Summer of Projects

This is something of a stream-of-consciousness post, mainly intended to organize my thoughts and keep me publicly accountable for things I’m supposed to be doing this summer.

My last piece of paperwork for school is done and going into my office next week. Since this is my first summer without a set work commitment for the summer (that is, my salary was for my school work, so anything I do over the summer gets paid extra), this is my first best chance to get things done with minimal interference from “responsibility” (although I’m sure that will crop up from time to time). As such, here is what my goals are for the summer, sorted by general category:

Household/Personal:
Clean The Basement – Have you ever seen a teenager’s room before his parents make him clean it? Or a man cave before the man’s wife makes him tidy it up? Well… imagine that the parents or wife can’t get to the room or cave. That’s my basement. This summer, I’m getting that taken care of so that we can, one day, finish the basement. Due Date: End of Summer.
Repurpose the Den – When my wife and I first bought our house, the plan was to make the basement into a social area and kid’s playroom. Then, about two months ago, my wife realized that it wouldn’t work well as a kid’s playroom if she couldn’t easily get into the basement (this is also the reason why the basement needs cleaning as described above). So, the den is going to be the new playroom, which means that things in the den that are not kid-friendly (like the desks piled high with papers) need to be moved into the basement – after I clean it. Due Date: End of Summer.
Screen Door – My wife wants a screen door on the front door so we can let the dog out and stay out without the bugs getting in. Due Date: ASAP.
Secret Family Art Project – Can’t talk about it, it’s a secret. Due Date: End of Summer.
Lose Some Weight (And Keep It Off) – More or less self-explanatory. Being off work, though, is going to give me a chance to watch my diet a little better and take daily walks and bike rides. Now if I can keep it up after the summer. Due Date: Continuous.
Hang Cabinets – It’s only been a year since we bought cabinets for me to hang over the laundry machines. It’s about time to do that. Due Date: Soon.
Spray Paint Table – When we moved into the house, we got a dining room table with it. Not bad – a little too modern for my tastes, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The base of the table, however, needs painting, which I haven’t done in the last couple years. Again, time to get that done. Due Date: Soon.
Seal Driveway Cracks – I’ve killed the weeds growing in the driveway, now I just need to dig them out and make sure they don’t grow back. Due Date: Soon.
Project Coaster – I briefly mentioned this in a post a while ago. I stopped working on it because I ran out of acrylic, and Lowe’s wouldn’t cut any more for me. This summer – if I can find a new supplier of acrylic – I plan to make another run at this. Due Date: None.

RPG Writing:
Living Forgotten Realms GenCon Special – I’m writing SPEC4-6 for GenCon. It’s due to come out at the start of August, so timelines are starting to get tight. Due Date: June 17 for first draft.
Ashes of Athas GenCon adventure – I’m also writing AoA6-2 for GenCon. Timelines are getting tight here as well. Due Date: June 15 for first draft.
D&D Insider articles – I’ve got a couple draft revisions due to Wizards of the Coast relatively soon. Since one of the major rules of paid freelancing is to deliver content on time, I’m on a tight schedule for that as well. Due Date: June 30.
Reclamation mini-adventure – A friend recently got an RPG published, and I offered to write him a mini-adventure. That was back in March. Need to get on that pretty soon. Due Date: July.

Board Game Design:
Alchemists! – With the help of a couple friends, I’ve been trying to get the prototype of Alchemists! ready for pitching to companies. The goal is to get another playtest and some initial pitches done at Protospiel in early July. Due Date: July 5.
24-Hour Design Contest – Someone on the BoardGameGeek forums is running a contest to design a board game in 24 hours – from concept to completed (print-and-play) product. I’m looking forward to trying this, but it ends at the end of June. Due Date: June 30.
Gnomekiller Ale – I’ve gotten some playtest feedback on Gnomekiller Ale, and the short version is that it needs a lot of work. I’m hoping to be able to take it back off the shelf and work on it. Due Date: None.

Speech Pathology:
Home Health Evaluations – While the school year and my contractual obligations are over, I still have the opportunity to work home health through my company to make some extra money, which is not a bad way to spent part of the summer. Due Date: Continuous.
Smarty Ears App – I’m currently working on my second app for Smarty Ears. I’ve had to put it off for a while when work got crazy, but I’m hoping to refocus on it and get the creative input side done by the end of the summer – after I get all the June deadlines done. Due Date: August 15.

So that’s my summer. Wish me luck.

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The Value Of Complaint: Ticketmaster, the ADA, and Standing Up For Your Rights

My wife really enjoys country music. Since I knew that before I married her, I’m not allowed to hold it against her (or so she tells me). One of her favorite events is the three-day Downtown Hoedown held in Detroit every June. Until this year, the event was held in Hart Plaza, required no ticket to attend, and was free. It was great for her because she could show up when she wanted, could easily get to an area where she could see, and she didn’t have to deal with ticket agents. These last two are particularly important to her because she has cerebral palsy and is physically unable to stand for any appreciable length of time and has a very difficult time – at best – with stairs. What this usually means at concerts is that when the main act comes onstage, she needs to give up any hope of being able to see anything. It turns out that when most venues put their accessible seating in a location with no stairs and that is easy for wheelchairs to get to and from, that means they’re putting the seats directly behind the stadium seating sold to those without accessibility needs, and when the people sitting in those seats stand up… Well, the people who need to sit down aren’t able to see anything. Furthermore, ordering accessible tickets can at times be something of an ordeal when compared to normal ticket purchase. First, you need to look at the event website to see if you can even order tickets online, then you need to either fill out a form and wait for a ticket agent to call you back or call the box office to get tickets. And that’s if everything goes smoothly. (Spoiler alert: Things did not go smoothly this time.)

