Category Archives: Personal Musings

Materiam superabat opus

This finding made it possible, three hundred years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Library and solve satisfactorily the problem which no conjecture had deciphered: the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books. — Borges

Of the contributions made by the 2214 Nakamura-Kreitz expedition to the fields of manuscript archaeology and literary criticism, one find towers in significance above all others, and continues to cast a long shadow over the halls of academia. Much ink (along with, as survivors of the assorted semiotics conflicts of the latter 23rd century will grimly attest, actual blood) has been spilled in debating the meaning of its eight rhymed couplets.

I will not presume to add to the ongoing scholarly discussion, but with this humble essay hope to introduce a new generation of readers to one of the most puzzling manuscripts to survive the Neopacification War. The manuscript (see photograph below) was discovered in a plastic container that had been repurposed by a geneslicer mutant band to serve as part of a bunker wall. (Also in the container were five small robots of indeterminate/hybrid form; see Mullen’s Formless Masters: Optimus Prime and the Cult of Shape for a plausible, if somewhat overstated, hypothesis as to their significance).

Without further ado, the manuscript; followed by a brief set of notes on each line:


Computer Confusion by Andy Rau

Let us set aside the decades-long debate about the poem’s title and purported author’s identity and simply point out that the “confusion” cited here is not to be attributed to the computers in question (a Commodore 64 and a Mac Classic, if the rest of the poem can be trusted); but to the author and/or reader.

Folks as queer as they can be;

Steering clear of distasteful and salacious theories, I assert that everything we know about the author’s emotional maturity and understanding of gender relations at the time this poem was written suggests that this line was not intended as a sexual slur.

always saying unto me:

The unusual choice of phrasing here makes sense when one considers that Rau’s literary input at this stage of his life consisted almost entirely of The Lord of the Rings knockoffs and the Heidelberg Catechism.

“Let’s play this! Let’s load up that!”

The author here expresses frustration at the continual demands of his companions to “load up” games on his parent’s computers. While this may seem the very definition of privileged, narcissistic whining, consider that “loading up” a game from a floppy disk could take up to several minutes of the author’s precious time. (“And God help those who were ‘loading up’ from a tape drive,” Nieuwenhuizen observes in They Stayed Up Late: Concessions to Chronicity in the Lives of ‘Airborne Ranger’ Players.) See line 12ff below for a better understanding of the sacrifice Rau was being asked to make.

I wanna [sic] play Dark Castle!” Drat!

Crucially, this line provides us with a terminus post quem for “Computer Confusion”: AD 1986, the year that Dark Castle was released for the Macintosh. In 1986, Rau would have been at least eleven years of age; one shudders at the implications for his emotional maturity and social relationships were “Computer Confusion” composed much later than this date.

On the challenging presence of “Drat!” here, I cannot add to Pierce-Weyland’s groundbreaking 2314 analysis.

Whatever game I want to play,
it’s “Load this game up right away!”

Rau’s companions again pressure him to “load up” games he does not wish to play.

If I wanna [sic] play Spy vs. Spy,
they want to play Up and Down. Oh My!

Clear references to the Commodore 64 games Spy vs. Spy (1984) and Up’n Down (1983). Why Rau attempted to correct the grammar of the title Up’n Down is a mystery in light of his repeated use of the word “wanna” above.

First it’s Zork and Zorro — Oooooooo!

McCulray (2245, pp. 31-33) was the first to suggest that the frankly embarrassing Oooooooo! here is a clear sign of satirical intent; but as Franz (2247, p. 75) counters, that contrasts with the painful earnestness of the rest of the poem.

Then it’s Zaxxon, Sea Wolf too!

The selfish demands of Rau’s peers, unreasonable from the start, have at this point become unconscionable.

I don’t want to use the computer with you;
there are other things I’d rather do!

The tone of the poem sharpens uncomfortably here; Rau has been pushed to such emotional distress that he lashes out at his companions—and perhaps at the reader as well. Do we not, reading this poem hundreds of years after Rau’s “death” and assumption into the Callisto Singularity, continue to harass his memory by revisiting these baleful demands?

Sullivan (2286) asserts that in this line we see clear evidence for the Satire Theory; there is no historical evidence, he claims, that there were ever any “other things” that a youthful Rau would have prioritized over the playing of computer games. I leave it to the reader to weigh the argument.

