GM Toolkit

Long have I longed for a compact and easy-to-carry set of implements that encompasses everything I could ever need for Game Mastering a role-playing session. I don't always have the luxury of GM'ing at my own luxury pad, so I found myself needing to organize my gaming stuff into a (somewhat) compact set of tools that I could swap out for almost any gaming situation. What follows is a comprehensive list of items included in this GM Toolkit.

The first and most important tool for running a game is paper. Or in this case, digital paper. Voila:

Exhibit A: Computer.
This crap-tacular laptop is an old Dell Latitude C600. It is my best friend on the gaming table, because it allows me to simultaneously DM and browse Facebook. I had to stick a wireless network adapter card into the side because it doesn't have that newfangled integrated wireless technology. Notebook PCs are getting cheaper all the time, so acquiring an old machine that does your basic grunt work is neither difficult nor very expensive. Of course, lacking this wonderful piece of technology, the rest of the toolkit should still do the trick.

Thing 2: Flip-Mat.
A dry-eraseable, wet-eraseable Flip-Mat™ from Steel Sqwire is a great product to have on hand. It conveniently folds down to about the size of an 8.5"x11" piece of paper and fits into any folder or binder, but fully opened it provides a 22" x 28" playing area. I own too, and yet I was too lazy to take a picture of either. I did, however, take pictures of all the other items in my kit.

Item C: Haversack O' Dudes.
This bag of dudes, also known as my d-bag, contains miniatures of many varieties from which players can choose their characters. I think it's important to use miniatures for player characters, but for monsters I keep a ziplock bag full of plain black slotted bases of different sizes. This not only spares me having to cart around huge cases of miniatures for every conceivable baddie the party might come across; it also gives me the opportunity to simply put a base down on the table and describe the monster to the players. I can use a picture to show them the monster if I want, but describing their opponent instead of showing them a miniature lets the players use their imagination. What a concept, right? Or maybe it's just an excuse not to spend hundreds of dollars on miniatures...

Another Thing: Being Able to Write.
Once you have paper, a writing implement is the other half of the battle when it comes to pen-and-paper games. Contrary to popular theory, Knowing constitutes only about 3% of the battle, and not the 50% certain militaristic cartoons would have you believe. If you don't believe me, you should meet some of my players...

#5: Keeping Track of Your Players.
Since each gaming session is perfectly planned and no one has any other priorities in life besides gaming... ahem... players who aren't there will need to be lashed and keelhauled for their insolence. But that has to wait 'til next gaming session because they're not here right now to receive their punishment, and you need a way to run their character until that joyful moment comes. So I have my players fill out these little cards and update them periodically. The image at left is just clear enough to show that something's written, but too blurry to really make out what the hell it is. Sorry about that. I do know that this character's ID# is 69, which is hilarious and clever. Kinda.

#5b: Keeping Track of Your Players... In Bed In Combat.
The task of keeping initiative order is made easier by writing that order down. But then you've got to scratch out and scribble every time someone holds their action or whenever a new group of enemies shows up. While these things only happen every so often, it's especially annoying to have to re-write the initiative order after you've kill one of those 'less-than-capable' characters. It's not like everyone else in the party doesn't resent them for always getting hurt and making them have to spend their action to use healing instead of dealing a wicked killshot to some kobold minion. So these delightfully hand-written note cards are nothing more than note cards with hand-written character names on them. Exactly, that's what she said.

Seven: The Tome of Convenient Evil
I made this out of some 3x5 cards and a custom binder designed to hold them. As you can see (Vanna White pose) I also got some of those sticky tabs to divide up the sections. Compacted stat blocks fit easily onto these, so you can grab your own stuff from wherever and add it to your book so you'll always have it close by. GM's love creating custom NPCs and making up monsters (I mean come on, if you haven't already considered what a sweet bad guy a dude with the head of a chimera and the left arm of a griffon would make, can you honestly call yourself a real GM?) and I've found this to be a nice way of holding them all.

Eight + 9 = Gaming Aids.
A folder (8) with your maps, letters, and anything else you need to use as a handout can be slipped into the toolkit at a minimum of space. A cardboard DM screen (9) may also fit into the folder, and depending on your game system will save time looking things up in books. Still, you've got to have your books.

