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Archive for Geek Life

If You Think Dungeons & Dragons Is Fun, Try Playing It With Kids

Recently, a friend’s kids expressed interest in learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons, so this friend reached out to me to ask how they might learn how to play. I suggested that they come over for an afternoon and Sarah and I would teach them how to play as best we could after checking around and not finding an active Adventurer’s League in the area. We invited along our 12 year old nephew who lives near by, and Sarah rolled up a character to round out the party, which she shared some with Little Dude Tolbert, who yes, is on the young side to play a game like this, but you try stopping him. He knows entirely too much because my office is usually full of D&D stuff. Mostly, he sat on Sarah’s lap and goofed around, didn’t pay super close attention. He had fun rolling the dice and moving the miniatures, and he loved listening to the bigger kids have fun.

We ran the session today and it served a reminder to me to how fun Dungeons and Dragons can be the first time. Kids who have never played before have only the vaguest preconceived notions of what D&D is and how it should be played, which meant that they had some great and inspiring moments. Here are some anecdotes and loosely organized thoughts about the game.

  • This was a simple “meet in a tavern and get hired for a job” gig. They were hired by a merchant to recover some stolen property. Right away, they pressed the merchant to know exactly what was stolen. After some successful persuade checks, they learned that the property was “livestock.” Later, they learned that it wasn’t exactly legal. I was hoping for some misdirection here, but pretty much not thirty minutes in, they guessed that the “livestock” were people, which they were immediately down to put a stop to all of it. It went from a “find and retrieve job” to a rescue mission, and right away they planned to pay a visit to their employer afterward, which they did with fiery anger. I worried a bit that “slavery” might be too heavy a topic for kids, but it brought up conversations about Abraham Lincoln and there was no discussion over whether or not they would end it immediately. All of them had already learned about our country’s history of slavery and they were not okay with it. The kids are alright.
  • If you want to have a lot of fun with a character with low intelligence, have a three and a half year old role play it’s dialogue. At once point, after they rescued the stolen children from evil cultists, the fighter was put in charge of baby-sitting them while the rest of the party went off to deal with their “boss.”  Little Dude Tolbert’s first words to the kids, said in an adorable, gruff voice: “Hey, you kids! Don’t do anything with my legs. And just stay in this room.” There were several other great lines.
  • The nephew rolled up a bard with the ridiculous name of Jerry Jeff Parkanson, or “JJP” to his fans. The other players rapidly became his fan club, and any time it was JJP’s turn to act, they chanted “JJP! JJP!” Yes, even Little Dude Tolbert got in on the action. This made the nephew feel like a star, and helped bring him right into the game. Everywhere they go in the future, the legends of JJP will travel with them.
  • The oldest player did a great job of playing a rather foppish sorcerer with a poorly carved staff and an enormous hat that was just a delight. The voice she adopted for him sounded a tad like Taco. Embarrassingly, I kept misgendering the character (I missed early on that it was a male elf, so I was catching up). The player politely corrected me every time and I finally had it mostly right after an hour. (Again. The kids are alright.)
  • The younger brother of the teen created a delightful halfling rogue with a big mouth who got them into trouble more than once. He also helped the bard come up with some spectacularly hilarious insults to use for his main attack spell which involves insulting the bad guys to death.
  • Nearly every encounter began with an attempt by them to either use diplomacy or bluff their way out of. They tried intimidating wolves, talking their way out of fights with kobolds, and they even managed briefly to disguise themselves as evil cultists to try and stop a very bad ritual meant to serve the stolen children up for dinner to evil monsters.  Again: the kids are alright. They fought only when the bad guys gave them no choice. Which, this being D&D, was more often than not.
  • Kids’ emotions are double that of adults. A bad die roll, and they’re kinda devastated and you have to boost their spirits a bit. A natural twenty, and they’re doing a little victory dance around the table and cheering as they finish off a bad guy in one blow.  Their highs and lows are wild to witness, and it made the game even more fun for me than usual.
  • All of this made me even more certain that one of the main directions for Level Up Guild needs to be our “DM in a Box” service, and we need to market to parents of teens and pre-teens. I won’t even care that much that I’m making a lot less doing this than I do building websites. I kinda want doing this to be my job in the future.
  • I should probably work to develop more kid-friendly plot lines and bad guys. I’m not sure I have *any* idea what’s properly age appropriate because I was playing D&D at 6 and there weren’t really “age appropriate” things when I was growing up. I probably helped kill half the princes of Hell in D&D by the time I was 10. Skeletons and zombies are an easy thing to have them fight, though, so we did a lot of that. They’re basically the D&D equivalent of robots.
  • I never had to explain some basic mechanics, like what “hit points” are or “armor” or the types of weapons, the different fantasy races, etc.  Some of the stuff we didn’t know about when we were kids playing for the first time, these kids have absorbed through video games and other media.
  • D&D is by nature kind of violent when played the usual way, and parents need to be cool with that. Little Dude Tolbert and his mom and I had a long talk about makebelieve and pretend and how everything is just a game. He rolled with it really well, and had a good time rolling dice and doing math.  I would say that D&D is no more violent than modern video games (probably much less vividly so), but my combat descriptions could probably stand to be toned down as well, at least when playing with younger folks. We can fade the violence into the background of hit points and maybe I don’t need to be visceral at all in my descriptions with them. I’ve actually been struggling alot with the themes of violence and adolescence as I work on the Dungeonspace stories.  I also want to try my hand at writing more adventures that have less combat, and have bad guys run away or surrender more often.

