Getting back to my roots

What a year 2017 has been so far!

After moving back to my beloved hometown of Cleveland, Ohio from sweltering Austin, Texas i laser-focused on a few life goals.

Squad goals! If by ‘squad’ i mean myself

One lofty ambition was becoming debt free. Mission accomplished! (Not counting the consolidated school loan i’ll likely take to my grave.) Savings sustained massive damage and frivolity was curtailed, but monies owed are no more.

Another priority was getting back to my roots as a tabletop gamer. This goal has enjoyed great success throughout the year. In Austin, the tabletop gaming community was a lifeline to a social life in a new city after moving there alone for my muggle job in journalism. Every night of the week was game night at one of the city’s many hobby shops. The gaming culture is strong in there.

Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League and a steady diet of board games reinvigorated my lifelong love of tabletop gaming, and i brought that passion back to Cleveland. Friends were cajoled into forming a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons group, which is still going strong. Aside from our main campaign, we’ve played several one-shots and even welcomed a new player to the hobby. He’s already taken a turn behind the Dungeon Master’s screen and started a secondary campaign for the group. Continue reading

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Staying nerdy with Nerdarchy

i couldn’t tell you which video i watched first, or how i stumbled upon it on YouTube. And with roughly 1,500 videos on their channel as of this post, i certainly can’t boast of having viewed them all. A substantial sum, to be sure, but it would be a Herculean task to catch up, especially with the prodigious amount of content they create and share.

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With their three-year anniversary approaching on May 4, 2017, the folks behind Nerdarchy show no signs of slowing down or running out of nerdy stuff to talk about. Recently hitting 30,000 subscribers, they are more dedicated than ever to growing their brand and fostering their own unique contribution to nerd culture.

Nerdarchists Dave and Ted took time from their lives to chat with me about the earliest days of Nerdarchy, how far they’ve come and how far they hope to still go. The same charm, humor and excitement for nerd culture on display in their videos was evident in our conversation, along with the camaraderie between them that lends their content a dynamic set apart from a sea of single-person YouTube personalities.

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Unabashed geeks, Dave’s chat location was packed with gaming rulebooks (lots of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons stuff if i recognize the book spines correctly) as well as a magnificent wood-carved Spanish knight display. In Ted’s chat window, the familiar Domo-kun figure seen in many of their videos loomed over his shoulder.

“The original impetus was not to start a roleplaying game channel,” Dave revealed. His brother Ryan was moving back to their hometown in South Jersey from New Mexico, where he’d been pursuing a career as an artist. The brothers wanted to create content for the internet together, and after some back-and-forth settled on tabeltop RPGs. For Dave, it was a matter of finding something close to his heart, and if you watch any of their videos, it’s clear how passionate he and the rest of the team are about their hobby.

“You have no idea how many iterations of ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ we went through before we could find a domain name that was available,” explained Dave. “The cool thing about that was we realized (Nerdarchy) is actually a word in the urban dictionary, and it was available. So we went with that and started doing it.”

Dave, who had experience with internet marketing, knew going in that the key to success in their endeavor meant putting a team together. “You can’t Lone Ranger it – that stuff only works in the movies.” Reaching out to Ted, they set to work making videos. And they haven’t stopped since.

Early Nerdarchy videos touched on broad topics, including one of my favorites where Dave discussed releasing his inner geek. At that time, their gaming group was playing a lot of Mutants & Masterminds as well as 4E D&D and Pathfinder, and several videos discuss those games as well the cult classic Paranoia and others. More generally, Nerdarchy videos touched on topics applicable to any sort of tabletop RPG. They also expanded beyond games to include a trip to their neighborhood comic book store to talk comics, demonstrations of yo yo tricks, movie reviews and interviews with game designers.

“Then we discovered 5th edition (Dungeons & Dragons) was coming out, and we’re like well, if we’re doing this website maybe we should talk about this,” Dave recalled. “As soon as we started talking about 5th edition D&D, we exploded. It just so happened that we really like the system, so that was a benefit.”

With an eye towards building Nerdarchy into a viable business, Dave, Ted, Ryan and fourth principal member Nate are constantly seeking improvement. Part of their growth included their video format evolving from a single person speaking to the audience to the conversational atmosphere seen in their content now. There’s a practical side to creating lots of videos as a group, too.

“As our stuff grew, we realized the more videos we wound up doing, the more ad revenue we’d wind up getting,” Ted pointed out. “And the more potential there is to find something that people are going to hit on.”

Expansion meant one video each day, Monday through Friday. Then two videos a day. Then an additional weekend video. And live gameplay sessions. And gameplay sessions with fans…

“Let’s just do more videos,” Ted said of their approach. “It was really a more business and financial decision.”

“I can’t even believe we have this much to say,” Dave chimed in.

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Nerdarchist Ted, Nerdarchist Dave, Nerdarchist Ryan and Nate the Nerdarch

As a testament to Nerdarchy’s dedication, creativity and affection for their hobbies and nerd culture, they maintain an enormous database of topics and ideas for videos. Inspiration comes from myriad sources, including viewer comments both good and bad, pop culture and the ever-growing nature of the tabletop gaming hobby itself.

Audience interaction is certainly an important part of the formula. Some of their favorite videos to create come through the GM 911 playlist, where they answer questions from fans about the challenges faced at their own gaming tables. Opportunities for them to be creative also rank among their favorites, with series like MageForge, Terrible Terrains and D&D-izing characters from pop culture, literature or history.

