Rachel E.S. Walton and Playing Thieves at the Gaming Table

Rachel E.S. Walton is one of my favorite people I’ve met through role-playing games. When I ask some friends if they had a good gaming convention, some have said, “Well, I got to game at the same table as Rachel 3 times, so yeah, it was a good con.”

You can find her on G+ or see an example of her work here, where she made our campaign an amazing movie poster.

We got talking about 2nd edition D&D and playing thieves and then this interview happened.

Tell me about playing a thief in Quest for Glory, please!

Okay, so I’m going back 20-some years here, but Quest for Glory was my first memorable experience playing a thief in a game and one that forever cemented my love for the character type. At the time, playing a computer game was still pretty new and exciting, so it’s hard to separate the game itself from that world-opening experience. But the graphics were really good for the time, and the MIDI atmospheric sound was excellent. I can still feel my gut clench up a bit at the foreboding music of the “pick your hero type” screen and hear the tap-tap-tap sound of distant villagers going about their business in the background. The sound is so cheesy now, but they really knew how to work it.

What I remember the most was practicing abilities over and over to improve them and getting to see them actually improve. Like climbing. At first the hero is slow, but after practicing a bunch, he’d be zipping up and down the rope or gate with comical speed. After dragging myself away from a frustrating encounter, it felt pretty great to practice a bunch and then go out again and overcome that thing. And while that had moments of tedium, overall the game was just fun. Different sorts of puzzles and quests. Talking to people, helping them, and getting clues. Sneaking around. The scary thrill of going through the world at night. Dorky puns and a built-in sense of humor. (Pro tip: do not drink the Dragon’s Breath ale.)

I don’t think playing a thief was spectacularly different from playing a fighter or magic user in the game, but this was a game and character that stood out from any of the other games and characters I had played on my brother’s Nintendo. It was a character type that rewarded preparation, planning, puzzling things out, caution, and a bold move at just the right moment – a manifestation of my personality type like I hadn’t experienced in a game before.

Dungeons and Dragons was still a taboo gateway-to-darkness in my mind, not even really on my horizon yet. But this game! This game was all fun and adventure.

Clearly, we will have to play this for the rest of the interview.

When you describe the way skills go up and planning and puzzling things out, it almost sounds like Burning Wheel! That said, I feel like when we talk, Burning Wheel is always looming in the background when we geek out together.

Did you play every game in the Quest for Glory series?

Were there more steps on the transitional road between Quest for Glory and D&D?

I am listening to it right now. I am mildly horrified that I can enjoy a MIDI soundtrack, but this still has power.

And yes – what you just mentioned is part of why I found Burning Wheel so appealing. With D&D I never liked that advancements did not correspond with what happened fictionally. It broke continuity to go up a level and improve a skill never used or to suddenly have access to complex spells. It always felt like we were leaving out an interesting and important piece of fiction – and this was years before I ever heard of story games.

But going back to Quest of Glory, no – I never played another. As much as I loved various pieces of geeky media, I wasn’t really part of nerd culture in the way a lot of folks seemed to be. I had moments of obsession and did a few intensely nerdy things (nerdiest thing ever: AOL Nintendo summer camp on the internet), but sometimes my love encircled a thing and found contentment and satiety. Quest for Glory was one of those things. And I didn’t find another roguish game I loved as much until the much more recent Dishonored.

As for what came after Quest for Glory, Betrayal at Krondor was another dearly-loved computer game that prepped me for tabletop gaming. But it was a few years before I ever played D&D.

D&D was not something I had heard anything good about growing up. As part of a conservative Christian family and community, I had heard the urban legends. I was a pretty sensible kid and had little interest in opening a gateway to the occult. But then our family became friends with another Christian family and they were awesome. They also happened to be democrats, which was weird for us, and their son, who was my age, ran D&D. He talked about it and it sounded like the kind of stuff we were already into, but more social. So my parents said okay. Softies! And suddenly there were four of us, exploring the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in my room while our parents met for Bible study downstairs.

I played a thief of course! Disappointingly, I remember exactly zero about that character. I think I only played them for a few sessions and it wasn’t particularly memorable. I remember two things keenly though. One, was lovingly pouring over the AD&D Complete Thief’s Handbook. Especially the equipment lists that evoked that most amazing possibilities for carefully planned adventures…caltrops and poisons and oh no! – encumbrance. I’d have to plan my pack carefully…an annoyance I secretly delighted in. But these sneaky adventures never came.

