. The key question is this: does the game have its players live within an Arthurian tale, or does it allow you and your friends to forge and create a tale of your own? It seems like Pendragon is heavily invested in the former, and that would perhaps be entertaining for a while, but I would want to branch away from the standard tale after a spell, and if I did so, would I still be playing Pendragon?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Demihumans Session 8: An Unexpected Alliance with Orcs and a Two-Front War

Session Opening: Establishing Questions and Moves

I opted to open the session as I did our last one with some establishing questions. That means, after the commonweal move, I asked each member of the company to provide some information about the enclave, their activities, and notable events. Each question was followed by a modified move. Here are my notes for the questions and the accompanying modified move.


  • Zuk the troll: Ugluk (orc) and the other halflings whom Ugluck had saved are hanging out in the orchard glen. What do they do to show their deep bond with you and how have you reciprocated? (Intimately share knowledge with Ugluk). 
  • Neris the halfling: Jasmine (the halfling family matriarch) has returned with the other halflings who had apparently fallen under the power . What was the reaction of the halfling clan when she returned (fathom a soul).
  • Kane: What is the latest visible sign that human antipathy is on the rise? (assess a situation)
  • Donna: Breevane (a dwarven follower of Wycraft) visited you when you returned and explained his concern: What was he concerned about? (compel honor)


I like this way of getting the ball rolling. It helps to refresh the memories of the players, it gets them thinking about their role in creating the fiction, and it has them working their moves from the start.

An Unanticipated Company Strategy

The company started by meeting up the tavern--which is also the headquarters in the enclave for the makeshift militia organized by Donna (the dwarf). The company is facing a curious two-front war: The humans are becoming visibly restless and dangerous, and Wycraft (a mysterious elf) has some powerful magic, but it is warping and twisting the natural order. Wycraft is monomaniacal in her hatred for humans, but she is willing to destroy the natural order to satisfy her hatred.

The decision they made was surprising: They decided to try to forge some type of alliance with the orcs ruled by a seasoned chieftain named Madoc Torg. One strategy that I am learning to use more and more: When I don't know what to do as a GM, I turn responsibility over to the company. For example, when the company entered the orc camp (which I had no notes for), I asked them to describe various facets of what their characters saw.

This was a session where there was plenty of discussion and debate. The brief summary of developments:


  • The orcs have sealed a blood promise with the company to assist in keeping Wycraft in check.
  • The company (finally!) used their boon of the library and has discovered a possible way to use Wycraft’s magic elven stones against her.
  • BUT . . . to do this, they need an elven mage, and they decided to attempt to resurrect Eforis Nei (a previous member of the company who is an elf). The resurrection involved using some residual magic from some of Wycraft’s animal mutilations, some orc blood magic (courtesy of Kane the traitor) and, to stir the pot even more, Zuk the Troll used a fruiting bodies move.


So Eforis Nei now is returning to health, and he will be handled now as a Demiurge character. Eforis Nei now has both elements of Wycraft’s evil magic coursing in his veins, but there is also some of the troll’s magic at work (and the troll has some different strong magic coursing through his sap in the form of a strange pseudo-sentient algae).

Demiurge Concerns and Plans:

My sense of these sessions is that there is a kind of oscillation: It seems like we get one session (like this one) which is more about making plans and others which are more about the heavy-hitting action. The planning sessions are intriguing: The players get deeply into the roleplaying and the deep consideration of different angles. They are the type of sessions which probably come off poorly on camera, but there is so much complex thought that I find them satisfying and engaging.

I sometimes worry about the players, however. I enjoy philosophy, ethical dilemmas, and other heady material, but so many people get into RPGs for the action. One thing that softens this concern for me is how the spotlight was getting so equally shared. During the session, I was consciously tuning into how much “screen time” the characters were getting, and it was remarkable how everyone what participating, taking the spotlight, but then also generously pacing the spotlight onto another player.

I was also happy to see how the collaboration was working. When the company met in the tavern at the start of the game, I had some possibilities in mind in case they didn’t run with the ball, but I was both surprised (and very happy) when the company obviated my possibilities and went in an unexpected direction by going back to the orcs. All of us were improvising on the spot, and the session ended at a destination that none of us could have predicted.

