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.

Review — Voice Acting Mastery

A few months ago I started listening to Crispin Freeman’s podcast, Voice Acting Mastery. Crispin has done tons of roles in both anime dubs and video games. I’m personally most familiar with him for his role as Winston in Overwatch and Itachi Uchiha in Naruto, but he’s also Alucard in Hellsing and prominent characters in Fate/ZeroFate/Stay Night, and Young Justice.

Voice Acting Mastery is a podcast about learning the fundamentals of the craft of voice acting. It includes tips on everything from learning the craft to establishing a professional career to interviews with actors in the field.

The primary reason for my interest in this podcast is not of vocational purposes. Mostly, I want to learn how to use my voice to become different characters in both Dungeons & Dragons and my acting career (as a hobbyist and instructor). Also I’d like to be a better narrator for my own stories when I record them.

That said, much of the content of the podcast is irrelevant to me, so here’s the disclaimer. I don’t need to know how microphones work, I don’t need to look for an agent or anything technical or “business”-y about the field. I was mostly looking for tips on how to change the quality of my voice.

So I was a bit disappointed to find out that most voice acting roles are signed based on the natural speaking voice of the actor. I may be pulling this number out of thin air, because I can’t remember if Crispin said it or not, but I believe I remember something along the lines of “80% of your booked gigs will be booking you for the emotion you put into your real voice, not for having an amazing pool of voices to pick from”. This isn’t the podcast for that.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t have useful knowledge. Most of the tips he provides are useful for any professional in the creative fields. It’s also never a bad thing to hear about the personal experience from anyone trying to break into industries of this sort.

So with as many podcasts exist in the world right now, is this one worth listening to? Well, it depends. For somebody looking into becoming a voice actor, absolutely. This teaches so much valuable knowledge about what it’s like, it’s a good tool. For somebody like me that is only recreationally interested in the craft, it’s not that great. My recommendation would be to go through all the episodes (there are currently 134, and the pre-100 episodes are only 20 minutes long), look at all the titles, and if they don’t sound relevant, they probably aren’t. The interviews are cool to listen to, but typically Crispin brings on specific people to talk about specific things, so if you know you’re never going to do motion capture for a video game, you can probably skip the interview with the actress he brings on for it (though she is a lot of fun).

If nothing else, I’ve learned a lot about what I need to look for in my pursuit for utilizing different voices, so I at least have that to thank Crispin for. He’s also a great teacher, and since he lives in my area I might consider taking a class or two with him to get more direct instruction.

Review — Wizard of Oz

 

There’s nothing I can say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said — thousands of times. But after seeing it, I had to talk about it anyway. I thought about writing a different review and making up a conspiracy about how Toto was actually the antagonist of the story (he’s actually an evil wizard that cleverly and indirectly ruins Dorothy’s plans throughout the whole film), but honestly, it would have taken a lot more work that I didn’t have time to devote to it. So here’s just a basic review, with some fun stuff at the end.

It’s easy to see how Wizard of Oz (1939) became an instant classic in the film industry. It does a lot of things amazingly well, and I was genuinely surprised at how well the story telling holds up in the modern world, structure wise. Its use of parallels and symbolism, I feel, finally start to bridge the gap, and we start to see the true potential of what the cinema is capable of in a way an audience never has before.

We see that Dorothy is not satisfied with her life on the farm, for a number of reasons. (Interestingly enough, the cliche “This place is holding me back” actually isn’t one of them.) The whole set of the farm is colored a dirty brown. It’s gritty and messy, and Dorothy looks out of place here, as she’s pretty much the only clean thing here. She also sings, which brings a breath of color in the world, which is also out of place, since no color of expression really belongs here.

When she gets to the land of Oz, the world is now filled with color. What’s more, the munchkins and Glynda accept her here, with the implication being that she finds a sense of belonging here that she hadn’t felt at home. People sing here, like she did, and there’s tones of exploration and wonder that suit young Dorothy’s heart.

The whole form of this film, obviously, is the hero’s journey. The young hero(ine) accepts the call to adventure and finds themselves in the belly of the whale, adventuring a new world and gaining a crucial knowledge before returning home more wizened. Lots of stories follow this theme, and Dorothy’s eventual acceptance of her lot in life (living her days on the farm) shows a growth that she might never have learned had she not gone on her adventures in Oz.

Oz is colorful, musical, and most importantly, it isn’t real. Dorothy loves it, but the longer she is there, the more she misses and worries about her aunt. This place is wonderful, but she knows her purpose — she must find her way back home. Were she more childish, and not ready for life in the real world, she might have tried to spend her days in the land of Oz, forgetting her troubles and responsibilities. (With this in mind, we can also consider the function of Toto as a metaphor for staying young — he’s what spurred her to adventure to begin with, and he tried his best to make her stay in Oz once they were there, too.)

