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Your comfort zone: the childhood neighbourhood you should leave behind

“Comfort zone” by xiaoyugaara

You know what’s fascinating about geekdom? We have hobbies far outside the comfort zone of many other people, but still despise leaving our own comfort zone. Once a geek has settled into a fandom or field of interest, it’s hard to get him out of it and discover something new. It’s like we like to stray from the mainstream, but once we’re out in the wild, we stick to the part of the nerd jungle we know best.

There’s actually nothing strange about that. As humans, we like to have comfort zones. The name says it all: we need a physical, mental and spiritual area in which we feel comfortable and at home. It’s our safe little shell, into which we retreat when the world out there is just too much. Everyone has a comfort zone, and everyone enjoys it. However, comfort kills growth, and so we tend to turn our comfort zone into a stagnation zone in the long run.

You see, when you only surround yourself with people you know and things you like, you will never make new experiences. And if you don’t make new experiences, you don’t grow. Even though you might have left your childhood neighbourhood long ago, staying in your comfort zone will keep you there forever. You will walk the same streets, say hello to the same people and eat at the same damn restaurant every last Sunday of the month.

This stagnation is death for us creative people, and as geeks and nerds, we are often creative. As a player of tabletop RPG’s and amateur writer, fresh ideas are like fuel to me. I can only recycle a concept, character or plot so often, before it has gone stale. Leaving my comfort zone is thus important. No matter the area, I try to leave it regularly. When I picked up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu two years ago, I left my comfort zone because I never practiced such an intense and grappling-orientated sport before. When I gave the improv storytelling game Fiasco a try, I entered new territory since I had no experience with those kind of role-playing games. When I decided to peek into Sunstone, I went way out of my comfort zone because I just don’t have a thing for BDSM webcomics focusing on the trials and tribulations of the female main characters.

Now, not every excursion out of your metaphorical childhood neighbourhood will be positive or succesful. My quick peek into Sunstone certainly wasn’t (though I do admire the artistic style). What counts though, is the fact that you were willing to try something new. To get a taste of something fresh and foreign. You decided to ignore what you know, and focus on something you didn’t. It’s these experiences that spawn stories that start with “Hey, remember that time when I…”, and those stories are worth telling. For us creative people, they will also give you ideas for your creations. In an Exalted campaign in which my players took the roles of teenage Dragon-Blooded who were trained at a military academy, many of my descriptions for their martial arts classes were based on what I saw in my BJJ classes. When the characters in my RPG campaigns get to meet people from another culture, I think back to how I felt when I moved to Denmark for an exchange semester. Drawing from your own experience adds authenticity, and your audience will appreciate that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I urge all of you to just go out and leave that stagnation zone of yours. Read a book you normally wouldn’t read, see a movie you think will blow or hang out with people you don’t hang out with regularly. There’s a world beyond your childhood neighbourhood, and leaving it behind for a holiday from time to time will bring you both fresh impressions and a new view on the same old streets and people.

 

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From simple to complicated – the evolution of ideas

“Evolution” by Ikurx

Ah, how I love Pokémon. My generation had the honour of growing up with the very first generation of these little critters, and just like all the other kids on the block, I loved to play every game that involved these monsters. I collected the trading cards, and I fielded a nice team of battle-hungry Pokémon on my Gameboy. The video game was just so addictive. From the moment you received your first Pokémon (Bulbasaur for the win), to the satisfying moment where you defeat the Elite Four, Pokémon offered tense and tactical battles with monsters ranging from cute to threatening. Every time I give a new Pokémon title a try, I’m overwhelmed by this sense of nostalgia and unfortunately have to discover that none of the new games satisfy my lust for the collection of pocket monsters.

However, what these new games also show is how a rather simple game can turn into something really complicated over different iterations. Pokemon Red and Blue (I will not mention Yellow here. Only the lazy, snobby kids who wanted all the cool Pokémon in their time played Yellow, and I was far too awesome to start a game with a lame Pikachu in my team) were, essentially, nothing but a glorified rock-paper-scissors simulator: certain types were efficient against other types, so the trick was to have a well-balanced team that was able to hold its own against different kind of Pokémon. However, the franchise was and is still milked for every penny it’s worth, and so generation after generation of new games appear. Fortunately, they are no carbon copies of the originals. In fact, they take the basic concepts of Red and Blue, and keep adding additional layers to the game. These days, trainers have to be aware of so many things next to their Pokémon’s type, and when I hear players talk about their team set-ups, I feel like I’m listening to football coaches and talent scouts talking about something I once knew so well, but that has become something so deep that I can no longer follow them.

