Category Archives: Games

Playing in Character

I recently started a new D&D group. It’s the same campaign as I’ve sent a few other groups through, but this time there are a few differences. This is an inter-generational group including both a ten year-old girl and her mother as well as a few other people who are roughly my age. In order to make the game accessible, I have created the characters for all but one of the players, including a backstory for each character.

Let me share the backstory for the character the ten-year-old, we’ll call her Lanie, chose.

So there was this guy in my village called Millie. Parents named him Millard we called him Millie. Anyway Millie was a real loser. Everybody loved him. He had this long hair the girls went wild for, was always helping out being a good citizen and blah blah blah. What’s more he was a hell of a hunter. Whenever he went hunting he didn’t need no arrows. He wouldn’t tell us how he did it. He would just go into the woods and come back dragging two deer like it was nothing. Anyways one day Millie goes out to the woods. He comes back dragging his deer and he falls off the bridge. You think it was a pretty sturdy bridge but he fell off it just the same. I just so happened to be witness to this terrible tragedy. My best friend Millie biting the dust due to a freak accident. Goodness gracious me. Then out of the blue I get this voice in my head. “Buddy,” it says. Now buddy ain’t my name, but all the same it tells me there’s just been an opening with this guy called the Fiend. The Fiend didn’t really like the guy working for him before cuz all he did with his laser fingers was shoot deer. This guy sounds familiar right? Well turns out I was being offered the job. I held up my hand. “Fiend,” I said, “you had me at laser fingers.”

Before you ask, I did get Lanie’s mother’s permission before I shared this story. This is the sort of story that represents what in D&D we call “chaotic neutral.” An unpredictable character with little or no concern for the welfare of those around him. The only thing really separating chaotic neutral from evil is an active desire to destroy the world.

Lanie picked up chaotic neutral immediately. Under her guidance, Bren Blount made this party the first ever to kill the friendly zombie outright. When they found the mysterious prisoner wriggling in spider silk, Bren leapt forward to investigate. He began to cut the prisoner free, but when he saw that it was a zombie, despite a big smile and every indication that this was not just another walking corpse, Lanie declared “Nope!” Bren nudged the partially freed zombie into the river, where it floated away with bubbling cries of fear and pain. That’s a whole subplot unceremoniously washed away. I relish this player autonomy and look forward to considering what consequences may arise from Bren’s actions.

Lanie wasn’t done, though. As soon as they made it into town, she beelined for a magical wares shop and tried to buy a potion of healing. Potions of healing cost 50 gold pieces each, and the whole party had 25 pieces between them. Lanie decided Bren would enchant the shopkeep to think that he and the party were good friends, then try and weedle a free healing potion from them. After a roll of 20 on a 20-sided die, what we DMs call a “natural twenty,” two times in a row (a 1 in 400 chance) Bren extracted a sponsorship from “Mordenkaiden’s Magical Wares” on the order of three healing potions. When they learned that in an hour the spell would wear off and the shopkeep would realize he’d effectively been enchanted and robbed, the party scrambled to rebuff his attempts to get their names to brag about the heroes he’d sponsored. Then, with forced casualness, they ambled out of sight.

DMing this party will be fun.

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Asymmetric Information in D&D

The key element of a Dungeons and Dragons game is the party. Seldom does a dungeon master run an entire campaign for just one person. A cooperative group of players is central to the game since its founding, and is so entrenched that when a player doesn’t want to cooperate, things can go very badly even outside the game itself.

But that can make for a dull story. Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had no Boromir, a friend turned foe by the evil power of the One Ring only to be later redeemed. NPCs can serve this purpose handily, but it’s harder to get player characters to change alliances and fight with one another.

One issue is well-defined moral dichotomy, which to some extent I have already discussed. Another part of the matter is that information is necessarily shared between all players. If the dungeon master tells a player what his or her character is seeing, all players hear. When crowded around a small game table, inconspicuously getting around this may be easier said than done.

