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A Song of Dice and Wires

A Song of Dice and Wires

Entries in this Writers Block

Why you should play D&D with kids

Ben Burns

For those of us who regularly take up the mantle of GM, there’s a pattern to be observed in mature players who are new to RPGs. They generally go through three phases.

Phase 1 - Childhood
Some budding dice-rollers skip this phase, but most people taking their first tentative steps into the hobby start off apprehensive and shy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. After all, it can be scary to lose your inhibitions. It leaves us open to ridicule and ultimately makes us feel vulnerable. Phase 1 is a bunch of beginner musicians, picking up their instruments for the first time, still a little too inexperienced to share their new songs with one another

Phase 2 - Adolescence
Much like human adolescence, RPG adolescence is a time of emotional attachment and unbridled experimentation. You’ll test the limits of the rules, building broken characters just for the hell of it and doing stupid, anti-social things that annoy your DM and your party. You’re no longer afraid to engage with the story, because it’s there purely to provide a playground for you to go wild in. As in real life, some of us never grow out of this. That's a shame because while adolescence is often looked back on with fondness, it's an inherently shallow period of our lives. Phase 2 is the beginning of the band’s competence, stringing together basic chords and belting out sincere, but simplistic, lyrics.

Phase 3 - Adulthood
RPG adulthood is when those truly memorable campaigns are played. You know the ones, because they’re plastered all over YouTube. Your DM is on the level of Matt Colville or Matt Mercer or some other very knowledgeable Matt. Your fellow adventurers are puritanistic priests of the God of light, rugged rangers from the forlorn wilderness, or sardonic sorcerers on a mission from the arcane university. Campaigns last for months, perhaps years, and you cycle through different systems, experiencing both an entertaining and academically satisfying hobby. Phase 3 is a group of seasoned musicians, effortlessly jamming out complex melodies, rarely missing a beat.


This progression is just a natural part of acclimatization for anyone forced to live in the adult world of paying bills and being a super-serious grown-up. Fortunately, there’s already a bunch of players out there, eager for you to run games for them, who exist outside of this culture. They’re innately imaginative, spend most of their free time playing games already, and don’t have much responsibility. I am, of course, talking about children.

Kids are awesome. I know this because I used to be one and, according to most of the people close to me, still am one. I used to run a weekly D&D game for under-12s and it was some of the best D&D I’ve ever played. Sure, I couldn’t fill my sessions with grim-dark slaughter and subjugation, and the plots had to remain as simple and ‘PG’ as possible, but really that just meant less prep was required.

Children aren’t burdened by a sense of shame or social anxiety. Anyone who has taken a toddler to the supermarket and suffered through them yelling “Daddy, why is that man so fat?” will attest to this. When it comes to pretending to be an elf or a wizard, kids will rarely feel any trepidation about throwing themselves, heart and soul, into the role.

In all the time I ran games for young’uns, they never acted like RPG adolescents. Every single one of them took the story and the world with seriousness and, unlike any adult campaign I’ve ever run, none of them played douchebag characters. They always wanted to do the right thing. Always stood up for the little guy. Always helped out the villagers. Always tried to avoid bloodshed by negotiating rather than drawing blades.

Running D&D for kids was a humbling experience for me. Not just because I was being trusted to be a good mentor and ambassador for the hobby, but because it made me into a better DM. Most of us won’t admit it, but the reason we play RPGs is to feel like kids again. We want to unburden ourselves and experience a little bit of that pure, immature joy that we were once able to so easily attain by pretending to be a Ninja Turtle on the playground. While we’re now able to understand more nuanced concepts, such as lust or political intrigue, ultimately we all just want to be a badass for an evening.

I meet a lot of parents who, between raising a family and earning some dough, struggle to find time to get their gaming in. I always tell them the same thing. Play D&D with your kids. Join them in creating a world, crafting stories, and be a little munchkin with them. They're only awesome for a short time until the become salty teenagers, so make the most of it.