10: Books.
Don't sleep on these. Every good Game Master knows that the image below is supposed to be just generic enough to prevent system-specific alignment (and copyright infringement), but I don't think it achieves either of those purposes.

So there you have it, my Game Master Toolkit. If you have any other good thoughts on gaming ideas, equipment, or methods, keep them to yourself! Just kidding.


Skirmish Wargame Rules [Part 3]

In today's post I'll be going through to cement some of the concepts we went over in Part 2, as well as talking about actions, initiative order, and leadership.

O-rings, Oh My

I talked about using red O-rings as Blood Counters to track damage, and I still think it's a great idea (if I do say so myself). These are the little rubber washers you can buy at any hardware store, and they come in tons of different shapes and sizes. Well not shapes so much as sizes. I'm pretty sure most O-rings are... well, O-shaped. To expand on that concept, I was starting to think about some special abilities units might have, and I realized that we can use more than one color of O-ring to specify different kinds of damage. A red O-ring is just plain old bloody damage - cuts, bruises, scrapes, eviscerations. Some of the elite, specialized units might have abilities that let them cause different kinds of damage. So here are a few basic ideas that I came up with for types of damage and how they work:

O-ring Color
Red - normal damage. This is caused by getting your ass kicked.
Green - poison damage. Certain kinds of units/races, like Assassins or Lizardfolk, carry poisoned weapons. An attack made with a poisoned weapon gives the victim a green o-ring. A poisoned model doesn't die quicker, it just gets nauseous and loses one die to all of its attack rolls for the rest of the game, unless the poison damage is healed somehow.
Black - pestilence damage. A disease-ridden rat carries pestilence in its bite, which gives the victim of its attacks a black o-ring. A model with a black o-ring causes an immediate wound (also black) to any other model that comes into base contact with it. Except other models of the the disease-carrying persuasion, of course. Pretty wicked stuff. Stay away from the infected guy!
Yellow - necrotic damage. This is the only type of damage that cannot be healed or cured. It stays with the model until death or until the end of the game. Even if a model has the ability to heal or cure damage, necrotic damage is not removed in this way.
Blue - magic damage. Damage caused by any spell is grouped into this category. More on this later.

Leadership and Actions

Turn phases are booooring. So there aren't going to be any phases in this game where everyone moves, everyone attacks, or everyone bends over and moons the enemy. I like the idea of actions and leadership, instead. The leader of the pack doles out commands every turn based on the tactical situation of the board. It's the only way to rationalize how one model two feet away from another model is going to turn his crossbow toward a charging enemy to defend his comrade from a distance.

I also can't get past the fact that it sucks to sit there and watch your opponent move his entire army, or warband or whatever, then attack with the entire thing, etc. before you get to react. None of that! And no initiative values or initiative rolls, either. I'm using a deck of cards. That's right, regular old playing cards. Here's how it works.

1. Shuffle the 52, and every player picks 3 cards from it. Or gets dealt 3 cards, or however you want to run it.
2. A round begins. Everyone stands there until somebody decides he's going to do something.
3. Somebody finally declares that he's going to do something, so that person must use one of his 3 actions for the turn. He chooses a card and throws down. It goes on the table, face down.
4. Here's where the gambling begins. If anyone else wants to try and use an action before the other player, they also put a card down. This continues until the wagering stops. Each player can only put one card down at a time, and they only have to do so if they want to.
5. Everyone turns over their cards, and the actions proceed in order from highest card to lowest card. Aces beat everything except other aces, and cards go from King down to Duce from there.
6. Once everyone who put a card down has gone, start the betting again until no one has any cards left. Then re-draw and start the next round.

Is this going to work, or should everyone have to play a card each time?

Parchment Bonfire: Ultimate Gaming Table

Welcome to this edition of the Parchment Bonfire! This is a segment in which I offer an inept and lackluster review of a gaming product, and then come to a conclusion as to whether all existing copies of that product should be consumed in a fiery inferno. This week's segment is focused on the Ultimate Gaming Table. Quite an epic piece of equipment, if you ask me. In fact, it is so great that its creator actually got a dot-org domain name to show it off, because the average dot-com simply wouldn't do.

