hand-drawn dungeon map

So, my girlfriend went and got me into Dungeon's and Dragons. 1st edition Advanced DnD specifically, for those of you afraid it might be past the modernity threshold for quality content. Loathe be it for me to admit to being a nerd on my website where I write about video games regularly, but truth is I quite enjoy it, more so actually than the aforementioned video games. See in video games criticism we talk a lot about "emergency" whether it be in the form "emergent gameplay" or "emergent narrative" or whatever flavour of buzzword you're pitching an otherwise largely static collection of playboxes together with. It's a necessary fantasy to sell players - if the game doesn't react when interacted with you quickly end up creating a static display piece nobody is all that interested in. Of course, the audiovisual simulation of video games implicitly restrains how intricate their systems can get, next to a good gamemaster and all the infinite player agency afforded by real imagination you can explore scenarios and collaboratively tell a story with a freedom video games just can't. Of course, the trade off is precisely that it is imagined, what you gain in the playbox you lose in depiction, and certainly tabletop for all it's play feels less real than a video game, surely?

I have a working theory about game design that I know rubs some people the wrong way, I don't care though because I'm Right. It goes like this: almost every element people claim to be essential to a game's experience, Immersion, Difficulty, Interactivity and of course, Emergency - or all expressions of the same thing. Friction. In order for the experience to ever be worth something to anybody, it needs a surface you can create emotional traction on, otherwise it truly is just a collection of responsive pixels on a screen. It's the same impetus that has driven the evolution of motion controls and eventually VR: the theoretical advantage of video games over movies or books is that they present you a way to actually influence the experience responsively, but this in a vacuum actually doesn't mean anything. In order for it to matter it has to feel tactile. It's a key component of boardgame design as well after all: everyone loves a few extra bits of cardboard and plastic to rattle around. We're sensory creatures, touch is as essential a means of engaging the world as either sight or hearing. This is I think why a lot of people pass over ttrpgs at a glance, the act of imaginary roleplay seems decisively immaterial at first, it lacks the immediate form and structure of basically any of the other aforementioned mediums. This is of course though, untrue.

Playing ADnD with my girlfriend follows a careful turn based structure. She describes a scene, and I transcribe as much as is relevant into a little notebook I keep purely for this purpose. There's some back and forth, then I take action, she describes the ensuing events and I transcribe more. I keep a listed inventory of what I own, I keep an itinerary of relevant characters and what I know of their history and relationships to one another - and of course, if I ever have to venture into a space I'm unfamiliar with, I draw a map in realtime. This act of journaling is much more involved and intricate than maneuvering a video game character, to a point that's arguably cumbersome, but it's the process that ultimately grounds the roleplaying experience in a physicality that's wholly distinct to what virtual worlds are able to offer. Not to suggest you couldn't keep a gaming diary, but there's so little impetus to when the conventions of modern game design dictate that much of this should be automated as a "quality of life" feature. Friction is good, actually! And truth be told, I prefer the extended act of jotting all this down, "turn" by "turn", as it makes what would otherwise be a kind of extended conversation decisively tactile.

I've always been a big fan of stationary for much the same reason. Writing letters, keeping bound diaries, filling in scrapbooks - texture gives context to experience. I keep a calendar on my wall, not because it's in anyway more convenient than my phone - heaven's no - but because the physical ritual of marking it off daily serves to give a material shape to the passage of time. Something that sentimentally gives the days a kind of significance, and pragmatically acts as a fairly useful positioning tool for someone with the specific brand of mental illness that leaves you wondering what year it is. I love and depend on, in equal measure, that sense of touch to enjoy life and also be cognizant than any of it is even real in the moment. It's why I'm outdoorsy, why I like physical hobbies like skating and climbing, why I love the act of preparing ingredients to cook and prefer hand washing dishes. It's why I love my weird fucked up winter coat I got in a thrift store that has oil(?) stains on it and changed the colour of four bathtubs worth of water when I first cleaned it, that same reason I love every abandoned building I've ever explored: the stories we make are imparted onto the world through touch, they're engraved in physicality. Every oil stain, every broken window, every scar on a person's body is each a story etched onto the surface of a canvas larger than any individual yet wholly inscribed with their anecdotes. If you'll forgive me being a bit of a wretch, it's why I do in fact enjoy making notes within the pages of novels, and why I prefer analog media much as this makes me a luddite in our digital age.

Maybe I might be overselling it all, but I think in the wake of the covid pandemic a whole lot of people have come to derive a newfound appreciation for tactile hobbies. At the very least, I think most people intuitively understand this on a base level if you ask if they'd prefer to be in a long distance relationship to one with immediate proximity, and maybe that strikes you as a trite comparison, but as someone in a long distance relationship the value of tactility in shared hobbies takes on a newfound significance!! Both because it allows me to feel closer together with my partner despite the best efforts of the Atlantic - and far more importantly because it gives me a real cute book to gift her when we see each other next. And if you don't think that's at least a little magical, you're a disquieting and cold creature, stranger. Now stop reading my blog and go share joy with another person; maybe make them something out of paper?? It's cute!! Try it!!