• Out of the Abyss, the new D&D adventure, is Alice in Wonderland meets Diablo

    Out of the Abyss, the new mega-adventure for Dungeons and Dragons, came out in September. It's part of the Rage of Demons multi-product launch, which includes board and video games, novels and an officially sanctioned "play season," all tied to the same storyline.

    It's probably the best adventure we've yet seen for the new edition of D&D, improving in many ways upon Princes of the Apocalypse, the previous adventure release, which in itself was a marked improvement over the Tyranny of Dragons story. While Tyranny suffered from railroading, Princes of the Apocalypse compensated by laying out a large sandbox-style world composed almost fully of hack-and-slash dungeon crawl, with a few side treks for breaks — kind of like a 16-bit Final Fantasy game, not that that's bad!

    Out of the Abyss, which was created as a collaboration with independent games company Green Ronin Publishing, looks to be the first adventure that truly gets the play balance right. There's dungeon crawl galore, but there's also a compelling, over-arching plotline, with lots of atmosphere and role-playing opportunities. Whereas the previous two campaigns felt like old-school D&D adventures, Out of the Abyss feels a lot more cinematic and maintains an actual story arc with rising tension and plot development rather than just a series of progressively harder dungeons. It's a lot like the R. A. Salvatore novels that the campaign draws inspiration from (Salvatore's characters Drizzt Do'Urden and Bruenor Battlehammer make appearances in the book and related media; Salvatore also wrote novels that tie into the Rage of Demons storyline).

    Escape From the Underdark

    For prospective DMs, I'll lay out the basic plot arc of the campaign below. Obviously, spoilers ahead; don't read this section if you're planning on playing Out of the Abyss as a PC at any time.

    The campaign opens with your freshly-created Level 1 characters waking up in cages, been captured by the drow, taken into the Underdark (the vast underground world that lays below the Forgotten Realms, inhabited by duergar, deep gnomes, mind flayers and all kind of other underground critters) and stuck in slave pens. Because this is D&D, they're all being lorded over by a drow dominatrix, that torments the characters with a whip made of Cthulhoid tentacles, a hentai-and-"Gor" stereotype that will surely be a hit on 4chan.org/tg/.

    The characters are imprisoned along with a whopping ten NPCs — I say whopping because when the characters break free, the game recommends transferring control of all ten of them to the player characters themselves. In an average four-player game, that may mean that PCs are managing three to four characters apiece (including their own) for the first seven chapters of the adventure.

    For a benchmark, in my current 5th edition D&D game, we have six players controlling one character each (their own), and it's already getting frustrating, because each player has to wait a long time for their turn. Escalate this to each player having to manage three characters, and good luck keeping people away from their phones. The alternative is to have the DM manage the glut of NPCs, but then the DM is overburdened with a tedious and time-consuming task, and the players will still be waiting forever for their turn. The adventure recommends having PCs simply decide what the NPCs are doing, with the DM having final say; additionally, multiple of the NPCs may die, get lost or betray the party. Still, that's a lot of extra paperwork, which a wise DM may want to modify in the interest of game enjoyment.

    After the characters escape their pens, they find themselves lost deep in the Underdark, and now must spend the majority of the campaign trying to find their way out. It's equal parts "Alice in Wonderland" and "Diablo," and players can expect to be confronted with strange fungi, hook horrors, gnolls, derro, undead, kuo-toa, duergar, myconids, oozes, slimes, gelatinous cubes and the rest of the Underdark denizens from the Monster Manual, all the while being relentlessly pursued by their dominatrix-led drow captors. Along the way, they'll encounter some wonderfully imaginative settings, from duergar cities to underground lakes.

    This initial story arc comes to an end at Chapter 7, as the player characters confront their drow pursuers and escape to the surface world. This conveniently splits the adventure into two halves. The second arc picks up three months later, when the characters are summoned by Bruenor Battlehammer to explain what they've seen in the Underdark, and then return underground once again to face a new threat: A drow sorcerer has opened a dark portal that the Demon Lords have been pouring through. (For those old enough to remember: Yep, those are the very same Demon Lords from the first edition Monster Manual. The ones that helped provoke the 1980s Satanic Panic.)

    By the time your group completes the session — if they survive, that is, as this has been hyped as "D&D on hard mode" — they'll have outlived the worst the Underdark has to throw at them, plus toed off with the worst fiends in the Multiverse. And it should all have held together as a single, satisfying story — the equivalent of an enjoyable graphic novel series or a TV show binge-watch on Netflix, but actively created and enjoyed with your friends. And that's what I love most about role-playing games.