This all contributes to why she was concerned about the change in venue for this year’s Hoedown. Due to increases in size of the event and security concerns, the decision was made to move the festival to the parking lot of Comerica Park. While this leads to many benefits for the event itself, it means that now the event is not free and requires dealing with the ticketing process. Even the choice of venue itself was worrying to us, as we routinely experience difficulty with parking accessibility at Comerica (the most significant incident of which involved, after being redirected to five different parking lots that said they had no available handicapped spaces, blocking an entrance to a parking structure and refusing to move until I spoke with a manager). But, as I said earlier, my wife really enjoys country music, so we steeled ourselves for the ticket ordering process and the inevitable parking difficulties.

Boy, did we underestimate the situation.

First of all, when Christine tried to get three-day passes to the event, Ticketmaster’s website gave her a web form to fill out. She filled it out, and got an automatic response saying that a ticket agent would be contacting her within an hour. Six hours later, she got an e-mail response saying the event was sold out. We thought it was unfortunate and quite the delay, but we did send in our request seven hours after sales opened, and it was a popular event. We thought it was reasonable that everything was sold out before she even filled out the form.

The next week, we learned that one-day passes would be going on sale on the 23rd. Because Christine’s employer is very conservative with web filters, she asked me to order the tickets. So I got online at 10:00 AM, determined to get my request for tickets in before they sold out again. I filled out their form, got the same automatic response she did, and prepared to get my “within an hour” response to order the tickets.

Pretend I left a large amount of blank space here to represent the passage of time.

A few hours later, I decided there had been enough waiting. We called Ticketmaster to follow up, and were informed that Ticketmaster wasn’t given any accessible seats to sell and that we should call the box office. When we did so, we learned that the box office closes early on Fridays; we reached a voicemail asking us to leave a message with our request and they’d return the call within 24 hours.

Since in this context “24 hours” did not include Saturday or Sunday, this left us in a position where, for two days, we were unaware as to whether or not we’d be able to get accessible tickets for this event. This seemed like an extraordinarily long wait to me, and it occurred to me that someone should say something about it. An Internet search later, I found myself reading the text of the 2005 ADA settlement between Ticketmaster and the United States Department of Justice. I started taking notes. Of particular interest were the following three details: Ticketmaster is required to state up front on their website if they are not selling accessible tickets to an event, Ticketmaster is required to respond to requests for accessible tickets within one hour (with occasional delays being acceptable in extenuating circumstances), and Ticketmaster is required to have a Disability Coordinator to handle concerns about acquiring accessible seating. More notes were made, but I held off on sending anything until we knew whether we’d be able to get tickets.

On Monday, I got a return call from Frances at the box office, who informed me that the were no accessible seating tickets at all for the event – all ticketing is general admission and “standing room”. This set off alarm bells for me – a parking lot Steel Magnolias concert last summer didn’t have chairs available, and we had to have staff members find them somewhere (I think they took them from the medical tent, but we never asked). I asked about getting chairs, which surprised the agent; after all, if we sat down, we wouldn’t be able to see anything past the people who were standing up. After I explained that I was hoping to get chairs for people who were unable to stand for more than a few minutes without either injuring themselves, going into spasms, or just collapsing, there was a brief pause, after which the agent told me that she’d have to call me back. Due to the setup of the parking lot, she was concerned that we’d be unable to access significant portions of the area and we might not want the tickets; she was going to call the promoter and confirm where we’d be able to go with a wheelchair or scooter. Since she seemed genuinely concerned with helping us, I didn’t think it would be helpful to remind her that what she had just described was a serious accessibility issue that was at least poor planning and probably against the law – I wanted to give them the chance to figure it out on their own.

Tuesday, I got another call from Frances. It turned out that there was an area after all for wheelchairs, and it was by the stage so we’d even be able to see. I thanked her, purchased the tickets, and started drafting e-mails.

That night, Christine and I decided to send an e-mail to Ticketmaster detailing our difficulty at length, directly referencing the settlement and the previous e-mails, and asking for an explanation (okay, I was still mad, and the tone may have demanded one) directly from the Disability Coordinator, since the 2005 settlement required that the Disability Coordinator document all correspondence to be available for later Department of Justice review. Christine also sent an e-mail to the radio station sponsoring the event letting them know what was going on and suggesting that the access issues would reflect poorly on them.