Like make a model, take a hike,
bug my sister, ride a bike.

Although Rau reportedly took part in all of these activities, only the act of antagonizing his sibling is believed to have been preferred to playing computer games. In fact, there is some evidence that Rau was occasionally deprived of computer use privileges in parental retaliation for his constant and only occasionally provoked harassment of his sister. (Cheng’s [2293] claim that Rau’s sister “totally deserved it because she was being such a pain” is sycophantic.)

So don’t tell me what we should play;
I’ll tell you — and right away!

This bitter, challenging closing couplet has bedeviled scholars for centuries. What does Rau truly want to play? Just Spy vs. Spy? When, if ever, will he tell us? Who among us—even those who don’t subscribe to the frankly religious belief that Rau will one day return (“right away”) to name his choice of games—has not been kept awake at night by fearful mental wrestlings with the savage rejection and unfulfilled promise contained in these two lines?

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A powerful Navy we have always regarded

Like every other boy who ever lived, I really really wanted the U.S.S. Flagg, the six-foot-long G.I. Joe aircraft carrier.

My parents were generous with the G.I. Joes and Transformers, but this was a line even they would not cross. I vividly remember the day I was informed in no uncertain terms that I would never be receiving a six-foot-long toy aircraft carrier for Christmas, no matter how good I was.

Which is one reason I had to make it out to the local Geek Garage Sale today; I had heard rumors that this rare artifact would be there. Perhaps after all these years, my dream could come true?

Sure enough, there it was, its grand fo’c’s’le towering majestically over the parking lot of Apparitions Comics, cutting its way across the surface of the asphalt sea with all the power its plastic nuclear reactor engines could muster:

Back when I really really wanted this, this was probably a good foot longer than I was lying down.

Having seen it in person, I can now check off one of the remaining items on my Geek To-Do List. And I can reflect on the karmic irony that my reaction to seeing it in person was precisely that of my parents, when I showed it to them in the pages of a Sears catalog:

  1. It costs how much?
  2. It wouldn’t even fit in our house!

Sail on, U.S.S. Flagg. May destiny steer you through the storms of life into the safe port of some other lucky nerd’s basement.

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Won’t you think of the (fictional) children?!

A lot of things in your life and attitude change when you become a parent. That is, of course, not exactly a brilliant insight for the ages. But I was unprepared for one minor but very definite change in myself that took place almost immediately upon the birth of our daughter three years ago: I became utterly unable to handle the sight, or even the thought, of a child’s suffering in books, movies, or the newspaper.

Before our daughter’s birth, my tastes in entertainment were pretty “mainstream American”—that is, jaded. While I didn’t enjoy the extreme end of cinematic violence, I could watch a Tarantino movie without flinching (much). I played ultra-violent video games. I approached fictional violence and death involving children the same way I approached violence and death involving adults: sometimes unpleasant, sometimes tear-jerking, but nothing that merited emotional investment beyond what the film’s (or book’s) narrative called for.

Then our wonderful, beautiful daughter was born.

I noticed the change a few months after that. My wife and I were watching an episode of The X-Files during one of those rare breaks in between infant care. In the episode, two young children—a toddler and a slightly older boy—are murdered by the villain. Nothing graphic; the deaths take place offscreen.

I can confidently say that before parenthood, this wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest, beyond establishing that the bad guy was really bad. But I was physically shaken. I wanted to turn off the episode. Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How impossibly cruel, to kill these fictional children! How impossibly painful for this fictional family!

Beyond being upset—something I could easily explain as anxiety about my own daughter’s safety—I felt something stronger: real anger and resentment toward the episode and its creators. On one level I was angry that the writers had successfully exploited my new emotional weakness. But I was actively angry just at the thought of somebody using the suffering and death of a child in something so tawdry as a TV show. I tried to imagine the sort of empty-souled shell of a human being that would use a child’s death (even a fictional one) as a mere plot device.

