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.)

Improv 101 — Being Somebody Else

Every year, when I meet the new class of high school kids I teach improv to, I always give them a lecture. Most times I’m teaching it’s a gauntlet of “what game is he teaching us this week”, but the first week is always different, because I mostly just talk. About me. You might think that’s asinine or narcissistic, and well, maybe it is, but I think my story with improv is important.

I was always the introverted kid in class. Okay, I am the introverted kid in class, but in high school it was even worse. I was so bad I would be reading fantasy novels in my theatre class any chance I could, as long as the teacher wasn’t talking. And yeah, I got my book taken away by multiple teachers over my high school career. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly fast friends with anyone I met.

But then my soon-to-be improv coach started coming into the class as a guest teacher. He’d teach imrpov games just like on Whose Line is it Anyway?, and I loved when he came because then we’d get to play improv. You’d think the story ends there right? I jump on stage, come out of my shell through improv, then I started teaching, right?

Well, no. It took a lot more work than that. I wouldn’t even go on stage to play games when he asked. I just liked that he was there because I enjoyed watching improv, not because I wanted to do it myself. Me? An actor? Yeah, okay buddy.

A few months go by, and he eventually states that he’s recruiting students for an improv team. Nothing school related, but we would be joining a non-profit that helps high school kids perform on stages (most often by singing, but well, that part of the story isn’t really important). Against my better judgment, I signed up. I could watch more improv that way, at least.

And so, Kollin the audience member was forced to become Kollin the improviser. I’m not going to pretend I was the best on the team, (in fact I would argue against it), but my best moments tended to last the longest in our minds.

After a few years of our improv team doing great and going strong, old faces leaving and new faces joining, our coach told us he was moving. We had two options: hold our own or quit while we were ahead. We made the mistake of trying to hold our own. The only people that were left were just out of high school, after all, and neither of us had the resources nor the charisma to lead a team of teenagers.

But, I did accept the mantle of improv coach. And so Kollin the improviser became Kollin the teacher. Freshly graduated, I started joining my coach as he went into the high school to teach, and when he did move, soon it was just me.

A few years of that and here we are. An introverted Kollin standing on stage talking to a bunch of high school freshmen about what improv is. This is only the first half of the lecture, but I think it implies a lot about what improv can be. Yes, I’m still the introverted guy who won’t speak to a stranger unless spoken to. But through improv I’ve gained the ability to don a mask. The mask of who Kollin would be if he was extroverted. I wear it well. It suits me, in a way, and though I can’t wear it for long, people are often surprised when I tell them I’m introverted. I’m still working on being able to pull out that mask in non-teaching environments, but it’s the only time that version of me is really comfortable.

Improv really helped me find myself. For some people, it takes them out of their shell and they blossom into an entirely new creature. Sometimes it’s just a confidence shift. I think I might of changed the least of all the people from my improv team, but the new skills of being able to pretend I’m slightly different versions of Kollin would make people think I’ve changed a lot.

Improv changes you, but it’s always positive. I’ve never seen anyone negatively impacted by the experience, and though I’ve certainly seen people so embarrassed they’ve cried, they really did learn a lot and had some profound personality growth because of it. Improv is one of those things that I think everybody should try for a while. Even if it’s just a simple college class later in life.

D&D — Dialogues 5: The Death Dungeon

Yesterday (as of writing this) my brothers and a couple friends were caught without board games to play. They were all at somebody else’s house and nobody wanted to go back to get them. Usually, we just play Telephone Pictionary instead (you draw a thing, pass it to the next person, they write what they drawing is, they pass it, they draw the description, etc.), but we weren’t really feeling it.

So we improvised a D&D session. We only had flash cards, two sets of dice, and the internet at our disposal. Most of us randomized pretty much everything. Random race and class, and randomized stats. In fact, for stats we just rolled 1d20 each. One of my brothers got two 20’s (at level one). He only ended up with 3 HP, though, so as a wild magic sorcerer his character was bound to be interesting.

When I rolled my d20s, my highest roll, and the only one above 10, was a single 12. Two of my rolls were 1s.

So naturally I made a goliath rogue with 1 Intelligence and 1 Wisdom. His name was Gerg, because that was the only sound he was capable of consciously making. Most of his modifiers were -2 or worse (even his Dexterity). The only thing he was kinda sorta good at was Strength and stealth specifically, because his Rogue expertise brought his Stealth roll to +2.

