Story — To Better Days

The Feral Jackal Inn creaked with the somber sigh of old age as it snoozed amidst the light morning drizzle. The grey of the fog enshrouded any obvious signs of disrepair on the building, but even so the building drooped with an imperceptible weight.

Dreary as it was, Kopek found the sight to be a welcome one. He wasn’t sure if he missed cooked meals or friendly, human faces more, and the rain certainly didn’t improve his mood.

As he opened the door, the soft hum of rain in the trees transitioned into the loud barks of dismay as an older man yelled in an otherwise quiet room.

“I told you I’ll be fine if you just give me another drink!”

“Sir, I can’t just give you another one, you’ve—oh, hello!”

Kopek shook the wet off himself a bit as he closed the door behind him. The barmaid—or presumably the owner of the establishment—was a middle-aged woman whose face matched the walls and space around her. Her friendly smile showed signs of thinning patience. The man she had been speaking to wore thick, muddied furs, and his brown hair was losing the battle of years. He turned to see the newcomer, and as soon as Kopek saw his face he immediately recognized the man as a fellow Ormen outlander, Bardam.

“Kopek?” he murmured, tilting his head like a dog a bit.

“Indeed. It’s good to see you, Bardam!” he called with a grin, sitting down next to the man. “How’s Altani?”

Bardam’s face darkened, his gaze turning to the empty stein in his hand. “Things haven’t been good, Kopek.”

Kopek nodded. “I see.”

“Like a drink?” the barmaid asked, pulling a rag from her apron.

“Oh, no thank you,” he replied. “It’s well before noon.”

“Didn’t stop your friend here,” she shrugged. “Keep up as he has and he’ll be dead by noon. My husband found him passed out in the trees last night. Would have died in the cold, probably. Gave him a free bed and he has the gall to ask for the whole cask.”

Kopek turned to Bardam, whose eyes were glazing over a bit with some echo of torment. He pulled out two coins and placed them on the table. “Will this do to cover his expenses?”

She rolled her eyes, but pocketed the money in silence before setting to wiping down the counter top.

Kopek glanced about the room, searching for a more private avenue for conversation, but with the already quiet room and the lack of any other people, there was none to be had. “What happened?”

Bardam looked at Kopek, and the dead intensity of those eyes spoke of a new decade of age the man had yet to live. Kopek watched as the words formed on his lips, then died as he broke the gaze by returning back to the stein.

“Father of Stars, man, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Maybe I can help.”

“Undoing take you,” Bardam muttered.

Kopek sighed. This wasn’t exactly the conversation he had hoped to be having today. Still, it was better not to push, and a familiar face was company enough. Kopek dropped the subject and turned his attention to a nearby window. The soft din of the outside rain fell into pace with the sound of the barmaid’s work. It wasn’t ideal, but he was at least happy to be indoors.

Bardam cleared his throat after a few minutes, but didn’t look up. “Hemloch is gone.”

Kopek caught the barmaid stealing glances at the two of them, and she turned her attention to the table once more.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Burned to the ground. The whole village. Must have happened the night before I got there. The whole place smelled like ash and… death. There were crows everywhere.”

“Any survivors?”

Bardam bit his lip. “I don’t know. Probably a few, but not many. I… wasn’t in the mood to investigate.”

Kopek frowned, starting to get a grasp of the situation. “And Altani…”

“I did find her,” he said. It wasn’t good news.

“Stars,” Kopek breathed. Another tense moment passed, and Kopek pulled out another coin, pushing it across the counter to the barmaid. “Another round for both of us.”

D&D — The Moments You Play For

In the Aleor campaign I’ve been running the past couple of months, things have been pretty slow. Not to say that stuff has been boring or uninteresting, just that the game started off small, and has been taking it’s time getting anywhere—by design.

