Dungeons and Dragons at summer camp

The party of campers prepares for battle against several giant spiders and skeletons.
The party of campers prepares for battle against several giant spiders and skeletons.

I get paid to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. The summer camp I work at, Greenwood Trails, in Winsted, CT, is letting me run a D&D activity with several kids a session. Regardless, it’s still pretty awesome.

I ran the activity last week with a group of the older campers, ages 13 to 16. We were using Fifth Edition and it went about as well as could be expected with nine kids who’ve never played a table-top RPG. We spent a day making characters and the next few running an adventure set, where else?, at a summer camp for aspiring adventurers! They didn’t get all that far in the four days, but they dealt with a giant rat infestation and a sahuagin problem in the lake and a good time was had by all.

This week, though, I have seven kids ages eight to 12. We are using a HEAVILY modified version of F*cking D&D, mostly to simplify it even more and remove the gratuitous profanity.

We’ve only been through one day, and it’s already one of my favorite activities to run. The kids have made their characters and started their trek through a mysterious forest to find a group of missing villagers.

We have a party of three rogues, two rangers a wizard and a druid. They all started out kind of clueless, as we all do with a new game, but only an hour in, they’re starting to utilize their character’s abilities and work as a team. One thing I was pleasantly surprised at was the level of role-playing they got into. Instead of just blindly smashing forward through the enemies, they utilized the rangers’ tracking abilities to scout out an abandoned camp and the druid’s shape-changing to scout ahead. So far, they are doing okay against a few skeletons and giant spiders.

It’s awesome seeing them work together and explore a creative new hobby. Dungeons and Dragons, and other collaborative story-telling games, are a great way to get kids to explore lateral thinking, problem solving and creative writing. Many of the kids playing in my games this summer have begun developing backstories for their characters outside of the game.

It’s awesome for me to see a group of kids getting into a hobby I enjoy so much, and doing it at a place like summer camp, where the whole point is to try new things and learn from each other, is just the icing on the cake.

Hopefully the boys make it out of the lair of the Weaver Queen and her hoards of spider minions with a fun new hobby to bring home to their friends.

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Summer Camp: The hardest job you’ll ever love

For the past four and a half weeks, I’ve been working as a summer camp counselor at Greenwood Trails in Winsted, CT. I’ve had the job for the past three years, and I can honestly say there is no better job in the world.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Far from it. Every day, I and the rest of the 40 counselors deal with almost 200 kids from ages eight to 16, running activities, organizing cabins and generally making sure they don’t kill themselves. I walk probably five miles a day between the office and the high ropes course and pass out asleep every night from sheer exhaustion.

Our super professional staff learning the ropes during certification week.
Our super professional staff learning the ropes during certification week.

But, each day I wake up with a smile on my face because I’m doing the job that I love. Summer camp provides kids a great opportunity to get outside and try things they’ve never done before. I’ve taught kids how to fence, fish and climb a rock wall. I’ve even introduced them to some of my favorite hobbies like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, both of which were surprisingly big hits.

For many, it’s the only chance to get out into the woods, learn to be comfortable in the outdoors and get a little dirty. Last weekend, I led an overnight backpacking trip up St. John’s Ledges on the Appalachian Trail. Even though the kids were lugging over-sized car-camping tents and bookbags stuffed with sleeping bags, they walked off the trail laughing and singing.

Greenwood Trails is right in the foothills of the Berkshires, so we get to go to some awesome places on our days off, like New York, Boston, or Bash Bish Falls in Massachusetts.
Greenwood Trails is right in the foothills of the Berkshires, so we get to go to some awesome places on our days off, like New York, Boston, or Bash Bish Falls in Massachusetts.

Camp isn’t just for the kids, however. I have a ton of fun as a counselor. The people that I spend these short ten weeks with become some of my best friends. I’m lucky to say that I have friends on almost every continent. On days off, we take great trips to local lakes and attractions, or maybe just hang out.

Camp is an important part of growing up and I believe that every kid should have the chance to experience it and learn from it and every young adult should consider working at one for the same reasons.

Unfortunately, my short off period is almost over, so I’ll have to wrap up. It’s chicken nuggets again for lunch and I have to run to the dining hall before the kids eat them all.

It really wouldn't be a post about camp if there wasn't a campfire somewhere, would it?
It really wouldn’t be a post about camp if there wasn’t a campfire somewhere, would it?

Hurling: The fastest game on grass

It’s really amazing that it took me more than 21 years to hear about a sport that’s been around for more than 3,000 years, especially since it involves full contact and heavy sticks.

Hurling has been played in Ireland for centuries and is one of the country’s national sports. It has a growing community in the U.S. through cultural societies and collegiate clubs.

