D&D — The Moments You Play For

In the Aleor campaign I’ve been running the past couple of months, things have been pretty slow. Not to say that stuff has been boring or uninteresting, just that the game started off small, and has been taking it’s time getting anywhere—by design.

Before Session Zero, I referred to this game as the “Commoner Campaign”, based off a .pdf I found outlining a level zero type character class. (A link for the curious.) All the players started out as being pitifully weak, in their hometown of about 200 people, you get the idea. I had to be careful with designing encounters because fighting 3 kobolds simultaneously could be very dangerous and kill them if they weren’t cautious.

It took them 6 sessions to become actual adventurers, and roughly half of that time was spent being lost in a huge forest, so things have been tough. I had a lot of trouble designing interesting encounters day after day when the party was in the same forest on a week to week basis, and anything scarier than a simple boar would make combat risky.

But I think it was worth it, because at the end of our most recent session, the party reached their first proper city. I set a very specific song to accompany my description as I outlined the view of a civilization beyond what the characters could even comprehend. The gentle slope of the city nestled in the banks of a vast lake allowed for a breathtaking view of the city of humans and elves. Rows upon rows of houses, many taller than they had ever seen before, stretching out for about a mile. Dozens of people bustled about the streets, even as the sun was starting to set, with kids running up and down and bumping into one of the players as he chased after his friend.

I can’t properly explain why, but of the 7 3-hour sessions we’ve had, that moment was the most fun I’ve had DM’ing this campaign so far. It’s silly to say, but maybe it’s because that’s the moment where I’ve felt more like Matt Mercer than ever before, or maybe I like the feeling of swinging the doors open and saying “Surprise!”, or maybe it’s the writer in me that likes describing cool scenes.

I think that as a player, the moments I live for are huge, plot changing moments that occur because of something I did—a choice I made or an action I took that had a huge impact on the world. When you’re the DM, all of your choices impact the world, so it’s not as big of a deal, which means it’s harder to pinpoint what exactly I’m trying to accomplish.

Either way, I have a city to build now, and I didn’t realize until after I described it that I’ve never made a map (or fully built) a settlement to this scale before. Craydon is a proper city of (my pre-build estimates) ~20,000 people, making it a sizable monument in a fantasy world; not enormous by any means, but a city to be sure.

It’s going to be some time before I have another one of those moments. I’m going to try my best not to wait until they get to the next big city and make the reveal be the same style of thing, and to be honest, I have no idea if my players had as much fun arriving at Craydon as I did, but hey, a dungeon master should allow themselves to have fun, too.

Me — The Most Important Piece of Media

I want you to think about all the media you’ve consumed over the course of your life. All the TV you’ve watched, the books you’ve read, and the games you’ve played. If you had to pick one thing, what one thing had the most impact on who you grew up to be? Now, I’m not asking you what your favorite piece of media is, although they might actually be the same thing.

I’m sure a lot of people from an older generation would pick a movie. Maybe a classic TV show. Somebody very young might pick a game like Fortnite (although, to be fair, they might not have experienced their “Most Impactful Thing™”). I would be willing to bet that a lot of people my age would pick Harry Potter, given that we got to grow up with the books and it touched so many millions of lives. It’s certainly not what I would pick, but I don’t think my answer would be all that surprising to anyone, either.

My favorite game is Dragon Quest VIII. My favorite movie is Dumas’ The Counte of Monte Cristo (2002). My favorite book is, well, a hard choice, but anything by Brandon Sanderson will be up there.

But I would say that of if you took one piece of media out of my life so that I would never have experienced, the Kollin that would be the most different from any other Kollin would be the one that hadn’t watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I’ve reviewed Avatar before, but that post is mostly just me gushing (poorly) about why it’s so great. (Side note: That post is already almost three years old… Next week is the show’s 14th birthday… oh boy.) I didn’t analyze why the show is great then, and I won’t do it now. You can look up YouTube videos (or even series) on that premise that explain it better than I can.

I will explain why it’s so important to me, though. First, it has a magic system that is so simple and easy to understand, yet involves interesting complications. Once you understand waterbending, you can follow the train of logic that leads to bending the water in plants, or blood, or the very air itself. The magic system is so simple, yet so robust. I love magic systems, and while I don’t quite have the fanaticism that Brandon Sanderson has, magic is my favorite tool to employ in the fantasy wheelhouse.

