Review — Critical Role

I’m actually a little surprised that I have yet to actually talk about Critical Role as a thing. I know I’ve mentioned the fact that I’m watching/listening to it on a few monthly updates, but I never even explained what it is. So let me pose it to you this way. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons group that professionally filmed all their sessions, and the entire cast, dungeon master and all, are famous celebrity voice actors who all happen to be great friends.

Now imagine that that’s a real thing, because it is.

There are a ton of reasons why this show is amazing. Even people that don’t like D&D would like it by virtue of the fact that it has some amazing storytelling, vivid description, and hilarious role-play moments. The adventures of Vox Machina are everything I want but have never quite achieved in a Dungeons & Dragons group, and I admit it makes me a little jealous.

Here’s the list of players and the characters they play, as well as one of their most notable roles (in that order). Keep in mind that while I know a lot of these people from video games, cartoons, or anime I’ve seen in the past, many of them are very prevalent actors in general.

Matt Mercer, Dungeon Master: McCree from Overwatch

Liam O’Brien as Vax’ildan (half-elf rogue): Illidan from World of Warcraft

Laura Bailey as Vex’ahlia (half-elf ranger): Jaina from World of Warcraft

Taliesin Jaffe as Percy de Rolo III (human gunslinger): Darion Morgraine from World of Warcraft

Marisha Ray as Keyleth (half-elf druid): Diamond Dog Soldier from Metal Gear Solid V

Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian): Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard): Spider-man from The Amazing Spider-man 2 (video game)

Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric): Ellie from The Last of Us

Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer): Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies

For starters, Matt Mercer, the Dungeon Master, is the most amazing DM I have ever seen. Not only does he spin awesome tales so well it looks like the entire game was made for this setting rather than an open-world thing he made up, but he is also an amazing voice actor. Never have I seen somebody be able to so accurately mimic what I would imagine monsters like giant spiders or goblins to sound like. And he does it all on the fly, too!

The party of this campaign is also pretty great. I could tell you what I like about each and every person in the cast, but since there are eight of them, it would take too long. Suffice to say that they’re all great in their own right. They’ve each had amazing moments, and while some characters are more enjoyable than others, you can tell they really love not only their own character but the characters of the rest of the party as well. This is a group of people that have grown to love each other and the game. You can really see what Dungeons & Dragons is all about by watching them play.

My favorite part about this game is that I can learn more about it as both a player and dungeon master just from watching it, and I get to experience this amazing story at the same time!

This is an ongoing campaign, as well. They stream it live every week, and they’ve been going for about four years, I believe, and they’ve filmed the last two. This means that there are well over a hundred hours of their campaign that you can go and watch right now, so just a fair warning there.

So, as a parting gift, here is a link to one of everybody’s favorite characters that Matt Mercer cooked up on the spot. It just goes to show that you don’t have to develop a huge boss monster or an important king to make a non-player character memorable.

Review — Dragon Age: Inquisition

This is the only Dragon Age game I have ever played, first off. I’ve also never played any of the Mass Effect, and have relatively little experience with games that are heavily impacted based on the choices you make. I have no idea what even compelled me to try this game, and admittedly it was quite some time ago when I did play it, but man this game is amazing.

First off, whenever I play a large role-playing game like this, the character I create is always one based on one in my own universe, Nacre Then. I like going through the character creator and making my imagination fit the screen, and when I do play I like deciding options based on what that character would do. So in that sense, there’s no real choice involved, but to me it makes it even more compelling.

The functionality of this game is pretty much flawless. I love the UI, the combat, and especially the aesthetics of the landscapes and world. It isn’t every day you find a game where all of the armor looks awesome, and there are almost too many options once you get into the game. Crafting your own gear and deciding what the color and texture of everything is is a little daunting, since the possibilities are almost endless.

Whenever I play these sorts of games, I always try to set myself up for a challenge and play on the harder difficulties. I can’t remember what the difficulty scale of this game is, or if there was a “Legendary” mode, but I played on Hard and man, it starts getting really unforgiving. I would actually put this as a point in its favor, though, because I love saving before a battle and trying to plan out what is going to happen as if I’m solving a puzzle.