I started playing with the University of Connecticut hurling club last fall. They had the booth next to the fencing team, of which I was already a member, at the involvement fair. I had heard a bit about the game from a friend from Ireland, and was curious to try it for myself.

A contact sport that involved swinging heavy sticks at each other and probably heavy drinking after games? Sold.

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After seeing the Fenway Hurling Classic in Boston last November, I knew this was the sport for me. The Galway and Dublin senior team, some of the best in the sport, played an exhibition match at Fenway Park to a packed house. I knew I had to be a part of the community and atmosphere of this game. The Dropkick Murhpys concert afterwards didn’t hurt either.

Hurling is a great sport. Jokes about on-field violence and post-game beverages aside, it’s a fast, complex and engaging game. The ball, or sliotar, moves between players incredibly fast, propelled off the player’s sticks, or hurls, which are enticingly axe-like in shape. “The fastest game on grass,” as it’s called, requires much communication between teammates, field awareness and positioning. Points are awarded for either putting the ball into the goal or between two uprights at either end of the field.

As someone who has not played a competitive team sport since I was about eight, there’s a bit of a learning curve, but after getting the initial motions of swinging a hurl down, it gets simpler from there. It has a more “wrist-flick” motion than “baseball swing.”

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Memorial Day weekend marks the National Collegiate Gaelic Athletic Association National Championships in Boulder, Colorado. Six teams from across the country are competing for the title. Four teammates and I are leaving in the morning to make the three-day drive.

We’ve been preparing for the tournament all season, practicing hard and playing against the other local clubs. Whether we win or not, I can’t think of a better event, better game, or better people to to spend my time with.

Sunrise over Bear Mountain

I couldn’t think of a better way to end my senior year at University of Connecticut than a backpacking trip.

Almost immediately after graduation, my friend Kyle and I drove up to the northwest corner of the state and set out on a three-day backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail from the Route 7 parking lot, up Bear Mountain and finishing at the Undermountain Trail parking lot. It’s not the most strenuous hike in the state, and at about 26 miles, not the longest we could have done in the time, but we weren’t looking for too much of a challenge, just a good hike to shake off the school year.

The trip got off to a slow start, but despite leaving almost an hour and a half later than anticipated, we still finished the first seven-mile day in three hours. There was still plenty of time to set up camp, relax and eat dinner at the Limestone Spring campsite. A few good draughts from the entirely essential flask of Knob Creek bourbon later, and we were both asleep in the shelter for the night.

The next day’s hike took us over Lion’s Head and to the base of Bear Mountain at the Brassie Brook campsite. Along the way we met an older thru-hiker named Flip and his dog. Flip had been on the trail since March, but was considering packing it in in Salisbury. He said the cost of staying in places that offered a hot shower and a place to charge electronics was just too much and the trail was only getting more difficult. We found out later from a mother and son pair who shared the shelter with us that night, Holly and Ben, that Flip had decided to continue his journey, but was convinced the trail he was following led North, not back towards Springer Mountain, which he left two months ago. I suppose his trail name was well-earned.

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Flip still has a ways to go, even if he’s heading in the right direction.

We arrived at Brassie Brook at the early hour of 1:30 p.m. I’m known to be a pretty fast hiker, and though Kyle said he was thankful for the brisk pace, he still took a solid four hour nap after the nine hours we hiked since 9 a.m. that morning. We shared a nice dinner with Holly and Ben and had a close run-in with one of the namesakes of Bear Mountain before bed.

Kyle and I decided that day that, since we finished our previous days so early, we would try something a bit more adventurous for the next day. Rising quietly at 3 a.m., so as not to wake Holly and Ben, we stowed our gear and hit the trail in the pitch dark.

We had a mile and a half ahead of us to the peak of Bear Mountain, and we were raising the sunrise.

The trail up Bear is fairly steep, and mostly made of rock, so the scramble was a bit daunting in the light of our headlamps, but, like the rest of the trip, we made good time and were at the top by 4 a.m., with plenty of time to cook a quick breakfast and settle in for the show.

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Just about 4 a.m. It was just light enough to climb up the stone tower at the peak of Bear Mountain without a flashlight.

It was silent on the peak in the gray pre-dawn, except for the whistling of the wind over the ridges. Countless stars gradually faded as the first tinges of red and blue shown over the horizon. We were awake before the birds, whose morning chorus began at about 4:30.  A blue mist hung over the river valley and clung to the sides of the peaks in the distance.

When the sun finally broke the horizon, a great red fireball in the sky, the entire world lit up below it. The mute colors of the trees brightened to their early spring hues. We sat and watched it crawl up, awed and proud to have made it here and been the first in the state to see this new day.

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Thanks, Kyle, for the suitably epic picture.

There are precious few places in this small state of Connecticut that can honestly be called anything resembling wilderness, but sitting atop Bear Mountain, writing with the light of the sunrise, it truly felt like I was alone in the world.