But more than that, Avatar has amazing characters and plot. Every major character is incredibly well fleshed out, has important character arcs, and they each have long journeys to take. The show has a level of storytelling that is compelling in the same way the magic is: it’s easy to follow (especially in it’s episodic nature), but the overarching implications are more complex and interesting. You don’t have to watch Zuko and Iroh’s separation at the end of Book Two to feel the emotions in their reunion at the end of Book Three, but it is far more emotionally rewarding and cathartic if you do.

I had a dream less than a month ago in which I knew I was dreaming, and I had full control. So far, that is the only time that’s ever happened to me. So what did I do? I fought off a bunch of dudes with earthbending. I often have mental images of characters in my stories that I like to imagine myself embodying. (The one that’s been on my mind the last few months is a large, perhaps elven character carrying a staff.) Regardless of day or time, though (and especially in the shower,) I still find myself enjoying the image of lifting and launching rocks with what is basically just martial arts.

Am I embarrassed to admit that? Yeah, a little, but I think retaining a piece of the kid inside you is very important. And the little kid inside me loves to shoot rocks at people.

Me — Feb ’19 Update

I somehow forgot to post this last week and wrote something else instead. Whoops. In any case, my life hasn’t been terribly interesting the last couple of weeks, so there isn’t a ton to say. I’m happy to report that my mood has finally started to stabilize on the higher end. It was harder to shrug this one off because the last time it got this bad (3 years ago), I changed a lot about myself—I started the blog, changed the way I dressed, and started to write more so that I didn’t feel like I was lying when I told people I was a writer. This time none of that was an option, but over time I’ve been able to breathe a little and bit by bit reclaim myself.

That said, the Monthly Update Topic Order™: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things.

I don’t foresee any blog changes in the near future. I like the casual two posts a day. It makes me feel like I’m keeping up without forcing myself to write an insane amount. I do plan on writing about the road trip my siblings and I took to Chicago and back, but I need to go through my pictures and find all the good ones, and that’s going to be a chore because I’m not a picture person. That’s the main thing that keeps me from just writing a Saturday post travel log: I’d want to include pictures but I don’t want to do the work to find them. Either way, expect that soon.

Writing plans. I’m still going through a bit of a rut as far as that goes. I do feel like a piece of myself is missing right now because I still have the stories in my head but I have no willpower to write them. And it’s not like how it used to be where it was just difficult to get started but I’d find my flow. This time I can’t even find the power to even consider writing. It’s hard to explain, but this mental block has been getting stronger and stronger for almost a year now. I will say though: I have to write for one of my classes, and my professor and I have found a workaround to my problem. He gives me a prompt based on the last story I wrote for him, a few random words to incorporate, and a time limit. I have to write as much as I can in one hour based on his prompt and words, and the restrictive nature of that assignment has worked astonishingly well. I do think it requires somebody reading and responding to the work I’m producing, though. This strategy wouldn’t work for stand-alone short stories on the blog.

In the realm of video games, I actually have not been doing much. I’ve been playing Season 16 of Diablo 3, but I’ve pretty much expended the amount of available fun in that realm. Mostly I’ve just been playing really casual games while watching YouTube videos of streamers I enjoy. Hearthstone is a big one, but I’m also playing a simple mobile game and a casual browser game: RWBY: Amity Arena and Flight Rising respectively. The RWBY game is pretty much Clash Royale (basically a card game MOBA). Don’t know if there’s a genre associated with it. Flight Rising is basically Neopets, only you collect dragons instead of random creatures and you play games to get money and collect clothes to dress the dragons up or change their coloring. You can even make custom skins for them using Photoshop, and the game has a lot of community input to game development, which I think is neat.

I haven’t been reading or listening to anything beyond those streams. Critical Role and anything Day9 puts onto YouTube is pretty much the extent of my consumed media right now. That’s all I have to say about that.

School is going well. My intention is that this will be my final semester, to which I will have two AA’s to show for my time. At this point I’m taking exclusively theatre related classes, which is both parts fun and stressful. Another one of my plays is also being produced this semester, but apart from script edits, I’ve decided to take a back seat and let other people put their vision on it.

That’s about it. My Aleor D&D campaign is going great, more updates to come, and the cool collaborative passion project I’ve been a part of the last few months has been a ton of fun, too. This might be the first time I’ve brought it up, but I will definitely speak more of that in the future, as well!

