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.

Me –Being a Dungeon Master

(This week’s audio recording: “Fortune’s Fool“, is one I wrote back in April. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and I hope to revisit the story someday.)

 

I haven’t talked about Dungeons and Dragons in some time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the game since I’ve brought it up last, but admittedly, the most important things I’ve learned about running a proper campaign is about myself and what I’ve been doing wrong! I’m not upset, though. Progress has to come from somewhere, after all, and knowing where to improve is the best place to start.

When I planned out this campaign, I started with the big stuff. Who’s the overarching bad guy, what is the party going to have to do to stop him, that sort of thing. I set up this huge story, and when the first session began, all I had was big reveals. This meant I had to force both of my parties (they’re running the same campaign) onto a quest with no information. No motivation, just “I need your help, thanks bye!” Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so while big reveals are cool, you need a solid foundation with which to base them on.

For me, this means preparing the sessions more thoroughly. I thought “Hey, I have a lot of experience with improv, I don’t need to prepare dungeons or characters off the bat!” so I didn’t. It was here that I’ve learned something about improv: since it’s all about justification (and not about trying to be funny), often one will take the easiest route. I can make up new characters and buildings all day, but just because I can bring things up on the fly and have it make sense doesn’t mean it’s interesting. That’s where the preparation needs to come in.

Specifically, I need to prepare two things. Primarily, I need to develop the characters I introduce more. I need them to have motivations and personalities that are distinct from each other rather than have them all be furniture for this grander story I’m trying to tell. Now, if you’re anything like me, you hate outlining characters. I’ve tried doing that for novels, and man it just ruins what enjoyment I can get from writing. So for this instance I’m going to try to establish “what this character wants” as a solid goal for virtually everyone I introduce. Goals are important. Everyone has them. Furthermore, having several dozen character names to pull from a hat whenever somebody is introduced isn’t enough. I’ll also need a slew of personality traits and distinct characteristics to help make each person different.

The second thing I need to prepare is the locales. When I set my players off to the grand quest of magical vagueness, they were tasked with getting information with no leads. With large locations, there needs to be large landmarks. Interesting or large buildings and structures that stand out that make a place more memorable and provide a convenient place to start (or return, as the case may be).

Those are the big things I need to work on. The part that I’ve done right from the beginning (and simply need to improve upon) is the theme of the campaign. For the entirety of the issues the party has come across, I’ve tried to force them to operate in moral gray areas. When forcing people to choose between two bad decisions, a dungeon master can have a lot of fun toying with the consequences of what occurs. It forces your party to think when it isn’t simply “go to the cave and kill the evil dragon”. The whole fun of Dungeons and Dragons is the choice and openness in every action you take. When you give your party a clear goal, it gets boring. So don’t make it boring!

Story — Seacrets

The hull of the Hope crashed against the waves, the sea growing more restless by the minute.

“That storm looks like its coming directly at us,” one of the shipmates said. “Its odd to see an easterly at this time of year. Perhaps we should turn aside.”

The captain looked outwards from the bow, into the darkening horizon. He pulled something from his coat and glanced at it before stuffing it back inside, ensuring that nobody saw. “There will be no course adjustments while I’m captain of this ship.”

“Sir, there’s no reason to rush head long into the storm. Maybe we could sail north and let it pass by us.”

“Absolutely not!” he yelled, loud enough to get the attention of other crew members. “If we sail north or south we’ll be caught in it longer. Our best way is to maintain our course and sail right through and if I hear any more from you I’ll leave you here and you can swim north.”

The shipmate was silent for a moment, the sea slapping the hull as the ship rocked back and forth. “Yes, captain,” he muttered before leaving the bow. There was no arguing with the captain, especially in one of his moods.

The captain turned from the bow to the main deck, addressing everyone. “You’ve all been particularly rebellious as of late. There will be no more of it. I don’t know what superstitious mothers you were raised by, but the world is a big place. Strange things happen that don’t mean anything. Just trust your captain and everything will–” He began to walk down the stairs of the bow, but a particularly large wave slammed against the boat and he was thrown off his feet.

He landed on the deck with a dull thump, and he wheezed as all the air was knocked out of him and something flew out of his coat, sliding down the deck.