In the early afternoon on Wednesday, I got a phone call from the Disability Coordinator at Ticketmaster. This in and of itself let me know she did her homework; my e-mail the previous night didn’t contain my phone number, and the only way she could have gotten it was to look at the form I’d sent in on Friday. She was very professional, and up front acknowledged that the concerns we had cited were incidents that should not have happened. Apparently, when entering the venue information, the data entry guy was looking at the information for “Comerica Park”, not “Comerica Park parking lot”, so most of the venue information, including accessibility information, was incorrect in Ticketmaster’s system. She asked me to check the website and make sure it had been fixed. She gave me a couple ways that they were trying to address the communication delay, including a live chat feature they’re trying to get venues to approve (much of what Ticketmaster does is limited by what the venues let them do, and I knew this and focused on Ticketmaster-specific concerns in my e-mail). She also noted that there appeared to be some sort of recent change to the venue setup itself, and that there appeared to be a recent addition of an area for dedicated accessible seating, although Ticketmaster still didn’t have any accessible tickets to sell us; she encouraged me to follow up with the box office. She went even further to let me know that due to some recent changes in the ADA, venues aren’t even allowed to hold accessible tickets back from Ticketmaster, as accessible seats must be sold in all the same methods that non-accessible seats are, and encouraged me to follow up regarding this as well.

Meanwhile, Christine was hearing back from her e-mail, and not just from the radio station. The radio station had forwarded her contact information to LiveNation, the promoter running the event, and she was being contacted by executives at LiveNation. As a result of the conversations, information about accessibility were added to the LiveNation site and the radio station website, and Christine was asked to confirm that these sites now met accessibility needs. Furthermore, she spoke with the executive about accessibility at modified venues in general (it turns out that LiveNation was also the promoter for the Steel Magnolias concert I mentioned earlier), and she was told that those concerns would be addressed for future events.

What I found especially interesting about these contacts is that the information we gained leads me to believe that there wasn’t an accessible area at the venue until after we started making phone calls – it’s fully possible that if we hadn’t raised the seating issue with the box office, that area might not have been there. If that’s the case, we got some pretty meaningful changes made – that would have been a nightmare if it was discovered onsite during the event.

So, in the end, we spoke with some people within organizations who had the authority to enact the needed change, and have at least some evidence that those people were listening when we asked for change. More importantly, we seem to have made some progress in enduring that people who don’t have the stamina, patience, or understanding to spend six days defending their own rights regarding acquisition of accessible seating don’t have to.

This post isn’t about me relating my experience having difficulty getting accessible tickets – it’s about the valuable use of complaint to affect change and hopefully reduce future challenges. This was a really positive experience that gave me the following insights about complaint:

1. Companies are big. The people responsible for taking care of something may not know there’s an issue if you don’t tell them.
2. Complaining, as long as it’s done in a measured manner and directed to the right people, yields significant and measurable results, and empowers you to take charge of your situation.
3. Always ask for specific corrective action – if someone knows what they need to do to make things right, it’s much easier.

Is this the end of our accessibility battle over the Downtown Hoedown? Doubtful – we still need to go to the event itself and deal with the wonderful parking situation of Comerica Park. But that’s a battle for two months in the future, and for now we can be content with our tickets and being agents of positive change in our community.

Finally, but no less importantly, I want to extend public thanks to Kimm Brunk at Ticketmaster, Frances at the Fox Theatre box office, and Dave Clark at LiveNation for handling our accessibility concerns quickly, effectively, and efficiently. Asking for corrective action and organizational change are only as effective as the individuals responsible for enacting the changes, and all three demonstrated remarkable desire and professionalism in making sure all our concerns were addressed, that we had no further questions, and that we knew how to reach them if we needed further assistance. They are magnificent assets to their organizations.

-John

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Trayvon Martin and How We’re Missing the Point

Ever since the nation learned the name Trayvon Martin, we’ve been deluged with a torrent of questions about the circumstances of his death brought about by the presentation of pieces of evidence, frequently taken in isolation: Did Martin attack George Zimmerman before being shot? What’s Zimmerman’s criminal history? Why was Martin suspended from school? Was the shooting racially motivated? Why did it take so long to contact Martin’s family when his cell phone was on him when he died? Who did witnesses hear crying for help?

These questions all have answers, and I don’t know them. If you’re reading this, you’re probably states away from the scene of the crime, meaning that you don’t know them for sure either. Which means that all this lovely dialogue, as much as it may or may not expose problems in our society and how we think and behave regarding race, doesn’t accomplish the task of bringing about justice in this situation.

That’s not to say that we can’t find justice. It just means that we need to consider more fundamental questions, ones brought about by information that is undisputed, the most basic information to the case:

A man shot and killed an unarmed teenager. He was not arrested at the scene.

Note the lack of background in this information, the lack of criminal history, the lack of names, the lack of race. It contains only the most basic details. It inspires some very basic questions that, in my opinion, have not been adequately asked, much less adequately answered:

1. Why is shooting and killing someone who doesn’t have a weapon not sufficient probable cause that a crime was committed?
2. In what circumstances do the police department and state think that it is acceptable to shoot and kill an unarmed man?
3. Are laws that protect someone who shoots and kills an unarmed man to the extent that they are not arrested pending at least manslaughter charges (because for all we know, the gun went off by accident) desirable in our society?

Once we put effort into answering these basic, fundamental questions about basic, undisputed facts of the case, then I might be willing to consider speculative questions about the impact of racism, background of victim and shooter, and the like. Maybe. Until then, we’re trying to describe a forest without knowing what a tree is.

Somehow, I have doubts that we’ll get beyond that point.

