Me — The Most Important Piece of Media

I want you to think about all the media you’ve consumed over the course of your life. All the TV you’ve watched, the books you’ve read, and the games you’ve played. If you had to pick one thing, what one thing had the most impact on who you grew up to be? Now, I’m not asking you what your favorite piece of media is, although they might actually be the same thing.

I’m sure a lot of people from an older generation would pick a movie. Maybe a classic TV show. Somebody very young might pick a game like Fortnite (although, to be fair, they might not have experienced their “Most Impactful Thing™”). I would be willing to bet that a lot of people my age would pick Harry Potter, given that we got to grow up with the books and it touched so many millions of lives. It’s certainly not what I would pick, but I don’t think my answer would be all that surprising to anyone, either.

My favorite game is Dragon Quest VIII. My favorite movie is Dumas’ The Counte of Monte Cristo (2002). My favorite book is, well, a hard choice, but anything by Brandon Sanderson will be up there.

But I would say that of if you took one piece of media out of my life so that I would never have experienced, the Kollin that would be the most different from any other Kollin would be the one that hadn’t watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I’ve reviewed Avatar before, but that post is mostly just me gushing (poorly) about why it’s so great. (Side note: That post is already almost three years old… Next week is the show’s 14th birthday… oh boy.) I didn’t analyze why the show is great then, and I won’t do it now. You can look up YouTube videos (or even series) on that premise that explain it better than I can.

I will explain why it’s so important to me, though. First, it has a magic system that is so simple and easy to understand, yet involves interesting complications. Once you understand waterbending, you can follow the train of logic that leads to bending the water in plants, or blood, or the very air itself. The magic system is so simple, yet so robust. I love magic systems, and while I don’t quite have the fanaticism that Brandon Sanderson has, magic is my favorite tool to employ in the fantasy wheelhouse.

But more than that, Avatar has amazing characters and plot. Every major character is incredibly well fleshed out, has important character arcs, and they each have long journeys to take. The show has a level of storytelling that is compelling in the same way the magic is: it’s easy to follow (especially in it’s episodic nature), but the overarching implications are more complex and interesting. You don’t have to watch Zuko and Iroh’s separation at the end of Book Two to feel the emotions in their reunion at the end of Book Three, but it is far more emotionally rewarding and cathartic if you do.

I had a dream less than a month ago in which I knew I was dreaming, and I had full control. So far, that is the only time that’s ever happened to me. So what did I do? I fought off a bunch of dudes with earthbending. I often have mental images of characters in my stories that I like to imagine myself embodying. (The one that’s been on my mind the last few months is a large, perhaps elven character carrying a staff.) Regardless of day or time, though (and especially in the shower,) I still find myself enjoying the image of lifting and launching rocks with what is basically just martial arts.

Am I embarrassed to admit that? Yeah, a little, but I think retaining a piece of the kid inside you is very important. And the little kid inside me loves to shoot rocks at people.

Me/D&D — A Love Letter to Critical Role

Dungeons and Dragons can be played a myriad of ways. I’ve read someone describe it as “being the main characters in a fantasy novel”, but it’s even more open-ended than that. It can literally be anything you and your friends want it to be, it just so happens that most people value simplicity over anything else, and so they more or less stick to the rulebook (which, as Barbossa would say, are more like guidelines—especially the Dungeon Master’s Guide). I came to a realization about Critical Role today, and I thought I would share that realization with all of you in the form of a love letter… Buckle up, this one is going to be a long one.

268x0wCritical Role, a weekly livestream of D&D I’ve already dedicated one full post to, does just that. They play with the rules that they’re given, and only on rare occasion does the dungeon master, Matthew Mercer, ever cook up a new monster or a new character class/subclass. I would go so far as to say that they play a very vanilla version of D&D, and the only thing crazy about it is how gifted the players are at pacing out story beats and telling the tale of a group of people rather than getting from Point A to Point B. Of all the D&D streams I’ve watched in the past, that’s the #2 reason to watch the show.

What’s #1 you ask? Well, before I get to that, I want to step back and talk about why I personally love it so much. Not as the critical observer as I often am whenever I’m consuming media, but as the fan. As Kollin.

I’ve been watching the show since it aired 3 years ago now, and this only dawned on me today. Critical Role encompasses every aspect of my personality, and encapsulates everything I want to have and be. (If you’re lazy, just skim the paragraphs ahead—the bullet points are in bold.)

