D&D — Dialogues 1: Turning the Tides

I’m going to start a little mini-series in the D&D section of this blog called “Dialogues”, where I tell stories of the adventures I’ve been a part of, either as a DM or a player. Some will be funny, some, like this one, won’t, but overall they will be centered around the idea of “interesting things that happened”.

 

This particular story happened in the most recent session of my campaign, of which there are only three party members (and one DMPC, who is mostly a sidekick). The party consists of a ranger, a sorcerer, and sort of a homebrew fighter-based tank. (The DMPC is a Strength-based ranger.)

They find themselves on the slopes of a mountain, walking a path often referred to as “The Trials”. They’ve heard from the village below that each person faces different tribulations, so it’s impossible to know what to expect. These trials can be faced together, but in order to reach the summit, each person in the group must have faced their own Trial.

So as they walk past an old gate into a wide clearing of snow, they find the air growing warmer and the ground getting coarser. The blizzard around them turns into a sandstorm, and they realize they are now in a desert. The ranger, who used to be a court bard for a desert people, immediately grows suspicious. They see a large structure in the distance, and he smirks.

Ranger: Can I roll to see if I recognize this place?
DM: Make a history check. *The ranger rolls a 19*. Yup, this looks an awful lot like the palace and the desert you spent a lot of time in, hundreds of years ago, in much the same state it was in when you departed.
Ranger: I knew it.

They approach cautiously. Ascending the steps of the palace, they see row upon row of guards. Over two dozen. They all stand firm, but as the party passes them as they walk down the main aisle, each row nods to the ranger and bows.

They walk into the throne room, the doors of which are wide open. At the throne the ranger sees his old king, who greets the party as if the ranger has returned from a long journey. There’s no hostility whatsoever, but while the king is talking, he notices the staff the sorcerer is carrying.

They found this staff a few sessions prior hidden inside an underground temple, behind a locked room that nobody was allowed to enter. They’ve yet to decipher what the staff is or what it can do, but this is the first time anyone has seemed to take particular notice of it.

As soon as the king sees it, he pauses. He points to the sorcerer. “That staff,” he notes.

“What do you know of it?” the sorcerer asks.

“It’s mine,” he replies. And at that, he stands and passes a hand over his face. His visage falls away like scraps of paper being shed. In it’s place, a masked and robbed figure stands before them. He whispers something to a guard, who starts walking towards the door, past the party.

The fighter tackles him, and the fight begins. The guards turn on them, and they are already surrounded.

The masked figure targets the sorcerer, teleporting closer to him and casting spells.

The party falls back, taking out a few guards as they back up towards the door.

But soon, more guards start flooding in from the way they had come. The figure flies past them, blocking their escape, and casts Lightning Bolt down a line, hitting three of them. The sorcerer and the DMPC fall unconscious, and the ranger is hurting bad.

The ranger casts Ensnaring Strike on the figure, who fails his save, and, not having any Strength, spends his next three turns trying (and failing) to break free.

The fighter uses his next turn feeding healing potions to both of their downed party members, and he uses an Action Surge to do so. All the while, more guards keep flooding in.

Despite the restrained figure, they are very clearly losing this fight. All around the palace, however, there were doors that implied a means of escape.

The sorcerer casts Fog Cloud in the doorway, and a huge part of the room becomes enshrouded in fog.

Soon, the ranger, the sorcerer, and the DMPC are out of the fog cloud, waiting for the fighter to join them so they can make their escape. But he’s inside the cloud fighting five or more guards at once. With obscured vision giving them disadvantage on their attacks, and their target having 18 AC, he’s a veritable wall, and their feeble attacks just glance off his armor.

Soon, the Ensnaring Strike effect ends, and the masked man flies through the fog cloud in search of his staff.

As soon as he leaves the fog cover, the DMPC lands a Critical and deals insane amount of damage. He’s seeing stars, and the rest of the party let loose as well.

With no support from the guards, and him being outnumbered 3-1 with few spell slots left, he casts Greater Invisibility and vanishes.

As soon as the masked figure disappears, no additional guards join the fray. They dispatch the rest and, while now severely lacking in potions, they managed to win, and thus passed the first part of the Trial.

