Month: June 2020

Quiet in the Convention Center!

The following editorial was originally published in Knights of the Dinner Table #268 and is posted here with permission.

Derek W. White’s article from KODT 268, “Quiet in the Convention Center”

I’ve been going to gaming conventions for over twenty years and, as an extrovert, one of the things I have enjoyed about them is seeing all the people and hearing the joyful sounds and laughter as people play games.

I love seeing crowds of people excited about gaming, the numerous people wearing costumes, and the chaos one can find in a dealer hall. For me, this is my “meat and drink” when I attend a convention.

But that’s not true for everyone.

Over the last few years, I have become more and more aware of the need for conventions to find ways to meet the needs of differently abled gamers.

As our hobby continues to grow, we are finding more and more people with autism and similar disabilities who need special spaces to calm down and relax. As someone who counts a number of the “old guard” who worked for TSR and other various other gaming companies as close personal friends, they have mentioned to me how difficult it is for them to get around at many of the larger conventions because they are not very handicap accessible.

The noise level at conventions also makes it difficult for them and finding a quiet place to sit is not always easy.

I have become even more keenly aware of how differently others react to all the sights and sounds at a convention because it has impacted me on a personal level—my son was diagnosed with autism about five years ago.

For those not familiar with autism, it is a condition where people are characterized by having difficulty in social interactions and communication.

They also may find themselves restricted by repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. Since those with autism are on a spectrum, the ability to function around others varies from person to person with some individuals being able to function very well while others find themselves only able to interact with one or two people at a time. Many find themselves at various places between those extremes.

Those with autism experience a hyper-sensitivity to bright lights, certain sounds, smells, and tastes. Even certain types of touch can feel extremely uncomfortable. You can see how in a convention setting, this can become very unsettling and overwhelming as it is unpredictable as to when an autistic person might have a negative reaction.

As a father who has raised one gamer and is now raising another one, I wanted to find a way to incorporate my son into the gaming experience at conventions as I had done with his older sister.

I wasn’t sure how to do this. His sister is not on the spectrum and enjoyed all the sights and sounds when she was younger, but my experiences with my son at various conventions has been as different and varied as the conventions themselves.

Larger conventions would be out of the question as they are more difficult for him to maneuver due to all the sights, sounds, and crowds. It seemed my wife and I would be relegated to only taking him to smaller, local conventions.

Then, miracle of miracles, I found myself with a few weeks off this past summer and had the opportunity to speak at one of the larger gaming conventions in the United States. I wanted to take my family with me so that we might have a bit of a family vacation but wondered how my son would react to all the noise.

He had attended this convention with my wife and his older sister a few years prior and I remembered some of the difficulties we faced. We couldn’t predict when the sights and sounds of the convention would overwhelm him but when they did, we knew it immediately. When this occurs, he becomes harder to manage and settle down.

For most people, when they view him in this state, they usually make comments such as, “Oh, wow, this one’s hyperactive” or, if they are really bold they will say, “What an out of control child!” because he begins to run around and finds it hard to focus on the directions we are giving him.

As a family, we had to learn that an autistic child who has become overstimulated is receiving so much input they can no longer focus on one thing.

All of these stimuli have “overloaded his circuits” so to speak and he cannot take any new input. He is just unable to process it.

When we had attended previously, our answer to this problem was to take him back to the hotel room we had been able to secure close to the convention center.

I knew that wouldn’t be a possibility this year because the expense of the hotels close by had risen out of our price range, so we were having to stay a few miles away.

I began looking at the convention’s website and saw they were advertising a “New Sensory Friendly Gaming Room” and I thought to myself, “This is excellent! A place to take him when things get overwhelming.”

I didn’t read the “small print” on the website so I did not realize the organization which was hosting the Sensory Friendly Room had it blocked off after noon on Friday as well as for the remainder of the weekend. The group sponsoring the room were using it for their own “special event.”

So, on Friday afternoon, I found myself with a ten-year-old boy who was overwhelmed with all the noise of the convention center.

His mother had been dealing with his bouncing back and forth from one thing to another for quite some time so I thought I would give her a break and take him to the Sensory Friendly room.

When we arrived, we were told it had been reserved for those who had signed up for it, that we wouldn’t be able to use it. No one had mentioned this to us the previous day so I was very surprised.

My son had already walked into the room and had begun to play one of the games so I found myself having to go in after him and try to explain that we would have to leave. He didn’t understand what was going and was now in tears.

All he could say to me was, “This isn’t fair.” After a little conversation, I was able to take him out of the room and after some searching, we found a place to sit down.