-John

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World Down Syndrome Day: Why I Think Feminists Should Be Worried About Abortion Rights

Yesterday, 3/21, was World Down Syndrome Day, and it felt like time to make a post I’ve been wanting to make for a few days now but haven’t taken the opportunity to write out. If I’d learned about World Down Syndrome Day prior to 11 PM, you’d have seen this post yesterday, but late is better than never.

Before reading any further, read this article. It details the current event inspiring this post.

To sum up the important details, a family was recently awarded a monetary judgment against their physician because errors were made when genetically screening their unborn child. The judgment covers the approximate cost of raising a child with Down Syndrome, which the family says (and jury agreed) they are entitled to because had the test accurately diagnosed their child with the condition, they’d have had an abortion.

I have a large number of problems with this situation, including but not limited to assigning a dollar value to human life, the idea of a jury without medical expertise placing judgment on medical fallibility and/or malpractice, and – because I’m Catholic and own up to that bias – the idea that abortion is acceptable in any but the most extreme situations. However, those are all perspectives that require much lengthier explanations, clarifications, and qualifications regarding policy (for instance, the Catholic belief that opposes abortion also insists upon social justice, including providing health care to women and their unborn children, and too many Catholics seem to conveniently forget that), and they’re not related to the core argument I’m presenting – that feminists (and I do use the term loosely in this post to refer to individuals concerned with opportunity for all rather than a gender-focused construction of the movement) should be unsettled at best by this legal precedent.

The family in this article wanted a child. I consider this pretty much indisputable, since the family’s choice, when they thought the child was healthy, was to have the child. As such, this is not about abortion rights as a whole (whether or not you should be able to have an abortion when you don’t want any child is a different discussion), but about under what circumstances having an abortion should be acceptable.

My concern is not that the couple didn’t *a* child, but that they didn’t want *that* child, and that our legal system supports that distinction. I’ll be perfectly honest about this – I’m taking this personally. I’m married to a lovely woman who happens to have a physical disability, and my brother, sister, and late mother all have the same cancer-causing genetic condition, and I feel like our court system supporting abortion choice based on the child’s medical condition devalues their lives and life experiences. No child is perfect, and choosing to value one group of children over another because of the type of challenges that child or group of children would present and face is, at its core, ableist. It values the lives and potential contributions of those without disabilities higher than those with disabilities. And that’s the best case scenario. We do have a term for practices that discriminate and favor one person or group over another based on genetics – it’s called eugenics. While previous large-scale attempts at eugenics have been state-directed, we now seem to be developing a social construct – backed by the legal system – that making reproductive choices to screen out certain genetic characteristics is acceptable or even desirable at the individual level. So instead of the state selecting “undesirables”, we’re now being given, at least to a small extent, the right to screen out those who would be undesirable in our homes. I find that very troubling – as a Catholic, as a feminist, and as a stakeholder in the future of our country and society.

I’m curious to hear what others think about this, and while I may or may not reply to comments, I will be reading and considering them. Am I missing something, either philosophically or factually? Is my understanding of feminist principles in relation to ableism off-base? Did I misunderstand the court decision? Is there something else entirely that I’m not considering?

Thanks for reading this clear departure from my normal hobby-linked rambling.

-John

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Board Game Design Update: Alchemy, Ale, and Party Games

It’s been a while since I blogged about the projects I started developing as part of National Game Design Month, and as part of a plan to keep myself organized, it’s time to discuss some progress and mention a couple new things I’m working on.

Existing Projects: In terms of board game design, I’ve really only moved forward on one of the board game designs, Gnomekiller Ale. I feel like I’ve made some pretty significant progress by trying to make the players feel like they’re actually running competing businesses with different resources and strategies. To that end, I’ve borrowed a page from Blood Bowl Team Manager and created four different decks for each tavern as well as a communal deck that each tavern can build from to refine and improve their own decks. This way, each player has his or her own method of getting Coins – the dwarf bar tries to brew frequently, the elf bar draws lots of cards, and the “hole in the wall” bar works to look good by comparison by sabotaging other players’ brews. I playtested this a little at DDXP in January, and it seemed to work well in concept; now I’ve got the game in a couple blind external playtesting groups to see how well it works with new players.

Another significant struggle I’ve been having with Gnomekiller Ale is artwork. Using a different picture for each unique card would require around 200 pieces of artwork. Even using the same piece of art for four or five cards, that would be a very significant cost for self-publishing or even for a decent prototype. I did, however, found a way around this when my wife and I were playing Innovation last weekend – icons. By putting icons on the prototype cards, I can make them still look professional and playable without the substantial art costs. Now, to make some icons 😉

New Project 1: Alchemy Wars. This game was inspired both by a contest on The Game Crafter to create a game with distinct roles and by the “X Dice” games by Steve Jackson Games and Tasty Minstrel Games. These games are fun, to be sure, but I felt that they largely lacked strategy and meaningful player interaction. Zombie Dice and Martian Dice really have no player interaction other than the opponent’s score being a motivator to push your luck (like Farkle with a theme), and Cthulhu Dice is too much of a “take that” game for my tastes. So I set out to create a simple game with dice-rolling as the primary mechanic that also gave the players distinct roles.