It’s worth noting that I had set up this combat as a “flee or die” scenario. With endless guards and a powerful magic user well beyond their level, there was no way they should have been able to win. But with a well-timed Ensnaring Strike and a well-placed Fog Cloud with armor-man inside, they took a hold of their assets and pulled victory out of the jaws of death.

D&D — Different Kinds of Players

So, just as there are many different settings for campaigns to be set in, there are also extremely diverse styles that players (and dungeon masters) adopt, often based on their own personalities. This is the number one reason why having a conversation about what the campaign will be about and what everybody wants to get out of it before you start playing is very important. If the dungeon master expects their players to be very serious and in character the entire time without stating those expectations, the campaign isn’t going to go very well.

So, I think something that is more easily perceptible to people is that everybody plays the game differently. Keep in mind that while I am about to present to you a list of all the different types of players, there actually is no real “list”. I separate people into three categories, and the way I do it is very broad. It’s my own list based on personal experience of player personality and interest, which is often a very complex thing. I could diversify it into a list of six or seven types of players, but I’m going to err on the side of simplicity here and make it easy to understand.

The most common sort of player in my experience is the “Casual Fun” player. They are there just to have fun, and a lot of the time they come from a video game background. Many of these players don’t have much experience roleplaying and are therefore uncomfortable with the idea. They just want to get the quest and complete it. (This isn’t to say that everything has to be combat. These players can certainly be interested in fantasy politics and the world itself. They just aren’t interested in becoming a character and probably don’t care about having an engaging backstory.)

Another common archetype is often referred to as the “Murder-hobo”, but I equate this sort of player in the same vein as a “mid-maxer”. Often, these sorts of people actually are averse to in-game politics. They just want to kill monsters so they can level up, find loot, and kill stronger monsters. They play intelligently, usually using the best tactics they can to handle the situation. This also makes them notoriously bad meta-gamers, meaning they will often operate with information their character would not have, or telling other players to make their characters do things based on what they cannot know. For example, they might remind players of abilities or items they have when their character isn’t there to tell them. This isn’t usually a big deal, but it is a pet peeve of mine as a DM. Characters and players are two different things! The players are allowed to know (almost) everything, but they should also be trusted to do things that align with the information their character would realistically have.

My archetype, and somebody that makes the DM’s job easy, is the “actor”. This person plays Dungeon & Dragons as a means of becoming somebody other than themselves. They may use a different voice when they are roleplaying, and they love making a backstory for their character. They interact with the NPCs, often engaging in conversations for drama’s sake. No combat, very few dice rolls. They love talking and negotiating with the characters in the world. Most notably, these players make a conscious effort to do the things based on their character’s personality and the information they have. Now, I realize the way that I’m saying this sort of sounds like “This is the kind of player you should be, because it’s the best”, but that’s not what I’m saying.

Every sort of player has their pros and cons. I prefer players that are Actors because as both a DM and a player, I love character interactions the most, but that’s far from the only enjoyment D&D can provide. Like everyone else, Actors can be annoying to play with. They make terrible plays (Grog from Critical Role once haggled backwards because his character is an idiot. The player knew what he was doing, and it was a memorable moment because of it!) They can make other people uncomfortable by roleplaying when the rest of the party doesn’t want to. Their characters can just be jerks. It might make for an engaging story, where the Actor in the party is evil and works against everyone else’s goals, but it’s also pretty likely that the other players won’t enjoy it because they may feel like he’s an actual enemy rather than an obstacle. Actors can also be unpredictable and do things the DM doesn’t expect, veering the campaign off in a sudden detour.

Every player is different. But no type of player is inherently better than another. If everyone at a DM’s table is a Murder Hobo type of player, then making a combat-focused campaign is easy. Usually, though, you’ll get a mix of interests. What’s important to remember is that different types of players don’t necessarily conflict with one another. It’s the dungeon master’s job to fulfill everyone’s desires in the campaign, but everybody needs to know what they’re in for in order to accomplish this. If you only have on Actor in the group, great. Make them the voice of the party because they like being in character. Give the Murder Hobo a crazy cool weapon because they will love you. Casual Fun players might have certain interests, but one thing that new DM’s often get confused about is that they can be very comfortable sitting in the background as something of a spectator, never engaging in roleplay or being super active in fights. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t enjoying it. Talk to your players (or your DM) about the way they like to play, and accommodations can be made to fit any combination of player archetypes!

