The Joy of Maps

A map for a game, based on my secondary school

In reflecting on my gaming habits, I have found lots of materials that I created, mainly throughout my teenage years. Most of them are maps.

You can tell a fantasy fiction book in the book shop, not just because of the section it is in, but because of the map in the front. They all have them: The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Sword of Truth Series, The Belgariad. All of them full of maps.

As the Dungeon Master for many games of Dungeons and Dragons, it was my job to create maps and then fill them with monsters, traps and challenges for the players to encounter. As a consequence, my books are full of maps.

Looking back at my maps, I’m struck by how many times I used my school as a map for games. I have it drawn (see picture) in a book for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. I have it drawn out to scale for 15mm figures for a tabletop game called ‘Bounty Hunter’ (a game that I invented – I’m coming to that in some future post). I also used some software to create my school in Doom, one of the original first person shooter games. You could walk around my school and experience all sorts of nasty creatures and enemies… Hmm.

#28daysofwriting Day 22

Play by Mail

Before MMOs and MMORPGs and the rest, there was Play by Mail. I didn’t do much Play by Mail, but what I did, I loved.

Mainly it was Serim Ral.

Serim Ral was a fantasy Play by Mail game for 100 players. Not exactly MMO, but on its way to it…! You started out with 5 leaders, a castle and a small army and your mission was to expand and conquer. It was created by Incubus Designs and run by both them and another PBM company, Mindless Games. Neither operate anymore – in fact if you google ‘Incubus Designs’ you’ll only find a tattoo parlour.

Each turn, you could post orders that your leaders would carry out. You would write these on the order sheet and send it by actual mail (yes – remember that? – the thing that uses stamps and post boxes). The people who ran the game would then type the orders into their computer, run the turn and post you back a turn sheet with details of what had happened to your leaders.

A couple of memories stand out.

Firstly the anticipation was incredible. Unbearable sometimes. You were playing a game with a ten day turn around and depending on both the post and the efficiency with which the company who ran the game executed their turns. When a turn was expected but came a day or so late, it was terribly frustrating, but when it arrived – oh! what sweet satisfaction – especially if everything you had planned had worked out.

Secondly, the more you paid, the more power you gained. The pricing structure of the game was £3.50 per turn plus 4p per order beyond, I think, 70 orders. Every order earned your leaders more experience, so of course, if you paid for extra orders, your leaders would gain more experience and swiftly gain more power than their rivals. This again became frustrating – thinking that you were being beaten by rivals who had put more money into the game than you. It’s funny looking back at this, because the same thing happens today – some gamers still pay extra for ‘gems’ or ‘loot boxes’, or whatever internal currency their particular game uses, and gain more power as a consequence.

You can’t see much evidence of these games around anymore. The internet killed them. Although, I see that VGA planets, another game that I played a little of and enjoyed is still going. You can play this by email or a web interface though, so it’s a little less limited by snail mail.

#28daysofwriting Day 21

Make my own adventure

A page from my attempt at a gamebook

Another chapter* in my gaming obsession was ‘Choose your adventure books’. These swiftly led on to the idea that I could create my own versions of them.

The limitation of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons that I so enthusiastically played, was that you needed a whole lot of other people to play with to make the game work. Organising such people was often hard, so here’s where ‘choose your own adventure books‘ came in – a story with choices, so you could interact, have an adventure, without any other people. Marvellous.

I soon moved on to the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone ones – Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the like – but my very favourites were the Lone Wolf Gamebooks. I loved these because the story continued from book to book and, even more importantly, there was an element of character generation. You could choose certain traits and abilities and these would grow in power as you went through the books. This character development was something I loved in Dungeons and Dragons and the same idea of gaining experience, or leveling up, are often used today in the most successful computer games.

The corollary of this obsession with gamebooks was that I would attempt to make my own version. I found an old exercise book in the attic recently with just such an attempt recently.

A character sheet from my abortive game

I must have borrowed the book from school. In it, I have attempted to define two character classes – fighter and monk – including creating a load of special abilities and spells. It looks like I worked very hard on that part. But nowhere can I find any actual story. It’s like I ran out of steam before getting on to the main event. Maybe homework got the better of me. Or maybe I realised that other people were doing a better job

#28daysofwriting Day 20

*I use this phrase with heavy irony, given the lack of chapters I actually wrote.

07 Commander!

Computer gaming really started for me with Elite. This game held me spellbound for the entire Christmas holiday in which I had received it as my main gift.