Before Session Zero, I referred to this game as the “Commoner Campaign”, based off a .pdf I found outlining a level zero type character class. (A link for the curious.) All the players started out as being pitifully weak, in their hometown of about 200 people, you get the idea. I had to be careful with designing encounters because fighting 3 kobolds simultaneously could be very dangerous and kill them if they weren’t cautious.

It took them 6 sessions to become actual adventurers, and roughly half of that time was spent being lost in a huge forest, so things have been tough. I had a lot of trouble designing interesting encounters day after day when the party was in the same forest on a week to week basis, and anything scarier than a simple boar would make combat risky.

But I think it was worth it, because at the end of our most recent session, the party reached their first proper city. I set a very specific song to accompany my description as I outlined the view of a civilization beyond what the characters could even comprehend. The gentle slope of the city nestled in the banks of a vast lake allowed for a breathtaking view of the city of humans and elves. Rows upon rows of houses, many taller than they had ever seen before, stretching out for about a mile. Dozens of people bustled about the streets, even as the sun was starting to set, with kids running up and down and bumping into one of the players as he chased after his friend.

I can’t properly explain why, but of the 7 3-hour sessions we’ve had, that moment was the most fun I’ve had DM’ing this campaign so far. It’s silly to say, but maybe it’s because that’s the moment where I’ve felt more like Matt Mercer than ever before, or maybe I like the feeling of swinging the doors open and saying “Surprise!”, or maybe it’s the writer in me that likes describing cool scenes.

I think that as a player, the moments I live for are huge, plot changing moments that occur because of something I did—a choice I made or an action I took that had a huge impact on the world. When you’re the DM, all of your choices impact the world, so it’s not as big of a deal, which means it’s harder to pinpoint what exactly I’m trying to accomplish.

Either way, I have a city to build now, and I didn’t realize until after I described it that I’ve never made a map (or fully built) a settlement to this scale before. Craydon is a proper city of (my pre-build estimates) ~20,000 people, making it a sizable monument in a fantasy world; not enormous by any means, but a city to be sure.

It’s going to be some time before I have another one of those moments. I’m going to try my best not to wait until they get to the next big city and make the reveal be the same style of thing, and to be honest, I have no idea if my players had as much fun arriving at Craydon as I did, but hey, a dungeon master should allow themselves to have fun, too.

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 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.

 

Prompt — Old Lady Picnic

“So there I was, sitting in one of the trees at Backarrow Park waiting for… I don’t know, something, when this old lady comes along with a picnic basket. It was a normal day, nice and breezy, the trees shielding the park-goers from any harsh sunlight. Not that the sun is harsh, though I suppose sometimes it is, but it wasn’t this day. I just think that if people are going to be out and about, they like to be in daylight, but not blinded by the sun, you know?

“Anyway, this old lady comes towards me with a picnic basket. Well, not towards me, but in my direction. She didn’t see me. Basically nobody sees me because I’m so small, you know? Well, of course you know that. You’re as small as me. Not that that’s a bad thing. Where was I?

“Oh, yeah, Old Lady Picnic. So she sits down under the tree I’m in and takes out a little blanket from her basket. She unfolds it and lays it on the grass. It’s this cute pink and white quilt patterned with baby elephants and rabbits. Stars above it was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. She probably made it herself! I would never sit on something like that. A work of art like that should never be laid on the grass. But she put it there and started taking out food. Bananas, tiny sandwiches, potato salad, and a gorgeous apple cinnamon pie, and in that moment I knew that if that pie was half as good as it looked and smelled, I would die a happy fairy, wings earned or no. Have you ever felt like that? Where you’re so sure of something that hasn’t happened yet? What am I saying, of course you haven’t.

“So she takes everything out and starts looking in her basket for something. She doesn’t take anything else out, though. Maybe she forgot something. So she gets up and starts walking back the direction she came, and at first I think ‘Hey, she won’t notice if I steal some of her pie, that’s a lot of pie. She can’t eat it all by herself’, but I didn’t want her to see me and I didn’t know how long she’d be gone, so I decided to wait.