For starters: storytelling. Obviously, I love stories. I’ve fancied myself a writer for nearly a decade now, and I specifically love epic fantasy. I grew up with World of WarcraftLord of the RingsDragon QuestOblivion, etc. The romanticism of picking up your sword and shield and going on an epic quest is something so inexplicably baked into my being that I literally cannot describe why I love it so much. It’s simple, easy to understand, yet its breadth is endless. In order to tell a complex story in such a world, you first have to start simple and show the audience this new world—explain its rules—and seeing a world where our impossible becomes their mundane is always fascinating to me.

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That ties into the concept of what Dungeons & Dragons is. It is a literal, mechanical fulfillment of the Hero’s Journey. You kill monsters, you level up, you achieve goals, and so on. I love watching or being somebody who has nothing inevitably challenge literal embodiments of evil. By then, you’ve really learned about and grown with the character, and in many ways you’ve watched their life go by. What I like about D&D is that victory is not guaranteed. If I had my way, I would even go so so far as to say that it is less likely than defeat, for how can victory feel empowering if you feel it was given away? (Now, a Hero’s Journey and storytelling clearly go hand in hand here, but I think the distinction is important. Not all D&D needs to be a journey, and not all storytelling is D&D.)

116curiousbeginningsAs for aspects specific to Critical Role, and to explain why it holds a special place in my heart over any other D&D show, the first component to this is the cast of the show itself. Every player in the game is a notable and respected voice actor, and I knew over half of them when I first tuned in (by the sound of their voice if not their name and appearance itself). These people have all had a hand in creating the games and shows I’ve dedicated so much of my life to (the aforementioned World of Warcraft is certainly pretty high on that list). So because I recognized their voices, I was already familiar with them. I already know these people, and this is an opportunity to know them better.

But even more than that, they’re all actors. I’ve been a part of the theatre world for six years now (which is crazy to me), and it literally changed my life. I tell people I was the kid that sat in the back of class reading and hoping nobody would talk to me. They’re always surprised to hear that because I’m so outspoken (they don’t realize that all that’s changed is that I now sit in the front of the class hoping somebody will talk to me). It didn’t necessarily make me more confident—I’m lucky enough to have pretty much always had that—but it did teach me to have fun by not caring about looking cool, stoic, and professional. I’ve found that people will hold a lot of respect for those than can throw caution to the wind. It’s a skill not many have. So watching the cast put on silly voices and make dumb jokes really speaks to me. Not because I’m an audience member admiring their skills, but because I’m a fellow performer that appreciates their techniques and the obscure theatre-related jokes they sometimes toss out at each other.

Lastly, and by far the most important reason that this show is the best—these people are all best friends. It’s really heartwarming to watch a group of people have a blast with each other. To share in the absurd humor as well as the very real tears that have happened over the years. You see people who so overtly love each other and the community they’ve created, and watch as they empower each other every week, and it maxresdefaultreally has an effect on you. It’s really difficult not to feel like part of the reason that they do this show is for you—and not in that “we do this for the fans” sort of way, but in a genuine way. They show fanart on stream and have hired fans to be part of the tech and have quite literally built a community founded on love and respect for one another as much as D&D. Sure, not everyone is as loving or respectable as the cast, but the vast majority of voices I’ve seen in the YouTube comments or on Reddit have been supportive and, in general, awesome.

I have a lot of dreams for the future. Some of them I know I will never achieve, simply because it’s not what life has in store for me. But if I have one goal, it’s to be happy. And every week when I get home from work or school to watch Critical Role while relaxing with a cup of tea, I can’t help but think.

One day I’ll have that sort of life. I don’t envy them for having it, because I’m grateful that they’re willing to share it with the world. And one day I’ll surround myself with people who bring me nothing but joy and we’ll share tears of both joy and pain. I may not be there yet, but if they can do it, I can do.

D&D/Improv — Knowing Your Cast

This post is going to blend a lot of territory between Dungeons & Dragons and improvisational acting, because these principles cross over quite a bit: every time you do something with a group of people, the things you can and cannot do are dictated by how well you know the other people and how much you trust each other to communicate ideas non-verbally.