Just a few sessions in, Christmas came around, and my GM handed me a present. He was practically wiggling with excitement about it. So I opened it and was a bit confused – it was the AD&D Complete Psionic’s Handbook (no, my GM was not John Stavropoulos). “This is for you to play!” he blurted out. He was a friend and super excited, and I still didn’t know my way around the game yet, so I said, “Cool, thanks,” while trying to hide my disappointment. I figured I’d give it a go because maybe it actually would be cool. But the psionic proved ill-suited to the world and fun proved elusive. womp womp

On the plus side, even as a tabletop newb, I understood the faux pas and determined to do better when the opportunity arose to GM D&D in college. I never did get a chance to do a D&D rogue justice except with an NPC – it was hard to pass off the mantle of GM! By the time I finally had the chance to play in someone else’s ongoing game, I was deep into the world of indie games and D&D was history I felt more frustration over than nostalgia for.

If you had mentioned any of this before we started our current (and wonderful) BW campaign, that game would have had a very different pitch!

Well then I’m glad I didn’t mention it, because I love our current game a lot. 😉 But I would LOVE to do a rogue-ish Burning Wheel game with you sometime – or try the same setting from a different angle. And as much as I love them, I often don’t play rogues! They’re something of a genre unto themselves, so some of the really good stuff – the sneaking around, the underdog or outcast status, the fraught back-stories, the clever problem-solving, the undermining of the political system, the fun equipment, the mix of undesirable and charming, etc. – these things don’t fit into every game well, nor should they. Not that all of these pieces have to be present to play a proper rogue, but they do suggest things about what the world is like, what the character’s place is in it, and what kind of challenges might happen, or what the game needs to support.

When coming to the table, unless I’ve been asked to, I try not to come with strong preconceived notions about what I want to play. Because more than a black-leather-clad sneak with some lock picks, I want to play a character that fits with what the game does well, feels like a part of the setting (even if they defy it somehow), and works with what other players are trying to do. If I try to force my preconceived idea into what’s going on, it’s rarely satisfying to me or anyone else.

The image of kids exploring Grand Duchy of Karameikos while their parents were studying the bible is delicious! Do you have any particular nostalgia for the Gazeteers or Mystara?

None at all! My memory of that campaign is a handful of fuzzy moments and little else. The pleasure of hosting my friends in my room, the old briefcase the GM kept the books and papers in, the sound of scribbling pencils, the desserts we scarfed afterward when the adults were done – those memories are much more palpable.

Dishonored is a game I’ve heard many of my friends talk about. Is there a common thread between Dishonored and Quest for Glory?

Switching to this soundtrack now. 😉 
The common threads between the two games are just a few basics. They’re both rogue adventure games, although Dishonored is much darker and grittier. And most notably for me: they’re both finite. They have main objectives and side quests and you can decide on approach, but they both head toward an end game. I like sandbox games, but I avoid them because they’re bad for me – I have a hard time stopping! I may blow week on Dishonored, but then it’s done. A sandbox game just keeps going. Of course, it’s different for a sandbox tabletop game – everyone meets for a couple of hours or so and then puts it aside until next time. Much healthier! 🙂

Dishonored though. I have not loved a video game more than this one. It has some problematic content – I won’t deny that, but the setting is rich, and the game play is phenomenal. I have reached such levels of frustration playing games with awkward or highly complex controls. In fact, I used to say I hated first-person shooters for this reason. But I can’t say that anymore because but the controls in Dishonored are intuitive and super-smooth, and if you have a hard time doing a thing, there are other possible approaches – it doesn’t punish you if you can’t master the drop-from-above & stab motion, for example – you can try another way. In fact, you don’t have to stab at all! It’s a violent game no matter what, but you can play the entire thing non-lethally and that influences the game world in subtle but cool ways.

To me, these parts make a huge difference in playing an amazing rogue game! It goes beyond rogue-in-name and takes it to rogue-as-an-experience. Smooth game play means I get to feel like I’m really controlling a badass with physical prowess, not like some other games where there’s a disconnect like, “sorry dude, I know you’re awesome, but I can’t perfect this awkward 6-button forward-up-aim-shoot motion on the controller.” And having options in how I approach a problem or finding another way also feels very rogue-ish to me. I can be straightforward, stealthy, murderous, merciful, resourceful – whatever suits me and the situation and keeps the evil rats away. I’ve played it through twice and I can’t wait to play through it again, but I’m waiting until I finish a big project.

I read somewhere that you started GMing in college. Did you give any special attention to the thieves and rogues in the group you DMed?