Me/D&D — A Love Letter to Critical Role

Dungeons and Dragons can be played a myriad of ways. I’ve read someone describe it as “being the main characters in a fantasy novel”, but it’s even more open-ended than that. It can literally be anything you and your friends want it to be, it just so happens that most people value simplicity over anything else, and so they more or less stick to the rulebook (which, as Barbossa would say, are more like guidelines—especially the Dungeon Master’s Guide). I came to a realization about Critical Role today, and I thought I would share that realization with all of you in the form of a love letter… Buckle up, this one is going to be a long one.

268x0wCritical Role, a weekly livestream of D&D I’ve already dedicated one full post to, does just that. They play with the rules that they’re given, and only on rare occasion does the dungeon master, Matthew Mercer, ever cook up a new monster or a new character class/subclass. I would go so far as to say that they play a very vanilla version of D&D, and the only thing crazy about it is how gifted the players are at pacing out story beats and telling the tale of a group of people rather than getting from Point A to Point B. Of all the D&D streams I’ve watched in the past, that’s the #2 reason to watch the show.

What’s #1 you ask? Well, before I get to that, I want to step back and talk about why I personally love it so much. Not as the critical observer as I often am whenever I’m consuming media, but as the fan. As Kollin.

I’ve been watching the show since it aired 3 years ago now, and this only dawned on me today. Critical Role encompasses every aspect of my personality, and encapsulates everything I want to have and be. (If you’re lazy, just skim the paragraphs ahead—the bullet points are in bold.)

For starters: storytelling. Obviously, I love stories. I’ve fancied myself a writer for nearly a decade now, and I specifically love epic fantasy. I grew up with World of WarcraftLord of the RingsDragon QuestOblivion, etc. The romanticism of picking up your sword and shield and going on an epic quest is something so inexplicably baked into my being that I literally cannot describe why I love it so much. It’s simple, easy to understand, yet its breadth is endless. In order to tell a complex story in such a world, you first have to start simple and show the audience this new world—explain its rules—and seeing a world where our impossible becomes their mundane is always fascinating to me.

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That ties into the concept of what Dungeons & Dragons is. It is a literal, mechanical fulfillment of the Hero’s Journey. You kill monsters, you level up, you achieve goals, and so on. I love watching or being somebody who has nothing inevitably challenge literal embodiments of evil. By then, you’ve really learned about and grown with the character, and in many ways you’ve watched their life go by. What I like about D&D is that victory is not guaranteed. If I had my way, I would even go so so far as to say that it is less likely than defeat, for how can victory feel empowering if you feel it was given away? (Now, a Hero’s Journey and storytelling clearly go hand in hand here, but I think the distinction is important. Not all D&D needs to be a journey, and not all storytelling is D&D.)

116curiousbeginningsAs for aspects specific to Critical Role, and to explain why it holds a special place in my heart over any other D&D show, the first component to this is the cast of the show itself. Every player in the game is a notable and respected voice actor, and I knew over half of them when I first tuned in (by the sound of their voice if not their name and appearance itself). These people have all had a hand in creating the games and shows I’ve dedicated so much of my life to (the aforementioned World of Warcraft is certainly pretty high on that list). So because I recognized their voices, I was already familiar with them. I already know these people, and this is an opportunity to know them better.

But even more than that, they’re all actors. I’ve been a part of the theatre world for six years now (which is crazy to me), and it literally changed my life. I tell people I was the kid that sat in the back of class reading and hoping nobody would talk to me. They’re always surprised to hear that because I’m so outspoken (they don’t realize that all that’s changed is that I now sit in the front of the class hoping somebody will talk to me). It didn’t necessarily make me more confident—I’m lucky enough to have pretty much always had that—but it did teach me to have fun by not caring about looking cool, stoic, and professional. I’ve found that people will hold a lot of respect for those than can throw caution to the wind. It’s a skill not many have. So watching the cast put on silly voices and make dumb jokes really speaks to me. Not because I’m an audience member admiring their skills, but because I’m a fellow performer that appreciates their techniques and the obscure theatre-related jokes they sometimes toss out at each other.

Lastly, and by far the most important reason that this show is the best—these people are all best friends. It’s really heartwarming to watch a group of people have a blast with each other. To share in the absurd humor as well as the very real tears that have happened over the years. You see people who so overtly love each other and the community they’ve created, and watch as they empower each other every week, and it maxresdefaultreally has an effect on you. It’s really difficult not to feel like part of the reason that they do this show is for you—and not in that “we do this for the fans” sort of way, but in a genuine way. They show fanart on stream and have hired fans to be part of the tech and have quite literally built a community founded on love and respect for one another as much as D&D. Sure, not everyone is as loving or respectable as the cast, but the vast majority of voices I’ve seen in the YouTube comments or on Reddit have been supportive and, in general, awesome.