At this point, I knew our day was pretty much at an end even though it was barely noon.

I posted about this on social media because I was upset, my wife was upset, our son was upset, and I was hoping for some answers. I wanted the convention to know what we were experiencing and find out if others had something similar occur to them.

The convention pointed me to the place on the website where it showed the room was reserved by the hosting organization during the most active hours of the convention.

If you’re going to advertise a sensory friendly space, then it should be open to all those who might need it as those with sensory overload do not know when they will be requiring it.

I’m sure many of you may have, at times, experienced some type of sensory overload at a convention.

Now—imagine you can’t filter out all of that extra stimuli. This was what my son faces on an almost daily basis. You may have also seen people in wheelchairs jostled and pushed about as they travel the halls and corridors of a convention.

I know of vendors with accessibility needs who are limited to a short time at loading and unloading zones and have been ordered to move along because they’ve taken too long. Accessibility at gaming conventions is difficult!

As the chaplain at Gary Con, people often ask me where they might be able to find quieter spaces because things can get pretty loud in the designated gaming areas.

It’s not always easy to find those spots but we’re fortunate to have plenty of people who have opened their on-site rooms to people who need a place to chill out from all the noise.

We also have a GM lounge for those who run games and it provides a place for them to get away from all the excitement. It’s not a perfect solution but we are working to make it better each year.

In my day to day job, I am a full-time United Methodist pastor and have served a variety of churches. One of the first things we are asked to do when we arrive at a new site is conduct an accessibility audit.

To be honest, many of our churches are over a hundred years old and not as accessible as we would like. It’s very difficult to get them to a place where they would be compliant, but we are trying. Since these are religious institutions, they are not required by law to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we do our best to make sure we follow the law as closely as possible to make all people feel welcome.

Some of our churches are even working on providing special worship services where people on the autism spectrum who have sensory issues will feel more at ease.

We have seen this need and it’s my hope more conventions see it as well. If more gaming conventions would provide spaces for those with sensory issues—as well as better physical access to its attendees—it would open their doors to people who could not previously attend.

With the CDC reporting that 1 in 59 children have some form of autism and the Pew Research Center reporting 12.6% of the American population have some type of physical disability more and more families are trying to find accessibility options.

Conventions could increase their attendance by finding more creative ways to meet their needs. While it would be nice to see conventions do this out of a desire to meet the needs of a very diverse community, finding new ways to open their doors to people with accessibility needs might increase their bottom line.

There are organizations such as Game to Grow which use tabletop games in weekly “therapeutic social skills groups [to] help young people become more confident, creative, and socially capable.”

Game to Grow recently had a Kickstarter for a tabletop RPG called Critical Core “that helps kids on the autism spectrum build confidence and social skills, one dragon at a time.”

The Bodhana Group “advocates the use of tabletop gaming as a directed therapeutic and clinical practice that can benefit personal growth as well as enhance social and educational services to individuals and families.”

It’s not like autism and similar disabilities are unknown within our community. Shows like Community, The Big Bang Theory, and Stranger Things feature characters who, while they may not be identified as autistic, have some of those distinguishing traits.

Many of us have or know someone with social anxiety issues who has found solace in tabletop RPGs.

These are our brothers, sisters, children, parents, and friends. We should be making it easier for them to come and be a part of our mutual gaming experiences.

I want to end this on a positive note by pointing the reader to a major convention which has made great strides toward providing the spaces I have mentioned above.

The convention which provides a space “for anyone who feels overwhelmed and needs a place to regain their calm” is PAX. These spaces are run by Take This and they provide what they call an AFK room which is run by local volunteers and clinicians.

When I went to check it out, I was wondering which PAX conventions used it and was excited to see all of the PAX conventions use them to provide these spaces.

It also appears these AFK rooms are used at other conventions but, as of this writing, I could not find a list of those conventions on their website.

So, at this point, I hope you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” Do you attend conventions? Would you like to but are worried about accessibility issues?

Contact these conventions via social media and email to ask them about accessibility for people with autism—as well as those with physical disabilities.

Point these conventions to established organizations such as Take This, The Bodhana Group, and/or Game to Grow.

Believe me when I tell you that conventions do respond to attendees’ requests—if there are enough of them talking about it.

It may take some time to work it out but, eventually, we could see the tide shift enabling more people to have access to these spaces.


RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

This is RPG-ology #31:  Screen Wrap, for June 2020.


This was originally published on June 29, 2001, at Gaming Outpost, as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Screen Wrap.