I had a big group, so I tried to provide a variety of plot hooks to appeal to different players, but I mostly tried to make interesting situations that didn’t require a single solution. If wanted to see what they would come up with, whether they were a rogue or a barbarian. AD&D gets a lot of flack, but I actually preferred it to 3rd edition because it had suggestions for giving characters XP for doing things that defined them – rogues doing thiefy things, wizards casting spells, etc. Once we converted to 3rd edition, there was really only XP support for killing stuff, if I remember correctly. I worked around it, but I felt much more on my own. It was my first big realization that the system really didn’t support the fun we were trying to have.

Anyway, there were a couple of rogues that cycled through that game – I mostly remember how much trouble they got into because they had poor impulse control. 🙂 And I got a little bit of a rogue fix with an NPC who had a lock racket. He would make and sell master locks and break into homes that didn’t have them. I used him as a bit of a guide in their early days, and he ended up pretty well loved so he was a useful plot device too. When I started a new D&D game some years later, he came with me like a well-worn jacket and he survived our conversion to Burning Wheel. He was mostly a friendly face in the village by that point, but it was nice to have him around.

Any other fond memories of 2E, system AP, whatever comes to mind?

oh! How about I confess my worst GMing sin?

Even early on in my GMing days, I knew it was important to not hold so tightly to my vision that I shut down players, so I was pretty good at working in oddball stuff. BUT I also didn’t have a strong sense of when to say no and what certain imbalances could do to the game. Mostly this was not a problem – my friends were all amiable and interested in having a good time together. But then there was this one guy. He built a Drow or half-Drow and because we used a stat system where you could spend two points from one stat to increase another by one point, he ended up with this monster with 3 Charisma and 21 Strength. We’re like, “that’s ridiculous – you know you have the Charisma of a skeleton and people will run screaming from you, right?” And he was okay with that and the group said okay too. Ugh! But the worst part was, he was also playing Chaotic Neutral and in order to play that up, he made his character start acting increasingly erratic and lashing out. And with 21 Strength, you don’t lash out without huge consequences. He got into a fight with another PC and almost killed them and he threatened the others “because that’s what my character would do.” The other players were pretty upset. They didn’t feel like they could say or do anything to steer his behavior in-character and worried that even if they ganged up to exile, capture, or attack his PC, he would likely kill a couple of their PCs in the process.

Obviously this was something to be addressed out of character. Obviously. But we were worried that confronting the player would only lead to a temporary improvement and we were SO over this character. But rather than handle this like adults anyway, and talk to him, laying out some parameters if he wanted to keep playing with us, a few of us gathered in the dimmed florescence of the cafeteria after hours and plotted his PCs assassination.

We sat there discussing resources and pros and cons of different methods. My above-mentioned NPC had on him a vial of powerful acid for dissolving stubborn locks. Someone else had silencing Boots of Elvenkind. I offered to have my NPC carry out the act so the burden of responsibility would be on my shoulders (how noble of me).

So…the terrible day arrived and we started playing as usual. But I didn’t draw it out too long. I narrated it being at night when everyone was resting. Every moment of this felt heavy. The group was unnaturally silent because they knew what was coming. I made a successful roll to stealthily sneak into the ill-fated PC’s tent. And then I described the awful pain of acid being poured onto his face and the fade to black. The absolute worst part of all of this is that the player didn’t yet understand what happened and he picked up his dice and had this really eager look on his face – he thought it was yet another challenge to overcome because he trusted me. “Okay, what do I roll?!” “Nothing. There’s no saving throw here. The assassin didn’t make a sound and he poured powerful acid on your face…you’re dead.” This one of the most uncomfortable moments in my life. None of us were happy – we were all squirming with discomfort.

The player got up and left, swearing up a storm down the hall. One of his closer buds went to check on him. I can’t remember what conversations were had after that. I think we did manage to talk more directly to him. He asked if he could play another character and of course I said yes because I felt terrible. So here’s the best/worst part: he came back with a new PC: a friendly, boisterously cheerful wizard who spoke in the most ridiculous Scottish accent. It was so obnoxious. But we let it slide. Penance, I guess.

That is a great story. I’ve totally been there.

Thank you for taking part in this interview, Rachel.

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8 thoughts on “Rachel E.S. Walton and Playing Thieves at the Gaming Table

  1. I always liked AD&D 2E, but played OD&D and Basic for many years. There are still several things I like about Basic, but AD&D 2E is still my all time favorite. Unfortunately, time, life and kids have separated all of my gaming friends to the point where we cannot keep a campaign together.

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