Why you should stop playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while

Ben Burns

I love D&D and have played it pretty much non-stop since 3rd edition. It’ll always be my go-to RPG whenever I’m tasked with introducing someone to the hobby, and I’ll never get bored of creating homebrew worlds and campaigns for the system. However, I do think there are far too many people out there for whom D&D is the only RPG they’re interested in playing and that makes me sad.

I’ve been in a lot of RPG groups over the years, almost always as the GM, and there’s something that all of the most successful ones had in common — we cycled between systems. There’s a number of reasons why this was key to our success, and I’ll outline them here.

It staves off burnout
Any GM will tell you that constantly planning new material for their campaign is tiring and leaves them susceptible to burnout, but what isn’t discussed very often is the fact that players can get burnt out too. I’ve seen a number of enthusiastic dice-rollers get tired of their character, bored of the system, or lose interest in the setting. This almost never has anything to do with any inherent faults on the part of the GM or the story, or the system itself, it’s simply a part of human nature.

We crave progression, it’s at the very heart of the RPGs we love. Just like how you’d get frustrated if your character never levelled up and learned new spells, it’s easy to find the very vanilla-flavoured mechanics of D&D tiresome after a while. Taking a little holiday in Call of Cthulhu or Shadowrun is often just what you need to remind you of how much fun you’re having in your regular campaign.

You’ll have a better game
One of my groups is currently playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and we’re nearing the end of our campaign. I asked the guys what they felt like playing next and one of them said the sweetest words a GM can ever hear — “we’re happy to play anything that you’re enthusiastic about running”. Not only did that make me feel like some sort of badass games guru, but it reminded me of why I love this group so much. There’s an understanding between us that if I’m having fun, they’ll inevitably get a much better game than if I was just going through the motions.

A lot has been written about why GMs prefer to run the game, but I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that it’s an academic process for us. We enjoy experimenting, understanding and conquering a system. When you provide your GM with the space to do that, magical things can happen. Quite literally!

It’s fair
If you’ve got five players and one GM, statistically speaking, at least a couple of you are going to prefer another system to D&D. You might not even know this, perhaps you’ve only ever played D&D, but by trying out new stuff you’ll give those players, who perhaps aren’t engaging a great deal with your jaunt around the Forgotten Realms, the opportunity to flex their muscles in a system that is better suited to them.

I have a friend who is an absolute RPG nut, but for the longest time he believed that RPGs weren’t his jam because he’d only ever played D&D and he just couldn’t vibe with it. D&D is, after all, a very combat-oriented system. It might not seem like it, but most rulebooks don’t have half the number of combat mechanics as D&D. Perhaps that guy who gets bored easily and never pays attention during the fights just needs to play a more story-driven game, like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. By giving them the opportunity to do that, you’ll inevitably help them figure out how to recreate that vibe in D&D when the time comes to go back to it. That leads me nicely into my next point, which is...

Your D&D will improve
Nobody ever got better at something by strictly limiting the scope of their knowledge. D&D is the absolute definition of default fantasy and that’s great, because it’s versatile. However, by playing other systems, you’ll find yourself discovering just how to make the most of D&D’s modifiable design.

Campaigns for older editions of D&D did a lot of modding that 5th edition seems to have left behind. Spelljammer introduced sci-fi concepts, Dark Sun did away with the Gods, severely altering how magic and religion functioned, and classic Ravenloft introduced sanity mechanics that were effectively lifted from Call of Cthulhu. By experimenting with other systems, even if you find they’re not for you, you’ll see your games of D&D improve through the innovations that you start to make.

But you don’t have to
Having said all of the above, don’t feel obliged to fix what isn’t broken. Some groups can play D&D, week after week, year after year, and never feel the urge to mix things up, and that’s fine too. Ultimately, we’re all here to have fun. But if the cracks do start to show, if a couple of your players aren’t feeling it, or if you’re beginning to dread the prep work, perhaps it’s time to put the Player’s Handbook away and mix it up a little. There’s some awesome stuff out there and I’d hate for any of you to miss out.

