The Contract between GM and Players: Peace Not War

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Or: Don’t be a Player Hater

In my last post I wrote about some of the misguided things GMs do trying to produce cool scenarios for their players. Most of it was based on situations that came up in my long-running Erom campaign. When one player throws his dice and mechanical pencil down hard and another puts his books in his backpack and zones out, those are signs that they are not having fun. And if your players are not having fun, guess what? Your prep work was a waste of time. The truth is, you are probably not having fun either; you’re just too busy running your game to notice.
So what I recommend–and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject–is that you work out some kind of agreement with your players about how you–meaning you and the players–will be running the game.
Think of it as a contract with your players. But what might it cover?
My friend Janyce–whom I think of as the ultimate GM–wrote in response to my last post. That post was about giving your players their moments of awesome. Janyce pointed out that in addition to that, “the contract should encompass more than giving players their rewarding piece of the awesome pie.” She cited one example: “the contract can be an unspoken system to negate the GM versus the players paradigm.”
Oh, how right she is. In fact, I would insist that changing that dynamic is the root of a good campaign. Think about it; if the relationship is adversarial, then the GM has set up the scenario, knows where all the traps are, puts in whatever dangers and opponents he or she wishes, and rules on the results of all contests. Such a GM plays with a stacked deck. If it’s an adversarial relationship, it’s an extremely unfair one.
Those of us who have been playing a while have all had the experience of playing under (not with) a GM who seemed to delight in frustrating the players and making their characters suffer. Shades of Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”!
So I would insist that the first item in the contract between GM and players would be this: We are playing together, not against each other. And that means that we are all trying to make this game as fun as possible. Which means if there is a challenge, the GM has made it challenging enough to be exciting, but not unbeatable. And if there is something that is clearly difficult to defeat, it will be obviously so, but there will be ways to avoid it, plenty of warnings of the difficulty, and some sort of means of winning that may require further adventures or encompass help from NPCs the PCs encounter. So maybe fighting it today is a bad idea, but someday? It could be something to train up for.
Every adventure has setbacks. If adventures didn’t have setbacks, they would be pretty bloody boring, right? The key to keeping the contract is to make sure that the setbacks make the awesome more delicious when it comes. As the amazing John Wick once pointed out, player want their characters to be like the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard. “They want to be knocked down, punched out, bloody, battered, and beaten. But…every time they get knocked down, they want to be able to get back up.” And so it is important for the players to trust that every reversal has a possible payoff. If the players trust the GM on that, and if the GM delivers, then there is fertile ground for a great gaming experience. Of course, a PC can still blow it. Failure is always an option, but it should be entirely based on the player’s wrong decisions. Otherwise the game is just another railroad.

What else might be a part of the GM/Player contract?

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Awesomeness and the GM’s Contract with the Players

(From our “ Wouldn’t It Be Nice” Department)