I have a lot of dreams for the future. Some of them I know I will never achieve, simply because it’s not what life has in store for me. But if I have one goal, it’s to be happy. And every week when I get home from work or school to watch Critical Role while relaxing with a cup of tea, I can’t help but think.

One day I’ll have that sort of life. I don’t envy them for having it, because I’m grateful that they’re willing to share it with the world. And one day I’ll surround myself with people who bring me nothing but joy and we’ll share tears of both joy and pain. I may not be there yet, but if they can do it, I can do.

D&D/Improv — Knowing Your Cast

This post is going to blend a lot of territory between Dungeons & Dragons and improvisational acting, because these principles cross over quite a bit: every time you do something with a group of people, the things you can and cannot do are dictated by how well you know the other people and how much you trust each other to communicate ideas non-verbally.

In short: the better you know your people, the better you can work as a team. Sounds stupid when I lay it out that simply, I know, but there’s a lot to be said for ‘trust’ whenever you’re creating something new like in D&D or improv.

When you’re working in an improv troupe for a significant amount of time, you naturally get a sense for what people are good at. You start recognizing their strengths and noticing moments in the games you’re playing that they would really shine in. I haven’t been a member of an improv cast for well over three years, but even as I’m teaching and watching games happen before me, I could tell you what my friends would do if they were put in the positions the kids I’m teaching are finding themselves in. I know the moments one will pull out the angsty teenager, or where another friend will call the police and totally flip the scene on its head. Me and another friend could also argue endlessly over what is actually nothing without the audience knowing. That’s what chemistry in improv is, and when you’re playing specific games and you know what works and what doesn’t, knowing your cast means you can set your team up for some awesome moments.

It’s the same thing with D&D. You have to know what each player likes and how each player makes decisions at the table—and I’m not just saying this as the DM, and I’m also not just talking about working together as a team. I’m talking about the metagame: how players work and interact with other players at the table through their characters.

In D&D it’s very natural to get into the groove of waiting your turn. I mean, that’s quite literally how combat works, after all. Scenes are no different. If one person’s backstory is being explored in this three hour session, logic states that that person would be the main character of that session, so you should respect that, because there is an implicit promise that “tomorrow’s session”, you will be the main character.

I’m not advocating that the game must be played this way, but this concept is exemplified very well in Critical Role. The players know when it’s not their moment, but knowing your cast doesn’t mean recognizing that you’re not in the spotlight and stepping back, it means being supporting actors while your friend takes the lead. Just like in improv, it means setting them up and putting them on the pedestal so their moment can be the best moment it can be, whether that is casting a spell on them to augment their power or taking a fall for them so they can feel awesome when they come to save you.

With people you work with in these settings, it’s important to consider how well you know them, because you’ll get a sense for how they think and what they’re trying to do. Being the support beam for your friends and making each other shine when the spot light is on you is a critical component for both improv and D&D, and it’s something that can’t really happen if you don’t know them well enough to recognize where to support them.

(Side note: I saw this picture on Google, and while it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I found it too hilarious not to use.)

D&D Dialogues 7: Fuddled and Muddled

It’s been a while since I told an actual D&D story, for a number of reasons. In fact, my group of friends has since started two new campaigns since my last story: with the old one petering out and a new DM taking over a new story, as well as the addition of the campaign I’m DMing in a new world called Aleor. I plan on writing the full Aleor story in broader strokes on this blog at some point rather than the detailed dialogues of these stories, but that’ll have to wait for another day.

So, onto the story.

This new campaign is a little crazy—fun overlaps realism a bit when the two are at odds. Not my favorite style of play, but it isn’t bad, either. We have a party of 6 level 10 heroes, and in this specific scene we have three NPC’s following us (however, none of them are important in this instance, so they’ll be left in shadows today).

We’ve recently acquired the deed to a keep by magical means, and while we’ve had the deed for a while, we haven’t been in this area until now. So we’re investigating only to find that the keep is abandoned, yet occupied. The people there are something of a cult, and they explain that they have friends that went down into the dungeons to fetch something and haven’t come back. Obvious red flags there, but they seem like chumps compared to us so whoever went down probably isn’t much stronger. Plus, if we’re going to claim this keep and restore it, we should make sure there’s no murder monsters in our house.