Struggling to get air back in his lungs, the captain rose to his knees and saw a few of the crew members looking at what he had dropped.

He cursed and hastened forward, lunging for it.

“What in the…” the sailor that held it said, stepping backwards and out of the captain’s reach.

“What is it?” somebody asked. Everyone knew about the thing the captain hid. It wasn’t uncommon to have a lucky charm.

“It’s a compass!” he replied, holding it up to show the crew.

“Oh, for pete’s sake,” one of the mariners yelled. “What a letdown!”

“It says we’re pointing north,” he continued.

The clamor on the ship died. The captain cursed under his breath, unsure of what he should do.

“I knew there was something wrong,” the original shipmate said. He pointed to the storm they were still heading towards. “That storm’s not an easterly at all!”

“Strange things happen, eh?” the sailor asked the captain. “Strange like lying to your crew about what bloody direction we’re sailing?”

“Alright, alright,” the captain said. “Let me explain.” He managed to swipe the compass away from the sailor, and tucked it back into his coat where it belonged. “But first, back to your stations, we have a storm to brave, and we’ll all die for sure if you all sit here lollygagging.”

As if on cue, rain starting dripping onto the deck. Most of the men were unsure, but with a few harsh looks, many went back to what they had been doing before. “You three,” he pointed to the mariner, sailor, and shipmate. “I’ll tell you.” They moved closer to hear the secret. They all stood on the center of the main deck as the boat rocked. He nodded after a moment, assuring himself of what he was about to say. “We’re going to the Inverse Crescent.”

The shipmate gasped in shock. The mariner and sailor cursed. Nobody went to the Inverse Crescent. Nobody ever returned from it.

“You’ve killed us all!” the mariner spat.

“Tell me, does anyone know what the Inverse Crescent is?”

“It’s a landmass shaped like a waning moon,” the shipmate said. “Filled with cannibals that attack outsiders on sight.”

“I heard it was a giant whirlpool that flowed the wrong way,” the sailor contradicted.

“No, no! It’s the lair of an enormous beast with a crooked fin! It eats ships whole!” the mariner supplied.

The captain held his hand up to silence them, then used it to push his wet hair out of his eyes. Miraculously, he had regained control of the situation. “It is none of these,” he explained. “Nobody on the mainland really knows because nobody has ever been there. They are all too afraid to find out for themselves. No, it is not a death sentence as you all would be lead to believe.”

The reason so few people ventured was because of all the superstitions around it. There was no debate that the Inverse Crescent existed. It was on every map. People just didn’t know what it was because it was just past the Point of No Return for any ship that could venture out that far from the mainland.

“And you would know? You’ve been there?” the sailor said, suspicious.

“As a matter of fact, I have,” the captain lied. “I can tell you it is a paradise unlike any you have seen. If our true destination had been revealed to you sooner you’d have mutinied.”

“We still can mutiny. I think we should turn back,” the shipmate suggested. “I don’t like any of this, and I especially don’t like being lied to.”

“Agreed,” the sailor said. “If the Crescent is as good as you say, you’d never have had a reason to leave.”

“We can’t go back now,” the captain said. “We don’t have enough food to make it all the way back to the mainland.”

“You lied to us about that, too?!” the mariner shook with anger.

A flash of light, and thunder crashed some distance away. Water from the rain and the sea flooded the ship, crashing onto it and flowing back out the sides. The Hope had found its way into the thick of the storm.

“Our only option is to keep going as I’ve said,” the captain said, unconcerned. “The only land we have any hope of reaching is the Inverse Crescent. You can mutiny all you want. Tell the entire crew that I’ve lied to them. But either way, your best chance of survival is to push us straight through this storm right now and get us there.”

Me — December Update

So, things are finally calming down. Soon I can start really breathing, and the anticipation is killing me! I can relax, which means its time to buckle down and get some real work done, but before I do that, let me talk about about these past few months.