    Quibbles & Quips

    Overall, I'm very, very happy with the job that Wizards of the Coast is doing—not just with the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but with pushing D&D into mainstream culture. (I wrote about the new edition of D&D here.)

    In the context of that broader enthusiasm — as well as in the context of thinking this is the best D&D 5e adventure yet — I do have a few comments on Out of the Abyss, beyond my previous note about NPC glut.

    Most noticeably, while the actual artwork in the book is quite good, a lot of it has been very, very poorly laid out: Blurry, unlinked Photoshop work, with bad clipping paths around images that look like they were stuck in last minute in a rush job by an intern using Adobe Creative Suite for the first time ever. That's unfortunate for such a quality product with such a gigantic and expensive marketing push behind it. RPG books have always suffered from sloppy design, but this is an embarrassment, particularly as it's a core release in the flagship line of the industry's biggest company. On the other hand, the players need never see the art, so this will only annoy the actual purchaser of the book. But annoy it will.

    My second comment is not a criticism but an open suggestion to Wizards of the Coast, if I may wear my professional marketer hat (psst, I'm on LinkedIn). I'm assuming that WotC has clear business analytics on who's buying their product, but I'm wondering how clear their data is on how people are playing D&D, and how much of RPG adventure design is simply inherited thinking from the 1980s and 90s. Either through surveys, or possibly partnering with Roll20, I think WotC needs to get some clear data on how D&D is played in 2015, and to start tailoring adventures to the average play session. My guess is that people may well want adventures structured in shorter, punchier segments with a quick challenge/reward cycle.

    Case in point: Back in junior high and high school, my friends and I could afford the time to play long adventures all night, pausing only for Pop-Tarts, watching "Heavy Metal" on VHS, and dueling each other with hand-made foam axes. We didn't have responsibilities or girlfriends. These days, carving out D&D time is hard — with jobs, relationships, marriages, children and community activities to contend with, getting a group to commit to just four hours a week of D&D time on Roll20 takes considerable effort. That means that we can start to lose steam on adventures that are clearly meant to be played in long sessions on a regular schedule, and even with an experienced and mature group of players, it may take up to a month to complete a single chapter.

    I also have no idea if D&D's current target market is young people, or people my age. If RPGs are anything like the comic book industry, their core audience may still be people who aged along with their product and never grew out of it, while the younger demographic the product is theoretically designed for tends to stay away.

    Visiting San Francisco last month, however, one of the first things I saw driving into town was a ten-year-old girl walking with her dad, carrying the 5th edition Player's Handbook — what is this Age of Enlightenment??? And while that may wall be more indicative of Bay Area culture than American culture in general, it was still a clear sign of how much traction the new D&D is getting.

    Wizards of the Coast is really pushing the idea of D&D adventures as cultural events, and opening the social experience RPGs can provide to as many people as possible, making the game inclusive instead of frightening and arcane. As D&D lead designer Chris Perkins said in a recent VICE interview, "Geek culture and nerd culture is now just culture." That's actually the most succinct, clear description I've seen of the overall cultural changes America has been through over the last two decades.

    In that context, I suspect that RPGs may again become vitally important in our culture, particularly when people realize that they can be a non-threatening way of taking breaks from the electronic communication blizzard. Traditional RPGs are easier than meditation, less strenuous than hiking, and less expensive than socializing over drinks or food—making them, potentially, one of our best sanctuaries from our own culture.

    Follow me for epic Inspiration. @jasonlouv

  • Princes of the Apocalypse is D&D's killer app

    There is no more iconic role-playing experience than the dungeon crawl. It's the DNA of all RPGs, tabletop and electronic: Your party enters a dungeon, kills the monsters, disables the traps and makes off with all of the treasure you can find, hopefully leveling up in the process. Dungeon crawls defined role playing — and while Tolkien may have foreshadowed the dungeon crawl in the Mines of Moria sequence of The Lord of the Rings, exactly one D&D module was responsible for defining and perfecting the dungeon crawl: The Temple of Elemental Evil.

    Written by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer and released between 1979 and 1985, Elemental Evil began with the players traveling to the Village of Hommlet, where they established a home base and proceeded to adventure into the gargantuan Temple of Elemental Evil itself. Like most 1st Edition AD&D modules, it was heavy on the hack-and-slash, and light on the roleplay. It's consistently ranked as one of the best D&D modules of all time, and inspired a novel, a computer game and a 2001 sequel.

    With Wizards of the Coast now well into their publishing schedule for the triumphant 5th edition reboot of Dungeons and Dragons, it's only fitting that they would resurrect Elemental Evil. Re-imagined as Princes of the Apocalypse, the new mega-adventure isn't a direct translation of the old adventure to 5th Edition rules, but instead builds upon the original ideas and structure of Elemental Evil to create a completely new campaign that improves markedly on its predecessor. It's an absolutely massive module, built to advance characters from level 1 to 15, that feels like the "killer app" for the new edition of D&D — a marked improvement over Wizards of the Coast's railroaded and somewhat generic Tyranny of Dragons campaign.