I usually call it “recursive occlusion”; but that’s because that’s what Peter Davison’s Doctor called it in Castrovalva, and now that I get around to thinking about what that means he must have been referring to the method of construction—that the Master had built a trap for him by creating a world based on a formula in which each element was dependent on all previous elements, resulting in a blockage of all exits.  But that’s not important.  The idea is a lot simpler than that.

Years ago there was a video game called Tank.  Tanks would wander around the screen trying to shoot each other.  Thing was, in the early versions you could shoot off the top of the screen and the bullet would come in at the bottom; or you could shoot off one end and have it come in the other.  In some versions you could actually drive the tank that way, off one side and on the other.  It wasn’t the only game that did that, and it was a simple solution to a basic problem:  what do you do about the boundaries?

But it’s an idea I’ve used many times to mystify and confuse my players—and in more variations than you might have imagined.  But if you’ll come with me for a moment, I’ll try to help you imagine a few.

The first one’s easy.  The characters enter some sort of complex—a section of tunnels in a dungeon, an area of rooms and hallways in a space station.  As they pass a certain point, they are inside the boxThe box is clearly marked on your map—it shows that any exits to the east connect to those to the west, and those in the north run to those in the south.  If a character walks into that last ten-foot section on the edge of the box, he’s immediately teleported to the first ten foot section on the other side, so going out one side means coming in the other.  Only one of the entrances is also an exit.  You will be surprised at how many times the players will redraw the same configuration of tunnels before they realize that something is amiss.

The second variation takes the idea to another level.  I did this to one player once, and I’m not sure he figured it out even after someone explained it to him.  I put the same room in two different places on the map.  I denoted them with subscripts so I could keep them straight.  Because they were the same room, if you entered the room, you were in both places at once; but when you exited the room, you always left from the other one.  They weren’t far apart in this experiment—which actually added to the confusion, as he entered the first, left the second and walked back to the first, and drew it twice, but in the wrong position.  At one point part of the party left the room and came back, and then when they all left together they got split up, because some had entered the first room and some the second, but they all were together whenever they were in the room.

You could use this idea to move characters very long distances—another dungeon, another space station, another planet.  You don’t even really need the rooms—you can just use some innocuous looking door.  Looking through the door, you see another room; step through the door, you’re in a room that looks just like the one you saw, but isn’t it.

These ideas have basically focused on keeping the player character inside the box.  You can as easily turn it on its head, and use the same principles to keep him out of the box.  For example, If you’re walking down corridor A and reach room 210, you next pass through a transfer point that takes you to corridor A outside room 280; if you reverse, the transfer will take you from 280 back to 210.  If the player doesn’t know the room numbers or layout, he won’t realize that he’s been moved—until he completes other sections of the map which go around this blocked area, and discovers that the distance between two points in the A corridor is an awful lot shorter than it should be.  You can make it so that access to that central area is only from a specific entry direction, such as above or below or a particular lesser-used corridor (but it can be exited at any point at which it connects).  Or you can determine a sequence of events or “switches” that must be activated to open the area to the characters, such as finding the key, or deactivating the grid, or realigning the circuits at every entrance.

I used an idea like this for a Minotaur’s labyrinth once.  My players were good; they could map a maze in a minute, comprehend any convoluted corridors I created.  The worst thing about facing a Minotaur isn’t the beast itself; it’s the fact that you’re on it’s turf, and it knows how to get everywhere while you’re wandering lost.  But once you’ve mapped a bit of it, it’s pretty easy to keep from getting lost, and the beast’s advantage is gone.  So what I did was create a layout of halls that frequently ran the same distance in the same direction, but parallel to each other a dozen feet apart. Then I put “transfer points” in the halls such that if you were going one direction you would get bounced to another hall, but if you were coming back nothing happened.  The creature knew its way around, and could use the magic to its own advantage; the players always knew which direction they were headed, but once they got involved in the tunnels they never knew quite where they were or how to get back.

Doctor Who faced a Minotaur-like beast called the Nimon once (I won’t swear to the spelling).  This time it was Tom Baker finding his way through the maze.  The thing that made that maze so difficult was that it constantly changed—he worked out that it was a huge set of switches in a communications and transmat system.  That’s a very difficult thing to do—but I can think of two good ways to make it work.  One would be to draw up maybe four or five distinct maps that were the same size and shape and had a few good fixed internal landmarks; that way at random intervals you could randomly change which map was in effect.  Of course, jumping from map to map could be tricky.  You might try making one map on paper that had the landmarks and a few fixed walls as reference points, and then getting four or five sheets of clear plastic overlay to put on top of the map, on which you would draw (or maybe if you’re really ambitious line with thin strips of black tape) the details of each position.  When the layout changed you would pop the new overlay on top, see where the characters are, and slide the old one out.