If there is one thing I have learned about roleplaying games, it is this: your experience is determined not by the system or setting, but by the people you play with. It only takes one person to entirely ruin a roleplaying session. On the other hand, playing with a good group makes roleplaying more fun than just about anything. It’s important to have the group dynamic working well. There are many facets to this; one of the most important is the contract, explicit or implied, between the players and the GM. Most of these times this contract will be implicit; which means that it is easily misunderstood.
What is the thing almost all roleplayers want?
Awesomeness.
You know. A huge slice of awesome pie, with awesome sauce, and a scoop of awesome ice cream ala mode. We all roleplay for different reasons, but I think we all enjoy those moments when our characters get to do something awesome. And we will go through all kinds of trouble in an adventure for the sake of that awesome moment. So why do so many players get frustrated and fret while playing? Because they feel cheated out of their share of awesomeness, and usually–but not always–by the GM.
In my experience this is usually because the player and the GM have different ideas about awesome: what it is, what it consists of, and how to get it. I had two players in my campaign, both good enough fellows, both imaginative and involved players. But they would become extremely unhappy at times. One liked to stack the odds in favor of his character to the point of being completely undefeatable. You know the kind of player: His character never took off his armor, and if he had been able to wear three layers of armor, his character would have. At times, especially in combat, he would sort of drift off and stop participating. The other would try to make the ultimate tactical plan, then get all upset during combat when it didn’t work because the other players wouldn’t keep to the plan. He would often throw his pen and dice down in disgust. Looking back, it was my fault. I was failing them by not letting them get their awesomeness.
The problem is that both players–and everyone at my table–had their own idea of what was awesome, and those ideas were often incompatible. In addition, they were often incompatible with what I was doing , or at least trying to do.
In the example above, the first player wanted to battle his way through hordes of foes, unstoppable, like Conan. The second player wanted to execute a perfect tactical operation, achieving victory efficiently. I did not know how to make both those things happen, so I ended up making neither happen. My players did not get their awesome.
Neither did I. I had my own idea of awesome. But I was the GM, and when the GM forces his idea of awesome on his players, the result is often no fun for anyone. And that is bad. Example: I am very fond of escapes, so I love to put in situations where the PCs get captured, which will lead to a really cool escape sequence. What’s wrong with that?
So much is wrong with it–not everybody is into escapes, many people hate having their character captured because that means they either have to surrender or be defeated, and lastly, having a situation where they have to be captured and then have to escape is 100-percent whole-grain railroad. And in my book, that’s bad–even though I used to do that sort of thing to my players fairly often. I funneled my players into situations where they felt helpless and had no fun, and then I had no fun bcause I was losing them.
How do you avoid this situation?
You have to have a contract with your players. It can be inferred or explicitly stated, but explicitly stated is better, because everyone has to be absolutely clear on the basic deal.
First: The GM wants the Players to have their awesome moments. All of the players. And so the game has to provide opportunities for those awesome moments.
Second: Those awesome moments to be really awesome, have to be worked for. Anything easy will not be all that awesome.
Third: The players will have to trust that whenever things do not go well for the characters, that there will be a corresponding possibility of an awesome moment. Setbacks make for adventure.
Fourth: The GM will not railroad the PCs, even in the service of awesome. No forcing them to surrender so you can have a cool escape sequence. Just have ideas for escape sequences ready for when they have blown it.

Next time: More ideas on this…

It’s all just…Special Effects

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I have regaled you, gentle reader, with a little nostalgia for the roleplaying games I shared with many friends over the years. I have had several of my old gamer friends check in with me, and nobody has accused me of distorting facts or anything like that–not that the story was so detailed or dramatic or controversial that anyone would. However, I did find one little error in my post “The Long Campaign.” The campaign I am referring to in this post, the one that went on for so many years, actually started in 1982, not 1981. So now that I have corrected this, I can now sleep more easily. I feel a lot better and I hope you do too.

So now I wish to whip forward to the present time. I have played just a bit since I changed states sixteen years ago, but I have not run a game in probably fifteen, and so it is high time I got a campaign or at least a series of games going again. I have several ideas, in fact. There are several systems I want to try, genres I’d like to play with, and stories I’d like to develop, I hope with some creative players who will help shoulder the task of developing those stories. And while I was thinking about all this, I realized something about roleplaying games systems and genres…

It’s all just special effects.

We’ve all heard this phrase from various friends over the years, usually in a disparaging mode about a movie lacking in story or plot or characterization, but abounding in fights, explosions, giant robots, and Megan Fox. And hey, the first movie effects were lighting and makeup effects to make the female leads look gorgeous. Lead hotties are special effects. But I digress.

Special effects are not a bad thing when used in the service of a good story. They allow us to continue with our suspension of disbelief as the story unrolls, helping us to accept that a man can fly, that a monkey king can leap from India to Sri Lanka, and that Megan Fox can fall for the geek protagonist. And if well done they can make the story seem as realistic and as plausible as anybody’s day at work.

Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone. A lady I know said she liked The Avengers but she did not like the first Captain America movie because it was too unrealistic. Another said the film Noah was good but somewhat fictionalized. I did not have a response to either comment.