The theme of alchemy is one I’ve wanted to make a game out of for a while – I think it’s an interesting competitive quasi-historical context. I first tried a “push your luck” card game where you had increasing odds of blowing yourself up the further you went, then a variant of the same idea with a deck-building element. Both of those games didn’t feel right to me; they felt like playing War without the player interaction. I moved on to a dice game by more or less imposing the alchemy theme onto Farkle by giving the players the option to “buy” effects that enhanced normal six-sided dice as they tried to get up to 79 (the atomic number for gold), but that had its own problems – mainly that the game would require around 150 point tokens to work the way I wanted it to, and having more components to score than to play seemed like a poor design choice. After playing some “X Dice” and Elder Sign, however, I stumbled across an implementation that might work better, this time using custom dice.

In Alchemy Wars, you play the “role” of a guild trying to concoct a compound that can transmute lead to gold. You’re not trying to discover the formula – that’s been done. What you’re trying to do instead is make it more quickly than your opponents. To make the compound, you need Fire and Potions, which are obtained by rolling dice. If you roll more Fires than Potions, you blow up your lab (an important thematic element of any alchemy-based game if you’ve read any Discworld novels) and score no points. If you roll as many Fires as Potions or fewer Fires than Potions, you successfully process the alchemical reaction a given number of times, and each reaction produces between one and three doses of the compound (represented by blind draw of tokens). Another face on the die allows you to hire Staff, which introduce a number of effects (such as forcing an opponent to reroll a die or gain fewer compounds at the end of his or her turn). I wasn’t sure whether this was enough to give each player a distinct role as described in the contest rules, so I gave each faction a “Guildmaster” card at the start of the game; each Guildmaster can use staff of their element to perform an extra effect during the game.

This is the first game I’ve gotten to the full prototype stage (Gnomekiller Ale has always been missing art and graphic design as discussed above), and the constructed prototype has been ordered and is in the queue at The GameCrafter. I’m hoping to playtest at an upcoming board game meetup and get revisions in by the April 15 deadline.

New Project 2: Party Game. A few days ago, I was looking through some recent purchases, including In a Pickle and Rory’s Story Cubes: Actions, and I mentioned on Twitter that I want to try to design the kind of game that Gamewright would buy. To my surprise, I got a reply from their Twitter account:

With that kind of inspiration, I felt like I had to try to put together something, and neither Gnomekiller Ale nor Alchemy Wars felt like the kind of game that fit with Gamewright’s other releases. As such, I decided it was time to start on a party game (possibly one that I could even use at work). I’m a huge fan of party-style word games, but hadn’t tried to create my own yet. That changed as a result of the above exchange, and now I’m working on a party game where one player, the “Guesser”, needs to guess which words the other players will use when reciting a sentence using a particular word and theme. I’m really excited about it because it’s the first game I’m designing that actually draws upon my professional expertise, and I think I’ve worked out a mechanic to allow the “kid” version of the theme and the “adult” version of the theme (in terms of cognitive linguistic demand, not in terms of content propriety, you dirty, dirty minds) at the same time. Right now, I’m working on a proof-of-concept and trying to settle on a name – right now, my best guess for a name is “Best Guess” (it’s accurate to the game, works on a store shelf, and isn’t being used by any other game on BoardGameGeek), but I want to keep my options open.

New Project 3: Board Games and My Real Job. I don’t usually talk about my job on this blog, but in this circumstance, I’ve been blending my job with my hobby, so it seems appropriate. A few weeks ago, Out of the Box asked on their Facebook page about people who create their own games, and in addition to mentioning things I was working on, I mentioned that I was adapting existing games (including some of theirs) for speech therapy. A couple interested questions later, I decided I had enough material for a series of blog posts, the landing page for which is here. There’s currently three in the series, and I plan to add more at the rate of about once a week. So, if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in, that’s how I’m using my board game hobby for professional enrichment.

I’m looking forward to developing all these projects, and I’ve got an upcoming school break to make a big push on progress. I think my goal for the break (in addition to finishing my non-board game projects like a new speech therapy app and a couple RPG adventures) is going to be to get work-in-progress, or WIP, pages up for all three games on BoardGameGeek so I can start getting more feedback and making some design decisions and pitchable prototypes made; if I can have one of these games pitch-ready by GenCon, I’ll be a happy camper.

-John

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The 2012 D&D Experience: Post-Convention Thoughts

For those of you who haven’t read my last couple blog posts and don’t follow D&D news, last weekend was the Dungeons and Dragons Experience convention. I’m going to break down my experience by category rather than chronology (because my timeline deliberately broke up the different aspects of the convention):

Part 1: Getting There In The First Place

This is the first time that, less than a week before the convention, I wasn’t actually sure that I was going to make it. Monday afternoon (about eight hours after getting my car back from some maintenance), my car was rear-ended while driving home. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and I was able to drive the car home, but I didn’t know until Tuesday night that it was still safe to drive to the convention on Thursday. I fared better than a couple people in my gaming group – their pre-convention car accident totaled the car, broke an arm, and prevented their convention attendance.

Part 2: Living Forgotten Realms

My first slot Thursday night, as well as my Friday afternoon and evening, were occupied by Living Forgotten Realms events, the paragon tier Special and the battle interactive. I also had a vested interest in LFR at the convention because the three adventures in the Netheril story area, the area I administrate, were being released at the convention.