What now? The sense is clearly that there is a three-way showdown building where the company will be squaring off with Wycraft and the humans. An analogy would be that famous scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly--the one where Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes engage in a three-way shootout in a cemetery. It’s exciting that I’m not sure exactly where the story will go. To add one more wrinkle, I’m thinking of throwing in a little climatological drama into the mix (in the form of a hurricane). And it's probably time to bring Squire Prador and the mounting human antipathy into focus. But aside from that, it will be up to the company to decide how they want to proceed with their two-front war.

Things seem to be building to some type of apocalyptic moment for our next session. There are so many things that are hanging in the balance.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Gaming with Prince Arthur in Greg Stafford’s Pendragon, Part 2

Today’s post takes us into the heart of Pendragon’s system for resolving conflicts and combat. The
major innovation here: By far the most interesting and important resolution rolls concern the inner state of the characters and not their external accomplishments.

The Mechanics of Personality 

Chapter 4 (“Stats and Skills”) wastes no time in getting to the heart of Pendragon’s innovative role playing system. Understanding the skills side of the equation is straightforward and familiar to RPG players, but in Stafford’s game, the character’s personality is constrained by its own set of statistics, and there is a mechanics in place which forces your character to take (or not take) actions based on relevant personality traits.

Those familiar with Call of Cthulhu or other horror games where sanity is tracked will have an inkling of what is involved in Pendragon, as will those who have played with character alignments.  But Stafford’s system cuts much deeper. Sanity is one trait, as is an alignment. That all seems like child’s play when compared to Pendragon, which has no less than 26 personality traits and 4 passions (actually 5 when you count the default “Hate”).

Here is just one taste to give you a sense of just how bold and relentless Stafford is about this aspect of the game:

“Personality Traits and Passions define the way your character feels and acts. During play, various emotions are revealed and Traits and Passions may thus receive experience checks, just like Skills . . . Passions may also be reduced at the Gamemaster’s option.

Over time, characters’ Traits and Passions come to reflect the story of their lives. The system allows characters to record the changes in their attitudes and behavior accurately and
Consistently.”

In other words, your character’s decisions are sometimes going to be out of your control:

“Since Traits and Passions define character personality, they must be consulted whenever the Gamemaster feels them necessary. In crises, it is assumed, individuals act according to their character, not spontaneous and ambiguous choices. Custom and training triumph over instinct.
Players may not want their characters to do something dictated by a die roll, but free choice is not always possible.”

I’m intrigued by the system, and I’d be willing to dive into the challenge. I realize that many players would balk at the constraints, seeing them purely as negatives: They would look at them as dictating what your character cannot do. But the set-up also provides guideposts and opportunities for role-playing, and inventive, creative players would use them as opportunities for immersing themselves in a character.

A Game about Morality . . . and Glory!

Staffords system of Traits and Passions also sets up an intense examination of morality and ethics. In Pendragon, what I as a player might want to do is now constrained by what my character can and cannot do. But it goes even deeper than that. The game is also about the attainment of Glory, which is another statistic—really, it’s the statistic above all others, the idea that all knights should be trying to attain. So there may be instances when my character’s personality trait might be at cross purposes with the attainment of Glory and/or at cross purposes with a character’s sense of what might, in practical terms, be another “better” option.

“The chaste knight will be able to maintain his chastity, the drunkard will remain a drunkard and the courageous will be courageous even sometimes against his better judgment.”

To further complicate matters, Stafford has another term, reputation, which is related to Glory, but isn’t the same as Glory. Reputation is Glory’s doppelganger: It is a concept which, unlike Glory, doesn’t receive a quantifiable number (it doesn’t even get a nod in the index), and it can run counter to what society considers proper. Thus, I might have a character with a reputation for Cruelty, but that will run counter to the attainment of Glory:

“It is important for players to understand the fact that, since Glory measures not reputation but status, successful evil knights may attain the same Glory as some chivalrous knights. Evil knights lose reputation, not Glory, for their vile deeds.”