Now I know that my mum had a bit of a miserable time that holiday. Myself and my Dad, who played the game when I wasn’t playing it, spent every waking hour flying our spaceships and so did not spend much time as family. This is the inherent problem with gaming.

I used to play the game with my friend – we took turns in the cockpit flying from one space system to another – while the other watched. Collaborative computer gaming did not really exist in 1986. We used to imagine that the rest of the house was just a hologram designed to make our spaceship more homely, although I’m not sure my parents, nor my sisters, ever knew that we were pretending they weren’t real.

One of my over-riding memories of this phase was the fact that my Dad beat me. Whilst I got through to Deadly – the second top rank, he made it all the way through to Elite.

Thirty years later, you may well know that Elite is back. Elite Dangerous is a lovely space game, in which you can spend hours doing the same things you did in 1986, but with better pictures. If you’ve played Elite Dangerous at all, you know that commanders greet each other with an 07 salute, hence the title of this post… Yes! I do play the new Elite. I’ve got myself a decent ship and a small amount of capital which I’m using to buy a better ship. My wife thinks it’s really boring – flying and docking she calls it. She can’t believe I like to spend my time playing it.

But as in 1986 it has happened again – my Dad has beaten me. He has a much better ship than me and hods of money and what’s more he is even Elite in one category. So at 75 years old, I still can’t beat him.

#28daysofwriting Day 19

The thirty by thirty foot room

My friend Dave introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was twelve. We played it at school, during lunchtimes, and I loved it.

My parents consented to buy it for me for my birthday. It was a lovely red box with lovely shiny red books inside. I soon got my parents and my sister, Ali, to join my in a game. I was Dungeon Master, of course. My Dad made a wizard called Gandalf. That was predictable too.

I used the starter adventure – the one that was already in the book. What I didn’t realise was how many times I would be saying the words: “you enter a thirty by thirty foot room.” I guess I didn’t care – I was just so excited at showing my family this new game. My mum still remembers that vividly and I remember her rolling her eyes and saying “not another thirty by thirty foot room!

Ever after that, whenever I played Dungeons and Dragons she would ask me how the thirty by thirty foot rooms were.

I’m sure I learnt to describe things with a little more detail as I continued my ‘dungeon master career’.

#28daysofwriting Day 18

Picture from Brian Hall. To read about a real gamer, check his blog.



My Gaming Obsession

Look! A shiny blue archer lead figure…

A friend recently told me that his boys had got into painting Warhammer figures. Seeing the figures, the paint, he had picked one up and given it a go. What seemed like moments later, he finished his figure and realised that he had spent two hours at it.

It took me back to Saturdays spent in the kitchen annex at my parents house, where I would sit with my sisters painting lead figures. I still have many of those figures, although now they sit in my attic gathering dust.

And I still have many of the books that I used the figures for – Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Bounty Hunter – and I still have loads of paperwork of games or characters that I’ve created. It sits in files or notebooks, again gathering dust. From paper-based gaming to computer and tablet, I’ve played a lot of different games. Some of them I have even used, with some success, in the classroom.

As it is half term, I thought I would spend my time moving away from the general theme of Education and begin reflecting on something that has been at the centre of much of my leisure time for the last thirty years: gaming.

#28daysofwriting Day 17

Another Tale from the Tunnel

It’s fair to say that cyclists annoy the vast majority of drivers. I know. I have spoken to my colleagues about this and if you took them at face value, it seems that many seemingly mild mannered people would, when behind a wheel, take a side-swipe at a cyclist they are passing.

But what you may not realise if you are solely a driver, is that some things annoy cyclist. Yes. Cyclists have feelings too.

On my commute, which is mainly down the Worcester and Birmingham Canal towpath, the main thing that annoys cyclists is other cyclists on electric bikes.

They whizz up and down that towpath, hurtling along at breakneck speeds, often overtaking other cyclists without even peddling. Most frustrating.

Now, I am a reasonably rapid cyclist myself and my commute is short enough not stretch my waning stamina. I have even been known to overtake an electric cyclist. OK. I did it once. And there was a favourable wind behind me.

One day I was cycling up to the Edgbaston Tunnel, of which I have previously spoken and used as a metaphor for life, and I could the hear the inexorable sound of an electric bike behind me. There was a slight, almost inaudible whine and what’s more the sound of someone breathing hard – I think they wanted to overtake me before I got to the tunnel.

So obviously, being a vaguely competitive sort, the challenge was on. I pushed a bit harder and made it to the tunnel first. There is only the width for one person at a time in the tunnel.