Of course, this idea doesn’t actually fit the pattern of the others, the pattern of moving the players from where they think they are to somewhere else.  But it probably makes them feel like it does, and sometimes that’s even better—especially if you’ve used tricks to move them around before.  They’ll leap to the conclusion that you’ve moved them, and begin trying to work out where they are.  You can get this effect with even simpler tricks.  Try making a matched pair of seemingly unique landmarks a short distance from each other in a confusing section of paths.  Players unaware that there are two (and especially those uncertain about their mapping skills) will come to the second and think they’re back at the first.

Something like that happened in one of my games, when the player was exploring the world we call Tristan’s Labyrinth.  (It was not called so when Tristan was exploring it.)  The labyrinth is endless; it is made of an L-shaped section designed to fit together such that all exposed sides are the same length (well, a single and double length) with doors that match up, so that you can build outward from one to as many as you need.  This means the same patterns of rooms appear, but not always in the same directions.  You can get the same effect with any of a number of random-connect dungeon floor plans; somewhere I’ve got a set of squares and rectangles published by TSR a generation ago, although I was never terribly happy with the way they fit together.  Just use the same piece against itself, turned around.  In the one game, the player found himself in a room with an interesting shape and several exits.  Deciding to use this as the base for his explorations, he traced out one of the exits some distance and back again, and then another.  The third tunnel took him off the map piece onto the adjacent piece, and connected to another tunnel which led to that same room on the next piece of map.  Carefully he followed it, reaching that identical room.  He looked at it.  He studied it carefully.  He compared it to what he had already drawn.

And then he changed his map.

If you use these tricks, there will be many times when your players will start erasing what they’ve charted, changing and fixing and trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.  But there is nothing like realizing you have gotten them so confused they are erasing the map when it was right.


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Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2

Volume 2: I Can’t Do Accents.

For our second session, two new members joined our party. One permanent addition, and the other dropped in for the evening. The temporary character, my brother, was given the role of guard and a pre-made character sheet. My brother is fairly inept with D&D, not unlike myself, so there was a mite of comfort having him along for the ride. We had snacks on the table, introduced the new players, and we were quickly on our way to continue the campaign.

Having met with the leader of the town, we were tasked with liberating a group of people from a religious building that was occupied by some kobolds and cultists. D&D has a funny way about creature traits. A cultist is essentially a crazed follower. At least, that is what we have gleaned from our encounters and from the info the DM passed on to us. It has been mentioned that this is the common understanding in the D&D world. Also; kobolds are nitwits. Either way, cultists will invariably go out of their way to harm someone, even if it means their own imminent demise, and likewise kobolds rush in fairly foolishly to fights they obviously have no stake in. I guess this has to do with some sort of devotion they claim, but I will have to take the DM’s word on it.

In the cloak of night, we came upon the religious building of worship that was surrounded by a patrolling group of kobolds making rounds every 30 or so minutes, a large party of a mix of cultists and kobolds in the front of the building, and finally a few cultists guarding the rear entryway. All of this while fire was being set to the building, and townspeople were trapped within. We took our time, covertly sending in a messenger, who craftily made their way up to the roof and inside to let the people know we were coming. We also devised a plan to wipe out the back door guards as quickly as possible by throwing open the doors, surprising them, and pummeling them from both sides, all while being cognizant of the patrolling kobolds. Being successful in that task, we pressed on. Later that evening, we found ourselves at a mill with several cultists who would drop down from high above to attack us, hurting themselves in the process, which I was not expecting. Unarmed cultists were trying to harm armored party members, essentially the D&D version of tapping on someone’s right shoulder from behind, only to lean left and wait for them to look right to strike. To put it politely, it was ineffective.

Small lesson here: cultists are dumb. Don’t join a cult, especially a D&D cult. Perhaps this is a well known facet of D&D, but let’s just remind ourselves of the fact that this was my second foray into D&D, and I felt a little bit like I was swimming for a lot of the time. I was acquaintances with the DM, but we didn’t know each other well, and I never considered how getting used to his style and flavor would inhibit my ability to simply immerse myself in the fantasy role. Additionally, there was the fact that I had barely nicked the surface of what D&D could be, so I was overwhelmed by the amount of lore I didn’t bring to the table. I felt more as though I was thrust into the realm than grew up in it, and my game play proved it.