Since then, this emotional hot-button of mine has shown no signs of going away. I can’t watch or read even the mildest instance of cruelty or violence inflicted on a child without wanting to physically get up and leave… and punch the screenwriter/author. Just seeing a kid threatened with violence—say, by a villain trying to blackmail a movie’s protagonist—is enough to freak me out. The other day I actually threw a book down in anger, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, when a character in the story cruelly hurt a child. When I read or watch such a thing, I wonder about how the fictional child’s fictional parents will ever cope; and now even when an adult is hurt or killed, I wonder if the fictional adult has fictional kids whose lives have just been ruined.

I had never really thought about how common it is to use threats against children to drive plots and increase suspense. Intellectually I don’t have a problem with that storytelling device, but these days I demand that there be a really good narrative reason for it.

I imagine this will fade a bit with time. But right now, I find myself avoiding movies, books, or video games where I even suspect a child may suffer.

I can understand why my mind has reached this point, but the suddenness and completeness of the change caught me off guard. And I should note that I don’t especially miss being jaded about this topic—it’d be nice to feel less emotional wimpy while watching movies and TV, but I’m not really interested in going back to being a person who didn’t bat an eyelash at the fictional portrayal of violence against kids.

It makes me wonder at all the other commonplace narrative setups—rape, domestic violence, murder, grief, loss of a loved one, etc.—that go right past me without registering but prey on the emotional vulnerabilities of people who’ve experienced them in real life.

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Stormbringer is mine!

Elric poses with his soul-draining sword Stormbringer.

I had the chance to catch lunch with Ed earlier this week, and he was kind enough to pass an item from his game library to me: Stormbringer, the roleplaying game based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné novels. I’m really glad to get my hands on it; Stormbringer is one of those classic RPGs of which everyone speaks highly, but which I’ve never seen actually played. (But somebody must be playing it, as it’s in its sixth edition or thereabouts.)

In that sense, the RPG is not unlike Moorcock’s Elric novels: influential, well regarded, and yet strangely obscure. Although you might find a few Elric short story collections at the bookstore, the main Elric series that established the titular character as a pulp fantasy archetype seems to be weirdly out of print. If there’s any series screaming to be reprinted as an anthology, it’s the original Elric tales.

My own introduction to Moorcock and his angsty antihero came a few years ago when Elric of Melniboné turned up on my reading group’s list. I have since wondered how my youthful appreciation of the fantasy genre might have been different if I had gotten hooked on Moorcock instead of Tolkien 25 years ago. It’s too late now, of course; I was a Tolkien fanatic before I made it out of sixth grade.

And anyway, given my Tolkien partisanship, it’s probably just as well that I was blissfully unaware of Moorcock’s famous whinefest about Tolkien. (I like The Cimmerian’s rebuttal myself.)

But that aside, the first Elric novel is certainly worth tracking down and reading if you enjoy dark, morally edgy fantasy filled with strange and intriguing people, places, and gods. It’s sharply written and evocative, although angst-ridden Elric himself is probably one of those protagonists you either wholeheartedly love or hate from the moment you first meet him.

I hope to dig through the RPG in detail in the near future; but my initial take is that it’s an impressive piece of work.

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The walls of this 10×10 chamber are adorned with…

When my wife and I finally made the choice to became real Americans (i.e. go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to buy a house), one of my requirements was that said house have some sort of subterranean chamber which I could convert into a basement game room. One year later, my game lair is finally ready.

Of course, no game room is complete without cheesy posters adorning the walls. No longer being 13, I can’t get away with supermodel pinups or Megadeth posters. But this is a perfect excuse to dig out those vintage game posters I’ve been hauling with me around the country for the last two decades. After a few trips to Hobby Lobby to pick up some cheap poster frames, here’s what’s hanging on the walls of my game room. (I apologize for the flash glare in some of these… if my game room had adequate lighting, it would not be authentic.)

First up is a pair of (unfortunately fairly weathered) Battletech Mech schematics, bought way back in the early days of FASA:


The 85-ton BLG-1G Battlemaster. Awww yeah.


The infamous Warhammer, complete with two PPCs and a cheesecake illustration of Natasha 'Black Widow' Kerensky in the bottom right (for scale purposes, of course).

On the opposite wall, découpaged to an oh-so-classy piece of wood, is the map that came with one of my favorite Infocom games, Beyond Zork:

Quendor map

I love this map, although I could do without the dozen compass roses pasted across it.

