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/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.

zrzut-ekranu-2017-11-29-20-39-17

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.

 

D&D — Making Magic Items

I’ve been pretty bad at posting on time lately, and I apologize for that. I’ve had a lot going on and it’s proven very difficult to not pour all of the free time I do have into mindless things just to relax. From now on, though, I’ll just post whenever I see fit, sticking loosely to my current Monday and Thursday schedule, and I promise to stop apologizing for being late.

The last week or two I’ve been thinking a lot about magical items for Dungeons and Dragons, and it really surprised me that it was just so easy to come up with new items. Virtually any cool thing you can think of can be spun into being balanced within the rules of 5th edition, so the more I ponder it, the more ideas I get. Now, I’m not going to just list them all, but here’s one of my favorites:

Practiced Wink — Wondrous item, common

While wearing this monocle, you can add your proficiency bonus to Deception checks when passing yourself off as nobility. If you are already proficient in Deception, double your proficiency. If you have the ‘Noble’ Background, this benefit applies to Persuasion checks instead.

What this basically means is that this magic monocle makes your lies more convincing if you’re trying to make people think that you’re a noble. If you are a noble, it makes you better at convincing them to do as you say. I think it’s a fun item that, while not terribly useful since it’s parameters are so specific, can allow for some interesting moments, which is what D&D is all about.

It’s been fun to stretch this muscle in a new way. Usually when I’m thinking of creative stuff like this it’s usually interesting characters, scenes, or cultures. My interest in worldbuilding stems from the broadest strokes possible—how the gods created the world and what the answers to this fantasy universe are.

But these things I’m making now are for the express purpose of making game night with friends a little cooler, or a little sillier, or a little more engaging. It’s really fun to start with a cool name for an item and then figure out what it does from there, or have an interesting idea for a mechanic and then discovering what type of item it should be and what a neat name for it is.

I’ll admit, this has gotten me pretty interested in being a dungeon master again. I’ve been toying with the premise for a new campaign, and I know exactly how I would get that ball rolling, but I’m not ready by a long shot. For starters, my life is too busy to devote another 8 hours a week to D&D (4 hours for the game and 4 hours for preparation is actually pretty generous, it would probably be closer to 10 or 12).

In a way, D&D is cool because it allows for everything, just like the magic items I’m working on. I have silly items like the Practiced Wink, cool, powerful items like the Devil’s Bargain, and interesting items that change the way you play your character like the Wizard’s Retort. I want the games I lead to be a myriad of things. I want it to be a place where you can sit and relax to have a good time with friends, but also tell an awesome story through both character interactions and game mechanics. Not all D&D is like that. In fact I would hazard to say that the vast majority of D&D is only ever one of those things at a time.

But we’ll see.

D&D Dialogues 6.5: Taldarrin of the Twiceborn, Pt. 2

In my last post talking about my D&D character Taldarrin’s experience, we talked about his personality: how he goes out of his way to help people, but is on a constant quest to find his runaway/kidnapped daughter, and along the lines we’ve seen some red flags. And as before, I’ll explain the story chronologically as the rest of the party came to understand it.

We left off in the Tine Woods, where a small circle of druids is resisting the logging operation of the local wizard city Arx. Upon seeking a means to peacefully discuss a compromise, the party meets with Jog, the local archdruid, and happen across Rinn, the daughter Taldarrin hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.

He sees her lean figure and confident posture—the form of a woman accustomed to combat and hardship—but most striking to him is her new golden eyes. Taldarrin scowls and approaches.

“I see you have new eyes,” he says, scorn coloring his tone.

“I have,” she replies with the same hostility.

“You know I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Have you now?”

“I couldn’t stay home when the Nightcrawlers took you. It didn’t feel right anymore.”

She shrugs. “Well, you found me.”

“Yes, and now we can go home together.”

Rinn’s laugh contains no mirth, and she shakes her head. “No, dad. I’m staying here. These people need me. Need us.”

Taldarrin nods. “We’ll see.”

(I’ll step out of the story here to make a comment. In this moment at the table, Taldarrin came to accept the fact that she would “need encouragement” to come home with him. I learned a lot about who he really is, and Kollin suddenly grew very interested in where this would lead.)

Taldarrin returns to the party and explains that Rinn is his daughter. When they ask what happened, he tells them about his history with her. When she was a little girl, Taldarrin’s wife was killed, and it shook the two of them a great deal. Taldarrin’s means of mourning was through a special ritual that attuned him to nature. By accepting the ‘soul of nature’, he became Twiceborn, allowing him to transform into animals. Rinn took exception to this, and they grew apart very quickly.

Eventually, a nomadic group of druids came: the Nightcrawlers. The Nightcrawlers are all lycanthropes, and they travel from druid circle to druid circle, taking the ‘lessers’ of the circle when they leave. Taldarrin saw their lycanthropy as a curse—an abomination and perversion of nature. To him, becoming Twiceborn was a blessing of the highest regard, and a heavy burden, too. Not only is lycanthropy an imperfect transformation, but it is often uncontrollable, and taints one’s own blood. Seeing Rinn’s new eyes came as no surprise to him, but it meant that he’d have to find a cure as well, once the two of them returned home.

But for now, he’d have to start there.

He went into the woods alone and cast Animal Messenger, giving a squirrel a secret message and describing its intended recipient. The squirrel dashes off and Taldarrin returns to the village.