These come with a caveat, however – viewership. Nerdarchy is not shy about letting their audience know they’re growing a business, and that means casting a wide net when creating content. This isn’t to say they’re unscrupulous or compromising any principles, far from it. The challenge is knowing when to share the content they create.

“We really do have to be strategic about how we put content out,” said Dave. “The hardcore fans really like the more creative stuff, but the community as a whole wants to see character builds, what we think is broken or what’s overpowered. Using ‘most,’ ‘best’ or numbers almost guarantees we’re going to get higher views.”

Their efforts have paid off, too. “We can officially employ someone to be a poor person this year – just one person.,” said Dave. The first couple of years saw very little profit, with even that going right back into the business in terms of improving equipment, maintaining their website and so forth. With continued growth, Nerdarchy continues to set goals for themselves and treading carefully to ensure they can reach them.

The addition of staff writers for their website, under the direction of website manager Ty Johnston, is one area Nerdarchy would like to focus on. Currently, the stable of writers creates content on a volunteer basis. As a staff writer myself, the possibility of compensation is certainly appealing. On the other hand, i’m satisfied to contribute my part to help Nerdarchy grow. So if they can funnel those funds into continued growth, i’ll happily share my weekly column until the business takes off if it helps. Just don’t forget about me when you’re shoulder to shoulder with Nerdist and Geek + Sundry!

Because Nerdarchy has become such a big part of their lives, time is a precious commodity for the folks in front of the camera. Families, full-time jobs and other interests can sometimes take a hit from the work they put into the business, but the support of friends and loved ones keeps them motivated to keep going forward.

On the other side of the coin, they’ve had a lot more opportunities to engage with their favorite hobby through Nerdarchy. One of the fringe benefits, as Dave explained, is more chances to play games, which is justified because it’s a business. “The best way to ensure you always have a full gaming table is to have a mildly successful YouTube channel,” Dave joked.

What both Dave and Ted agree is one of their greatest achievements is that Nerdarchy has begun to operate on its own to some extent, at least the website aspect. With a steady flow of articles, the site is becoming somewhat autonomous, expanding in scope and depth without requiring their direct daily participation. As evidence, Dave cites the recent announcement of a free 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure in the works from several staff writers in honor of Geek + Sundry’s International Tabletop Day celebration on April 29.

Looking ahead, Nerdarchy aims to continue growing their subscriber base on YouTube as well as expanding the website. Additional goals include possibilities such as hosting a convention and publishing custom content and creating more Nerdarchy products, as well as reaching the point where Nerdarchy can be full-time employment. Fun events like a Nerdyque and Nerdcation are on the idea board as well, the latter consisting of an all-inclusive weeklong vacation with the Nerdarchy crew filled with themed events and tabletop games.

The most rewarding part of Nerdarchy, though, is an easy question for Dave to answer.

“The people,” he said. “The friendships we make, the contacts we’re making, that makes it all worthwhile – that’s the best part.”

“Hands down,” agreed Ted.

Heeding the call of Drinking Quest’s Jason Anarchy

On Wednesday, June 22 my Twitter feed showed something i’d never seen before: a creator’s call offering interviews to any interested parties.

How could i pass up this opportunity? @DrinkingQuest was one of the very first Twitters i followed when i created my account years ago, due in no small part to Jason Anarchy’s clever use of the platform to grow awareness of his then-burgeoning tabletop RPG, Drinking Quest.

“It’s still my favorite social media medium. Content is rewarded on Twitter,” Anarchy said. “If you’re funny then the mechanism works and it keeps going.”

journey into draught

Full disclosure: i am not much of a drinker, and i have not actually played Drinking Quest. But i am a gamer, and interviewing independent creative types is my favorite type of writing, but enough about me. Let’s learn more about Drinking Quest and the man behind the innovative tabletop RPG system.

Before becoming a full-time game designer, Jason Anarchy worked in the newspaper business, which of course immediately endeared him to me despite (perhaps rightly so) pointing out the decline of the industry.

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Like many a gamer, over the years he had tweaked existing games as well as made up his own for the entertainment of friends at his gaming table. This practice began as a child with the Hero Quest game, which he cites as inspiration due to its inclusion of a blank, create-your-own-quest section of the rulebook.

In a nod to the game that inspired him, for the Drinking Quest trilogy edition, which Anarchy said contains enough exclusive new material to be considered a fourth game, he was given to option to add a 220th card to the 219-card set at no extra cost.

“At the last minute, I’m like ‘okay, I need a filler card,'” Anarchy recalled. “I’ve got to make it good, though. I ended up putting in, similar to that blank quest in Hero Quest, it was a card that had nothing to do with game play. It was like ‘make your own quest.’ It was kind of corny but at the same time it had some great artwork that I hadn’t used anywhere else. It ended up looking really cool – all the heroes marching off on their drinking quest.

“I got to use this great artwork, and, I don’t know, possibly inspire people,” he said. “That was probably my most sincere in all my games actually.”

It was a simple statement from a friend that led Anarchy to where he’s at today, helming his own game design company with the latest release, Drinking Quest: Journey Into Draught just around the corner as well as a new game, Haiku Warrior, recently released.

