Friday, June 21, 2013

The Role of Role Playing in Role Playing Games

I want to talk a little bit about role playing, because it's an incredibly important part of the game to me. There are lots of ways to play D&D and none of them are really wrong, but there are wrong ways to play for the specific group of people you're playing with. Some people want a well-crafted story, that may be lower on the combat side of things, or something that's a pure numbers game, and it's basically all combat-based dungeon crawling. The thing is that D&D is, as a tabletop game, best suited to something that sits right in the middle. If all you want is the combat and loot part of the game, there are lots of co-operative video games, or miniature games that have in depth and strategic ways around combat. If you're more into just a story-based experience, other systems, like Fate or White Wolf or Mouse Guard, are better fits for that kind of game.

I've played with groups who were really not used to having to role play their characters, and it's thrown them off a bit that I've forced that upon them, in some ways. A lot of times it's about comfort level, you have to be okay with pretending to be someone entirely different around other people. Some people are okay with that, but remember D&D's primary demographic trends towards the more awkward side of things. For me role playing a character is huge. Not just as a player, but as a DM, it really gives me an entirely new set of tools with which to manipulate the world. Not only that, but it allows for me to compensate for balancing issues.

It's not a Numbers Game:
Allow me to get into that side of things. Dungeons & Dragons is not a balanced game. They've done what they can, but there are ultimately a lot of ways that you can fundamentally break the game in the way you build your character. There are also a lot of ways that you can take the wrong set of feats, or not specialize in such a way that your character isn't super useful. This is exacerbated by the fact that some character classes are slow to get the ball rolling (Monks, for example) where other classes are really powerful right out of the gate (Alchemists are a good example). One thing that this does often, is when skill or combat testing events are going on in the campaign constantly, characters that are less effective at those things than others may start to feel like they aren't able to contribute to the party, and that's where role playing really comes in handy. By having a fleshed out character, I can bring other uses for that character into the game. Bring their back story forward, or a connection that can only be made by that character, based on who they are. It's something that makes the player feel awesome, and gives them that sense that they're contributing in a way that's important.

I can tell you that, at least the way I've always played, numbers can only get you so far. I recall whilst playing Shadowrun with several of my friends, my dear friend Tavish opted to play a cloned elven version of Pierre Elliot Trudeau because why the fuck not? Now the numbers on Tavish's (nearly 8 page) character sheet gave him absurdly high scores in persuasion, bluffing, intimidation, etiquette, leadership and basically every skill under the sun to let you talk your way out of any situation you put yourself in. The problem is that Tavish himself doesn't always make the best decisions for his characters in tense conversations and it doesn't matter how critical a success you rolled, the drug-addled prostitute with the nerve gas grenade you left unattended is probably not going to care. This goes doubly if you don't happen to ask the right questions (another unfortunate problem that elven-clone PET frequently had). See, a lot of people may play that you don't actually have to say anything specific, you can just roll your persuasion and get the information or result you want. That way works if you want to play D&D from a numbers-only perspective, but that doesn't allow players to be rewarded for strong role playing.

(Don't) Be Yourself:
One of the easiest things to do is to role play yourself, and it's what most people do the first time they have to make a character. It's basically a fantasy version of yourself with a different history, and some cool abilities. That's great, but I try to discourage that. I do this for a couple of reasons, and the foremost one is that it's kinda boring. See, when people are role playing themselves they tend to be somewhere in the chaotic good spectrum of role playing (I'll get to alignment a little later), and they tend to be very reserved in their actions. People play themselves very safe. They're not likely to do anything crazy, or rash, or often just take some of the risks that can make some of the most interesting stuff in the game happen. Part of the problem is that people like their character too much. I'm not saying you shouldn't like your character, but the fact is that your character doesn't need to be someone you'd like, you just have like playing as that character. In the entirety of my experience playing role playing games, I can think of (maybe) two characters who are nice people who I would like if they were real. Every other character I've played would be a horrid person to meet. The fact is that I love playing as them. Because of who that person was, I was doing things that I normally would never consider, or would consider as absurdly short-sighted and stupid. When you fear too much for your own character's life (which you should, to a degree), you tend to play characters in a certain way. It's fine to do so, but I think you'll find that if you start playing characters based on how much you like playing as them, as to how much you like them as a person, you may have more fun.