The content of the film is all about the contrast of color and wonder versus gritty realism. It’s a coming of age story about how Dorothy comes to accept who she is supposed to be. Her three companions on the way to the Emerald City were all characterized about what they lacked — a heart, a brain, and courage — but Dorothy didn’t lack anything. She was characterized by wanting to go home, right?

Well, in a way, yes. But even though Oz was discovered to be a sham, the three companions all got what they wanted, even if they expected some sort of magic to do it for them. In this way, Dorothy, too, got what she lacked — acceptance in two forms. She found that her family on the farm loved her, and that even if she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her situation on the farm, she could accept it and be happy there.

 

Anyways, this movie has some serious plot holes. What was the place called before Oz got there? “The land of He-Who-Is-Yet-to-Come?” Where was the Witch of the South, and why was she never even mentioned? What did the ruby slippers do, teleport you to Kansas? That sounds awful, and honestly, Dorothy should have given them up if that was the case. Sure, her family might have been killed by an evil witch, but the entire land of Oz would have been free of tyranny, and Dorothy wouldn’t have had to live with the knowledge that she was a murderer — twice over — I mean, that’s got to be traumatic.

Also, is Glynda really a good witch? She must have known Oz was a sham, and yet she let the entire populace live in ignorance, ruled by a fraud when she had real power at her disposal. Even Gandalf exposed the corrupt rulers of Men, I mean come on. She has to be guilty by negligence.

Review — Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) is an interesting film in a lot of ways. After having seen the first silent films (such as Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great American Train Robbery (1903)), it’s amazing to see how far the industry has evolved in just two decades. Of course, it’s not the best film ever made, but I was actually quite surprised at how thoroughly engaged I was the whole time. I mean, it’s enjoyable not only on a “look how far we’ve come” aspect, but I also found it hilarious.

I don’t know exactly what the typical runtime of a 1920’s silent film is, but for whatever reason I found Sherlock Jr.’s 45 minutes to be the perfect length. It’s much longer than older films, and so can tell a more compelling story, and yet not nearly as long as modern movies, so you don’t quite have time to grow impatient.

What amazed me most about the film is that I actually would liken it more closely to modern day movies than its early 1900 counterparts. It has impressive continuity shots and uses close-ups to establish important details and actions. It doesn’t have the clunky transitions and awkward camera angles of earlier films, and the fact that the camera shots are so rapid or dynamic keeps the action and the tension high, and yet it’s done with a clear focus so it never gets confusing, either.

The action of this film reminded me a lot of Wile E Coyote animations or Tom & Jerry skits in that a lot of the action sequences were established to the audience before they occurred (so that they could envision what might happen next), and then something entirely different or unexpected happened. It also used everyday comedy techniques in that sense, where it played up the audience’s expectations only to surprise them by having something completely different happen.

It also has some incredibly clever tricks for a silent film. I would have thought having an overexposure shot to show that the protagonist is dreaming (by giving him an out of body experience) would have been too far out of the scope of 1920’s cinema, and then they one-up that concept by having him jump into the film (inside a film) while he’s having this dream. Not only was it clever, but it was also very crisp and easy to follow. Bravo.

Of course, it isn’t without its faults. There are a few scenes where I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be happening (a common shortcoming of silent films, I think). The only way to establish what is happening is by having the character pantomime or demonstrate, so when two characters are simply speaking, it can be hard to follow. I was also a little confused as to who was who. If a character had no screen time for five or more minutes and was reintroduced later, I would have no idea who they were, or if they were a “good guy” or a “bad guy”.

Overall, I would actually recommend it to most everyone who has a good mind of picking up subtleties. It was amazing how funny they could be with just actions back then, and it speaks to the quality of the production that it still holds up to today as a funny and entertaining piece of media.

Improv 101 — Film Noir

This is it. Probably the last game I’m going to detail in full for a long time. It’s by no means the only game I have yet to talk about. There are several other warm-ups that don’t constitute full posts, or games I know that I’ve never played, or games I simply don’t care for. But in a lot of ways I consider Film Noir to be the final hurdle. The top of the food chain. If you can play this game successfully every time, you’ve made it. Where? Beats me. The point I’m trying to make is that this game is pretty tough, and in a lot of ways, it’s unique, as well.