“Well, you’re always drinking and playing these RPGs you made – why don’t you make one that combines those things?”

That was in 2011, and the premise is something Anarchy takes very seriously. The hook was there, but he says developing a game with real depth was the key to Drinking Quest’s success – it had to deliver more than a clever gimmick. And based on the game’s growth and Anarchy’s own status going from a guy with a table at cons to being a featured guest and panelist at conventions like Gen Con.

Unlike most game designers and publishers, Anarchy does not run games at conventions (because of the game’s drinking mechanic).

“The first time I ever did a public game with Drinking Quest in five years was a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta,” Anarchy said. “Out of 60 or 70 conventions I’ve done, there are like three of four where you can drink at them. At Southern Fried Gaming Expo, they were really great people to me and really wanted to run a public game.

“People had beers in the audience, and they picked a favorite player. When that player had to chug, they also chugged with us. It was a lot of fun. Also in that game, John Kovalic who does all the artwork for the Munchkin games, he was at that convention, he ended up in the game, which is awesome because he’s an industry legend. And, he can drink more than anyone there – he’s pretty hardcore. I was impressed. He really showed us up, and he’s a really funny dude. So it was a really cool game.”

The game itself is innovative in that there is no GM required to play. Unlike traditional RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, which require a referee and principal storyteller, Drinking Quest uses a system of cards to guide players through the mechanics that involve combat against all manner of monsters and a hefty dose of comedy along with it.

“I’m definitely more of a workaholic than an alcoholic.”

The basic idea is that, everyone gets to play the hero, and the mechanics keep it simple. There’s four piles of cards – those are your quests. Players pick a pre-made character card, fill out the stats on a character sheet, and you’re ready to play.

“It’s a 50/50 drinking game/roleplaying game,” Anarchy explained. “The way it works is that the cards are the DM, nobody has to run the game. Everybody’s a hero. It’s a really simple setup. Everyone’s on an adventure. You’re fighting monsters, you’re leveling up. Dice, character sheets – all that stuff. But when your hero dies in the game, you have to chug your drink in real life to continue. So the whole game is kind of built around that real-life sense of danger. It’s about an hour and a half for a game, depending on the speed of the group. As far as drinking games go, it’s a light drinking game. It’s paced out and designed so no one’s going to do ten shots of tequila in ten minutes and go to the hospital.

“And it’s a light RPG, it’s probably the simplest you can get while still fitting the strict definition. Beyond that, I wanted it to be a really strong comedy game…It’s just really fun to skewer gaming and drinking – two things I love quite a bit. It finds humor in both the positive and negative aspects of drinking. It can get pretty dark once in a while, in a way I think people are responding to. They’re liking it and coming back for more,” he said.

Each iteration of the game (Journey Into Draught is the fourth in the series) consists of four themed quests, with each quest getting more difficult than the last and the heroes gaining power and skill along the way. They’re all different stories within the same world with its own loose continuity.

For Journey Into Draught, Anarchy wanted to add some new game mechanics to both streamline the system and mainly to expand and make the game bigger and better. Part of this plan involved having a team of ten artists working on the release, compared to the previous editions having a single artist each.

kega man

There are now six quests, including an optional one with a set of tea-stained cards about sobering up the next morning. There’s another Kega Man quest with pixel art where the characters fight eight different alcoholic robot bosses. And of course there’s the same mix of fan affection and parody of classic fantasy RPG creatures and tropes that have helped the Drinking Quest fan base grow and fueled its Kickstarter campaigns.

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For non-drinkers out there, Anarchy has several times gotten questions on game design and self-publishing advice from gamers working on variant games like marijuana-themed games (Smoking Quest, anyone?) on how to break into the industry.

“There is no simple answer,” Anarchy said. “Rule of thumb: become obsessed with it and work all the time. I’m definitely more of a workaholic than an alcoholic.

“Make sure you’re working hard at it, and don’t expect instant fame or some sudden rise. I’ve been really proud of the fact that over five years there’s been a good, steady increase of popularity the whole time. It’s not like I got one lucky break then that was the entirety of everything. I feel like there’s a loyal fan base there.”

Although he doesn’t hold anything against people who use marijuana, and is happy to offer advice, he’s happy with Drinking Quests’s place in the gaming strata.

“I’m already the drinking guy,” Anarchy said. “I like the fact that I have probably the most responsible drinking game on the market, in as far as that goes. I don’t want to go much beyond that point. I don’t want to start adding other vices onto that. I’ve got other directions I want to go. Being the guy who explores all the vices isn’t really the thing I want to do.”

With Drinking Quest’s cards-as-the-DM engine, Anarchy realized the concept can make for an excellent single player experience. (“Not Drinking Quest…drinking alone – that’s bad.”)

While signing a card for a fan, Anarchy noticed it was written as a haiku, something he considered a throwaway joke from the first Drinking Quest. He thought it was funny, but not executed as well because it was a one-off and didn’t quite fit the loud, obnoxious flavor of Drinking Quest.

Haiku Warrior

The culmination of Anarchy’s desire to use his card engine for a one player game and that chance card-signing resulted in Haiku Warrior. Quiet and introspective, compared to the boisterousness of Drinking Quest, Haiku Warrior’s cards tell their story through ambiguous haikus written on each of the cards (“No repeat cards!”) [This sounds like a perfect game to explore for my solo RPG play series!]