If someone were to ask, “Was it worth it to wake up at 3 a.m. and hike up a mountain just to watch a sunrise?” I can say, without hesitation, that the answer is “yes.”

Acquisitions Inc. series to bring more live-streamed D&D to the masses

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Omin (Holkins), Jim (Krahulik), Binwin (Kurtz) and Viari (Rothfuss) adventure under the name Acquisitions Incorporated in a Dungeons and Dragons game run by Chris Perkins.

Millions of people play Dungeons and Dragons on kitchen tables across the globe. The publisher, Wizards of the Coast, claims over 20 million players. Increasingly, gamers have been turning to online platforms for their games, whether connecting with a party over Skype or through services like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletops. Despite this, D&D has always been a niche hobby, shunned in the mainstream as a “nerd’s game,” and is the constant butt of jokes in television and movies.

That perception, however, is slowly changing, thanks in part to the many options to view live games with experienced and dedicated players.

Earlier this week, the cast of Acquisitions Incorporated, a celebrity game played at PAX video game conventions, announced that the yearly event will become a running show with episodes starting in June.

The players, Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, PvP comic artist Scott Kurtz and Kingkiller Chronicle author Patrick Rothfuss, and their Dungeon Master Chris Perkins, principle story designer for D&D, will be continuing the epic saga of Binwin Bronzebottom, Jim Darkmagic and Omin Dran in their half-baked business ventures. The game started as a podcast in 2008, and has hosted many celebrity guests since its inception, including Wil Wheaton and Morgan Webb.

Other games like Acquisitions Inc. have earned acclaim in mainstream media already. Critical Role, a game on Geek and Sundry featuring a cast of eight professional voice actors, was featured in a Slate article by Ryan Teitman in February.

The talent in Critical Role takes the game to a new level. As Teitman said, “they aren’t just performing for each other; they’re winkingly performing for us.” After 50 episodes and thousands of devoted “Critter” followers on Twitter, they’ve shown that this formula works.

Games like this show new initiates to D&D what the game could be. On its surface, it looks like just a bunch of nerds crowded around a table rolling dice, but the casts of Acquisitions Inc. and Critical Role show what happens when a group of people transform the game into a storytelling experience.

Audiences laugh, cry and gasp along with the players, becoming truly invested in the characters presented. Game sessions are hours long, and play out like a feature-length improvisational comedy show. Acquisitions Inc. and Critical Role both have professional production value, which makes them a bit more attractive than other live games, usually played online or as a podcast.

Gaming broadcasts are becoming a massive business. ESports, or professional video gaming, is a multi-billion dollar industry, with fans and players coming from all over the world to competitions that fill venues like Madison Square Garden. If these commonly solitary hobbies can be treated like sports, why can’t they be held to the same level as traditional entertainment like movies and television?

I’m excited to see what the Acquisitions Inc. crew can do with a regular series, and I’ll definitely be tuning in for the premiere in June. To hold you over until then, check out Critical Role or Chris Perkins’ other live-streamed game, Dice, Camera, Action.

Do you watch live-streamed RPGs? Tell us which ones are your favorites in the comments.

April Loot Crate Unboxing

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What secrets could the “Quest” Loot Crate hold?

Loot Crate is one of many “mystery box” subscriptions on the internet today. For about $20 a month, a box containing an assortment of products that fit that month’s theme is shipped to you, but the contents of the box aren’t revealed beforehand.

April’s box had the theme “Quest: Adventure Awaits,” and contained stuff from Harry Potter, the Vikings TV show, the movie Labyrinth, the Uncharted video game series and the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game series.

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The Loot Crate site says that the the items are worth more than $45. That may be true, if you were to buy them from the store, but I don’t think I would buy some of the loot by itself.

Lets have a look at what’s in the box:

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Cue Legend of Zelda treasure chest noise.
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The purple is a bit much for me, but the Labyrinth design is cool.

First out is a shirt by Ripple Junction, from Labyrinth with the late, great David Bowie as the Goblin King. I’m a fan of the movie, but the purple color isn’t really my thing. Might make a decent gift or simply relegated to convention-wear.

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I am really looking forward to using this drinking horn. Looks like it will hold maybe a little less than a full beer.

Up next is probably my favorite thing in the crate, a replica drinking horn from the Vikings TV show, by Chronicle Collectibles. The horn looks cool, and I’m sure will serve its duty as a drinking vessel, but plastic construction and the paint job seems a little lacking. It seems solid, though and has a neat neck strap so you won’t spill your mead. I’m not sure of the exact volume, but it looks just a bit small to fit a full bottle of beer.

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Not my favorite item in the box, but it will make a good gift for a Potter fan I know.