    Warning: There may be minor spoilers ahead for anybody planning on playing through the adventure.

    Porting the adventure from Greyhawk to the Forgotten Realms, Princes also replaces the Village of Hommlet with Red Larch, a trade stop on the road between Waterdeep and Triboar in the Dessarin Valley (while DMing Princes, I described Red Larch as Barstow). As the adventure opens, the characters arrive in the outpost, which has been subjected to desertification, bandit attacks and supernatural omens. It's the classic Western opening: a small, dusty town threatened by outlaws. The PCs soon find themselves roped into exploring exactly what's causing trouble in Red Larch — lo and behold, it's four elementally-themed cults dedicated to Elemental Evil, now re-cast as a multiverse-threatening force led by four corrupt prophets and seeking to gain a toehold in the Forgotten Realms.

    The PCs are soon adventuring into dungeons and castles inhabited by the cults of the Black Earth, Crushing Wave, Eternal Flame and Howling Hatred (representing Earth, Water, Fire and Air respectively), led by the titular Princes of the Apocalypse, who each wield a legendary magical weapon dedicated to the corrupted element they serve. As the PCs discover and clear out Elemental Evil's bases in the ancient hills near Red Larch, the cultists counterattack the town, using "devastation orbs" to create natural disasters throughout the Dessarin Valley, ratcheting up the stakes and forcing the characters onward in their quest to break Elemental Evil's hold on the Realms.

    While there is a natural progression to the dungeons (characters cycle through dungeons dedicated to each element and then progress onwards to harder and more complex dungeons, again taking them one element at a time) Princes of the Apocalypse is built as a sandbox adventure. This is a massive improvement over the Tyranny of Dragons campaign, which suffered from heavy railroading (the bane of all tabletop role-playing) and single-outcome adventures.

    Instead of that, we get an open map of the Dessarin Valley that contains not only the main dungeons — which can be taken in any order, although they are designed to be level-specific —but lots of extra locations, random encounters and a whole chapter full of optional side-quests full of role-playing opportunities that can be undertaken if the players get tired of dungeon crawling. This is great, because it allows the Dungeon Master to run the equivalent of a Rock Star game — the construction of Princes of the Apocalypse actually reminds me substantially of Rock Star's triumphant Wild West sandbox platformer Red Dead Redemption.

    As the game progresses, the players will be racking up a list of quests and side-quests they can complete in their own order, giving the players a tremendous amount of freedom. More freedom is always good in RPGs, because more freedom makes the game feel more real — like a fully realized world that the players are free to act in as they choose, instead of being hedged where the DM wants them to go.

    Photo of Jason Louv's Princes of the Apocalypse session by Joshua Reynolds (a.k.a. Gor the Barbarian).

    Photo of Jason Louv's Princes of the Apocalypse session by Joshua Reynolds (a.k.a. Gor the Barbarian).

    I'm currently running Princes of the Apocalypse for a group of four players in my co-working office. It's been a steep learning curve for them — because of the sandbox nature of the game, they've realized that they have to pay very close, strategic attention to their decisions, because they've lost important opportunities or ended up in dungeons that are way over their heads by taking wrong moves. This, in my opinion, is much more exciting and challenging than just assuming the game will carry you along from event to event on its own schedule, because it means every decision and action counts. The sense that your in-character behavior actually matters is an immersive illusion that platform games have struggled for decades to maintain (a la the Mass Effect games), but something that a creative, fast-thinking DM with the right module can always provide, and which is easily provided here.

    Beyond this massive improvement in mechanics, Princes of the Apocalypse also provides some extra goodies that will keep players particularly happy:

