D&D — Making Magic Items

I’ve been pretty bad at posting on time lately, and I apologize for that. I’ve had a lot going on and it’s proven very difficult to not pour all of the free time I do have into mindless things just to relax. From now on, though, I’ll just post whenever I see fit, sticking loosely to my current Monday and Thursday schedule, and I promise to stop apologizing for being late.

The last week or two I’ve been thinking a lot about magical items for Dungeons and Dragons, and it really surprised me that it was just so easy to come up with new items. Virtually any cool thing you can think of can be spun into being balanced within the rules of 5th edition, so the more I ponder it, the more ideas I get. Now, I’m not going to just list them all, but here’s one of my favorites:

Practiced Wink — Wondrous item, common

While wearing this monocle, you can add your proficiency bonus to Deception checks when passing yourself off as nobility. If you are already proficient in Deception, double your proficiency. If you have the ‘Noble’ Background, this benefit applies to Persuasion checks instead.

What this basically means is that this magic monocle makes your lies more convincing if you’re trying to make people think that you’re a noble. If you are a noble, it makes you better at convincing them to do as you say. I think it’s a fun item that, while not terribly useful since it’s parameters are so specific, can allow for some interesting moments, which is what D&D is all about.

It’s been fun to stretch this muscle in a new way. Usually when I’m thinking of creative stuff like this it’s usually interesting characters, scenes, or cultures. My interest in worldbuilding stems from the broadest strokes possible—how the gods created the world and what the answers to this fantasy universe are.

But these things I’m making now are for the express purpose of making game night with friends a little cooler, or a little sillier, or a little more engaging. It’s really fun to start with a cool name for an item and then figure out what it does from there, or have an interesting idea for a mechanic and then discovering what type of item it should be and what a neat name for it is.

I’ll admit, this has gotten me pretty interested in being a dungeon master again. I’ve been toying with the premise for a new campaign, and I know exactly how I would get that ball rolling, but I’m not ready by a long shot. For starters, my life is too busy to devote another 8 hours a week to D&D (4 hours for the game and 4 hours for preparation is actually pretty generous, it would probably be closer to 10 or 12).

In a way, D&D is cool because it allows for everything, just like the magic items I’m working on. I have silly items like the Practiced Wink, cool, powerful items like the Devil’s Bargain, and interesting items that change the way you play your character like the Wizard’s Retort. I want the games I lead to be a myriad of things. I want it to be a place where you can sit and relax to have a good time with friends, but also tell an awesome story through both character interactions and game mechanics. Not all D&D is like that. In fact I would hazard to say that the vast majority of D&D is only ever one of those things at a time.

But we’ll see.

Me — Working On An Outline…

So, a few weeks ago I wrote a story set in Nacre Then, a universe I haven’t written in in over a year. I hated the story, because it was just so… empty. Unfortunately for me, however, it also had the side effect of demanding that I write the story properly. The whole thing, not just one tiny scene.

And that’s how I ended up working on arguably my first “real” project since I put down Spear Gate indefinitely earlier this year. This isn’t without it’s challenges, of course. I’m seemingly inept at writing a full length novel since the first book I wrote nearly six years ago now. I wouldn’t consider this story I’m working on to be a full novel, but so far it’s looking like it’ll be between 10-20,000 words, which is daunting for the current Kollin.

I retired Nacre Then a while ago because it’s too full. I have every rule of magic, every cultural custom, every major event either written down or locked away in my head, because it was my first universe. I thought about it every day for years, and now it’s so full it has no room to grow. I can’t invent new characters because if I put them in a world with the others, the others will inevitably be more important. And I can’t write the stories in this universe because I’ve told myself them so many times I’m bored of them.

But this new story is something of a spin-off. The tragic backstory of a character that toes the line between minor and major. I’ve been exploring her past since I wrote that one little story, and it honestly intrigues me. The only problem is now I have to weave all these snippets into a cohesive story without stepping on my own toes anywhere else.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. I’ve published very little in the Nacre Then universe, so just tossing away what I don’t like would make the most sense, and that way I can work in the space I want to. As I always say, though, creativity is the ability to justify through constraints. If I just threw away everything Nacre Then has been, I’ll be left with nothing and not know where to go. And I can’t just ignore some things because I won’t know what to let go of. In fact, the only reason I can even explore this story is because it takes place in somewhat uncharted territory, so I’m already as free as I could be when working in this universe.

