Jun 15, 2014

What Makes a Convention Game Good?

A few months ago I enlisted the help of Tim at Gothridge Manor and Erik at Tenkar's Tavern to solicit reader input regarding good convention games.  I asked for respondents to describe, in as much detail as possible, their best roleplaying convention game sessions.  I also posted a similar prompt at Dragonsfoot and Goblinoid Games forums.  By the end of the week I had received eighteen replies.

Next, I entered them into a spreadsheet and looked for commonalities.  I determined 26 different criteria and noted the frequency of each.  I've made the spreadsheet public if you'd like to take a look or run your own analytics.  I also created a simple bar graph which gives an overall impression, but doesn't account for opposed opinions.  For example, some respondents stated that having pregenerated PCs was a good thing, and others mentioned how enriching the character creation process was.  Some players reveled in the comedic elements, and others found them distasteful.

There are a lot of problems with this analysis.  The sample size is far too small.  My source of samples is also restrictive with a strong bias towards an old-school sample base.  My game elements (listed below) are sometimes vague and repetitive.  However, because some of the data I've compiled contradicts a lot of commonly given convention game advice and because many of my readers are of the old school camp, the results and my compilation may still lead to fruitful discussion and thoughts.

For example, most con game advice highlights the importance of giving all characters play time, not killing PCs, and not having PCs compete with one another.  However, my results show a very different gamer preference.  The most popular con game elements include having a difficult game and PC vs. PC action.  Inversely, it's fascinating to note that LARP and public performance elements are not only ranked low, but enough players claimed they were harmful for a good con game that their scores are negatives!

We shouldn't use these data to mindlessly create a new ten commandments for con games.  Instead, we should use these data and other suggestions for con game creation to better understand what kinds of players like what kinds of games.  For example, if I create and advertise an "old school dungeon crawl", most players will likely want high difficulty, character generation, and a realistic chance of death.

It's also important to remember that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy".  In other words, rolling up your sleeves, rolling up your dice, and rolling your wheels over to a convention is likely critical for developing the skill to run what your players will consider a good con game.  That said, it's important to plan, too.  That's where this post comes in.  Another reason I wrote this post is because I'm running three games at Gencon 2014; two Labyrinth Lord games and a Savage Worlds game.  I've run quite a few con games in the past, but I'm always looking to improve.  Maybe I'll see you there.  Cheers.

Public Performance-2
Large Play Group (>15)0
Tangible Prize1
Long Session (>4 hours)1
Learned/Appreciation of Mechanic1
Player vs. GM1
Original Story1
Knowledgeable GM1
Player Agency/Responsibility1
Pre Generated Characters2
Character Backgrounds Incorporated into Story2
Celebrity GM2
High Level PCs2
Recurring/Living Game2
Serious-Silly Balance3
Unexpected Story Twist3
Specific Spontaneous Exciting Gameplay Event4
Problem Solving4
Unique Item or Mechanic4
High Difficulty4
Good Group Dynamics5
Competitive PvP5
Clear Goal6

Jun 10, 2014

A Brief History of Orcs: Part the First

Orc Knife
Orcs, as a whole, can not be bothered to become literate.  The effort, dedication and precision required to attain even a basal literacy competency is well beyond the scope of our common pig-nosed companions.  It is said that Eskimos have more than twenty unique words for "snow".  So far as I have counted, Orcs seem to have over thirty terms for "anger".

As a prisoner of war, I was spared by my Orcish conquerors only because of a temporary fancy that grew into a habit eventually forming into a tradition which I was able to pass along to my equally ill-fated offspring (the results of various spoils of war, the details of which I will spare your ears).  My half-elf son Aumar was bashed to death by Orak the Bloodthirsty in his second year of scribal service.  My half-halfling son (does that only make him quarter human, then?) Billgo was betrayed and eventually devoured by half-king Rorank.  I, myself, likely only survived because I followed he who held the Orcstone.

Orc Club
But, enough of my difficult life.  I am allowed to live only to record the exploits of existence of a lifetime of Orcs.  I herein record the carousel of Orcish leaders in their rapid rise to and even faster decline from power.