And now back to Battletech. The only Commodore 64 game I played as much as Wasteland was Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. It was my introduction to Battletech, and ever since, the poster that came with it remains the iconic Battletech image in my mind:

Crescent Hawk

A tiny Locust mech faces off against... what is that, a Marauder? That's not very fair, but it looks awesome.

Moving along, we have (surprise) another Infocom poster, this one of one of their least-known games: Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth. It was a quirky RPG/text-adventure hybrid (and only available on the Mac, strangely); but I really enjoyed it back in high school.


Am I the only person who played and enjoyed this game?

No game collection in the late 80s/early 90s was complete without at least one SSI Gold Box AD&D game. Here was mine:

Champions of Krynn

Champions of Krynn, one of many SSI Gold Box classics.

The next item is a change of pace: a poster that came with one of my favorite NES games, Dragon Warrior. This game was surpassed not long after its release by Final Fantasy I, but was a great deal of fun. And it has one of the most annoying/awesome catchy soundtracks of any NES-era game.

Dragon Warrior

One of the first great JRPGs on the NES.

And last but not least, I devoted most of an entire wall to one of the most iconic locations in D&D: Undermountain, the megadungeon. I framed three of the four maps that came in the 2e Undermountain boxed set:

Undermountain maps

There are a LOT of places to die in Undermountain.

So that’s what’s hanging on the walls of my basement game lair. I like to think of it as inspirational artwork. And believe it or not, there’s a stack of maps and posters that I’ll have to put back in storage because there wasn’t room to frame them too….

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My love-hate relationship with random encounter tables

Of all the skeletons in my GMing closet, perhaps the darkest is this: I almost never use random encounter tables, even when running games with a deliberately “old-school” vibe.

Why do I ignore this staple of roleplaying? Well, my experience with using random encounters can be summed up in these two memories, both of them from my early days of GMing.

Random encounter #1: the best thing ever. When I first started GMing (with Middle-Earth Role Playing, which was a trimmed-down version of Rolemaster), I followed to the letter all of those rules that, in later years, I learned to sometimes skim over: encumbrance, travel times, and—yes—random wilderness encounters. For one of our first-ever games, I ran the “Ar-Gular’s keep” adventure included with the MERP rulebook. Faithfully following the rules for wilderness travel, I rolled on the random encounter chart to see what, if anything, would happen while the party of 1st-level adventurers set up camp.

I rolled, did a double-take at the result, but never even considered “cheating” by ignoring what was almost certainly going to be a total-party kill: a troll.

In Middle-Earth, trolls are nasty. The party, caught unawares while they camped, was almost certainly going to die. But the encounter chart said TROLL, so a troll it was. (This was the Trollshaws, after all.)

A frantic, panicky combat ensued. Things were not looking good for our heroes. And then, in a stroke of awe-inspiring luck only possible when you’re using Rolemaster’s glorious critical hit charts, one of the characters did the impossible: with one frenzied jab of his sword, he killed the troll.

It was, as they say, a one-in-a-million roll, one that turned a nearly-certain party massacre into the most memorable possible introduction to roleplaying. And it would never have happened if I had massaged the random-encounter results or picked out a “balanced” encounter.

This was followed by another random encounter.

Random encounter #2: the worst thing ever. A few months later, the characters had been through many adventures in Middle-Earth and were coming into their own as true adventurers. One character, an elf ranger, had after much heroic toil reached 3rd level (dizzying heights of glory, from our perspective). I was growing more confident in my GMing abilities, and so when the player asked to head off on his own on a personal quest, I heartily agreed.

I spent time designing an adventure around his character’s backstory and goals. Accompanied by a few NPC henchmen, he set off on his quest, which took him through a vast swampland.

I faithfully rolled for random encounters as he journeyed through the swamp, and sure enough—he ran into an obstacle: an alligator. A regular alligator, not a Dire Alligator or a Sauronic Minion Alligator. Figuring that a quick battle against the reptile would get the action going (what is an alligator going to do to a noble elf warrior?), I set the beast loose against the player.

You can guess what happened. A few unbelievable dice rolls and several profanity-filled combat rounds later, the party was dead and the noble elf, hero of Middle-Earth, was bleeding out from a severed leg. With no help anywhere in range, this mighty Noldor, distant heir of Feanor, creator of the Silmarils in an Age long past, bled to death in an alligator attack straight out of late-night TV.