Making RP "Worth It" for the Player:
As a DM, I like to reward strong role playing. Offering small incentives, like bonus experience, for role playing a character well and for making decisions not based on what would give the best outcome but based on what they think their character would do is something that's important to reward otherwise the character may as well just do the former and get more out of it. This doesn't just apply to the elements of the game outside of action sequences. I think it says a lot about a player if the way they act in combat or other tense situations is reflective of their character as a whole, and it's important to reward that behaviour. So what if it is (statistically) a better idea to attack an enemy with your weapon than to throw a taxidermy skunk at them, if you think that's what your character would do then fucking do it. I know, as a DM, trying to enacting a plan, or doing something creative with your turn, I will always give a higher chance of success than the standard “slash him with my sword” actions. It's important to encourage this because it adds and incenitivises an entirely new dynamic to the combat setting. If there's no situational elements that a character can use in that scenario, it's jarring and flow-breaking as a game aspect, and you may as well have all combat take place in bare, rectangular rooms.

Some Words on Alignment:
Alignment is always one of the hardest things to explain to new players, and it's a frequent point of contention for veteran players. For those unfamiliar: every character in D&D has what is known as an alignment which determines where they lie on two axes: Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil. This separates all characters into 9 categories: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil. These categories theoretically determine how your character might behave in a given situation. There are no degrees to which you can be a certain alignment, you cannot be multiple alignments, you are pigeon-holed into 9 very loosely defined behaviour patterns. I will say right now that I hate alignment as a system. It is a crutch for bad role-players. Players who have no sense of character are able to determine what their character should do based on an incredibly vague, but restrictive system. “My character would do this because they're Lawful Good” is a terrible way to justify decisions. Your character should be making decisions because you have a good sense that your character would make those specific decisions, regardless of their alignment. Alignment, as I see it, only has a place in terms of being a factor affecting alignment-based magical effects. You could easily replace the alignments with Astrological signs, or Elements, or fucking colours, it doesn't matter. Alignment is a vague, generic trait that determines whether or not the spell Blasphemy can do 5d8 damage and nauseate you.

Another thing that's been a point of contention with a lot of people I discuss role playing games with is evil characters. Now I want to discuss this because I trend towards playing characters that, while not necessarily evil, are most certainly bastards. A lot of people seem to believe that the primary issue is that an evil character will derail a campaign, it will cause in-fighting and problems within the party and generally will create discontent amongst the players. To this I say, “you aren't doing it right, then”. See, the thing is, in many cases people playing an evil character take that as an excuse to kill other players, or rob them. That's the wrong way to look at it. Being evil just means that your motivations are entirely different. It's about cooperation. The Dungeon Master needs to be able to provide motivating factors such that the evil character has a reason to be there. The evil character needs to cooperate insofar as knowing they should not be derailing things. Playing an evil character can be a helluva lot of fun, but you have to remember that it's not just about your fun, so when playing that character, your actions should take into account the fact that the rest of the party also has their own motivations. It's both the job of the players and the DM to facilitate the needs of one another. Basically, if you're playing an evil character because you plan on using that as an excuse to troll the game, you should perhaps find another group. I'm going to mention my good friend Kane again (we'll see how many of these posts I can fit him into in a row). In our most recent campaign, Kane's character was the only evil character in the party. Now, the way he went about things and got things done was certainly evil, but he played his character such that he was either in agreement about where the party had to (or should) go, or played it such that he went along begrudgingly forced by the party through threats or other motivating factors. Kane played evil in his actions, but in such a way that while it added flavor (or corpses), it didn't break the flow of the game (or add the corpses of the rest of the party). What it did do was create tension. I will say right now that in-fighting within a party of characters is not a bad thing and I don't just say this because I've never managed to make a character who gets along with any of Tavish's characters. I say this because distrust amongst the party gives an extra element that the DM can manipulate, and it means that interesting character development can happen between the party, even when there are no other characters around.

