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: 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.)

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.

D&D — Preparation for a New Campaign

A couple friends of mine and I are going to be starting our next campaign of Dungeons & Dragons soon, which means new characters, new worlds, and new adventures. Creating characters is probably one of my favorite parts of D&D just because I love the process, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about that. It’s worth noting, though, that our dungeon master wanted us to make all of our characters in a vacuum,  so if we end up with five healers, so be it. But I mean, that would never happen…

That said, I won’t be giving you all my character’s backstory and whatnot here. I plan on starting a journal for him on the blog anyway, so I want at least some of his personality and tale to come up over time.

We’ll just name my character now for the purposes of reading and writing: his name is Taldarrin.

So, as always, I start with a seed of “Oh, that’s neat.” This time around, it was my character’s quest. Taldarrin’s quest is to find his daughter. It stems from the fact that most adventurers tend to be pretty young, and parents are usually completely out of the picture (often via murder), so I wanted to put a twist on that and have my character be a parent.

From there I tend to think of how to turn that idea on its head by adding something opposite to it, or as I’ve never called it until now, “the but”. My favorite example is when I wanted to make a lawful evil character, so I made him a bard. Ex: “This guy is deceitful and antisocial, but he plays happy tunes for strangers”. This circumstance was a little bit more tricky, simply because it was so open-ended. I went with “He’s searching for his daughter, but she doesn’t need/want him.”

At this point I usually have to spend the rest of my resources (defining race/class/gender) justifying how those two clashing ideas work, but for Taldarrin I was still left with a pretty empty bowl. So I just picked Druid, because I’ve never played one and they seem fun. Like every other class I haven’t played.

The implications of this are pretty interesting to me. In most typical campaign settings, druids form nomadic tribes that generally stay put most of their lives. It isn’t common for people to just leave, and that wouldn’t be an interesting motivation for his daughter, anyway. So I needed a way for his daughter to leave, which would naturally inform Taldarrin’s own reasons for pursuing her.

The rest of the backstory will more than likely come in time, but there’s a few more steps we haven’t got to.

At this point, I generally come up with the name and voice I use for my character. In short, I would describe Taldarrin as your typical lawful good paladin, only he’s an elven druid instead. I often use personality to figure out both of these things, and I came with something I feel is a contradiction: any voice I’ve come up with seems to be too deep for an elf! I’m still working on this, actually, but the vibe I’m going for is “wizened and pleasant protector”.

After all that, I usually write a short story in their perspective just to nail everything down, and then it’s off to roll some stats.

Welcome to the roster, Taldarrin.

Me — My Dislike for Televised Media

I’m not a big fan of televised media as a whole. It’s characteristics don’t synergize well with my personality for a number of reasons, and as such I don’t watch a whole lot of things. It has led to this new problem, though, that I can’t relate to analogies people bring up in movies or TV shows, even classics, so there’s this barrier that happens between me and other writers. It’s something I need to work on, and I’ve tried forcing myself to start a weekly classic movie night, but it has never stuck.

I’ll say this much—I like movies way more than TV, and this is almost entirely because of the time investment. I really don’t want to watch the same characters dealing with the same issues over and over again for twelve one hour long episodes for ten seasons. That’s just… insane to me. One season I can get behind, but investing hundreds of hours watching one thing? What a waste of time. (And yet here I am complaining when I’ve binge watched almost 500 hours of Critical Role. Humans are nothing if not contradictory.)

I can enjoy movies without complaint because I know it’ll be over in three-ish hours. It’s not something I’ll spend the whole day getting a fraction of the way through. I’ll meet the characters, experience their story, and be done. Rarely are movies made with the intent of cliffhangers to explore in the sequel. We can’t all be the MCU.

But the biggest roadblock for me is the fact that TV shows tend to be much more character driven than plot driven. I know how to write a plot. Telling stories is my jam. The thing that my writing is lacking in is character, so I would learn a lot more from TV than movies.

Okay, I do have an explanation for the Critical Role thing. The biggest reason why I’m not just watching televised media constantly is that it demands all of my attention and focus to consume it properly, and if you know anything about me it’s my incessant need to be multitasking whenever I can. I’m not just playing games, I’m listening to podcasts. I’m not just eating I’m making a new playlist of music. You get the idea. I can’t do that with movies or TV, so I can’t help but feel like I could be spending my time more efficiently.

Also, going to the movie theater is awful. $10 for 2 or 3 hours of entertainment, are you kidding me? I would expect a video game to entertain me for at least 15 hours with that price. (You’ll notice I dislike going to see things in theaters in particular.)

I really don’t have much free time to myself. Even devoting enough time to watch one new movie a week feels like a lot, and I no longer consider that free time. In an ideal world I would have a time every week where I just sit down and watch a new movie, but my schedule doesn’t currently allow for that.

So until that day comes I’ll sit here twiddling my thumbs and grumbling about how I dislike television like an eighty year old man that doesn’t understand texting.

Me — “Who is your Mary Sue?”

You probably hear all the time about how budding writers fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue as the main character of their story, or at least some prevalent character. If you haven’t heard that, maybe you’re accidentally doing it.