Remember that epic scene from Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is mauled by a random alligator? Yeah, neither do I. Because that would be stupid.

It seems silly in retrospect, but at the time it was a severely frustrating experience. The player had spent months building up his character and it had all been thrown away not with an epic fight against the Dark Lord’s minions, but with a random and meaningless alligator attack. And the time I had put into adventure prep designing a quest tailored for his character were rendered rather pointless.

I realize now that there were plenty of things that both I and the player could have done differently to avoid stupid, non-heroic reptilian death. But the lesson I learned was that random encounters, while they had the potential to be memorable and entertaining, also had the potential to spoil a game session. Having seen random encounters used to good effect in games like Rogue Trader, I’m starting to accept that they do add something challenging and exciting to a game. These days I make use of what you might call semi-random encounters: encounters rolled randomly but then adjusted a bit for balance or storyline coherence.

But while the memory of that epic troll kill still warms my heart, it will be a while before I put my complete trust in the random encounter table again.

What about you? Do you adhere to random encounter results… and have you ever lived to regret it?

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Weekend game report: halfling zombie edition

I ran a game of Castles & Crusades on Friday evening for my wife and a friend. I realized two things:

  • It’s not a good idea to GM when the only thing keeping you conscious is a melange of cold medications.
  • C&C is pretty darn close to my perfect ideal of Dungeons and Dragons.

I’ve run C&C off-and-on for several years now; it’s my go-to game when we want to do something with an old-school vibe but don’t feel like wrangling with the generally Byzantine rules of the actual old-school games themselves. It’s trivially easy to master and to teach to new players, and yet it manages to preserve most of the charm of Gygax-era D&D.

We played through the first half of Shadows of the Halfling Hall. Despite the aforementioned cold medication, it was surprisingly fun. It’s rather rare, in my experience, to come across adventures set in halfling/hobbit settlements, which due to the nature of their inhabitants tend to be dull, safe, and pleasant locations. Kudos to Troll Lord Games for finding a fun way to work dungeon crawls and zombies into Hobbiton-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off.

(Speaking of Hobbiton, one of the better MERP supplements was The Shire, which did a nice job of showing how many adventure possibilities lurk within the superficially dull Hobbit homeland.)

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One man's unplayable game, another man's source of endless fun

What makes a good game good, and a bad game bad? If you’ve ever frequented any of the big RPG forums, you know that gamers can be vicious in their criticism of games that don’t meet their personal standards. This rather mundane observation sprang to mind today as I was reading Grognardia‘s post on Monte Cook’s new “Dungeonaday” venture.

The Dungeonaday project is interesting, as is James Maliszewski’s insightful-as-always commentary on it. (Seriously, that’s a blog that should be on your daily reading list.) But I did a full stop (actually, I let loose with a bemused “hah!”) when I read this sentence from the post:

[Monte Cook] was, after all, the writer of the execrable Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The "execrable" game itself.Why did that strike me as funny? Because I think I’ve run Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil more than any other adventure campaign in my gaming career—at least three or four different times, for a different gaming group each time. And I loved it each time, as did my players. So hearing somebody describe it as “execrable” is just amusing; I’m sure they have a perfectly good reason for disliking it, but for such a horrifically bad product, it’s provided me with a heck of a lot of entertainment!

I have not read a formal review of Return, so for all I know I’m alone in my opinion that it’s a really fun D&D campaign. And I’m not criticizing James for his judgment at all; I have my own list of games and sourcebooks I think are terrible that somebody out there absolutely loves. There is no product or work of art in the world that isn’t loved by some and hated by others. But I think the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” holds particularly true in the gaming hobby, where creativity and enthusiasm can redeem even the most poorly written, badly designed game product.

This is one reason I tread more carefully with game reviews than I do with movie or book reviews. There’s not much I can do to make The Phantom Menace an excellent movie. But it’s a rare gaming product, however mediocre it might be, that can’t be turned into something fun if you’re willing to put in the effort.

