Me — The Most Important Piece of Media

I want you to think about all the media you’ve consumed over the course of your life. All the TV you’ve watched, the books you’ve read, and the games you’ve played. If you had to pick one thing, what one thing had the most impact on who you grew up to be? Now, I’m not asking you what your favorite piece of media is, although they might actually be the same thing.

I’m sure a lot of people from an older generation would pick a movie. Maybe a classic TV show. Somebody very young might pick a game like Fortnite (although, to be fair, they might not have experienced their “Most Impactful Thing™”). I would be willing to bet that a lot of people my age would pick Harry Potter, given that we got to grow up with the books and it touched so many millions of lives. It’s certainly not what I would pick, but I don’t think my answer would be all that surprising to anyone, either.

My favorite game is Dragon Quest VIII. My favorite movie is Dumas’ The Counte of Monte Cristo (2002). My favorite book is, well, a hard choice, but anything by Brandon Sanderson will be up there.

But I would say that of if you took one piece of media out of my life so that I would never have experienced, the Kollin that would be the most different from any other Kollin would be the one that hadn’t watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I’ve reviewed Avatar before, but that post is mostly just me gushing (poorly) about why it’s so great. (Side note: That post is already almost three years old… Next week is the show’s 14th birthday… oh boy.) I didn’t analyze why the show is great then, and I won’t do it now. You can look up YouTube videos (or even series) on that premise that explain it better than I can.

I will explain why it’s so important to me, though. First, it has a magic system that is so simple and easy to understand, yet involves interesting complications. Once you understand waterbending, you can follow the train of logic that leads to bending the water in plants, or blood, or the very air itself. The magic system is so simple, yet so robust. I love magic systems, and while I don’t quite have the fanaticism that Brandon Sanderson has, magic is my favorite tool to employ in the fantasy wheelhouse.

But more than that, Avatar has amazing characters and plot. Every major character is incredibly well fleshed out, has important character arcs, and they each have long journeys to take. The show has a level of storytelling that is compelling in the same way the magic is: it’s easy to follow (especially in it’s episodic nature), but the overarching implications are more complex and interesting. You don’t have to watch Zuko and Iroh’s separation at the end of Book Two to feel the emotions in their reunion at the end of Book Three, but it is far more emotionally rewarding and cathartic if you do.

I had a dream less than a month ago in which I knew I was dreaming, and I had full control. So far, that is the only time that’s ever happened to me. So what did I do? I fought off a bunch of dudes with earthbending. I often have mental images of characters in my stories that I like to imagine myself embodying. (The one that’s been on my mind the last few months is a large, perhaps elven character carrying a staff.) Regardless of day or time, though (and especially in the shower,) I still find myself enjoying the image of lifting and launching rocks with what is basically just martial arts.

Am I embarrassed to admit that? Yeah, a little, but I think retaining a piece of the kid inside you is very important. And the little kid inside me loves to shoot rocks at people.

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.)

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.

 

Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.

Learning! — Different Story Ideas

As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to implement things into stories I may be working on or looking to tell in the future. Whenever I have a cool idea I don’t want to forget, I write it down (otherwise I will forget it. Don’t believe your brain if it tells you otherwise.) But when I’m writing these down, I have to consider the fact that there are several different kinds of ideas.

Simply put, some ideas are larger than others. Now before you say “Yeah, obviously”, let me explain exactly what that means. Let me give you a few different ideas to show you what I mean. One of the current ideas rolling in my brain right now is a time-based magic with a society knitted closely around it. They deal with sands, and hourglasses, calendars, day and moon cycles are very important to them. This is a big idea. It’s a major focus of the entire society, so whatever book or story they are in will have this as the main thing the audience will be looking at. I also have the idea of different colors of sands yielding different effects. This is a smaller idea. I can’t easily base a whole book around the idea of different sands holding different powers. It can be a large plot point, sure, but it’s not enough to be the main focus of the story.