I’ll be honest. I’m scared. I don’t want to get bored of this story like all the others. I’m getting pretty frustrated with my inability to maintain interest. I just write something and then I start seeing plot holes and I ignore them until they get too big to ignore, and then I find something else to work on. It’s the same thing every time.

I know that part of it is just that I’m busy and I don’t have the energy to devote myself to a full story, but I can’t let that be my excuse because that’s just the way life is always going to be. It isn’t like grade school where every trouble and responsibility is gone when school is over.

They say nothing worth doing is easy, and I hate how right that is.

Review — Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Okay, as always with a review of a recent thing, I’ll write the spoiler free version first, then the spoiler-not free version after that. There will be a clear dileneation, don’t worry. Before I get to even the actual review though, I have a confession. I never saw the 2015 Jurassic World. These movies being what they are, though, I didn’t expect to really need that much context, and I was right. It’s not like jumping into Two Towers having never seen/read Fellowship of the Ring.

Alright: actual review. Overall conclusion is that its plot is sort of a mess, and I think a lot of things could have been handled better. For what it is, though, it does its job. It has all the suspense and action you would come to expect from the series, and I think it makes a fine addition to the series. I think it goes without saying that Jurassic Park is still by far the best one, but it often isn’t fair to compare movie sequels to their predecessors. For a lot of reasons, they simply can’t live up to the expectation.

My major gripe with the movie is actually the trailer that I saw. Now, I hate watching movie trailers, and this is the biggest reason. The movie that I expected to see from that trailer is not the movie that this was, and I’ll go into more detail on that later (with spoilers). It’s worth noting that I did not watch the “Final” Trailer until writing this now, and it does a much better job showcasing the basic plot without misdirection. That said, for that to be my biggest issue is probably a compliment.

Another thing that I wasn’t a huge fan of was the final 20 minutes. I feel like it could have been much bigger and better, but I would be willing to concede that that’s probably controversial, and I can see the merits to the version they went with. More on that later, too.

Overall, I think it was okay. The actors did a fine job, there were (as you’d expect), some awesome camera shots, and the action was approachable. I think the character motivations were often very shaky, though, and I felt a lot of the plot twists were uninspired. Solid movie, you get what you paid for, but I feel it could have been great. (Also, super bonus points for not making basically no romantic subplot whatsoever. I don’t know what happened between them in the previous movie, but I’m glad romance doesn’t get in the way of the plot here.)

And now: Spoilers!

Alright, my four issues with the movie.

  1. The trailer I saw was all about escaping the island and whatnot. I was led to believe the film would take place on the island, and the climax would be the volcano blowing up. Instead, everyone was off the island in half an hour and the rest of the movie was about the politics of trafficking dinosaurs. I mean… what? Sure, the plot made sense, but you’re going to put the actual exploding volcano practically in the exposition? Yeah, okay.
  2. We’re (literally) told that the Indoraptor is the smartest and most deadly creature to ever walk the Earth. And then when it (of course) escapes, it’s just a big, fast thing with claws and teeth. How is that any different? You tell us it’s smart, show us it’s smart. The smartest thing it does is figure out how to open a door that was made of glass to begin with. I guess you could argue that it breaking the elevator was smart, but that looked like an accident to me, when it should have totally been intentional. You also tell us it can smell things a mile away, but can’t pinpoint people hiding behind a thing ten feet away? It’s supposed to be scary because it’s smarter and stronger than other dinosaurs, and then… it really isn’t. (I also don’t get why they needed Blue alive. They already made the dinosaur before the trafficking thing happened, what was Blue even for other than to help the good guys?)
  3. Okay, I know this is stupid, but the tech guy. Franklin? His character was dumb. Why would a “germaphobe” let’s call him go to an island infested with creatures that want to eat him? The only character motivation we’re given as to why he’s there is a throwaway line about how his dad made him come. I mean, no. His character was funny and all, but nothing about his existence made sense for the plot.
  4. The ending is stupid. Why does Jeff Goldblum have a speech about dinosaurs being out in the wild when there’s like a dozen escaped dinosaurs? The amount of threat they pose to the public is laughable, and realistically, the worst damage they could do is in the form of disrupting the ecosystem through bacteria. They would all be tracked down and (probably) killed within a week. That’s not a setup for a sequel and I’m mad that the movie tried to tell me it was.