Zorn the Ferocious
Allow me to start with Zorn the Ferocious, my saviour of sorts.  When my small scout party was laid waste by his forward company (Orc Leaders tend to take the title "Leader" very literally), he already held the Orcstone; An immense dark stone, held over Zorn's chest by twisted links of iron.  It exuded a terrific odor of rot, decay, and something else.  Something not of this world.  I will speak of this stone and its immense importance to the Orcish hordes another day.  Surfice it to say that I was able to scavenge enough sense and luck to secure a temporary position by Zorn's side as scribe.  Three years later, Zorn fell in battle, but my position did not.

Bilis the Furious
Bilis the Furious was dark-skinned and fond of beer.  He would often organize entire raids, leading to massive losses, just to procure suds for himself and his men.  Not nearly as successful as Zorn, his predecessor, by any military account, he was far more popular with his men.  He died in drunken slumber, choking on his own vomit.

Uro the Infernal
Uro the Infernal loved to burn... anything.  If he couldn't find a halfling village, ancient Dryad forest, or lumber yards in which to give rise to flames, he would burn his own men.  This didn't affect any sort of positive morale, and Uro was promptly killed by his second in command; an Orc with a semblance of intelligence that quickly evaporated under the weight of leadership.  Or, perhaps the Orcstone had something to do with that, too.

Blod the Seether
Blod the Seether held, what for Orcs, is a tremendously long reign as leader for over four years.  During this time, the Orcish horde helped Bergman the Unfathomable defeat Vorauf the Fox in the War of Drumtong.  Over time he grew less cunning, even if "cunning" was a stretch to begin with, and eventually died in a challenge to see who could swallow more daggers.  This sort of friendly wager was common among lowly Orcish foot soldiers, but not Bosses, and certainly not Leaders.  Upon Blod's death, the army was split into factions.  The Orcstone remained with Blod's first son, a massive Orc named Fett the Hungry.  Some chose to follow Orak the Bloodthirsty, and another group followed an Orc female named Wiblik the Female.  The War of Three Orcs quickly ensued, ensuring peace for non-Orcs over the next few months, until Wiblik died choking on a bone and Orak was given the Northern Dedlands for his own.

Fett the Hungry
Fett the Hungry marauded from village to village, rarely killing anything that he didn't eat.  Or, rather, rarely not eating anything that he had killed.  He maintained tight control over his Orc armies, but not his hunger.  Soon he was being fitted for new belts once a week.  Fett fell over a river bank one fateful evening as he was urinating and was never seen again.  Luckily, he had hung the Orcstone on a nearby branch prior to attempting to unclasp his trousers.  Stomakor, a lowly foot soldier in the right place at the right time (some say he even pushed the rotund Fett into the murky current) quickly donned the precious and horrendous stone, thus assuming a quickly accepted command as Leader.

Stomakor the Fermentor
Stomakor the Fermentor reigned with blinding ineptitude for several years.  He survived mainly because of luck and stupidity.  Even though the Reclamation War waged around him, he often misplaced troops and missed entire battles.  As a result, he and his troops remained strong while many around him were cut down.  By war's end, he was in a unique position of power... but too stupid to capitalize on it.  He once wandered lost in a forest of less than three square heckmers (comparable to your kilometers) for more than a month.  He died of hunger, surrounded by fruits and vegetables, while conducting a raid on King Aisklack's gardens.  His troops quickly consumed his meager remains, and marched on, under the black banner of Ruct ov Vomit.

Ruct ov Vomit
Named both after his childhood town and inability to keep most food down the first time, Ruct was nonetheless a ruthless Leader.  He oversaw a period of nearly six years of tremendous Orcish growth, especially in the Deadlands when he marched on other Orc tribes, attempting to unite them under his rule.  Ruct was incapable of speeches longer than three words before being interrupted by a series of increasingly violent belches.  This, even though not terribly effective for communication, was taken as a sign of blessing from the (Orcish, of course) gods.  Ruct, himself, was eventually elevated to god-like status.  To this day, Orc's will attempt to form their belches into a semblance of "Ruct" in honor to their esteemed leader.  A particularly strong belch caused a brain hemorrhage which rendered Ruct completely incapable of any speech, or the use of his left hand.  Largely, unnoted by his followers, Ruct continued to lead successfully until killed in battle on Knight's Fall.