And elsewhere:

“. . . reputation is critical in the game. Everyone is a knight, but the kinds of knight one portrays can vary greatly from one’s fellows. A character’s actual behavior is always up to the player, but certain behaviors earn more Glory than others.”

There is some ambivalence here: Elsewhere, Stafford suggests character’s behavior might not always be entirely up to the players. Clearly, there needs to be negotiation between the Gamemaster and the payers.

Glory over XP! 

This social dimension leads to another revolutionary concept. Glory is what the characters ultimately are after: It is Pendragon’s equivalent of XP. But the rule is that Glory is gained through the judgment of the other players (including the Gamemaster):

“King Arthur Pendragon is a social game; Glory represents the respect of one’s peers, not something palpable like gold. Thus, to a great extent, Glory is dependent on the reaction of the Gamemaster and the other players to your roleplaying. . . . If you impress everyone with
your character’s actions, chances are that he receives some Glory.”

Remember that this is coming out of an era when RPGs were tying XP to the discovery of gold coins and to the slaying of monsters. Stafford is charting a very different course here. He is boldly tying the “goal” of the game to the interactive play at the table, and he is motivating the players not simply to defeat foes and grab treasures but to role-play in a way that will win the appreciation of the other players at the table (and the characters whom they are playing).

Selling Out and other Acts of Self-Betrayal

Other delirious wrinkles: If you roll a trait and fail the roll, you then roll the opposing trait, and if you succeed on that roll, your character acts according to the opposed trait!

So, let’s say Eric the Merciful is deciding how to punish the poor peasant who stole bread from the miller, and let’s say he rolls on his mercy, but, as luck has it, he fails. He then rolls against cruelty: If he succeeds on this roll, he would behave with cruelty. And Stafford also takes into account situations where two traits might come into play with a situation which makes for internal conflict.

Similar perils and rewards attend the passions: A player may become inspired upon rolling a critical success, which will offers great advantages during the time of inspiration, but failures of passion can lead to melancholia and even madness with attendant disastrous consequences.

Passions can go up or down during play. I was amused by the Dishonorable Acts Chart which lists the commonly agreed upon distaste for certain deeds. Performing physical labor as a knight, for example, incurs a -2 to honor. And the worst dishonorable deed, going beyond killing a kinsman, is to learn to cast magic spells, which gives you a -8 to honor!

 What I see is a game focused on moral choices, character emotions, and internal conflicts.  Much of the play is going to be about the multiple demands that weigh on a person’s soul—with self-interest, social expectations, ethical constraints, personality traits, bonds, etc. all waging a relentless war on the character’s soul. This does not make a player into a mere puppet, but it is going to make the player constantly aware of the perilous moral road he or she walks. The possibilities are rich and complex.

After an Adventure comes the Winter Phase

Pendragon envisions that 1-2 play sessions will be devoted to playing out some type of scenario or adventure . . . but that doesn’t end the eventful developments for a character. After all, a knight has other pressing demands: finding an eligible spouse, improving oneself, raising a family, maintaining the lands and the stable, dealing with nasty rumors, and considering the inevitable grind of aging. Stafford has a Winter Phase in the game which consists of nine steps to consider all of these less heroic but no less important aspects of the knight’s life.

The Winter Phase or other extended times of rest are also needed for healing and rehabilitation, and characters will need that! The fifth chapter of Pendragon concerns combat, and to my eyes, it is a standard approach clearly based on the miniature wargaming background of other fantasy RPGs of the era. But Stafford is insistent that injury be dealt with in a grim and sober manner: “Violence in King Arthur Pendragon should be realistic and terrifying, never casual or routine, and the best way to achieve this is to make injuries a serious matter.”

