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BMO of Horrors

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Or, how the Seattle Sounders made a repeat trip to MLS Cup by being good D&D players and failed in the end.

D&D Stream of Annihilation Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Dungeons & Dragons

2017 is a year of sequels. So much of modern culture is references back to what was once great, and emerging in new ways. Whether it is Star Wars, Blade Runner, Logan, or Guardians of the Galaxy, culture finds ways to keep referencing itself. In a season when the Seattle Sounders attempted to follow up the magic of their 2016 MLS Cup win, looking to other sequels is natural.

But, these shared universes are not my universes. There are other sequels that appeal to me a bit more than those movie franchises. I look at the explosion of Dungeons & Dragons. It is more popular than ever (so are the Sounders). D&D/DnD released a few sequels this year (Tales of the Yawning Portal, Tomb of Annihilation). The fanbase is built of once-ostracized geeks who now gather together and own certain cultural elements. It is incredibly popular because of the internet, while traditional media ignores it.

This team we love is built on the foundational principles that make gaming together great. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Their architect is a former player. I will not go so far as to claim that the ways in which Garth Lagerwey consciously built the organization are due to his former days as a D&D player. Instead, the claim is that — because we all are what we have been and who we associate with — these principles leak into everything he does (and everything I do).

So, I look to DnD as a guide for how the Seattle Sounders attempted to repeat their magic, and fell just short.

Tales of the Yawning Portal includes an updated version of Tomb of Horrors. Tomb of Annihilation is also a rehash of Tomb of Horrors. These two remakes of the role-playing game’s most popular module give us insight into the Sounders.

For the Sounders there’s a bit of difference. Their sequel ended in sadness and despair. But their path is something that is repeatable, because the foundation contains truths to sport and gaming.

“The diverse group is the strong group”

For DnD, this means in the construction of the adventuring party both by race and class, as well as who you play with at the table. By incorporating the unfamiliar, the stories become more powerful. By varying character builds, the group is less likely to fail because there should always be someone capable of solving a problem, or of providing help.

For the Sounders, this means in the construction of the squad (XI, 18, full roster), both in how they play and their backgrounds. Four continents are represented on the First Team. The top five players by minutes in 2017 were born in five different nations (Uruguay, USA, Switzerland, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago). Four more countries round out the top 13 players by minutes. The Americans are likewise from scattered portions of this nation.

All of them take different approaches to the game. Some are local heroes with huge personalities who come here and integrate into this rave green leviathan to be even more than that. This diversity of origin makes them stronger together. They learn new ways to pass, to dribble, to occupy space, to shoot, to be a wall. Their differences are strength.

Diversity also shows in a coaching staff from so many soccer cultures — Washington, Caribbean, French-African, Mexican, Australian. Their pasts show up on the field, in tactics and in how they speak to players and the media. Together they can speak different languages, in different voices, and have different experiences to share. If Mexican legend Gonzalo Pineda can’t get through to a player, maybe Liverpool legend Djimi Traore can.

Background and heritage influence subconscious, instinct and thought. That’s true no matter the game, no matter the life. Accepting and finding those with different experiences strengthens your DnD table, and your soccer.

They are all Sounders. We are all Sounders.

Find way to win initiative

Getting to act first is great, but if you don’t act first, shift the tactics to seize initiative by forcing the other side to react to you.

“Roll for initiative.” It’s a powerful phrase in gaming. Pleasantries stop. It almost always means combat. It means weapons swung, spells flung, and blood shed. Acting first means you get control. The other side is forced to be passive, until they discover a way to change the situation.

When the referee blows that first whistle each team has the opportunity declare that they will be proactive. They can come out on the correct foot, or not. More often than not, the Seattle Sounders took that initiative and played their game. It meant that they possessed in the opponent’s half, they were aggressive toward goal and they used possession to dominate.

But, when they lost that initiative and were forced to be the reactive team, they were often able to recover. Schmetzer regularly used halftime to his advantage. This was most clear when playing against D.C. United in July. The Sounders lost the initiative.

Doom was pretty apparent at half, and then Lloyd Sam put United up 3-nil. From minute 51 to minute 54 Schmetzer took over initiative. Will Bruin scored, assisted by Joevin Jones, and then Schmetz made a double-sub, taking Shipp and Kovar off while inserting Leerdam and Nouhou. Brad Evans scored at 62. There was no turning back.