Furz the Fetid
Furz the Fetid assumed command after Ruct, attempting to unit all Orc's under his green banner and gaseous clouds of stench.  He treats me not significantly different than his predecessors, but I plan on making my move any day now...

May 30, 2014

Miami Dice

I'm running a Savage Worlds game at Gencon set in Miami, Florida in 1985.  I've also created a temporary website just for the game.  At the moment it's fairly bare bones, including only an introduction to the setting and rough drafts of pregenerated characters.  I hope to include more information in the near future such as maps and game-specific information as Gencon gets closter.  If you're interested in getting a copy of the game when I'm finished, drop me a request at hartwell602 at gmail dot com.  The title, by the way, is "In the Name of Love".  I drew inspiration from The Thompson Twins song of the same name, which, even though it never appeared in an episode of Miami Vice, clearly fits the mold.

In fact, I was thinking about creating a Savage World's Miami Vice living campaign and naming each episode after a song or movie that was never directly referenced in a particular Vice episode, but in my humble opinion, should have been.  The list of potentials immediately grows nearly indefinite in my mind.  Flock of Seagull's Space Age Love Song and Liquid Sky leap to the front of the line.

The last time I wrote a modern RPG adventure was in the early 90s with White Wolf's Vampire.  It's a very different approach with this game compared to my Labyrinth Lord creations in that I don't have to use as much creativity, but I have a tighter framework in which to work.  For example, within my fantasy worlds of Labyrinth Lord I can make up the languages and cultures, and, most importantly, magic.  Magic can answer a lot of logic problems.  This is clearly not an option for a game set in Miami, Florida in May 1985.  At least not the kind of game I want to run.

I find myself pouring through Wikipedia entries and timelines trying to come up with a background that is both interesting and accurate.  It's not as easy as it sounds.  Anyway, if you'd like to watch me bungle along, or even cast your own two cents, you can cast your peepers on the site by visiting www.miamidice.blogspot.com.  Consider yourself warned.

May 21, 2014

Top 10 Tips for Surviving Gencon

I started attending gaming conventions in 1997 and have been going, more or less regularly, ever since.  Some have been tremendously fun, and others remain hazy and painful memories.  At their best, you make new friends, develop skills, add to your collection, and play a lot of fun games.  At their worst, you wake hungover, broke, and notified of a restraining order issued by Will Wheaton's lawyer.  Below are ten ideas that may improve your con-going experience.  Read and implement at your own risk.

1.  Stay Elsewhere
I plan on attending Gencon 2014 in a couple months.  I didn't go last year because of the cost, crowds, and congestion.  I drove down costs significantly this year by staying with my dad.  He lives about 45 minutes north of Indy.  In other words, I'm trading about $10 of gas each day for a $200-$300 hotel cost.  One year with nice weather, I slept in my van for an Origins convention.  Even if you don't have friends or family in Indiana or a nice van, just going outside the Indy belt for hotels is enough to save hundreds of dollars.

2.  Run Games
I'm charging a couple of bucks for each of my games so as to cover the cost of my badge. If all of my players show up, I'll break even on my badge costs.  Next year I might even up the cost another dollar so as to cover my gas and parking, too.  The demand for games has been high enough to warrant a concomitant increase in cost.  I've steadily lifted my table price over the years and have sold out seats every time.

3.  Pack Food & Water
Prior to leaving I bulk buy my favorite granola bars and keep a lot of them in my backpack along with dried fruit (fiber), nuts (protein/concentration), and a couple water bottles (hydration).  I keep my water bottles refilled via water fountains.  I'll also keep a few small energy drink shots just in case.  Not only does this save you a lot of time waiting in lines and money for over-priced food, but I've also found that a lot of people will barter for snack bars and, especially, energy shots given the right time and environment.  I once traded a $3 energy shot for a $10 game book.