P.S. I think it’s interesting that literally nobody but the audience knows that the grandpa was murdered. Everybody knows he’s dead, sure, but the only guy that knew, the murderer, also died. Inconsequential, I know. Plus, he would 100% have died in the chain of events that took place in that house anyway, but I think it’s a thought worth considering.

Review — Story Break

In my quest to get caught up on all the podcasts I want to listen to (5/9 done!) I’ve been listening to a lot of Story Break, RocketJump’s podcast where three screenwriters try to adapt a famous or unadaptable concept into a TV series or movie. Throughout each one-hour episode they take a concept and flesh out what the narrative of that story should be. Each episode is basically a huge brainstorming session as if they actually had the rights to these properties.

Their second episode is about giving Jar Jar Binks his own movie, and their first rule was that they wanted to make a movie that redeemed the character instead of it being one of those trash movies people pay to see because it will be so bad.

I’ve watched roughly two-thirds of the episodes that have aired so far, and I love the podcast for two reasons. The first is their primary goal—very often, they (seem to) do a really good job and plot out a movie I would love to go watch. Obviously a screenwriter’s vision isn’t necessarily what ends up on the big screen, but you get the idea. Their knowledge of the narrative structure is pretty solid, so it isn’t a question of whether they can forge a good plot, it’s whether or not they can hold true to the original ‘feel’ of the thing they’re drawing from. If they’re making a movie about Monopoly, they aren’t just plugging in the keywords, they’re trying to make something that feels like a live action game of Monopoly. They don’t always knock it out of the park, but the constraint of staying true to the origin is admirable.

The second amazing thing about this podcast is the side effect (intentional or otherwise) of drawing the audience into the brainstorming session by drawing from media and concepts that they are already familiar with. It means that I can have my own ideas spinning around in my head and be ecstatic when they get to the same ideas, or I can be amazed when they come up with this idea or plot thread I hadn’t thought of. It isn’t as though they’re making things up because they’re drawing from established “universes” (if you can call the collective Kellogg’s brand cereals an EU).

I’m really enjoying the podcast because brainstorming and pulling together plots is something I love doing. I won’t get into it here, but it taps into that strange contradiction where I hate outlining my own stories but love plotting in general. Seeing these guys have fun doing it is an inspiration, and it is a good foundation for what outlining plot is. In later episodes they also act out elevator pitches (with sound effects and… acting… and everything).

Overall, it’s a great podcast. It’s a weekly, hour long podcast just like everything else, but they do a great job on an episode-to-episode basis. The one thing that I don’t like, and there probably is no fix for, is that when they fail to come up with a good story I’m really disappointed, and I feel like I’ve wasted that hour of my time. Trouble is, there’s no way to know beforehand if they fail, so you can’t just skip those episodes.

That doesn’t happen a whole lot, though. Maybe four times out of the forty episodes I’ve listened to.

Learning! — Writing Weaknesses

One thing that sucks about the aspiring writer’s process of growth is learning to deal with your weaknesses. Obviously, everything anyone does will involve personal strengths as well as weaknesses, and writing is no different. One person might suck at writing compelling or believing dialogue, or be terrible at developing characters or plot, or not actually have a solid concept of how much description is too much or too little.

The difficulty with this is that, while everybody has strengths, these aren’t very prevalent. Writers often get two kinds of responses to their work. The first, and most common, is “This is great!”, of which there is no reply. In my experience, this sort of response is numerous, but unhelpful. It just means the reader doesn’t care enough to look for or point out your mistakes, or perhaps they are even lying just for the sake of encouragement. It is nice, don’t get me wrong, but it is pretty much useless.

The second is a little better, and that is constructive feedback. Telling you what’s wrong, and where you can improve. This varies from simple edits to overarching plot holes. This can be of varying use, but it too has its problems. The biggest is that it can be hard to remember to weave in strong points of a story while pointing out its mistakes. When I’m editing somebody’s piece, the only time I write down a compliment is when I find something so entertaining it throws me out of the story.