    • The adventure proper starts when characters are level 3, which makes it somewhat easy to begin play after finishing the "Lost Mines of Phandelver" adventure that comes with the Starter Set. Alternately, the book includes early side-quests that can get the players from level 1 to 3, and that serve as excellent, low-stakes "tutorial" sessions for easing new players into the game and the 5th edition rules. I started my campaign this way, with a group of players of all levels of D&D experience, and found that these early adventures worked admirably well for learning the game (or just the new edition).
    • Wizards of the Coast has provided free supplementary material (as a PDF download) that allows players to choose four new races: the Aarakocra (birdmen), Genasi (elemental genii with sub-races for each element), the Colossus (a giant race built for tank characters) and the Deep Gnomes or Svirfneblin, all drawn from various phases of Forgotten Realms history and lore. While they're all shiny, they're also a bit "special snowflake-y" and could be a roleplaying strain for both the players and for the DM, as their presence will consistently raise questions from NPCs. That's not necessarily any different from the Dragonborn and Tiefling in the main rules, however, who present the same difficulties. There are also dozens of new element-specific spells.
    • There's a completely new Elemental Evil-specific season for Wizards of the Coast's Adventurer's League system, which goes from now until fall. The League — a very smart creation on WotC's part as it creates an instant community for D&D fans and vendors—lets players officially register their characters so that they can take them to game stores and conventions, and play in exclusive adventurers that are related to the overall Elemental Evil storyline. While characters made for League play have to be constrained to certain parameters, players also get the option to modify or even wholesale re-create their characters as many times as they want (and also keep their XP and treasure) until they hit 5th Level, at which point they're locked in. I played this way in the Tyranny of Dragons season, and it worked wonderfully — the result is that nobody feels frustrated with his or her character.

    Overall, Princes probably won't win any awards for writing. The plot depth really doesn't go beyond "evil cults of evil want to do EEEVIL and must be stopped" — which, uh, was also the exact same narrative that drove Tyranny of Dragons. But, then again, does it really need to be Tolstoy? Like its 1st Edition predecessor, Princes of the Apocalypse is a campaign about clearing dungeons, killing monsters and getting treasure, and the result will satisfy ardent hack-and-slashers to the very core of their being. The book is likely massive enough to keep even a regularly meeting game group going for half a year to a year, and could easily be expanded even further by an industrious DM (particularly with all the Adventurer's League excursions that Wizards will be introducing).

    Of course, the real challenge will be keeping a game going that long before busy schedules and electronics pull people away. But over the last year, I've been roping my friends back into playing D&D with me — and watching how happy people are when they're forced away from their phones and computers and actually get to interact around a real-world game has convinced me how much traditional RPGs still have to offer us. Princes of the Apocalypse, if you get a committed group together, will keep that fun going for a long, long time.


  • John Dee was the 16th century's real-life Gandalf

    Dr. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I's court astrologer, is a footnote in English history—remembered as a deluded man who believed in angels, an embarrassing relic of a pre-scientific time.

    Thanks to an academic renaissance in Dee studies, however, a very different portrait has emerged of Elizabeth's confidant. Underneath centuries of slander, initiated by the fundamentalists who took power after Elizabeth, may be one of the greatest geniuses in European intellectual history—a man responsible, it seems, for the modern world itself.


  • The awesome glory that is Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

    A month ago, I re-discovered one of the great loves of my life: Dungeons and Dragons.

    Like many nerds, I spent my teenage years in my imagination — reading and writing. I didn't play sports. I didn't have a girlfriend. I was an awkward goth in a giant, anonymous high school. But role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and card games like Magic, allowed me to share my introversion with others, and thereby maintain a core group of friends.

    This was in the mid-1990s, when there was still a literal "Internet Yellow Pages" book you could buy that listed all of the then-known Web sites. Video and computer games were still crude, rather than the alternate lives that they have become. But we had role-playing games, and we even had this thing called "book stores" (multiple chains, even) that stocked them.


  • Paramahansa Yogananda, and the legacy of India's mission to enlighten America

    Before becoming a business giant, Jobs was a spiritual seeker, experimenting with LSD and Zen Buddhism. He even travelled to India to find a guru. Jobs deeply immersed himself in spirituality, but it was his choice to apply himself to invention and business—rather than monastic meditation—that would change the planet.

    "That was the message: Actualize yourself," Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who was at the memorial service, said of Jobs and his chosen gift. "If you look back at the history of Steve and that early trip to India. … he had this incredible realization that his intuition was his greatest gift. He needed to look at [the] world from [the] inside out… his message was to look inside yourself and realize yourself."

    Autobiography of Yogi would be Jobs' way of passing on that message. The book recounts the spiritual training of Yogananda, a Bengali boy who became a self-realized meditator, and then came to America in the 1920s to introduce the West to Hindu meditation techniques. It's now considered a spiritual classic, having sold over 4 million copies. Among those deeply influenced by Yogananda and his book were Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Mariel Hemingway, Russell Simmons, the botanist Luther Burbank, and Mahatma Ghandi—in many ways, it helped lay the groundwork for the explosion of interest in Eastern spirituality that was to come in the 1960s. Yogananda stood at the transition point between the millennia-old Vedic spirituality of India and the New Age fusion that would emerge from the collision of Hindu, English and American religious ideas. And while much of the New Age backwash that was to come is easy to dismiss, Yogananda's influence is not so easy to brush off—the hem of his robe touched a few of the biggest cultural movers and shakers of the 20th century.