In short: the better you know your people, the better you can work as a team. Sounds stupid when I lay it out that simply, I know, but there’s a lot to be said for ‘trust’ whenever you’re creating something new like in D&D or improv.

When you’re working in an improv troupe for a significant amount of time, you naturally get a sense for what people are good at. You start recognizing their strengths and noticing moments in the games you’re playing that they would really shine in. I haven’t been a member of an improv cast for well over three years, but even as I’m teaching and watching games happen before me, I could tell you what my friends would do if they were put in the positions the kids I’m teaching are finding themselves in. I know the moments one will pull out the angsty teenager, or where another friend will call the police and totally flip the scene on its head. Me and another friend could also argue endlessly over what is actually nothing without the audience knowing. That’s what chemistry in improv is, and when you’re playing specific games and you know what works and what doesn’t, knowing your cast means you can set your team up for some awesome moments.

It’s the same thing with D&D. You have to know what each player likes and how each player makes decisions at the table—and I’m not just saying this as the DM, and I’m also not just talking about working together as a team. I’m talking about the metagame: how players work and interact with other players at the table through their characters.

In D&D it’s very natural to get into the groove of waiting your turn. I mean, that’s quite literally how combat works, after all. Scenes are no different. If one person’s backstory is being explored in this three hour session, logic states that that person would be the main character of that session, so you should respect that, because there is an implicit promise that “tomorrow’s session”, you will be the main character.

I’m not advocating that the game must be played this way, but this concept is exemplified very well in Critical Role. The players know when it’s not their moment, but knowing your cast doesn’t mean recognizing that you’re not in the spotlight and stepping back, it means being supporting actors while your friend takes the lead. Just like in improv, it means setting them up and putting them on the pedestal so their moment can be the best moment it can be, whether that is casting a spell on them to augment their power or taking a fall for them so they can feel awesome when they come to save you.

With people you work with in these settings, it’s important to consider how well you know them, because you’ll get a sense for how they think and what they’re trying to do. Being the support beam for your friends and making each other shine when the spot light is on you is a critical component for both improv and D&D, and it’s something that can’t really happen if you don’t know them well enough to recognize where to support them.

(Side note: I saw this picture on Google, and while it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I found it too hilarious not to use.)

D&D Dialogues 7: Fuddled and Muddled

It’s been a while since I told an actual D&D story, for a number of reasons. In fact, my group of friends has since started two new campaigns since my last story: with the old one petering out and a new DM taking over a new story, as well as the addition of the campaign I’m DMing in a new world called Aleor. I plan on writing the full Aleor story in broader strokes on this blog at some point rather than the detailed dialogues of these stories, but that’ll have to wait for another day.

So, onto the story.

This new campaign is a little crazy—fun overlaps realism a bit when the two are at odds. Not my favorite style of play, but it isn’t bad, either. We have a party of 6 level 10 heroes, and in this specific scene we have three NPC’s following us (however, none of them are important in this instance, so they’ll be left in shadows today).

We’ve recently acquired the deed to a keep by magical means, and while we’ve had the deed for a while, we haven’t been in this area until now. So we’re investigating only to find that the keep is abandoned, yet occupied. The people there are something of a cult, and they explain that they have friends that went down into the dungeons to fetch something and haven’t come back. Obvious red flags there, but they seem like chumps compared to us so whoever went down probably isn’t much stronger. Plus, if we’re going to claim this keep and restore it, we should make sure there’s no murder monsters in our house.

We go down inside and find a cave bored into the cellar, and following down the path we see umber hulk corpses. My character, (an orc mystic named Ki) is the only one that knows anything about them, and he just knows that looking at them makes you feel weird, so we don’t really worry about it. We kill some bugs and end up at this pool of water with an aboleth inside. The aboleth mind controls one of our party members, unbeknownst the the rest of us, and tries to control another before teleporting away. As we are searching for him, four umber hulks jump out on us, and this is where things start to get dicey.

My character is the only one that is effective at a range, and being near an umber hulk can confuse or paralyze you unless you avert your gaze. These corridors are pretty small, and one of us is mind controlled. As soon as combat happens, the traitor runs away, saying there’s more on the other side of the tunnel. One of us follows her to help while the rest of us fight the four.

Problem: one of our monks is wearing the Cloak of Eyes, meaning he cannot avert his gaze. He spends basically every round paralyzed as the umber hulks close in. I try to mind control one of the umber hulks but fail, and the tunnel is cramped so it’s difficult to get any good angles.

