Story — The Hope Unfounded Treatise

There is a fire that burns at the very core of some of our spirits. A spark of passion that can lead to the fulfillment of any dream—any desire. Some fires rage white hot: determined to achieve those goals at any cost. Some shine like a candle in the dark: barely enough to curb the darkness, but visible nonetheless. When that fire dies, we lose a fundamental piece of who we are. There was a time when we all had such a flame in us.

That’s why they did their best to take it.

They quelled the passionate ones first. The voices that helped fuel the rest of our fires. It was inspiring at first: their martyrdom proved our cause to be righteous; but when every outcry was met with swift and harsh “justice”, soon those that would challenge that justice became scarce.

Still, our fires burned. We knew that some way, somehow, there had to be a way out of the jaws of tyranny. In time, we thought, a new voice with a raging inferno would inspire us all to rise up and burn down their infrastructure.

That voice came. We rose. We fought.

And lost.

In the wake of defeat, they offered us an olive branch. We would be allowed to live. To continue our lives, not unwatched, but unmolested—provided we behaved.

They called it ‘The Hope Unfounded Treatise’. It stated that any indication of our inner fire, as observed by our oppressors, would be met with immediate and merciless action—not to us, but to those around us. The found that by removing the biggest flames, they were simply fueling the other fires, but if they doused the flames around it, they would have no room to grow. Isolation, they found, is as sure to kill fire as suffocation.

Any glimmer of hope was to be snuffed out and destroyed. They planted spies among us, so even quiet whispers could lead to horrifying demonstrations.

It took generations, but they won. Nobody seems to have any sort of fire burning inside them anymore, and even if they did, it was their job to conceal it, lest tragedy befall them, too.

I… I still have my fire. It is a dangerous thing to reveal. There are ears everywhere, and I’ve prayed to every god I could think of to remove it from me. There was a time in which it was the only thing that kept me going, but now, I don’t want it anymore. There is a satisfaction in acceptance—one I have never tasted.

No, I don’t think there is any way out of this mess. We are stuck here, lying in the ruins of our predecessors’ defeat. My hope is not for me or anyone I know. But I know that my fire is not the only one left. It is impossible to guess who else has theirs, but I know they exist. I can’t shake this feeling that one day, we will rise up again.

And that time, we will be victorious.

Story — The Tiny Great Big One

Zollo hadn’t exploded today, and for once, he was disappointed. It had taken him weeks to convince the rest of the council that it was a side effect of his magic. He had told them he had accidentally eaten something with a glyph on it, and instead of digesting it it just kept making him explode. No big deal. The Athaxi are a resilient race. Very good at unexploding. “The explodings will stop eventually,” he assured them.

Athaxi were dumb. It was a good thing that Zollo wasn’t dumb. Like the other Athaxi.

But what he didn’t plan for was the Ritual of Bigness. With the other council members convinced he wouldn’t explode, and with Zollo being one of the most bestest glyph-ers in the tribe, he was obligated to attend. It was a stupid, boring ritual, really. The entire council had to stand on some pillars watching the entire tribe give offerings to the Great Big One. One by one, in the hopes that they, too, might become the next Great Big One.

Zollo knew the truth now. The Athaxi didn’t ever get Big. He knew because he had a Great Big One. Only, it wasn’t Big. Or Great, for that matter. Even now he could feel it on his waist, tucked away just above his tail. It was sleeping, but warm. Zollo’s secret, Tiny Great Big One.

That was where the explodings came from, of course. Sometimes convenient, but more often than not, exploding was unpleasant. Often he considered telling the council the truth. But no, he had no idea how they would react. Or how his Tiny Great Big One would react, for that matter. It exploded Zollo often enough, after all, and it liked him. The council would surely all get exploded if they were introduced.

And so, he was stuck here, standing on the pillar as his legs ached, pretending to vary his interest in each of the mundane offerings. A couple of squibs here, a collection of very shiny rocks there. Zollo had to admit the rocks piqued his interest a bit. They were quite shiny.

But every time he found himself a little distracted, the Tiny Great Big One would shift around in its slumber, reminding Zollo how much he wanted to explode right now, just so he could be excused from the ritual.