So that takes us through the basic mechanics of the game. The final chapters take up matters of Ambition, Faith, and Wealth along with the appendices.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Gaming with Prince Arthur in Greg Stafford’s Pendragon

My encounter with Greg Stafford comes very late. I got into RPGs in the late 70’s in Mobile, AL, with Dungeons and Dragons—first with the Holmes and White Box editions, then graduating to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. There was a little DragonQuest and Villains and Vigilantes that got into the mix, and I dimly recall the name RuneQuest coming up, but Stafford’s games were not in the orbit of my gaming group in Mobile. There wasn’t even a gaming store in the city at that time that dealt with RPGs, so we had to persuade one of our mothers to drive us to Mississippi for us to get our hands on new material. But, with news of Greg Stafford’s death, I have finally started to dig into some of his material, beginning with King Arthur Pendragon (1985). While the reading is long overdue, it couldn’t come at a more opportune time for me in terms of some of my current projects, which include designing games with morality, the achievement of glory, and the early middle ages in their sights. What follows here is not a proper review or a tribute. Rather, it is a reflection on my first pass through King Arthur Pendragon (edition 5.2). I’m currently through the introduction and first three chapters, which provide an overview of the Arthurian material, “The Pendragon Realm,” “Character Generation,” and “Family and Fatherland.” More installments to follow! Right off, one should say that Pendragon is a role-playing game that HAD to be made, dealing as it does with some of the ur-matter of fantasy world building and literature. And the knights and ladies of Camelot should happily carousing that the first designer to come up with a fully fleshed out game dealing specifically with the Arthur legend was knowledgeable (about history, literature, and RPGs) and also innovative. Pendragon is NOT some dungeon crawl / sword & sorcery game reskinned for Arthurian fantasy. Pendragon IS a historically and socially nuanced game with a system that is almost dizzying in its layers and richness. Stafford was steeped both in medieval history and the Arthurian material, and he aimed for a game that would both be true to the sources and that would enmesh the players in a world that is dizzying not in terms of magic but in terms of its social complexity. It is a demanding game that challenges the players to consider the economic, cultural, political, and moral fabric of King Arthur’s Britain. If you commit yourself to the game, there is no doubt that you will receive a uniquely “lived” education about the middle ages (and don’t come here if you are after gelatinous cubes or kobold hordes!). I’m well into the rulebook (80 pages of 265), and Stafford has scarcely broached any information about combat mechanics or conflict resolutions. While Stafford does pepper some humor into the mix, for the most part, his tone is direct and lucid, not unlike Thomas Malory and other sober authors of the Arthurian tradition. What does Stafford require of his players?
  • A basic understanding of feudalism
  • A sense of religious traditions (British Christianity, Roman Christianity, and paganism)
  • An understanding of the economics of the manor
  • An acquaintance with the gender politics of the middle ages (though he does thoughtfully present some flexible ways of involving female characters in the mix)
  • An appreciation of lineage and family bonds
  • A knowledge of castle architecture and layout
  • A sense of the equestrian demands of knighthood
  • And more!!

When you are creating a character for this game, skills and stats are only one layer: You have to have an understanding of who you are in terms of the land, your family, your history, and your social environment. There is part of the game that involves going on adventures (more on that on the next post), but of equal importance is your character’s maintenance of the estate. Part of your “job” as a knight involves managing your land, finding a suitable spouse, and preparing for a legitimate heir. (Aside: The discussion of inheritance leads to one of the games terrific puns, which involves the problem of “Premature Heir Loss!!”) Pendragon is sprawling in terms of time: The idea of the game would be to play through multiple generations of a family. So your starting character will hopefully raise a son who will then become a squire and then inherit the mantle of knighthood to carry forth the campaign through the rise of King Arthur to the dissolution of the Round Table. To get the players enmeshed in the game, Stafford resorts to a number of techniques--some innovative, some direct, and some charming. Some examples:
  • You are instructed to design a coat of arms for your family, and the rulebook provides a couple of pages template elements to assist in the task. You fill in the coat of arms and color it on your character sheet.
  • At the end of the character generation process, you are instructed to hold an actual knighting ceremony which comes complete with a ritualized text for the gamemaster and the characters to complete. I imagine some players will skip this step, but Stafford insists (rightly) on its importance to establish the right tone for the game.
  • Stafford includes a number of straight-forward reference sections to give the gamemaster and players some quick efficient overviews of such topics as castles, the layout of England, early English history, etc.

