Thursday, February 16, 2017

Writing about writing about writing

I require some reflective writing in my CS222 class. Currently, I'm using two essays during the first three weeks to help students reflect about Pair Programming and Object-Oriented Programming, and I use reflective essays at the end of each of the three final project iterations. Many of the course achievements also involve writing essays. For several years, I found myself frustrated with the range of responses to my request for an "essay," with a few nice compositions buried under the weight of banality and formlessness. Because I subscribe to mastery learning, my students can almost always resubmit their work, but there's nothing more frustrating than responding to a poor composition and then receive another poor one in return.

I realized long ago that part of the problem was this word, "essay," which is used by different people for vastly different purposes. I found myself writing the same response to each student, and so I put together the following stock instructions. These have appeared on many course descriptions under the heading, "An etymological note."
Some assignments and achievements require the writing of an “essay.” I use this term in the classical sense, to describe a composition that represents an attempt to understand a complex idea. An essay is neither a summary nor a staid five-paragraph construction. As the course prerequisite implies, these essays should represent collegiate-level writing. You are encouraged to leverage our digital writing environment to compose multimodal pieces.
For the record, I believe I have had zero multimodal compositions submitted in response to essay prompts—not so much as a photograph or illustration. I like to keep this door open, though, since students are required to take a college composition course before CS222, a course which explores more than just traditional prose.

After putting this note into the course descriptions, it has made it a bit easier for me give feedback: instead of writing out belabored instructions about what I mean when I say "essay," I can just point back to the course description. Even in this case, however, revisions don't always show that students have read and understood these instructions. The instances that come to mind tend to be structural problems, where the first submission lacks paragraph structure, and the second submission does too. It's enough to make me wonder if the real problem is ignorance about fundamental structuring tools, but usually, eventually, we get to a point where a revision is acceptable, though never elegant. I always recommend the use of BSU's Writing Center, but I have no idea if my students are using it or not. (Turns out, writing this blog post pushed me to reach out to them, and they do collect some self-reported data from visitors; they're going to try to let me know what kind of visits they've had from CS222 over the past few years. Neat!)

This semester, after frustration and reflection about last semester's writing, I decided to change my instructions on the course description. It was during the winter break that I took some time to compose a piece about what it means to compose an essay. I suppose I went full-meta. Here's what appears on this semester's CS222 course description, under the new and simpler heading, "Essays":

Some assignments and achievements require the writing of an “essay.” I use this term in the classical sense, to describe a composition that represents an attempt to understand a complex idea. An essay needs to have a point—a theme, a thesis, a central question. This should be supported by evidence, with assumptions identified and claims justified or cited. As implied by this course's prerequisites, our essays should represent college-level writing. 
An essay, properly written, should hurt a bit. If you are truly writing to understand, then you have to be challenging yourself. If you are only summarizing something you have read or previously believed, it is not an “essay” by our definition. 
Writing in this way has implications for structure and form. One long rambling paragraph cannot be an essay: each paragraph should have a clear and coherent theme that supports the central argument, and you need more than one of these to support an argument worth forwarding. The fact that we are writing in a digital environment should not be overlooked: you can include images, video, sound, and hyperlinks, following the same judgement you would use to include any formal element. Even typefaces, colors, and margins are part of a digital composition. These have meaning, and because of that, you should not change them unless you are proficient in digital document design: the defaults are provided because of their generality, and they are likely appropriate for your compositions. 
The Elements of Style provides an excellent refresher on how to produce good, clear writing. It is a short, affordable book in its latest release, and the earliest printings are in the public domain (see archive.org, for example).
I'll point out a few pain points that were on my mind when I wrote this. First, a great many of the submissions don't have a point: no thesis, no theme, no conclusion. I wanted to get at that right from the beginning, because if they do nothing else, I would like them to at least have a point.

The second paragraph is about pain. I see a lot of students write in generalities, avoiding specifics, avoiding culpability, avoiding conclusions. I believe that learning should hurt a little, because it's forcing you to confront something you misunderstand. This may be a lofty goal for a 200-level course, but I wanted to see what happened if I put it out there. Looking at it now, maybe I should revise that paragraph to be more about discussing concrete details rather than throwing around abstractions and generalities.