It’s not impossible, though. If you pass a note to a player, other players will see that you’ve passed a note, but not the contents. If you write a text message, they will hear the ‘ping,’ but won’t know what has been communicated. These are only good for simple messages, as few players are willing to wait while their DM types out a page of details on his or her phone.

For more in-depth privileged communication, I recommend what I refer to as a “Special Session.” A special session is a session of a campaign devoted entirely to one member of a party. Generally this can happen while the other party members are asleep or after another excuse to split one player off. I have run special sessions in person and on Google Docs, exchanging DM descriptions and player actions in text rather than through speech. In the latter case it can even take place over a number of days, although it must end before the regular party comes together again, or the story might not be able to accommodate the separated player participating with the rest of the group.

I have tried a few of these methods with exciting results. For one example, I have a druid in my party who can understand spider talk, so I send him texts of everything the spiders around his druid are saying. Colleen elected to tell none of her friends what her arachnid friends were telling her, much to the rest of the party’s chagrin. Another character had a midnight meeting with an NPC who begged permission to kill another NPC party member, a zombie, whose very existence she felt was against her God Pelor. This led to a dramatic, improvised sequence in which the party debated whether to kill the ostensibly friendly zombie, and eventually Tom the Monk succeeded in converting the zombie to himself be a follower of Pelor. This substantially changed the plot going forward onto a track that I had not previously considered. A third pious character received a message from his god during prayer (an email from me) and spoke in elaborate fantasy detail of his experience of the message to the other party members. Other private communications are still playing out. Some of my players read this blog, so I won’t go into detail.

To be fair, I should note that some dungeon masters would prefer to avoid rather than encourage party infighting. for some groups it will ruin the evening. In my case so far people are enjoying the special attention that they receive as part of getting privileged knowledge. I am enjoying seeing what they do with it. I cannot recommend strongly enough to any DMs looking to add more spice to a D&D game that they should try and add some information asymmetry. It’s well worth the effort.

Constitutional Democrazy

The other day I played a game called “Democrazy” in which players propose and vote on new rules as the game progresses. The full rules can be found here.

As I played this game I was disappointed by the limiting nature of the fact that no rules could be proposed that were not already written on the cards provided by the game. This is partially ameliorated by the presence of blank cards and a “carte blanche” game variant that allow crafting of custom rules. This variant is described in the ruleset linked to above. The blank cards may only be used for immediate rules, not for ones that stay in play, and they only occur occasionally in the deck.

With a couple friends I started thinking about a more ambitious version in which almost all rules are developed on the spot and are modified over the course of debate. This variant we call “Constitutional Democrazy” because it attempts to, with a simple “constitution” that is defined outside the game and immutable within it, codify what is and is not appropriate to include in each new rule.

In this article we first describe how one proposes new rules to vote on in the variant and then we will move on to discuss the theoretical potential for abuse posed by such open-ended rules and the first draft of a constitution developed to prescribe what could and could not be entailed in a rule.

In Constitutional Democrazy, all cards in the deck may be played either as themselves or as blank cards. Before proposing (putting up for a vote) a blank card, a player must state the rule to be proposed and receive a promised vote from at least one other player (a cosponsor). The rule may be changed (amended) an unlimited number of times to garner support from the other players prior to going to a vote. As a rule may become complicated, it is advised to keep it written on a sheet of paper in pencil as it is amended. Once the rule is proposed with a cosponsor it goes to a vote as usual, with wild cards acting as normal. There is still the same limit of six rules in play at a time, and if one rule or part of a rule contradicts another, the more recent rule takes precedent.

One concern about this variant is that it could open the door to becoming something of a “Bureaucratic Truth or Dare” wherein players could be forced into all manner of compromising or unpleasant positions. In order to protect the rights of the minority, so to speak, we propose a constitution that will define appropriate conduct in the creation of rules.