 

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.

Learning! — One-dimensional Characters

One problem that many a novice writer stumbles into when taking their first forays into novel writing is characters that are too one-sided. This is especially bad for main characters, who get a lot of the spotlight. You want to create an immersive world that takes the reader out of this one, and if a character is always depressed and unmotivated, it can feel unrealistic. So in this post, I’ll go over not only how to avoid making a character feel flat, but also in what circumstances it may be actually benefit a story.

Main characters. Arguably the single most complex things in your story, depending on what you’re writing, there’s a lot that goes into giving a character depth. I think that one major pitfall new writers fall for is focusing on their ‘fatal flaw’. They throw a bunch of cool and heroic personality on their traits, and then they stick on one bad one: arrogant, scared, lazy, etc.

The problem with this is that writers often use flaw as the first go-to for establishing conflict, and suddenly you have an entire major plot conflict built around the fact that your protagonist was too stubborn to apologize and admit fault, creating an antagonist and a lot of unnecessary events happen that seem unrealistically blown out of proportion simply because you needed a conflict trigger.

The other challenge is that readers often want to relate to their main characters. If you’re only showing us how arrogant and powerful they are, it’s hard to identify with that, because (practically) nobody is confident all the time. But you don’t want somebody that is constantly depressed over the loss of the loved one that died fifteen years ago because that isn’t very relatable, either.

Protagonists often have character arcs where they overcome their flaw, of course. Bilbo the grumpy hobbit realizes he loves adventure, Dr. Frankenstein comes to terms with the repercussions of his hubris, and Aang finally accepts responsibility and destiny over the course of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Many protagonists need arcs where they tackle and conquer their shortcoming. The trouble lies in painting the entire plot structure and the character around this flaw.

Aang is many things, not just ‘carefree and avoidant’. Rather, much of his character is shaped around it. He loves to have fun, and he’s very silly. Perhaps he wants to hang on to his childhood as much as possible. He also grows very attached to his friends, and maybe he’s scared of endangering them because of his destiny. The difference is that we aren’t seeing ‘carefree’ the whole time, we’re shown many aspects of his character.

So let’s say your character is too one-dimensional. How do you fix this? Well, ask yourself what other sides this character my have, even if they don’t show other people. You don’t want anyone on stage to seem like a cardboard cutout unless they’re part of the background, and main characters never are. If your protagonist struggles with depression, ask yourself what makes them happy. What used to make them happy, and why? If happiness isn’t an emotion you want this character to show the reader, what else could be used? Maybe they express their sadness as anger to other characters, so while everybody thinks that Protag has anger issues, the reader really knows they’re just depressed, a side they show the reader only when alone.

To sum it all up, I’ve found the easiest way to give characters depth is to ask them what circumstances provide what emotion to that character. If I can’t think of anything that would make the character happy, I invent something out of the blue. Maybe it’s coloring books. Why? I don’t know, but I can explore the reasoning behind it in the next chapter or a rewrite. It doesn’t have to make sense immediately. Maybe your character will tell you why coloring books are so special to them on their own, and if they do, let them. Sometimes your characters will know more about themselves than you do.

So, all that said, when are one-dimensional characters okay? Well, simply put, anyone who doesn’t get a spotlight can get away with being one-dimensional. If the camera doesn’t focus on them too often, them only expressing one emotion is perfectly fine. In fact, if a character isn’t important enough to give the reader more than their name, I don’t even consider them characters. People at a party are furniture, part of the scenery, not meant to push any part of the story one way or another. Cardboard cutouts are fine here. As the story progresses, fleshing out their character can work, but be careful with this, the more complex a character seems, the more important they may seem to the reader. Don’t give depth to characters that don’t need it.

As a side note, flat main characters can work, but it requires a lot of work, and I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, don’t try it unless you’re deliberately putting the spotlight on a flat character.

Review — Critical Role

I’m actually a little surprised that I have yet to actually talk about Critical Role as a thing. I know I’ve mentioned the fact that I’m watching/listening to it on a few monthly updates, but I never even explained what it is. So let me pose it to you this way. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons group that professionally filmed all their sessions, and the entire cast, dungeon master and all, are famous celebrity voice actors who all happen to be great friends.