The session was fun, and I won’t get into the more mundane details. We had four rooms to explore and we only got to two of them. Each door had different monsters to fight. When another friend stepped in mid-game as a half-orc sorceress, we were really surprised when she just attacked us.

Now, Gerg was an interesting character to roleplay. You can’t really use logic to explain his actions because, well, he’s real dumb. A baby step away from catatonic, in fact. So he tries to attack the other half-orc in the party, and chaos ensues. The only normal person in the party died due to collateral damage, both of the half-orcs got away, and Gerg stalked after them with pokey intent. (Very loudly, I might add. That particular stealth roll was a 1.)

The person whose character had died re-rolled a new random character and followed into this new fray where we fought the Spanish Inquisition (literally). Gerg poked the nearest targets before losing the remaining 4 HP from the previous fight, so two out of the five players were down, one not in the room, and all of our loyalties to one another questionable at best.

So this True Neutral gnome druid walks into the room and sees this chaos happening. She can’t tell who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, so she walks up to Gerg and casts Healing Word, which brings him to full health.

It was a mistake. Gerg wasn’t smart enough to know that this small thing was the thing that saved him. So… he poked.

And rolled a 20.

A sneak attack and 22 damage later, Devon’s poor second character met and instant, tragic, and hopefully painless demise. As Kollin I feel really bad still. It’s hard not to when you’re technically making the conscious decision to murder somebody you know helped you, even if the situation justified it.

But man, it was hilarious, too.

So, about three hours and a bloody mess of level 1 corpses later and we called it a night. I had a blast, because having a bunch of confused characters in a room doing crazy stuff is just silly on a level scarce achieved elsewhere.

We’ve discussed the possibility of making a random generator just for the purposes of a Death Dungeon. Spitting out random characters, random rooms, etc. I hope we do, because that was a ton of fun.

Improv 101 — Film Noir

This is it. Probably the last game I’m going to detail in full for a long time. It’s by no means the only game I have yet to talk about. There are several other warm-ups that don’t constitute full posts, or games I know that I’ve never played, or games I simply don’t care for. But in a lot of ways I consider Film Noir to be the final hurdle. The top of the food chain. If you can play this game successfully every time, you’ve made it. Where? Beats me. The point I’m trying to make is that this game is pretty tough, and in a lot of ways, it’s unique, as well.

There are a few ways to play this game. I’ve already talked about a variation of one of them, a game my troupe calls Side Note. But the version I’m going to talk about today is weird. It’s a low energy, two person scene game. That’s it. Only two. And it doesn’t work with more. You’ll see why.

You get two stools, and both improvisers sit down on them, facing the audience. You get some suggestion (any works, but I usually take a location), and then you talk. Both improvisers take turns describing a scene in first person. They describe everything as detailed as possible. The hot handle of the door as you pull it open to step inside a gas station. The sound of the artificial bell and the blast of air when you pass beneath the threshold, and the smell of gasoline once you leave again to start filling up the tank. Maybe the lock on the pump doesn’t work so you have to stand there and fill it manually in the hot sun. Maybe there’s some homeless guy that keeps eyeing you and making you uncomfortable, making you anxious to leave. That’s the sort of detail I’m talking about here. The first person to talk sets the scene. They give details like that as if they are experiencing it then and there. After talking for about thirty seconds, they stop and the next person picks it up. They start talking from their perspective. Maybe they’re the guy at the cash register, waking up from their nap as the bell rings. Or maybe they’re the homeless guy that doesn’t want to go and ask for a handout. The two of them take turns talking, for about twenty to thirty seconds each, until both have spoken two or three times. (You’ll know when to stop when you get a natural conclusion to the scene.)

Once they’re done narrating, they move the stools and then act out that scene. Now, here’s what’s so cool about this game. It’s not funny. It’s magic. The pacing of this game will feel very slow, and as such it’ll be hard to make funny things happen, and they definitely won’t happen unless you force them to (which, don’t get me wrong, is possible). But the majesty of the game is what the audience experiences when they see it done well. They’ll hear that bell chime when the actor pantomimes opening that door. They’ll feel the door burn their hand when they subtly flinch. They’ll smell the gasoline, too. Even though none of those things are actually in the scene that is performed.