My experience with SPEC4-2 was interesting. I had been the DM for one of the playtests of the adventure, and it was one of my least fun 4th Edition gaming experiences. The adventure wasn’t difficult; I just wasn’t sure how it could be completed in fewer than six hours, much less the four hours in the convention slot. The completed adventure was significantly improved. It was more difficult, although not overpowering, and some of the adventure’s more grindy elements were taken out. We had a great DM, and he was able to keep us on our toes throughout the end of the last combat. In the end, we were able to succeed through sheer dumb crazy gnome luck – I randomly guessed at puzzle solutions (literally, rolled a die to determine what buttons I would press), and never got a single guess incorrect.

Unlike the special, for the battle interactive I was part of a pre-mustered table that included myself, one of the LFR Epic Tier writing directors, two of the Ashes of Athas admins, and a de facto LFR writing director (I have a hunch that while Dan’s technically the Calimshan WD, he’s going to have a lot of backup from Lori). We had done some strategizing beforehand, and knew the game well enough to figure that we would be challenged but not overpowered. More importantly, we had an absolute blast and actually roleplayed. The setup of the interactive was much friendlier this year; instead of every encounter being a timed encounter, the first half of the interactive was very free-form, with each table selecting their own missions to go on. After the dinner break, we reconvened, saw what missions had been successful and unsuccessful, and dealt with the major threat afterward. It was really well structured, and while the execution could have used a bit of refinement, I’d put it in my top two of LFR interactives.

While I neither played nor DMed NETH4-1, NETH4-2, or NETH4-3, I kept a close eye on them to see how they were going. It looked like everyone was having a good time, especially with the way some of the challenges at the end of NETH4-1 and NETH4-2 were set up. NETH4-1 had another one of the “choice” situations that I always get lots of feedback about, and it looked like the many, many hours of work the authors put into making sure the choice was were successful. I was very pleased with the reception the adventures have received thus far and would gladly work with any of those authors again, especially with their ability to provide quality work in a short period of time – we were the least late of all the convention adventures 😉

Lastly, I got to spend a lot of time talking to the LFR Global Admins about the direction of the campaign and what I’d be needed to do, since I had three people approach me before my first slot with, “So, since your story area’s 2012 adventures are out, you have time to write for me now?” I had many great conversations with many great people about what I’d actually be needed for, writing and editing philosophy, how Organized Play might work in a “modular” D&D Next system, and how the next edition needs to develop a table of Things That Just Kill You (including lava, falling from very high up, and non-kosher volatile chemicals). We also spent much time wondering whether our food was going to arrive before we had to be back for the next slot.

Part 3: D&D Next

I played the D&D Next adventure on Friday morning, with Chris Lindsay from D&D Brand as the DM. While there aren’t a lot of details I can give about the game, I enjoyed myself. I saw influences of all the other editions of the game that I played in the core mechanics, and while it was definitely an early build of the game, I think it has the potential to be a very strong system. I’ve got a number of concerns about it (which I can’t talk about), but since it didn’t seem to include the “modular” thing everyone’s talking about, I’m going to wait until a final version of the product until I assess it fully. One thing for sure is consistent between D&D Next and other editions: your DM and fellow players can do a lot to make or break your play experience. While I understand that the purpose of the event was to get feedback on the core mechanics of the game, I’d have liked to have done a little more roleplaying and exploration rather than delving into a dungeon. Worse, the guy sitting next to me playing the rogue was not having fun and seemed to want to make sure nobody else did either. Dude, I get that you don’t like the rogue in the new edition – I heard you for the first hour you talked about it. Do you really need to complain for another two?

One thing I do want to point out about this event that I haven’t seen on other reports is the last question on the playtest feedback form: “If you are interested in being invited to the Friends and Family playtest, please write your e-mail address here.” I think this has been overlooked because other people didn’t read that question the same way I did – Wizards is going to be looking at the playtest feedback forms, and if there’s someone who isn’t already in their playtest groups who’s giving solid, well-defined feedback, they’re going to get that person involved. This is going to greatly strengthen their playtest base, as they’re going to be getting people who are on the outside of their normal go-to groups. I think it’s great for the game that an effort is being made to recruit new blood into that endeavor.

Part 4: Ashes of Athas

I decided that after my fiasco trying to build a new PC in 10 minutes after dying at Origins last year, this year, I’d put a slot between each of my Ashes of Athas adventures, conceding that I’d be hopping between groups. Imagine my surprise to find out that there was a group of three who had the same schedule as me, and that one of them was one of the NETH4-2 authors (whom I had previously not met). Even better, between the four of us, we had every role covered. For AoA4-1, we had Teos as a DM, which always goes well. It even went well for Robert Uccello’s monk, who was only mostly dead in a fight with a giant drake; he needed a full 1 hp more of damage to be completely dead. For AoA4-2 and AoA4-3, I seemed to have obtained the primary objective of breaking the DM, which I managed to do in three ways: the use of Shade Twin to make a defiler’s allies attack him, bypassing Endurance checks and days of travel with Phantom Steed (because rituals are awesome and so are the new Ashes of Athas ritual use rules), and various puns and jokes regarding my character being a bird-person. Possibly the worst of these: “Can you even drink the rest of the water out of that bottle?” “Sure, my ancestors have been doing it for years. I collect a bunch of tiny stones and start dropping them in the bottle.” My only regret regarding this series, which is very well developed, is that I’m really not sure what happened during the third adventure; my previous night of board games and drinking whiskey purchased by Matt James made me very tired, so I was fading in and out of consciousness.