The problem with these two critiques is that they don’t give you a good picture of what you handle very well in your writing. The only time you could really find out is when somebody familiar with your work is pointing out general strengths, and even then it can be hard to know if they’re honest or knowledgeable enough to be accurate in their comments.

On the other hand, however, your weaknesses can become glaringly obvious, because the constructive feedback always includes the same sort of feedback. For me, it’s description. I never describe rooms or people. Often I just jump back and forth between dialogue and action, with a little exposition thrown in. Everything I ever write seems to be lacking in description, even when I compensate and intentionally describe more about the circumstance.

It is a little frustrating when you don’t seem to learn, but there is a way out. I’ve found a solution to my weakness: backtracking. I’ve stopped worrying about how little I’m describing in any scene. Instead, I just write it as I normally would, then go back and add description where it would make sense. What do I need to describe? The room? The people? When does that need to happen, and from whose eyes? That sort of thing.

I don’t think of this part as editing. I actually think of it as writing still, but that I’m filing in the gaps once I’ve poured in the foundation. If I tried to write description while I’m writing the rest of the piece, I would just get bored and end up describing too little. This way, I’ve already written the piece, so I don’t have to worry about what comes next, I just have to make sure I put in enough and ensure it makes sense with what comes before and after.

This actually works with a lot of weaknesses. If it’s grammar, don’t worry about it. Just write it and read it afterwards. If something feels off, change it. If your dialogue is lacking, maybe you could use some more. If not, channel what emotions the characters might have as you write. Either way, it doesn’t need to happen the first time through. Just get the words down, then work on the stuff you’re bad at. Once you’re done with that, then you can show other people.

Learning! — One-dimensional Characters

One problem that many a novice writer stumbles into when taking their first forays into novel writing is characters that are too one-sided. This is especially bad for main characters, who get a lot of the spotlight. You want to create an immersive world that takes the reader out of this one, and if a character is always depressed and unmotivated, it can feel unrealistic. So in this post, I’ll go over not only how to avoid making a character feel flat, but also in what circumstances it may be actually benefit a story.

Main characters. Arguably the single most complex things in your story, depending on what you’re writing, there’s a lot that goes into giving a character depth. I think that one major pitfall new writers fall for is focusing on their ‘fatal flaw’. They throw a bunch of cool and heroic personality on their traits, and then they stick on one bad one: arrogant, scared, lazy, etc.

The problem with this is that writers often use flaw as the first go-to for establishing conflict, and suddenly you have an entire major plot conflict built around the fact that your protagonist was too stubborn to apologize and admit fault, creating an antagonist and a lot of unnecessary events happen that seem unrealistically blown out of proportion simply because you needed a conflict trigger.

The other challenge is that readers often want to relate to their main characters. If you’re only showing us how arrogant and powerful they are, it’s hard to identify with that, because (practically) nobody is confident all the time. But you don’t want somebody that is constantly depressed over the loss of the loved one that died fifteen years ago because that isn’t very relatable, either.

Protagonists often have character arcs where they overcome their flaw, of course. Bilbo the grumpy hobbit realizes he loves adventure, Dr. Frankenstein comes to terms with the repercussions of his hubris, and Aang finally accepts responsibility and destiny over the course of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Many protagonists need arcs where they tackle and conquer their shortcoming. The trouble lies in painting the entire plot structure and the character around this flaw.

Aang is many things, not just ‘carefree and avoidant’. Rather, much of his character is shaped around it. He loves to have fun, and he’s very silly. Perhaps he wants to hang on to his childhood as much as possible. He also grows very attached to his friends, and maybe he’s scared of endangering them because of his destiny. The difference is that we aren’t seeing ‘carefree’ the whole time, we’re shown many aspects of his character.

So let’s say your character is too one-dimensional. How do you fix this? Well, ask yourself what other sides this character my have, even if they don’t show other people. You don’t want anyone on stage to seem like a cardboard cutout unless they’re part of the background, and main characters never are. If your protagonist struggles with depression, ask yourself what makes them happy. What used to make them happy, and why? If happiness isn’t an emotion you want this character to show the reader, what else could be used? Maybe they express their sadness as anger to other characters, so while everybody thinks that Protag has anger issues, the reader really knows they’re just depressed, a side they show the reader only when alone.