The Edgbaston Tunnel (again). The site of an electric cyclist’s doom…

It was at this point that I heard the sudden sound of metal upon metal and some loud expletives. “F***!” echoed down the tunnel to me, where, like a proper hero, I cycled on away from the explosion without even flinching.

I can only presume that the electric cyclist misjudged the entrance to the tunnel and clanged their overly-large handlebars into the metal railing. Still, at least this saved a ducking in the canal.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life, or education, that I should draw out from this, but I can’t think what it is, so I’ll just leave it as a funny story on my blog.

#28daysofwriting Day 16

When the road narrows

This is another lesson from the Edgbaston Tunnel, which I first used as a metaphor way back in October 2016.

The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel

When I first cycled through the tunnel, I was shocked at how narrow it was – there are literally a few centimetres between your handlebars and the wall on one side and the fence on the other. But then after a few turns of the pedal,  maybe 30 metres or so, it seems to get easier.

This isn’t because you are getting used to the tunnel. No, the path widens by a significant few centimetres about half way through, making the second half of the journey far less hair-raising.

But that doesn’t hold true on the return journey. Then, you enter a seemingly vast space and you cycle along with confidence at good pace, until suddenly there is a narrowing of the path and you lurch into this claustrophobic questioning of will I crash or not… it’s really quite scary.

Sometimes the things we do are like that. We start them. They seem easy at first, but then something happens that we hadn’t expected and it makes us lose our confidence. Maybe we have to stop completely and walk slowly to the end. Maybe we carry on blithely and crash. Or maybe we are lucky enough to stay sweet and straight to the end of the tunnel.

What I’ve found is that with practise you can easily cycle through the Edgbaston Tunnel. And at a good pace too. The trick is that you have to keep looking at your destination – the end of the tunnel. don’t think about the wall, or the fence or the handlebars, or what your feet are doing. Let your body live in the moment and keep looking to the end of the journey. It’s a bit like life really.

#28daysofwriting Day 15

Fixated by Feedback

Challenged by Tom Barrett’s #28daysofwriting post about proxies for learning, I began to consider what proxy most transfixed me. Having spent many of the last few posts on the subject of feedback, I knew quite quickly what it was: feedback.

If the feedback in the classroom is good, I consider that there is good learning going on. If the marking in a book is good, I consider that there is a good learning going on. Am I right?

It’s true that good feedback helps learners. But it is not true that the quality of the feedback is directly proportional to the amount of learning that goes on. I could be giving the best feedback in the world but spend my whole time teaching my students about Lithuanian Christmas Jurds and the lifecycle of the Wiggy Boond, both of which I invented*. The students would then have an awful lot of great feedback about things that are completely made up and do not help them at all with the next stages of their education.

Earlier today I was going through one of my pupils books and I noticed a piece of work that was unmarked. Yes I know. Take me outside and shoot me at dawn. It was just a few sentences of the child practising some sentence structure work. It was OK, but the child had gone on to do better things in their subsequent lessons. I realised it had been a lesson where the boys (for, as I’ve said before, it is a boys school) had done some practice, then I’d stopped them and done some modelling on the board and not gone back to the books.

So what did I do, given my feedback fixation? I back-marked it. I wrote a comment that wasn’t for anyone except an inspector.

And then I realised that all I’m doing is creating work for myself. The marking I’ve given doesn’t show the learning of that child. Nor does their performance in their book. The learning lives somewhere in their head. Getting overly fixated on one thing is not helpful.

*Sincere apologies to all those students, many of whom now adults, still believe in Christmas Jurds and the Wiggy Boond.

#28daysofwriting Day 14

Collecting the Good Stuff

One of the reasons I am an inconsistent blogger is that I quickly run out of ideas. I spend a few months building up a list of things I’m bothered about, which I then vomit into my blog. And then I go quiet for a bit.

This is an issue when trying to do #28daysofwriting (1 post for every day in February). Last time I tried this sort of thing, I ran out of steam half way through and didn’t finish.

So to inspire me, I’ve begun collecting other people’s blogs. I use to automatically search twitter for the hashtag #28daysofwriting and send the tweets, including any urls with related content, to a spreadsheet here. It’s been quite good so far. It’s tuned me back into Tom Barrett’s blog and made me see a couple of other people’s posts who have presented me with more food for thought – more ways to stay inspired.

Unfortunately I only thought of this a couple of days ago, so I haven’t collected everything since the start of February, but at least it’s a start!

#28daysofwriting Day 13