In general, I learned an enormous amount from running this game, and I am looking forward to playing with these kids again. They were excitedly talking about what they would get at future levels and how they would deal with the three children they rescued, so I feel obligated to play with them again some time soon. I am really looking forward to learning yet more lessons of how best to DM for a group of mixed age kids.


Deepfakes Will Destroy Our Society, but Let’s Talk About the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Foundations Instead

Last night, I felt a hankering to watch the original Iron Man movie, and because this is the era of instant gratification, once we’d finished dinner, coaxed the little dude to sleep, and shut down business operations for the night, we settled in for a viewing via Amazon Prime. Okay, so as instant as it gets when you’re parents, but we did eventually watch it and I think the wife only fell asleep a couple of times.

The reason it was on my mind was because I was browsing the deepfakes gifs subreddit and for some reason, someone had taken a bunch of scenes from that movie and mapped Elon Musk’s face onto Robert Downey Jr’s.  It wasn’t a particularly believable deepfake, unlike some of the ones with Nick Cage’s face (I’ll never understand Reddit’s fixation with Cage).  We’re 3-4 years away from being able to recast any movie with any person utilizing neural network-based software and a boatload of photographic reference.   The deepfakes phenomenon started out primarily being used for incredibly creepy porn, but the technology will likely see numerous uses we haven’t predicted, especially given just about anybody can set up and train one with a little effort.  The implications for journalism are particularly worrisome, especially when combined with the level of voice synthesis tech that’s been circulating.  Talk about “fake news”… but that’s a much more depressing post. My dive into deepfakes got me thinking once more about the MCU’s beginnings. Let’s fiddle for a while and ignore all that smoke, shall we? (more…)


ComicCons Are More Fun With Children. You Should Make Some, or Steal Somebody’s.

Team Tolbert spent this past Saturday hanging out at Bartle Hall in Kansas City at Planet ComicCon Kansas City 2018. Woo, boy. What a trip that was.

We’ve been to local media conventions in the past. I’m no stranger to geeky conventions in general, but my natural habitat is something more like WorldCon with its fraction of attendance and primary focus on the written word. ComicCons, in my experience, have a primary focus on media guests. They’re the place people go to get expensive photos taken with celebrities so they can post them to social media. I’ve yet to see the celebrity that I am willing to spend $200 for a photo with, but hey. Anything’s possible, and if that’s your bag, then baby don’t let me kinkshame you. Make those actors earn their second vacation homes and/or retirements.

So given that I’m not big on photos with famous people (but definitely not above walking past autograph alley to oogle them and say, without fail, “oh, they’re shorter than I expected”), and I am not really a collector of toys or comics, why would I ever attend these things? Two simple reasons: to meet up with professionals attending who are good friends and to watch my tiny human



#RPGaDay 26: Which RPG provides the most useful resources?

