Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A GM's Day Tribute

It's GM's Day, a time for those of us seriously dedicated to roleplaying games and the craft of GMing (whether you appreciate the work of another or strive to become the ideal model of gamemastering) take the time to give a shout out of thanks and snatch up some sweet stuff from our wish lists. As a publisher, I could simply take the time and push my own products through DriveThru's massive sale but it seemed lacking of the day's intent.

Then it hit me. I don't think I've ever taken the time to publicly thank the other GMs who amuse, entertain and enlighten. So wrong and I'd like to take this time to fix it. These are the select duo who have always impressed me with their hard work and dedication, inspiring me to make my own skills better. I'm not confident enough to say I've been successful, but my heart's in the right place and that's good enough for me right now.

The first is perhaps the most passionate GM I've ever known and one-half of an inseparable pair (despite the two living in different countries). I've known Derek for over 25 years (ouch) and while we're not in contact any more, I'm not sure there's anyone else I've ever met who invested so much of his soul into his games. He has an infectious enthusiasm to every one of them and prides himself on getting new players to take up the dice. Derek is also a builder; carpentry runs in this man's blood and he's used it to create some truly impressive displays over the years. While I've never been handy enough to consider some of the goodies he's made over the years, it's one story in particular that remains locked in my mind.

We're going way back to high school for this one, back to the days of Dark Sun. While we normally played in his parents' basement, we came over for a midday game (I'm thinking we skipped school because there was no one else home) and gathered around the dining room table for a change of pace. There was a map laid out on the table and we were knee deep in the adventure (not entirely sure which one we were playing as I've never been good at remembering that part) when one of the players discovered a secret passage.

"Grab the other end of the table," Derek said and the two pulled it open as you would to add an insert. Secured underneath the table was a secret underground layer to the map, resting in secret for hours while we played unsuspecting of the awesomeness he had waiting for us. All miniatures and furnishings were firmly in place, waiting to be unlocked. And if you know Derek, you know he's completely unable to keep a secret without having a giant grin on his face. That sense of awe he created by catching us off-guard is something I want to produce in every game I run.

Next, we have the second half of the Dynamic Duo: Dave. Also someone I've known since elementary school, Dave's thing in high school was running Ravenloft and he was very good at it. Not just because there were more miniatures than you could shake a stick at (for which he probably had a stick-waving miniature we never had a chance to see), maps aplenty, and every supplement/adventure published under the sun, it was how his version of Ravenloft became our One True Campaign. PCs died and others lived, but not without scars, stories, and a heavy dose of fear. What I remember most about those long nights of Ravenloft was not how my character was scared but how I genuinely felt that our characters were screwed. In a good way.  

What Dave also taught me was that roleplaying games were stories told to an audience smaller than an off-Broadway production of a phone conversation but 1,000 times better. We all wanted to create our own winding campaigns because of his and each of us dabbled in all of the many settings TSR released in their heyday: Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun (as mentioned above), Planescape, even Birthright. None of them ever compared to Dave's Ravenloft campaign. Playing those games was not about the individual session; it was about the campaign, something I miss terribly as an adult trying to get a single story arch told in 6 sessions, let alone an evolving campaign running three years and 15 levels. He taught us to respect our enemies because they had no respect for us and he played all his monsters this way. Mortality was our greatest nemesis and the only way we would learn to respect it was to confront it.

Both of them showed how fun it was to run a game and while it's been years since I've seen them, let alone sat down with them for a game, there's little time gone by when I haven't sat in the GM's chair and hoped I could invoke that same feeling into my players.

So to Dave and Derek, out there in the world prepping their next game, I say thanks for killing so many of my characters and keeping me wanting more. Happy GM's Day, guys. 

Monday, 3 March 2014

Weight of the World

Anyone who's used to reading this blog, catching the infrequent post here and there, or simply know anything about my work may have noticed one indisputable fact: I ain't written a damn thing on here in over a month. Yeah, it's been a while and like all absences, there's a reason. Maybe even several but they're all lumped into one category. Regardless of those reasons, it's become manifested in a near inability to write. Anything. Regular readers may notice something missing from the start of this post, a signature catch phrase marking the beginning of every other post every made on this blog because it just doesn't seem appropriate right now. Or any more.

I've been having a very hard time lately. Stressed, weary, and depressed. It seems the weight of the world has finally bore down on these shoulders that have endured so much low these past three-and-a-half years, leaving me with only two choices. Carry on as I have been for some time and push these struggles aside until yet another date or accept reality and do something about it. In a bizarre way, I've gone with a lazy version of the second choice and dumped a few challenges from my list.

My readership is low, so expecting everyone to know what's going on is silly. Even then, I've never truly shared my burdens and those of my family, instead willing to tease snippets and move on before anyone can poke and prod. Big mistake. I've been keeping a lot to myself for a while now and it's taken a toll, such as...

