Life — WoW: Classic

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t have any interest in playing Vanilla WoW again when they first announced it. After so many years of updates and so many quality of life changes, I wasn’t convinced that nostalgia could save it. There was just so much that the original game was lacking that current players take for granted. Despite this, I knew I’d give it a try just for its own sake.

It’s odd to think about, but how many games are out there that were released specifically as an older version? Even old games that are re-released get remastered with better graphics and less glitches, but WoW Classic required an enormous amount of effort to unmaster. They didn’t even “digitally remaster” the graphics or anything like that, because obviously they wanted it to be as faithful to the original game as it could possibly be.

And, for good or for ill, I’ve been playing it a lot. Nearly all my free time has been spent playing it, (though I’ve still been taking time to keep up with writing projects, blog notwithstanding) and there’s something that I didn’t expect WoW: Classic to revitalize…

Back in the early days from 2004-2007, I would say that World of Warcraft became popular for two reasons. The first is that mechanics-wise, it was the best of its time. There’s little question about that, all you have to do is look at the numbers. But more than that, it was a great way to socialize. After you got home from work, you would log onto the game, see all of your friends online in the guild, and chat with them. Hang out with them. The game made it so easy to connect with people—as well as make new friends.

Fifteen years later, with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc., we are so globally interconnected that people have rekindled relationships with friends they otherwise never would have met again. (For example, I’m Facebook friends with my best friend from 2nd grade, whom I haven’t seen since.) So, at least in the retail version of World of Warcraft, you really don’t need to talk to people. Partly because the majority the content can be done on your own (or at least it connects you to strangers automatically), but partly because the online connections you have don’t need to be done through an MMO like WoW.

This was my main concern. “You can’t restore a game to its original glory when its glory was so contingent on a tight-knit community,” I said. And I still think some of that is true, but oh boy did I underestimate the players.

In a lot of ways, playing WoW: Classic is like stepping into the past. The chat channels are always full, strangers are constantly inviting you to their parties and guilds, making the same jokes, you name it. If you log in at 5pm realm time, you have to wait about an hour just to log into the server I’m playing on because it’s full. In ways I can’t quite put into words, and in ways I certainly didn’t expect, I feel like I’m once again exploring a world with other people. Something I haven’t really felt in probably any other MMO.

This isn’t a review. If it was, I would tell you how awful the quest design is (which is actually worse than I remember), and how much time you have to waste running back and forth from Point A to Point B to get pitiful amounts of money and experience. I’d tell you how everything is hard, and since there’s so many people around, you have to compete against those around you just to get to the next quest, or how you constantly have to fight your inventory just to be able to maximize profits when you get back to town.

I’ve also been struggling with finding a good game to play lately. I needed a time sink so that I can watch YouTube streams and listen to audiobooks, but everything I had been playing was either tired or too high maintenance to multitask. So this came around at the perfect time.

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.

Life — Making Your Own Happiness

In my experience, there’s a certain type of depression/sadness that a lot of people have. It’s a very common affliction I like to call (as of right now) apathetic depression. It is the primary symptom of a state of life that is suboptimal for reasons that don’t appear to be your own. Your life sucks because you hate your job, you hate your family, you have no idea where your life is headed, etc. None of these things are your fault, so you just live day in and day out moping over how you drew the short stick when you were born.

I think there are people out there who drew the short stick, but you aren’t one of them.

The trap that a lot of people fall in is being comfortable in their contempt. It’s easy. Why blame yourself for the professional career you hate when you can just write it off by saying you have no other options? (It’s like in video games: nobody wants to blame themselves for their team losing; they will always point to somebody else first.)

Being happy sucks.

I say that because it’s not what people think it is. It’s not a magical state of mind that suddenly transpires when you get a raise or when you enter a committed relationship. Good events are easily overshadowed by that wall of the uncontrollable misfourtunes of life, because while it seems that good events are rare, misfortunes are constant and ever present.

But anyone can be happy, despite any misfortune and any life circumstance. I won’t pretend it’s easy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. But it is simple. In fact, you’ll probably nod to yourself and think “Wow, that was really deep, Kollin” as soon as I tell you the trick. (Or maybe you’ll just think I’m an idiot pretending to be philosophical, which wouldn’t be far from the truth.) The key to happiness is something you’ve already heard many times in many different ways from different inspirational quotes. But the inspirational quotes are just flowery ways of mystifying the truth right in front of our eyes. Ready?

Being happy is just a matter of putting in the effort to be happy. It means getting up in the morning finding ways to get excited for work instead of hitting the ‘Snooze’ button as many times as you can get away with. It means preparing for your future (near or far) instead of rewarding yourself for things you already had to do. It means taking steps to forgive and love yourself rather than dwelling on things you can’t change.

Most inspirational quotes are just an indirect way of saying that being happy is like going to the gym. It’s not easy. It’s a ton of work. Very few people want to go to the gym, they just want the results. It’s the same thing with happiness. It’s so much easier to dwell in misery because misery requires no action on your part. It’s also like the gym in that the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more you can lift.