The Constitution of Democrazy

  • If any part of a rule in play is found to contradict the constitution, the entire rule is discarded immediately.
  • No rule in the constitution may be changed during a game under any circumstances.
  • No rule may contradict itself. If a rule is found to contradict itself, each of the two or more contradictory elements is considered void and has no effect.
  • No custom rule may have an effect outside the current game. Premade rules such as “No Smoking” do not fall under this restriction.
  • Only one player may win each game of Democrazy. In the case of a tie, the winner is chosen randomly via a preferred method. This method may be defined by other rules
  • Rules must be followable within a reasonable amount of time. If a rule is deemed to be causing a turn to take too long it must go immediately up for a vote

This constitution is a first draft and may receive some modifications after a few rounds of playtesting. Please do offer other theoretical bad situations that might merit additional amendments to the constitution. Also, there is an open question of the best way to resolve issues of contradictions or too-slow turns given players are likely to have a vested interest in the outcome. I know most of my readers are not local, but if you’re interested in trying this variant sometime, let me know!

CraZmates & Quelf

My father is colloquially known as “The Game Man.” He has garnered such a reputation as a collector of games that now he no longer ever needs to collect them himself. New games just fall into his lap from benevolent donors, whether they found them and wanted to buy them more than keep them, just had them laying around, or for whatever reason. These donors are right to share these games with my father because he plays them.

This weekend, my family played CraZmates and Quelf. The former is apparently designed for helping children learn about what is and is not appropriate in a dating partner, the latter may be a torture device of some sort.


CraZmates is a game designed to help young people learn how to manage relationships. The idea is that from the trait cards and the situation cards, one can stimulate a conversation in a mixed-gender group and give the players a safe space to explore what to expect in a dating partner.

Granted, we’re not remotely the target audience, but here’s how it played out in practice. Right from the start, my father eschewed the deck and selected a picture of my mother from our photo album to be his dating partner.  The effect was lessened when he landed on a “makeover” square and pulled out a card named “Selena,” whose portrait he put over my mother’s face. Then he wondered aloud why she was dating this “Jerome” character instead of him.


My partner was someone’s name I don’t remember. I kept landing on “makeover” spaces and changing her appearance until I realized I, too, could take a photo out of the photo album. My father insisted that people’s names didn’t change when you give them what the game calls a “makeover,” so I said I would just use Alice as a nickname for whats-her-name.


That’s Alice on the left. According to the cards, we share religious values and excellent kisses, and we can talk about anything, even sports! With three positive traits, I just have to make it to the end of the board!IMG_20170218_185846979.jpg

We eventually won after my mom and Jerome repeatedly landed on the “taking a time out” square.IMG_20170218_190053246_TOP.jpg

Even though the gameplay is silly, I think the trait and situation cards serve their purpose.  When I pick up a card saying my new girlfriend wants to get pregnant as soon as possible I imagine being a teenager playing this game and seeing the looks on my fellow players’ faces. These situation cards ask me to say how I will respond to these scenarios. That’s good preparation for an actual relationship.

For the most part, the binary cards (one side is for boys to read, the other side for girls) are just different wordings of the same thing. However, occasionally a guy will see his woman has a trait “shares my religious values” while the girl side of the card says “he isn’t religious, but he lives according to a set of values.” Mismatches like these seem bizarre to say the least.

It might be fun to play this with some of my little cousins (the older ones) sometime, although I’m not sure if they’d want to play it with me.



This game is about doing silly and embarrassing things over and over again. Based on the luck of the draw, players are asked to do anything from write poems, air drum whenever it’s not their turn, wear coat hangers around their necks, and say “Exqueeze me, I feel a question coming on” before making any inquiry. Out of respect for the parties involved, I have elected not to share the details of what happened during this game.

