Interview: Megan McFerren on Moldvay D&D

Megan McFerren was kind enough to talk to me about her recent first tabletop RPG campaign, playing Moldvay D&D. When her group tweeted about the game, they used the twitter hashtag, #wednd.

You just got done playing a D&D campaign and correct me if I’m wrong but it was your first tabletop experience but you’re an experienced video gamer? What are some of your favorite video games ever?

Yes, D&D was my first tabletop game that was more than just a one-shot or a one-session play test (and I’d only had a handful of those). I’ve been playing video games pretty much my entire life, though. My favorite games ever are the original X-Com, Joust, and pretty much anything by Valve or Bethesda (I am an Elder Scrolls and Fallout junkie). Bioshock was also one of the most intense, memorable experiences I’ve ever had in gaming – actually maybe any form of media. I’ll never forget the way I felt when I played through that story for the first time.

I’ve played a number of MMOs over the years (starting with Meridian 59, old school!) but over the last couple years I’ve mostly been hooked on super-intense permadeath type sims – Dwarf Fortress and Day Z are the purest forms of gamer crack I’ve ever found in video games.

I don’t play many video games at all but before I had to reformat it, I had Dwarf Fortress on my little notebook and enjoyed the hell out of it. It is a mad, baroque game.

Dwarf Fortress turns me into a mad hermit. I get obsessed with it and go through black-out fugues when hours of my life just VANISH. Love it!

What did you think about your transition between your long-time video game experience and your first foray into campaign play via Moldvay’s D&D?

When this started I was in the midst of a really all-consuming Skyrim obsession, so at the time I was feeling very “in the mood” for the setting – delving into great caverns to pillage anything that isn’t nailed down? Bethesda PRIMED me for this! I also thought that those games had primed me for the style of play and It took me a handful of characters to realize how totally unprepared I was – that I can’t just charge ahead and fight everything, because that leads to death. Lots of death. This was a really rude awakening from the video game version of role-playing, which is “kill everything and take potions not to die.”

What did you like about it? What was similar and what was different?

I remember coming back after losing a particularly rad character (a cleric who lasted a whopping two sessions, which was like a RECORD for me at that point) and complaining about how frustrating it was that there’s no do-overs, no “reload from save”. I didn’t even realize how much I just EXPECTED that option to be available in games. In retrospect, this might be what turned me off a little to the video games I had been playing and made me really enjoy the thrill of permadeath experiences like Day Z. When there’s consequences for actions, everything feels so much more important.

I think we owe it to that cleric to hear that story and honor their memory.

He was the first character that I really put thought into creating a backstory for – just for myself to feel more connection to that character (oh the irony). My prior character, along with another at the table, had died in an unceremonious fall through a pit trap, INTO WATER, and they both died instantly, so this new cleric was “found” with the other new character as the original troupe made their way deeper into the dungeon. I had a whole story in my head about how he got there, who he was before he was stuck there, why he was a cleric, everything. Two sessions later, in an attempt to be heroic (he was Lawful, naturally) and save one of his rescuers from a Hobgoblin (not as scary as the Stirges we’d just encountered, by way capable of killing the hell out of any of us), he took a fatal blow – just one! – and was a goner.

One of many before and after, but I was very bothered at the time – I actually cared about this silly character and I let him die! I knew at that point that I was playing the game “wrong” by always trying to fight, plunging ahead without being cautious, and so on. And slowly the game was teaching me, trial by fire style, how it actually needed to be played.

Sounds like D&D was a tough teacher.

How did you next character or characters do once you learned some caution?

Actually if I remember correctly, the next character I made was the one that I stuck with until the end, so I guess I did something right after that point. That lesson of “don’t just try to fight everything because you’ll mostly lose” hit pretty much all of us at the same time, and we had to be reminded of it a few times, but we were increasingly cautious after that. There are a number of really powerful options for avoiding hand-to-hand combat. We learned how to stop and listen for possible danger before plowing ahead thoughtlessly, how to parlay our way out of trouble (my character spoke like seven languages – you never know when Doppelganger is going to come in useful!), and how to best utilize distanced spells to kill outright or immobilize (or Charm – Charm Person was in use CONSTANTLY for us, having the added benefit of creating cannon fodder… I mean, new friends!).

Did you make less exciting choices due to that fear of death or just more prudent choices? Did the game get better once you started boxing clever?

I think these were smarter choices, but they weren’t less exciting – they were perhaps more so, because we’d learned just how much it sucks to have to start a new character from scratch. It definitely added an excitement that was very new to me in my experience of gaming. There was a sequence where another character and mine both took an Invisibility Potion and scouted a cave of bugbears – by far the biggest, nastiest character we’d encountered at that point – and I remember feeling my palms sweat and heart race as we tried to get as much information as possible without alerting anything to our presence.

Going back to Skyrim felt seriously hollow after that!

Are there video games that capture that kind of fear and harsh lessons?

Day Z is the only one that immediately comes to mind as coming anywhere close to that experience for me. The impulse is to approach it like any other zombie shooter, such as Left 4 Dead, and it doesn’t take long to realize that’s the exact opposite of how you should play. When you die, you start over completely with nothing but a backpack, a flashlight, and a bandage – anything you’d managed to scrape together is otherwise gone. And since there’s an injury system (broken legs mean you can’t walk and often go into shock, a bad hit will draw blood and unless you can bandage yourself you’ll bleed to death, etc.) all of this gives you a very definite reason to avoid conflict with zeds, and ESPECIALLY to avoid conflict with other players.

My first life ever lasted approximately twenty seconds before someone shot me for my meager little bandage. My first encounter with another player ended with me shooting him in a moment of hysterical panic, after swearing up and down I’d “never be that kind of player”. And my longest life (a few months at this point) has lasted long because I’ve gotten good at being sneaky, and I stay far far away from other players that I don’t know personally. You learn by making mistakes and being harshly corrected!

Are there cool game design lessons that tabletop can learn from computer RPG’s and of course, are there game design lessons that computer RPG’s can learn from tabletop?

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I really think video games can benefit from becoming quote “hard” again. The reload from save, auto-targeting, it’s okay you made a mistake because it’s on a rail so everything will proceed as though you had succeeded feeling of games has become a real turn-off for me – I want to play a game that challenges me to learn how to play it, and doesn’t hold my hand through each step of the process. Games like Call of Duty now to me just feel like watching a movie where you push a button occasionally – give me a sense of exploration and let me discover on my own how to play, because the rewards are so much grander when there’s consequences for failure.

I wouldn’t know what lessons can go in reverse, though – I’m still very new to tabletop gaming and there’s so much out there that I’m not yet familiar with! I’m expanding my experiences though, as our D&D game is on hiatus for the moment. We played a particularly rough game of Paranoia, and are now doing a weekly FreeMarket game, and I hope soon to start Dogs in the Vineyard, which I’m so excited about that I can’t even stand it. Maybe once I’ve experienced more of what tabletop games have to offer I’ll be able to better answer this question!

Thank you for taking the time to interview with me, Megan.

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