Inner Monologue

Player Reflections on Shadowdark

Have you been watching Low Stress High Mayhem? Librarians are in the midst of a campaign from Shadowdark, a roleplaying game which features a timing mechanic wherein “torches only last one hour of real time. The characters (and players) must make decisions quickly, or they'll run out of precious light!” You can watch a recording of the session here. This is one player’s reflection on learning and playing the game.

I’m an academic librarian in Illinois who has learned extensive social and emotional growth through games and gaming as an adult. I’m sharing the following journal entries about my internal monologue during a live streamed role-playing game because I wish to lift the veil about part of the spectrum of one person’s experiences in case others find themselves feeling less alone. And perhaps others will gain perspective about a less typical, less idealized interpretation of the same materials. 

I had not expected how much I would react to the host’s expectation that I have my camera running. I generally avoid camera time as much as possible; it breaks my thoughts to see myself, especially with that micro delay. Thus, I was not as calm as I’d hoped as the video began. Luckily with the amount of technical difficulties, that brain chemistry dose was able to dissipate before the game began. However, this agitation came up again as I realized how much time I would be expected to just sit there and wait. In two hours, I was not needed for most of it, only to maintain awareness and add a comment if asked. I think this is discussed in game studies, with a term like pacing: that the time spent actively playing one’s round needs to be balanced with the time observing and waiting for the other players’ rounds. Some games are better at requiring constant attention to adjust to changing situations and others are so random I can space out until just before my turn to assess what I might want to do. I could have revised my strategy after every player’s turn, but it’s mostly wasted effort except for the interest of theory and future scenario preparation. I become very anxious in that waiting space, as I fear causing too much silence and wait while I make my decisions. I also struggle with the unsteady pace of stop-rush-repeat pace and prefer a steady tempo.  Slow is fine as long as constant. I understand the first session will be especially uneven as we learn about each other and the game, but I wanted to share this comment as it can be an important “Reader’s Advisory” factor in game selection or suggestions: What type of player are you (and the other types in your group)? What type of play pacing are you looking for? This informs the type of games, the types of mechanics, and the modes or variations within some games. Perhaps I should bring knitting next time to keep my fingers and mind calmer in between rounds. 

I told the Game Manager before we started how confused I was by the “stats”- the big numbers we rolled to create characters. We spent all this time identifying them and they significantly influence your character, but the only numbers used in play are the “mods” to adjust rolls in the moment. The “stat” determines the “mod” so there is a connection, but again, my brain was in that space instead of a neutral “ready to start.” 

I can empathize with the Game Manager’s comment about comfort zones when gaming. I have learned I am okay with one new thing. That is, a new game with established friends or new people with a game I have played before. I am overwhelmed when there are new people and a completely new game. I cannot enjoy either the company or the game. 

I’d like to make a plug for a book I’ve found useful by a geologist designed for game creators, gamers, and fiction writers: Landscapes for Writers and Game Masters by Scott Rice-Snow, McFarland Books. His website also includes pdfs to print at your desired scale.  You can find a wide variety of landscape types to change up the cave. And a second plug for another book by a friend, Ezra Claverie’s 6x6x6, The Mayhemic Missile Method, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. So many variations on magic missile, it fills a book!

About 45 minutes into our session I felt very useless because my initiative rolls meant I couldn’t take attacks of opportunity, be in front or the line of fire, or otherwise be defensive—or really even offensive. I dread the trope that tanks1 kite2 death to the party’s squishier members. 

About an hour in, I learned through another character what “advantage” meant for one of my stats. It means roll two dice and pick the better option. That might have changed a previous roll, but I’m ready for next time. 

When Ulara’s attack succeeded I was really taken aback. I have a lot of difficulty believing in myself (overcoming self-doubt and tirades of negative internal dialogue). I was only focused on how the rolls had placed me somewhere away from the party who were struggling. I knew I shouldn’t use the greataxe near people – too much risk of causing unintended harm. I’m grateful Ulara’s attack was cleanly successful, to bring a humane end to a terrified creature, which (like SunTzu) I believe is far more dangerous when scared, either trapped or cornered. I also really empathize with hurt animals, but didn’t want to tank3 everyone’s gameplay. 

I can’t change the world. I can affect my choices and remain grateful the creature under the axe didn’t suffer needlessly. 

I realized the other players must have extensive experience or natural mindsets for visual creation. They would mention where the torch was or ask the character holding it to move. So many small comments within a sentence that are necessary for this sort of game play but completely foreign and awkward to me. I’m also gullible, literal, and naively trusting, so I don’t badger game managers with questions about searching this part of this corner of this room for this type of thing.  If the game manager wanted to describe it, they would have. So I miss out on a lot. I struggle with foreshadowing in literature, too. 

I’m concerned about the wound’s safety. You shouldn’t remove a foreign object. Its presence staunches blood flow and removal may cause additional damage (tear something new on the way out). Unless there’s a toxin or poison, which might be a concern. Plus, your body counts as an extra gear slot, right? 

Just at the end, I thought we had an hour to go (time zone confusion) and was getting very hangry. I became tense and started to resent every little thing. I’m now in therapy to learn steps to take to actively “relax” as it is not an automatic response for me anymore.   

What a great moment for a cliffhanger ending! I was surprised. 

A final comment on High Mayhem Low Stress as a title: I’m calmer in high mayhem because of past experiences and find low mayhem scary (like the calm in the eye of a hurricane).  While I was able to laugh in a few moments, much of this was stressful and I would not say I was always having fun.  I do recognize I will look back on it later and enjoy the good parts.  I appreciate the challenge of lifting the veil of what gaming might be like for me, in case someone else feels less alone through reading this.

Jennifer Stubbs is an Instruction & Outreach Librarian at Bradley University. She spent four years as a librarian at NYU Shanghai, culminating in a grant to integrate Wikipedia in instruction. She incorporates game elements in instruction and build community through gaming. Before becoming a librarian, Jennifer volunteered at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.
  1. “Tank” describes a character with a lot of health (hit points and constitution) and who does a lot of damage (lots of strength and a weapon with a higher impact potential). ↩︎
  2. In gaming, “kite” or “kiting” is when players try to manipulate the in-game environment to give them some kind of advantage while in combat- positioning an enemy so you can bombard them with ranged attacks, separating one main enemy from a group so you can pick them off, or herding a large enemy into a specific area where many players can attack them at once. ↩︎
  3. This time “tank” is to take down or interrupt the good flow.  ↩︎

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