An elbow to the side startled him, and he looked to Negs, who was vaguely gesturing to the offering table. Oh, right. Zollo nodded and joined the other council members as they all used the glyphs they had carved into the offering slab to set all of the offerings ablaze. Soon, the pit had grown into an inferno, growing higher and higher as the offerings lit.

This was everyone’s favorite part of the Ritual of Bigness. All the Athaxi in the tribe were cheering and dancing at the sight of such a Big, strong fire. It was like one one of the Great Big Ones could make. Impressive, Zollo had to admit, but fire didn’t entrance him as it had since he had discovered his Tiny Great Big One. It seemed silly to love fire when you had access to its true source. Even if it exploded you a lot.

An echoing wave broke the festivities. The distant roar of a Great Big One, the tribe knew all too well. Even if they hadn’t seen a Great Big One in years, the Bigness of its sound was unmistakable. In the wake of Big beats of its wings, soon the Athaxi were cheering even louder. Maybe it would choose one of them to be the next Great Big One, they were all whispering.

Zollo tapped an idle claw against where he kept his Tiny Great Big One. Maybe he would be exploding today after all.

D&D — Why Do You Play?

Dungeons & Dragons means a lot of different things to different people. It might mean wish fulfillment of getting to be your own Mary Sue. Maybe it means number crunching and being as powerful as you can be (which is wish fulfillment in its own right). Maybe it means escaping reality by doing good and saving the princess. Or maybe it just means hanging out with friends.

I think everyone comes to role-playing games like D&D because it’s the ultimate sandbox in a lot of ways. Depending on who your dungeon master is, the only think limiting your abilities is your creativity—you can do what you want, as long as it’s not impossible within the rules of the world (which may or may not coincide with the rules of the game). “Choices are infinite—consequences are mandatory”.

For me, D&D is about two things. I love the escapism it provides in allowing me to pretend to be people wildly different from myself, and since I’m a storyteller at heart, it also lets me feel like I’m part of a crazy adventure in a fantasy novel than simply writing one.

I feel as though I’m in a weird minority in the community. The vast majority of people I’ve interacted with in regards to D&D aren’t (particularly) interested in the story, or when they are, it’s always in the framework of their character. For me, the story and the character are often two separate entities entirely. I built a character that is fun to pretend to be, not one that has an intricate backstory that has strong connections to the world they live in.

I have a few friends that with whom I share D&D stories on a regular basis. I’ve certainly considered inviting them to the game that I run, but deep down I know that they wouldn’t have any fun. At its current state, the Aleor campaign is a lot of talking to normal townsfolk rather than an epic adventure of heroes and villains, and I can’t accommodate a player who wants to be a Jedi.

Finding the D&D group that you mesh with is tough. Since everyone’s playing for different reasons, the obvious, most accessible group to you may not be the best one for you. It may not even be the right one, and since the type of person to be playing the game tends to be the sort of person who doesn’t make a habit of socializing with strangers, it becomes very difficult to find the perfect fit, because for you that perfect fit might only be online with the help of meetup groups like Roll20.

For me, Critical Role is the pinnacle, most ideal version of what D&D could be. Other streams are entertaining, but in my experience, none of them are stories being told the same way that Critical Role is. If I wanted to mess around and goof off at a table with a bunch of friends, there are dozens of different board games we could play with way less effort. Dungeons & Dragons is the only one that allows me to alter my identity.

D&D — Aleor Campaign Diary 1: The Night of Fire

(Here is the first of a series of posts retelling the story of my most recent campaign. I’m going to translate this into mostly narrative, but there will be a few D&D terms as well.

If you’d like to read the Lore intro to Aleor, you can catch up on it here.)

Our story begins in a tiny village called Soulrest. Little more than a pitstop, Soulrest is famous for its large inn, being a convenient place to rest for travelers between the region of Eastbend and what remains of the once-great Aloran Empire to the west. The town counts its population in the hundreds here. Everyone knows everyone else, and the most notable thing to happen in the span of a few months is when Ubin, the de-facto mayor, was uncharacteristically nice to some people.