One of my less favorite sections: The rules suggest that you work out the recent history of your family, focussing on your grandfather and father and taking you from 439-485 A.D. (a period which sets the stage for the appearance of Arthur).To accomplish this you are faced with a sequence of charts spanning across 8 pages. You roll on one chart for the year 439, consult the effects, and then move on to the next chart. I understand the purpose behind this set-up, but it is a grind! Many of the “numbers” you enter on the character sheet are what you would expect: attribute scores, skill scores, and combat scores. Notably missing is intelligence and Stafford makes it a point to highlight this absence. His argument is that your character is basically the same intelligence as the person who is playing that character. But there are innovative elements such as personality traits and the passions. Personality traits: There are 26 of them and they come in opposed pairs. These pairing have to total 20, so the more you have of one of the pair, the less you have of the other. For example, if your character ranks high on the forgiving side (say, a 14 score), then your character will be low on the vengeful side (a 6). I like the idea of opposed traits, and it is dealing with an issue that I am playing with. I do wish that the traits were not arrayed as good vs. evil, however. For example, Stafford pairs energetic with lazy, and players are almost always going to gun for high on the energetic side. But what if instead of “lazy” you used something like “serene?” That would give you a far more intriguing pair to consider. Passions: You start with four: Loyalty, Love, Hospitality, and Honor. Stafford also suggests a fifth passion of Hate (specifically aimed at the Saxons). More on this next time, as I know that Stafford’s use of the passions as a mechanic is one of the innovative aspects of Pendragon, but that part of the system has not yet been covered. A second page of the character sheet gives you places to keep track of your family, your holdings, your equipment, and your history. Whew! There is a lot to consider and chew over here. I end with a brief anecdote. As I was reading through the rules in my classroom during one of my lunches, I was engaged but was personally thinking to myself, “I don’t know whether my high school students would have the attention and endurance for this type of game.” But then, low and behold, two students (one a senior the other a freshman) asked me what I was reading, and when I explained to them, they were fired up by the idea. So there might be some Pendragon actual play in my future and in the future of some young gamers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Demihumans Session 7: The Swamp Chimera: Ally or Menace?

After a two-week hiatus, I had four players reconvene for another session of Demihumans on Sunday.
The main focus of the play became a fateful meeting with Wycraft, a mysterious elven mage. It became apparent as the play progressed that Wycraft wants to take the fight to the humans of Florageist, but to do so, Wycraft is warping the magic of the swamp. So the characters of the company faced a major dilemma: Do they join forces with Wycraft (thus harnessing that powerful magic), or do they oppose her (and hence make another enemy)? No easy choices!

The session ended in dramatic fashion with Wycraft revealing a large, dangerous Swamp Chimera, a monstrosity cobbled together from pieces of bear, alligator, snake, and other creatures. Wycraft is monomaniacal and was insisting that the members of the company (along with many members of the Neris the halfling’s family) join in a pact. Surprisingly, it was Donna (dwarf) who was most in favor of joining forces with Wycraft. But, in the end, Zuk the troll used Garden Pathways to spirit away the members of the company and a couple halflings. This left many other halflings, including their family matriarch, to deal with Wycraft and her Swamp Chimera on their own.

One other twist: Ugluk, a half-orc who was healed by Zuk’s Fruiting Bodies move and who now has the strange pseudo-sentient algae inhabiting her body, was involved in the action. She told Zuk to leave her behind to assist with the Wycraft situation, and, as the company fled Wycraft, they saw Ugluk running to some of the halflings and wiping some of the algae from her shoulder wound across their faces.

A few notable game play situations and recommendations:

Given the fact that we were coming back after a hiatus, I thought it would be nice to have players fill in on some developments that had been transpiring with their characters or the enclave. So, after the session preliminaries and the commonweal move, I had each player make a pseudo-custom move (involving a roll with modifiers) to explain developments. For example, Donna explained what she had been doing to help train the enclave members who had taken the Adamantine Pact. She failed her roll, by the way, and this resulted in one of those Adamantine Pact members falling into the party with Wycraft. The traitor, meanwhile, got to explain what was happening as a result of Human Antipathy increasing and got to ask some “Assess the Situation” style questions about what the humans were doing. This procedure got everyone immediately involved in the game play, and it helped to set some themes and stories in motion.