Look through the site at your leisure, but don't get ahead of yourself now. Because I'm going to tell you what the two greatest features of this table are, besides being very large and including a text messaging system. I love text messaging. Also, you should never start a sentence with the word 'because,' unless it feels right.

The two things that make the Ultimate Gaming Table so ultimate are (drum rolls welcomed, but not mandatory):

1.) cup holders
2.) trays for players to put their junk [on]

I cannot tell you how much it pisses me off when people keep their opened drinks on the gaming table. It even pisses me off when I do it, and I do it all the fucking time! Sooner or later, someone is going to put their character sheet down onto a nice coke can-sized ring of sticky water, or wave their arms menacingly and knock somebody's tasty, ice cold beverage onto my precious books. At that point I'm going to unleash my berserker powers and some shit will go down in my house that's going to resemble arma-fucking-geddon.

The other thing that sucks about human interaction... ahem... is when people have to stack forty dungeon books in eight different piles around the table, leaving three and 1/2 squares for miniatures to move around on. That shit sucks ass, and the dude who invented this table knows it sucks ass. So he installed pull-out drawers for people to hide their stuff underneath the table. Then he went one step further and pimped out the entire top surface with plexiglass and square one-inchers for a bigger playing area than you could possibly imagine. An 8'x4' playing area; that's right.

The Death Star plans are only 11 bucks, last time I checked, so you too can make this awesome table to spec at your humble abode. I'm planning to do something similar, but I need more time... so while a bunch of these tables with the plex would make fuel of the most excellent and toxic quality for a huge bonfire, I really think it's a great idea, so the table will be spared from the inferno.


Skirmish Wargame Rules [Part 2]

Last time, I talked about my new skirmish wargame project and discussed some of the elements that I want to include in consideration of the game mechanics and rules. I also came to the decisive and irrefutable conclusion that charts are effing retarded. Today I'm going to eat Chex cereal for dinner. I'm also going to go over a few examples of some rules for different parts of the game. First things first... the miniatures.

Let's begin, as they say, at the beginning. We need a system to keep track of what makes one particular race or faction in the game different from every other race or faction. I'll call this the 'stat line,' and its going to encompass the basic strengths and weaknesses of each unit. For the sake of using an example, let's start out with a fantasy setting for the game. We'll think about each race or type of unit and its basic characteristics. So here are some races that might be included.

Humans - your average, basic average-of-the-average troop type. We use these as the 'median' because they're what we know. It's easier to think of each other race as relating to a human, thereby using the human as the 'template,' in a way.
Elves - in my game I want the elves to be of the tall, quick, slender variety, rather than the miniature, pointy-toed North Polish variety.
Dwarves - the robust and stalwart little people; more slow-moving than a human but also very tough and able to withstand more and hold their ground against more difficult odds.
Undead - the shambling hordes of reanimated corpses can take a number of forms. I want to use the classic, and somewhat cliche, example of a thrall of zombies, skeletons and ghouls being led by a Necromancer. So we'll divide these up into several 'races' of walking dead-thing.
Ghouls - these are not actually dead; they are still-living beings and thus they can't be revived. But they move very quickly and have to eat living flesh to survive. I imagine these as being like the infected rage guys in 28 Days Later.
Zombies - slooow, but very difficult to kill.
Skeletons - sort of like humans, but much slower and easier to dismantle.
Necromancer - his job is basically to stand in the back and revive any dead-thing that drops. I'm already envisioning this warband as being a very specialized force, where the Necromancer casts spells on his minions as they fall.
Goblins - I've never liked the GW version of goblins, where they're so incompetent they can barely walk straight. I like the idea of Moria Goblins from LOTR a little better. Still very cowardly and fidgety, but in numbers they can become quite a force to be reckoned with.
Orcs - the larger of the greenskins. Very bloodthirsty and savage.
Trolls - special ability = regeneration. Done.
Vermin - what GW typically terms the 'Skaven' and others would refer to as rat-men. Slight, disease-ridden, and tricksy. Veeeerrry tricksy.

How Fast Do They Move?