  • The physical pain. Mild compared to what many others with chronic pain endure on a daily basis, yet still an issue nonetheless. Yes, there's medication but those come with side effects as well, from lack of appetite to riding the high and the following lows when you have to take a lot of pills. Winter has always been tricky with regards to pain as the fluctuating temperatures cause the nerves to fire up or slipping on a patch of ice tweaks my foot in just the right way to send me out of commission for the rest of the day. Mix that with bad knees and a propensity to lean heavily on my good (left) side too often and you have a glimpse of what's going on. 
  • The cognitive issues. This has recently become a serious concern as my full-time job ramped into high gear during the ski season. Working in a low-traffic, average office setting started out well and I was rather impressed with myself for being able to operate - even thrive - in an open environment. Now that people have been moved around and this place has become a phone-ringing, conference-calling, power-meeting place-to-be for everyone in Front Office, things have become complicated. I've suffered five episodes of what I call "fuzziness," including one incident where my co-workers called 911 when I was passed out at my desk and was non-responsive for several minutes. By the time I returned to functional, the paramedics had already arrived to do their thing and I was done for the day. 
  • The workload. Related to the cognitive issues, this is more about the number of things on my plate at one time and is also the area with the most control over my situation. In a given week, I had my full-time job at Calabogie, a part-time job delivering pizzas until midnight, freelance work writing for Xenopedia/Mercenary Breed, keeping up with house chores while my wife powered through her school work, taking online classes, rough designs for projects like Optional Core, walking the dogs, tutoring and finally trying to have some time to relax and re-power the engines. I'm a very task- and deadline-oriented person and failing to keep up on so many duties was doing serious damage. My schedule was so crowded, I had to bail on visiting my family for Christmas and I still haven't had a chance to see them for the holidays (they're only a two-hour drive away from us). 
  • The financial problems. I've never been good with money. Something I said last month stuck with me and has become my new motto: "I've never had money but I've always had my pride." The accident brought on serious consequences to our finances, especially when I wasn't able to work for three years and had to support my wife with her own problems. (We're getting there, don't worry.) Money was always tight and the only means we had available were through the insurance company (who bailed after two years) and the still-ongoing lawsuit. Now that I'm working from the bottom of a new ladder and still struggling to keep up with our payments - including rent - all while busting my ass to keep up with these waves, money problems have become a major sore spot. To the point that I literally shake and feel chest pains when I see a bill in the mail or try to sit down and update our personal budgets. 
  • The missus' medical issues. My wife has a serious form of epilepsy (she's also been unable to work for three years now) and depression. Before the accident, I was her rock and was able to keep the world immediately around her stable while she learned to cope with her recently diagnosed conditions. Since the accident, it all became too much for her and there have been problems I will not go into here. They aren't my problems to share but the stress of knowing I'm powerless to do anything about them is mine and I'm sharing that. 
Neither one of these takes precedence over another and they all intermingle with each other. For example, working two jobs to try and stay afloat increased the pain, which bumped up the amount of meds I was taking, leading to that shitty feeling and fogging up my cognitive functions, meaning I had to miss out on some work days and not get paid for those missing days. All of this has been reasonably kept to myself. No more. 

It all came to head when my wife received $4000 from OSAP (Ontario student loans) related to her school work. We didn't expect this money and our first thoughts were on someone screwing up. "Nah, can't be right. Someone will realize their mistake and it'll be gone in a couple of days." At that very moment, I freaked out and broke down. Like lying on the floor in the fetal position broke down. The straw that broke the camel's back. Or so I thought. There was another situation but, like I said, it's not my problem to share. 

There are a lot of people in the RPG community who battle depression and I think it's safe to say I'm one of them. It's not the first time hitting this brick wall and it seems to be a reoccurring challenge for creative types in general. They've been bold and made a point of sharing their issues to varying degrees of detail through blogs and tweets and I commend each and every one of them for taking the first step: admission. Perhaps it's time I did the same. 

In all honesty, part of me wanted to do the same years ago and be forward about my struggles but I listened to my lawyer and kept it to myself. Not that I'm a chatty person (I'm very quiet in the flesh unless we're talking gaming and game design, then you can't shut me up) but in my writing. I write because I can't express myself verbally the same way I can do with my fingers. But I was encouraged against such posts simply because it was all related to the lawsuit and I just don't give a shit about that anymore. I've allowed myself to become victim to a system that assumes more than assures and let the accident dominate my life, only to let me down and leave me out in the cold. I want to become my own man again and prove to myself what I'm capable of so fuck what I've been told. I've been a victim for far too long.

It's what I learned about depression long ago - you have to get yourself out of it. That's my take on such matters and not to be taken as gospel in any way, just what I've discovered about my depression. It's about perception and opinion with little to nothing related to fact. I have many reasons to be proud and happy - I won a fucking ENnie award for my first ever original RPG design and I'm married to someone whom I truly love and loves me just as much, if not more - but my opinion is that I've failed myself and those who count on me. Kind words, gentle reminders, and coaching from friends and family can only go so far. The solution is up to the individual. I can't be depressed while my wife suffers from clinical depression, that's what I tell myself. I need to fix myself so I can help her and be what she needs. It's not something I'm saying for her sake; it's for my own and it's what's prompted me to do what is necessary for both of us. A happy hubby makes a happy wife and vice versa. 

To that, I've made serious changes in my life. First, I took a break from all writing, including work on Xenopedia and Mercenary Breed (to which major thanks goes out to Aaron Huss from Mystical Throne, the publisher, for his incredible understanding and help with the situation), changed my part-time job to another one with less hours and better pay, started working from home once a week, dropped out of my online graphic design course, stopped tutoring (for now), and started enjoying time at home without chores, tasks, or duties. The missus has also dropped out of her course and that has taken a huge load off both our shoulders. We're starting to see the benefits of these choices already and there are more smiles in the house than there has been for a while. 

I am the Warden and I am depressed. I'm telling my story because it must be told, because silence only makes matters worse, and I want others to know they are never alone out there.

(To learn more about depression and its symptoms, I found this website to be helpful as a starting point.)