The third paragraph reflects my continual bafflement at how bad students are at using modern writing technology. We're using Google Docs, so we're not just digital, we're connected. Yet, students practically never include the URLs to their sources, much less actual hyperlinks. What many students do, that I react to in the paragraph, is fart around with fonts and sizes, almost always in ways that distract from the readability of the document. I know that the prerequisite writing course covers a bit of visual design, but clearly, students are not coming through with the self-awareness that they are bad at it. That's understandable coming out of a freshman-level course (isn't that what being a "sophomore" is all about, after all?), but what bothers me is that it's not clear that they understood that these choices have meaning. That is, the choices I see appear arbitrary, not treated like the design decisions that they are.

The last paragraph is my way of sharing my excitement at finding out The Elements of Style first edition was in the public domain. I was required to buy a copy of this book (not the first edition, naturally) in my first semester of grad school, as part of a research seminar course in which faculty presented their research and new grad students wrote essay responses. I remember enjoying the book, not so much because of the structural concepts—I've always been a decent writer, after all—but because it helped me collect my reasons for good writing practice. Maybe it's too much to expect that a sophomore CS major would go fall in love with style, but a guy can dream.

That's the story behind my revised essay-on-essays. I see some parts that I will likely clean up between semesters. So far, it's not clear that it's made any difference at all, except again for the time it saves me: I have referred a handful of students to it after they turn in something completely unstructured or inappropriate.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Follow-up on Story Mapping: Sprint 2 Planning

My team had our Sprint 2 Planning meeting yesterday, and I started with the story map on the wall that I wrote about over the weekend. Most of the questions the team members had were covered in the conditions of satisfaction that I had written on the note card version of the stories. The team decided to migrate two stories below the cut point, pushing them to Sprint 3 instead. The first of these was the external authentic testing of the software system: since the team was committing to making a high-fidelity paper prototype, they were rightly wary of also trying to budget the time for authentic testing. Since we would focus on a paper prototype, we also pushed down the task of making a design guide to specify fonts, colors, and so on. This was also a prudent move, since if the paper prototype evaluation went poorly, we would need the time to clean that up before investing time in a design guide that would likely have to be done again.

Much of this conversation went as I predicted, but the task planning ended up with some interesting results. Several new stories were added to our map, most of them planned for the next iteration.


These new stories dealt primarily with user interactions that we could foresee only after talking through the extant map and considering the bounds of the stories we had committed to. The new stories include:

  • Continue uninterrupted if the page is reloaded
  • Install the game as an app (manifest.json)
  • Continue after pressing the browser's back button
  • Browse previously unlocked content
  • Clear previously unlocked content
  • Finish the story for Prairie Creek
That last one is not a user interaction, but simply our team noticing that we had neglected to include a story for the creative work of finishing our narratives! By the end of this sprint, we should have significantly reduced risk around our core game mechanics and theme, but there still will be necessary work in fleshing out the narrative.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Another attempt at story mapping in the academic studio

About a year ago, I wrote about how my first attempt with story mapping did not go as well as I had hoped and that my team eventually abandoned them. Last semester, I decided to invest some time in building a better understanding of the technique, so I did what any reasonable contemporary developer would do: I bought and read Jeff Patton's book. One of the key insights I got from this book—perhaps something that's obvious to regular practitioners, but I didn't see at the time—is that story maps can replace one-dimensional backlogs but not Scrum-style task boards. That is, while the story map provides the big picture of the project plan, teams still need other modes for tracking smaller-grain tasks. Among other factors, this made me want to revisit story maps in Spring, and so I have.

This semester, I am once again leading a multidisciplinary undergraduate team in an immersive learning project. I wrote a bit about the project when I wrote about sustainability game design and the conclusion of my game design colloquium. This semester, my team is building a Web-based, geolocative, educational game to complement the educational themes of Camp Prairie Creek. We just wrapped up our first sprint, which resulted in the team building a proof-of-concept experience using Polymer while exploring various narrative themes. Before the sprint, I had laid out a story map based on my vision for the project, and the team had some input into the overall shape of it.

Sprint 1 Story Map

During sprint planning, the team decided where to slice it. We took the stories for this first experimental sprint and transcribed them onto new cards for the task board.