So we've got a good selection of basic races here to start. How do soldiers get into combat with the enemy? They move there. Let's make some movement.

Humans - 6

I'm saying 6, rather than 6-inches or 6-squares or 6-hexes, because I haven't gotten to the point of figuring out which movement system I'm going to use. But the basic movement of a human will be 6... whatevers. The rest of the movements I've devised are below.

Elves - 7
Dwarves - 5
Ghouls - 7
Zombies - 3
Skeletons - 4
Necromancer - 6
Goblins - 6
Orcs - 6
Trolls - 8
Vermin - 7

Ok, so we've established which guys are quicker and which ones are not so quick. This gives us a basis from which to work on the rest of their stats. The next thing we'll think about is, how can we make a simple system of 'wounds' or 'hit points' or 'toughness' or 'armor class' or whatever you want to call it, that still offers some variety?

How Tough Is Each Race?

I really like the dual target number system of Mongoose Publishing's first edition of the Starship Troopers game. The way this works is that every troop type has two defense numbers, one higher than the other. The first is the 'to-hit' number and the second is the 'to-kill' number. On a particularly good die roll, then, you can kill an enemy, while a lower but still decent roll gets you a hit. I'm going to use a variation of this system because it's simple and effective.

In a skirmish wargame, keeping track of individual hit points is a pain. Too Complicated. You'll hear me say that often. In fact, it's one of my mottos and it's the two-word trump card I use to dismiss people's ideas about high-level mathematics being used in gaming. Anyway. Every miniature is going to be able to take four 'wounds' before it dies. Why four? The first two just give it damage ratings, to let you know "hey, this guy's been hit" or "this guy here has taken a lot of damage and is about to drop." The third 'wound' actually does drop the miniature, causing him to crumple to the ground; the fourth removes it from the game. Some hits are going to cause one wound, while others will cause multiple wounds. That lets the strong, brutish guys like Trolls and Ogres be strong and brutish, cracking the skulls of the little guys in a single swing, while the man-sized troops will have to duke it out with each other over a few rounds.

Rather than keeping track of wounds on paper (Too Complicated), the wounds will be tracked on the game table itself. How, you may ask? Ahhh. This is the first non-die, non-miniature game element I'm going to introduce to you. It's one of my own inventions, and I call it the Blood Counter. My game is going to use red-colored O-rings from the hardware store. You can get them in any size, but I'm going to use some that are about 3/4" around and can be draped over any 25mm miniature, like a big, bloody rubber necklace.

Now how do we differentiate between who gets hit, how badly they get hit, and what happens as a result? A variant on the two target number system.

How Are Miniatures Dealt Damage?

If I'm standing there on the field of battle, which of these guys is going to be difficult to kill, and which of them will be... easier to dispatch? We'll use two numbers, one higher than the other, but a little different than the Starship Troopers system. Let's go with the basic human-y human as the example.

Move: 6
Defense: 4/2

The defense numbers are shown like this: "To-Hit/Threshold." So instead of the second number being a higher to-kill number, the second number is a measure of the unit's pain threshold, or when he says "ow." You need a 4 to hit him, and then every 2 you score above a 4, (a.k.a. 6, 8, 10, etc.) gives him an additional wound. A human, therefore, is of average difficulty to hit, and is also of average difficulty to wound really badly.

Now let's look at what a zombie's stat block might look like.

Move: 3
Defense: 2/4

Zombies are slow, stupid, and all they care about is shoveling warm brains down their gullets. They're a piece of cake to hit, but they don't go down easy. So you've got to roll a 2 to hit one, but a 6 to give it two wounds, a 10 to drop it and a 14 to kill it in one hit! By contrast, a human can be killed outright with a 10.

Each time a wound is caused, the miniature goes down the wound track.

Hurt - 1 Blood Counter
Bloodied - 2 Blood Counters
Dropped - placed lying down, blood counters removed
Killed - removed from the game

Here's the basic idea of this simple four-wound system that makes every troop type somewhat unique, but still offers a tangible measurement of how badly hurt one is. Now you'll notice that the Defense numbers are really low; this is because I'm assuming a D6 system would be used. If that were the case, how would attacks work?