“Well, I waited for like an hour, or however long a really long time is for humans, but she never came back so I started to get worried. And then, disaster struck!

“Flies started coming out of the woodworks. Or, well, I don’t know, the sky. I don’t understand human expressions. Anyways, they were coming for Old Lady Picnic’s food, and I knew then and there that this was it: the valiant effort that would earn this little fairy her wings, and, more importantly, the right to go back to Fae.

“And so, the great knight you know me to be, Petunia Peachthorn, leaped off the branches to the food hoard bellow, landing on the soft, billowy pink and white quilt made from clouds itself. I pulled out my sword and yelled ‘You foul creatures will not desecrate this wonderful picnic! I will protect it with my life!’

“They came at me, all eyes and loud wings buffeting the area. Our battle was one for the storybooks as I fought them off one-by-one, trading blows on the top of the narrow basket handle. They spat their toxic acid on me, rusting my armor and breaking some pieces off entirely. I was careful to keep my sword away from it, though, lest my attacks be rendered useless.

“Needless to say, I won. My foes were forced to retreat, some hobbling away with torn wings or eyes. I held no remorse for the savages, bent on taking advantage of Old Lady Picnic’s absence.

“Just when I thought that victory was within sight, however, the ants came. Legions of them, marching down the tree I had just been sitting in. I suppose they must have been army ants, with their perfect formation. As valiant as a knight as I may be, I knew I couldn’t fight a whole legion.

“So, to make a long story short, I certainly didn’t earn my wings that day. I don’t know where Old Lady Picnic went, but I couldn’t save her food, either. But I’ll tell you what, though—I did save that apple cinnamon pie. And it was delicious.”

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sandara/art/Strange-Alice-735878743

Review — Pawn of Prophecy

I first heard about David Eddings’ Belgariad Saga through Matt Colville a highly respected dungeon master in the D&D community and, I assume, a very competent writer as well. Matt is ever the proponent of classical media, and often uses it to inform his own design choices, so when he explained a plot point of one of his favorite books series, I felt obligated to put that book series on my list.

Pawn of Prophecy, published in 1982, is very much the textbook hero’s journey. I joke about how the first installment of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is just a ripoff to The Lord of the Rings, which I still think is quite fair, but I’m even more amused to say that Pawn of Prophecy and Eye of the World start almost exactly the same way. The only difference is that the Belgariad focuses on the journey of one boy, whereas The Wheel of Time centralizes around three. It makes me wonder—was the epic fantasy genre so limited and niche decades ago that what few books there were were all exactly the same? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the Sword of Truth series. Okay, well now I have, but I can’t simply be cherry-picking here. There must be some validity to it.

Anyways, enough talking about the similarities, let’s talk about what this book is in a vacuum. Overall, I think it does feel a bit dated compared to the fantasy of today. It does have much less action scenes, not to say that modern books need that or that that fact detracts from the story, just an observation. Pawn of Prophecy is very much the opening to a larger world, where big things are happening but the young hero—and by extension the reader—is ignorant of these events.

What amazes me most about this book is that it’s a great character study for a typical D&D setting. It features some classic archetypes for player characters, but also houses very realistic places and digestible politics. My favorite interaction in the whole book is when guards are interrogating the party as they pass through town. The con-man of the group has a very normal conversation with the guard that is obviously about discussing a bribe price, even though neither person mentions anything outright. To a casual observer, they’d just as soon have been talking about the weather. Clean but meaningful exchanges like that is something that this book excels in, and a writer would do well to learn from these things.

The biggest drawback to this book is its classical nature. Things take quite a bit to happen, and for any avid reader or anyone familiar with the Hero’s Journey, this book can’t surprise you with any event or plot twist it tries to throw at you. Especially if you’ve read the Wheel of Time first. Having admittedly only read the first book of the Belgariad, I would so far summarize it as an “Easy Mode” version of The Wheel of Time. The former is five books long, the latter fourteen. And to be honest, I only got through the first five books of WoT before I realized I still didn’t care about a single character, and thus put it down (forever?)