The best/worst thing about this game, though, is that it made me want to do everything. There are three classes: warrior, rogue, and mage, and each class has the more subclasses. When I played, my character was a mage (of course), and when I unlocked the choice of which subclass I wanted to pick, I wanted all of them. Now, if I play again, I’ll be compelled not to play a mage again, because I’ll be experiencing the same content, but I still want to play those two subclasses I never got to see! (It’s worth noting that you can play every character in the party beyond your character, “The Inquisitor”, and that those characters unlock subclasses as well, but its just not the same when it’s not you.)

These are my two major criticisms for the game, even if they’re small. The first is that the crafting system gets tedious. You find common materials you don’t need everywhere, but if you don’t pick them up you’ll run out. On top of that, the rare stuff can only be found in specific places. They’re not “rare”, really, because it’s not randomly generated. If you can’t find them, you’re simply in the wrong place.

My second critique is that while unique, “Epic” armor is in the game, it doesn’t compare to crafting your own gear later on. When you make your own armor, you can choose all the stats you want, so it’s always far better than even good uniques that you literally had to kill a specific dragon for. It’s a little disheartening when you complete a daunting challenge only to find the reward is useless.

As a side note, this is one of very few games that gave me chills during a cutscene. Even without knowing these characters from past games, there was one specific moment that really immersed me into the world, and it was awesome. (I won’t say what it was, though, because it’s sort of a spoiler, but it does happen relatively early on in the game.)

Me –Being a Dungeon Master

(This week’s audio recording: “Fortune’s Fool“, is one I wrote back in April. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and I hope to revisit the story someday.)

 

I haven’t talked about Dungeons and Dragons in some time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the game since I’ve brought it up last, but admittedly, the most important things I’ve learned about running a proper campaign is about myself and what I’ve been doing wrong! I’m not upset, though. Progress has to come from somewhere, after all, and knowing where to improve is the best place to start.

When I planned out this campaign, I started with the big stuff. Who’s the overarching bad guy, what is the party going to have to do to stop him, that sort of thing. I set up this huge story, and when the first session began, all I had was big reveals. This meant I had to force both of my parties (they’re running the same campaign) onto a quest with no information. No motivation, just “I need your help, thanks bye!” Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so while big reveals are cool, you need a solid foundation with which to base them on.

For me, this means preparing the sessions more thoroughly. I thought “Hey, I have a lot of experience with improv, I don’t need to prepare dungeons or characters off the bat!” so I didn’t. It was here that I’ve learned something about improv: since it’s all about justification (and not about trying to be funny), often one will take the easiest route. I can make up new characters and buildings all day, but just because I can bring things up on the fly and have it make sense doesn’t mean it’s interesting. That’s where the preparation needs to come in.

Specifically, I need to prepare two things. Primarily, I need to develop the characters I introduce more. I need them to have motivations and personalities that are distinct from each other rather than have them all be furniture for this grander story I’m trying to tell. Now, if you’re anything like me, you hate outlining characters. I’ve tried doing that for novels, and man it just ruins what enjoyment I can get from writing. So for this instance I’m going to try to establish “what this character wants” as a solid goal for virtually everyone I introduce. Goals are important. Everyone has them. Furthermore, having several dozen character names to pull from a hat whenever somebody is introduced isn’t enough. I’ll also need a slew of personality traits and distinct characteristics to help make each person different.

The second thing I need to prepare is the locales. When I set my players off to the grand quest of magical vagueness, they were tasked with getting information with no leads. With large locations, there needs to be large landmarks. Interesting or large buildings and structures that stand out that make a place more memorable and provide a convenient place to start (or return, as the case may be).

Those are the big things I need to work on. The part that I’ve done right from the beginning (and simply need to improve upon) is the theme of the campaign. For the entirety of the issues the party has come across, I’ve tried to force them to operate in moral gray areas. When forcing people to choose between two bad decisions, a dungeon master can have a lot of fun toying with the consequences of what occurs. It forces your party to think when it isn’t simply “go to the cave and kill the evil dragon”. The whole fun of Dungeons and Dragons is the choice and openness in every action you take. When you give your party a clear goal, it gets boring. So don’t make it boring!