Part 5: Lords of Waterdeep

One of the surprises of DDXP is that the new D&D-linked board game, Lords of Waterdeep, was available for play at the convention. This game, unlike the Adventure System games, doesn’t have anything to do with D&D apart from the flavor of the city of Waterdeep. It’s a Euro-style game in which you try to gain prestige as one of the Lords of Waterdeep by hiring adventurers to complete quests. The quests require a certain number of four different kinds of adventurer (cleric, wizard, rogue, fighter) to complete, and grant you victory points and sometimes other benefits. I did pretty well in both games, but ultimately lost each time to another player who was able to rack up one of the 25-point quests in the last couple rounds. It’s a game that will unquestionably be added to my collection when it comes out in March.

Part 6: After Hours

To me, one of the best parts of a convention is the after-hours gaming and socializing. Usually, this involves going to a bar and talking or playing an extra adventure until 4 AM, but this year, things took a bit of a different direction.

Thursday night, I had been invited to join one of Teos’s crazy OD&D games. I’d never played the edition before, but after being told that there was zero rules mastery, I volunteered to DM using a prototype of a system to use the Adventure System board games as a random dungeon generator. The first problem we ran into was that we were all goofy and interested in roleplaying. In particular, upon learning that alignment languages were automatic, and that Ian and Justin were playing Chaotic characters, I reached into my gaming bag and the Rory’s Story Cubes came out as a random dialogue generator. The party eventually fled from the shadow dragon Shimmergloom after his pet troll chased six goblins into the room with them and Chad’s third PC in the last hour and a half died. At this point, I wasn’t sure if my conversion worked well, but I was assured that dying many times was a part of White Box OD&D, and fun was had by all.

Friday night featured something new to me: Cards Against Humanity. I think the easiest way to explain this is that it’s like Apples to Apples, but for horrible people. I’d give examples, but that would cause my blog to get hits from really, really weird searches, and I don’t want to confirm to what extent Rule 34 is true. Just check out the website. This is a game that I would buy except for two barriers. First, I’d have to explain what some of the cards meant to my wife. Then, I’d have to explain why I know what the cards mean to my wife.

Saturday night featured two activities: drinking and playtesting. Drinking was fun. As referenced earlier, Matt James bought the bar a round of whiskey to toast his friend who died in the same incident in Iraq that injured him in a reminder to everyone that regardless of political affiliation should respect the men and women who put their lives in danger to do what they think is right. I almost spilled that whiskey on Monte Cook. Following the drinking (or, perhaps, during it), I playtested a couple games of the latest iteration of Gnomekiller Ale before sending it home with a couple friends to playtest with their own home groups. It still needs tweaking, but everyone’s at least having fun (another blog post on this later).

The only bad part of After Hours activities is that it inhibits your ability to make good decisions in the morning. In addition to my many short rests during AoA4-3 and confusing which PC I was playing, I also didn’t do well packing. I left my work bag and my clothes from the night before in the hotel room, and Skip had to bring them down to me. Then I forgot to pay Skip for my share of the room, which is also not fun (although I’ll be able to pay him back at the next home game session).

Part 7: TL;DR (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

The Good: LFR and AoA events in general, breaking the DM, Lords of Waterdeep, good times with good friends, three different editions of D&D still being D&D.

The Bad: That Guy Who Wouldn’t Stop Bitching About D&D Next Rogues, Lee and Michelle’s car accident (which is probably also ugly), making Skip get my work bag out of the hotel room after checkout and then forgetting to pay him for my share of the room.

The Ugly: Aboleths and Dark Sun monsters, letting Ian and Justin loose on OD&D and Rory’s Story Cubes after midnight, Cards Against Humanity, almost meeting Monte Cook by spilling whiskey on him.

I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on the convention or anything else discussed here (except the Netheril adventures, which I’d prefer you discuss on the WotC forums here, here, and here).

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The DDXP 2012 Pre-Convention Post Part 2: Player Advice

Here it is: Part 2 of my pre-convention posts. Contrary to what I said in my last post, this is only going to be a two-part series, so this is it. Arguably, this is the more important of the two pre-convention posts, because while there’s only one DM at a table, there are four to six players.

The top three things that every player at DDXP should do:
1. Be nice to the DMs and marshals. Some may say this is covered by Wheaton’s Law, but I’m adding a corollary: don’t just refrain from being a jerk, go out of your way to be nice to these people. These are people who are volunteering their time to DM for you. Many of them, although they won’t say it, will be dealing with adventures that they received late (or five minutes ago, if they were moved from another event – less likely at DDXP than at other conventions, but still possible), and may be strained because they didn’t listen to my earlier advice about voice maintenance. Three easy ways to do this are:
A. Listen to the marshal. Most of these marshals have done this before. Odds are, if they’re telling you to do something, there’s a good reason for that and they don’t have time to go into lengthy explanations. The marshal needs to coordinate DMs, coordinate players, give directions to various events to players who are lost, distribute information from convention HQ, and do it all in a timely fashion so they can get to the tables they’re DMing to help those tables finish on time. If you don’t listen when they, say, ask you to send up one person from the table to get an assignment instead of the whole group, it makes their job harder. That’s no fun for anybody.