So while there’s nothing truly innovative about Pawn of Prophecy, it’s a short, relaxing read. Not much suspense, but quite immersive for what it is.

Review — War Crimes

Of the many novels written in the Warcraft universe, I’ve actually read a scarce few of them. To be honest, this is only my second. However, having played WoW off an on for the majority of my life, and having many brothers and friends that are well versed in Blizzard and Warcraft lore, I’m quite familiar with the characters and events, generally speaking. I won’t give spoilers here, though, for as familiar as you may be with the story before and after this book, the novel itself does contain some pretty neat, self-contained things.

War Crimes is a somewhat recent addition to what surprised me to be a collection of over twenty canon books, and chronologically it was the latest addition to the universe until Before the Storm published last month. It takes place between the Mists of Pandaria expansion and the Warlords of Draenor expansion, serving as a segway from one to the other. It explores the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, the former Warchief of the Horde after he basically killed thousands of people and was, to put it mildly, a jerk to everyone, even the people who should have been his friends.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect much of this book. The main plot is a trial, and I hated Garrosh’s character simply because he’s boring. In fact, if I were to buy a Warcraft book, it probably would have been one of my last choices for those reasons. When I’m reading a story like this, it’s generally because I want to dig deeper into a universe I’m already familiar with, and not only does this book basically not have that, but it doesn’t have very much action in it, either. It is, as you might expect, almost entirely placed in the Temple of Xu’en, where the trial takes place.

But the book is fair. To call it a bad read or a waste of my time would be out of line. It does the characters justice while also showing different sides of them. It explores the morality and virtues of many of the main characters in Warcraft lore, and you see different sides of them you might not otherwise notice. Flashbacks are used as evidence in the trial (via magic, of course), so we also get to see some interactions between characters outside this moment in time, and that can be really interesting when you didn’t realize those characters knew each other at X point.

I’d say one of the best things about this book is that it’s a balancing act of two parts, and it does a great job. Writing a book (or any piece of media) based on a game where the player has a direct impact on the environment or story of that game is hard. You have to either pretend the player doesn’t exist, which makes any player made choices seem inconsequential, or you make the player a main character, which only works if they don’t get to make their character. The second part is writing a part of the story that isn’t important enough to be essential to the gameplay, but is interesting enough to not waste the reader’s time.

War Crimes does a great job on both of these fronts. The players are the ones that managed to defeat Garrosh and put him in “prison”, but they aren’t necessary for the trial. Players want combat, and this part of the story has very little of it. You wouldn’t want a trial scene to be in your video game anyway, unless you’re playing Ace Attorney, in which case what is a bloodthirsty orc doing there? As far as being interesting but not essential, the story does a good job of that, too, exploring nuances of characters, as I’ve already explained. The ending of the story is a bit obvious if you’ve played the beginning of Warlords of Draenor, or have seen even the trailer of it, but nonetheless it’s a good read.

Overall, this book is a good read if and only if you are interested in understanding the personalities, flaws, or beliefs of the major characters in the Warcraft universe. You really get to know the characters as people in this book, not as the walking stereotypes they can sometimes fall under. If you want to read action scenes, understand the lore of Azeroth (or Draenor etc.), or read about the major events of the world, you’re better of picking up pretty much any other book in the universe.

As a side note, it dawned on me reading this book how little opinion Warcraft players probably have based on the characters in the lore. Basically any player will tell you that Cairne Bloodhoof, or Vol’jin, or Jaina Proudmoore are basically cool people. (Or at least they were, given various points of the story.) For as divisive as Warcraft tries to be—splitting the players into Alliance or Horde—I’ll bet 90% of the playerbase will be able to tell you which are the honorable, good characters from both factions, because while the lore tries to paint in broad strokes of “good and evil”, it does a great job at putting both of those extremes in either side.