4.  Listen to Music
Crowds stress me out in proportion to their size and density.  Gencon is pretty big and there are lots of bottlenecks.  One coping technique I've learned is to create a playlist of calming music and keep my earbuds in while I navigate the many winding hallways and ballrooms.  Not only does it keep me calm, but it creates a psychological barrier between myself and attendees and vendors.  Let me explain.  When I'm in the dealer's room, I like to methodically go through certain vendor booths.  With earbuds in, I can easily ignore the roar of the crowd and conversations from vendors so as to focus on looking through products in a somewhat systematic way.  I also feel more patient as I wait in lines and meander in impossibly slow-moving streams of people.  My playlist this year includes ATB, Brian Eno, M83, Mozart, Bach, Daft Punk, The Killers, Enya, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Vivaldi, and Jan Hammer.  I tried this technique in Gencon 2012 with considerable success.

5.  Buy Generic Tickets
This year, once again, RPG game slots filled within milliseconds of going live.  Yes, this includes my own games.  In years past I've tried to register for games, but usually get maybe 5-10% of the ones I want.  This year, I didn't even try.  My plan is to buy a few generic tickets and simply show up for games I want, hoping the GM either has a spot to squeeze me in, or another player doesn't show.  It's a gamble, but better than giving up.

6.  Limit Beer Consumption
This one is hard, but necessary.  If you're driving, drinking is simply not an option, but there are other good reasons to temporarily be a teetotaler, too.  Not only are beer prices jacked up around Indy, but you'll find yourself making impulse purchases you later regret after you down the sumptuous suds.  That delicious cold beer for lunch, turns into a general mental funk by evening game time.

7. Pack Liquor
If drink you must, a small bottle of high-quality vodka is a great partner. It mixes with nearly anything and can easily be openly concealed in a water bottle.  The hangover is generally more bearable, too.

8.  Go Alone
Indy is a safe town.  Take a walk by yourself; it forces you to meet new gamers.  Who knows, you might even form a new friendship.  With lots of online videoconference options such as Skype and Google Hangouts, it doesn't matter if they live next door or on another continent; you'll be able to game together after the con.  If you go with your friends, you'll be less likely to strike up conversations with strangers.

9.  Barter
I rarely pay asking price at cons.  I recommend you create a bartering line and simply repeat it at every booth.  For example, you could say that you have to save money to buy your sibling a meal, so you don't want to spend too much.  You could vaguely reference seeing it cheaper on eBay or Amazon.  If you can find specific examples on your smartphone, show them.  You could highlight the fact that they're going to have to pay to ship their products out if they don't sell them.  If nothing else, you can just be friendly and say, "Is there any way you can come down a little?"  It's also very important to remember the walkaway.  Simply put, the vendors are stuck there, you aren't.  If they don't want to barter, walk away.  Try again later in the con, or go back when a different vendor takes a shift.  Generally, the longer you wait over the course of the con, the more likely a vendor is to make a deal.  That said, if you're sober and you've determined that you must have that item and there is evidence it might sellout (a lot of limited run Gencon items do), then, by all means, buy it!

10.  Sleep
I tried going without sleep a single night for Origins 1999 and it ruined the experience.  At Gencon 2012 I stayed up extremely late for one of those rowdy late-night game sessions and had a fantastic time... until the next day.  I've found very few activities are worth sleep deprivation.  Sleep is crucial to both brain and body recovery and maximizing con enjoyment.

11.  Booth Babes
Get your pictures taken with them.  Ask a stranger to take the picture if you have to.  It's ok.  We all do it.

May 12, 2014

Pathfinder & Cthulhu Team Up to Beat D&D

Gencon is the biggest gaming convention and has been getting bigger over the past five years, regardless of what metric you use. Last year, a record 49,058 people attended and even though operators expanded exhibition space 14% for 2014, it sold out significantly faster than it did in 2013. Games typically fill up within milliseconds.  Lines are long, food is scarce, and, even though there is an official Gencon beer, it has yet to pass my thirsting lips (though not for want of effort).  The Gencon website posted their game sessions last week, so it's time to take a look at some of the numbers with an eye towards roleplaying games in particular.  I've done this before, so if it's not your thing or my previous posts were sufficient, you can click away now.