How Do My Miniatures to Beat the Hell Out of All the Other Miniatures?

Everybody hates rolling ones. I think ones are a thing of beauty, and so in my game when you roll a 1 you'll be able to add that onto your dice total. Attacks, I'm thinking, might work like this:

Move: 6
Defense: 4/2
Attack: 2

Move: 3
Defense: 2/4
Attack: 2

Move: 8
Defense: 4/4
Attack: 5

The attack value is the number of D6's you roll when that miniature attacks. It's a simple representation of just how much skill and/or power the unit has in its ability to knock people the fuck out. When it's your turn, your miniature makes an attack roll with that many D6's. You can then combine attack dice however you want to damage or kill opponents, which eliminates the uselessness of bad rolls. Now at least 1's count for something...

That's All For Now

So we've gotten to the point of creating a pretty good system so far, I think. It will need lots of playtesting, but next time we need to go over the turn order and things like initiative and leadership values of different commanders.

Skirmish Wargame Rules [Part 1]

I love the skirmish style of play. I've experienced it with several games over the years including Necromunda, Mordheim and Warhammer Skirmish, D&D Miniatures, and a few other offbeat indie systems. I'm also a big fan of quick-play and simplified rules, so I'm starting work on a new game that encapsulates fast (and possibly also furious) game mechanics for multiple players. My goals for the system are that it has to:

a.) be easy to learn and quick-playing.
b.) incorporate unique features and abilities of several factions or races.
c.) keep every player engaged at all times.

Easy to Learn/Quick-Playing

Part of the problem with GW stats is that, well, there are too blasted many of them. I'm playing a game with dozens of miniatures running around the table, like 40k, and every one of the little bastards has nine different stats. I could recite them in my sleep; strength, toughness, weapon skill, ballistic skill, etc. But until you've played a billion turns of this game and memorized the charts that tell you how one WS performs against another (you have to look every attack up on a chart, for crying out loud!) along with the WS of every type of unit you have, the game slows down. When my brother and I and our friends started playing 40k as kids, the typical turn would go something like this:

"Your turn. Front to front, man! You can't measure four inches from the front of the base to the back of the base, that's actually five inches. So you just cheated and moved everyone five inches, you cheater. Move them all back an inch. Ok, now it's your ranged combat phase. You have a squad of ten guardsmen, they have a 24" range. They want to shoot at that guy way over there? Sorry, they can only shoot at their closest target. But wait! Three of them are out of range, and the rest are in long range! Add modifiers... seven shots. Ok, what's your guys' ballistic skill? Alright, you need 4's. Three hits. Now, what's the strength of a lasgun? Hold on, hold on... ok my guys have toughness 4 so that's... let me look it up on the chart."

One turn should not take this goddamned long. And that was only half of one unit's attack phase. A game of warfare should be tactical, but it should also allow players to make split-second decisions. So my game can't possibly use charts for stuff like combat. That much is certain.

Unique Factions or Races

Let's say I find a way to simplify my game so miniatures have fewer stats and a round of play proceeds much more quickly. What's going to separate a shambling horde of zombies from a tight squad of muscle-bound star soldiers? Why should I play throngs of puny goblins when I can have a dozen stalwart and highly skilled elves? The answer, my friends, is the X factor. Above the basic rules mechanics should be a layer of specialized abilities that give each army/faction its flavor. The problem (again I say, the problem) with these abilities in GW games tends to be that they stop the flow of the game in its tracks. Wanna use an Ork war machine? Look up the special rules. Read them thoroughly. Roll extra dice. Consult yet another chart. I fucking hate charts.

Keeping Every Player Engaged

This is perhaps the most challenging of the goals that I'd like to accomplish. If there's one thing I've learned about gaming, it's that when it isn't my turn, I'm bored as fuck. This is true most of the time, but let's look at an example of a game where I'm rarely ever bored - Magic: The Gathering. Whenever you get into a game of Magic, you know that chances are likely you're about to be on the edge of your seat for the duration. What is it about this game that makes it so engaging?

There are a couple of things.

