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.)

Prompt — Peaceful Songs

The magic of Songs’ performance flowed like gentle currents of winds throughout the Laughing Escape Inn. Unlike many of the taverns in the lower district of Three Rings, people came here to enjoy the performance accompanied by food and drink, not the other way around.

As always, the tabaxi bard kept silent, letting the bow and strings tell the tale. This one was about the Feywild—about dancing faeries zipping around trees and grass as they played with other winged friends without a care in the world. Most of the simple folk here would never have been to such an exotic place, and Songs was happy to share a piece of his experiences. This was what adventuring was all about. Not for the glory or the wealth, but for the stories.

Another peculiarity of the Laughing Escape Inn was the total silence beyond the music. There wasn’t an empty seat in the entire building, and yet each human, elf, and dwarf sat in an enthralled silence as they watched the ethereal faeries dance around them, their tiny forms landing on patrons’ shoulders and kissing them on the cheek before dissipating into nothingness.

As the song neared its conclusion, he nodded his respect to the creatures that accompanied him on his performance. They were mere manifestations of his memories, given life through his magic, but he still felt it important to show respect to those that had given him those memories, for without them there would be no music at all. At least, not any worth listening to.

The magic faded, and the weaves of blue light disintegrated into streaks of dust where they fell, an unintended side effect of Songs’ magic. The people paid it no mind, however, and the tavern erupted into an applause as relaxed and respectful as his performance. This wasn’t the place for cheering or shouting.

Songs stood from his chair and bowed, a self-satisfied grin on his face the whole time. He began putting his things away and pushed his coin purse forward to encourage donations, leaving it on the stage while he approached the bar. It wasn’t that he trusted the customers—they were as apt to steal as anyone else—but the amount of money he’d collect on any one night was a paltry sum. It was nothing compared to the money he had accrued from his travels.

“Another astounding performance, Songs,” Thakros, the half-orc bartender nodded to him as he took a seat on a newly vacated stool. “Though I see you’re still getting your magic sparkle dust everywhere.”

“My apologies,” Songs bowed to him. “I still have much to learn about magic through song. Your patrons don’t seem to mind, though.”

“Well, I do. Who do you think has to clean it up when you’re gone?” he huffed, passing him a stein of Songs’ favorite honeyed whiskey.

“I’d be happy to take my business elsewhere if you wish,” Songs smirked, knowing full well that neither of them had any real desire to end this partnership.

Thakros smirked, his tusks protruding a bit with the expression. “No, no, of course not. I’m just having a hard time finding things to complain about ever since you stumbled onto my stage.”

Songs considered that. “I could set something on fire if you like. Perhaps one of your esteemed guests?” A dwarven guest came to the bar and ordered something, eyeing Songs with a suspicious glare as he said this. Thakros found the dwarf a filled stein before returning his attention to the tabaxi.

“As long as the people keep coming in every night I don’t care what you do.”

Songs glanced about the tavern, taking a swig as he pretended to identify a suitably flammable target. “No, I suppose not. Your clientele is woefully lacking in treants. Perhaps another time.”

“Songs!”

The tabaxi turned to see Olnele, Thakros’ daughter approaching, dressed in the messy apron of a long evening shift coming to a close. He nodded to her. “Evening.”

She rounded the bar and leaned forward across the wood, either finished with her work or too disinterested to continue it. “Lovely song, but I wish you’d play something more dramatic.”

“Well, I do take requests, what did you have in mind?”

“You make music based on your adventures, right?”

“To put it simply, yes.”

“Well, have you ever been to the Nine Hells? Or the elemental planes? Anything more… exciting than faeries dancing in peace?”

Thakros frowned. “You want him to perform songs of pain and death?”

Her eyes lit up just thinking of it. “Yes! Just think of the people we’d attract, playing songs like that!”

Songs frowned at the expression. He knew what she meant, but it was all too easy to hear ‘playing Songs like that’, as if he was just being manipulated. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Olnele deflated a bit in annoyance. “Oh come on, Songs! Why not?”

“I don’t travel to risk life and limb against dragons and demons. I do it to find the beauty in the world, and there is little beauty to behold in such places. Besides, the people here don’t come for heroic tales of combat, they come here to relax and forget their troubles. I am merely a humble servant catering to their wishes.”

Olnele shrugged, but she made her dissatisfaction obvious. “I think a lot of people around here might enjoy hearing some real stories, Songs. Just think about it, okay?”

He did.

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sinlaire/art/Comm-Performance-Check-750752051

D&D — Dungeons & Dragons as Escapism

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while now. Technically, at least eight years, but I’ve only been serious about the hobby for the last two or so. I would attribute two things to this. The first is Critical Role, which I think is self-explanatory. If you play D&D you probably know what that is. The second was a surprising amount of interest when I offhandedly commented the possibility of running a campaign with my improv friends. Those two things put together suddenly made D&D a much bigger part of my life, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the untapped potential the game had for me.

Before I got serious, D&D was a hobby; an incredibly complex board game in which you made your character and then cast the spells you picked out on the monsters the DM picked out. But then I realized that it didn’t have to be simply a video game. It could be a stage. It isn’t just about numbers and statistics and jokes. It could be a place to become somebody new and then behave as they do. You work in a headspace not your own in a world so different from the one you live. It isn’t the natural 1s or 20s that interest me anymore, it’s the choices the players make at the table because of a world we all created together.

I had a dream recently where I ran down a steep hill and turned into a bird, gaining speed as I swooped down and feeling the air press against my wings as I soared upwards and over everything else. I have never flown in any of my dreams. The closest I’ve gotten was jumping like The Hulk or being thrown from point A to B. But the feeling of flying was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I am under no illusions: it is because my current D&D character is a druid that can shapeshift.

I don’t play to win anymore. In fact, the concept of “winning” D&D seems silly to me. Even if you and your friends are playing through a story that has a definitive beginning and ending, you can’t really “win” in the same way you don’t “win” when watching your favorite movie. It’s just an experience.

So nowadays, when I make decisions in this imaginary world, I don’t think “what is the optimal play”. I don’t even think “what is the optimal play given the information my character has”. Instead, I think “what would Taldarrin do in this circumstance?” For me, I get the most out of the experience by making the situation as believable as possible.

For example, at level 2, Circle of the Moon druids are basically the most powerful class in the game. Among other things, they can turn into a brown bear, which could probably fight off 3 other level 2 characters at the same time. Taldarrin has only ever turned into a brown bear once, and this was for intimidation, not power. He used to turn into a giant spider a lot, but every time he has, he’s rolled very poorly. So canonically, Taldarrin simply does not understand how to accommodate for all those eyes and legs, and thus doesn’t turn into that anymore. I think that makes for much better story telling than “when we fight I always turn into a bear, and if I roll badly it’s just a bad day. I’ll turn into a bear tomorrow”.

I don’t begrudge other playstyles. D&D is amazingly versatile, and any way anyone likes to play is certainly valid. I’m merely stating that I got a lot more out of it when I moved it from “video game” to “acting” in my head. I think all of us like being somebody else every once in a while, and Dungeons & Dragons is a great way to do that.