Built into the Kickstarter for Haiku was an expansion of sorts, which involved getting industry celebrity guests to contribute their own haikus that Anarchy converted into cards for the game. With Anarchy donating $17 to each guest’s charity of choice ($1 per syllable), contributions came from people like Jim Zub (“Dungeons & Dragons”), Ryan North (“Dinosaur Comics”), Becky Cloonan (“Gotham Academy”) and more.

 

“I have a lot of fun with game design, and I just like the creative element of it because there’s writing, and artwork, and there’s the economy of how the game works – there’s a lot to it. If other people can be inspired by that in some way, that’s awesome.”

If you’re heading to Gen Con in August, be sure to stop by Jason Anarchy’s booth (#2801) to say hello and pick up a copy of Drinking Quest and Haiku Warrior, and remember…

Please quest responsibly!

Challenger anniversary brings back memories

The first thought that goes through my mind, thinking about the anniversary of the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, is where i was at the time.

i was in the third grade, if i recall correct, and i’d stayed home from school that day, more than likely due to a “sore throat.” (That was always a good go-to ailment.) i was at my grandma’s house, sitting on the living room floor watching the TV when it happened.

More recently, i’d had an opportunity to learn more about one of the astronauts on that mission: Dr. Ronald McNair. While attending Cleveland State University, i wrote a story about the McNair Scholars Program, and during research for that i was happy to find out more about the scholarship’s namesake.

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Dr. Ronald McNair

If you’d like to check out the original publication of the story, it’s still available at The Cleveland Stater website.

Or, you can read it here below under the image of the Stater page as the story originally appeared, where i’ve copied the text from my original draft for your convenience.

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The road to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is daunting.  The challenge requires a serious commitment of time, focused research, comprehensive exams, publication and completion of a journal of the dissertation.

It was a journey made in 1976 by Dr. Ronald McNair, a first-generation college student from South Carolina.  He grew up in a house without running water or electricity.  He took a stand for his civil rights at 9-years-old when he refused to leave a segregated library without his books, a library that would later be named after him.  He was a high school valedictorian who went on to become a PhD in physics.  And he was selected as one of 35 from a pool of 10,000 to become a NASA astronaut.

On his second mission, on Jan. 28, 1986, Dr. McNair was killed along with six others aboard the space shuttle Challenger after it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight.

His legacy is preserved by the McNair Scholars Program, a U.S. Department of Education funded program that helps prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study.  The program is offered at 200 institutions across the US and Puerto Rico, including Cleveland State University.  Participants in the program are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a traditionally under-represented group in graduate education.

For students majoring in STEM disciplines, the deadline to apply is Friday, Nov. 1 this year.  On Nov. 12 there is a follow-up interview for selected applicants.

“The goal of this program is to increase the diversity of the professoriate,” explained Dr. Valli Sarveswaran, director of the McNair Scholar program at Cleveland State.  “Every college has their own diversity challenge, to increase their numbers.  That has to start somewhere, like our program.”

The McNair Scholars program launched at Cleveland State in 2008 after Dr. Sarveswaran was hired as the first director.  Prior to that, he was an administrator for an outreach program funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Notre Dame.  Through his work at universities, he came to admire the interactions that took place and bonds that formed amongst students and faculty.

“I have a PhD in chemistry and spent several years doing research,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Then I realized I started liking working with students more than chemicals.”

The program sponsors 30 students each year and takes a comprehensive approach to prepare them for doctoral studies.  Students receive support in the form of research opportunities, paid full-credit tuition for independent study, meal and housing allowances, and mentored research with a chance to present their findings at Cleveland State.  Additional research and presentation opportunities exist beyond Cleveland State’s campus, with travel expenses covered by the program.  Trips also include visits to graduate schools and professional conferences, with expenses covered by the program.

“We offer a lot,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Financially and through other support like a GRE [graduate record examination] prep course and writing courses.”

The GRE prep course is a 32-hour workshop offered in the summer.  Other workshops include effective resume building and cover letters, writing a statement of purpose, and financial guidance like how loan forgiveness works and how to pay for graduate school.

One of the current cohort of McNair Scholars is Shannon Walker, a senior environmental studies major.  She learned about the McNair program before transferring to Cleveland State, while attending Tri-C Metro.  Walker joined the program in spring 2013, and worked with Dr. Robert Simons to update the CSU Master Plan this past summer.  After the summer program ended, she was offered a position to stay on until the project is complete.

“The program’s been a great asset in facilitating opportunities and connections for all of us – especially as a first-generation college student,” Walker said in an email.  “The mentoring portion of it has been extremely valuable.”

Scholars work with both a discipline and non-discipline mentor and meet with each of them at least once a month.  The discipline mentor guides students with research projects and helps to navigate their interests and choices in graduate schools, internships and opportunities outside of Cleveland State.

Dr. Dan Simon, a professor of electrical & computer engineering at Cleveland State, became a discipline mentor at the request of Dr. Sarveswaran.  He considers a PhD important for anyone who wants to become a leader in their field.  Becoming a PhD means that you’re not only an expert in your discipline, but also that you can effectively communicate that knowledge.

“Communication is huge, and it goes both ways” said Dr. Simon.  “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but if we can’t understand what other people have done and explain it to other people then we can’t advance the state-of-the-art.  Communication is a two-way street and it’s very important for engineers, especially leaders.”