Despite the fact this added complexity has caused me to fall behind, I understand that this is the ideal evolution (see what I did there) of a game: starting out simple to get players used to the ideas and concepts, and slowly change into something that still holds on to these core ideas, but that is also refreshing. It’s an organic and really natural growth, that in most cases gives the franchise a fresh breath of life with every new iteration. Pokémon is by far not the only game who has done that. Recent sci-fi RPG series Mass Effect might have kept the same awesome and thrilling storytelling through all three titles, but the actual game that was behind the cinematic drama changed significantly throughout the three parts. Each new Zelda title sticks to a well-known set of characters, but also tries to re-imagine the world of Hyrule every time. It’s progress at its finest, and in my opinion the best way to introduce innovation into the market.

The problem with many great ideas is that you have to get them into other people’s minds. This entirely new game idea might sound really great in your own head, but that’s no guarantee that your target audience will understand it. Instead of throwing everything at them at once, risking the chance that the complexity and “newness” of it will scare your audience, introduce them to it step by step. Start simple, but get them hooked. Take the best part of your concept, and put it in a nice package. It’s like writing a text, where your opening sentence has to catch the attention of the reader, or else they won’t bother reading your stuff. See how I lured you in with some talk about Pokémon, and how you’re now reading something about organic introduction of new game concepts? I got you hooked, and step by step, I’m introducing you to my ideas.

Once the audience is on one level with you, ramp up the complexity. Build on the foundation you have laid, and see how they react to it. Should you go into the wrong direction, you can direct this form of intelligent design into another, better way. You control the organic growth of your product, and react to the demands of the market. In the gaming world, it’s survival of the fittest, and whoever can adapt to his environment will come out a survivor.

So next time you start writing a game or come up with a brilliant idea, break it down into simple pieces. Start with the core idea, and turn it into a strong element that you can bring to your audience. Then, let evolution do its work and see where it goes. I’m sure that, in the end, you will even surprise yourself about the direction it took.

Strange Sunday – Every Dwarf was kung-fu fightin’

“dwarf monk” by travistye

Starting today, every sunday will be dedicated to the ways we can use to break the mold and make our games more interesting. I will talk about things that have the guts to ignore the stereotypes, and that bring new things to our games. Today, I will take a closer look at my favourite fantasy race, and tell you why they are often as bland as my fair-looking nemesis.

The reason why I love Dwarves more than Elves is simple: Dwarves are more relatable. They are cheerful, they love to drink, dance and be merry. They grow extremely cool beards, delve into the darkest dungeons to find the rarest ore and fight enemies ten times their size without even feeling a sense of fear. They teach us a lesson: no matter how tall or tiny you are, with the right mindset and a cold beer, you can tackle every challenge.

However, Dwarves also lack a bit of diversity. In most fantasy settings, they live deep in the mountains, make the best ale and have long beards. It gets old really quick, and while I would always prefer a bearded stump over a fair and pretty Elf, I hunger for some new ideas concerning our short-legged friends. What would make them really cool? Well, below you’ll find a short suggestion that you can use freely to make the Dwarves in your games a bit more interesting, giving your players more than the usual blacksmithing, beer-brewing bubs.

The Masters of Dragondance Mountains
In the far north, hidden in the depths of the Dragondance Mountains, a war rages between the Dojos of the Dwarves. Since the dawn of time, each of these martial arts schools has focused on mastering one of the mountain’s elements through physical exercise: rock, lightning, storm and snow. Each Dojo, lead by one of the Arch-Sifu, has claimed to be the most powerful, and every year, when the sun kisses the highest peak of the Dragondance Mountains, the Dwarves gather at Dao-Zhin, the Fateful Grounds of Earthen Justice. Here, the strongest students of every Dojo face each other in one-on-one battles for honour and the righteousness of their ways. However, trouble is brewing in the depths of the Dragondance, as a fifth, unknown Dojo has emerged, harnessing the darkness of the deeps. Will the four Arch-Sifus unite their schools to fight a common enemy, or will they falter before the might of the Ebon Sword That Pierces The Sun?

Masters of Dragondance Mountains combines classic Chinese martial arts movies elements with a bit of The Last Airbender to turn Dwarves in the kung-fu masters using a set of alternate elements to enhance their martial techniques. Secluded Dwarf cities become monasteries, where the young students learn their respective arts. Stories could focus on the rivalry between the Dojos, or the united fight against a common enemy in the form of a mysterious, fifth Dojo.