I’ve noticed that the boons, banes, and wants are not consistently coming into play. Players should be reminded of their boons at the start of the session. Even with that notification, they still are forgetting their boons. Here’s what I’m going to do next session: I’m going to remind them of the boons and then note that they are constantly forgetting them in play. The solution? I’m going to suggest that they look for opportunities to use them early in the session: Even if a boon was used for a minor advantage, that would be preferable than not using it at all.

As a demiurge, I’ve been much better at using the wants and banes that are more dramatic. In our next session, I’m going to do the following: For each want and ban in play, I’m either going to state the cost of that bane/want at the very start of the game play OR I’m going to think of the want or bane as a kind of move. I’m even going to consider asking a player exactly how a bane/want is manifesting itself in the enclave and how that directly impacts the members of the company.

One thing that is working well: There is so much drama being generated from the fact that the enclave has different factions with very different ideas about how to deal with the humans. If the demiurge does some good work at establishing some political intrigue and ethical dilemmas at the start, the game will flourish and the players will be faced with some deeply probing dilemmas. By the end of yesterday’s session, I had players jumping out of their seats, pacing, and knocking over chairs--all of this in a good way. They were thrilled with the complex choices that were continuing to bud and blossom.

The special moves are high points of the game play, but they do not get used often. The basic moves are doing their work, but part of me would like to see those special class moves more frequently. The plus side is that those class moves are very special when they are used, and the players are invested in giving them added meaning and import which is quite satisfying and dramatic.

Despite the impression of some of my players, I don’t know where the fiction will take us, but the game continues to generate a level of thoughtfulness and complexity that I have seldom encountered in an RPG. I had my doubts as to whether my play group would go for Demihumans with its melancholic tone, but they are energized by what the game is generating in terms of both the game play situations and in terms of the story.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Self-realization and Unknown End-points in Games AND in Teaching



Ron Edwards continues to touch on issues that are at the core of what teaching should be about (and also what some game experiences can be about), and that has prompted me to reflect further about my profession and my work with students. See the full conversation at Adept Play. Ron has also been reflecting on some of the toxic effects of social media and his thoughts are leading to some exciting changes that are in the works. Stay tuned!

Ron wrote:

“The second term [“self-realization”] might look out of place, but as I see it, it's necessarily more relevant to K-12 teaching than is safe to admit. This teaching isn't just offering a social service, it's developmental intervention - a risky and conflicted form of parenting, like it or not.”
Self-realization is not out of place. I totally agree that, as a high school teacher, I have an obligation to do much more than just teach content or to build skills. The (often unstated) developmental work of teachers is crucial . . . though many teachers do not receive much direct help that equips them for that role. At least in my case, I was never told much about that aspect of my work. I’m hesitant to equate teaching with parenting, though there is overlap and, in an ideal world, teaching and parenting should work together (though differently) to help young people achieve independence, self-reliance, and fulfillment. On any given day, some of my student can have as much time in my presence as they have contact with their parents, and that gives me a deep sense of duty that goes beyond delivering course content.

“My one intended input is this: in none of the topics I mentioned above, can the result be inserted or implanted, it can only be cultivated. So the game might not work, or if it works, its degree of engagement may vary from person to person, or, and most importantly, for every person so engaged, the reflection may yield varying conclusions.”

Yes. The levels/types of engagement and end-points of reflection will vary from student to student. I’d take it one step further and say that they should vary, though the structure and underlying assumptions of our educational approach often aim at conformity. In other words, education often seems to be set up to achieve a uniform outcome, but if we are interested in developing creative, thinking individuals, then we should embrace variance . . . provided those variances are also accompanied by growth. So if I were successful in designing a classroom game that met with different student responses, I’d be content and even eager to explore those responses.