I want to have people I'm playing with become comfortable with role playing, and it's something I do my best to facilitate as much as I can. Any of the people who have participated in tabletop games alongside me will confirm that am not afraid to make myself look like an asshat with ridiculous voices, or actions or character concepts in general. It's something I very much do on purpose. Partially because it's fun as hell, and partially because it allows other players to feel like it's okay turn into someone else. You get into character, because it's still less ridiculous than that asshole over there is speaking with a thick Nigerian accent and keeps asking “Where did you get dat a'm? I want dat a'm!”

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May Contain Dragons Gets a Makeover: May Also Contain Dungeons.

My new website is up, and with its existence -alongside my CG Hub page- May Contain Dragons becomes a little bit of a redundancy. I've decided to really change what May Contain is all about, as a result. I'm still planning on uploading my new drawings here as they come, but in addition I want to actually turn May Contain Dragons into a proper blog. Like... one that's about something. I actually love writing. I'm not particularly excellent at it, but its something I really do enjoy, be that writing stories, stand-up, hip-hop or critiques. I don't think I've had the patience to be able to attempt to write even a short story in the last several years (at least not one that stands alone), but what I have been able to tell stories through, and what has been my primary method of storytelling for the last decade, is tabletop games (and Dungeons & Dragons in particular). What I'd like to do is use this blog as an outlet for me to talk a bit about the game, just have a place to dump all my views on the aspects of playing and, more importantly, talk about running the game.

To give a little bit of background, I've been playing D&D (officially) since I was about 12 years old when my parents sent me to camp over the March break, and the only one I agreed to go to was Dungeons & Dragons camp. Before that, even, starting with me and my brother and moving on to me and my friends at school, I played a purely verbal version of the game. No dice, no stats, just us speaking and walking around in the schoolyard. So it's fairly safe to say that now, after over a decade of playing D&D, I've acquired a fair amount of experience with the game. I spent most of high school trying (and failing) to get a regular game going with my friends, and it wasn't until my first year of university that I actually managed to get a legitimate once-a-week group going. The game is responsible for some of the most fun I've had in my life, and it's certainly a large part of the reason why the friends I play with and I are better friends than we might have otherwise been. I think it can be argued that if it weren't for playing D&D, I wouldn't have met the guy who became one of the best friends I've ever had, and roommate for 2 years. So, it's a big part of my life and I want to talk about it.

A lot of people are a little bit unaware of just what the hell D&D is. The fact that I continuously have had to explain that -while video games have been based off of it- D&D is not, in itself, a video game. And while it is called a “tabletop” game, it is also not a board game. The game combines elements of both, and probably most relevantly: improvisation. In fact, I would argue that D&D is closer to a structured improv game, than it is to video games and board games both. The way this works is that you have two fundamental roles while playing the game: player characters and the game master (or dungeon master, in D&D's case). The game master crafts a world, people, places and every other element of the setting, essentially acting as the god of this world. The player characters have character which has their own unique background, skillset and motivations, who they alone control within the environment crafted (and controlled) by the game master (henceforth GM). That's basically it. Everything after that is determined by what the game master and the players want to get out of the experience. Generally, the players work together, going on their own fantasy adventure which the GM then crafts narrative around. Success and failures are determined by dice rolling which is modified by statistics every character, creature, object and challenge has. I'll get into specifics of play style in later entries, but this is the basic idea of the game.

Obviously the game has rules. Complex, pedantic, extensive rules. Learning any tabletop game requires reading a literal textbook of information to know how to play and if you've never learned or played a tabletop game before it's one of the most daunting challenges you can come up with just to enjoy playing (let alone running the game). One of my biggest struggles getting my friends to play in high school was just getting them past the character creation stage, which takes upwards of 3 hours if you've never played before and even more if you're indecisive (Read: Will). It's complicated enough that you get frustrated and bored just trying to enter into the landscape of the game. A lot of people don't think that initial time investment to learn to play is worth the payoff. Those people are wrong. Not to say that D&D is for everyone (it's not), but the multitude of ways you can play it means that the game can be pretty much anything you want, and the game as a social activity is something I cannot think of a parallel for.