Ben Burns

On Supernatural

It's no revelation to suggest that TV has achieved a level of respect that we never thought possible. There have been some great shows over the years, but let's face it, until fairly recently, television was bargain bin compared to the level of production in films. For me, I think the first time I realised how incredible a serious TV show could be was my first viewing of Supernatural. I was stuck alone, in a house, for the whole summer of 2010 and I was feeling both isolated and bored. I needed something to occupy my mind and, being a huge horror fan, I stumbled across this spooky serial about a couple of brothers who hunt monsters and ghosts. It sounded like a lot of dumb fun so I 'acquired' the first season and started watching. I was immediately hooked and, seeing that there were five whole seasons already, I binged the whole thing over the next two months. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Season 5 of Supernatural is probably the best single season of a TV show I've ever seen. It still illicits the feels from me on a level that few other shows can. The episode where they go over the history of their car, a prop that has been in pretty much every episode of the show, has basically been integral to their success on more than one occasion, but one which you barely pay attention to, is absolutely genius. They actually made me feel emotions about a car! I remember the first time around, my enthusiasm for the show slowly died after season 5. I think I limped on into season 8 and then gave up. Re-watching it, I realise why now. It's no secret that the creators of Supernatural never intended it to go past 5 seasons. But the narrative decisions made in season 6 feel like a betrayal of what made the show so great.

Castiel, probably my favourite character, was shown on multiple occasions throughout season 5 to be a stalwart, loyal friend to the WInshesters. In fact, there’s even an episode where they travel to a future in which Dean and a band of survivors struggle against Lucifer in a blasted, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Castiel is still there, working with them. For this reason, I’ll never be able to accept his betrayal in season 6 and I think that was the start of what I saw as the show’s decline.

I’m about to embark on season 7. I vaguely remember something about a virus called Leviathan and I know Bobby Singer, the other big ally to our heroes, is going to die. But the memories from my viewing past season 5 are hazy because the quality just wasn’t there anymore and the best characters kept getting axed.

It’s sad what became of Supernatural, but it just goes to show that you can have too much of a good thing. It should have ended after five seasons and I think, for me, it probably always will have. Still, they’re now onto their 15th season, so there must be something worth sticking around for. I’ll keep an open mind.

Five criminally underappreciated YouTube gaming channels

Ben Burns

One of my favourite pastimes is finding obscure YouTube channels, dedicated to very niche things, and just watching the host geek out over their chosen subject. For me, there are few more appealing qualities in a human being than genuine enthusiasm for something. I don’t care what it is, but if you’re obsessed with it, I want to hear about it.

Still, it seems a shame that these guys don’t get the attention they so sorely deserve, so I thought I’d share a few of the gaming-related channels I enjoy with you guys. Who knows, perhaps you’ll find something that ignites your imagination like it did mine.

One Credit Classics
Subscribers - 1.5k
Uploads - 231
Views - 90k

Despite what I said above, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Twitch and video game streaming. I’d much rather be playing a game myself than watching some rando do it for me. This channel, however, is the exception to the rule.

As the name might suggest, this dude runs through classic arcade games on just a single credit. Not only is he a master at what he does, but he’s somehow able to be entertaining whilst doing it. There are maybe a dozen games that I can smash through in a single credit, using decades of familiarity and a lot of concentration. This dude manages it with ease, all whilst engaging in banter with the viewer and explaining how he’s doing what he does.

The Southern Sega Gentleman
Subscribers - 1.9k
Uploads - 20
Views - 45k

As a European who grew up in a country where Sega was king, it’s always interesting to me when I meet Americans who are obsessed with the likes of the Dreamcast or Streets of Rage. This is especially true for the Saturn, which more or less bombed over in the U.S. The Southern Sega Gentleman is one such YouTuber who specialises in documentary-style videos, discussing all of the oddities and (sometimes atrocities) of Sega’s mid-’90s heyday.