The monk that ran after the traitor almost dies instantly when the traitor turns against her (the traitor is a barbarian). I spend two turns building our psychic defenses back up after losing that turn, and so far, we have only landed one hit against these things. It looks really bad. The “words” (acronym?) TPK starts coming up in conversation.

This combat is one of those examples where things really could have gone either way. We really might have died. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it), we had to speed things up due to time constraints, so I feel as though the DM loosened his grip on us to be able to finish the scene. One of our NPC’s cast Hold Monster, and he ruled that its weird eyes didn’t work when it was held, one of our party members shot the ceiling and caused a small cave in that instantly killed another umber hulk, and I made another one flee (for one round, though in the narrative, it made a tunnel and was literally never brought up again for some reason).

Now, if the DM had just decided that we live or die by the dice rolls, I still think we would have came out on top… eventually. It would have taken another three rounds at least—three rounds we didn’t have, so his method for speeding up the combat was totally fine. But I do wonder if we were all destined to die in that cave, because… maybe we should have.

 

Learning! — Are You Creative?

A while back I wrote about what creativity is. I have a different way of looking at it because my improv experience has taught me that most people think of creativity as the ability to pull things out of thin air, but it’s just not. You’ll have to read that post to hear my full thoughts on that, because today I’m going to talk about something slightly different.

I would say a lot of people also think of personality traits as sliding scales on a Sims game. (I really hope that’s how Sims games work or else I’m going to look real dumb here.) You have 2/10 laziness, 7/10 attractiveness, 5/10 intelligence, etc. Creativity is no different, right?

I actually think it is very different.

All my life, I’ve had things swimming around in my head. Dragons single-handedly fighting off armies of thousands. Powerful spell casters throwing hurricanes and tidal waves at each other, sundering the landscape around them. An evil king increasing the gravity in his throne room to literally force those around him to kneel.

There is always. Always. Something like this in my head—even if I don’t have the willpower to put it to paper, like right now.

This is just part of the way that my brain works, so I was a little surprised when I found out that not everyone thinks like this. To be honest, it still seems a little strange sometimes. But maybe that’s just it.

Maybe having a creative mind isn’t something you put a scale to. Maybe you either have it or you don’t. This is only an inkling of a theory, so I could be way off base, but perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in here somewhere. Hear me out.

If you split it this way, turning it into a dichotomy, it becomes easy to differentiate the sort of people around you. It’s easy for me to split everyone in my writer’s group between creative and non-creative people.

Now, being creative doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with scenes of a book. Maybe it’s hearing new melodies or seeing magic in poetry. Whatever it is, it’s breathing life into something new.

It is important to note that when I say non-creative, it isn’t an insult, merely a descriptor of how our brains function. In fact, some of the best writers in my writer’s group were far more technically inclined. They weren’t creative at all.

You may or may not agree with me, but thinking of people in this way has helped me better accommodate for the strengths and weaknesses of those around me. Putting creative people in technical fields can yield interesting results, and the opposite holds true as well.

You could probably immediately tell me whether or not you’re a creative person with my definition, and if you start thinking about your friends and family, you might be surprised to discover that their profession is something contrary to their personality. Well, you might think it’s contrary, but in actuality they’re just bringing different things to the table.

Just because it’s unconventional doesn’t mean it won’t work.

Me — Committing to Writing

I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. Not trying to brag, as I don’t think that it’s even all that impressive, but at this point it’s nearing half my life. I’ve written loads of things, listened to podcasts on how to write, read books and blogs on how to write, and I’ve been attending a writer’s group for roughly three years as well. Throughout a lot of my journey, one specific post stands out: Jim Butcher’s last Livejournal post about writing.

I’d recommend reading the whole post, there’s a lot of gold in there, but out of everything, these words have been in the back of my head for years.

In fact, the vast majority of aspiring authors (somewhere over 99 percent) self-terminate their dream. They quit. Think about this for a minute, because it’s important:

THEY KILL THEIR OWN DREAM.

And a lot of you who read this are going to do it too. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of motivation to make yourself keep going when it feels like no one wants to read your stuff, no one will ever want to read your stuff, and you’ve wasted your time creating all this stuff. That feeling of hopelessness is part of the process. Practically everyone gets it at one time or another. Most can’t handle it.