To sum it all up, I’ve found the easiest way to give characters depth is to ask them what circumstances provide what emotion to that character. If I can’t think of anything that would make the character happy, I invent something out of the blue. Maybe it’s coloring books. Why? I don’t know, but I can explore the reasoning behind it in the next chapter or a rewrite. It doesn’t have to make sense immediately. Maybe your character will tell you why coloring books are so special to them on their own, and if they do, let them. Sometimes your characters will know more about themselves than you do.

So, all that said, when are one-dimensional characters okay? Well, simply put, anyone who doesn’t get a spotlight can get away with being one-dimensional. If the camera doesn’t focus on them too often, them only expressing one emotion is perfectly fine. In fact, if a character isn’t important enough to give the reader more than their name, I don’t even consider them characters. People at a party are furniture, part of the scenery, not meant to push any part of the story one way or another. Cardboard cutouts are fine here. As the story progresses, fleshing out their character can work, but be careful with this, the more complex a character seems, the more important they may seem to the reader. Don’t give depth to characters that don’t need it.

As a side note, flat main characters can work, but it requires a lot of work, and I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, don’t try it unless you’re deliberately putting the spotlight on a flat character.

Learning! — Three Pronged Characters

Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast the other day, I came across a piece of advice that I found very interesting, and that is the idea of the “Three Pronged Character Attributes“. The concept is very simple, and that is the fact that each character in every book, especially important ones, should have varying levels of three huge characteristics. These characteristics are Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy. Pretty much every character you come across in any book or movie are going to have distinct levels of each of those things, but lets go over what each of them really means, referring to these attributes as being scales that every character has certain values in.

Competence is probably the easiest to grasp: How capable is this character when it comes to dealing with the issues they are facing. It could be any issue, really. Whether it’s defending the realm against a horde of evil murder-robots, talking a friend out of making a terrible decision, or telling convincing lies to the people around them. Gandalf, for example, is extremely capable. His capabilities, in fact, are literally beyond our understanding (partly because they’re never really mentioned). On the other hand, characters like Frodo and Bilbo are not as competent. Where Gandalf has maximum competence, Frodo and Bilbo have very little by comparison. They don’t have zero, because they do accomplish things they set out to do, and get to where they need to go, but nothing is easy because their tasks are in sleeping, drinking, and being merry (although Merry is probably the best at that last one). Their skills certainly aren’t related to fighting Sauron and outrunning the Dark Riders.

Proactivity relates to how much a character will act without any incentive. Again, Gandalf is very high on this scale because he’s always trying to fight the darkness, even before Sauron’s huge plans are set in motion. He has a distinct goal and is always trying his best. And here, too, Bilbo and Frodo score low. They are all but forced out of the Shire because they are out of options. Bilbo gets more points here because he seeks adventure rather than being forced to flee, but he still has to be coaxed by Gandalf and the dwarves quite a bit. A character with low proactivity will generally react to what the antagonist is doing rather than taking the initiative on their own. Superheroes are generally good examples of not being proactive in their respective stories, even when their competence is high.

Sympathy is a little weird. You would probably be inclined to think of how sympathetic the character is to things going on in the story, but that’s not what this means. Instead, this slider is about how sympathetic we the reader is to their problems and their personality. This is where Gandalf has none because he is impossible to identify with. Characters that score high on this scale are generally pretty relatable. Finally we see Bilbo and Frodo score high, because they are thrown into this world they don’t understand. The reader and the hobbits are learning about the world pretty much simultaneously, so it’s easy to identify with their struggles. Frodo doesn’t want to go off in this war, he just recognizes he’s the only one that can do it. He takes this responsibility by necessity, not because he wants to, and that is something a common reader can identify with.

I’ll reiterate here that pretty much every character you experience is going to have clear places on each of these scales. It’s important to note that you may be inclined to put a character somewhere on one scale when they belong elsewhere, and having somebody be “zero” or “full” on any one of these scales is pretty rare. Dr. Strange, for example (at least in the movie) has very little competence or sympathy at the beginning of the movie, because his expertise isn’t where he needs it to be and he’s both arrogant and rich. He is very proactive, which leads him to be able to fill those other scales as the movie progresses.

So when you’re thinking about the main character in your book or story, think about where they fit on these scales, and how their character arc changes their place on them as the story progresses.