While the rest of the party met spoke with Rinn (whose new name was Lys), Taldarrin strolled the village, meeting the denizens and getting to know them. There were about fifty people living here, ten of them being full, shape-shifting druids, and another ten of them were the Nightcrawlers that had taken temporary residence as they saw the Tine Circle through the ordeal of deforestation. (Taldarrin wasn’t present for this, but the rest of the party meet Lys, and it turns out she’s pretty cool. Some of the party are even vaguely interested in lycanthropy, despite Taldarrin’s obvious disdain for it.)

As the sun goes down, he once again excuses himself, this time departing for Arx.

Outside the gates, he finds Alan, the mage that spoke with the party when they had first come here to explain that druids were not allowed. Message received:

Alan,

I wish to discuss the issue of the Tine Druids. I have a solution. Meet me outside Arx at sundown.

                                                                                 Taldarrin of the Twiceborn.

“Uh, hey, what’s up?” Alan asks, cautious.

“I know how to solve the problem of the druids destroying your automatons,” Taldarrin explains.

“Oh, uh, okay. How?”

“There numbers are few. All you would need to do is show a display of force. They can’t face a full army. Scare them and they will have no choice but to flee.”

“Uh… alright.”

“But I want you to promise me something.”

“What?”

“You will not harm them. There does not need to be any bloodshed.”

“Okay. Uh, how many of them are there?”

Taldarrin sighs. This is the moment of truth. There is no turning back from this point, but he is resolved. Having no choice but to flee and the battle lost, he hopes his little girl will come home with him. “About fifty,” he admits.

Alan nods.

“No bloodshed,” Taldarrin repeats as the mage walks away, mumbling something about promotions.

Returning to the druids, he turns in for the night with everyone else. Carefully choosing his spells for the next day, he wonders how much time he has left, and he prays to The Great Oak that everything will turn out okay.

 

D&D Dialogues 6: Taldarrin of the Twiceborn, Pt. 1

This is the story of Taldarrin of the Twiceborn, an elf druid from a small druid circle, and my current character in our weekly campaign. (For the record, this campaign has met weekly pretty consistently for three months, so I think it’s almost our longest stretch of a single storyline in a long time!) This story is the beginning of the most intense roleplay I’ve ever had in a session of D&D (which I will be honest, is not covered in this post), and I think it’s made Taldarrin the best player-character I’ve ever had. I’ll tell the story based on the information the rest of the party had and when they acquired it.

Taldarrin is a simple man. For a good while in the party’s adventures, he’s been kindhearted and protective. He genuinely tries to seek the most reasonable solution in things, and in general I would say he does a good job. He knows death is a natural part of life, and has no qualms with killing if the person or thing is harming or threatening the livelihood of others. When he got involved with multiple coups/rebellions, he did so with discretion and realism, approaching the problem that would get the least amount of people hurt.

Throughout the party’s journeys, he’s also been very upfront with his goals. He is searching for his daughter, who was kidnapped by a group of malicious druids called the Nightcrawlers. She left their druid circle about eight years ago, and he departed soon after in search of her. He’s traveled halfway across the world in search of her, but there has been no sign. On the way, the party finds a teenager dabbling in necromancy, and Taldarrin makes a point of him returning home and trying to convince him that a quiet life with his parents is a noble pursuit. It doesn’t work too well, but it’s here that the party begins to see his true colors. He doesn’t really care what the kid wants for his life, he wants his parents to know he is safe, and for them to raise him better so that he doesn’t want to leave.

Weeks go by, and the party defeats a supposed god-king and battles with one of the party member’s evil mentors. They uncover an ancient petrified forest that used to be a druid circle. Taldarrin is fascinated, but they don’t tarry long, for they have places to be. This is where we get to the most recent two sessions of the campaign.

The next stop is a metal city called Arx, famous for its wizard’s college. Elaine, the party’s cleric who studied there, has clues that further her own goals, and wants to find out if the answers she seeks can be found there.

Upon arriving at the gates, however, the giant metal automatons halt Taldarrin, Cael, and Mike. The party finds out that the city does not allow druids inside its walls. And also apparently Mike is evil, unbeknownst to all of us (including Mike). Accepting this, the party decides to seek out the nearby druids who are giving the city trouble. Taldarrin thinks that he might be able to get the two groups to meet and discuss things peacefully.

They find the druids, who let them in because the party has druids among their ranks. Arx has been deforesting the region for some time, and the druids have been destroying the offending automatons, raising tensions between the two factions. At this point, Taldarrin’s plan is to set up a meeting with the ruler of the city as well as Jog, the local archdruid, and get them to find a compromise while he himself communes with nature to try to speed up the regrowth of the forest.

All of this is sort of thrown out the window when he sees Rinn, his daughter, living among the druids here. She has her hair cut short, she’s very toned, and her eyes show the golden luster of a lycanthrope.

 

I’ll be honest. The following conversation and ensuing roleplay was a day I had both been looking forward to and dreading since I made this character. My friend’s campaign leans more towards combat and action rather than conversation and roleplay, and our campaigns often run into long unrelated tangents or silly shenanigans (though the actual canon of our stories tends to be pretty level for typical fantasy stories), so asking him to roleplay a serious conversation between an estranged father and daughter was treading into uncharted territory.

What happened next will shock you!

Clickbait aside, turns out I had nothing to fear. He did a great job and played the character and conversation exactly as I imagined it to go. Tune in next time for what will basically end up being a specific retelling of what happened in our most recent session.

(Fun fact, this art is literally the miniature I use for Taldarrin! I just found this picture online and it matches the mini’s features exactly, though I have no idea what the origins are for either.)