Well, it’s time to get to my point. Any worthwhile roleplaying game will either fit the taste of a particular player or it will not based on whether it provides good special effects for the type of setting the player is interested in. A hard-science RPG like Traveller or Diaspora really doesn’t have the mechanism to create duels between Force-wielding sorcerers or light-saber wielding Jedi. On the other hand, none of the various Star Wars RPG iterations really seems to have the features to convincingly depict space travel with all its attendant dangers and the technical details of actual space travel. One sometimes suspects that interplanetary space in those games is not actually a vacuum full of deadly radiation; one just shuts the lock, starts up the engines, and flies. Which is groovy in a space fantasy, but doesn’t offer a glimpse of the way real spacefarers have to operate their ships and perform maneuvers outside the ship. In either case If one is not playing with an appropriate system, one will not get to experience those exciting scenes that one want to play out.

The writer Steven Brust has said that his critical theory as a writer consists of this: “Let me tell you about something really cool.” This may be the best aesthetic approach I have ever heard of. In Brust’s case it really works. And I think that if modified slightly, it can be applied to a roleplaying game by any GM: “Let me help you experience some really cool moments.” What moments would you want to play out in a game?

I have a few. I would really love to have my character hold off a horde of baddies at a bridge or other strategic spot while the rest of the party are able to escape. That will either result in a narrow escape or more likely a noble death. A good game for me would allow that kind of scene–that kind of special effect.

I have always wanted to infiltrate an enemy-occupied planet by gliding down from orbit in a stealth infiltration vehicle. Very dangerous and very tricky. A good game for me would make that sort of action come alive.
How about a Man Who Would Be King type special effect that could make it easy to play a scenario in which uniting the tribes into an allied force and opposing the enemy was the goal. And for it to be a good special effect, it would have to make that fantasy plausible.

The same applies to genre. If I want to use my will to summon a fireball and send it to devastate my enemy, traditional sword and sorcery fantasy would be the genre where that kind of scene can best be experienced. But if I want to experience tinkering with arcane devices and gearing to create a flying machine, a steampunk game is more likely to satisfy me if those sorts of actions can be made to come alive. If I have players who want one and others who want the other, the genre has to be able to contain both.

There are some game systems that don’t make any of these things seem particularly real because of extremely abstract mechanics or just a failure to make it interesting, but much of that can be remedied by a good GM and by good players. The key elements are first that the details have to be there: description so that the player can feel like he is experiencing that dramatic moment. Second, the player has to feel like he or she is in control of the process of casting a spell, winning a battle, or navigating a ship, and this means that his or her choices have to be important to the outcome. Third, no matter how successfully the character achieves his or her task, the danger of failure and its consequences must seem real.

So again, does your game system and genre have the “special effects” to make your players’s dramatic moments come true and seem real?

This is directly related to what I call the “Game Compact” which is what we will be discussing next.

 

 

Russell Becomes a Traveller

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Ludophilis: I have earlier described the almost magical impact that the original LBB version of the Dungeons and Dragons Game had when I first laid eyes upon it.

Just a few years later—it all seems about the same time, and looking back from the age of 55 at my teen self, I realize it was—I was browsing at The Legionnaire and there was another boxed set of little books very much the same size and format as the D&D LBBs. It came in a shiny black box with red printing…do you remember?

Yes. It was Traveller.

I stared at that black box a lot over the next month or so. Since it was closed up, there was no way to look at the contents. It came in three books…well, that was almost traditional. It promised a roleplaying game for science-fiction adventures in the far future. That part was great as I have always been more into SF than Fantasy, though I do enjoy both. But what was actually in those boxes? It was, quite literally, a black box mystery.

I asked the owner of the store, Paul, what he knew about it, and he said it looked good, and several people were excited about it, but nobody he knew had actually played it. No one likes buying a pig in a poke, but back then everything , no matter how crude, was grist for the role player’s mill. We were all just making it up as we went along . That was half the fun right there.

I decided to risk the ten bucks or whatever to buy it. And I ended up opening the box in my car. And I was amazed. It contained something I had never seen before in a roleplaying game: professional typesetting. And okay art.

I have since definitely seen better layout and sexier graphics, but back then everything looked like it had been laid out by enthusiastic amateurs using IBM Selectric typewriters, probably because everything was laid out by enthusiastic amateurs using IBM Selectric typewriters. But this Traveller game was different. The more professional, consistent layout and real printers typeface meant that these GDW guys were serious. And everything about that game seemed serious while at the same time promising that one could run any kind of far-future space adventure.

There was no magic, but there was Psionics, though it was a repressed practice.