A group of adventurers in a game of D&D is appropriately referred to as a “party”, because that's essentially what you're doing every time you play the game. Let me break this down for you with my current weekly group as an example. Every Wednesday -or it used to be Wednesdays, at least- I host 6 of my friends at my apartment from somewhere around 6:30pm until a little after midnight. Every week a set amount of the group are designated to provide dinner, snacks and drinks for the group that night. For the ~6 hours that we have a session we can usually manage to actually play the game for 4 hours (maybe) and get sidetracked for at least 2 hours. The reason being that we aren't sitting awkwardly around a table entirely focused on a game, we're a group of 7 friends who are hanging out and we happen to structure our night around playing D&D. The other thing is, D&D is an incredibly efficient generator for inside jokes, almost regardless of how you play. When success and failure is determined by dice, karma dictates that you will fail and you will fail hilariously and these failures will be brought up again and again. Nearly everything in D&D can become a joke. I was once describing an area and was attempting to give the players the impression that something was impressively crafted, particularly for being within a cave they discovered off the sewage system. I was attempting to create a comparison of the craftsmanship of the walls of the sewer and the walls within this temple-like structure which is when I mistakenly used the term “tight masonry”. The phrase may seem innocuous enough, but my friend Kane latched onto that phrase. Now, every time I describe an area if I don't specify the level of tightness of the masonry I get a whole host of questions about wall integrity: “Wait, but Simon, how tight is the masonry in here? Like... really tight? We're not talking loose masonry here are we?” That's just what D&D does, it's a conduit that allows groups of people to come together -much like the bricks in a wall of tight masonry- and joke about ridiculous things that happen over the course of their adventures. That's why I always try and facilitate people learning the game, it's the reason why I do my best to get people past the game's absurdly high initial learning curve: because once you're over it, you have one of the best social activities I can think of.

I'd like this use this blog for 2 reasons: firstly, to discuss the game from the perspective of someone who plays it, and the styles and struggles that come up in that world. Secondly, I'd like to use it to explain to those who might not play the game, aspects of the ocean of information that is the world of tabletop gaming. When I get into technical aspects I will always try to explain what that is in the context of the game. And hopefully (if I'm successful), I can get more people playing or interested in playing.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Time Lapse Double Bill

Hey folks, I have time lapses! For your faces!

Okay so there are two to show here. One for "Bruisers" that I forgot to post up here a while back, so this is really just administration insofar as that goes.

The second one I have here is for my most recent piece, the Glabrezu. Unfortunately, my time lapse program stopped functioning properly during the last 2 and a half hours or so of the process, so the .avi files for that period of time are corrupted and I thusly was unable to put the whole process in the video. But all is not lost. Once the site is back up and running (it's down frequently) I will be posting a full tutorial on my process for this guy on I've wanted to try my hand at tutorial-making for a while, and since I won this Creature of the Week round and I have so much of the process recorded it made sense to do the tutorial with this guy. Anyway, enjoy what there is of the process below.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Glabrezu and a New Site

First and foremost, I have a new website! Check it out here:

My glorious return to creature of the week is also punctuated with my glorious announcement that I am leaving creature of the week. So, Clark and I have been moderating C.O.W. since October 2010, and we've been doing is since round 190. It's now round 294 and I'm getting tired. Clark is getting tired. Clark is super busy because he's essentially the art department for an entire company (by the way you should check out the game he did all the art and animation for: Roundhouse!). I'm not actually so busy since I'm just finishing up my degree but I just don't really have the energy to devote to C.O.W. that it needs. So we'll be stepping down as moderators once we've seen through the round 300 spectacular we'll likely be doing.

Anyway I finally decided to jump in on some Creature fun since it's been a dog's age since I produced a final for it. The topic was the Glabrezu, since I'm a huge D&D nerd like that. I was doing a time lapse for this guy and I have the entire first half of production for this, but my time lapse program died on me for the entire latter half of the process, so I think I'll be forgoing actually producing the video (sorry!).

 Anyways, here's the piece, hope you enjoy!