He noted two things that are vital to students of any discipline thinking about pursuing a doctorate.  The first is to maintain good grades throughout your undergraduate studies.  Second, he stressed getting involved with professional organizations.

Non-discipline mentors provide students with a faculty perspective in a more casual relationship removed from the pressures of study and research.  This mentor’s role involves teaching students what to expect as university professors and informing them of job opportunities.  And because 80 percent of McNair Scholars are first-generation college students, mentors often become a friendly refuge in what can be a challenging environment for them.

One of the McNair non-discipline mentors is Dr. Ulrich Zurcher, a professor of physics.  Dr. Zurcher got involved with the McNair program because he identified with the under-represented groups in doctorate studies.  Himself a first-generation college student in his native Switzerland, Dr. Zurcher understood that minority students can feel out of place in college.

“I’m highly motivated about this,” said Dr. Zurcher.  “When I went to college, because I’m not from an academic background I always felt excluded.  I felt I did not belong.  Minority students sometimes feel like they don’t belong, to some extent.”

Dr. Zurcher, who came from a working class family, can relate to students for whom college is a wholly unfamiliar environment.  As a non-discipline mentor he hopes to help students acclimate to college and find their niche.

Sara Al-Nimer, a senior McNair scholar double majoring in mathematics and psychology, considers the program invaluable.  She cites her mentors as well as fellow scholars and especially Dr. Sarveswaran as a wonderful support system.

“I have been fortunate to be a part of this program and I wouldn’t trade the experience, the skills or the people I have met for anything,” she said.

Enyx Studios reloaded

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since my path first converged with Enyx Studios, the indie-game development studio helmed by Don Hileman. At that time, our connection was an opportunity for Don to share a developer journal here at The Long Shot, and for me to get more contributor content posted.

Enyx Studios

That interaction evolved into my visit to Enyx’s then-home at eCenter @ LindenPointe, a technology incubator in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Don and his partner at the time shared their thoughts, ideas and work on Unholy, a horror-themed cross platform video game.

Fast forward a few weeks, and i found myself part of the Enyx team as a creative director, writer and designer – tasks that i felt woefully unskilled at but that i was assured as exemplary, much to my delighted surprise. Due to several other obligations, and an eventual parting of ways between Don and his partner, the project faded into the background.

But that past is prologue to an excited new venture by Enyx Studios.

“A Haunting: Witching Hour” is a brand new title that Don and a new team of designers is hard at work on, building off of what he learned from his experiences with Unholy.

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Promotional image from Enyx Studios’ “A Haunting: Witching Hour” game.

Now based at the Youngstown Business Incubator, a development that came about through Don’s association with Blackstone Launchpad’s Bob Sopko at Case Western Reserve University

The team at Enyx mostly came about through Don’s relationship with YBI. Mitch, who worked with Don on Unholy, remains as the audio engineer for A Haunting. Along with them, Byron works in a mostly research capacity, discovering ways to include real-world elements into the story that add to the immersion and authenticity. Art chores are handled by Steve and Marissa, and as head of the team, Don is involved with everything.

“For the project that we’re taking on, you kinda need a decent size team,” Don explains. “And last week, we got the email that we’ve been waiting for – that golden email from Playstation. We had submitted a concept to them, a full design document and everything, and not only did they approve it, but they want to give us a page on playstation.com that’s all about the game. Once we have a trailer, they want to put it on their YouTube channel as well as on the Playstation Network – which means it will be on 36 million Playstations worldwide.”

Settling on the Playstation platform initially, A Haunting takes advantage of the Playstation VR, Enyx Studios is working with some “really cool equipment” including a full motion-capture system that they’re using to give all the in-game characters a higher level of realism.

Porting the game over to other platforms like Xbox or PC is certainly not out of the question according to Don, but for the relatively small team to produce a multi-platform game right out of the gate is one of the stumbling blocks he experienced with Unholy. Instead, Enyx is focusing on producing the best title they can for a single platform, with an eye on a Q3 2016 release.

The game itself takes revolves around an indie film crew who travels to the fictional town of Shady Hollow to create a documentary about the murder of several coal miners that occurred in 1975. The owner of the mine had always insisted there were supernatural forces involved, claiming an entity known as the Hollow Creek Witch is to blame, but of course no one believed him. As the filmmakers dig deeper into the story, they begin to uncover evidence that the claims of evil occult forces might actually be true.

“We’re pulling a lot of real facts from things like the Salem Witch Trials and how that all occurred,” Don elaborates. “We’re using that as a background for this witch, and we picked up a bunch of books on witches, Wiccans and things like that to learn about that culture and what certain symbols mean, like air, wind and fire, different moons and that sort of thing.

“We’re trying to make it as real as possible,” Don says. “Of course, you have to change it up a little bit. But from day one, the whole goal is to be a creepy, scary game, and when you play it, it just scares the hell out of you.”

Described as a storytelling video game of dark horror and desperate survival, Enyx is taking great strides to create a rich background for all of the characters and places in the game, including Eddie, the protagonist controlled by the player.

Eddie, a mysterious character with a troubled past, possesses the “Gift of Sight” that manifests as psychic powers such as the ability to see things others cannot, psychometry (the ability to read the psychic residue left on objects), clairvoyance and more.