But I recently had another idea of a character or race/religion/whatever of people with their entire arm always bandaged because society believes it is cursed. (This isn’t necessarily in the same universe, but it can be.) This has the potential of being both a large or small idea. If the main character of a book is one of these people, it’s probably a major plot point. Maybe they are trying to dispel the curse, for example. But if it is a more minor character (even an important one), it doesn’t need to be tied to the main plot at all.

You’ll also get weird ideas. Like “everybody in this story talks in rhyme except for the protagonist” which I think is a hilarious premise for a story. This can’t be spun into a book, though. This idea is a gimmick, and you can’t stretch gimmicks out that far. This idea would best be suited for a short story (or maybe a chapter of some sort of adventure novel).

There is a point to this, I promise. Whenever I’m looking at the plot arcs in my stories, I have to look at my ideas and think about how big they really are. Generally, this means thinking about how large scale the consequences of this idea is going to be. Having an entire society based around time is undeniably going to be large-scale since an entire people is involved. Different color sands could be large scale and impact lots of people depending on how available certain kinds of sands are, or what different effects they have. For ideas like that I can also think about their relationship with the economy. Even the bandaged people are relevant to that point. Are they shunned by society? Where do they live if they are? What is the ratio of bandaged to normal people? Things like this are critical to the story because the story you are telling will be very different if there are only bandaged people versus them being a minority in a group of more ‘normal’ citizens.

So if you have an idea you like but aren’t sure how to implement it, think about how big the idea really is. Generally it can be hard to fit two huge ideas into the same story, but smaller ideas can often find their place neatly around one large idea.

Learning! — Sparks of Motivation (375)

Recently I’ve taken to writing a flash fiction piece every Wednesday (in addition to the projects I’m actively working on), and the stories that I’ve written have been based on specific writing prompts from Reddit. I had a quick little chat with somebody there about how any prompt can lead to an original story. For example, consider this prompt: “An unlikely and unqualified hero is given an immensely powerful artifact and is told he is the savior of the world before being forcibly whisked away to adventure”.

Now, besides the fact that this is a generalized plot structure, this can describe a great many famous book series in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Truth, to name a couple. Does that mean these stories are similar? Not in the slightest. It works the same way with any writing prompt: any two people writing from the same foundation will inevitably write very different stories. The only time you’re really at risk of not being original is when a writer actively writes a story to evoke another specific story.

So when I’m browsing Reddit, looking for a writing prompt, the last thing on my mind is whether or not I can write a unique story. For anyone that wants to write but doesn’t, the first thing they have to learn is that the most important thing is to always make sure that whatever you’re planning on writing is an idea you’re excited about.

For any aspiring writer, starting off small writing short stories based on prompts is a great idea. You may have this awesome book series in your head waiting to get written, but don’t let it be the only thing on your mind. If I had to actually quantify the number of projects I have, whether ongoing or ones that need more thought before I can get started on them, I would have well over a dozen. Does it stress me out? Nope. Because at any point in time, I’m always writing whatever is most exciting to me, even if it isn’t as developed as some other ideas I have.

When I look for my weekly writing prompt, the only thing that I’m really looking for is something that sparks my interest. I read the prompts, and if I immediately get an idea for a scene, or a line of dialogue, or a story theme, I’m good to go. Could I pick any prompt and write a story based on it? Sure. But that spark of interest is what’s important. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads this story, or if you don’t like it. All that matters is that you’re motivated enough to get the story written in that moment, and the best way to ensure that is to look for that spark.

I’m not going to lie. Sometimes that spark never comes. Maybe I’m just not in the mood to write. Maybe the prompts I’m looking at really aren’t interesting. Maybe I’m just tired. You can’t force inspiration, regardless of how hard you try. And a harsh truth is that established authors are expected to write even without that spark. If you plan to ‘get there’ one day, you’ll need to be able to work without relying on working at your best.

But somebody that just wants to write doesn’t have to worry about that. The spark will come, so just be patient and don’t stress out.