    But who was Yogananda—and what was it about one simple meditator that created such a global impact?

    The Blissful Devotee and His Cosmic Romance

    Mukunda Lal Ghosh, the boy who would become Yogananda, was born into the kshatriya or military caste in Gorakhpur, northeast India. His father was a vice president in the Bengal-Nagpur Railway; both of his parents were disciples of the guru Lahiri Mahasaya.

    Mahasaya initiated Ghosh and his parents into kriya yoga, a meditative practice that involves intense concentration on various points along the spinal column, which turns the mind inward on itself and finally empties it. This is the practice that the adult Yogananda would bring to America. It was at the age of 17, however, that Ghosh met the man who would complete his spiritual training: Swami Sri Yukteswar, a ferocious, lion-like kriya master who would spend the next five years transforming Ghosh the child into Yogananda the man. Spiritual discipleship in this context involves not just meditation but the ruthless and unflinching rooting out and destruction of the student's ego and delusions by the master, an utterly terrifying process.

    But Yogananda won through. He recounts his enlightenment thusly:

    "An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss; His body is countless tissues of light. A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being… The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.

    "Suddenly the breath returned to my lungs. With a disappointment almost unbearable, I realized that my infinite immensity was lost. Once more I was limited to the humiliating cage of a body, not easily accommodative to the Spirit. Like a prodigal child, I had run away from my macrocosmic home and imprisoned myself in a narrow microcosm. My guru was standing motionless before me; I started to drop at his holy feet in gratitude for the experience in cosmic consciousness which I had long passionately sought. He held me upright, and spoke calmly, unpretentiously.

    "'You must not get overdrunk with ecstasy. Much work yet remains for you in the world. Come; let us sweep the balcony floor; then we shall walk by the Ganges.'"

    Yogananda was next tasked with running a school for boys in Ranchi, where he combined traditional education with instruction in kriya yoga. But after a few years of practice, his guru sent him on the most frightening errand he could imagine: Bring the teachings to America.

    A Mission From God

    Leaving behind everything, Yogananda arrived in the US in 1920—the first Hindu guru to openly teach Westerners. While Swami Vivekananda had come before him, bringing an intellectual outline of yogic mysticism to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893, he had taught no techniques. Yogananda would change that, quickly booking speaking engagements across the country, offering instruction in kriya yoga and founding his Self-Realization Fellowship, a series of centers that he would wisely model on the Church, complete with pews and images of Jesus on the central altars, rather than the traditional Indian ashram setup, to decrease the cognitive dissonance he was facing in importing foreign teachings.

    After middling reception on the East Coast, he relocated to Los Angeles—which he would describe in his Autobiography as the spiritual nexus of America. LA not only has a perfect climate for practicing yoga year-round, the entertainment industry creates an environment full of people seeking for something better than reality.

    Though Yogananda's teachings and centers quickly became entrenched in Southern California, winning the adoration of the public, the backlash was soon to follow. The tabloid media began to label Yogananda's headquarters (on top of Mt. Washington) a "love cult" and allege that improper sexual relations were occurring; in tandem with the press assault, Yogananda's trusted friend and colleague Dhirananda departed the group. Though the allegations that Yogananda had (consensual) sexual relations with some of his disciples led to lawsuits, nothing was substantiated.

    Weathering the storm, Yogananda travelled abroad in South America and India, where he once again met with his guru Sri Yukteswar, and with Mahatma Ghandi. But it was when Yogananda returned to America that he would devote himself to securing his legacy—his writings at the time reveal a very real fear that civilization would simply cease to exist, and a pressing need to create some kind of vessel to preserve the essence of right living. This meant crystallizing his message in written works and by further establishing his network of Self-Realization Fellowship centers. Writing became, for him, a way to reach more people than he could in person—the success of Autobiography of a Yogi would prove him right. His talks from the time stress the need for creating intentional communities, and for people to begin planting their own vegetable gardens—a prescient notion, and one which deeply took hold both in the 1960s commune wave and following the 2008 recession.

    Yogananda may have been rushing particularly fast to preserve his message because his days were numbered. At a March 7, 1952 dinner for a visiting Indian ambassador in Los Angeles, he mounted the stage to urge co-operation between India and America—before collapsing from heart failure. He is now interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale; Time reported that the cemetery's mortuary director wrote in a notarized letter that Yogananda's body remained in a perfectly preserved state, without decay, for twenty days after his death… take that for what you will.


  • The truth about the dungeon master who disappeared in the steam tunnels

    When I was about fourteen, I discovered a copy of The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in the local library's used-book bin. Noting that it had something to do with Dungeons and Dragons, and also noting that it cost about $1, I bought it.