There are a few ways to play this game. I’ve already talked about a variation of one of them, a game my troupe calls Side Note. But the version I’m going to talk about today is weird. It’s a low energy, two person scene game. That’s it. Only two. And it doesn’t work with more. You’ll see why.

You get two stools, and both improvisers sit down on them, facing the audience. You get some suggestion (any works, but I usually take a location), and then you talk. Both improvisers take turns describing a scene in first person. They describe everything as detailed as possible. The hot handle of the door as you pull it open to step inside a gas station. The sound of the artificial bell and the blast of air when you pass beneath the threshold, and the smell of gasoline once you leave again to start filling up the tank. Maybe the lock on the pump doesn’t work so you have to stand there and fill it manually in the hot sun. Maybe there’s some homeless guy that keeps eyeing you and making you uncomfortable, making you anxious to leave. That’s the sort of detail I’m talking about here. The first person to talk sets the scene. They give details like that as if they are experiencing it then and there. After talking for about thirty seconds, they stop and the next person picks it up. They start talking from their perspective. Maybe they’re the guy at the cash register, waking up from their nap as the bell rings. Or maybe they’re the homeless guy that doesn’t want to go and ask for a handout. The two of them take turns talking, for about twenty to thirty seconds each, until both have spoken two or three times. (You’ll know when to stop when you get a natural conclusion to the scene.)

Once they’re done narrating, they move the stools and then act out that scene. Now, here’s what’s so cool about this game. It’s not funny. It’s magic. The pacing of this game will feel very slow, and as such it’ll be hard to make funny things happen, and they definitely won’t happen unless you force them to (which, don’t get me wrong, is possible). But the majesty of the game is what the audience experiences when they see it done well. They’ll hear that bell chime when the actor pantomimes opening that door. They’ll feel the door burn their hand when they subtly flinch. They’ll smell the gasoline, too. Even though none of those things are actually in the scene that is performed.

Actors have to portray everything they narrated in the scene. If you describe the smell of gas, their better be a point in the scene when the actor telegraphs them experiencing that smell. But you can also only perform things that you describe. You can’t suddenly think “Oh, my character forgot his wallet” if that wasn’t in the narration. You also can’t speak unless you put direct dialogue in the scene, and as such a Film Noir scene is often pretty quiet. “I told him my business doesn’t accept bills over $20” is not dialogue. That is description of what was said. If you want to say that in the scene, you have to narrate “I said, ‘Sorry, man, we don’t accept bills over twenty.'” In that circumstance it is okay to speak in the scene, but only then. If you narrated it the first way, you would have to pantomime speaking without actually saying any words. Sometimes that’s better, but it’s an important distinction to remember.

When people think of improvisational acting, they think comedy. But this isn’t a funny game. It probably isn’t my favorite, but it’s usual lack of humor doesn’t take away from the entertainment of watching it performed. It requires a lot of synchronization with your partner, and also it requires a lot of life experience to be able to articulate a lot of physical experiences. You will often get a suggestion that will involve a scene you have never experienced in real life. But you have to make it feel real nonetheless.

It’s a cool game, and I often show my students what improv can become at a higher level, but it’s not something I actually teach. I think of it as a goal to reach. Of course, you can always get better at improv, just like everything else in life. But being able to play this game well can serve as some decent validation of your capabilities.

Improv 101 — Superheroes

Superheroes is one of those weird games that can’t be played a whole lot. For one, the only version that I’m familiar with is easy to script, and it’s a hoop game where the difficulty is set totally by the improvisers themselves. That being said, it is a fun little game that is easy to teach people with little improv experience.

The game is a low energy hoop game for about four people (but can still work with three or five). From the audience you get a suggestion of a superhero name and a problem for them to solve. The scene starts with that superhero on stage, doing some menial activity their alter ego might do as a hobby. They then get word of this problem via telephone or Batsignal, or anything else as long as it is portrayed in the scene. Instead of solving the problem, however, they think about this for a while, and says something along the lines of “I can’t handle this, this sounds like a job for ___!” introducing a new superhero, who then enters the scene. The first improviser can say any superhero name they want (meaning it can unfortunately be scripted), and the two of them discuss the problem. Even with the two of them, they still can’t solve the problem, so Superhero 2 calls in number three, giving them a completely new name. This goes on until all of your previously discussed improvisers are on stage, and the last person to come onstage does solve the problem (ex. Duct Tape Man solves the problem of the world exploding by taping everything up so it stays together).

Obviously, as each person gets called on stage they should personify their superhero. If somebody is “Talking Backwards Guy” then they should either say words in reverse order or speak gibberish as if he talks backwards. It really doesn’t matter, as long as they portray that superhero.