As a Harry Potter fan, I was excited to see what this crate contained. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed by what Loot Crate had to offer this month; a pair of socks by Hyp Hosiery with the various Horcruxes created by Lord Voldemort. They’re kind of cheesy, and I’m sure there’s some fans out there that would love them, but they just don’t do anything for me.

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The bourbon takes 12 points of cold damage.

lootcratemoldNow we’re talking! I’m super excited to use this d20 ice mold made by Loot Crate Labs. It’s in two parts and made of silicone for easy use and cleaning. There’s not much better than a cold drink during a long Dungeons and Dragons game, and this should be a great way to keep a glass of bourbon chilled while I DM.

 

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“I am a man of fortune and must seek my fortune.” Pretty cool poster, if a bit small.

There was also a small poster included in the box. This one was from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I’m a huge fan of the series, so this poster is definitely going up somewhere, even if it is a bit small. It’s only about a foot by eight inches, but it’s got a really cool graphic, so no real complaints here.

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I like the mix of D&D and Legend of Zelda in the pin.

Lastly, there was a LootPin included in the box. It looks like a cross between a Master Shield from Legend of Zelda and a d20. Apparently, it also gives you a special DLC for the D&D Neverwinter MMORPG. Entering a special code will get you a special gelatinous cube companion (haha companion cube) to use in the game. I’m not a Neverwinter player, so I can’t really comment on the DLC, but the pin is sweet, so I’m on board.

Each box also comes with a magazine that explains all the items in the box and a few extras, like letters from fictional characters and a few drink recipes to fill up the new drinking horn. The box also flips inside-out to reveal a maze to go with the “Quest” theme.

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The maze on the inside of the box. I haven’t tried to solve it yet.

Overall, I’m about half and half over this Loot Crate. The drinking horn, ice mold and pin are pretty neat, but I’m not super fond of the socks and the shirt is okay. The poster is nice, but it seems like something I could get for free at a convention or press event, so I’m not really counting it in the value of the box. I’d recommend getting a Loot Crate if the theme of that month and the properties included are ones you like, but if you’re unsure of more than, say, one or two of them, I’d skip it and just buy the stuff you want for yourself.

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All the loot laid out.

What would be in your ideal Loot Crate? Tell us in the comments!

Eternal Could be the Next Great Online Trading Card Game

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(Eternal/Facebook page)

Trading card game fans have always gotten kind of a raw deal when it comes to online games. Sure, there are plenty of offerings available, but all suffer from serious flaws that prevent them from becoming real classics.

eternal logoEnter, Eternal, a new digital TCG developed by Direwolf Digital.

After nearly a month of radio silence, Direwolf announced today that the closed beta will be launching this week for those who signed up at PAX South or with a promo code. The beta was supposed to go live Monday, but according to its Facebook page, the game still had some bugs to work out.

As for those who didn’t get a beta key at PAX, “it will come down to how the first wave goes, what we learn and what questions we still have to answer,” Direwolf Digital responded to a Facebook post. They will spend the closed beta seeing how the game holds up to increasing numbers of players, and will let players still on the list know on the timing of the release.

A first look at the game was presented almost two months ago, with almost nothing in the meantime. Some demo videos were released showing the user interface and gameplay by Luis Scott-Vargas, Magic: the Gathering pro and one of the designers of the game. Patrick Chapin, another noted MTG pro, also worked on the game.

The production pedigree and first impressions from the video make me really excited for this game. On its face, it looks a lot like Hearthstone, one of the current leaders in the online TCG market.

In play, however, Eternal looks a lot more like Magic. Unlike Hearthstone, the resource used to play cards, called Sigils, are drawn and played, much like lands are played for mana in Magic. This variance adds an extra level of resource management that isn’t found in Hearthstone, and is something I’m excited for in Eternal.

Another difference is the inclusion of “Fast” spells, which can be played at certain points during an opponent’s turn. Mid-attacking interaction and reactionary spellcasting is not included in Hearthstone, so this could make games a lot more complex than just lay down creatures, buff them before an attack and swing away. Combat tricks and end-of-turn shenanigans were always some of my favorite parts of Magic, and their inclusion in Eternal is a good sign.

As far as the aesthetics of the game, its a little early to tell at this point. Art design is something that’s so subjective that its hard to make a definitive ruling on it anyway, but I’m liking it so far. The game has kind of a steam-punk vibe, especially with the “Fire” and “Justice” aligned cards. The promo art shows what appears to be either a revolver-wielding knight, or a magical gunslinger. I’m good with either. The style is a little more cartoon-y than Magic, closer to Hearthstone.

Eternal seems to have the best of both worlds when it comes to online trading card games. It has the bright and dynamic user interface of Hearthstone and the complicated card interactions and turn structure of Magic: the Gathering.

What are you looking for in an online trading card game? Tell us in the comments!