Now imagine that that’s a real thing, because it is.

There are a ton of reasons why this show is amazing. Even people that don’t like D&D would like it by virtue of the fact that it has some amazing storytelling, vivid description, and hilarious role-play moments. The adventures of Vox Machina are everything I want but have never quite achieved in a Dungeons & Dragons group, and I admit it makes me a little jealous.

Here’s the list of players and the characters they play, as well as one of their most notable roles (in that order). Keep in mind that while I know a lot of these people from video games, cartoons, or anime I’ve seen in the past, many of them are very prevalent actors in general.

Matt Mercer, Dungeon Master: McCree from Overwatch

Liam O’Brien as Vax’ildan (half-elf rogue): Illidan from World of Warcraft

Laura Bailey as Vex’ahlia (half-elf ranger): Jaina from World of Warcraft

Taliesin Jaffe as Percy de Rolo III (human gunslinger): Darion Morgraine from World of Warcraft

Marisha Ray as Keyleth (half-elf druid): Diamond Dog Soldier from Metal Gear Solid V

Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian): Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard): Spider-man from The Amazing Spider-man 2 (video game)

Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric): Ellie from The Last of Us

Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer): Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies

For starters, Matt Mercer, the Dungeon Master, is the most amazing DM I have ever seen. Not only does he spin awesome tales so well it looks like the entire game was made for this setting rather than an open-world thing he made up, but he is also an amazing voice actor. Never have I seen somebody be able to so accurately mimic what I would imagine monsters like giant spiders or goblins to sound like. And he does it all on the fly, too!

The party of this campaign is also pretty great. I could tell you what I like about each and every person in the cast, but since there are eight of them, it would take too long. Suffice to say that they’re all great in their own right. They’ve each had amazing moments, and while some characters are more enjoyable than others, you can tell they really love not only their own character but the characters of the rest of the party as well. This is a group of people that have grown to love each other and the game. You can really see what Dungeons & Dragons is all about by watching them play.

My favorite part about this game is that I can learn more about it as both a player and dungeon master just from watching it, and I get to experience this amazing story at the same time!

This is an ongoing campaign, as well. They stream it live every week, and they’ve been going for about four years, I believe, and they’ve filmed the last two. This means that there are well over a hundred hours of their campaign that you can go and watch right now, so just a fair warning there.

So, as a parting gift, here is a link to one of everybody’s favorite characters that Matt Mercer cooked up on the spot. It just goes to show that you don’t have to develop a huge boss monster or an important king to make a non-player character memorable.

Learning! — The Elements of a Scene

I’ve been thinking about my own writing, and actually trying to objectively look at why some of my scenes are stronger than others. Now, there are a million and one reasons why a scene might be weak, but I’ve found a trend recently that explains why some scenes simply need more work to make acceptable.

I hear a lot about how “a scene should always do at least two things”, but really, it’s hard to quantify that because what does and doesn’t count as a ‘thing’ a scene does? All scenes should generally move the plot forward somehow, so that’s one thing, if you’ll allow it to be.

Without dedicating a whole lot of time to this, there are only a few things scenes can really do: teach readers, establish important bits, move characters, and answer questions. Anything and everything boils down to those four things, but those are some pretty broad things, so lets unpack them.

Teaching readers is simple. Fantasy authors need to teach their readers about the world. But all authors need to teach their audience about what’s going on. Magic systems need to be explained, sci-fi technology needs to be explained, etc. Scenes like this tend to happen less and less as a novel progresses, obviously. We shouldn’t need to teach the reader anything after a certain point.

Establishing important bits is a bit harder to explain. This is where we get character background, the history of the world, the reasons for the conflict, things like that. This is anything that isn’t instructional. If a character has anger management issues, I’m not going to teach you what that is. I’m going to establish what it means to that character and perhaps why they got to that point.

When I say a scene should move characters, I mean this both literally and figuratively. Naturally, characters will move as the story progresses. They’ll go to new places and meet new people, etc. But this also refers to character growth and character arcs. If characters don’t move in any specific scene, you should probably ask yourself if that scene is important (and it might be!), because without moving characters you risk slowing down the plot.

