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.

Review — Battle Chasers: Nightwar

It’s been a while since I’ve played a traditional turn-based RPG. I mean, my favorite video game ever is Dragon Quest VIII, which was released over 13 years ago, and I honestly haven’t played many games in that genre since. (Dragon Quest XI still has no western release date, but it’s on the agenda.) So here’s a (mostly) spoiler-free review of the game!

So when I got my hands on Battle Chasers, it was like an itch that hadn’t been properly scratched in a long time. The last JRPG I’ve actually put time into is probably the original Suikoden, and it’s been several years. Now I didn’t know much about Battle Chasers going into it, I just knew that the art was cool and some online people I enjoy praised it. When I found out it was a turn based I was delighted.

This game was just a blast from start to finish. The opening cinematic(s) did a great job establishing the personality of each of the characters, and it did some interesting role reversals that were cool to see. As I played it, I found that the game really had everything I wanted: a meaningful progression of power (leveling up is really impactful to the experience), a sense of exploration, rewarding the player for being investigative, a clear sense of what being a completionist would entail (meaning “what can I do to see all there is to see?”), and challenging them with optional puzzles and quests.

This game was also a lot longer than I expected it to be. It took me 45 hours to beat it 100% (not New Game+), and if I had the time I would have no qualms with going through it again. New Game+ is cool because, while it isn’t necessarily “harder”, you can much more easily get Legendary quality gear and feel powerful, even if the monsters you’re fighting are 6 levels above you (when the maximum level is 30).

My favorite thing about this game was that it had time to put in lots of unnecessary things. All of the dungeons are randomly generated, so the puzzles you see the first time will be different when you revisit it. (This is a double-edged sword I’ll get to in a moment.) It has lots of side quest type things that feel rewarding. There’s also lots of cool lore books that are interesting reads, and the narration in general can be pretty sassy.
Ex: The game gives you an option to throw money down a well. When you throw 1000g in (a good chunk if you’re about a third of the way through the game), the narrative replies with something along the lines of “You have enough gold to feed an entire village for about a month, but you decide it’s best wasted by throwing it into a well.” It’s neat because this game very much adopts the philosophy of “just because your character can do it, doesn’t mean it’s the right choice to make”. A lot of the game actually seems to be modeled as a Dungeons & Dragons type adventure.

 

 

I do have two problems with the game, though. The first is that it can be somewhat unclear with the consequences of something. When you find an artifact, the game makes a big deal telling you that they’re valuable, which implies you should keep them, even though you have the option to sell them for a different type of currency. What it doesn’t tell you is that this is literally the only use for artifacts. They’re meant to be sold. Don’t hold on to them. What’s more, some of the optional bosses can be encountered accidentally if you’re “adventurous” enough, and there’s actually no way to know the power level of what you might be getting into. (There’s a mini boss in one area that’s four levels higher than the monsters inside, and he has a passive of reducing the party’s healing by 50% when you’re fighting him. He’s no joke!)

By far my biggest gripe with the game is how the “random” tiles in dungeons are placed, though. There’s a random encounter in the first dungeon with a skeleton, and you can choose to help him or refuse. If you refuse, he attacks you. If you help him, you can find him (randomly, again) in a later dungeon, and he attacks you there. Here’s the problem. Neither of these events are guaranteed to spawn in either dungeon. And what’s more, you have to do the first dungeon at least twice in order to take both options, because in both instances he’s a unique monster. So in order to fight every monster, you have to do it multiple times. The worst part is it was bugged for me, so I couldn’t go back to the first dungeon to fight him after I helped him in my first runthrough. So I had to do New Game+ in order to complete my monster book. This is terrible game design!

But really, it’s a fantastic game. I expected to beat it within 15 hours, but it had over 3 times that content for me. Overall it’s great, and it can be very challenging if you want it to be. Also, it has fishing. In my experience, every game that has time to add optional fishing stuff to it is going to be a good game.

Life — August ’17 Update Pt. 2: What’s New

Last week I discussed the changes I was making to my blog schedule, which are all already in place. So this week, I’ll just talk about everything else I usually put in an monthly update post.

Monthly Update Topic Order: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things. (Though I’ll skip the blog part, since I already went over that last week.)

My writing plans are fairly straightforward for the time being. My fiction output is purely focused on the Spear Gate novel I’ve been working on these past few months, and I don’t plan on that changing anytime soon. Of course, I’ve historically gotten bored with long term projects that get too long, and this one is nearing that point, but I’ve gotten no warning signs yet. It seems the tactic of “Only plan as far ahead as the next chapter” is keeping me pretty interested in the story so far, so let’s hope that doesn’t change.

As far as video games go, I haven’t been doing that a whole lot lately. My computer died a few weeks ago, and my laptop isn’t good enough to handle anything like that, so my gaming has been almost exclusive to Dragon Quest Heroes II, of which I already have over 70 hours of. It still doesn’t seem like much in comparison to how much time I’ve put into Dragon Quest VIII, so maybe the figure I told people (about ~300 hours) is a bit larger than I remember it being. But in any case, by this time next month I may or may not be back to my regular games. We’ll see.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and listening to media lately. I’m about three fifths of the way finished with Two Towers (and I hope to be done by August 14th), but mostly I’ve been listening to a good amount of Running the Game, a YouTube series on being a better dungeon master, and Critical Role, which I’ve already talked about a lot. It’s the D&D weekly stream of the adventures of Vox Machina. I’m still about seventy episodes (and therefore 200+ hours) behind, but maybe some day I’ll be caught up… I will say though, the original drive for watching Critical Role stemmed from me wanting to watch and indirectly experience more D&D. Now, because of some interesting story bits, I’m watching it for the narrative, because it’s actually getting very exciting. I just wish there was a faster way to get through it!