I played some trading games, I even did a sequel to the Star Wars films just out by having Luke and Leia’s daughter hire the adventurers to find her missing Uncle Luke. I had to plug in all kinds of Force stuff—but it worked!

Forget that they omitted any task resolution system at that point (They presented one later). Forget that they were weak on giving examples. Heck, forget that the name of the game misspelled “traveler.” It was a fun game, held up well as they years went by, and looked and felt better developed than a lot of the games out at that time. At the same time, the gaps in the game system were something we were used to. That’s just how RPGs were!

I still have my original Little Black Box and its three original books, covers scuffed but essentially sound. The $9.95 I paid for that game was and will probably always be the best value for money I ever received in my life.

Let’s sip ahead a few years to college; actually, to my grad school years. To keep costs low and my focus appropriate, I was living in a dormitory while working toward my master’s degree. Yeah, so what, I was uncool; tell me something I don’t know.

At the start of one year I met a guy who lived in the room next door, which meant he and his roommate and my roommate and I all shared a bathroom. He was an affable, intelligent guy coming back for his MS in Civil Engineering named Russell Iwasa. Russell and I hit it off directly. We went down to the dorm cafeteria for dinner and over dinner we discovered we had a love of good, funny, brainy SF and adventure stories, in fact, a of of books and authors were mutual favorites.

Encouraged by this meeting a kindred mind, I then asked the big question, “So—what roleplaying games do you play?”

He looked puzzled. “What’s a roleplaying game?” And he was serious. Well, they were still kind of obscure, especially in Hawaii, but someone who loved SF and adventure stories was the sort of person….

“Oh, Russell. Oh, oh Russell. Oh my God! After dinner I have something that I just have to show you.”

His brow furrowed “Okay,” he said cautiously.

Well, given Russell’s love of SF, it had to be Traveller. And as promised, I brought the books to his room, showed them how the game worked, showed him how the character generation system was almost a little mini-game in itself.

And he liked it. Hey Russell! He asked if he could hang on to the books overnight.

The next morning we met up in the cafeteria. Russell looked a little tired. He admitted to having stayed up late rolling up characters. (I had also loaned him dice.)

“Really?” I asked him? “you look a little tired? How many characters did you roll up?”

“Forty-one,” he replied. “I never did go to sleep.”

Russell and I played Traveller and many other games over the years. He ran a Traveller game that was great fun. I’ve lost touch with Russell, but I will never forget how immediately he took to Traveller.

The Long Campaign

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In the summer of 1981 I decided to run another game. I got all my books, notes, and maps out, dusted off my introductory scenario—the Missing Cow again—and asked myself who might be willing to play. I knew a young lady named Kelli, who was my friend Kevin’s younger sister. She knew a couple of people from school: David and LeeAnn. One GM andthree players, an introductory scenario and notes for creating more, and a bag full of various dice. We were once again using the AD&D rules, with the exception of a few things we didn’t like, or care about, and with a few things we came up with that we thought would work better. This, in D&D terms, is considered orthodox and very traditional.

The previous Halloween (1980) I had gone out with some friends, smoked a joint, and proceeded to have a nightmarish and panicky experience. Using marijuana had become less and less pleasant, even while I realized I had a nightly habit. That Halloween cinched it. I was so freaked that I swore never again. And I didn’t. Which after a bad experience was easy, except when hanging out with friends who were still using it. So I had to stop hanging out with my one group of friends and find an alternative social life.
So I came back to D&D as a way of having fun but staying sober on Saturday nights. And it worked.

Kelli, David, and LeeAnn were soon joined by many others: Vincent (one of my earlier players, Kathy, Kathy, Sarah, Megan, Michael, Brian, Wendy, Raymond, Sherine, Russell (I have a story about Russell getting into gaming that will be posted soon), Lyn, Barbara, and several others who came and went. The world of Erom got bigger and more detailed, and the cool thing was that the players contributed a lot of it–often the very best stuff. That type of gaming was less common then than it is now; FATE and a lot of other systems incorporate a lot of player input, but for me it began in 1981, even though it had nothing to do with the game mechanics.