Task Board at the start of Sprint 1
The sprint ended this past Friday, and although not every task was complete, we deemed it a success: the team was able to learn the fundamentals of Polymer, including building fluency with command-line git; we have a technical artifact that shows how various pieces fit together; and we have a more coherent vision for a narrative structure and theme. However, throughout the sprint, I didn't see any students actually using the story map. They would congregate around the task board around the time of the stand-up meeting, using it to direct their communication and activities. The story map, which is physically far from the task board, did not seem to get any attention.

One of my responsibilities yesterday was to recreate the story map based on what we learned. The first pass looked reasonable.
First pass at revised story map
During Friday's Retrospective meeting, the team decided that their work would be improved by the inclusion of conditions of satisfaction for each story. Usually, when using Scrum, I write the names of stories (in Mike Cohn's format) on the front and the conditions of satisaction on the reverse. It was not clear to me if these fit with the story map format, so I had left them out in the name of simplicity. I have one returning team member who was in last Spring's studio, and this student was one who strongly recommended including the conditions of satisfaction. So, after creating that first pass at a story map, I sat down with my large-format index cards and starting re-writing the stories to them.

This process led me to consolidate several stories. This wasn't quite what I expected, but the new articulations were much cleaner, in my opinion: they were more encapsulated rather than spreading one action across multiple notes. For example, "See a map with location markers" and "See my own location on a map" became consolidated into "See annotated map," with conditions of satisfaction indicating that we want to see both our own position and marker positions. These could remain separate, but I was thinking about how they would migrate to the task board: the two small stories looked like they would take up more room than they were worth, whereas one story would just have a few extra rather small tasks. It may be worth noting that the team already has this mostly done in the tech demo, so much of the story will be revising how this feature is implemented within the revised visual design.
Revised story map
I've included below a photo of the task board cards that I expect the team to take in Monday's planning meeting. Of course they will be able to negotiate on what goes above and below the slice, but I suspect that we won't see much change here.
Stories with conditions of satisfaction, for the Task Board
[See follow-up post for more]

Friday, January 27, 2017

Fermata (or Don't Breathe) and Global Game Jam 2017

I attended my first Global Game Jam in 2012, when I was a fellow at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. I took six seminar students with me to the site in Columbus, OH, and three of us worked together to make Auralboros. I went again in 2013, although it feels like it wasn't that long ago! I took some students with me to the Art Institute of Indianapolis site, and a friend and I created Wikibeat. (Turns out the links to play the game don't work anymore since DropBox stopped providing Web hosting.) Ever since these experiences, I have encouraged students to participate in Global Game Jam, with a few from my game design and development courses occasionally taking me up on it—and never regretting it. Last year, I wondered if hosting a local site would help more of my students be able to participate, but I had misunderstood some of the logistics and missed the site registration deadline. This year, however, all the pieces came together, and we hosted Ball State University's first Global Game Jam site.



The site registration was straightforward, and part of the site approval process required a telephone conference with a regional coordinator. This was extremely helpful, and our conversation helped me avoid many potential problems with logistics. I was invited to a Slack instance for GGJ site organizers, although I found it to have a very poor signal-to-noise ratio. Fortunately, the organizing committee had set up an #announcements channel that only they could write to, and it was really sufficient for me to just follow that one.

My department was very supportive in this endeavor, allowing me to use up to three rooms in our third floor hallway area, although we only ended up needing two. They also provided printer access and a generous snacks budget. We celebrated the opening and the closing with pizza, and we had a variety of healthy and sustaining snacks available during the day. Thanks to my wife for doing the grocery store runs and bringing the edibles. It was interesting to me that the participants, who were mostly all undergraduate students, devoured the individually packaged foods such as granola bars but were much more hesitant to eat from containers, such as raisins, trail mix, and baby-cut carrots.

But I get ahead of myself! I advertised the event through my department's Facebook group, some posters hung around my building, a campus-wide announcement, and targeted emails to some colleagues across campus. We ended up with 27 people registered, of whom 18 showed up. In my conversation with the regional coordinator, she had mentioned putting in a small entrance fee in order to dissuade no-shows—and offset the cost of swag such as site-themed shirts—but I decided to keep it as open as possible. I am really happy with the turnout, given that it was not heavily marketed and not a well-known event outside of jamming circles.

