Thursday, March 31, 2016

When Others Tell You What You're Doing, and they haven't got a clue

I was awarded a Masters Degree in Education by Xavier University in 2005. I state this not as a boast, but to establish the basis for what I am going to discuss at length: teaching and learning.
 I use terms that apparently offend differing parts of slightly more than half of our society for various reasons unbeknownst to me. Those terms are: lady and female (in my world, those of our species not born with a penis). I always assume one to be the former until proven otherwise. I have a wife, a daughter, grand- daughters and a great grand-daughter and expect them to be viewed by others similarly. I am a product of the Boomer generation and make no apology for that.

Recently, my efforts to bring more ladies into RPG’s have been misunderstood, impugned and insulted. What follows is how this all came to be. If I repeat something here I said elsewhere, I’m either sorry or it is important. In general, I use the term “wargaming” as the tent that holds us all, boardgamers, minis players and RPG’ers.

Several months ago my wife stunned me with a request to put together a D&D adventure for her and a bunch of her lady friends from Zumba class, none of whom had any RPG experience. I put together a very linear adventure (not so much “railroading” as limiting potentially distracting factors) with the intent of analyzing early actions for the lessons to be learned; sort of learning-on-the-fly. I gave them pre-generated Player Characters with minimal info; all they had was their six stats, their THAC0 and their HP. I explained each in about 30 words or less on a handout and we were playing in 15 minutes from sitting down to the table.

Four hours after beginning they had chased down the wicked bugbears who had stolen their patron saint’s finger to put in their soup, retrieved said phalange and rendered the bugbears hors de combat, and they all had a working knowledge of RPG’ing. We played with a single sheet of paper, a writing utensil of some sort and a handful of dice. Oh, yes, we also freely exercised our imaginations, had numerous laughs and wondered where four hours had gone so quickly.

I realized that I had touched upon something dormant in our hobby—rules overload and how this affects someone wishing to participate in the hobby we love. That stack of books we all lug around is really intimidating; newbies (of either sex) often feel that they will be at some sort of disadvantage if they don’t know everything in those books when they first sit down at a table.

How shocked would you be to know that I had the only set of rules for at least three quarters on the whole campus, and possible in all of southern Illinois in ’74-’75? The only reason someone in the group (well over a dozen avid RPG’ers ) finally broke down and bought a set was because I was graduating and taking mine with me to my new job at TSR.

I have taught in co-ed schools and I have taught in same-sex schools. The two types of schools have radically different dynamics. I have worked with every age of student, from pre-K to HS. More studies than I can count or care to list here have had some very interesting research results when studying classroom dynamics and environments. To sum up, very briefly: learning occurs differently in same-sex classrooms than in co-ed settings. I am not a shrink, nor have I read much in that field except as it might pertain to education and class rooms, so I claim no special expertise in this subject. Percentage-wise, more girls excel in the STEM fields in all-girls schools than do in co-ed settings. There are all sorts of social and societal forces at play here, as well as which students’ families can afford private schools which virtually all same-sex schools are today. In the end. what it ultimately boils down to is comfort; how embracing, inclusive and comfortable is the learning environment?
Girls learn differently when not in the presence of boys; the same is true for boys when not around girls. All sorts of factors are at work here: less fear of embarrassment in front of the other sex, no showing off for the other sex, no being thought of oddly for showing interest in something not associated with your sex, the list goes on and ends with just less distraction.

From the beginning in Prussia, scores of years ago, wargaming was a male, military pursuit. It was serious business, used to train men to more efficiently kill, maim or capture more of the other sides’ men in war. As the wargaming hobby evolved, from serious killing-efficiency exercise to parlour entertainment for the wealthy, it remained a male pursuit, by and large.

It is too easy for us in the 21st century to declaim how horrid things were in the past in terms of today’s values and standards, but that is what they were then. If a woman was interested in something such as pushing brightly colored blocks of wood representing units of troops about on a large table, she was the one thought to be “odd”. (Gaming has always had a close relationship with Irony.)
I started The Dragon magazine (the original name I gave it) in 1976. It was not until 1978 that we got our second female subscriber (out of about 2700). I am sure there were ladies buying copies in stores, but I had no way of knowing where or how many or who, or what, etc. I got very few submissions from female writers, and almost always used ones I did get, no matter how badly they needed editing. I sought out lady artists; they were damned few and far between. I continued that trend with Adventure Gaming, my later magazine. This was in the early’80’s and still less than 5% of my subscribers were female.

I am going on about this to show how I have been wargaming for over 50 years now, almost exclusively in the company of males, until relatively recently.