You coul also drop one of these martial arts Dwarves in the middle of your campaign, surprising your players with a complete new approach to the Dwarven race. Also, what about members of other races training in one of the monasteries? Do the Dwarves keep the secrets of the elements to themselves, or do they give strangers the chance to prove their mettle? A whole campaign could be based on the idea of a human trying to become a member of a Dojo, struggling for recognition by his Dwarven peers and finally showing his competence in the fight against the Ebon Sword.

Well, that’s it for this week. I hope you like yourself a helping of roundhouse-kicking Dwarves. Check back next week, when we give another cliché a strange and new twist on Strange Sunday!

New adventures in new games

“Adventure On” by aguba

It’s the start of a new year, one full of chances and possibilities. You don’t know what will happen to you, and chances for doing something marvelous await you at every corner. You might win the lottery, you might meet the love of

your life, or you might discover why your washing machine keeps eating your socks. But the greatest adventure of all awaits the dice-roller who is brave enough to leave his comfort zone, to abandon  rules oh so familiar, and to venture forth into the unknown territories of a setting not yet explored. That’s right, I’m talking about all the brave tabletop gamers who will have the guts to try a brand-new game this year.

Alright, enough jesting, trying a new game is of course not such a big deal it would seem, but there are gamers out there who stay loyal to one and the same game for most of their role-playing career. Some of them just don’t know better, being entirely happy with that one game that one friend introduced them to. Others actively fight any attempt of the GM to try a new game, stating that rule X of that game is so terrible, or that the setting is just another lame Tolkienesque fantasy world. No matter the reason, trying out a new game is an adventure in it self, but one every decent gamer should undertake once in a while. Why? Because it keeps the mind open.

I’m not saying that every gamer who sticks with one game for years is some narrow-minded jerk who thinks his player’s handbook is some kind of gospel. What I’m saying is that trying games with different worlds and rules allows you to rediscover your hobby. You notice that there are so many different ways to approach the RPG genre, and might learn something you can use in “your” game. I will never forget the look on a player’s face in a short-lived Mage: the Awakening chronicle I ran. She came from a D&D / classic fantasy RPG background, and was used to very strict and precise rules. When I told her that her character’s magic powers were really flexible, and that she could cast spells without even knowing them, she gave me this confused, yet somewhat happy look. Slowly, she got into the mindset of this completely different game, and discovered an entirely new approach to magic in a role-playing game. As a GM, it was great to see someone finding joy in something so simple.

So, all I’m asking of everyone who reads this article is one simple thing: try new games, guys and gals! Ask your GM to run a one-shot of that nifty game you found, or even better, try to GM it yourself! Even if it’s just a single session, lose yourself in an entirely new world, and take those experiences back to your regular gaming sessions. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Geek Jitsu – how I became a healthy nerd

Welcome to the first installment of Geek Jitsu, the column on this blog about keeping yourself healthy and fit while living your dice-rolling, mouse-clicking geeky lifestyle. In this column, which will be published every Wednesday, I will do my best to share my knowledge about healthy living with you.

Before we get started, I want to make one thing very clear: I am not an educated health specialist. I do not have a single degree in biology, anatomy, healthcare, dietetics or any other related topic. The knowledge that I’ll share with you in this column comes from my own experience and from what people and literature has told me. Talking about experience, why don’t I start with telling you about my own path so far.

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My gaming 2012 and a look into the future

While the teenagers from my neighbourhood are busy blowing everything up with fireworks,  I sit inside my apartment and ponder about what a great year 2012 was. I achieved my bachelor’s degree, immediately found a job and met a totally fantastic girl. I’m physically healthier than ever before, and more confident than I was ever in my life. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but 2012 was pretty much my year.

Personal achievements were not the only thing that made 2012 glorious. From a gaming point of view, the past year has been freaking fantastic as well. In this post, I want to honour digital and tabletop titles that made my year.

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The apocalypse – what a letdown

Fiddles_picture015

So, the end of the world came and went, with less fireworks and zombies than some of us had expected. Well, at least in the real world. In TSW, zombies keep stalking every player who ventures into the wild, and gigantic beasts of the apocalypse wait to be slaughtered by the champions of Gaia. The dialogue on the picture above also taught me a new way to insult people, so I guess Armageddon isn’t half bad.

How did you end spent the End Times? Did you slay undead in your favourite MMO or at your game table? Share your tales in the comments!