The grievance I have with this game is that the conflict is an artificial one. The only rule to the first three heroes is that they aren’t allowed to be able to solve the problem, so they are pretty much irrelevant to the scene and can therefore be literally anybody. You can also give the last superhero a power that is perfectly suited to solving the problem. This all leads to a very real possibility of everything happening systematically rather than organically, which is not how improv should be.

Now, I have thought of a fix to this game. I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it actually works, but here’s the idea. Once all four(ish) superheroes on stage, they can solve the problem, but only when all of them work together. It doesn’t quite work if you act out the fix, but rather the superheroes should come up with a plan. If Treeman, Catface, Steelletto, and Astronomurder all get together when all the world’s water somehow evaporated, how do they solve it? Easy. Instead of saying “Astronomurder can just make a bunch of water-rich asteroids collide with Earth, problem solved”, you must include all of their powers. Astronomurder calls down a bunch of meteorites, sure. But how will this not also destroy the planet? Easy. You get Treeman to turn into a giant tree, which Steelletto climbs, and once the meteorites breach the atmosphere Steelletto uses his cool sword legs to slice all the meteorites into tiny debris. Catface brings all her cats for moral support (or leaves one at the top of Treeman’s tree form to inspire Steelletto to climb at heroically fast speeds).

This way, a bunch of seemingly random superhero names can become a team to solve any problem, and only with their powers combined were they able to handle the task at hand. This makes the improv game into one where each person really has to use their head, and allows them to personify really weird characters to boot.

Also, I’m pretty sure Astronomurder is actually a super villain given his name and power. But maybe he wants to destroy the world on his own terms, or get revenge on his nemesis, Treeman, before killing everybody off. This is all stuff that can (and should) be explained in the actual context of the scene.

Improv 101 — Foreign Film Dub

This game is one of my team’s more difficult games. I personally love it, but my problem is that I’m really bad at accents (one thing I really wish I was better at). But this game can be amazing, if done right. Another thing to consider is the fact that the way my troupe plays it, it can easily be scripted. Of course, it isn’t, but there’s no restrictions that inhibit people from doing so.

Foreign Film Dub is a scene game for four people, with varying energy level. It can be done a number of different ways, but I’ll describe it the way I’ve seen it done the most. Two people are scene partners, and the other two stand in the wings of the stage. You get a suggestion of a language and an object from the audience. The entire scene will then be played with that object in mind, spoken in a false tongue, if you will. Both will speak in a gibberish reminiscent of that language, and after they are done speaking, one of the two improvisers outside the scene will translate what they just said (it works best if you pair them up, having both people translate consistently for their characters).

Here’s how the game functions. The primary source of humor for this game is often the translations of what is being said. With this setup, there is no restriction of what the translators say, so technically they can say whatever they want. This means that one person can monologue in gibberish for a minute, only to have their counterpart translate the entire thing into “No, thanks.” That works especially well if the person monologuing is clearing angry, it establishes a clear contrast. Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny, but it’s a gimmick, and it’s my problem with this game. It is inevitable because it generates cheap laughter, and thus it doesn’t lend itself well to true improvisation.

Barring that, this game can be amazing, but there are things to keep in mind. Obviously, a lot of subtext can be given even through gibberish and pantomime alone. Respective translators should be able to pick up on this. In order to help them out, however, you can make defined actions that have clear ‘endpoints’, to establish when you are done talking. If a character is arguing while they sweep, then throws their broom down to cross their arms in a huff, they’re obviously done talking, as there isn’t any natural blocking that follows such an action.

I find this game most difficult for the role of the translators, as they have to forge a scene out of gibberish and subtext on the fly and make it entertaining. If a character changes moods halfway through their speech, a good improviser will have to change their translations halfway through to match. The audience will catch things like this, and it turns an enjoyable scene into a great one.

Another easy gimmick of this game is faking your gibberish. Using iconic phrases, objects, or celebrity names in that language is easy. “Mario spaghetti pepperoni, Medici!” the improviser said in an exaggerated accent is funny the first time, and it’s really easy to slip into that sort of game, but that doesn’t really take skill, as you’re not speaking gibberish at that point.

Lastly, a point to consider. When my troupe is playing this game, I ask the audience for a “European language”, because the majority of my troupe is Caucasian. With as easily offended people are these days, I tell people to stray away from personifying characters of a different ethnicity in any game, especially this one. I can easily see somebody being upset if I do a horrible Indian accent on stage (even if it’s supposed to be gibberish). It’s best to avoid that sort of situation, but if you’re not worried about offending anyone, this obviously isn’t something you have to worry about.