    That book stuck with me for a long time.

    Egbert was the sixteen-year-old who infamously disappeared in the Michigan State University steam tunnels in 1979, supposedly during a live-action Dungeons and Dragons session, provoking a nation-wide scare about the then-new role-playing game. When Egbert vanished, his parents hired William Dear, a private detective, to locate him. Dear theorized that it was Egbert's involvement in D&D that led to his disappearance; he went on to investigate the game himself, even going so far as to play a session.

    It was the early days of the Satanic Panic—the Christian Right's effort to convince the public that D&D, heavy metal, backwards-masked messages in records, the occult, Halloween, and alleged (but never substantiated) ritual abuse in day cares were nodes in a gigantic conspiratorial web ensnaring the youth of America in the clutches of the Dark One—and Egbert's disappearance would only serve to enflame the public's fears. The case would inspire the infamous TV movie Mazes and Monsters, in which a young Tom Hanks freaks out from playing too much D&D and stabs one of his friends in a steam tunnel after hallucinating that he's turned into a monster. (The adults, of course, just don't understand.)

    Now, as all nerds know, the most perfidious thing about Dungeons and Dragons is not that it drives you crazy and makes you see monsters, it's that it keeps you from getting laid. However, it also tends to entrain skills that kids will use later in life to become successful adults—while awkward teenagers think that they're role-playing wizards and dark elves, what they're actually doing is simulating something like a corporate meeting, complete with paper-shuffling, public speaking, teamwork, obsessing over numerical minutiae, delegating responsibilities (like who's getting the Mountain Dew next), and so on. (Name me one other activity that can get hormone-crazed teenage monkeys to sit around a table, scribble on paper and talk to each other for hours on end.) Little did parents understand that Dungeons and Dragons would both successfully drive a wall between their kids and anything cool, like sex and drugs, it would also train them to be productive suits in later life. Birth control and corporate training in one game!

    Of course, at the time, the public saw Dungeons and Dragons as akin to goat sacrifice. And Egbert was the focus of that hysteria during the weeks in which Dear searched for him.

    The truth of the matter, however, was much more painful. At the time of his disappearance, Egbert was a sixteen-year-old prodigy who had been pushed by his parents since early childhood to overachieve. They'd rushed him to graduate from school early, and subsequently enrolled him in Michigan State, where he stuck out like a preschooler. In addition to his social misplacement and the tremendous academic pressure put on him by his parents, Egbert was struggling to hide his blossoming homosexuality—both from his parents and from a not-exactly-friendly 1979 Michigan. Unable to make friends at the university, Egbert drifted into the Dungeons and Dragons players—but only briefly, looking for some way, any way to connect. He also drifted into drugs. And what actually happened when he disappeared was not a D&D freak out—Egbert entered the steam tunnels to take an overdose of Quaaludes. When that didn't work, he ran for the home of an older male "admirer," where he hid out for weeks, leading to the hysteria over his disappearance. His parents, unwilling to publicly air the fact that their son was gay, readily bought the Dungeons and Dragons narrative.


  • The Dalai Lama Will Not Return to Lead Tibet (He Has Something Better in Mind)

    The Dalai Lama set off a firestorm last month by announcing that he will no longer reincarnate in a political role, effectively ending his centuries-old political lineage.

    It's the latest in a series of controversial statements about the future of his role—including a hint that his next incarnation may be born outside of Tibet, and may be a woman. And it's another indicator of a sea change in how the Tibetan diaspora is adapting and revising its traditions for life outside of occupied Tibet. Though the Dalai Lama's statement was hastily reported in the media as meaning that he will not reincarnate at all, what he's saying is much more layered: he's looking to reincarnate as a spiritual leader only, and transition the Tibetan government-in-exile from needing him as a central authority, and towards a democratically-elected committee.

    "We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries," the Dalai Lama told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in September. "The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama… If a weak Dalai Lama comes along, then it will just disgrace the Dalai Lama."

    "Tibetan Buddhism is not dependent on one individual," he added. "We have a very good organizational structure with highly trained monks and scholars."


  • Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger, and the psychedelic interstellar future we need

    In my second year of college, I bought a copy of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger at a New Age bookstore in downtown Santa Cruz.

    It had a naked space goddess on the cover, and threatened to reveal the "Final Secret of the Illuminati." I read it in one sitting, and when I closed the book, I'd not only learned said group's final secret, I felt like I was one of the inner circle.

    I immediately loaned it out, and watched it circulate among about a dozen people before vanishing into the Santa Cruz synchronicity vortex. Everyone I talked to had about the same experience.

