Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Just Wanna Listen - Is That So Wrong?

The other day, my parents and my brother came over for dinner. I was outside, tending to some beer can chicken the barbecue, when my brother came into the kitchen, looked down at the podcast that was playing on my phone (episode 88 or 89 of Major Spoilers' Critical Hit podcast) and said:

"I can't think of anything sadder than listening to a podcast of someone else playing Dungeons & Dragons."

"I can," I replied, "Having to sit through a real D&D game without the ability to fast-forward."

Now, my brother and I are both D&D players from way back. The seed was planted in our minds as kids in the early 80s when the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon was one of our favourite shows on the Saturday morning lineup. But we actually started playing a few years later, towards the end of elementary school/the beginning of junior high, when I bought a much-thumbed-through old basic rules set (in the red box with the ferocious red dragon on the cover) and a couple of low-level adventure modules from one of the older guys in the neighbourhood at a garage sale (years later, he tracked me down and begged me to sell it back to him). For two or three years, we played on and off with a couple of our friends, almost always playing the store-bought, pre-made adventures, rather than creating our own (unfortunately). We also had a tendency (unfortunately again) to play them like video games: fast and action-heavy, with little focus on dialogue, plot development, or engaging non-player characters (NPCs). It was all about slaying monsters and grabbing treasure, rather than good story-telling. After a couple of years, we sort of fell away from it all. Personal differences between players were getting a bit too annoying, the hacking through foes became routine, and no amount of treasure seemed interesting anymore. That's the point when you know it's time to give up — or find a different gaming group. We just gave up.

Years later, my brother came back to it, playing a little D&D, Rifts, and maybe some other systems in high school and university, but I never did. In university, I drifted to table-top games for a while... Starfleet Battles, Supremecy, and Axis & Allies. But despite the prevalence of role playing games in the gaming rooms at the science fiction conventions I've attended over the years, I've just never gone back to them.

Except, recently I have. Kind of.

Lately I've been listening to the aforementioned Critical Hit podcast from Major Spoilers. It started last year a friend/coworker/fellow nerd recommended the Critical Hit Show (no relation to the podcast - I think) ongoing stage performance in Vancouver. The idea behind the theatre production (or so I was told) is that the cast gathers on a regular basis to play a D&D game on-stage in front of an audience, occasionally interacting with the spectators. Hilarity ensues. It's something my wife and I have wanted to see, but we've never been able to get around to doing it.

However, while checking around to see if some of the shows had been recorded and posted online, I came across the podcast of the same name from the gang at Major Spoilers and decided to give it a try. Months later, I'm still really enjoying it. The podcast is an ongoing role playing game with four characters who (at least, to the point that I've been listening to as I race through back episodes) initially stumble into — and then are divinely dragged further into — a quest to stop the mad gods of the moon from destroying the universe. Adventure (and frequently hilarity) ensues.

It's not a perfect show: there are times I don't agree with the dungeon master's (DM's) calls, or when NPCs who are supposed allies are unforthcoming to the point of being obstructive, or when the characters' or players' personal quirks create awkward and extended pauses (which causes both the former D&D player and the former broadcaster in me to die a little each time this happens). But generally the DM has created a pretty good story, and usually the players (especially Michael as Torq the 3/4 orc) are very entertaining to listen to (and familiar: all of the players' real personalities are similar to ones you've probably met in the geek community over the years, and liked), and when they're not, I give the 'cast a break for a while.

And that's the reason why I think listening to a podcast of someone else playing D&D is (for me, at least) so much better than the real thing. Because if it annoys me, I don't have to put up with it. In a real game, unless you're playing with a perfect group of players (and hey, maybe some of you do, in which case, more power to you), at some point — especially if it's a long-running game — cracks will develop between the participants. At some point, probably at the beginning when you're rolling to create a character, there are going to be disputes over whether a character sheet's scores accurately reflect what someone from that character class and experience level really would or would not be like, or could or could not do. At some point, you're going to get bogged-down in legalistic arguments over alleged bad calls by the DM, or what players can and can't do. At some point, you're going to get suspicion and outright hostility over successions of unnaturally good rolls by another player, especially when your own luck with the dice hasn't been that great. At some point, there could be accusations of the DM playing favourites or being unfairly harsh on individuals. And, at some point, having been sitting confined in a room around a table with the same group of people for hours on end, you're just going to get really annoyed by the person sitting across the table from you. And because you're friends with these people (or friends of friends, or the only geeks in town who have no choice about who you hang out with because no-one else likes this stuff), you have to put up with it, or risk losing friends in the ensuing arguments or angry walkouts.

But with a podcast like Critical Hit, none of this has to happen. Annoyed by a player or the DM? Turn it off for a few hours/days/weeks. Dialogue has become forced or stilted, or the plot has ground down into irrelevance? Fast forward. Technology is awesome that way.

The other advantage is that this stuff is fun to listen to in the car when I'm on a long drive, or stuck in traffic trying to get through the Massey Tunnel at rush hour.

I don't really have any desire to get back into role playing. Not for any particular reason — I just don't feel like it. But I don't begrudge anyone else who does. That said, I still enjoy enough good memories of what it's like to be in well-running games, that I enjoy listening to a podcast devoted to others playing it.

And that's the real sign that Critical Hit is worth listening to: despite the occasional fast-forwards or breaks, the story is engaging enough and the players are entertaining enough that I can and do keep coming back to it. And there's nothing sad about that.

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