A bit of a digression for the Beowulf game, but one that touches on the work I do with students and that touches on both the issue of self-realization and the issue of an open-ended result: I’m coming to the conclusion that my sponsorship of a game club at school and to engage with students seriously in playing games is, for many of my students, becoming just as important as my role as a teacher in the classroom (though writing that might be heresy). In that club setting (and the club meets daily during breaks and lunch and even on weekends), there is crucial social, intellectual, and creative work being done. And one thing that makes the club wonderful is that it is divorced from the concept of a prearranged, dictated outcome: Students can develop, grow, create, and imagine in a safe setting without the pressure of a test or assessment. In some cases, students have been learning about games used by me and one of my colleagues in the classroom, and then they find their way to my room during breaks and lunches to join the club. That’s been fun and satisfying to watch.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Why a game about Beowulf?


Ron Edwards asked me a probing, fundamental question in an exchange over at his site Adept Play. I recommend that you see the full exchange there and to look at other posts.

Here's the question he asked

Before really getting into the document, I want to know more. It's not an easy question: why have students at this grade level, today's culture, faced with today's problems, encounter Beowulf at all?

That’s a very complex question, and one which demands multiple answers. Here are a few . . .

One value of reading Beowulf is that it is a text which revolves around problems and crises: It shows characters responding to those crises in different ways, and also shows the consequences (sometimes unpredictable) of those decisions. Are those problems the same as the problems our society faces? Yes and no . . . but both the similarities and differences have important values.

The problems faced within Beowulf are different than our problems: In our world, we face countless situations where groups and people are facing problems that are not our problems. This is the case both globally (the problems facing Vietnam, for example, are often not the problems facing the United States) and locally (the problems facing a single mother living in a housing project in downtown Orlando are not my problems). Does that mean that problems that are not my problems are not important or that I should not pay attention to them or learn about them? Holding to the line that my problems (or our problems) are the only ones worth thinking about would lead to a very narrow and toxic way of confronting the world. We should equip ourselves (and I should equip my students) to be able to build empathy: Even if someone (or some other group) is facing problems that are not my problems, I should develop the ability to see the challenges and difficulties facing them . . . and perhaps see a way to helping them or offering up solutions. That’s one way we can tear down walls and build community.

The problems faced within Beowulf are similar to our problems: This notion might initially seem unlikely. The world of Beowulf is so different from our world. But if we develop the sensitivity to see some similarities, the text might give us a different lens through which to view these problems. To take one example, there are situations where a warrior of one tribe is harmed, and the members of that warrior’s tribe are then weighing the response: Is it better to wage war? to ask for some compensation of material value? to seek help from allies? to withhold resources from the offending party? To decide, I need to look at the options, evaluate possible consequences, and take action. The concerns of Beowulf are not entirely irrelevant to, say, the current situation involving the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the responses being weighed.

Beyond the realm of problem solving, Beowulf is important because, in order to understand that text, we must expend some real effort to grasp the cultural background driving it. And if we are successful in that effort, we are gaining some valuable skills and tools that might help us to deal with cultural differences when we confront them in other contexts. Students might find the actions, beliefs, and values of Beowulf to be strange and foreign . . . just as they will find the actions, beliefs, and values of other cultures and communities to be strange and foreign. To develop an understanding requires imagination, empathy, creativity, and insight--and these are all abilities that can be cultivated and taught. Presenting students with a challenging text like Beowulf can build those muscles in a way that other easier and more accessible texts cannot.

Beyond these more sweeping arguments, there are some other specific topics and themes that make Beowulf valuable: It is about how the “monsters” we face in the future are created by the choices we have made in the past. It is about adapting to new roles and changing situations as we age (and about how we confront our mortality). It is about dealing with conflicting value systems that we hold (for example, what happens when the value of maintaining honor comes into conflict with the value of  preserving health and even life?). These are all important, real issues and valuable to think about.

Beowulf is a great text to confront these topics and more. And there is a real power to Beowulf both in terms of its story and in terms of the aesthetic experience it offers. But is not an “easy” text: It requires imagination and alertness from its reader. My sense is that a well constructed game (and in this case this means a game that can both stand on its own two legs AND also one that faithfully accompanies the poem) can assist in building those imaginative and intellectual powers.