B. Trust your DM (unless it’s really, really important that you don’t). These DMs are some of the best in the country. They’ve also been doing this for a while. Odds are good that they know what they’re doing. Challenging every ruling the DM makes is likely to slow the game down, anger the DM, and reduce everyone’s game quality. Now, I’m not saying that you should never question the DM; they make mistakes, too, and they’re also spinning a lot of plates. But when you do so, phrase it as a clarification (“I’m not sure what just happened there; can you explain it more?”) rather than a challenge (“Are you sure that’s how it’s supposed to work?”). By seeking understanding rather than confronting, everyone’s nerves will remain calm.

C. Be helpful. One of the things I’ve learned about 4th Edition D&D is that the time between encounters is an *amazing* time to take a bathroom break or get a soda. Keep in mind, though, that while you’re getting a soda or chatting up your friend at the next table, your DM is getting the next encounter set up, and he or she likely doesn’t have a chance to get themselves anything – or even stop long enough to realize he or she needs something. When you get up to get yourself something, ask the DM (and the other players, because you’re already up) if they need some water or anything. A hydrated, helped DM is a happy DM, and a happy DM is (usually) a more efficient DM and less likely to try to kill you. Also, less likely to try to kill your character.

2. Stay Healthy. This is important for players as well as DMs. The only thing worse than sitting next to a person who’s hacking up a lung is being the person who’s hacking up a lung. While I have no advice to completely prevent the Con Crud from getting to you, this will at least help:
A. Sanitize. One of the most mind-boggling “news” stories of the 2008 election was the criticism of both presidential candidates for dousing themselves in hand sanitizer after every event. The news stories should have been praising them for disease prevention. Yes, hand sanitizer isn’t 100% effective, but there is evidence that it does prevent the spread of disease, both to you and to the next person you shake hands with. Even more important, wash your hands. All the time. Every time you eat, every time you use the restroom, every lunch/seminar break even if you don’t eat or use the restroom. Much like gnomes, the only way to stop the germs from spreading is to kill them.
B. General health maintenance  This was also covered pretty extensively yesterday as it’s a bigger issue for DMs, but lots of water, enough sleep, and not partying like it’s 1999 can do wonders for your immune system and for generally feeling better about yourself and the game as a whole. Also, because I know someone’s going to berate me for this if I don’t bring it up, shower. Every day. Eat. At least two meals, preferably three. If you eat, sleep, and groom appropriately every day of the con, you’ll walk out of the con happier and healthier – and so will everyone else (especially if you are driving/flying home with other people). I know this sounds small, but those little things can make a big difference.
C. If you feel sick, for the love of God take a slot off. I know you paid good money for this convention and each event, but a slot where you’re sick is wasted money anyways. A couple hours of sleep instead of a sick slot is better for your health and better for your rest of the convention.

3. Keep it moving. I know that many of the below ideas make me look like I’m focusing on combat, which I am. That’s not to say that I “roll-play” instead of “roleplaying”. Anyone who’s sat at a table with Carn, Friend Not Food and Herald of Madness, knows that I love the roleplaying side of the game. The secret I’ve learned is that finishing combats quickly gives me more time for roleplaying my character and the story. To repeat, the slots for DDXP this year are short – four hours exactly – and a couple of the adventures are hard to fit in that time. To make sure you’re not the group who doesn’t finish the adventure:
A. Be prepared. This covers character information as well as on-site planning. Know what your PCs’ standard operating procedure is before you get to the convention. If you’re traveling with a group, figure out your party level for each adventure. Try to anticipate whether you might level during the convention. Then, once you get to the convention, get to each slot early (like 15-20 minutes early) for mustering. If you need to take bathroom breaks or the like during the adventure, know in advance where the bathrooms are. Have your dice ready when you sit down. These are all a bunch of little things, but added up, they can give you 15 minutes or more of extra play time.
B. Pay attention. I can’t believe this needs to be said, but I know people who do this, so: when you are at the table playing D&D, play D&D. Don’t play Minecraft. Don’t play Pac-Man on your cell phone. Don’t check your e-mail. We have all these technology-related things that are great conveniences throughout the day, but they distract from play. Instead, try to figure out what you’re going to do on your next turn. Keep track of what abilities the monsters are using and who’s taken a lot of damage. Look for non-combat objectives of the encounter (for example, if completing this ritual or flipping this switch does what you need without fighting the monsters). Not only will this keep your table moving, but you’ll be able to play more effectively, make better play choices, and not need to ask a hundred questions when your turn starts.
C. Simplify. This relates to process as well as communication. The most efficient way to run your turn is to declare each action as you do it (“I use a minor action to Divine Challenge the orc leader, a move action to shift next to him, and a standard action to use Paladin’s Judgment on him”), roll your attack and damage rolls at the same time, and give the resulting details in logical order (“I hit AC 35 for 42 damage, 6 of which is radiant, and I let Joe spend a healing surge as an effect). Don’t over-explain; if the DM needs more details as to how you did what you did, he or she will ask.

I’d also love to hear what ideas others have. What have you found that players can do to improve their own (and everyone else’s) play experience at a convention?

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