However, the real reason this channel deserves a mention is for the quality of the production. Transitions are often peppered with deft camera work and expertly taken, high-res images. The content is always carefully researched and well-executed. It’s just an all-round professional set-up. Also, I could happily listen to this dude say the word ‘peripheral’ all day long.

Leftover Culture Review
Subscribers - 7.2k
Uploads - 140
Views - 610k

About five years ago I was convinced that The Leftover Culture Review was going to become one of the biggest retro channels on YouTube. The host, Bruiser, is a professional video editor and so his shows, mostly about obscure Atari and Sega games, were full of slick editing and cool presentation.

Sadly, life happened and Bruiser had to stick his channel on the back burner. What we’ve been left with is over 100 videos of the best retro reviews you’ll ever see. This guy is pretty much the reason I sought out and purchased an Atari Jaguar. He actually made the Jaguar seem fun. Think about that for a moment.

ST1KA’s Retro Corner
Subscribers - 3.9k
Uploads - 121
Views - 200k

St1ka is a really amusing guy. In fact, he really embodies what I mentioned in my opening paragraph about just being passionate and having fun. His videos range from serious journalism to silly things about sex-scenes in retro games, but he injects them all with a kind of dry humour that is even more impressive when you realise that English isn’t his first language.

If you’re looking for a more light-hearted, pick-up-and-watch kind of experience, you really can’t go wrong with this channel.

Subscribers - 10.6k
Uploads - 75
Views - 1.3m

Another dead channel, Yomarz specialised in reviewing the shittiest of mobile games, particularly those that illegally ripped off established IPs like Crash Bandicoot and GTA. Most of his videos include various in-jokes, noting that the vast majority of terrible mobile games are the same demo game, re-skinned.

He bowed out a few years ago and his last video, a documentary about the Nostalgia Critic, came out after the controversy with his website poisoned that particular well. A shame, because Yomarz was clearly a talented YouTuber.


Why you should check out Elric of Melniboné

Ben Burns

During a bit of research, I recently stumbled across the fact that Ken Rolston, one of the lead designers on both Morrowind and Oblivion, cut his teeth working on the Stormbringer pen & paper RPG. I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t mean anything to you, but that’s exactly why I’m writing these words right now. The more you look into the most celebrated works of fantasy gaming over the years, the more you hear the name of author Michael Moorcock and his criminally underappreciated protagonist, Elric of Melniboné.

Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné, might sound like the most clichéd paperback name you’ve ever read, but nothing could be further from the truth. Elric was first introduced to the world in June of 1961, via a novella titled The Dreaming City. At that time, most fantasy fiction was either pulpy stuff like Conan the Barbarian or the high, complex fantasy of writers such as Tolkien. These stories told tales of unlikely heroes, slaves, hobbits and downtrodden humans, who sacrificed everything for the good of their people. Elric, on the other hand, was an irredeemable asshole. While Frodo was busy traumatising himself for the good of Middle Earth, Elric was off betraying his own people to a bunch of pirates, accidentally killing his lover, and spending the entire journey home contemplating his own suicide, and that’s just the plot of the first story.

However, it wasn’t just in its rejection of Tolkienesque tropes that Moorcock’s work was innovative, many concepts which are really key to modern gaming were forged by the pen of this criminally overlooked writer.

He was the first fantasy author to really explore the concept of order vs chaos, especially in relation to a pantheon of Gods. This would later become a staple of fantasy RPGs like D&D and Warhammer, the latter of which pretty much copied everything, right down to the symbol. The concept of a vorpal blade, a term first penned by Lewis Carrol, was really only solidified by Moorcock in the form of Elric’s sword, Stormbringer. A demon which transformed itself into a sword, Stormbringer is capable of devouring the soul of anyone it cuts. Elric both loves and hates the sword, as it is the source of all his power, yet it frequently causes him to slay friends and lovers. This exact archetype would later appear in pretty much every fantasy universe going, from Nethack, to D&D, to the DC comic book universe.