Inspiration
We watched the keynote right at 5PM as planned; if you're interested, you can watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynljZUmJv2U. The theme was waves, which was cleverly shown to have many interpretations. I had previously seen the list of diversifiers, and once I heard the theme, I started imagining some ways to combine them together. I told the jammers that my plan was to hands-off, to let them go to the whiteboards and organically form teams around game ideas. However, this was also the point where I realized I didn't really have a dinner plan, and so I ordered some pizza. That took an embarrassingly long amount of time, in part because I was trying to use some coupon codes that had only just arrived in the mail that day. At least, I think that was the problem, I'm still not entirely sure. In any case, when I finally return to the main jamming space, it was clear that people had already gelled together and made teams around inspirational ideas. A lot of folks grouped up based on who they came with, which is expected of course. This left me in kind of an awkward position though: I don't think they recognized that I too was planning on being a participant, not just an organizer. I was also 20 years older than them and, in some cases, currently their professor, which I think was a bit awkward. This was when I went back to the list of diversifiers, and my eyes landed on this one: Virtuoso: A physical musical instrument is used as an input device. That sounds like an interesting challenge, and certainly fits with the "wave" theme. I sent out a message to my friend Alex, a local alumnus who has a passion for audio production who had expressed passing interest in GGJ in previous conversations. It piqued his interest, so even though he was only available Friday and Sunday, he decided to join in. His friend Darby joined as well, and with that, I had a team and a game idea!

Hard at work
I had hoped to build something in Unreal Engine, given the time I spent working with it last semester. However, I still haven't cracked the nut of UE's C++ bindings, and it was clear that this would be the only way to get at the audio data I wanted, so I had to mark this off the list. Poking around the Web for pitch detection algorithms and libraries, I came across TarsosDSP, an open-source Java library that seemed to do exactly what I wanted. The API demos confirmed that it could read from my laptop's microphone and compute the pitch being heard. TarsosDSP is written in pure Java without native libraries, and so it seemed like this could integrate quite well with PlayN, a library I have used and written about frequently. We decided to use the native desktop target via an executable jar build. We pretty quickly got TarsosDSP integrated with a PlayN project and had a playable demo that allowed you to move a black box up and down by singing or whistling at your computer. Neat!

First playable demo
We called it a night shortly after this, and I returned home to find one of my sons a bit under the weather, so I joined for the ending of a TV show before turning in. The next morning, I did a little tweaking of the project, adding in niceties such as the TriplePlay library and its screen management system. I returned to the lab a little before the 9AM planned meeting time to find three jammers sound asleep, which made it hard to politely test a game all about making noise.

Saturday Morning
Alex couldn't stay long, but Darby and I worked until suppertime on the game. Early on, we had the idea that you could play as long as you could make a sound—run out of breath and the game is over. We added obstacles with the idea that some would help and some would hurt, and we started with the beneficial ones: hitting these would give you a chance to take a breath. We observed that this was like a rest in music notation, and this inspired the notion that the playable character would be a fermata. With our theme coming together, we realized the "bad" obstacles could be repeat bars, a sign that you can go on no further and must start again. We had these in place, with appropriate art and background image, with plenty of time for me to come home to a nice meal with my family and a good night's sleep. We had come up with two potential names for the game: "Fermata" or "Don't Breathe". I ended up just mashing them together, and our game was christened, "Fermata, or, Don't Breathe".

Checking out the Vive
There were a few other noteworthy occurrences on Saturday. One of the jammers brought in his Vive VR setup and spent most of the day letting people check it out. I suspect many new customers were made that day! I got to try it myself, and it was eerie, how quickly you become somewhere else. Walking out onto the edge of a cliff and looking down reminded me of looking out the floor windows in the CN Tower: you know you can just step out and not fall, but by gum, it's hard to take that step. Also, a team from Byte—Ball State's student-run media outlet about games and "nerd" culture—came to see what we were up to. They did some interviews and shot some B-roll, and I think they enjoyed seeing what we were all up to.

The team from Byte
Sunday afternoon we met up at 1PM to put on the finishing touches, which included adding starting bars at the beginning of the game, to parallel the end bars. The rest of my team had to leave before the 5PM pizza party and showcase, but the game was really as good as it was going to get; I went through the upload process and we were all set, which let me get back to site management. I had a chance to play most of the other teams' games. Each had faced its own problems, from version control to scope creep to engine confusion, but they all produced playable games. I'm pretty sure this was the first jam of any kind for all of them, and everybody had a great time.