I recommend if you’re looking to feel acutely uncomfortable, or if you’re looking for an excuse to write a poem and share it with your friends, this might give you that opportunity. I might note for players who may have been forced into this game that you can voluntarily go to start to get rid of all rules attached to you (these are the worst offenders in terms of making this game unpleasant as they occur over and over again until they’re replaced). You can also just take the penalties for each card instead of doing the stuff on it. You won’t win, but if you didn’t want to play in the first place, that’s probably fine by you.

Cthulhu Fruit and Musical Farmsteads

My mother encouraged me to indulge in impulse buys when I went shopping for the Christmas holiday, and so I came home with the following:


This is known as a “Buddha’s hand,” and it is mostly rind. Fortunately,  my mother is ever the improvisateur. She was making mulled wine, and decided that she would take advantage of the buddha hand’s best feature, its outrageous shape, and use it as a garnish as our contribution to a friend’s Christmas Eve party.  It didn’t emit light when cooked, despite what the photograph may suggest.buddha-hand-in-mulled-wine

That evening, my cousin Eddie contacted me with a list of games that he wanted to try during the Munk Christmas party, and I was eager to encourage him. We had two of the games on his list: Pandemic, a game about saving the world from various diseases, and Agricola, a game about running a farm.

The next day was a typical Christmas in North Carolina, green, blue, brown, everything but white. The weather that in the evening calls for a light jacket. My father’s first action upon arrival was to set up an Agricola game. Eddie, Dad, Eliza, Raymond on a team with KeShaun, and I each started a farm.

(From left) Eddie, Eliza, Tom, Carson and Raymond play Agricola

This was no ordinary game of Agricola, though. In order to manage a game demanding such commitment with so many distractions, Dad employed his trademarked technique: shared farmsteads that can pass between owners on the fly. First, he invited my sister Rachel to help run my farm, but she decided that was not likely to end well, so she left to socialize. KeShaun got bored and left, then came back. My uncle Don came with not one but two sports tournaments and repeatedly demanded that people join until he managed to pull his son Raymond away, at which point Dad had to take over their farmstead. Fortunately we’d gotten Carson involved by this time, so he ran Dad’s old farmstead. To his credit, Eddie repeatedly rebuffed and fought with his father Don rather than leave the game he had asked us to bring. Eliza vanished for a while and we recruited Eddie’s friend Drew to briefly run her farm before she returned again. Notice how even with all this chaos, we made it through a whole game. That in and of itself was an achievement.

Mom never did manage to get a tree smaller than ours. Her enormous tree still dominates our living room at the time of writing

Playing fast and loose with D&D

As a new dungeon master, one who has already complained about the tabletop role playing game’s restrictive mythology and overwhelmingly combat-oriented gameplay, I like to take an open-ended approach. Here are some examples of what I have already done and how my players have reacted.

Giant spiders in a dungeon are not part of the dungeon’s evil plan, but mere inhabitants.  In fact, in my dungeon they were serving a useful purpose – eating the massive supply of zombies that the dungeon was producing.  They were so pleased with the preponderance of food that they set up their egg sack in the dungeon, which fortunately they were able to move out before the adventurers caused the dungeon to sink back into the earth from which it came.

What made this especially fun with my party was that we had a druid. Being sometimes a spider herself, she is able to understand the clicks and hisses of the giant spiders.  At first I whispered in her player’s ear what the spiders were saying to her and to each other, but then I switched to text messages. Colleen, for reasons of her own, decided not to communicate the spiders’ messages to her party.  I may get all of my players’ phone numbers so that I can give player-specific information when necessary.

Also, rather than being helpless victims of monsters and passive spectators of heroic glory, townsfolk will often take action against the dungeons that plague them.  Thus far, the townsfolk have noted the predictable pattern in which the zombie invasion occurred and set up a bonfire to burn them up before they can get into town.

Not to say I didn’t have any challenges.