After the success of the little thing I put together for my wife and her friends,  I thought to do something like it for conventions, and maybe turn it into a teaching tool of sorts. I have spoken to lady gamers who do not role-play; fear of the seeming immensity of the rules is a factor. I have seen females of all ages sitting on the edges listening but not playing; I want to change that. I want to do it in a non-threatening setting that has so far worked very well; I have two more tests scheduled at NTRPGCon and GameHole. For GH, I intend to run a ladies-only game for experienced players.

My intro-game is in no way wussed down; the danger is there or it would be no fun. It is a hell of a lot simpler because I play D&D the way it was played at The Dawn of Role-Playing. It is enough to tell the player to “roll a d20 and get a 12 or higher”; looking up the various charts and tables is a buzzkill; that’s what the DM does.

I am beginning to understand J.D. Salinger a little better lately.

If I had started a game club at a school, I would have introduced them to RPG’s in the same way: boys-only and girls only introductions; they will both learn it faster that way. Only after that would we start a “mixed” campaign. Given that beginning, I would expect the co-ed groups to be much more equally balanced as to leadership and problem solving roles being filled more equitably.
The issue has arisen that my game is mis-advertised as “For Ladies Only” if a male is the DM. Supposedly, my games place any lady players in it “in my power”. The idea that a DM somehow “has power over” the players I find abhorrent and counter to everything I have ever published, edited or written.

The Dungeon Master/ Game Master/ Ship Master/Person behind the Screen has control of the game, not the players. We try to exercise that control sparingly; a good example might be not letting the party find a level that is not yet done by not letting them see a hidden door or secret passage. Another example might be subtly trying to get the party to rethink a scheme they are set upon embarking on that you know, deep in your bones, is not a very good idea as it entertains very little chance of success and likely to end in a very gory and unsatisfying conclusion.

No DM can control what the players do. Where do you think TPK’s (Total Party Killed) come from? Wandering Volcanic Eruptions? I have not had a single party spontaneously combust.

I am genuinely sorry for any player that has suffered under a DM with a “me v. them” mindset. Those are the people that work at summer camp so they can lord it over and terrorize the younger campers, instead of showing them how to catch a fish or shoot a bow or whatever campers do today.

I am asked repeatedly “How can I know if I’m a good DM?”. My answer is still the same’ “Do your players come back every session? If the answer is ‘Yes’, you’re doing fine.”

I intend to run my “Ladies Only game” again at North Texas RPG Con and at GameHole Con. I offer a comfortable, non-judgmental environment in which persons with different plumbing than mine can come and learn through doing. No control, no lording. Just fun.

To my naysayers and haters I say this; I know what I am doing and I have been doing RPG’s longer than 98% of those doing them today. That you would ascribe to me your fears, prejudices and past bad experiences without asking my intent or studying my efforts is a sad commentary on yourself, all alone in your tiny echo chamber.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Two great cons, too close together

I am a very lucky gamer; I get to go to around half a dozen cons per year (seven in ’15, five in ’16, who knows in ’17?). The fact that I am retired is one enabler; tickets for airplane rides and nice hotel rooms when I get there is the main motivator for me to go play games with strangers all around the Eastern U.S. Some days it is very cool to be Tim.

I just enjoyed two cons only two weeks, and 1063 miles, apart. The 1st was TotalCon (full name-Total Confusion Con) #30, in Mansfield, MA; the 2nd was GaryCon VIII, in Lake Geneva WI. They are both run by dedicated volunteers for the most part, and both are great fun.

In chronological order:

TotalCon (hereinafter referred to as TC) has been going for 30 years now; they know what works for them and their market. Nearly all the volunteers that I have met over the several times I have been asked to come are avid gamers of one sort or another. They have the best kids’ programs and games of any con I have ever attended anywhere.

2016 (Feb 18-21) was no exception; it was a great con despite all the obstacles thrown up by the new ownership of the Holiday Inn. (I was apprised of their worries well before the con; everyone had their fingers crossed.) The new owners fumbled the ball badly, not once but several times. There were a lot of grumbling attendees, but I hope that by now they have realized it was not all, or even very much, the fault of the organizers. Refurbishing was supposed to be done by Feb. 1-it was not. Over five dozen parking spaces were lost to trailers, construction stuff and dumpsters. At least two halls were so full of detritus and scrap that you could not pull a small suitcase through them. Rooms were not ready; I went from supposedly being closer to the action to being shuffled to the farthest wing of the complex. (Have I forgotten to mention that the con virtually takes over an entire, rather larger, Holiday Inn complex, complete with indoor pool and spa?)

Other than the hotel hassles, as far as I could see TC went off without a hitch. It was certainly a pleasant change from last year, when the snow was piled higher than second- story windows.

I had my own tubular meat side-missions. Jenn Gerber took me to Casey’s Diner in Natick for their “All Around”. It is a very nice dog with a pleasing snap when bitten, on a steamed roll that we would call here in the Midwest a New England Split or a Clam Roll, topped with mustard, onions and relish. Very tasty and highly recommended. For such a tiny diner (that you must go to to fully appreciate the funky ambience) it makes a mighty dog, and some of them are gamers.