First, school was stressful. It wasn’t difficult so much as taxing. There was a lot of reading and writing involved. Between two classes alone I had to read six books, not to mention dozens of short stories and poems. In fact, these past two weekends have been consumed by writing two longer (eight to ten page) essays in those classes. Not particularly difficult, but somehow I found working up the motivation to get into gear and churn them out very difficult. I would have thought writing over five hundred pages (virtually) every day would have helped overcome that, but perhaps since blog posts are easier to write then essays it doesn’t translate perfectly. But at this point, I have two exams and one small assignment to finish, and after that I’ll be completely done for the semester.

As far as improv goes, I’ve cut down on that a little bit. I’ve called a hiatus for the performance cast (meaning I only teach them once a week), and until things get sorted out a bit better that’s where we’ll be. I still feel like I’m progressing, especially since writing an improv blog post every week has multiple purposes, but for now that’s not where I want my life to be focused.

novielDungeons & Dragons is at an interesting position right now. I honestly didn’t expect both of my two campaigns to retain the traction they have, and the universe I’ve created (an alternate version of Nacre Then) is getting bigger every day. I almost can’t control all of my ideas for that world, and now all of my Google Docs and spreadsheets are woefully short compared to all of the ideas I have. I’ll need to find the time to polish them out and write some more soon (before the next session I need to iron out quite a bit). I can’t say I’m upset, however. Worldbuilding is my passion, after all, so playing in a sandbox of my own alternate universe is both weird and delightful. In fact some of the things that have been established into the lore of Therros have made it’s way (in some small details) into Nacre Then!

Over these last few months of school, improv, and writing, I took a break from listening to audiobooks. I haven’t forgotten 2016’s New Year’s resolution to read fifty books, though! I’m about halfway through my forty-sixth now, so I’m not worried about hitting my goal. In fact I already have the rest of the year’s books planned out. I don’t have plans for another New Year’s resolution, but we’ll see.

Lastly: writing. I’m super excited Iimage27.png found the… strength? Willpower? to write the second novelette in my anthology (maybe titled The Aftermath of the Rupture?). I, regretfully still haven’t found a suitable name for Aluvalia’s piece, and I’m already over halfway done, but I know it will come in time. The Dawn of Night was the perfect title for the first story for a lot of reasons, and I’m afraid it may have set some unrealistic expectations for my titling skills of the next shorts! In any case, I’m also already thinking about the third novelette, which takes place in Zephira. I’m super excited to start writing it because it has a very interesting set of characters (one of which wasn’t even created by me!) and I can’t wait to play with some new tools. It’ll be the first time Koh Liirans appear in any short fiction I’ve done! But before I even think about writing the third novelette, I really need to go back and make some edits to The Archive. There’s a lot of information that has been added since I finished it last year. It’s time I revisited it and added on to the Cedria and Aluvalia sections!

That’s all for now! The next few weeks will likely include a lot of video games. I need to play more Heroes of the Storm to finish the ‘Nexus Challenge’, but I also plan on giving my farm in Stardew Valley some more attention, as well as working hard at improving myself in Overwatch and reaching platinum rank again!

Also: audiobooks. Many books will be read over the next few weeks. Including some more Brandon Sanderson and (finally) Patrick Rothfuss! I cannot wait.

 

 

Me — D&D Campaign Progression (255)

As I tread into new waters and start running two simultaneous Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, I find myself learning a lot about both improvising and worldbuilding. Both campaigns are biweekly, and they have entirely different groups of people in the party. It’s simply the same plot being told by the same narrator (so they aren’t canon to each other, though I do plan on there being player character overlap at some point).

One thing I’ve learned very quickly is that for D&D, it works really well if you don’t give your party a clear goal. In the beginning of the campaign, I provided them with only vague hints as to problems going on with where they were, and left them to find clues and ask around, piecing together the problem and, as they do, forming a plan to deal with it.

In this instance, I presented them with two options. They all have pros and cons, even if they don’t know what they are, and gaining knowledge as to what’s really going on here will help them understand the position they should take.

Another thing I set into this world (during the planning stage) is that everything will be operating in a moral gray area. As far as I can help it, there will be no “murderous dragon killed the king, avenge him!” and more “This person is doing immoral things to accomplish things for unknown or even good reasons, how do you deal with that?” I think, for the players, this provides a much more compelling story with obvious consequences to choices they will have to make.