My team and our whiteboard
You can find all the games from our site at http://globalgamejam.org/2017/jam-sites/global-game-jam-ball-state-university/games. My team's entry has an offical GGJ page, but since we used GitHub to host our code, it was straightforward to set up a simple site with the latest executable jar.
This video gives a gameplay overview:


I enjoyed my GGJ17 experience, and I'm quite grateful that Alex and Darby came on short notice to share the weekend with me. A lot of jammers were already talking about coming back next year. It was not an unreasonable amount of work to host the site. Although the biggest commitment is the weekend itself, there was still a lot of communication and planning that went into it. I had hoped to find some like-minded folks on campus who would help shoulder the load, but it ended up being all my responsibility. I am leaning toward hosting again in 2018, which will be the tenth anniversary, but I'm not committed to it yet. I'll make that call next Fall when I can assess other responsibilities. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and thanks to all the GGJ organizers, sponsors and participants!


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Painting Runebound: Caught in a Web

Here's a nice short painting post for a change. Right around Christmas, I picked up the Caught in a Web expansion for Runebound 3e, which as my previous post shows, is a game I play rather frequently. I'm still in the middle of a big Descent painting project, but I put some of those guys on hold so I could work on Jonas the Kind.


The armor was painted with Vallejo Air Steel and hit with two coats of P3 Armor Wash. I've been catching up on Sorastro's painting videos, and he tends to further highlight metallics by mixing them with whites and ivories. The Vallejo Air is fantastically smooth to brush on, but it doesn't mix with other paints for beans. I ended up leaving it as-is, since the steel is already very bright and the wash had done a fine job of adding shadows.

For the gold, I thought I'd give my Vallejo Air Gold another shot, after having mixed results when I painted the base set heroes. I don't know exactly what happened to it, but the whole bottle was basically just thin blue ... medium? There was some gold material stuck to the inside top of the bottle, but all that came out was this useless fluid. I tossed it, and I'm thinking about trying to find some Game Color Glorious Gold, which is clearly Dr. Faust's preferred one, since he uses it all the time.

In the game art, Jonas has flowing golden locks, truly almost comical. I mean, look at this Fabio hair:

My approach gave him a more muted, brown hue with highlights. It's still pretty glamorous, without becoming orange.

Final note: I tried something different with the photograph here. My Nexus5X camera has a hard time finding the temperature I want on the photo since I'm shooting on a white background, so I tried setting it to fluorescent rather than auto. Also, I used Snapseed's auto-white-balance feature instead of picking a white point manually. The background ends up looking grey up against the pure white of this blog background, but the colors of the miniature look true, though muted. Maybe I'll try another setting later, but for now, it's kind of a one-off, the only miniature in this expansion.

By this point, the text-per-miniature is probably too high for one post, so that's all for now. I have some shadow dragons to varnish.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Games of 2016

In 2015, my brother decided to track all of the board games he played. In one year, he had 829 plays with 48 different people, including 524 with his wife. He played 124 unique games. He ended the year with an h-index of 16; that is, there were 16 games that he played at least 16 times. He shared these numbers with me right around New Years Day 2016, and it made me wonder, what games do I play, and with whom? And, if I tracked my plays, what would it tell me about how games fit into my life?

During 2016, I tracked nearly all of my tabletop game experiences. The only exceptions I made were for cases where it was really work and not play, such as playing students' games or workshopping games at the NASAGA conference.

Let me start with the overview statistics for 2016:
  • I engaged in 441 plays of 85 distinct games
  • I played with 87 different people
  • My h-index is 12
The games I played twelve or more times are:

GamePlays
Crokinole27
Carcassonne18
Samurai Spirit16
Animal Upon Animal15
Camel Up14
Dumpster Diver14
Temple of Elemental Evil14
Labyrinth13
Runebound (3rd Edition)13
Dungeon Fighter12
Flash Duel12
Reiner Knizia's Amazing Flea Circus12

The people I played the most games with were my oldest son (269), my wife (211), my second son (154), and my third son (114). The next most highest, at 22, is one of my students who attended all the Spring 2016 Game Studio game nights and who took my game design course this past semester.