These abilities come with a price, however – every time a player uses Eddie’s Gift of Sight, he becomes weakened

Like Unholy, A Haunting aims to follow an episodic path, with new chapters of the game down the road building on the experience and offering new locations, paths and twists to the tale.

“We want to tell a story and have it build,” Don explains. “Just when you think you kind of have it figured out, oh my gosh – something else happens that makes you go ‘huh.’ One of the things that really inspired us was that thing on Netflix, ‘Making a Murderer.’ The whole time, you’re bouncing back and forth – did he murder them? Did he not? And we’re trying to bring some of that element into the game.”

The gameplay starts with Eddie in questioning, with the player traveling back into the story throughout the experience. Based on the player’s actions such as discovering clues, answering questions and so forth, the story will change depending on these outcomes. In essence, the game is a flashback, and the player controls how the past manifests in the present.

“As you play the game, that’s your story that you’re telling,” Don shares, revealing that there are multiple possible endings. “It’s almost like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books.”

Haunting 2

 

(Wood)turn your attention

Living in Las Vegas by way of a poker career that took him first to Rhode Island, Jerrod Toth has been busy shaping a new facet to his life as the man behind the Woodturners Journal.

A native of Kirtland, Ohio (go Hornets!) woodworking is something ingrained in Jerrod from his father, although he didn’t explore his interest in it until settling down in Vegas about 8 years ago.

“He actually got mad at me,” Jerrod explains. “I moved away, and he said ‘your whole life, you never had interest in it, and then you move away and all of a sudden you’re interested in it.’

“But I’ve actually always had an interest,” he admits.

He began exploring that interest first through several PBS shows devoted to the woodworking craft, which grew into eagerness for anything involving wood.

“It started because I bought a house out here, and my girl wanted furniture,” Jerrod says of his motivation, starting off with only a small miter saw. “I built end tables, our nightstands, an oak bookshelf – I built a ton of stuff.”

toth cabinet

A nightstand built by Woodturners Journal craftsman Jerrod Toth.

Back in Cleveland, his brother had gotten into woodturning, and during a visit home the two went to a friend’s shop to try using a lathe to make wood-handled pens. With the new experience under his belt, back in Vegas Jerrod absorbed all that he could through resources like Woodturning with Tim Yoder. Still without a lathe of his own, his imagination was filled with project ideas and the know-how to get them done.

Arriving the following year with those project ideas and the wood to make them, a lathe-less Jerrod had worked out how to properly make a natural edge wooden bowl and explained to his brother how to mount and cut the piece.

“I did mine first, then we got his piece of wood up on the lathe and he’s like ‘I really don’t know how to do this,'” Jerrod relates. “So, I tell him what I would do if I were him, and he ends up doing it. He liked it and it looked good.

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Natural edge black walnut bowl by Jerrod Toth.

“He’s like ‘How do you know so much about this already? You don’t even own a lathe, and I do own a lathe,'” he says of his brother’s surprise at his aptitude for woodturning.

Part of that aptitude comes from Jerrod’s background in art, the focus of his studies at Ohio State University. That background helps when it comes to imagining new designs, as well as looking at a piece of wood and seeing the potential hidden inside. To Jerrod, woodturning is an art form with endless opportunities to let his artistic side show. He considers himself an artist first and a woodworker second.

Despite the growing interest in woodturning, Jerrod’s woodworking efforts were bent primarily towards making furniture, and to that end his girl surprised him with a “really, really nice table saw.”

His brother, meanwhile, recognized Jerrod’s natural talent and pushed for him to get a lathe to explore what he could do with one. After a big argument hinging on his brother’s insistence that he owed Jerrod money, he returned home to find a package waiting for him.

“I come home – he bought me a lathe,” Jerrod relates of his brother’s method of settling the dispute. “His point was, I seem too good at this (woodturning) to not do it.”

Starting the Woodturners Journal YouTube channel evolved from his existing interest in similar channels and, again, his brother’s push for him to take his craft further. Plus, there was always the chance of getting endorsements to help take him even further.

Like any good man, he discussed the prospect with his girl, telling her about how his brother had asked why he wasn’t making his own videos.

“She’s like ‘Yeah, that is a very good point – why aren’t you?’ ”

Without any good reason why not, Jerrod set about getting a camera and software to produce his videos.

Since starting to share his videos early in 2015, the response has been terrific.

“It’s nonstop, everything I do,” Jerrod says of the work he puts into both coming up with projects, planning and then creating the woodturned objects as well as filming, editing and sharing his videos. “Somebody writes me about once a week, from all around the world. A guy wrote me from Russia, in Russian, and I had to translate it. People write to thank me and say they really love my videos.”

Even though his time is limited (he still maintains a full-time job as a department manager at Whole Foods), Jerrod’s love of the craft keeps him dedicated to growing his channel and constantly challenging himself with new projects that push the envelope of what is capable through woodturning.

“In the woodworking community, there’s people that travel around and do workshops,” Jerrod prefaces what he envisions as his long-term goals. “I want to get a big enough name where I could be invited to go and talk and show people techniques.”

Those techniques and skills are essentially self-taught, through observation and trial-and-error. Viewers on his videos find out right alongside Jerrod whether something will work or not. Even with forethought and planning, since he strives to push himself, he’s always trying new methods. More than once, he’s gotten responses from viewers who say they’ve never seen anything quite like some of the pieces he creates.

