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.

Learning! — What Every Character Needs

Back in December I talked about how I make characters. The simple explanation is that, like with everything, I start with an idea I like, and build from there. I keep expanding until the thing that I have is fully fleshed out. The idea is the important thing.

But I’ve realized that with characters, it’s still only half the picture. It isn’t enough to have a good idea and arbitrarily add things that make sense, because we’re using this character in a story, not in real life. Now, when I say “using it in a story”, I mean any story. This character can be from a game, a novel, or even be your Dungeons & Dragons character. One thing that aspiring writers don’t realize is that even in stories that resemble real life, stories are not real life, but I’ll cover this some other time.

So, you have that ‘idea’ which is the basis for this character, but you don’t know what “expanding until it’s fleshed out” means. No, you don’t have to make a family tree or figure out what their childhood was like (although if you want to, by all means). There are two things that every character in every facet of storytelling needs in order to feel believable and “real”: flaws and goals. They need to have very clear personality traits that are undesirable, and hopes for the future.

That’s it. It’s important to note here, that just because a character has flaws and goals does not immediately make them believable, just that a character without one or both is incredibly difficult for anyone to relate to. (This is also a tool some writers use to make characters less ‘real’. A god or extremely powerful figure in a story may be presented without flaws, for instance.)

Whenever I make a character important enough to be given a name or focus in a story, I give them flaws and goals. In order to determine what they should be, it’s important to think about what medium this character is presented in, and how they will be presented to an audience (even if that audience is your D&D group).

For example, the goals of a ‘Villain’ should be very clear and defined. In fact, that may even be the first thing you want to start out with, because the ‘Hero’ will often have to take action and make decisions based on what the Villain is doing. The flaw(s) of the Villain may be the way the Hero manages to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. On the flip side, the goal of the Hero could be to simply “stop the Villain”, or it could be something more indirect, like “serve the greater good”, or “make things return to the way they were”. These are cliche responses, of course, so for a character as integral to the story as the protagonist, you may want to think of something more interesting, but it’s a start.

The flaws for the Hero are generally what makes victory so hard to attain. Frodo is not exactly the best man for the job of ‘Ringbearer’ (in some respects), which makes braving Mordor such an ordeal. If the same job was given to Gandalf (who has minimal flaws, if any), it would have been a different story. The story of how a wizard flew some eagles to a mountain and then dropped the ring in with no issues. Nobody wants to read that story.

Just as everyone has flaws and goals, so to should characters. Even unattainable goals are still goals, and even simple flaws like ‘selfish’ or ‘rude’ work. Just keep in mind that the more important the character (to a story or game), the more in-depth and descriptive these flaws and goals should be.

Review — The LEGO Movie

I don’t watch a whole lot of movies. Pretty much every facet of my life has to have some sort of productive purpose, which means that modern movies purely for entertainment I tend to stray away from. Now, obviously saying “Movies produced these days have no productive value” is a bad generalization that isn’t fair to a lot of awesome things that have hit the big screen recently. (Some spoilers ahead, if that means anything for a movie that isn’t quite new anymore.)

I daresay The LEGO Movie fits that category. I have to say, I didn’t expect much from it. Going into it I would have rather watched any classic movie I knew I wouldn’t enjoy just to get it under my belt. But while this movie is a bit more childish than I would have liked (obviously I can’t blame them, though), it still takes itself seriously and is quite entertaining to older viewers.

I think there are two things this movie accomplishes really well. First, the humor in it applies to everyone. Watching LEGO pieces interact with the LEGO world around them is pretty amusing regardless of who you are, and the animations for it are done spectacularly well. (Watching pigs explode into sausages and LEGO pieces move how they physically should i.e. water is awesome.) This movie does a really nice job (literally) putting a visual on a child’s imagination.

This brings me to the next great factor of this movie, which is the blend between imagination and reality. The fact that this entire movie is pretty much a visualized imagination of how this average Joe saves the world is flawlessly captured. This isn’t a normal movie “LEGO-ized” like all of the LEGO video games. It’s literally about a kid making up his own story as he plays with LEGOs. It’s a twist I wasn’t expecting, and for some reason it reminds me of The Indian in the Cupboard. It manages to put an imaginative realism to toys in a way that Toy Story never did for me. So the fact that real world accessories are presented as “relics” in the LEGO world makes it that much better.

My biggest problems with this movie (which are admittedly pretty insignificant) are the inclusion of references that don’t mean anything, as well as a few small plot holes. For instance, using Gandalf, Superman, and really recognizable characters should mean something. Batman has a very clear role in this movie. It’s very clear what he can do and what his goals are. But for the other “master builders”, all we have are a bunch of character references. We don’t know what LEGO Superman can do (he’s apparently worthless), and it doesn’t feel like they are even real characters. Being a “master builder” in this movie means you can see what’s around you and make something new, and I didn’t get a sense that any of those reference characters could, especially since they never tried. That entire scene felt sort of thrown out as a “include a bunch of LEGO characters because kids will love it and have famous people voice them because adults will love it” and nothing more. If you want me to believe they have any importance to the plot, have them mean something! They never put up a fight and are never really brought up again except as prisoners. They really should have gotten more or less love than this movie gave them. Now, I understand logistically why this wasn’t the case, but still.