Review — Diablo

The original Diablo hit its twentieth anniversary on New Year’s Eve, and my brother and I have been playing it recently so he could show me what things were like so long ago. Now, Role-playing games are definitively my favorite genre. I love killing stuff, leveling up, getting a new spell or sword, and going out to kill stronger stuff.

So, what is this grandpa of a game like for somebody that doesn’t have nostalgia for it, and how does it compare to games nowadays? In all honesty, it fairs pretty dang well. It’s (obviously) dated, but a lot of fun compared to everything else on the shelves these days, which is especially impressive considering how old it is.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this game has terrible flaws. The first boss in the game is so impossibly strong compared to every monster you fight previously, you’re basically guaranteed to get slaughtered the first time you encounter him. By the Allfather’s mercy you better hope you had saved recently. In fact, you’re bound to be so weak compared to him that the only way to kill him is to lock him in a room with bars (demons can’t open doors) and shoot arrows through the bars while he can’t hit you. Can you imagine the backlash if a new game released with such dramatic imbalances?

It’s also pretty tedious. You have to walk everywhere you go, and it probably takes about a minute to walk from certain townsfolk to important areas on the map. Why does everything have to be so far apart? Also, as a really small blunder, the interface is extremely clunky and the controls aren’t intuitive at all, but that’s to be expected in an older game.

It’s also pretty unforgiving. Now, I would actually consider this a point in its favor. I love how I can hit my teammate (though I admit to nothing), or how barrels with cool stuff in them could very easily explode and kill me outright. I think that sort of heartless “trial by fire” is something that we’ve strayed from in newer generations of gaming, and I think the community is the lesser for it. I would much rather feel accomplished when I finally beat something that was hard rather than blow through something with no concern.

There’s two things that I really like about this game. The first is the “item drop” system. I love how every item you find could be the best piece of gear in the universe or literally worse than not wearing anything. It makes finding a sword with great stats feel so awesome, because you know its going to be hours before you find a better one.

The other thing I like about the game is the spells. The magic system is extremely advanced for what I would have expected: there’s probably over spells, over half of which I don’t even know about. On that front, they’re all relatively balanced: they’re all useful in certain situations, so if you’re using them correctly you feel powerful, literally sweeping the ground in flame and killing half a dozen skeletons with one spell cast. The same skeletons that used to one shot you! Take that, jerks! I mean, your brother may be dead now because he was in the same room, but there’s always a price to be paid for overwhelming power.

So while this game is over twenty years old, it still holds up extremely well against games in the same genre, and I would attribute this mostly due to the fact that while unforgiving, it rewards those who learn its ways bountifully. And now, having played it, I’m not surprised in the slightest as to why this game has gotten the notoriety it has.

Me — Video Games (270)

With a past-time as diverse as video games, it’s easy to see why so many people play them. Are mobile apps “video games”? Is Farmville a “video game”? If you widen those gaps, is playing Tic Tac Toe over Windows Paint a “video game”? It’s certainly debatable, but rather than do research on what would technically be defined as a video game (who has the authority to say one way or another, anyway?), I’ll just define what it means to me, and talk about the sorts of games I like and why I like them. (Be warned, this post is twice as long as most). Also the pictures below are all screenshots to help convey what these games really are.

To me, a “video game” is a uniquely digital experience made for the purpose of entertainment. This means that basically everything aforementioned is a video game except Tic Tac Toe. Now, when I define myself as a “gamer”, that means something else entirely. Not having a large enough sample size to know what people do in their spare time, I’d define that simply as “somebody who frequently plays video games in their spare time”. Now that I think about it, I almost can’t conceive what people would do with all their free time if they don’t play video games. I suppose “most” non-gamers would be watching TV or Netflix these days.

But there are so many types of games out there, it’s hard to even define many of their genres. When I pick a game up on Steam, or simply decide which game to play, it is heavily dependent on my mood, how much time I have, how much I want to focus, and whether or not I want to play with people (friends or online).

Even six years ago, I rarely played anything with other people. I played a lot of RPGs at the time, and even the online things I played I never played with friends. I simply never had many school friends and for the longest time we only ever had one console or computer between the three or four of us that wanted to use it.