“Every single thing I do, I’m trying to push the limits of what I even know how to do, and everything’s setting me up for something in the future. I keep on trying to come up with something way different, that I don’t know how to do, than anything I’ve seen.”

Complex, unusual projects serve another purpose, too – building an audience. By continuously challenging himself and imagining things he’s never seen before, his videos are must-see viewing particularly for other woodturners. One of these projects, a slotted candle holder, received just the kind of response he hoped for, with comments about never having seen anything like it before. And in order to learn how he achieved the results…you gotta watch the video.

“I do want it to be instructional, and I do want to try to help people,” Jerrod explains of his video-making approach. Talking to the viewers throughout each video gives greater insight into his thoughts and plans, and helps to answer questions that viewers might have. “The point is hopefully give someone an idea, or get them motivated to take that idea, twist it and do something else with it.

“I want to inspire other people to go and, hey, steal my ideas and make them better,” he says. “Just get out there and do it.”

For those interested in where Jerrod gets the wood for his projects, he says living in Las Vegas makes it difficult. He did find a very good lumberyard where he was able to get some exotic wood, but a lot of his supply comes back with him on trips to visit family and friends in Cleveland, including a suitcase full of black walnut (his favorite), as well as shipments from his brother. His biggest haul, though, came from a tip from another woodturner, who directed him to the largest tree-clearing service in Las Vegas. From them, he was able to fill the back of a pickup truck with wood to the tune of $20 that included mesquite, sycamore and ash.

As for average project times, something like the very popular black walnut coffee mug takes about 8 hours to complete, plus about 3 hours of video editing.

To film his videos, Jerrod uses a Xiaomi Yi Action Camera that he discovered as an alternative to the popular GoPro camera with a lower pricetag. Made in China, Jerrod was a bit concerned when he discovered the software and phone app accompanying the camera are written in Chinese. Nevertheless, he figured out how to use it and is now in the market for a second camera to get multiple angles and speed up the production process (and workaround the 45-minute battery life).

The intro video to Jerrod’s videos (embedded at the top of this article), was created by Jerrod and includes licensed music he discovered on a site that offers music services for a fee. 

*****

Although not a woodturner or artist myself, I simply became entranced when I came across the Woodturners Journal on YouTube. Watching Jerrod explain his project idea and following right along with him as those ideas spring from his imagination into finished objects is fascinating.

His outlook, methods and story reminded me a lot of Stefan Pokorny, who combined his talent for classical art with his love of D&D to develop a unique artistic identity.

It’s really a pleasure for me to get a chance to speak with people like Jerrod, whose dedication and talents are plain to see and who modestly share the pursuit of their craft with others.

On a larger scale, a lot of the work I do here at The Long Shot involves sharing the stories of people who inspire me personally. If I have any talent at all, I hope it lies in an ability to properly connect readers with some of the fascinating people out there who are basically just following their dreams. Every single one of them will tell you that there’s nothing easy about it, but at the same time it’s infinitely rewarding – a message that everyone should take to heart.

Just a guy who played D&D

The best and most memorable of RPG campaigns and the rich tradition of fantasy behind them all start in the simplest of ways, with fledgling entrepreneurs who look at the world around them and feel an innate, sometimes imperceptible desire to help shape the kind of world they inhabit.

Whatever collection of skills and talents they are imbued with are recognized, and as they grow in competence through experience, form the core of their identity. Never put to the side and forgotten, the abilities they bring to the table are in fact celebrated. Through them, these folk engage with their world. Although their journeys do not often turn out the way they expected when they first began, they can nevertheless look backward and recall how they arrived, by remaining true to themselves to the best of their ability.

And maps.

Lots and lots of maps help ignite the memory and the imagination.

Hyboria map

An illustration of The Hyborian Age primarily based upon a map hand-drawn by Robert E. Howard in March 1932.

 

“I liked to read Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, and they all have maps,” Stefan Pokorny says of the road that lead him to Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s, when he was 12. (note: Paul O’Connor aka Longbox Graveyard considers 12 to be the ‘golden age’).

Middle Earth map

Map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth

“When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I think it even said in the Dungeon Master’s Guide ‘you should be drawing a map of your world,’ so that’s what I did,” he explains. “I immediately thought that one of the most funnest parts of playing the game was to create all your own stuff.

“It’s the creative part that’s fun.”

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Stefan Pokorny, with some of Dwarven Forge’s terrain pieces

These days, when New York City native Stefan isn’t waiting for his Brooklyn building’s laundry maintenance person to arrive, he stays plenty busy with a career as an artist whose start, like the fantasy characters of RPGs and literature, lay in between the pages of a notebook.

Combining his devotion to medieval fantasy and D&D with a talent for sculpting, Stefan launched Dwarven Forge in 1996, offering pre-painted 3-D dungeon terrain to the gaming community, a business that endures today.

“It happened more out of desperation – I was trying to find a way to make money somehow, because I’d been a painter,” he discloses, dispelling the notion that this path was planned from the beginning. “I wasn’t really selling enough paintings to survive in New York City.”

He was working as a model painter for a company that would take his painted pieces, like small lighthouse figurines, and ship them overseas for mass production. At the same time, he was already beginning to build his own dungeon terrain for gaming, just for fun.