There is no adventuring here. At least, not yet. But at year’s end the town gets excited for their yearly bonfire: a ritual called the Night of Fire. This holiday is held at the top of the ruined tower that overlooks the village, and a great bonfire is lit where townsfolk throw away things they no longer need in preparation for a new year. Jeremy Squips, a traveler from Eastbend, is staying at the inn when he hears about this event. He had planned on continuing on, but decides to stay an extra night so he can enjoy the festivities.

Our players, not yet heroes (or even adventurers by any means), are Balgraff Greyhand, the dwarf blacksmith, Sieg Warsen, son of the inkeeper, and Buck Holder, son of the cobbler.

Many of the townsfolk gather at the top of the old tower. Ubin has lit the huge bonfire, and its height allows it to be seen for miles. Then, one by one, the people go up to Ubin’s large red orb, touch it, then throw something into the fire. Not everyone does this, but a good many folk do. Jeremy chimes in with a bit of music to add to the festivities. Buck is given a box by his father to throw in. He doesn’t know what was inside, but he takes it. As soon as he touches the orb, it cracks, and for a moment everything stops. Ubin rushes up to him, but when he inspects the orb, there doesn’t seem to be any missing or sharp pieces, and Buck appears unharmed. The wise old elf appears clueless, but Buck swears he saw him nod to himself ever so slightly.

The Night continues until a loud explosion centered in town fills the air. They look to see the Happy Camper, the local general store, going up in flames. Everyone bursts into action, but none are as quick to act as Buck, Sieg, Balgraff, and Jeremy. They hasten down the hill and start doing all they can to fight the fire, throwing water pails at it and smothering it with whatever they can find.

When all is said and done, the fire is put out, but not before it destroyed the town’s beloved store. The smithy and inn were on both sides of the Happy Camper, and they sustained a bit of damage on their own. It’s a bad start to the new year, and to top it all off, Jeremy comments that he saw hooded figures running into the nearby forest immediately after the explosion…

To be continued…

D&D — Aleor, A Shattered Empire

I’m gearing up for a diary of my current D&D campaign, as we’ve just finished our 12th session and have spent roughly 40 hours in this world. Before telling the story of some lowly commoners, though, I thought: what better place to start than with an overview of the world?

 

Our story begins in the region of Aleor, named after the once-great empire that tamed much of the southwest portion of the large continent of Irumos. At its peak, the Aloran Empire spanned thousands of miles, and its growth was only hindered by deserts to the south, mountains to the north, and a vast chasm to the east.

At that point, the empire had consumed virtually every sovereignty in the region, but to refer to the Aloran Empire’s golden age as a time of peace would be a gross simplification of the details. When the Empire annexed lands into its controls, the laymen were largely unaffected, as the taxes they paid often remained consistent. Their lords, however, were then required to pay taxes of their own to their new kings, and so on to the Emperor themselves. This often bred conflict between local lords and kings, and the empire rarely intervened so long as it meant that they were getting their taxes.

But even beyond the infighting of men, the other forces of the world are always at work in Aleor, some more mysterious and more malevolent than others. The northern city of Dûnmarch fell prey to these forces in a sudden and violent eruption. In a matter of hours, what was once a bustling city built at the pinnacle of the Drowsy Peaks became an abandoned ruin in the deepest crevice of a fresh cavern at the mountain range’s base. A few short years later, what was once a small rain forest exploded into a voracious jungle, growing and overgrowing everything in its path, consuming the Lockjaw Peninsula despite the best efforts of the tens of thousands of people that lived in that region, including the capital city itself.

Hundreds of years later, the Aloran Empire is still prevalent, though it is a mere shadow of its former self. Its new capital is Ashfall to the the north, and though the city is one of the largest in Aleor, the empire itself has little influence on matters more than a few hundred miles outside of it. And though much the the region’s largest cities have fallen and returned to the wilds, new cities are forged. Aqila, the city of craft and magic, is now one of the leading centers of power in the region, rivaling Ashfall and Port Artellis to the south.

Much remains hidden about Aleor’s past, as the civilized world has only recently been starting to get back on its feet. Dark times threaten to persist, and there are forces that threaten to destroy everything now that there is no mighty empire to protect the people. With a little help, though, perhaps new fires can be forged to shine a light into that darkness. After all, one of the major themes for the campaign in this new setting is simple.

Reclamation.

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.