Overall, I’d say it’s going pretty well. In my experience, players are extremely proficient in finding their own path, whether or not you laid one out for them. They’ll handle things the way they want to anyway, so I’ve found that it can work well if you don’t give them a path.

Being experienced in improv helps with this quite a bit. I know many dungeon masters lay out dungeons and write out character sheets only to have their players not go into that castle or never meet that person. I don’t have to worry about that because I can trust myself to be able to layout a dungeon on the fly and fill in the gaps later. That’s actually exactly how I made a layout of the castle-town they are currently investigating–detail the parts they ask about off-handedly, then after the session is over, fill in everything else with less important things that may or may not come up later.

I’m not sure how apparent it is, but I love this kind of thing. Worldbuilding is my passion. Many people (who know how stressed I’ve been lately) have advised me not to run D&D campaigns with how constricted my schedule currently is. They don’t understand how much I love making things like this. Creating a world and watching people explore it is the least constricting thing I can even imagine. It’s an escape on a level I can’t achieve with writing, because in a sense, it’s real. I can’t read a book I’ve written and watch somebodely else experience it. I can’t see their imagination flow like I can when people are playing D&D. That’s why whatever happens and regardless of how much work it is to prepare more plot or draw out maps, it’ll always be worth the adventure it brings.

Story — (Therros) Unlikely Companions

Sure, you always have a place to camp, but the problem with having a creature with trees growing out its back is finding a big enough river to water them thoroughly. I had lived in the Emerald Hills with Trem, my gaiasaur, for four years. they have some deep rivers there. Beautiful place. We probably would have stayed for years to come, if circumstances hadn’t changed.

The earth rumbled as the beast’s fists bored into the dirt. A dull, low tremor, sinking slightly beneath his weight. Trem echoed the earth’s dismay.

“I know, buddy,” I murmured, looking back up at him. “I’m tired, too.” I heard there were some lakes in this area. Not a perfect solution, but it would have to do.

Trem groaned again, louder this time.

“Trem, we talked about this. Keep it down. We’re having a hard enough time as it is without you alerting the rest of the world to our presence.”

“Already alerted!” a high-pitched voice said. It was coming from above me. I swiveled around, looking up to him. As I stopped, so did he.

Sitting on one of his horns and silhouetted by the rising sun, casually swinging her legs, was the shape of a little girl.

“Hey!” I yelled, squinting my eyes. “How did you…? Get down!”

“Too high to jump!” she replied.

I sighed. This was the last thing I needed. “Trem, you gotta sit down, buddy.”

He groaned in annoyance. I couldn’t help but empathize. A few moments later, he bent forwards, leaning to sit down. The girl slipped, sliding off of him as he moved. She screamed.

I cursed. She was over twenty feet up and I was too far to catch her. I ran anyway.

“Peter!” she yelped.

As I charged for her, the ground beneath her molded and arose. It coalesced into a humanoid shape, arms outstretched. It snatched the girl from the air and saved her from what would have been a crippling fall.

I gaped, frozen in shock. “Thanks, Peter,” she laughed, patting the earth golem on its undefined head.

“What in the… you can conjure elementals?” The only one I knew who was powerful enough to do that was an Eklesian archmage. Truth be told, it was part of the reason I didn’t argue when their forces told us we had to leave.

“Just Peter,” she replied as the golem gently placed her onto the ground. “He helps when I need him to.”

This girl couldn’t have been older than eight. I couldn’t even imagine a sorcerer so talented at such a young age to be able to perform such a difficult spell. Even witnessing the act didn’t seem real.

“What are you?” I heard myself say.

“My name’s Ami,” she giggled. “And seems to me like you need my help.”

“Maelys,” I introduced myself with a somewhat reluctant bow. “Trem and I are just travelers. We’re trying to find a new place to live.”

“Trem? As in ‘tremendous’?” she returned her gaze to the gaiasaur behind her.

“Or ‘tremor’,” I replied. “I’m not very creative, but he seems to like the name.”

“So where’d you come from?” she asked. She examined me up and down. There wasn’t much to see. The only remarkable thing about me was my traveling partner.