Still here?  Cool, let's look at some numbers.

Gencon is hosting 2177 roleplaying games in 2014.  This is a decrease of 149 games (a decrease of 6.4%) from the year before.

Once again, Paizo's Pathfinder numbers dominate my restricted search.  Gencon 2014 offers 348 Pathfinder games.  This is a decrease of 144 (a decrease of 29%) from 2013.  "Cthulhu"-related games had the second most games at 141 (an increase of nearly 47%!) and Shadowrun ranked third with 111 (an increase of 22%).  Last year, Dungeons & Dragons was a strong second place, but fell to fourth this year with 108 (a decrease of 31%).  It's important to note that there will likely be large booths and rooms dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons this year since it will likely launch a new edition.  Such potential numbers are not factored here.

The 19 games for which I've been collecting data have steadily decreased as a percent of the overall RPG games offered.  Over the last three years, they have comprised 60.3% in 2012, 54.9% in 2013, and 51.5% in 2014.  This suggests other RPGs are gaining players compared to the games I've tracked.

On May 5th, the New York Times acknowledged an increase in board game sales and concomitant rise in Gencon attendance.  ICV2 has gone so far as to declare gaming in a "bull market".  Even though Gencon attendance is growing and board game sales are on the rise, the number of roleplaying games offered at Gencon has decreased this year.  A significant increase in overall Gencon attendance and decrease in overall RPGs offered, as noted here, suggests a downturn in general RPG popularity.  There is also a strange discrepancy between sales and games.  For example, Star Wars outsold D&D last 2013, but doesn't command an overwhelming Gencon gaming presence.

Generally, the OSR does not have a strong convention component.  There are a few hypotheses to explore here.  One is that the typical OSR member isn't a convention-going type.  There is some evidence to support this.  Another is that the OSR, as a collection of books and PDFs, is already embedded in Gencon.  If we think of Pathfinder as D&D 3.5, and note the many "Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition" games listed, there is clear evidence of a strong old school movement.  Furthermore, in digging through many booths at Gencon 2012, I was able to lay my hands on a lot of content typically labeled "OSR".  I found One Page Dungeon books, Lamentations of the Flame Princess material, and an entire, albeit small, booth explicitly reserved for OSR material.  My final, nihilist hypothesis, strenuously supported by several aggressive, hurtful, and seemingly perpetually angry gamers at the D&D first edition Dragonsfoot forum, is that the OSR doesn't exist, so it's futile to analyze its presence anywhere, let alone the world's largest gaming convention.

I am attending Gencon 2014, though I have serious reservations that agoraphobia will impair my ability to thoroughly enjoy myself.  The long lines for food, booths, and inability to sign up for any games I want is a major drawback.  The expensive rooms, parking, and downtown navigation also warrant a negative snark here and there.

But -and it's a big but- there is just so much cool stuff to buy and play, that I can't stay away this year.  There are so many interesting people with whom to roll die and seminars to attend that I will brave the roads, crowds, and ubiquitous body odor.  Also, let us not forget another reason: running games!  Yes, that's right, Constant Reader, yours truly is running three games at Gencon 2014.  Two Labyrinth Lord dungeon crawls and a Miami Vice game using Savage Worlds Deluxe.  Best of all, I intentionally kept the official table count down so as to offer an interested Constant Reader a seat via this blog if they're interested.  I have one available seat for each game I'm running:

Miami Vice, Friday, 6PM:  RPG1453267
Pilz, Thursday, 4PM:  RPG1453180
Pilz, Friday, 2PM:  RPG1453179

 One final caveat before I leave you.  This post doesn't represent a serious attempt to quantify a diverse hobby.  Indeed, there is a lot of room for counter-argument here.  My omission of FATE Core and Iron Kingdoms is a significant oversight.  I failed to account for how an RPG, once a core book is purchased, may not show significant sales even given a significant and possibly growing gaming population.  My flippant percents and graphs are superficial and incomplete.  There is, however, scant data dealing with our favorite hobby and I, for one, appreciate any data on which I can lay my grubby hands.  I hope you feel the same way, Constant Reader.  Even if your hands aren't grubby.