But here’s the secret:

YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN KILL YOUR DREAM. *NO ONE* can make you quit. *NO ONE* can take your dream away.

And for me, 2018 was pretty much the year of failure for me. I started a very ambitious project—12 Lisa Stenton novellas, one a month, with the intent of publishing them as one book around this time. Well, I wrote one good one, one bad one, and got halfway through the third before I ran into that roadblock the Lisa Stenton universe still has. (The huge question of “How does the supernatural work really?“)

A few months after that I stopped writing short stories altogether. I did a few neat things, but I’ll leave it at that. As you probably know I even stopped writing the blog for the last months of the year. The only writing I was doing at that time was short scenes of plays for school.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently, with Jim Butcher’s words rattling my brain. Am I doubting myself because it’s natural for a writer or because writing isn’t my path? I genuinely don’t know. I think, as a creative person, I have some good ideas.

But I have never enjoyed sitting down and writing. It’s always a chore. A chore I can feel accomplished for doing when I’m done, but it’s more of a necessity out of needing to put the ideas in my head onto paper than a love for the craft.

That said, what I do love is those ideas. I never get tired of playing around in a world and coming up with cool ideas, whether it’s the infinite, soundless tunnel of the Passway or the enormous interplanetary structure of the Spear Gate system. I love squishing inklings of ideas and molding them into sculptures of “Whoa, that’s cool”. I recently joined a collaborative project with some friends that have a lot of that, and after every meeting I’m left driving home with a stupid grin on my face because of all the cool new pictures and scenes that are now floating in my head.

I have never enjoyed the act of writing. It’s very difficult for me to envision myself as an author a decade from now. But a developmental editor, or somebody who does the story writing for a game or some such… Well, I don’t know what that job would entail, but I think I could sit in meetings doing brainstorming for 8 hours a day.

Me — My Love for Brainstorming

So, even with my conspicuously missing spark of inspiration, and my consequential lack of fiction writing, there is quite a lot of aspects to stories I do enjoy, which is why I’m so confident I’ll find my career somewhere in this giant field. I’m pretty good at editing when I’m really doubling down on it, and I’d say I have a pretty solid grasp on story structure.

What’s weird is that as much as I dislike outlining stories I plan on writing, I love outlining and brainstorming stories. A friend and I have been working on the plot to a story for a few months (totaling to about two and a half real discussions), and the outline is coming together very well.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to an episode of Rocket Jump’s podcast Story Break. For those of you that don’t want to take the time to do that, I’d describe it very simply as taking a simple idea and fleshing it out into a story, randomly spitballing until you get that spark of “Oh, that’s cool”, and then writing that down and spitballing again until you find something that thematically ties in to what you’ve already got. You repeat this process over and over and by the time you’re done you should have a full story plot complete with strong themes, recurring symbols, and dynamic characters. Or at least it looks like you do on paper. Then you write the first draft and it turns out to be crap.

But that part’s an altogether different story. Right now I’m just talking about being in the headspace of brainstorming. The mental office in which you have no clutter, no restrictions, no rules, no anything. You just have a blank piece of paper and a giant bowl of primordial essence with which you can create this masterpiece. Plus, since it’s all just in your head, it’s automatically perfect. Converting concept to product is never as simple as fun. At least, not for me. When I’m creating something new I don’t want to spend time thinking anything other than what’s cool and shooting for that.

And you know, the funny thing about writing blog posts like this is that you sometimes discover things about yourself. I often tell people that creativity is the ability to justify things under constraints, and that it’s pretty much just a muscle that you need to train (you know, just like literally everything in life). But writing about this now has me realizing that the thing I love most about creating something new is the lack of restrictions other than the ones I impose on myself.

With most larger concepts I start with the one idea I like and then throw in the opposite of it. “The Cool” and “The But”, as I’ve begun to call them. (Maybe I should do a dedicated post on finding the Cool and the But sometime in the near future.) Once I have those two things, I spend the rest of the time marrying them in a way that looks like they were meant to be together from the start, and often I’ll find some neat things along the way.

So, I don’t know if there’s any occupation that is literally just brainstorming, be it plots, scripts, worlds, whatever, but if there is, I could totally see myself doing that all day every day for a living.