I could go on and write a full essay about why the Elric saga is such an important piece of historical geek culture, but I’d prefer you to discover it for yourself. The legacy of Moorcock’s work is far-reaching, from Hawkwind’s 1985 album, Chronicle of the Black Sword, to Vampire: The Masquerade creators, White Wolf, naming their entire company after one of Elric’s titles.

Stick some heavy metal on, pick up The Dreaming City, and soak up the doom-drenched atmosphere. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The time is right for a AAA Dungeons & Dragons game

Ben Burns

How in the name of Selûne have we made it to 2019 without so much as a whiff of a AAA Dungeons & Dragons game? It’s been a full thirteen years since Neverwinter Nights 2, the last quality single-player D&D experience, graced our hard drives. Sure, we’ve had the Neverwinter MMO, by most accounts a decent effort from Cryptic Studios. In 2015 Sword Coast Legends came out, a budget RPG which garnered a lukewarm reception. There was also that godawful Daggerdale atrocity, but the less said about that the better. While excellent CRPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin have certainly filled Wizards of the Coast’s vacated gauntlets more than adequately, I can’t help but find myself pining after another adventure to Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale or one of the literally thousands of other compelling locations in the multitude of published settings for D&D.

I’m not just a fanboy moaning about not having enough content to consume either. The time is right for a new, fully realised, D&D CRPG. The game is currently more popular than it has ever been, owing to platforms like YouTube and Twitch generating a whole newer, younger audience for the hobby. It even has two active MMOs, in the form of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Neverwinter, both of which maintain a stable player-base.

Once upon a time we would have been able to say with almost certainty that an offering was inevitable, owing to the fact that a major Dungeons & Dragons motion picture is on the way. Currently slated for release in 2021. It seems someone is finally taking D&D movies seriously, with Paramount Pictures producing it in conjunction with Hasbro. A decade ago this would have meant that a videogame tie-in was in the works, which in this case would have been awesome because the film is going to be set in the Forgotten Realms universe, the very same setting that hosts Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, Neverwinter and Icewind Dale. I never thought I’d say this but...what a shame move tie-ins are a thing of the past.

Still, we don’t need a movie to give us an excuse for a new D&D computer game. In fact, there are already plenty of awesome adventures out for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons which would make excellent video games. Out of the Abyss is basically one huge dungeon crawl through the dank, cavernous Underdark, pitting the players in a desperate struggle for survival against the pursuit of Drow slavers and the many alien Gods that hold sway over the landscape’s inhabitants. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s bizarre series of events that occur as you search the city for a treasure trove of unimaginable wealth would make for a quality linear narrative. Out of all of the published adventures though, I reckon Storm King’s Thunder, a sprawling adventure that takes the party through innumerable towns and cities along the Sword Coast, would make for a truly Skyrim-esque experience. You may be understandably skeptical about all of this, but let's not forget that Pathfinder, arguably D&D’s closest competitor, managed to push out a decent isometric RPG last year in the form of Kingmaker, itself a conversion of one of the system’s most popular campaign modules.

Better still, why not draw on some of the classic adventures from previous editions of the game? Red Hand of Doom, a criminally overlooked 3rd edition adventure, sees the party rescuing a vale populated by a handful of small cities and farming communities from the onslaught of a horde of bloodthirsty enemies. Or perhaps it’s time the gothic land of Barovia came to our computer screens in the form of a conversion of Ravenloft. After all, the module’s brooding antagonist and moody landscape is widely regarded as a watershed moment in RPG narrative.

I could (and would love to) bang on for days about why literally hundreds of D&D modules would make an excellent CRPG, but the point is that this franchise has both the resources and the audience to make something like this viable, if only Hasbro would be willing to sign off on it. Make it happen guys!

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