We go down inside and find a cave bored into the cellar, and following down the path we see umber hulk corpses. My character, (an orc mystic named Ki) is the only one that knows anything about them, and he just knows that looking at them makes you feel weird, so we don’t really worry about it. We kill some bugs and end up at this pool of water with an aboleth inside. The aboleth mind controls one of our party members, unbeknownst the the rest of us, and tries to control another before teleporting away. As we are searching for him, four umber hulks jump out on us, and this is where things start to get dicey.

My character is the only one that is effective at a range, and being near an umber hulk can confuse or paralyze you unless you avert your gaze. These corridors are pretty small, and one of us is mind controlled. As soon as combat happens, the traitor runs away, saying there’s more on the other side of the tunnel. One of us follows her to help while the rest of us fight the four.

Problem: one of our monks is wearing the Cloak of Eyes, meaning he cannot avert his gaze. He spends basically every round paralyzed as the umber hulks close in. I try to mind control one of the umber hulks but fail, and the tunnel is cramped so it’s difficult to get any good angles.

The monk that ran after the traitor almost dies instantly when the traitor turns against her (the traitor is a barbarian). I spend two turns building our psychic defenses back up after losing that turn, and so far, we have only landed one hit against these things. It looks really bad. The “words” (acronym?) TPK starts coming up in conversation.

This combat is one of those examples where things really could have gone either way. We really might have died. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it), we had to speed things up due to time constraints, so I feel as though the DM loosened his grip on us to be able to finish the scene. One of our NPC’s cast Hold Monster, and he ruled that its weird eyes didn’t work when it was held, one of our party members shot the ceiling and caused a small cave in that instantly killed another umber hulk, and I made another one flee (for one round, though in the narrative, it made a tunnel and was literally never brought up again for some reason).

Now, if the DM had just decided that we live or die by the dice rolls, I still think we would have came out on top… eventually. It would have taken another three rounds at least—three rounds we didn’t have, so his method for speeding up the combat was totally fine. But I do wonder if we were all destined to die in that cave, because… maybe we should have.

 

Learning! — Are You Creative?

A while back I wrote about what creativity is. I have a different way of looking at it because my improv experience has taught me that most people think of creativity as the ability to pull things out of thin air, but it’s just not. You’ll have to read that post to hear my full thoughts on that, because today I’m going to talk about something slightly different.

I would say a lot of people also think of personality traits as sliding scales on a Sims game. (I really hope that’s how Sims games work or else I’m going to look real dumb here.) You have 2/10 laziness, 7/10 attractiveness, 5/10 intelligence, etc. Creativity is no different, right?

I actually think it is very different.

All my life, I’ve had things swimming around in my head. Dragons single-handedly fighting off armies of thousands. Powerful spell casters throwing hurricanes and tidal waves at each other, sundering the landscape around them. An evil king increasing the gravity in his throne room to literally force those around him to kneel.

There is always. Always. Something like this in my head—even if I don’t have the willpower to put it to paper, like right now.

This is just part of the way that my brain works, so I was a little surprised when I found out that not everyone thinks like this. To be honest, it still seems a little strange sometimes. But maybe that’s just it.

Maybe having a creative mind isn’t something you put a scale to. Maybe you either have it or you don’t. This is only an inkling of a theory, so I could be way off base, but perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in here somewhere. Hear me out.

If you split it this way, turning it into a dichotomy, it becomes easy to differentiate the sort of people around you. It’s easy for me to split everyone in my writer’s group between creative and non-creative people.

Now, being creative doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with scenes of a book. Maybe it’s hearing new melodies or seeing magic in poetry. Whatever it is, it’s breathing life into something new.

It is important to note that when I say non-creative, it isn’t an insult, merely a descriptor of how our brains function. In fact, some of the best writers in my writer’s group were far more technically inclined. They weren’t creative at all.

You may or may not agree with me, but thinking of people in this way has helped me better accommodate for the strengths and weaknesses of those around me. Putting creative people in technical fields can yield interesting results, and the opposite holds true as well.

You could probably immediately tell me whether or not you’re a creative person with my definition, and if you start thinking about your friends and family, you might be surprised to discover that their profession is something contrary to their personality. Well, you might think it’s contrary, but in actuality they’re just bringing different things to the table.

Just because it’s unconventional doesn’t mean it won’t work.