The reason why Crokinole is so high is that earlier this year, my father decided to start making boards for the family. He made a prototype for my brother—the gaming enthusiast mentioned in the introduction—and then proceeded to make them for any of my siblings who wanted them. My family rented a house in the Canaan Valley in West Virginia this past summer, and my dad brought a board with him. We played a lot that week, and I played some with my family once we got our own board.
My Crokinole board—my dad's handicraft
A lot of the games in my top list are family-friendly games. Carcassonne is a perennial favorite. Not only is it a great gateway game, it plays well with my younger children by simply using fewer tiles and expansions. Many of the other games on the list are ones that I played regularly with my sons: Samurai Spirit was a birthday gift to my oldest son last year that saw a lot of play, and Animal Upon Animal, Camel Up, Labyrinth, and Flea Circus are all accessible from my third son on up. My oldest son can handle pretty much anything you throw at him, and he's my partner for games like Runebound, Myth (11 plays), and Mage Knight. The latter is one of my favorites, but it takes so long to play that it didn't hit the table very much in 2016. I didn't think I had played Samurai Spirit that many times, but it is a fun puzzle of a cooperative game, and I have introduced it to several people as something of a curiosity.

Between Runebound, Temple of Elemental Evil, Myth, and even Labyrinth, you can see that we spent many happy games with miniatures I painted. On the other hand, games like Imperial Assault, Legend of Drizzt, and Wrath of Ashardalon didn't hit the table at all. I'm hoping my second son will soon be able to handle some of the D&D Adventure System games; the reason Flash Duel is so high is that it was a good one for him to practice his reading comprehension skills, and I'm sure he'll be able to handle more complex card management before too long. Also, like many people, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of the cooperative-mode app for Imperial Assault so I can bring that back to the table without needing to be the Imperial player again.

The only games I played this year that I considered RPGs were Fall of Magic and Phoenix: Dawn Command. We only played Fall of Magic once, and although I am eager to try it again, it was surprisingly tiring: you really have to commit to active listening and creativity to tell a good story together. Both of these games provided wonderful gaming experiences, fulfilling in a very different way than board games, and I'm hoping that 2017 might bring an increase in this area.

I am amused by my reaching an h-index of 12 in one year. Google Scholar computes my scholarly h-index as 11, meaning that I have eleven articles that have at least eleven references to them in other articles. It has taken me fourteen years to get my scholarly h-index to 11, and I already overcame that with games!

I am happy that such a strong majority of my plays have been with family—I love playing with them. We are a homeschooling family, and so I am also happy to see how games give them the opportunity to practice important skills. I have often hosted game nights for my immersive learning teams, and that's been a good way for me to play some other games with non-children during the Spring semester; I expect to continue this in Spring. This coming year, I should also try to host more regular game nights for my adult friends; it's something I really enjoy, but it's also something that's easy to put off. There is a local board game group that I could also be more involved with, but during the semester it's hard for me to rationalize going out to their meetings when I feel I should be spending time with my family. Thinking about it, it makes me even more grateful for my family, whose company I enjoy—even if my son just beat me in our final Runebound game of the year. One more turn and I would have beat that lousy spider...

A Happy New Year to you, dear reader! Let's make 2017 another memorable year in gaming!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A reflection on Phoenix: Dawn Command

This past semester, I ran two sessions of Phoenix: Dawn Command, a recently-released tabletop RPG from Twogether Studios (Keith Baker and Dan Garrison). It was the product of a successful Kickstarter, but I didn't hear about until well after it was funded, when I subscribed to Keith Baker's blog. I found myself enthralled with the idea of death as character advancement—glorious death as a boon rather than the ending it is in most games. Another defining mechanic of PDC is that it uses cards rather than dice for action resolution, and this also piqued my interest. When I mentioned these ideas to my game design class, the students were eager to try this for themselves. I bought the game through the Twogether Studios online store and had it in hand a few days later.

The Materials

The free 12-page Player's Handbook is pleasant to read, giving a vivid image of a fascinating foreign world; indeed, reading this was instrumental in my decision to purchase the game. It is also a great resource for game organizers that this is a free download, since I could have all my players read this ahead of time to ensure they had some initiation into the world. Twogether Studios also provides four iconic characters, which we used for our games. These character sheets are brilliant: the mechanical decisions of school and card selection are already made, but the player still gets to customize their character's story through four simple multiple-choice selections. All the choices are compelling, and this format ensures that the character design meets the unique flavor of the PDC world.