Actors have to portray everything they narrated in the scene. If you describe the smell of gas, their better be a point in the scene when the actor telegraphs them experiencing that smell. But you can also only perform things that you describe. You can’t suddenly think “Oh, my character forgot his wallet” if that wasn’t in the narration. You also can’t speak unless you put direct dialogue in the scene, and as such a Film Noir scene is often pretty quiet. “I told him my business doesn’t accept bills over $20” is not dialogue. That is description of what was said. If you want to say that in the scene, you have to narrate “I said, ‘Sorry, man, we don’t accept bills over twenty.'” In that circumstance it is okay to speak in the scene, but only then. If you narrated it the first way, you would have to pantomime speaking without actually saying any words. Sometimes that’s better, but it’s an important distinction to remember.

When people think of improvisational acting, they think comedy. But this isn’t a funny game. It probably isn’t my favorite, but it’s usual lack of humor doesn’t take away from the entertainment of watching it performed. It requires a lot of synchronization with your partner, and also it requires a lot of life experience to be able to articulate a lot of physical experiences. You will often get a suggestion that will involve a scene you have never experienced in real life. But you have to make it feel real nonetheless.

It’s a cool game, and I often show my students what improv can become at a higher level, but it’s not something I actually teach. I think of it as a goal to reach. Of course, you can always get better at improv, just like everything else in life. But being able to play this game well can serve as some decent validation of your capabilities.

Improv 101 — My Movie

Like many improv games, I’ve seen My Movie played a couple of different ways. The core of the game is the same, but there is a bit of variety to the nuances that can be tailored to suit the needs of a particular troupe.

Most often, it is played as a high energy group game. It can work with lots of people, but generally as long as you have more than four you’ll be fine. The idea is that the improvisers are a group of scriptwriters pitching movie ideas to the ref. You get some initials from the audience and you have the improvisers come up with movie titles using those initials. One by one, the ref points to them and they yell the title of a movie using those letters. If it sounds interesting, the Ref calls “Tagline!” and the improviser must then give a short description that could appear on a poster or in a movie trailer. If the tagline appeals to the ref, they can say “Let’s see it!”, in which case the improvisers must then act out a snippet of a scene from that movie. After that, the ref and improvisers return to calling out movie titles until the next one sticks.

The biggest difference in the two ways I’ve seen this game played is the intro. Namely, what happens before the ref starts pointing at people and the game actually starts. The first time I had seen this game, all the improvisers chant “My movie, my movie my movie, aww yeah!” in the same tone of Big Booty, a game I’ll probably never actually talk about in detail. Because I obviously can’t describe what the tone of that chant is, I think the second way is easier. Instead of the chant, all the improvisers just yell “My movie!” as fast as they possibly can while trying to get the ref’s attention as if they are a bunch of people at a crowded press conference trying to be called on. I prefer it this way, and it’s a lot easier because it doesn’t require synchronization.

Another reason I like the second intro is the faster pacing. The key thing to remember for this game is that it’s meant to be high energy. The ref needs to point to his or her targets quick to get them to pitch movie titles rapid-fire. There should never be a full second of downtime in this game, and all transitions must be seamless. This is the sort of game that is a good warm-up for an audience, because it gets their heart rate up. My Movie isn’t a very funny game, but it only needs to be fast and entertaining to get your viewers into the mood.

This is also the sort of game that combines preparation with on-the-spot moments. You kind of have to think about movie titles as you wait for the referee to point at you, but it’s hard to have both a tagline and a scene ready if it’s a good movie title, so you often have to say the first thing that comes to mind.

With this game, improvisers can do no wrong. With as fast as the pace is set, the most difficult thing about it is that you’ll often be expected to pitch movie titles faster than you can come up with them, and as such it’s a great way to force beginning actors to think more quickly. There will, inevitably, be instances where you have to speak when you don’t know what to say. It happens a lot in improv, but don’t let that stop you from saying anything. Sometimes the most memorable quotes come from instances in which you hadn’t put any thought to your words. And even if you do say something dumb, the game is supposed to be pretty quick. People will only remember the gems in a game like this. And if you have upwards of six people, this game is super easy, because it allows the other improvisers time to think about better titles.

This is one of those games that is great for beginning improvisers, and I try to introduce it very early on to the kids I teach. Also, here is a link to a great example of this game.