First, you draw a card every turn (and sometimes more often than that). Drawing a card is a lot like rolling a die because of the random chance it adds to the game. There is a moment in time when your fingers go down to your draw pile and you whiplash that top card into your hand, or while your die bounces wildly across the table, where your ultimate fate hangs in the balance. But there is one key difference between cards and dice: if you've made what you believe to be a good deck, then most any card you draw should be useful - if not right away, then somewhere down the line. A die roll, on the other hand, can be shitty. And a shitty die roll is no more useful than a blind paraplegic bus driver.

The second thing that makes Magic such an exciting game to play is the ability of any player to use certain game mechanics called activated abilities and instants to respond to the actions of another player at any time. This phenomenon makes you constantly second-guess everything you do, because you know that an opponent can react to it and make something they want to happen, happen before what you just decided to do... uh, happens. It's called 'the stack' and it is a mechanic that makes Magic great and has been incorporated into surprisingly few other games.

Putting it All Together

Easier said than done, right? Well, that's kind of the purpose of this mindvomit of a blog post. So here again are the goals, and some ideas we've come up with for making them work. The game must:

a.) be easy to learn and quick-playing.
* Reduce multiple rolls for attacks.
* Do not use charts.

b.) incorporate unique features and abilities of several factions or races.
* Create special qualities that don't bring the game to a screeching halt.
* No fucking charts.

c.) keep every player engaged at all times.
* Provide an aspect or mechanic in the game that players are able to 'hide' from one another.
* Make use of 'interrupts' that let any player react at any time.

In Part 2 I'm going to try out some specific ideas for making this system work. Stay tuned, fair reader.

Parchment Bonfire: D&D 4th Edition

The Parchment Bonfire is a segment in which I provide an inept and lackluster review of a book, aid, software program, or other gaming product, and then decide whether every copy of it in existence should be burned in a gigantic bonfire (or not). Since a lacking review of the world's most popular role-playing game's latest spine-tingling version is such a rarity among all of the thorough and well-thought out reviews out there, I felt it my duty to toss the following around as a riposte.

There's this phenomenon that happens when you're playing 4th Edition. I call it the 'Same Thing Over and Over Effect,' and it's where your character does the same goddamn thing infinity times. Your At-Will Powers (otherwise known as your O-and-O Powers) are things like the Wizard's Magic Missle, where your Wizard zaps some blithering fuck every round until it dies. In gameplay terms, it's quick and easy to do, makes combat more balanced and streamlined, and cuts down on complicated spellbooks. It also gets real boring, real quick.

To date I've been involved in two different 4E campaigns, one with each of my two gaming groups. Being a lazy gamer, I did not go to the trouble of choosing two characters of differing roles in the party. I did roll up two, but they are both male Elf Rangers in the most wicked way. I think I chose maybe one power differently between them, so besides their attribute scores being roughly dissimilar they are pretty much the same guy. So while I own the three rulebooks in the basic set and a copy of Thunderspire Labyrinth, and I have perused the books to a large extent, my actual play experience is limited to the heroic tier (a.k.a. the first few levels).

Let me tell you an adventure story. In the first session I ever played of 4E, we're strolling through the quintessential kobold-laden 1st-level dungeon, minding our own party business, when all of a sudden my Ranger gets slaughtered by a pack of lizard-y dog beasts. That's the dramatic and condensed version of the story, but my character did take it. Hard. The ranged Ranger (sic) is quite the beast himself, but his Prime Shot ability is a deathtrap. I'm not sure who thought that it would be a good idea for a distance-oriented fighter to have a power that requires him to be the closest dude to the enemy, but I'm not gonna lie: even the measly to-hit bonus seemed well worth it, especially at first level.

So the whole thing happens like this: as I advance into a room chock full of kobolds chucking rocks down on us from a parapet above, a pair of double doors open and these lizard-thing-beasts run out and devour my character. It doesn't take them long to drop my precious elf, and then the DM allows them - and in fact, directly causes them - to continue eating his tasty elf flesh until death occurs. I'm not sure why our DM is so unrelenting; maybe it's because I have been texting for half the game session and I'm not really paying attention. Allow me to explain.