Apr 30, 2014

Revisiting Shattenberg

Destrian stepped inside, scanned the tavern, then walked around several tables to approach a seated Halfling.  "Long time no see," he said.

Fendrel finished a swallow from a wooden tankard then replied, "What are you talking about?  I see myself every day!"  He smiled and stood to shake the taller man's hand.  Fendrel's hand was small, but his grip was firm.

Both sat.  Fendrel took another swallow of beer and sighed.  "Glad to see they fixed the stout.  Much better now that nasty dragon business is past."

Destrian looked down.

"I'm sorry, Destrian.  I forgot about Alianor.  Damn.  I'm sorry."

"It's alright.  She sings with Zenedahl now.  Far happier, I suppose, than sleeping in a cold bed six nights out of the week."

"It wasn't your fault and there was nothing you could have done even if you had been there."

"I could have died with her."

A young girl approached their table and eyed Destrian's well-oiled scabbard angled sharply off his hip.  "What would you like, sir?"

"The same," said Destrian as he nodded toward Fendrel.  "Some potatoes, too."

"And you, sir," the girl asked as she turned her eyes down toward the Halfling, "another stout?"

Fendrel gave a curt nod and extended the empty vessel towards the girl, "Please."

The two friends sat in silence.  Three farmers entered and sat at a corner table near a window.  The red sunset was distorted through the imperfect glass panes.  Destrian breathed deeply and smelled sawdust, woodsmoke, and the tang of body odor.  The new wooden roof overhead creaked and popped against the cooling evening temperature.  The girl served the farmers, who stretched their legs and pulled short-stemmed pipes from their spring jackets.  Soon the aroma of tobacco and vento leaf joined the others.

"The Bell and Spade," said Fendrel.


"The Bell and Spade.  It's what they call it now.  Didn't keep the old name."

"I don't blame them."  Destrian paused while the girl set a steaming plate of potatoes cooked in Rausch boar bacon and peppers and two tankards on the table.  After she left, he asked, "How's Ellisen?"

"Same."  Fendrel took a long swallow of his fresh beer and grimaced afterward.  "I never liked him, but no one should suffer that way."

A young man in long wizard robes opened the door.  In the moment before it shut, the low murmer of voices inside the Bell and Spade was accompanied by the evening chorus of birds and grasshoppers.  A draft of cool evening air caused the fire to purr against the flue.  The wizard apprentice sat at the longest table and dropped a leather pouch with an audible clink of coins.  Two of the farmers laughed at the third before returning in silence to their steaming plates.

"The Coalition still runs silver squares, eh?" asked Destrian.

"Yes," answered Fendrel, eying the bulding coin purse.  "And with a bigger cut, too."

Destrian laughed.  "Well, Shattenberg must be healing allright if it's back at silver squares and," he raised his half-empty tankard, "the beer is good again."

Fendrel looked away from the coins, leaned forward, and dropped his voice.  "That brings me to my question."

Destrian smiled and nodded while swallowing potatoes.  "You want to know why I'm here."

"Did he," Fendrel began and slid his eyes across the farmers and apprentice without moving his head before returning his gaze forward and raising his eyebrows.  "He - the Big He - give his consent?"

"He gave more than that," answered Destrian quietly and patted his pocket.

Fendrel's eyes widened.  The door banged open and five gregarious farmers, flushed from long hours in the sun, clomped into the tavern.  Two sat at the table with the apprentice and the others noisely moved a table to join the other three farmers by the window.  The murmer of voices rose to a constant background noise of conversation and laughter.

Fendrel looked at the jovial workers.  "They're not going to be happy about this."  He finished his beer in a long swallow.