Treating yourself to Starbucks before or after work isn’t going to make you happier. That’s a mental lie you tell yourself that will actually just perpetuate the problem. Caffeine addicts aside, you don’t (really) need anything but to commit to a personal promise that you’ll think about things with more positivity, and take action to ensure your days are better.

It’s hard, and you might need the help from friends and family to make that effort, but it is worth it.

Me — My Goal in Life

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how often people reformulate what they want their life to amount to. The end of the road. The “I’ve made it”. I’d never really had concrete plans, as for the longest time the goal had just been “get real good at worldbuilding and then write some books”. Well, if you really know me then you’d know that I don’t have any real, serious dreams/hopes of ever writing books as a career. I’m just never as interested in the characters as I am with the scope of the world itself.

But even at that point of my life, my true goal has always simply been ‘happiness’. I mean, I’d say that’s everyone’s goal whether they realize it or not. To me, it doesn’t matter what my life ends up being as long as I get to a point where I’m not twiddling my thumbs wishing things were different. Do I expect to ever get to a point like that? Maybe not, but I’d like to get as close to that as possible.

Still, I had never thought about what that life looks like. Obviously, I can’t predict the future and I know my life will change in unimaginable ways, but I think it’s still worth exploring the ideal future the current Kollin would like, and for all the introspection I do in my day-to-day life, it’s a little surprising I had never given it more thought until now.

So here it is.

I have a stable career working on story structure and planning for some big game a la Overwatch or World of Warcraft, or perhaps I’m the main story writer for some smaller company. Maybe the story I’m working on is in a world I helped build from scratch. It’s a steady job, something that keeps me living well within my means but doesn’t allow for extravagances (I’m never going to be the person that takes yearly vacations around the world). I probably also live in Oregon or Washington, because it’s gorgeous up there and doesn’t get nearly as hot.

I’ve got a wife and maybe some kids (2 or 3 or none at all), and every week we invite my brothers and maybe one or two other friends to our awesome game room (where most of my expendable income goes) and play Dungeons & Dragons. I have appropriate monster miniatures at the ready and have been playing the game and practicing long enough to tell crazy cool stories with fun adventures, complete with interesting character voices I fully commit to. Perhaps I even play D&D twice a week so I can play with all the people I want to play with (or heck, I might even be running the fabled West Marches campaign.

I wake up just past dawn every morning feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day, because I go to bed earlier than most people. I enjoy the privacy of every quiet morning with a hot cup of tea.

That’s it. That’s all I want. I’m not optimistic I’ll ever have half of those things all at the same time, but hey. Ideals.

Me — Being a Charismatic Introvert

My social life is weird. up until my junior year of high school, I was extremely introverted, only making friends when I needed to and avoiding eye contact with anyone I didn’t know. That changed when I was accidentally put in a theatre class and, well, I learned improv and became a different person. I didn’t gain confidence per-se (my natural intelligence has made me something of a narcissist, unfortunately), but what I did gain was the ability to be okay with looking dumb and having fun. As a result of that, basically the only friends I came out of high school with were the people I met through improv.

What this has amounted to is a sometimes overpowering feeling of loneliness in college, as I’m painfully aware that the three or four friends I actively talk to don’t even live within an hour’s drive. I still don’t like talking to strangers, but as a desperate attempt to make friends, and putting my improv skills to good use, I constructed a version of me for the purposes of meeting people.

Meet Kollin: the charismatic introvert.

From all angles that a stranger would see, I seem extroverted. I make conversation, ask questions, engage other people, and say hi to people I know just to say hi. I interact with people that, ideally, seems friendly, open, and inviting. Now, I’m on the inside looking out, so I don’t know how well this works, but this method was exactly how I met who I would currently consider to be my best friend.

I can’t put this mask on for everybody, as I don’t really find the will to open interactions people I have sub-par feelings towards. When I invented this personality, I basically made a good friend instantly, so I put it away again and returned to my “don’t speak unless spoken to” state, which is far more natural for me.

But the last few months I’ve been pretty lonely again, so I’ve pretty much been wearing that mask whenever I’m at school. It’s not a headspace I’m used to, so I have a hard time gauging the social situations it causes. I can’t tell if the people I’m talking to enjoy talking to me or simply respond because they’re being spoken to. Obviously, that distinction is important for my purposes.

Another thing about my social personality is that I really value open communication. Perhaps even overvalue and overshare. My inclination when I meet somebody new and graduate them from “person whose name I know” to “acquaintance” is to outright tell them I have a very difficult time socializing and making friends even if that doesn’t seem to be the case. I like my motivations and intentions to be laid out from the beginning, and the charismatic introvert sort of runs counter to that. For good or for ill, I’m not sure.

I feel like part of my problem is that my brain has inorganically concluded to simulate organic social norms. The only friends I’ve made “organically” are people I’ve known for 8 or more years, and some of my closest friendships were made because I made a conscious decision in my head to befriend them before we really knew each other (or before we even met in one of those cases).

I just… don’t know how to make friends. Does that make the charismatic introvert me a lie? Well, maybe. It’s certainly not my natural state, but my natural state also perpetuates bad behaviors I want to break, so here we are.

(Author’s note: Photo is unrelated. I just found it funny because it makes no sense.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D&D/Improv — Knowing Your Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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