The PDC box includes a 450+-page rulebook, a few token sheets, and a lot of large-format cards. The rulebook is softcover and printed on high-quality glossy paper. The writing and worldcrafting are excellent: if the Player's Handbook is a teaser, it's a great preview of the full experience. The world of the Phoenixes places them as the last stand against The Dread, a collection of supernatural, evil forces that are overtaking the empire.

The Sessions

/* I describe two sessions in some detail here, and so there are some spoilers. I have tried not to expose secrets about the story, but I do describe the arc and rhythm of the scenario. Skip this section if you want to remain pure and play the game yourself. */

The first session was attended by four players, including three from my class and one friend to round out the party. They took a few moments in the prelude to introduce themselves and to ask a few questions of the primary quest-giver, and then they proceeded into the adventure proper.

In the first battle, the Bitter began by becoming enraged, and then was exposed, meaning he had no defense against attacks. He also was carrying one wound. In the enemy's next action, I turned to have it attack the Bitter—a natural decision, since the Bitter was attacking it—then realized this would have killed him before he even had his second hero cycle. That's really too brutal, so the creature inexplicably attacked the Durant instead. [Update: I shared this post with Keith Baker, who kindly pointed out a rules confusion here. I misunderstood the damage cap on the enemy, so it really couldn't have killed the Bitter on one attack; there would have been at least one chance to realize that this tactic was dangerous and that he should change tack.]

In the climactic scene, three of the characters died heroic deaths: the Bitter exerted himself to inflict serious damage on an opponent, even though he knew it would leave him open to being killed. The Shrouded overcame her fears and sacrificed herself to save the land from being overcome with a deadly curse. The Devoted absorbed all the wounds from the Durant, sacrificing himself so the Durant could continue. Indeed, the Durant was the only one to walk away from the scene. Critically, both the Bitter and the Shrouded became attendant spirits of the Durant, and they burned the last of their sparks so that the Durant could succeed—the Durant surely would have failed otherwise! This was a brilliant ending to the scenario, with three of the Phoenixes dying heroic deaths, and the Durant making the long walk home alone.

How a character advances in PDC depends on how they interpret their own deaths, colored by the six Phoenix Schools (Durant, Bitter, etc.). Even though we were not going through character advancement, I asked the players to make a choice here and describe it to the table. This was a great ending to the session, as it gave each player a last chance to explain how their character fits into their imagination and the game world.

The second session went quite differently. The group had only three players who were all students of mine; a fourth non-student was planning to attend but backed out due to an impending deadline. This group ran straight into the first combat after their introductions, and unlike in the first session, they did not take any opportunity to learn about their environment or surroundings. I had a sense that they were playing the game more like a video game than a tabletop RPG, running from scene to scene without any real consideration that the setting itself may hold information or clues. They also made it to the final scene, but even there, no one really knew what they were doing or why.

The second group had no Devoted, which means they had no means for healing themselves. All three made it to the final scene, in part because I was more cognizant of the combat system's brutality after nearly killing the Bitter in the first scene of the first session. I was more intentional about spreading the damage around the party, even if the purpose behind it strained the imagination.

The second session's final scene ended with a thud. The Bitter fell in combat, but this death did not gain the party anything substantial. The Shrouded successfully sneaked his way past the enemies to position himself to sacrifice himself to stop the curse, but remember that at this point, the party didn't really know the stakes. He second-guessed himself and, instead of stopping the curse, made a sneak attack against the enemies—an attack that was entirely fruitless and drew their attention, and so they killed him and the Durant in the next action.

The epilogue in which the players described how they interpreted their deaths stood in startling contrast to the first session's. Their descriptions were relatively pedestrian. One of them chose to interpret his death in what I considered a strange way, not at all in keeping with what actually happened. He explained that there was a particular school he wanted to advance in, so he was coming up with a weak narrative connection in order to achieve it—even though this group would never get together and actually advance their characters and continue their adventures.

Differences

As a gamesmaster ("Marshal" in PDC) and a scholar, I wanted to understand why these two sessions were so different. My own role was much smoother in the second session: in the first one, I had to spend a lot of time cross-referencing both systems and narrative elements. The second session, I was much more comfortable with the rules, the scenario, and the dynamics.