“The Emerald Hills. We left because the new Eklesian rule told us to. Apparently the hills are suddenly a part of their domain.”

“You think Eklesia is bad? You’ve never been to Teraldia.” How could this little girl know so much about the politics of two different nations?

“I just want to be as far away from civilization as possible,” I lamented. “Trem and I just need a deep river with lots of fish. The Emerald Hills were perfect. But I’ll take us through the Lifeless Expanse if we have to. Anything to be away from the hustle and bustle of cities.”

“You ever been to the Shrouded Isles?”

“No, where is that?”

“They’re islands off the northern coast of Amoria.” I didn’t want to admit it, but I hadn’t heard of that place, either. I just shrugged.

“Well, that works out nicely. That’s where Peter and I are going! We could show you!”

I for one, am not quick to trust. It usually takes a night of ale and laughter to get on my good side. Trem seemed to take a liking to her, though. As impossible as it is to discern the behemoth’s body language, he seemed energized by the girl’s arrival. I could put faith in that, at least.

“Very well. We must travel by river, if possible. Trem gets much of his nourishment through the trees on his back, and they need water.”

She nodded, emphatic. “Sure, that makes sense. Peter, go get some water from the nearest river! We’ve got a long trip ahead of us!”

Me — October Update (230)

It’s occurred to me that I haven’t really gone over how or what I’m doing lately. Mostly for the “Me” posts I’ve been talking about my personality and my philosophies. So let me give you some general updates of what’s been happening lately.

First off, school is stressful! Luckily, though, it’s calmed down quite a bit. No longer are my weekends consumed entirely by homework (a.k.a. reading a book). For both of my English classes we’ve been discussing short stories (some of them even being examined in both classes), so it’s lightened a huge load. Especially with overlap, I don’t have to stress about the classes. Regarding my other two, Human Sexuality and Intro to Behavioral Neuroscience, I’ve been pretty stressed. They both have the same professor, and I’m not a big fan of her. She’s a fun person, but she’s also the strict teacher that puts questions regarding the syllabus on the exams. I’ve never heard of anything like that, but on the plus side she drills her syllabus into our brains so those questions are freebies. But when an off-handed, random assignment requires you to print four pages with strict guidelines, there are some problems. Every time I walk into either class I’m nervous I’ve already messed up somehow.

My improv troupe is also stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress. I love the kids (many of whom I still consider personal friends), and they are all awesome in their own rights, but I as the coach must do three different things. First, I must learn the optimal way to be playing each and every game. Second, I must learn how to coach/ref these games to the best of my ability, learning how to explain games and how to provide critiques. Third, I must do those two while teaching. On top of all this, for a lot of it I’m the head honcho now. There’s nobody I can lean on anymore. Sure, my coach is still there and always available to talk, but in the end its still me handling everything, he is just there to help me handle everything.

Next, I think my writing has taken a hit because of the prior two. By now I would have liked to be wrapping up Aluvalia’s story in the anthology, but I just can’t handle a project of even that size at the moment. It’s too big to chew on top of everything else. I’m not beating myself up over it, though. I’m in no rush to write it! I just need to take time to relax and write Saturday stories that I don’t have to do research for (even if the thing I’m researching is stuff I myself wrote). I do hope to start writing it next month, though!

Lastly, it looks like my two Dungeons and Dragons campaigns have been green-lit. What started as an almost careless idea that this could be fun but wouldn’t see a third session has turned into a campaign that is taking hours of research and planning on my part. I ended up setting this world as an alternate universe to Nacre Then. It has the same “gods”, geography, and some political backgrounds, but it is still very different. The best part is that I’ve found a main plot I’m actually really interested in telling. I can hardly contain my excitement, because pieces are falling into place that are almost too good to be true! I mean, some of my players are practically writing their backstories into my main plot without even realizing it! That’s about as good as it gets!

So yes, I have no free time on my hands. I’m still pretty stressed, but I no longer feel like I’m being pulled underwater by all the weight of everything I’ve been carrying. I think honestly devoting time to enjoying myself will do me a lot of good. Restrictive? Maybe. But somehow I’m happier for the freedom that restriction has given me.