Author's Note:  It's been more than two years since I published my Labyrinth Lord adventure about beer, called Extra Stout.  A month ago, my high school gaming buddy flew in from China for a visit.  He expressed a desire to play some old school D&D, so I blew the dust off my proof copy and ran him through the blasphemous brewery.  His first character died on his first approach, but the second was far more successful.  He gathered a great deal of valuable information, precious gold, and escaped unharmed.  Unfortunately, he also unwittingly caused the near-total destruction of the nearby town.  After my friend had left and I wiped off the dry erase marker rooms, tombs, and hallways, I got to wondering.  I began to imagine how, or even if, the rural town of Shattenberg would mend.  Who was killed in Durjaya's fiery retribution?  Which factions would benefit from such destruction?  the narrative above is the beginning of such a daydream.  Perhaps I will post again on this topic.  If you'd like to save the town, perhaps you'd better buy a copy of Extra Stout at RPGNow.com.  I think the townsfolk would appreciate it if you did.  Heck, they may even buy you a round of Mountain Mushroom Stout for your troubles.

Apr 25, 2014

This is Your Brain on D&D

Thomas Stoltz Harvey, possibly without consent from the deceased's family, removed Einstein's brain during the autopsy and preserved it using formalin.  Eventually, the various pieces, cross sections, and prepared slides, made their way fully into the scientific community for analysis.  Interestingly, Einstein didn't have a larger than average brain size.  It was actually smaller than average.  Nor did Einstein have a higher than average number of total brain cells.  His parietal lobes were slightly larger than average, but this is consistent with mathematicians and does not necessarily suggest a genetic anomoly or neural predisposition towards mathematical ability.  London cab drivers, for example, have shown a significant amount of growth in their hippocampus, the area of the brain thought to govern aquisition of memory, over the years in which they study for the grueling cab exam.  So, if Einstein was not born a genius, how did he become one?  Perhaps part of the answer to this question has to do with Dungeons and Dragons.  Namely, the mental capacity to extend and manipulate simulations into the future.

As a theoretical physicist, Einstein said he ran "thought experiments" over long periods of time.  In some cases, he maintained these experiments for more than a decade.  Einstein, himself, credits this persistence in mental simulations as the cause of his genius, rather than a genetic predisposition.

In his fascinating book, The Future of the Mind, Michio Kaku spends the bulk of his time supporting the claim that a capacity to mentally simulate the future is both the core of intelligence and the primary distinction between humans and other life forms.

As a middle school math teacher, I see this claim supported on a daily basis.  One of the biggest differences between a high-achieving and low-achieving student is the mental capacity and willingness to mentally project different possible solutions to a math problem or exercise prior to putting pen to paper.  For example, this week I proctored a math assessment with the following item:

x/3 + 6 = 12

I noticed high-achieving students looked at the question longer before putting pencil to paper compared to low-performing students who tended to start writing immediately.  When I asked the high-performers what they were thinking at first, many said something along the lines of "I played with different numbers for x until the equation balanced out" and others said they were "thinking backwards".  After running several mental simulations, these students write out their work as they use a specific algorithm to answer the exercise.  Finally, they compare their answer on paper with the results of their initial mental simulations.  If these two answer match, the students believe their answers are probably true.  If, however, these answers don't match, they repeat the entire process, but with more attention to precision.  In other words, they suspect something is wrong and work to fix it.

For example, given the same algebraic equation above, a student that erroneously adds six to both sides before multiplying by three gets an answer of 54, but unless they ran semi-accurate simulations beforehand and if they don't check their solution via substitution (many low-achievers resist this step), they don't experience the disassociation between simulated solutions and their work results, which usually leads to important revision.

As adults we may not grow a lot of new brain cells on a daily basis, but, as I've pointed out, that doesn't necessarily translate into mental ability or intelligence anyway.  We can, however, given enough CREB activator, grow an increasingly dense connection of dendrites between existing neurons.  The "use it or loose it" idea can be quantified via brain scan measuring these dendrites.

Given this support for our claim, we could then hypothesize that people who regularly play tabletop roleplaying games would have a greater ability to run mental simulations into the future since that is the primary game activity.  It is also likely that such an ability could even be measured via brain scans or analyzing the physical brains of gamers and nongamers for comparison (hopefully post-mortem).  Are you an organ donor?