As I lay dying, I'm wondering to myself what the hell having more hit points means if I'm going to die just as quickly. In 4th Edition I get 25 hit points instead of 8 to start out, but instead of doing 3 damage per hit, 1st-level monsters do 9 damage per. That's fantastic. Of course I'm exaggerating, and my complaints come from the fact that I am bitter because I'm such a horrible D&D player that I couldn't even make my character survive a single gaming session before taking the shaft.

My full review, as you can see, and my overall opinion of the game, is that it's quicker and more simplified than 3.5, but I'm also more bored by it when we play rules-heavy. As a skeletal system, it does the trick to balance the game out, but I think in this case balance has reduced variety in a significant way. I will end with this; my thoughts on 4th Edition, as well as my opinions thereof, are inconclusive! So for now, I'm going to spare this game from the Bonfire. Keep it secret, keep it safe!


Sometimes I Get Bored

In my 25 years of traversing the galaxy (a.k.a. my room) I've gained a good bit of gaming experience. Mostly I'm a DM, because my imagination is so overactive and it takes so much to keep me entertained that there just isn't enough to do brain-wise as a player, but I don't mind taking up a character so long as the game has at least a certain level of intrigue or a fast enough pace. And pace-wise, my two gaming groups are almost polar opposites of one another. In one of these groups, (the one in which my 1st-level 4th Edition Elf was mercilessly slaughtered before I could obtain a firm grasp of the new rules) I am the youngest member.

So one evening each week - give or take a week - I get together with a bunch of middle-aged married guys who are looking to escape from the responsibility of their lives for a few hours so they can roll some dice, drink a few beers and quote 80's movies like it was going out of style. The style of play in this group is such that a rogue-ish character investigating a 5-foot square for a trap is an ordeal in the most epic of proportions. We will literally make travel arrangements based around the amount of treasure we are carrying; have a half-hour long discussion about whether we want to go left, right or straight; and endure a combat encounter each session that makes the thousand-years war look like a 30-second rollercoaster ride.

I wouldn't dare DM for these guys, because my personal style is more fluid and easy-going. They aren't (all) rules lawyers by any stretch, but I'd just as soon give them a free trip home from an adventure as make it a logistical nightmare because, well, "how are we going to get this Mystical Item of Galactic Importance we just found back to Safehavenville without being attacked by the 57 Liche-Kings who suddenly know we stole it from a family of goblins?" is kind of a time-waster question IMHO. The reason I enjoy being a part of this group is because I learn a lot from the other players and because they know a lot more than me. You can never go wrong spending time in an environment where you're constantly learning. Our style of play is solid; it's stable and it makes for long-lasting games.

This is the sentence that probably should be a vague, yet transitionary phrase or reference that will lead me into describing my second gaming group. Ah, gaming group 2... now these guys know how to bomb shit out. I play in a group composed of ages ranging from 15 years to around 35, where just about anything goes. If someone isn't murdering a helpless townsperson just because they feel like it, or looking around for a child to sacrifice to their self-imagined cannibalistic god, we're galavanting around in different directions finding ways to get into trouble. There isn't a 'party' so much as a hapless group of thrown-together rapscallions who end up wanting to kill each other almost as much as they wouldn't blink before slitting the throat of any number of random NPCs they might come across.

Our games rarely last more than a few levels before someone gets captured by the Powers That Be and thrown into some hamlet-hick prison, where they are randomly and uncomfortably raped for the remainder of eternity. I have literally watched the entire party enter into combat with each other - and without a single monster, or even the silhouette of a menacing shrubbery that could possibly be mistaken for an enemy, in sight - multiple times. Usually everyone starts circling around each other, using the flats of their blades to smack a bitch down until somebody gets knocked unconscious. Then someone inevitably gets tied up or stolen from and a proper course of party action is 'negotiated.'

The more measured and heroic pace of gaming group numero uno has taken us through games up to 15th level in D&D (and I'm told they've achieved epic status in previous games before I joined them). So sometimes I get bored with both groups, for different reasons. When the party works as a team, each session ends in a satisfying manner but it can be boring to get there. When we stab each other in the back it's ridiculously exciting when you do get to play, except that you have to wait your 'turn' because the party is consistently split up into anywhere from two to four groups. Plus, usually you end up with a knife in your back.