Lastly, with Emmet actually moving in the real world, I feel like it sort of invalidated everything about the whole “imagination” gimmick and the magic portal. If all the LEGOs can move independently, how much is real and how much is imaginary? I think it’s pretty silly because Emmet moving in the real world contributed nothing. He accomplished zero. Why even include that? Internal thought is fine, because all of these LEGOs seem to have a mind of their own, but making the toy’s actions “real” sort of ruined it for me. Obviously that’s an exaggeration, because I still thoroughly enjoyed this movie.

I don’t know if I’ll be interested in the next one. I think the gimmick is spent for me. This movie is good, and I would definitely recommend it to people, but as for me, I think I’m done!

Learning! — Writing Outlines… or Not.

When I was writing my first big project, Soldier of Nadu, I was under the impression that an author had to write an extremely detailed outline of not only the chapters of the book, but know everything about everything about the story they were telling. Paragraph after paragraph per chapter, and every major character needed bio sheets (basically questionnaires) five or more pages long.

If you’re anything like me, feeling like you needed to write several pages of what is essentially homework before you could even consider “writing” for real sucks. Any enjoyment I could have gotten from writing was drained away by forcing myself to answer “What is Character X’s favorite childhood memory?” over and over without actually getting down to any fiction.

As I’ve grown more experienced in the craft, however, I’ve learned that outlining is not the most important part of the writing process. In the end, writing is. I learned from Brandon Sanderson that there are two kinds of writers: outline writers and discovery writers. There is a spectrum that many people land in the middle of in regards to how much planning one needs to do before sitting down and actually writing “Chapter One”.

Outline writers are pretty self-explanatory: they are people who do fill out and plan everything about the book before or during the writing stage. They write down a synopsis of everything that’s going to happen in a particular chapter and when they get to it, everything in the outline goes in the chapter exactly as planned.

Discovery writers are the opposite. The more of a discovery writer one is, the less of an outline one uses before writing. A discovery writer may have an idea of where they want the story to go, or they might not. If an idea pops into their head as they are writing, they’ll often follow that idea to see where it leads. They write by intuition, rather than planning.

As I said, this is a spectrum. Very few people are strictly outline writers or strictly discovery writers. Brandon Sanderson considers himself an outline writer, and he writes very detailed story outlines before getting to work on his books. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve started using less and less outlines for my stuff. For the novelettes I’m working on, I don’t plan ahead at all. I have a bunch of ideas and scenes I want to write in my head, and a loose base on how I want to tie them together, but the only ideas that go on paper before I start writing any story are because I want to make sure I remember things, not because I’m planning the story.

In fact, I very rarely have an ending planned to any short story I ever write. If I’m using a writing prompt, I don’t know where I’m going until I’m there. The only time I know which direction I want to take the story are in the instances in which I have a good idea for an ending, in which case I work backwards.

The biggest problem with all this is that it simply takes practice and experience. It’s difficult to say where somebody is on the spectrum if they haven’t written enough to figure out where they are. The best advice I can give is to use trial and error: for any big project, use various sizes of outlines, and see which one works best for you. You can’t “train yourself” to be a discovery writer or an outline writer, because that’s just not how it works.

But let me tell you, once you have enough experience to know where you’re at on the spectrum, writing gets so much easier.

Improv 101 — Tag Team Monologue

Tag Team Monologue is a simple, usually low energy hoop game for three or four people. This is a game that requires little to no improv experience, but can always be improved upon. The improvisers will be making up a monologue on the spot, but this is easier than it sounds. (A lot of improv is actually simple and requires far more practice than skill. As I always say, improv isn’t about being creative and funny, it’s about following the rules, as strange as this may sound.)

First, you get a suggestion. You can take anything: an occupation, a location, a genre, but for this game my troupe usually takes a suggestion of either a conflict or a ‘first world problem’. Then, you get a stool (a chair works, but a stool is preferable), and whoever is sitting will be the one telling the story. The other three improvisers will stand behind the speaker, and at any point can tag them out. If the speaker is tagged, they immediately stop talking and stand, while the other person sits down and continues the same story from the last word (or better yet sound) that was said. This continues for about three minutes (like any normal game) until the ref calls scene, when the story finds a natural conclusion or a button.

That’s the basic premise of the game, but as with most games, there’s are several techniques that can make the game more enjoyable. The most important one is pacing. At the beginning of the game, improvisers should be telling their part of the story for about twenty to thirty seconds before somebody tags them out. This translates to about three to five sentences. After everyone has narrated at least once, it starts to quicken. You can always tag somebody out whenever you want, but it works better if you do it in increments from thirty, to twenty, to fifteen, down to five and then finally one second. As people start getting tagged out faster, mid-sentence and even mid-word, the drama and energy of the scene should go up. When people are only saying a word at a time, the story will have lost control and, in a general story arc sense, this is the climax. At some point, the improvisers should stop tagging people out quickly, and the last one or two people should have twenty seconds again to wrap up the story before the ref calls scene.

Another critical thing to remember is that the improvisers are all the same speaker. This means they’re all playing the same character, telling the same story. Not only is it best to sit in the exact same position as the person before you, but you should also use the same accent and cadence. If you tag somebody out while they are sobbing, it adds to the entertainment value of the scene if you start sobbing as you begin talking. If all four people had the same exact voice, this game should sound like somebody giving a perfectly normal monologue, with no two second break in between words. As soon as you tag somebody out you should begin talking just as the last person stopped. This part specifically isn’t easy, but it’s the goal improvisers should try to hit as they practice.