As we all grew up, graduated college (or high school and then college), got jobs, got married, got divorced (in my case) and took on life, the Saturday gaming group kept on. There were occasionally misunderstandings, a tiff here and there, and so on, but most of the time we were all gathered around someone’s dining table or rec room or whatever, and the game would go on. Michael had a Traveller game that verged on inter-dimensional fantasy, so he and I alternated weeks. David started up an excellent GURPS Horror campaign that was one of the best I ever played in; he later did a Vampire game briefly and then a game involving immortals. Dave was and is a creative person who Now has a number of novels out that are well worth reading.

Russell ran a Traveller game for a while. It was fun. I tried out a semi-historical swashbuckling adventure campaign using GURPS which I enjoyed running.

I finally got a little tired of GMing and took a hiatus of a year or two. Our group gamed on and I enjoyed just being a player. When I got back to GMing, I had decided to retire AD&D and restart my campaign using the GURPS rules, which in fact worked very well in the Erom Campaign. [Why that was might be worth a future post.] After running the Erom Campaign for a few more years, I took another hiatus. I was out of ideas, especially out of ideas for new stuff for the old characters. But then I thought of it: All New Characters! But how?I moved the story forward 20 years and let the players develop new characters. Some were completely new characters, but most were the children of the old characters. My players found fun and creative ways to work that: Dave’s Norse Priest of Thor had a son who was a courtier interested in stylish clothing and fine wine, just for example.

We played that campaign for a few more years. Saturday nights we would often make dinner. We had specialties like “Way Too Much Garlic Bread” and “Evil Hot Pepper Rolls.” Whenever someone in the group moved houses the others would come help pack and haul.We finally wrapped it up when two key players who had gotten married decided to move to the mainland. That was in early 1997. Starting in 1981, that made 16 years, dozens of players, over a half-dozen campaigns, occasional breaks, but mostly lots of creative fun. I wonder if I’ll ever have such a good group again. I can only hope so.

Playing What With Whom?

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I need to acknowledge another inspirational RPG source to my long-running campaign. I was a real fan of Fritz Leiber’s stories about Faffhrd and the Grey Mouser. When I looked at Judge’s Guild’s  City State of the Invincible Overlord, there it was! Looking at the maps and the accompanying materials, it is obvious that the creators were very familiar with Leiber’s city of Lankhmar, and the City State goes for the same feel, doing creditable homage to Leiber’s setting. 

I wanted that so bad for my campaign. A large sprawling city by the sea, from which adventurers can go anywhere by land, sea, or assuming an obliging dragon or pegasus, by air.

But what to call it? I wanted it to be the capital of an empire that has declined. Something like Rome but  with a two-syllable name.

I moved the last “e” from the end to the front and the City of Erom was born. Adjective: Eromic. People: Eromi. Yeah—it sounded just right.

Armed with the AD&D books, the City State, and plenty of graph paper, I designed my first scenario, tried a few trial runs with various friends who were patient considering I had no idea how to run a game in a lively manner.

So finally I was ready to roll (literally). But who would be my players?

This part is a bit vague in my memory. I was about 18 or 19 and I don’t remember how I met them; but it was probably my girlfriend’s brother’s friend’s sister and her friend. Lisa and Lisa (though she spelled it Lhesa and has since changed it to Madeleine.

Lisa and Madeleine were 14 but lots of fun, quite sharp, and willing to give the game all they could. And we had fun. We would play for a few hours, then when we quit for the night, we might smoke one and then watch SNL. Lisa usually conked out early, but Madeleine and I would stay up. When I was good to drive, I would drive Madeleine home, and then go home myself. Fun, but I was forming a habit that would later cause a bit of trouble.

Given this, of course Madeleine and I became friends. She was a good person, with a bright spirit. I saw her about 15 years ago, but have since lost touch. I miss her. She was fun.

After a while we discussed getting more players, so I invited a guy named Vincent, who added much to the game. Then there was his sister, Marianne. Then a high school classmate of theirs and a college friend of mine, Esha (who was sometimes forced to be the adult supervision), then Karl and mostly people that I knew from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, or their classmates from University High (I didn’t go there, but I knew a number of people who did). And then whoever they knew that they thought might enjoy it. And eventually we had quite a crowd.