Lastly, answering questions. Yes, this does include “What is behind the secret door”, but it’s way more than that. Really, the big question here is ‘Does the POV character get what they want in this scene?’ Now, you could argue that every scene should always have an objective for the character, but I think that’s a restrictive way to think about it. Going from one place to another could require a scene, but they’re not usually achieving anything by doing that: it’s just necessity. No. What I’m talking about here is “Protagonist X runs to the castle to save the princess! Does he achieve this?” That is the question of the scene. The answer could very well be ‘No’, but there should be an answer in this context. If that question isn’t answered, then why are you showing us him going to the castle gate as it’s own scene? Why is that important? Well, if you’re not answering a big question, it has to include one of the other scene necessities. Maybe it’s to establish that the moat is just one big trampoline, and you’re including that scene to foreshadow how they characters escape in the next scene.

So, yes. All scenes should have at least two of those four elements. But let me give some warning. Teaching readers is often way less important than newer writers tend to think. In Chapter One, you don’t have to explain how the magic system of this universe works. You just have to establish the POV character and, likely, move them to the next chapter by establishing a conflict and answering how they accomplish this. This is how everything begins, from The Hobbit to Steelheart to Big Hero 6 to Rogue: One. The list here is endless, really, because all of those things need to happen in order to get an audience to be interested.

Learning! — Three Pronged Characters

Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast the other day, I came across a piece of advice that I found very interesting, and that is the idea of the “Three Pronged Character Attributes“. The concept is very simple, and that is the fact that each character in every book, especially important ones, should have varying levels of three huge characteristics. These characteristics are Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy. Pretty much every character you come across in any book or movie are going to have distinct levels of each of those things, but lets go over what each of them really means, referring to these attributes as being scales that every character has certain values in.

Competence is probably the easiest to grasp: How capable is this character when it comes to dealing with the issues they are facing. It could be any issue, really. Whether it’s defending the realm against a horde of evil murder-robots, talking a friend out of making a terrible decision, or telling convincing lies to the people around them. Gandalf, for example, is extremely capable. His capabilities, in fact, are literally beyond our understanding (partly because they’re never really mentioned). On the other hand, characters like Frodo and Bilbo are not as competent. Where Gandalf has maximum competence, Frodo and Bilbo have very little by comparison. They don’t have zero, because they do accomplish things they set out to do, and get to where they need to go, but nothing is easy because their tasks are in sleeping, drinking, and being merry (although Merry is probably the best at that last one). Their skills certainly aren’t related to fighting Sauron and outrunning the Dark Riders.

Proactivity relates to how much a character will act without any incentive. Again, Gandalf is very high on this scale because he’s always trying to fight the darkness, even before Sauron’s huge plans are set in motion. He has a distinct goal and is always trying his best. And here, too, Bilbo and Frodo score low. They are all but forced out of the Shire because they are out of options. Bilbo gets more points here because he seeks adventure rather than being forced to flee, but he still has to be coaxed by Gandalf and the dwarves quite a bit. A character with low proactivity will generally react to what the antagonist is doing rather than taking the initiative on their own. Superheroes are generally good examples of not being proactive in their respective stories, even when their competence is high.

Sympathy is a little weird. You would probably be inclined to think of how sympathetic the character is to things going on in the story, but that’s not what this means. Instead, this slider is about how sympathetic we the reader is to their problems and their personality. This is where Gandalf has none because he is impossible to identify with. Characters that score high on this scale are generally pretty relatable. Finally we see Bilbo and Frodo score high, because they are thrown into this world they don’t understand. The reader and the hobbits are learning about the world pretty much simultaneously, so it’s easy to identify with their struggles. Frodo doesn’t want to go off in this war, he just recognizes he’s the only one that can do it. He takes this responsibility by necessity, not because he wants to, and that is something a common reader can identify with.

I’ll reiterate here that pretty much every character you experience is going to have clear places on each of these scales. It’s important to note that you may be inclined to put a character somewhere on one scale when they belong elsewhere, and having somebody be “zero” or “full” on any one of these scales is pretty rare. Dr. Strange, for example (at least in the movie) has very little competence or sympathy at the beginning of the movie, because his expertise isn’t where he needs it to be and he’s both arrogant and rich. He is very proactive, which leads him to be able to fill those other scales as the movie progresses.

So when you’re thinking about the main character in your book or story, think about where they fit on these scales, and how their character arc changes their place on them as the story progresses.