The next day Angelia Parenteau took me to the New York Diner in Woonsocket, RI. It seems that folks from RI, sometimes known as Swamp Yankees for reasons unknown to me, don’t eat hot dogs. At least, they don’t call them that; they advertise Hot Wieners or Hot Weenies. What Angie got me to try are known as “gagguhs” (a linguistic mutilation of the word gaggers); thankfully, they are better than their name would seem to indicate; mustard, onion and meat sauce comprise the toppings. The dog was good, the meat sauce interesting but the bun was a standard hotdog bun and somewhat uninspiring.

When you go to a given con a few times, you begin to make “con friends” that you only see there and hope to see each time. TC is no exception; I have made many con friends there and look forward to seeing them each year.

Home for 10 days and then off again:

Another Tale from the Red Road

The Mad Mage, my bombardier/navigator, and I got an early start on Wed AM; first stop for us is always Corkys Dogg House in Cedar Lake IN, a tradition I started with The Axeman (Rich Franks) when we went to the last Lake Geneva Game Convention before Gary died. It is my annual truly authentic Chicago Dog experience. This year, tho’, was different; I went for the Polish sausage. First you must understand that the Vienna Beef Co makes one of the best mass-produced Polish in the country. There is  a certain method of cooking it that I think was once called “Maxwell St. style”. You take a frozen sausage and drop it in the fryer; when cooked the skin is crunchy and crackly and the insides just right for eating. Memory did not disappoint.  It was sublime. The Mage (Jim Wampler) treated himself to a pair of them this year; Damn the Chron’s, Full Gulp Ahead!

The weather this year was downright cold. I know, I know, I used to live there, but that was 35 years ago; Cincy weather has been much milder. And my bones are older.

Gary Con VIII (hereinafter referred to as GC) was going to a new venue- The Grand Geneva Resort. It used to be, way back when, The Lake Geneva  Playboy Club. Yes, the same site we tried (in ’77, I think) when it was the Playboy and nearly killed GenCon.

With no half-nekkid Bunnies about for many years now, the Grand Geneva has morphed into quite a posh place. GC would not be able to negotiate room prices anywhere near what they do get now if it took place “In Season”. I had a gas fireplace in my room…

For the first time since GC 1, I had two events with only three players signed up. I am guessing that whatever perverse thrill drove players to seek violent and notable deaths in my previous adventures has worn thin. All those TPK’s were fun for us all, but as the singer sang, “… the thrill is gone.” I am going back to storytelling and puzzle- and mystery-solving. There will be plenty of hazards, fear not, but I now wish to ferret out more subtle minds to duel with and confound. I love pitting myself against the collective mind of the party. (Probably more on this in another blog)

As luck would have it, I had tossed a new favorite game into my pile of stuff when I packed my car. The game is War of Kings, a Kickstarter project I backed because it had neat pieces and has since turned into a favorite for 2-6 players; the 6-player is brutal. I offered to run back to my room to get it and teach it to them. I had played with one or more of the guys in both groups, so I did not have to persuade very hard. I figured that I owed them 4 hours of gaming, so what the hell? All six guys loved it and we had two really fun games of 4 players each time. They were all skilled players and the game is subtly simple, so both contests were spirited. I think I may have sold a few copies…

I ran my infamous “mouse-game” and we had a great time, and everyone lived, to boot. (Sorry, no spoilers)

The Finals of Circus Maximus were great on several levels: all the players were skilled at the rules; all were paying constant attention; we used my custom track that is 44 squares longer and finished in about two hours. Lots of mayhem, three chariots flipped and one driver trampled. All in all, the mob was pleased.

My big moment came at the Charity auction. I had made the offer to allow my scraggly ponytail to be snipped for charity. I am happy to say that I got $200 for it; I turned down an offer of $400 to shave my head. All in all, we raised about $12,000 for the charity. When you consider that GaryCon can raise $12K with an attendance of about 1200, it makes you think what GenCon, with an attendance of well over 50K, could raise at its Charity Auction if it really tried. The gage has been tossed.

The transition into the new venue was not without problems; however, the majority of them were not visible to the general public and so little suffering resulted. As this con has run a tighter ship each year, I am confident that they will grow into this new venue just a like a hermit crab grows into a new whelk shell.

The “GaryCon Vibe” was present, even in new digs. I have decided that this past Con is the last that I will attend and NOT see all the old friends I mean to. Every year there are old friends that I know are at the con but I keep missing; from now on I am leaving Sat. night open to catch up with them and be in better fettle to return on Sunday to Cincy.

Frank’s party was outstanding, I got to spend some time with some old friends, got to spend some quality time with new friends—GaryCon VIII was great. I hear the resort is already taking reservations.