Eh, this question doesn’t thrill me.  Technically every game provides essential resources for play.  That’s what games are – life resources for structured play. There aren’t a lot of games that require extraneous resources for good play.  Now, I’m working on a company that specializes in utilizing a lot of extraneous resources to create really fun, tactile play, but you don’t need any of that.  You need some paper, pencils, dice, and a few willing friends.  And that’s it.  That’s the beauty of the role-playing game. Let’s not muck that up with lots of “resources.” Unless you’re into that sort of thing… then you may want to stay tuned to hear more about Level Up Guild.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


Geek Life

The Dungeon Tile Project

I haven’t been writing much, lately, although I am deep in revisions on a number of stories from earlier in the year that you should see coming out soon. Instead, I’ve been working on 3D printing, casting, and painting a bunch of dungeon tiles for playing fantasy role-playing games. It’s been very good for me to spend less of my “leisure time” at a computer where I can encounter political news. So, below are a few photos rounding up what we’ve made so far. There are over 300 individual tiles, plus countless doors and other items/props. Only a few of these items have been things that I’ve designed myself — the big demon statue being one of them. Most of the models are items I’ve purchased from various companies — especially Hero’s Hoard. This project has had enormous help from my business partner Elwood Schaad and painter/artist Gabe Dorsey.

I opted to go with the partial wall style tile over the full-wall style you see from companies like Dwarven Forge because in my experience, they’re more playable. Walls much higher than this get in the way of players maneuvering their figures. I wanted something that looks good, and plays well. On Monday, we’ll be playing our first official game on the tiles. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react to them.

This is all part of a side venture I’m working on with a partner called the Level Up Guild. LUG is a company that specializes in exactly what the name says – we aim to help people “level up” their gaming experiences. Stay tuned for more information about what that means in more specific terms…


Gaming, Geek Life

Dudes? Feminism is for you, too

First, a caveat. My language below may not be elegant or use the proper scholarly terminology because I’m not formally educated in these subjects, but I have some things to say and I hope I say them well enough to convey my message, which is a simple one. My message here is more specifically for my male peers: gamers, nerds, and geeks.

Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed a lot of guys my generation or younger who believe that feminism is something it isn’t, or have taken some extreme form of it to stand for the whole thing (much like people often confuse radical religion factions to stand for a broader religion). These men (not necessarily full-blown Men’s Rights Activists which I won’t even get into here) believe that feminism has nothing to offer them. Ignoring the fact that you’re kind of a jerk if you can’t support something that doesn’t directly support you, I find this really sad. Most of us don’t conform to the traditional notions of masculinity much at all!

Feminism, I’ve come to learn over the years (perhaps embarrassingly late), has its sights set not just the societal structures responsible for women’s so-called “gender norms” but also the ones responsible for toxic masculinity. When it comes to my male peers, not one of us has escaped harm by toxic masculinity.

Ask any of us to describe what a man should be, and I will bet we’d most often describe gruff, taciturn men who never cry and spend their days drinking beer and fixing cars. Real men don’t have much in the way of feelings you can hurt. They fix things. They certainly don’t play games because they’re too busy doing home repairs or replacing engines in cars. I still have this mental picture.

Me, I don’t conform to that notion in the slightest. I’m a geeky, sensitive nerd who would rather play board games than rebuild a car engine. I barely trust myself with a hammer as I’m more likely to break something with it than I am to fix it. And when I wrote “sensitive” earlier, I felt a strong urge to write “overly” in front of it. That is toxic masculinity in a nutshell.

And do you know why I don’t feel any less than a man? Because feminism has taught me that being a “man” doesn’t mean conforming to any of these things. In general, I don’t feel any need to police what makes a person a man or what doesn’t. Especially not myself. You feel manly? Great. Gender norms are bullshit and I believe you should be who you want and do what you want (provided you’re not hurting anyone). It’s a pretty basic rule that I think most people agree with generally. I don’t know why this particular issue trips people up.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a man for myself lately because it’s entangled with my notions of what it means to be a father. I find myself emulating my own Dad more often than I like. I struggle with how I react, in particular, to my son crying. My bone-deep instinct is to encourage him to stop crying at any cost, to tell him he’s not hurt, etc. But of course he is! When I catch myself doing that, I feel a lot more shame than I ever did for not being able to change the oil in my car or whatever.