Seattle believed it would win. Evans came off, Delem came on. A defensive move that solidified the Sounders in a way that got them two more goals.

If you don’t win initiative, if you are forced to be reactive, to find a way to seize control. In 2017 that was a hallmark of the Sounders.

Don't count on a crit, but take advantage of them

A critical hit, kind of a like a goal, is a rare thing. Never enter an engagement that requires more than one (5th edition combat typically lasts 3-5 rounds, so with standard party construction you should get a crit about once per combat).

Instead, build with a solid defense and control the battlefield.

Possession is much like a spell that grants battlefield control. Schmetzer used possession to wear other teams into lapses of mental energy. He used it to control their avenues of attack against the defensive pentagon (2 DMs, 2CBs, 1GK). He used it as a way to slip Clint Dempsey, Will Bruin and Joevin Jones into unsuspecting spaces.

Then they would strike from nowhere.

Goals change games, just like natural 20s change encounters. One could see no greater example of taking advantage of that nat-20 than in the series against the Houston Dyanmo. Seattle didn’t plan to be up a man for a majority of both games, but because they were they utterly dominated and never stopped.

The only wrong way to play is to destroy the joy in your group

A locker room and a playing table can be volatile. Play with joy and play for each other.

Over the years of playing I’ve watched tables and teams disintegrate. Silly spats can start regarding who should bring the Twizzlers and who should bring the Mountain Dew. It’s not that different in soccer. A Dungeon Master, like a coach, has to manage personalities as much as they understand rules/tactics.

When a player can’t make a few sessions in a row does this wreck the table, or is it an element of strength?

Brian Schmetzer turned his absent player into an element of strength. When Joevin Jones went AWOL it meant that Nouhou went from part-timer to fully featured left back. When Jones came back, the changing room may have been tense, but not tense enough that rumors got out. In the modern era this is stunning.

Managing personalities as big as Clint Dempsey and as laid back as Chad Marshall (except for after that final whistle at BMO) can be a challenge. With players across the age spectrum and from four different continents, forging a unified personality is an enormous challenge, but if one thing was clear by the end of 2017 it was that they play off each other, and they play for us. Even the most mercenary of players in 2017 (Jones) didn’t quit after signing his next contract.

It’s important that players know their roles within their story-season. That awareness helps when trouble comes up — and trouble will always come up, because no matter how much love and friendship you share, personality conflicts are inevitable. It’s how we repair those conflicts that matters as much as anything, whether you are a shape-changing druid that turns into a badger, or a defensive midfielder.

Sometimes the other side is bigger and badder than you

In the original Tomb of Horrors you die. You die often. There are traps. They surprise you and you die. The rare monsters are enough to kill you, too. But there were smart, well-built groups that could make their way through the maze, past the false passages, around the pitfalls, and sneak past the monsters beyond their abilities.

They would make it to the final room, and die.

Acererak is the original big, bad evil guy. He won so many more times than he lost. If your first encounter with Tomb of Horrors/Acererak is Ready Player One, you know this. If it is the original Gary Gygax module where you first met the arch-Lich, you know this. If you met Acererak through Tales of the Yawning Portal or Tomb of Annihilation, he’s a little weaker. Death wasn’t required then. In many ways the Sounders met Tomb of Annihilation before they met the Tomb of Horrors.

They won the first time they met the better team. That final on Dec. 10, 2016 was a meat-grinder, but good fortune came at the end. Unfortunately, the sequel in soccer was more like the original in DnD.

Again, it was a meat-grinder. But there were no heroics, no fortuitous natural 20 to save them. The Seattle Sounders lost because when you face the biggest and baddest you either need to be lucky or good, and hopefully both. On Dec. 9, 2017 the Seattle Sounders were neither.

But they made the final room and we’ll have memories of a journey that ended in failure, as 20 other teams ended in failure in 2017. Those memories are as much about why we sing, play, coach as the trophies.

Those memories do not die.

The Basic Rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons are available for free. You can buy the core rulebooks online or at your favorite Friendly Local Gaming Store (mine is Shane’s Cards in Renton with a shoutout to Mox Boarding House in Bellevue).

This is not a sponsored post. I just love D&D.