It’s interesting to note that my absolute best friend, Kevin, did not play. I got the feeling he wasn’t enamored of the idea. We never discussed it. I always assumed he would not want to, and that he thought it would be silly. He certainly would have been welcome.

It was big, and sometimes unwieldy, but it was a great bunch and we had fun. And it went on a year or two until it wasn’t going on anymore. And I am not sure what led to that; I don’t remember all that well. The post game toking might have had something to do with it—I need to point out that he overwhelming majority of the players did not indulge.

It might have had something to do with being really busy with school; it definitely had something to do with having my first serious girlfriend, and it was probably not helped by my increasing dependence on marijuana. I had grown up into a nervous wreck, and the weed really helped with that. But eventually took more than it gave. My girlfriend dumped me, I started to get lousy grades in college, and I was having trouble making sense. I decided I was going to have to quit the weed, which made it difficult to hang out with people who still did that. My campaign had ended and now I was trying to get my act together. I still saw my players around, but we never really had any more of the big Saturday game gatherings.

To Be Continued…

 

Let Me Now Thank Imaginative Friends

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Before I get too far along in discussing my role-playing games, I want to acknowledge two people right now. I’ll be remembering other friends and accomplices and whatever, but at this point two people whose friendship meant a lot:

Peter Matthew, who turned me on to Tolkien, war-games in general, and Blitzkrieg in particular. Also Mister Miracle, Tommy James, and so many things. Thanks.

John Goss, whose maps and drawings and the stories that went with them fired my sense of imagination, and whose friendship meant a lot to the geeky new kid at Kalaheo. Thanks from your “Ka.”

Imaginary Wars Part Two

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As you recall from my last account, Ludophilis, I was exposed by a magical encounter with my first Friendly Local Game Store, The Legionnaire. The owner, Paul Capadona, was indeed into all sorts of games, both Wargames and RolePlaying games. It was 1975 and all there was the the latter category was Dungeons and Dragons. My interest lay fallow for a year or so.

Then I heard about some friends of mine playing some kind of game with a guy named Richard. I never caught Richard’s last name, but he was about 3 or four years younger than me, and we went to the same school. Two of my friends, Joe and Sean, were very imaginative and interesting people (and still are). So when they described the game, they were enthusiastic. And the light went on when they said it was “Dungeons and Dragons.”

I asked if they thought Richard would let me play. They said I could ask him.

So I went over to Sean’s house on evening when they were playing.  Unfortunately, they were finished but I was able to hear them discussing what treasures they had obtained and what leveled they had gained.

Richard did not know when he would be running another game, and I volunteered to run a game if nobody else was willing. I had no idea just how much I would have to learn, nor how difficult that would be, but I meant it.

I finally had a chance to examine the core books in the white box. Ohmigawd! They were not going to make it easy on a beginner, were they? I remember getting a flood of creative ideas while at the same time not really knowing how to play the game. Which leads me to my basic summary of the Little Brown Books (LBBs).

Someone, I forget who, said of the Velvet Underground “They didn’t sell many albums, but everyone who bought one started a band.” The LBBs were like that: they triggered idea after idea and were really exciting. They were also quite useful when you were playing. But how does one actually start playing? I tried to hack it out with a few friends, but It was rather difficult. The links to the Chainmail miniature war-game rules were also confusing. But bit by bit I was figuring it out and fudging what I could not understand.

I let it be known that D&D stuff would be welcome gifts at Christmas, and sure enough! My Grandma gave the Basic Set Box (the Blue Book) as a gift—to my younger brother! She had a tendency to do that. My brother usually got pretty cool gifts and I got nice clothes and athletic stuff.(1) Nevertheless my brother let me use the blue book, and that made it a bit more clear.

About that time the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books came out. I duly purchased them and started to put together my first adventure. And sure enough< I was ready to go. The scenario started when some adventurers heading toward the big city ran into an old couple who had lost their cow. Lizardlike tracks were found near the cowshed. Boy did they need help…

And it was very interesting whom I starting playing with. And what happened then.

To Be Continued…

(1) I liked the basketball I got when I was nine. Gram taught me to shoot baskets. She was pretty good too! It turns out she was on her college team. The rest of the gifts made me wonder if she did not think I was too scrawny and not well-dressed enough. I still have and treasure a hardback Silmarillion she gave me, though.