Friday, March 29, 2013

Shattered World

Hey folks,

Here are two pieces I've done recently. The first was the second in a set of 4-colour process screenprints I did based on the China Meiville book, Rail Sea. A world I found particularly intriguing. The prints ended up being a 5-colour process: all of the white mist figures ended up as a fifth "ghost layer" in which the ink base was mixed with a bit of white and ultramarine. When using UV-based inks, the transparency is such that the ghosts come out very subtly. I'm super happy with the way they came out on this one.

It seems very funny, to me, that the post after I go on a rant about skimpy female character design, I post this. An original character by me, female, and wearing almost no clothing. But before I'm accused of being a hypocrite, the reasoning behind the nudity present here is not appeal to any kind of male sex-fantasy in the same way that characters like the ones present in League of Legends can be construed as. Allow me to elaborate the process behind this piece.

This piece will go on to be another artifact of my ongoing set of prints exploring this ruined world present in my last two "Railship" pieces, but that's not the origin of this drawing. As some of you know, I run a creature design competition on called Creature of the Week, wherein competitors are given a prompt from which they must design a creature. is also home to Evironment of Week, Industrial Design of the Week, Panel of the Week and Character of the Week. A recent Character of the Week prompt was "Mary Worth" (AKA "Bloody Mary") and their brief history of the character introduced her as being a normal, decent person until an accident disfigured her. She was told not to look in the mirror to spare her the horror, but did anyway driving her to madness and spawning the vengeful version that appears when her name is said thrice while looking the mirror. Now the prompt given specified that the piece could be set in "any time period", so that got me wondering: "What could have possibly driven Mary to insanity about her face". I came to the conclusion that she might lose her humanity if she discovered she'd never had any to begin with. What if she was an android with the firm belief that she was a human. Other entries wanted to capture the sadistic rage of Bloody Mary, but I wanted to show the more tragic side of the character. That's why she's depicted as such, I wanted to depict her in a vulnerable state, with all revealed, such that it could truly be seen the degree to which she is not human. I guess its up to you whether you feel that justifies my potential hypocrisy but I felt I should explain my logic there, at least.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Hey folks,

Just a quick drop-off. Here's a comp of 2 quickies I did. Each one is about 2 hours-ish, I think. Time lapse of both is imminent. Going for a more cartoon-y style. Maybe in the Borderlands school of design? Hope ya' like 'em!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Elise the Spider Queen, a railship, and a little rant on female character design

So, it's been a while since I've posted anything, and a lot of that has to do with my current schedule being a little hectic. At any rate I have 2 new pieces for your faces.

This first piece is a drawing I did inspired by China Mieville's Rail Sea, which I'm enjoying greatly. I like the idea that a train (something that is by nature on a set path incapable of travelling where there no one has gone before) can become a vessel for exploration and for rediscovery. I've put out a very small run of CMYK screenprints (about 10.5"x 15", page size is about 13.5"x17.5") of this piece. If you want one you can always contact me and I'll see if I can work out shipping one to you. Up in the screenprinting studio there's a beautiful view of Montreal, and at the time that I work you often get this incredible light bloom hitting the top of the buildings across the street on Sr. Cats, so I wanted to emulate a bit of that with the lighting in this one.

This other piece is done for this contest for League of Legends, which I occasionally play. The idea was to portray any of the game's characters preparing for the upcoming season. I picked Elise the Spider Queen, as I play her fairly frequently, laying her new brood of spider underlings. Now, I feel like I need to address something as a disclaimer: this is not my character design. Now, League of Legends has some excellent artists behind it, and there are some truly beautiful designs at play in that game, but there's one thing that they have to improve on: portrayal of female characters. Now, I've, for the most part, imitated for the purpose of the competition, Elise's impractical and absurd outfit, so you can see what I mean when I say that there's some room for improvement. In all media, characters tend to display unreasonable standards of figure and attractiveness and, for me, I don't have such a problem with it. If you're creating larger-than-life fictional characters, why not make them attractive? But there is a slight problem I have with the particular trend, in video games (and in fantasy video games in particular) of clothing female characters in the smallest semblances of fabric imaginable. I felt I needed to get that out there along with this piece. I'm proud of the work I did on this piece, and I hope I win, but I want to make it clear that my own character designs I hope never to resort to the metal-bikini stereotype so prevalent in fantasy. Anyway, here's Elise, hope you like it.