I feel like none of my peers really like gender norms much. If you don’t like them, then I believe you need to acknowledge the role that feminism has in attacking all gender norms. You’re more free to be the person you want to be because of the hard work of feminists.  Feminists aren’t working to just make the lives of women better; they’re working to make all lives better, even yours.


Commentary, Geek Life

Geeks Dudes, You Need to Learn to Withold Your Opinions Sometimes

I have a 12 year old nephew who I’ve somehow, accidentally on purpose gotten addicted to Magic: The Gathering.  I tell my sister that I did her a favor. I crack out the old chestnut, “It’s a good thing, sis!  If he’s into Magic, he’ll never have money for drugs!”  For me, the only downside is, at any and every family gathering, he wants me to play, and I was never actually very good at Magic.  This is all background information for a little incident at our FLGS (friendly local game store, for short).

The nephew mows our lawn, and sometimes afterward, he asks me to take him to an FLGS to get cards.  Today, the mower was dead (battery issues) so on the way to taking him home, we dropped into the store.  He has never really bought singles before this, and was unclear how it worked.  Magic singles in this particular store are put in large card binders that you must flip through.  The particularly juicy cards are stored in the glass counter case.

As he was flipping through the binders, a couple of guys in their mid-20s came in and began to look around.  One of them decided to look at Magic singles also.  This guy decided to strike up a conversation with my nephew.

“What kind of deck are you building?”

“A blue/red aggro thing.”

“Like, with spells, or creatures?”

“With creatures you get out fast and pump up to make more powerful.”

“Blue/red? There aren’t a lot of good cards for that.  That won’t work.”

And with that,  gamer dude moved on to looking at board games, not realizing that he’d just shit all over the deck ideas of a twelve year old.  The nephew was a little disheartened, but he tried not to show it.  Eventually he gave up, bought a couple of cards, and we left.

On the drive back to his home, I told the nephew how Magic: The Gathering was in the early days when I started playing.  Not very many people had the internet back int he early 90s.  There were no deck lists, and there were really only a small handful of sets to draw from.  The weird codified rules of Magic hadn’t come to be yet, and you didn’t see the same decks consisting of the same powerful cards over and over again.  We often played with 200-300 card decks–sometimes every card we owned.  We were free to experiment and try different things.

I said: “I want you to know that when people try to give you advice like that, you don’t have to listen to them.  They may be older than you, but they’ve forgotten how to just have fun when they play this game.  All they care about is winning at Friday Night Magic. Remember that the most important thing about Magic is to have fun.”

I encouraged him to keep making his own decks, and to keep experimenting.  “If everyone played Magic like those guys, nobody would ever invent a new deck again.  There are a lot of different card combinations out there to be discovered.”

I’m sure that guy thought he was being helpful, but it’s people like him, and play styles like that, that drove me out of games like Magic: The Gathering.  If the collective idea of fun is limited only to winning, and not diving deep into the game’s many possibilities, then a game loses a lot of its luster for me.  The same thing as happened with the X-Wing miniatures game for me.   It’s ruled now by specific lists and specific play styles codified by “top level” players somewhere else.  Where’s the inventiveness and creativity?

You’re welcome to your play styles and your obsession with winning over all else, but hey, maybe don’t put that on a kid?  A kid who might crack the code and make the next championship deck if he keeps his mind open.  You never know.  He certainly won’t do that if he listens to people who tell him to keep “coloring within the lines.” (Is that a Magic pun? Oh well.)

In general, geek dudes, myself included, tend to be full of all kinds of opinions about how games and our hobbies are meant to be enjoyed.  It’s one of the many things we debate amongst ourselves as part of the hobbies.  However, these attitudes and behaviors do not play well with newcomers.  We do a lot of harm to our hobbies when we act like we own the goddamned things, when we project our opinions unsolicited onto others.  My nephew did not ask for advice on his deck ideas.  That girl browsing the graphic novels did not ask for your advice on which book she would like the most.  And so on, and so on–the internet is full of anecdotes like this one of much greater seriousness.

I’ve seen so much policing like this take place in hobby stores.  I’m certain I’ve even been responsible for incidents.  I’m sure my intention was to be helpful, but you know what they say about intentions.  You can bet after seeing the impact things had today on a kid’s enthusiasm, I will be much, much less likely to do so in the future.