There are a lot of game materials I’ve had a great time with that are often roundly (and in some cases accurately) condemned when they come up in online discussions and reviews:

  • No online discussion of Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG is complete without people chiming in to remind us that its combat system is “horribly broken” and “unplayable”—a fact my game group somehow managed not to notice during our entirely enjoyable adventures with that game.
  • TSR’s early Dragonlance modules for AD&D are legendary for committing the cardinal sin of gaming: railroading. Ask a veteran gamer and you’ll hear how those awful modules force players down predetermined paths, leeching all the fun out of the gaming experience. And yet that didn’t stop my young self from having a great time with them (they were among my earliest introductions to D&D, as it happens).
  • Rolemaster‘s supposed glut of charts is often said to make the game painful at best and unplayable at worst. But my high-school self ran that game for years without being troubled by its alleged unplayability.
  • Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying is generally considered to be quite unsuited for roleplaying in Middle Earth. But as with Rolemaster, I ran it for years and somehow failed to notice this supposedly game-damning problem.

(I often suspect that Rifts players can relate to this; I can think of few games that are criticized quite so much as it is, and for generally compelling reasons; but it makes me perversely happy to think that people are having fun with Rifts anyway.)

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t critique games, or even declare them Bad if we think they merit the condemnation. And hey, many of the games above actually are flawed, some of them in serious ways; in many cases the critics are dead-on with their judgments. Those Dragonlance modules really are railroady. Rolemaster really does have way too many charts. The combat system in Decipher’s LotR really does have serious problems. For all I know, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil really does have some terrible feature that makes it bad.

But I’ll never cease to be amazed at how much fun you can have with a “terrible” game. And if you’re having that much fun with it… how terrible can it really be?

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Witness to the end: the final hours of Tabula Rasa

Last night I witnessed the final hours of an MMORPG.

Several years ago, I read this fascinating account of the last days of Asheron’s Call over at Wired. That article, and this strangely touching collection of quotes and screenshots from the game’s final minutes, has stuck with me ever since. What does a doomed MMORPG look like in its twilight hours? Is it a barren wasteland devoid of players save for a faithful few long-timers mourning the game’s passing? A madhouse of activity as thousands of gamers crowd into the game to experience it before it goes away forever?

So when word came out late last year that Tabula Rasa was going offline in February (and more importantly, that its last few months would be free to play), I knew I had to at least check it out. My original intent was to play the game fairly heavily throughout February, trying to experience as much of it as possible before the end. Unfortunately, reality (and house maintenance, parenting responsibilities, the lure of other games) shot down that dream. Nevertheless, I wanted to be there for the game’s final few hours, especially when I read that the TR developers were planning to shut down the game with an apocalyptic in-game event.

The bad guys of the TR universe were going to launch an all-out assault, and everyone was going to die. The cities and bases that players had gotten to know over the last year were going to fall. Players would be pushed back to Earth for a final stand. At least TR players could go down in a blaze of glory.

So last night I logged into TR for the game’s final hours. I didn’t stay to the bitter end (1am my time; I didn’t think my church choir director would appreciate me showing up to the service crashing from a Mt. Dew-fueled late night gaming). But I was online for 2-3 hours up to about midnight.

So what was it like?

It was interesting.

Players gather to hold back the invaders as long as possible.

Players gather to hold back the invaders as long as possible.

There were a few problems. First, the game was crowded. For the first hour or so of the final event, the game was nearly unplayable due to lag. (Some players joked that the Bane apparently planned to defeat humanity by bringing their servers to a halt through lag.) From what I gathered in the in-game chat, a lot of players from TR‘s European and other servers (which had shut down earlier in the day) had flocked to this, the last online server, to replay the end again. Throw in who-knows-how-many curious observers like myself, and you had one crowded gameworld. The lag problem eased as the night went on.

Another problem was my lack of familiarity with the game. I’d only played a few hours throughout February, so I had only a basic grasp of how to travel around the game universe. It took me a while just to figure out how to travel to the “frontlines” where the invasion was expected to begin. Also, there was the little matter that my level 5 newbie character was probably going to last about 2 seconds against the sorts of epic alien invaders that were coming to destroy the world. (This did, in fact, turn out to be the case.)

I don't think my level 5 character is a match for these walkers.

I don't think my level 5 character is a match for these walkers.