The fall semester hasn’t quite started yet, but my classes are all set up and taken care of. This time around I’m taking two theatre classes (which will be my first in years) and I’m overall taking more hours in one semester than I ever have before. This means that I will, once again, be busy (in some form) every single day of the week. I’m not excited about that, but it is what it is. I just hope I don’t hate all my classes. I’ll settle for only hating three of them.

In other news, the old leader of my writer’s group has moved away, leaving me in charge of the group. It doesn’t actually add much responsibility to my plate as far as what’s going on in the writer’s group, but I do treat it very seriously. If nothing else, it’s an acknowledgment of both my writing ability and my leadership skills that I was the one entrusted with it, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like having people listen to my direction.

And lastly, I’ve decided to make some small changes to my outward appearance. As a consequence to my closed off personality, I historically don’t make friends. But this school semester I plan on changing that and reinforcing what I call the “Charismatic Introvert™”. A lot of people that don’t know me very well are surprised to find out that I’m a very introverted person, probably because I’m not socially inept like the stereotypical introvert is. So I’m going to make a conscious effort to be more amiable and introduce myself to people, and hopefully I can find people I share things in common with.

That’s all for this month. I’m excited to see where I stand come September. It’s my favorite month (for more reasons than just “It’s my birth month”), but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Review — Dragon Quest Heroes II (460)

With no computer, I recently bought a console game to occupy my free time. My favorite game of all time is Dragon Quest VIII, but it has remained virtually my only experience in the entire franchise (though I have played the original Dragon Warrior on the NES). Despite mediocre reviews, I decided to give this game a try for the change of pace. I do enjoy leveling and progression in any game, and the familiarity would ensure at least some enjoyment, so I got it.

And man, this game really does deserve its mediocre reviews. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun. I’ve put over fifty hours into it so far, and I haven’t had my fill, but there are a lot of things that are weird about it.

First, the plot is pretty ho-hum. There’s a lot of things that happen, mostly misdirection, that happens simply to take you the player to new areas to fight new monsters. Kingdom A is in danger, so you have to go help them, only the danger comes from Kingdom B, who is bringing war due to a misunderstanding, meaning you have to go to Kingdom C, and so on. I’d say it’s derivative, but that’s not the right word. It’s more like the plot is used solely as a device for adventure, when this sort of game could really have worked with no plot at all. I will say, though, near the end there were a few plot twists I wasn’t expecting, so that was a nice little treat.

As far as game design goes, there’s a lot of odd things that are irking. There are mechanics that aren’t explained (getting the key that unlocks half the chests in the open-world is too convoluted for anyone to figure out on their own), and there are instances where you are punished for making the right play, or rewarded for making the wrong one. For example, there is a pitfall trap in a dungeon, and in that trap there are treasure chests. Why would you reward the player for making a mistake? That means anyone that was smart enough to avoid them would miss out on that treasure.

Despite all that, though, there really isn’t any glaring issues with the game. It’s problems are numerous, but small. My biggest grievance of all is that the two characters from DQ8 were turned into stereotypes. They didn’t feel like the people I had spent hundreds of hours adventuring with in the good old days. It makes me worry whether the characters from the other games were out of proportion as well.

This game does do a lot of cool things, though. The progression feels natural and rewarding, and it actually is challenging in a lot of parts! There were times where I had to restart the mission because it seemed super difficult, only to turn it around the second time because I had a better handle on what I should be doing. That sort of difficulty is the best!

And my favorite thing is that all the playable characters (a bit over a dozen) all have unique and fun playstyles. In a lot of hack and slash games I’m used to different characters having different combo attacks, and that’s about it, but in this game it’s way more than that. Like in Dragon Quest VIII, it’s important to have a well-rounded team filled with people who do different things. I have a mage that deals a ton of damage but has limited mana, a sword guy that does a lot of wide attacks to deal with large amounts of enemies, a healer to fix things when people get hurt or die, and a variable character depending on what you’re doing at the time. But the cool thing is that every character feels special, and even when the game sometimes forces you to select characters you may not like as much, you can still enjoy them. (As a side note, the particle effects in this game are top-notch in a lot of cases. There are some instances where the shading is off, but most of the fire, lightning, and ice attacks look awesome!)

So, is the game worth getting? Well, if you like hack-and-slash games, it’s fine. It’s story isn’t great, and it does get a bit repetitive, but if you’re fine with progression for it’s own sake, there is a lot of stuff to do even after you beat the game. There’s also a ‘New Game+’ mode I haven’t tried out yet. So there’s plenty of content to justify the value, if you’re not easily bored or frustrated, that is.

P.S. Playing a new game in the Dragon Quest franchise did get me super excited for Dragon Quest XI. Seeing all the old enemies in high resolution was nice, and I can’t wait for the upcoming release!