If I had to pick, I would say my favorite genre is the RPG (role-playing game), but even that is incredibly vague these days. What most genres boil down to though is game mechanics: what can you do in the game and what are the things you do to do it. In an RPG, most often this means to level up, upgrade your weapons and armor, and experience a story. These are games like FalloutSkyrimDragon Quest VIII (no surprise there), and a great many MMO (massively multiplayer online) games like World of WarcraftGuild Wars, or Rift. For single player games, I typically like to have a lot of free time ahead of me before I crack it open. You don’t simply boot up Skyrim and only play for an hour or so; the experience is much better when you can play for three or four.

First person shooters, or FPS games, are probably what many non-gamers think of when they think of our stereotype: a ten year old with a headset screaming obscenities at his TV because he just got shot and killed. There certainly is a lot of that, but when I play those types of games, it probably means I’m playing with friends and trying to waste time having fun. Call of Duty is certainly on this list, sure, but these days for me, FPS games mean Titanfall 2 (if you’re looking for what you would describe as a ‘prototype’ of the genre), Bioshock, and especially Overwatch. People think of FPS games as a guy with a gun shooting somebody else with a gun, but really all FPS defines is the camera angle and weapon.

Without making an absurdly long post of all the specific kinds of games I love (Heroes of Might and Magic won’t make it on this list, unfortunately), it would perhaps be best to condense nearly everything else that is relevant for me as a top-down or platformer game. The only thing these terms define is camera angle here: for top-down, you’re looking at the landscape from a bird’s eye view, or at a slight angle if you’re playing an isometric, and platformers means you’re looking at your character with your eye sight parallel to the ground. Typically that means your character is jumping up on platforms (hence the name). Awesome recent games like this include Transistor (isometric), Stardew Valley (top-down), and Owlboy (a platformer I have not played yet). All of these examples are single player games that offer vastly different experiences from one another, so it’s a little unfair to lump them all together. Oh, well.

The single biggest thing to define here, though is the time sink. When playing a game, you should ask yourself whether or not you can “beat” it. With a game like Final Fantasy, a super popular series of RPG games, you can defeat the final boss, put it down, and never play the game having experienced virtually all there is to experience. These are most often story driven games. You play for the story then walk away when you’re through with it. But with games that involve a lot of people, i.e. MMOs like World of Warcraft or popular FPS games like Call of Duty, there is no experience that “completes” the game for you. There is no end goal. It may sound weird, especially for somebody that doesn’t play games, but in the end its the experience you jump into a game for, so its not inherently bad that online games have infinite replay-ability. It’s like watching a football game: You’re not done with football forever when the Super Bowl ends, because there’s a new season and every individual game you watch will be different. It’s the same thing with online games like Overwatch or League of Legends or Starcraft: every game you play will be distinctly different from the last. That’s why these games are the best games to play with friends: there are no requirements. You don’t have to wait for them to be at the same chapter of a story or anything like that. You simply jump on and play a match, and then another, and another until you don’t want to play anymore. To me, these games are almost exclusively for when I play with friends, because the enjoyment I get out of them when I play alone is minimal.

As a side note, here is a link to an enormous (albeit outdated) picture of a flowchart on picking the “perfect” video game for you (I didn’t simply add it because it’s quite a large picture). Sort of a weird thing to say when I just explained how I play different games based on a ton of different factors, but I also like flowcharts, so here you go.

 

Me — D&D Campaign Progression (255)

As I tread into new waters and start running two simultaneous Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, I find myself learning a lot about both improvising and worldbuilding. Both campaigns are biweekly, and they have entirely different groups of people in the party. It’s simply the same plot being told by the same narrator (so they aren’t canon to each other, though I do plan on there being player character overlap at some point).

One thing I’ve learned very quickly is that for D&D, it works really well if you don’t give your party a clear goal. In the beginning of the campaign, I provided them with only vague hints as to problems going on with where they were, and left them to find clues and ask around, piecing together the problem and, as they do, forming a plan to deal with it.

In this instance, I presented them with two options. They all have pros and cons, even if they don’t know what they are, and gaining knowledge as to what’s really going on here will help them understand the position they should take.