    Cosmic Trigger—a record of one man's journey into inner space—has been doing that, consistently, since its first publication in 1977. It's the Little Red Book for futurist mutants.


  • The Headset Revolution will be a blizzard of conflicting realities—if it happens, that is

    I have an Oculus Rift strapped to my face, but I'm not exactly sure what future I'm seeing.

    All the potential is there, everything that's been hyped. It's virtual reality; I can move my head in 360º and look into another dimension. But it's not-quite-realized: It's awkward, a bit disorienting and, well, the demo I'm looking at is a music video of a particularly bland English electronic act called Disclosure, playing live at a festival.

    I'm situated on a stage, behind the keyboard player, looking out at the vast crowd, who are all staring back at me and holding their camera phones up in front of their faces. Ah, that's what it feels like to be famous.

    I'm a bit dizzy when I take the Oculus off, and when I look around at my real-life surroundings—I'm in the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, a think-tank on the future of media and journalism, hanging out with Geoffrey Long, its technical director—I'm not quite sure I'm not still in a virtual world.

    I feel like I've just taken DMT, and gone on a five-minute excursion into a hyperneon, alien landscape, except that instead of being greeted by Terence McKenna's self-transforming machine elves, I've come face-to-face with an awful UK boy band. Also like DMT, I feel like I've had my sense of the real world shaken when I return to the here-and-now. My eyeballs feel stretched out, like I've been staring into a fluorescent light, and I have to take a moment to catch my bearings.

    What have I just been peering into? Is it a next-generation video game console, a new toy for the military, or the world's greatest empathy-generating device—a pair of goggles that can literally show you what it's like to be another human being? Whatever it is—and it's likely all of these things, and more—it obviously carries the potential to transform the entire media firmament.


    Some time in the next eighteen months, the world is going to change very drastically. Not like Apple Watch change—more like 1994 Web change. That's when virtual reality will start rolling out to consumers in real way. And it won't just be the Oculus Rift—Sony is already angling to capture the gamer market with its Project Morpheus, which will integrate with the PlayStation 4; Samsung is also entering the race with Gear VR.

    There's been a two-year hype cycle on the Oculus—it's been largely impossible to avoid online. The massive amount of money being thrown at it by the tech elite has only been adding fuel—Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion; Google Ventures sunk $20 million+ into Jaunt VR, a startup that's formed to build 360º cameras to record film for VR. It's clear that both the tech and entertainment worlds know what's coming, and are frantically, if quietly, preparing for the wheel to turn.

    But the coming VR utopia—which has been promised for over twenty years now—still has a few final hurdles to cross. Chief among them is what some journalists are calling "Sim Sickness"—quite simply, virtual reality makes more than a few people ill. Like stumbling around, throwing up, do-not-operate-heavy-machinery ill.

    For reasons unknown, women seem to experience Sim Sickness a lot more frequently than men, but the data is still out—in fact, we know next to nothing about why VR is making some people sick. Is it caused by the jarring difference between what Oculus users are seeing and what their physical bodies are feeling? Is it prompted by the frame rate of the display itself? Nobody knows, nobody's talking about it much, and a lot of people are spending a lot of money to make sure the problem gets fixed—because if it doesn't, there's still a chance that VR could be the Revolution That Wasn't. Or at the very least, the revolution that only gets adopted by those who can stomach it.

    Gamers—that legendarily fickle and problematic audience—will undoubtedly be the first to parachute en masse into VR; Sony is banking on it. Oculus VR has even employed John Carmack, the legendary creator of Doom, as its CTO.

    But games will be far from the only application. Film and television will quickly start going 360º and virtual. (And it's important to differentiate, here, between filmed 360º content, which can be captured by specialized cameras like the Jaunt, and virtual worlds built in Unity or Unreal. Both can be viewed on an Oculus, but the first is filmed, while the second is built from scratch.) There will be therapeutic uses. I've seen guided meditations, PTSD treatments—even a simulation that helps lessen the pain children experience during heavy bandage-changing by putting them in the body of a penguin scooting down an ice slide. Then there's the weird stuff: Look around and you'll find everything from an alien abduction simulator to one intrepid individual's attempt to Kickstart a VR version of James Joyce's Ulysses.

    There will, of course, be military applications. The US Navy's "Project BlueShark" is currently investigating potential uses of the Oculus for battleship interfaces. DARPA is using the Oculus to create war-game visualizations of the Internet that soldiers can move around in, allowing them to get a 3D sense of how cyber-attacks happen (perhaps they'll meet the final boss of the Internet, the hacker known as "Four Chan"). It would be an obvious guess that the Oculus may be used for remote drone operation. One blogger has even suggested, darkly, that the Oculus could be repurposed as a military torture device, trapping prisoners in flickering virtual hells.