Even Mario is embarrassed by my accent.

Amidst hours of play, the DM abruptly derailed what was happening to ask me who was speaking, and I was caught in the brights. To bring you up to speed, my friend plays a bard. He is also Deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. I am his interpreter in game, which has made for some interesting interactions (one involving a dragon) and some early on confusion, as I used my normal speaking voice for both characters. So, when the DM inquired as to who was speaking, I knew right away that I had erred. The mantle of creating a voice for the bard was set squarely upon me. The bard’s last name is Tempesté so I thought an Italian American “accent” would be suitable. To be transparent, my Italian American accent may or may not have strong semblances to Mario and Luigi from the Mario Bros games. I have learned that I am not good at the aforementioned accent (or probably any accent, for that matter), and to top it off, a few times it seems to slip into an obnoxiously stereotypical French accent a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So, with that in mind, “I faht en your general direction. Now go a-way, or I shall taunt you a second time-eh.”

See you all-eh en Tales of a D&Degenerate-uh, Volume-eh uh-three-uh!

Faith in Play #31: Magic Roads

This is Faith in Play #31:  Magic Roads, for June 2020.


Some years back I was playing in a game in which the city was ruled by chaotic gods who objected to anything being orderly or sensible.  This was particularly noticeable in connection with the roads:  it was impossible to make a map.  I secretly believed that this was because the referee didn’t want to make one himself and so thought it was easier just to pretend that he knew where everything was and how to get there, and make it up as needed.  In play, though, if you wanted to get somewhere in the city, you asked for directions from a non-player character who knew, and you followed them precisely.  These directions were as much ritual as geography–you might have to go around a block and find yourself on a different road when you returned to your starting point, or go halfway down a road or into a cul-de-sac and then return before continuing, or walk under an arch or between the columns on the front of a temple.  If you missed your turn, you hoped you could get back to wherever you began and try again.

I was reminded of this last night as I was driving home and came to the intersection pictured in that satelite view (courtesy Google Maps) pictured to the right.  Coming down route 109 from the west northwest (top left corner) you bear left when 109 curves right into Cape May (The Lobster House, one of the best seafood restaurants in the state, is right below the map) and come to a traffic light.  This is the onramp for exit zero on the Garden State Parkway, which runs off to the north northeast.  There is a conspicuous sign there that says No Turns, so you continue straight across the intersection onto that loop that goes around and returns you to the same traffic signal, where again you go straight to merge with traffic coming over the bridge on 109 from Cape May to get on the Parkway northbound, which begins here and goes off the top right corner of the map.

I’m sure that the intersection is designed that way because during the day, and particularly during the summer, traffic is crazy and someone trying to make a left turn would just hold everything up.  As I sat there around midnight on a late February night with no other cars in sight waiting for the light to change, an odd thought struck me.  It wasn’t that there would be no harm in simply making the left turn and cutting out the loop.  It was wondering about a road where if you made that left turn instead of taking the loop it would take you somewhere else.

I sometimes use my Global Positioning System to direct me to places I already know how to find.  I do it partly because I am interested in whether Google thinks there’s a better way to go than the way I know, but also partly because I know that the system is updated in real time for things like traffic jams and accidents, and have more than once had it send me by a different route than it usually does because the usually longer route will be quicker.

All of this comes to me now as illustrative of divine guidance and intervention.

Like most people, I am often annoyed when a traffic signal turns red as I am approaching.  I am annoyed enough that I often watch the pedestrian signals–at least here in New Jersey they’ve begun installing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs with countdowns which turn to “Don’t Walk” when they reach zero and usually also change the green light to yellow at the same time, so I can estimate whether I’m going to make the light.  When I don’t, though, I sometimes remind myself that God might be stalling me to avoid a potential accident or incident ahead.  My father often said “Don’t be there when the accident happens,” and it may be that our Father takes these little steps to prevent such events–obviously not always, but sometimes.  There is somewhere a book of stories about people who called out of work or were delayed on the way to their offices in the World Trade Center on that fateful day in which so many died.

And so I wonder about our path through life, and whether God sometimes takes us to the place we always expected to go by the route that we never could have foreseen, because it was the best way to get us there.  It might even be that “straight down Main Street and make a right on Broad Street” won’t actually get you to number seven South Broad Street, because that address won’t be there unless you go a block down thirteenth and come back up fourteenth before continuing.  Like the home of Sirius Black, if you don’t take the right steps to get there the destination can’t be found.


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Next article:  Zealots.