But it was nevertheless a worthwhile experience. The invasion kicked off at 9pm Eastern time. In the hour leading up to the invasion, the in-game chat was so abuzz with chatter that I could hardly read messages before they scrolled off the screen. The game developers were present and participating actively in the chat. It was fascinating to read, with the same questions coming up over and over again:

  • Where was the final stand taking place? How do I get there so that I, too, can take some alien scum down with me?
  • Who’ll group up with me to visit [cool game location] or do [cool game quest] before it goes away forever?
  • Can the developers make me level 50 so I can slog it out against the invaders in the final stand? (A rumor was flying that developers were levelling people up to level 50 upon request. I did see one developer saying he’d do this if people asked him, so apparently it was happening.)
  • Lots of people thanking the game developers for creating the game and making it a fun world to play in.
  • People trying to sell in-game objects for high fees. (Capitalists to the end!)
  • People hatching crazy and impractical schemes for “saving” TR.
  • A lot of people whining about the lag. (Geez, people….)
  • A lot of people discussing which MMORPG they’d be moving to after the end of TR.

Then the end began. At 9pm reports started rolling in from players in various bases throughout the game world: the attack was underway. Aliens—big aliens, allegedly controlled by the developers themselves—were hitting bases. The chat started to fill with calls for assistance, players trying to rally others to defend important locations, other players calling out sightings of the ultra-powerful Neph (the Big Bad Guys).

Heading out to the frontlines for a final stand.

Heading out to the frontlines.

One by one, player bases fell and became inaccessible. Players made plans for a final stand on Earth.

And I had to log off.

All in all, it was a curiously touching experience, even for somebody like me who had no emotional tie to TR, its gameworld, or its community of players. TR wasn’t the empty wasteland that Asheron’s Call apparently was; a lot of people showed up for its final moments. There wasn’t a sense of a tight-knit community dying forever, although it was clear from the chats that people had formed friendships with other players and with the developers. One imagines that, in 2009, it’s pretty easy to relocate to another MMORPG when your favorite one goes offline. But there was still an edge of sadness as the bad guys swept through the game universe, shutting it down as they went.

All in all, it was a classy way to end a game. I hope TR‘s players and developers both enjoyed their final fling with the game. Let it not be said that TR didn’t go out with a bang.

It was a beautiful world, while it lasted.

It was a beautiful world, while it lasted.

[Note to Tabula Rasa veterans: if I got any of the details here wrong, I apologize—I’m just going by what I was able to gather from my few hours of play yesterday.]

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When a game session goes well

There’s nothing quite so fun as a game session that goes well. (Well, there probably are a few other things that are that fun. But just a few.)

Last night I ran a D&D 3.5 game that was… just a great deal of fun. Gaming over the last year has been a tad lackluster for various reasons, but sessions like last night’s remind why I love this hobby so much. A few observations from the game:

  • I love playing with newbies. A couple of the people in last night’s game group were totally new to D&D. I love being there when the game finally “clicks” for them. Almost invariably, about an hour into the game, there’s a flash of excitement and understanding on their face and they ask: “You mean… my character can do anything I want in this game?” Last night, that moment came as the party explored an old warehouse, came to a closed door behind which they knew enemies were lurking, and realized… hey, we don’t have to charge through that door—we don’t even have to fight these enemies at all if we don’t want to. A simple scene, but inspiring!
  • I’m never going to tire of D&D. That’s not entirely true; every couple of years I get overdosed on D&D and need to take some time off to play other games instead. But I always come back. At the end of the day, I’ll never say no to a good old-fashioned game of fantasy adventurers, sinister villains, and noble quests. Other great games come and go, but nothing does “kill the bad guys and take their stuff” like D&D.
  • I love gaming. This is probably an obvious point, but I had an epiphany this weekend: I love gaming just as much as I did when I was younger, but these days my reasons for loving gaming are quite a bit different. As one of the players last night commented during the game: “You know, for me, D&D is really all about eating unhealthy snacks and laughing with friends.” When I was a kid, I played RPGs with my friends because we loved the games; the social interaction with my friends was just a side benefit. Today, I play RPGs with friends almost entirely because of the social interaction: few other activities let me laugh and connect with them in quite the same way. There were times during the game last night that the entire table was paralyzed with laughter at somebody’s witty one-liner. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

As with any social activity, not every game is a transformative and joyous experience, as any gamer will tell you. But when they do go well, they leave me glowing for days. And now I couldn’t possibly be in better spirits for my trip to Gencon later this week!

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