    But back to the Annenberg Labs: Geoffrey Long, who's been exploring the potential of the Oculus for new media and journalism uses at USC, after stints at Microsoft and MIT, explains to me that the device may actually disrupt wars:

    "If the Vietnam War was the first war that [was] televised, and that near-unfiltered broadcast was one of the major reasons why we lost the Vietnam war," Long suggests, recalling the anger and subsequent mobilization of the American middle class in response to seeing scenes of war and drafted kids coming home in body bags on television, "what happens when this becomes the next stage of that? When you put the headset on and you feel like you're literally in downtown Israel? You look over your shoulder and there's a Starbucks there, and this is real-time, unfiltered—what is that going to feel like? We're a ways off from having an infrastructure that will allow that kind of 360º broadcast to the middle of Ohio, but you can feel that it's coming. And just like in Vietnam, when you made that jump from newspapers to television, and that had a radical impact on how we understood what was going on… [what will happen] in the next war, that's broadcast in VR? [What will happen] when we start using the exact same hardware, and more immersive hardware, to experience long-distance virtual reality news that we do for our next-generation video games?"

    With tongue in cheek, I suggest that an entire nation might end up with PTSD from combat broadcasts that put them in the thick of the action. Halfway through the comment, I realize it probably isn't a joke.


    A few days later, I meet the woman who's leading the push into VR journalism.

    After working as a correspondent for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and others, Nonny de la Peña saw in virtual reality an opportunity to not just report the news, but put people directly into it. I saw her speak at Hub LA, a downtown co-working space, where she was presenting on her pioneering use of the Oculus. For the last few years, de la Peña has been relying on grants, favors and donations to run a one-woman pioneering mission into immersive journalism, creating VR applications to show people the kind of brutal human experiences that tend to get ignored by polite society. While the future she's modeling could well become the mainstream in five to ten years, she's currently both ahead of the curve and outside of most traditional journalists' comfort zone—de la Peña explains that many have called her efforts "crazy," though that's likely going to shift very quickly.

    Her initial foray into VR was "Gone Gitmo," a simulator that lets you experience what it's like to be a prisoner detained and tortured in Guantanamo Bay, starting with having a black hood thrown over your head and getting progressively darker (and explicitly faithful to Gitmo prisoners' own accounts) from there.

    Among her more recent projects—all built with Unity, the game engine that most Oculus demos are constructed in—is "Hunger in Los Angeles," a VR simulation of standing in a food bank line at the First Unitarian Church in Koreatown. During the simulation, a man who's been waiting too long for food collapses in diabetic shock in front of the user. De la Peña recounts that the simulation brought some users to tears, and that they would stoop down and cradle the virtual man's head, attempting to revive him. Another simulation depicts a real-life incident in which a man was beaten to death by the border patrol after being locked up for stealing food for his wife.

    While there's currently a feeding frenzy going on in the nascent virtual reality industry—entrepreneurs and VCs have smelled fresh meat following Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR—money was not the topic here. Surprisingly, the word that came up most frequently in audience questions was "empathy." How else could the Oculus be used to help human beings develop more empathy for their fellow humans?


    This is perhaps the true promise of the Oculus: the ability to experience life from the perspective of another person, not just through artistic representation but literally, especially as 360º camera technology improves. Being able to see through the viewpoint of another human being has, arguably, been the great work of art, fiction, journalism and, really, all communication. But the Oculus makes it explicit—and while it may still be a bit awkward and buggy, that won't be the case for long.

    There's probably no stopping the use of the Oculus for youth-hypnotizing first-person shooters and direct military applications—but there's also no stopping artists and journalists like de la Peña from using the Oculus to drop the boundaries between human beings and engender compassion instead of violence.

    I get the same feeling of excitement about the Oculus as I did about the Web in its early days—that same feeling of catching a wave that you know will take you into the next version of civilization, that will land you in a new frontier. I also get that same sense of anarchic openness and creative collaboration that marked the early Web—and yes, that same sense of suits hovering around the edges looking to stake out territory. At some point, the independent journalists, hackers, artists, trippers and other early adopters may be sidelined by corporate money—in many ways, the big grab already happened with Facebook's purchase of Oculus. But as long as the technology is in the public's hands—both the Oculus itself and game engines like Unity 3D and Unreal—we're going to see an incredible avalanche of, well, downloadable human experiences.

    As the barriers to content creation continue to fall, we'll start seeing a blizzard of conflicting realities, as everybody starts broadcasting their own unique vantage points on the universe at each other. And I look forward to seeing what creative people, and people in general, do with that—far more than I fear what the military or corporations may do.

    Thanks to Noah Nelson for research assistance with this story.