We had all invested quite a bit of time into PDC—I much more so than anyone else!—and so we took some class meeting time the following Monday to debrief. I had each group describe their adventure to the class, in the same order in which they played. In the discussion, the students were able to confirm with me one of my suspicions: the majority of players in the first session are regular tabletop players, whereas none were in the second session. This contrast showed up in how they played and also how they reflected on the experience. For example, one of the players in the first session had originally been trying to keep all of her information private, because she plays in a D&D group that is fraught with internal party conflict. (Why someone would want to play a game this way, I don't know, but different idioms for different folks I suppose.) For her, it was a revelation to see how a tabletop RPG could be so thoroughly cooperative that not only did everyone share a goal, but they could all speak openly about their cards, plans, and tactics. It is telling that she was the Shrouded from the first session! She picked the character because of its connection to death, spirits, and secrets, and in the end, she sacrificed herself for the good of the party. This is an amazing transformation of perspective in one three-hour game.

However, it's not the case that the second group didn't enjoy themselves, but their reflections were much more elementary. They enjoyed being together as a band of heroes facing the darkness, trying their best even if they failed. That is, they were reflecting on the fundamentals of any non-dysfunctional tabletop RPG. I am glad they had that experience, although I still couldn't help but be a little disappointed, since I think they missed the beauty and nuance of this system in particular.

I also want to briefly mention that in PDC, there is a "torch" card that lists environmental elements, and players can use these to gain small bonuses. During this session, the players made creative and clever use of the environmental elements to enhance the story. Indeed, they enjoyed this aspect of the game so much, they used the elements more for the collective narrative than for the systemic bonuses! The second group was much more perfunctory and pragmatic about these environmental elements, using them much moreso than how the other group incorporated them.

Conclusions and Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned above, the materials and story around Phoenix: Dawn Command are marvelous. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Marshal's Guide and feeling like I was part of the world crafted by the designers. It could go alongside The Clay that Woke on my shelf of "RPG rulebooks that are beautiful to read by themselves," but I'm glad it went into the category with Feng Shui 2 that adds "and I actually got to play."

While two sessions do not provide scientifically sound measurement, I do have a sense that this is not a game for novices. A friend of mine teaches Dungeons & Dragons in her games-inspired seminar on interactive fiction. That's an approach I've never used in part because I'm kind of cold on D&D as a means for storytelling, since so much of the system is really about fighting and treasure: a good group adds the rest, but it's also perfectly legitimate to run a game in the hack-n-slash fashion. However, I wonder if I should do something like this in the future for students who have had little or no exposure to tabletop RPGs, to show them the bare essentials in a very mainstream way... well, mainstream for this hobby anyway.

This inspires a brief digression. Over a year ago, I got some friends together to play one session of D&D 5th Edition from the Starter Set. We didn't get all the way through the first scenario, and the reason may be very simple. I was playing with relative tabletop novices, who were new to the idea of being able to do anything in a fantasy world. In the meantime, I played the world as being real, the monsters forming believable tactics around what they saw and knew—not just sitting in their rooms waiting to be killed. Thinking about that now, maybe this was another example of dissonance between my desire for realistic narrative and new players' desire for vanilla heroism?

Bringing that digression back into the fold, my final thoughts are about my involvement with the tabletop RPG hobby. I used to play all the time in my youth, starting with Marvel Super Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons, moving into games like Shadowrun and then building and running my own games, with custom rules and worlds—which is a very natural progression for a gamesmaster, in case those outside the hobby are wondering. Now, I occasionally read books like The Clay That Woke and The Burning Wheel and fantasize about getting a group of friends together for regular games. I do host the odd board game night—usually with short notice and correspondingly small turnout, but I very much enjoy it. RPGs take more investment though: even a short campaign requires significant commitment, and I would want to play with like-minded players, people who also want to enjoy a compelling story in a system with interesting rules. But, that's a lot of work, especially for the person running the game, and we have jobs, kids, spouses, responsibilities. It's hard for me to consider how to reconcile these interests, and even how to separate interest from nostalgia. A good game session can be very very good; a bad game session is not worth the effort!

Phoenix: Dawn Command is definitely on my list of games I would love to run with a small group of interesting friends. I would like to see how the story plays out, how deaths are interpreted, how power and challenge escalate in a rather dark and brutal world. Writing about PDC ended up with me writing about myself, but isn't that where tabletop RPGs are really at their best?