One thing that surprised me when I was trying to make my own scenario was how well-versed some of the players were in D&D mythology. They gave me a lot of trouble for having a non-metallic dragon be the supposedly benevolent ruler of a small country, as it is well known that dragons of solid colors are evil and hate humanoids.  I was not surprised that they were curious, but even so they were good at getting information out of me. One of my non-player characters ended up being much more knowledgeable than he probably should’ve been, given his apparent disinterest in anything to do with the main quest.  One of the players was intent on laying bare the nonsense at the heart of what I was asking them to do, pointing out that if they were helping a pair of colossal dragons it was difficult to imagine what task they could solve that the dragons could not. At first my retired, cynical wizard character, who had actually been encouraging the party not to get involved just shrugged. Unfortunately, I then lost my cool and he suddenly launched into a pep talk about how overwhelming the odds seemed when he and his party saved the multiverse from the great necromancer thirty years ago. Not in character. Bad dungeon mastering.

When my characters were following the road to the main city, they found the bridge was out.  I had some spiders follow the river north to another crossing, and even had one of the friendly NPCs suggest north was the way to go, but my party is delightfully stubborn.  They felled a tree and we role played all the skill checks that each of them would need to make their way across.  Almost all of them fell in the water, but they had concocted a clever rope system that would prevent them from being washed away.  This is the kind of thing that I love to do in any game – find easy solutions to ostensibly tough problems. They are skipping a significant chunk of the content in that forest, but not the plot-important stuff, so it’s fine.

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The Magnet Game and the Littlest Tree

There were two grandchildren at the lakehouse on Friday. To protect their identities, let’s call them Mac and Jason. As I will do when making a space for myself at a family party, especially one in which I do not know anyone very well, I brought out my secret weapon.


I call this “The Magnet Game,” and it has the distinct honor among games that even among the vast breadth of people with whom I share it, it has universal appeal. I have never gotten the impression that someone does not like this game. Below is a brief description of the goal of the game, to place magnets on the board without letting them touch each other.magnet_gameBut, even the perfect game cannot become a hit on its own.  This is where Mac and Jason come in. When I first arrived, the elder grandchild Mac was occupied building a cardboard gingerbread house from a kit. Jason, however, was begging people to play ping-pong with him. When I suggested a new game he could play, he was all over it.

Three years old, Jason Immediately fell in love with the magnets, but struggled with the rules of the game. Early on, he would deliberately make the magnets stick to each other and smile broadly when I would say ” Oops, you have to take those.” At the end of the game he proudly announced “I have the most magnets.”

“Yes,” I agreed. ” that means you lose.”

This did not trouble Jason, who rushed upstairs to inform his brother Mac and try to get him to join us. After Mac refused, Jason and I played another game, which Jason was again thrilled to lose. A second attempt to summon Mac met with more success. When Jason lost a third game, Mac took it upon himself to make sure he felt appropriately bad. I wondered if I should intervene, but there was no need. Jason loved losing this game as much as he did winning.

When Mac and Jason returned upstairs and I put the game away, I considered it a success. What I did not expect was that an hour later Jason would be asking to play the magnet game all over again. This continued throughout the day. We would play the magnet game for fifteen minutes until Jason got distracted from his string of delightful losses and ran off, then after a break he would want to start all over again.

When Jason asked me to play with him, I encouraged him to invite others. This had limited success at first, but soon we were not playing hidden in the basement, but upstairs at the prize position in front of the football game With Mac and Jason’s father and grandfather. After being told a dozen times that he had lost, Jason now viewed it as a part of the game. Whenever any two magnets would touch, he would jubilantly thrust his diminutive finger out at the player and shout “you lose!”

When Jason stood up to leave and said “I want to play another game,” his father and grandfather said, “you can play another game. We’re going to play another round of this one.”

After the event, Alice and I picked up a Christmas tree from her mother. I want to call attention to this Christmas tree because for a long time my mother has been very proud of her tiny Christmas tree. Let me show a picture of our Christmas tree. I do not have a picture of my mother’s Christmas tree, but rest assured ours is tinier.  img_20161125_201202294

As Jason would say with a broad smile on his tiny face, “you lose!”