For those of you that don’t know, a Mary Sue is basically a character that is perfect in every way. They have no flaws to speak of, they’re super attractive, smart, talented, you know, everything.  They follow the “Rule of Cool” to its extreme, forgetting realism and ending up with a boring character. Good characters have flaws they have to face, after all, so a character without flaws is generally pretty boring.

But it got me thinking: We must all have a Mary Sue floating around in our head somewhere, right? Even if we’re cognizant of the fact that we can’t put an amazing being of perfection in our story and retain a compelling tale, we still like to fantasize about those perfect characters, right? (I actually don’t know if everyone does this, but I certainly do, so bear with me.)

I then came up with a thought experiment for myself. If I could make a character, or even several characters, without worrying about anything, what characters would I make? If I didn’t have to worry about making the characters too powerful, too cliche, too edgy, too anything, what would those characters look like?

Well, stay tuned for that, because I’m still working on their abilities and personalities. As you could probably expect from an epic fantasy writer such as myself, they’re all fantasy-based people with demi-god level power. Something interesting that I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m instinctively considering backstory and flaws. It’s difficult to curb that instinct, because giving somebody the title “The Corrupted Flame” implies backstory, but I am intentionally avoiding giving them flaws and backstories unless that is part of the “Mary Sue” I attach to them. It defeats the whole point to give characters flaws to make them more well-rounded, because the whole exercise is imagining these people in their most awesome form.

I’m struggling a bit because I have about 4 different archetypes of “Mary Sue”, but they come in slightly different species. One of them is the archetypal paladin, white armor with gold accents, harnessing the power of the Light to strike down his foes and defend his realm. Another is a vengeful angel sent down to incur the wrath of her god. These Mary Sues, I’ve found, are actually the same character, just different flavors.

It’s a strange balance to strike—imagining the identities of these characters without thinking too hard about it. After all, it should be intuitive. What is the coolest thing you can imagine?

And then, I realized something. What if fantasy book series are just about your protagonist’s journey to earning their “Mary Sue” status? I mean, think about how powerful characters like Rand Al’Thor from The Wheel of Time, Tavi from Codex Alera, or Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive get the more you read. If a character arc is about overcoming their flaws, they are, by necessity, becoming more perfect. So I bet you could pretty easily begin a book series with the end “Mary Sue” in mind, making the perfect hero, and then working backwards and imagining how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point Z.

Learning! — Writing Weaknesses

One thing that sucks about the aspiring writer’s process of growth is learning to deal with your weaknesses. Obviously, everything anyone does will involve personal strengths as well as weaknesses, and writing is no different. One person might suck at writing compelling or believing dialogue, or be terrible at developing characters or plot, or not actually have a solid concept of how much description is too much or too little.

The difficulty with this is that, while everybody has strengths, these aren’t very prevalent. Writers often get two kinds of responses to their work. The first, and most common, is “This is great!”, of which there is no reply. In my experience, this sort of response is numerous, but unhelpful. It just means the reader doesn’t care enough to look for or point out your mistakes, or perhaps they are even lying just for the sake of encouragement. It is nice, don’t get me wrong, but it is pretty much useless.

The second is a little better, and that is constructive feedback. Telling you what’s wrong, and where you can improve. This varies from simple edits to overarching plot holes. This can be of varying use, but it too has its problems. The biggest is that it can be hard to remember to weave in strong points of a story while pointing out its mistakes. When I’m editing somebody’s piece, the only time I write down a compliment is when I find something so entertaining it throws me out of the story.

The problem with these two critiques is that they don’t give you a good picture of what you handle very well in your writing. The only time you could really find out is when somebody familiar with your work is pointing out general strengths, and even then it can be hard to know if they’re honest or knowledgeable enough to be accurate in their comments.

On the other hand, however, your weaknesses can become glaringly obvious, because the constructive feedback always includes the same sort of feedback. For me, it’s description. I never describe rooms or people. Often I just jump back and forth between dialogue and action, with a little exposition thrown in. Everything I ever write seems to be lacking in description, even when I compensate and intentionally describe more about the circumstance.

It is a little frustrating when you don’t seem to learn, but there is a way out. I’ve found a solution to my weakness: backtracking. I’ve stopped worrying about how little I’m describing in any scene. Instead, I just write it as I normally would, then go back and add description where it would make sense. What do I need to describe? The room? The people? When does that need to happen, and from whose eyes? That sort of thing.

I don’t think of this part as editing. I actually think of it as writing still, but that I’m filing in the gaps once I’ve poured in the foundation. If I tried to write description while I’m writing the rest of the piece, I would just get bored and end up describing too little. This way, I’ve already written the piece, so I don’t have to worry about what comes next, I just have to make sure I put in enough and ensure it makes sense with what comes before and after.

This actually works with a lot of weaknesses. If it’s grammar, don’t worry about it. Just write it and read it afterwards. If something feels off, change it. If your dialogue is lacking, maybe you could use some more. If not, channel what emotions the characters might have as you write. Either way, it doesn’t need to happen the first time through. Just get the words down, then work on the stuff you’re bad at. Once you’re done with that, then you can show other people.