“I was thinking I could just take this to the next level (note: innocuous RPG reference there) and actually cast these things in resin and paint them. It dawned on me one day that I should do that – I should make dungeons.

“So that’s what I did.”

A friend from his neighborhood hobby store The Compleat Strategist suggested getting a booth at Gen Con, and with about 300 of his first dungeon terrain box sets, Stefan set up at a 10-by-10 booth at the world’s largest gaming convention.

When the convention doors opened, people ran to the booth and mobbed the place.

Four hours later, he was sold out.

Gathering contact info from would-be customers for the rest of that first convention trip (“there was still four days left!”), he headed home to prepare new stock.

“Now it’s been, what, 18 years? I dunno,” Stefan says humbly, happy if only for the fact that the same talent for art that drew him to fantasy in the first place continues to help him shape the world he lives in.

Stefan learned to sculpt while earning Master’s degree in painting from Hartford Art School, and on Dec. 19 will be celebrating the grand opening of his own, first art gallery, Zaltar’s Gallery of Fantastical Art in Brooklyn. Named after one of his oldest D&D characters, the gallery’s first show is titled ‘Transmutation.’

“It’s my transmutation from a classical artist to a sort of artist of the fantastical,” Stefan describes. “There will be a bit of both in the show.”

Drawing inspiration from classical artists like Michaelangelo and Bernini and contemporary artists, particularly Frank Frazetta, Stefan explains that the gallery is his dream come true – the full circle from fine to fantastical art.

 

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Frank Frazetta’s “A Fighting Man of Mars” from 1973.

“He was the man,” Stefan says of Frazetta, but he also notes that many of the artists who contributed work to those 1st Edition AD&D books captured his imagination as well.

“They were artists of the fantastic, and they stimulated your creativity,” he continues, noting that artists such as Donald A. Trampier and Clyde Caldwell had a big influence as well.

Trampier

Selection of art from Donald A. Trampier from the 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual

“I’ve finally accepted myself as being not just a regular artist, but an artist of Dungeons & Dragons and these kinds of things, and seeing that as being art in itself,” he explains, describing not just his body of work but his vision for what Zaltar’s can represent.

“I really believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of art. The way actors in theater are considered artists, and writers are considered artists. I think that dungeon masters are also artists, and should be seen as such.”

Initially featuring his work, Stefan considers calling for other artists’ entries in the future. Later shows may display maps that other dungeon masters have created, or painted miniatures.

Beyond the featured art show, the gallery will host other events throughout the week, like figure drawing classes and other traditional art programs, gaming nights and fantasy movie showings.

“It’s going to be a cauldron of creativity.”

Although Stefan doesn’t have a regular D&D group at this point, he still gets opportunities to game through the convention circuit, where he’s often invited to run game sessions. In addition, several of his ventures are funded through Kickstarters, and some of the rewards for contributing are a chance to go to NYC and play in a game run by Stefan – something a lot of groups chose to donate for.

“It’s a DM’s dream come true, to get paid to play D&D,” he points out. And those who play in Stefan’s games are in for a retro treat, since he still plays 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, having never felt the need to do anything else. Likewise, D&D video games don’t compare to what the pencil-and-paper style offer, “sitting around a table with actual people – taking the game wherever it might go, improvising. It’s ten times better than any kind of video game you could play.”

An upcoming Kickstarter scheduled for March will support Dwarven Forge’s World’s Greatest Modular Castle System. Past Dwarven Forge Kickstarters include things like Caverns and City sets. The latter of those projects made Dwarven Forge the 35th most-funded project of all time, surpassing Stefan’s earlier success with the caverns set (No. 41 or all time) and gaming tiles set (No. 48 of all time).

For the upcoming Kickstarter, Stefan teases that they may explore a new proprietary building material, similar in concept to the custom PVC variant ‘Dwarvenite’ used to make recent products. (note: he’s gonna have to go adamantine or something; Dwarvenite stands up to a lot of punishment without damage to the structure or color).

At the end of the day, it’s a simple thing that keeps Stefan motivated to continue following his passion, despite the lean times he’s experienced when Dwarven Forge’s future was in question (“At least we’re not losing money! So many years we were on the brink of going out of business.”).

“I enjoy it. I enjoy what I do, so everyday isn’t really like work. It’s just like playing, doing your thing. There’s times when it’s tedious, but it’s better than working in a coal mine – there’s lots of worse jobs I could have. There’s stressful times, for sure. But the greatest thing is that I own my own business, so I decide what I want to do and either sink or swim with whatever my decisions are. I’m the master of my own universe. There’s something to be said for that, and not following other people’s orders too much.”

Going back to his roots, Stefan will soon be publishing a book as well, in January 2016, that contains a collection of many of the meticulously drawn maps from his D&D games. Hundreds of his heretofore secret maps will be available for gamers to incorporate into their own campaigns, or just admire as works of art.

For Stefan, 2015 has been a crazy year (in a good way), notably because a camera crew has been following him around.

On top of his continued success with Dwarven Forge, Zaltar’s and the upcoming book, as well as being featured in several D&D-related documentaries, Stefan himself is the subject of a documentary called “Dwarvenaut,” directed by Josh Bishop.

“I was just a guy who played D&D with my friends,” Stefan reflects on the path that led him to where he is today, and bids farewell in classic D&D fashion. “Good gaming!”