Another thing I set into this world (during the planning stage) is that everything will be operating in a moral gray area. As far as I can help it, there will be no “murderous dragon killed the king, avenge him!” and more “This person is doing immoral things to accomplish things for unknown or even good reasons, how do you deal with that?” I think, for the players, this provides a much more compelling story with obvious consequences to choices they will have to make.

Overall, I’d say it’s going pretty well. In my experience, players are extremely proficient in finding their own path, whether or not you laid one out for them. They’ll handle things the way they want to anyway, so I’ve found that it can work well if you don’t give them a path.

Being experienced in improv helps with this quite a bit. I know many dungeon masters lay out dungeons and write out character sheets only to have their players not go into that castle or never meet that person. I don’t have to worry about that because I can trust myself to be able to layout a dungeon on the fly and fill in the gaps later. That’s actually exactly how I made a layout of the castle-town they are currently investigating–detail the parts they ask about off-handedly, then after the session is over, fill in everything else with less important things that may or may not come up later.

I’m not sure how apparent it is, but I love this kind of thing. Worldbuilding is my passion. Many people (who know how stressed I’ve been lately) have advised me not to run D&D campaigns with how constricted my schedule currently is. They don’t understand how much I love making things like this. Creating a world and watching people explore it is the least constricting thing I can even imagine. It’s an escape on a level I can’t achieve with writing, because in a sense, it’s real. I can’t read a book I’ve written and watch somebodely else experience it. I can’t see their imagination flow like I can when people are playing D&D. That’s why whatever happens and regardless of how much work it is to prepare more plot or draw out maps, it’ll always be worth the adventure it brings.

Me — Competitiveness

I think the way I play games ties back to my early childhood and how I was narcissistic and selfish. Back then, I’m told I was both a sore loser and a sore winner, so I was pretty much the worst. The funny thing is, I don’t think I’m really any different than how I was back then, at least internally. The biggest difference is perhaps the fact that I’m not as open with my inner thoughts as I had been.

In everything I do, I’m very competitive, which is sort of annoying because it means I’m bad at relaxing. I don’t like operating at less than maximum efficiency. It’s so bad that I feel guilty for listening to music while playing video games rather than an audiobook. Ridiculous, I know, but I don’t think it’s a terrible flaw.

One of the ways this manifests itself most in my life is that, especially recently, I don’t like getting into new things. I don’t want to learn a new game, I want to get better at the one I already know. And once I’m good at it, I want to take it a few steps further and be the best at it. I don’t like devoting less than one hundred percent to anything, because it feels like I’m slacking if I do. It’s why I rarely play role-playing games anymore, because they require a time investment I don’t want to commit. It’s not that I don’t have the time if I really wanted to, it’s that spending that time means time not practicing and getting ahead in anything anyone else is doing.

I played a lot of League of Legends back in the day. Assuming I won about half of the games I’ve ever been in, I’ve probably played around eight hundred hours, as a rough estimate. That’s about a month’s time. Now, if you’re not a gamer, that may sound like a lot, but it actually seems low to me. Some of it was playing with friends, sure, but I didn’t play all one-hundred-an- whatever of the champions. I probably spent over half of those hours on the same three characters, playing, practicing, and exploring how to get the most out of their potentials.

As far as World of Warcraft goes, I have several websites that I go to constantly regarding how to optimize how I play just so I can be the best. Getting the best gear to make my numbers the highest, learning which buttons to hit in different situations, that sort of thing. If nothing else, I strive to be the best of my class (mage, of course), and playing any other class simply feels wrong because of how much time I spent on that one.

Lastly, devotion is the biggest thing. If the game isn’t multiplayer or there are noncompetitive ways to play it, I prove how good I am by getting one hundred percent completion, or by beating it quickly. That sort of thing.

The worst part is, it permeates all aspects of my life. I kind of need to be the best at everything. The only thing that changes is what I’m focusing on. I lose interest if my devotion isn’t giving me the results I like, which is exactly how I feel about World of Warcraft right now (because everybody else I know simply has so much more time on their hands than I do.)

I suspect I’ll get back into Stardew Valley very soon and build the best farm the universe has ever seen.