D&D — Campaign as Storytelling

Hello again, friends. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Dungeons & Dragons directly (or at least not something that had a specific correlation to my Aleor campaign), and I’ve been having some thoughts I’d like to share.

Obviously, I’m a storyteller. I’ve been writing for about a decade now, so I theoretically know my way around a plot. It’s been interesting to explore plot development through what I would consider to be my first real experience as a dungeon master. Aleor isn’t the first campaign setting I’ve done, but it was made to be in the world of D&D, and is built to be a ‘world’ much more than a place for stories to exist in.

The problem with that last part is that I still want those stories to happen. I have visions. Dreams, if you will, of amazing scenes and climactic moments to share with my players. Before the campaign even started I had an inkling of an encounter involving the three party members fighting alongside (or as?) good-aligned dragons against a big bad. Part of the problem with cool ideas like that is that I can still do that in this campaign, but the location that encounter would happen in hasn’t even been mentioned in passing to the players. As in, they aren’t geographically close enough to have even heard of that place.

Now, I know you’re just going to yell at me to move that encounter closer if I want it so damn bad, but there’s the rub. Aleor is a world full of cultures, and that location was built with that encounter in mind, and simply moving three powerful dragons to another place in the world just because it is more conveniently timed on my part would ruin the entire pacing of the story. They are only level 5 at the moment, after all. Level 5 characters don’t get to be allied with powerful dragons.

But the thing that frustrates me quite a bit is that the current arc of the campaign—the story they are wading through right now—has some really cool moments and scenes I’ve been looking forward to for months, and I want nothing more than to skip to the good parts. But I can’t. Things need to take time in order to make the narrative flow well, and in order to give those moments the most impact.

It’s a little sad, because I obviously want to make the “in-between” sessions and encounters interesting and meaningful. I’m very leery of turning the campaign into “The Encounter of the Week”, just stringing combats together and arbitrarily throwing suitable creatures at the party to fill in the time.

I don’t care what’s guarding the door, but I can’t wait to reveal what’s behind the door. Problem is, if I don’t make that guard interesting (not powerful—interesting), then the reveal will just be neat rather than amazing.

D&D should be about the fun moments you create and the stories you tell afterward. I’m trying so hard to tell interesting stories, I just get so impatient!

D&D — Why Do You Play?

Dungeons & Dragons means a lot of different things to different people. It might mean wish fulfillment of getting to be your own Mary Sue. Maybe it means number crunching and being as powerful as you can be (which is wish fulfillment in its own right). Maybe it means escaping reality by doing good and saving the princess. Or maybe it just means hanging out with friends.

I think everyone comes to role-playing games like D&D because it’s the ultimate sandbox in a lot of ways. Depending on who your dungeon master is, the only think limiting your abilities is your creativity—you can do what you want, as long as it’s not impossible within the rules of the world (which may or may not coincide with the rules of the game). “Choices are infinite—consequences are mandatory”.

For me, D&D is about two things. I love the escapism it provides in allowing me to pretend to be people wildly different from myself, and since I’m a storyteller at heart, it also lets me feel like I’m part of a crazy adventure in a fantasy novel than simply writing one.

I feel as though I’m in a weird minority in the community. The vast majority of people I’ve interacted with in regards to D&D aren’t (particularly) interested in the story, or when they are, it’s always in the framework of their character. For me, the story and the character are often two separate entities entirely. I built a character that is fun to pretend to be, not one that has an intricate backstory that has strong connections to the world they live in.

I have a few friends that with whom I share D&D stories on a regular basis. I’ve certainly considered inviting them to the game that I run, but deep down I know that they wouldn’t have any fun. At its current state, the Aleor campaign is a lot of talking to normal townsfolk rather than an epic adventure of heroes and villains, and I can’t accommodate a player who wants to be a Jedi.

Finding the D&D group that you mesh with is tough. Since everyone’s playing for different reasons, the obvious, most accessible group to you may not be the best one for you. It may not even be the right one, and since the type of person to be playing the game tends to be the sort of person who doesn’t make a habit of socializing with strangers, it becomes very difficult to find the perfect fit, because for you that perfect fit might only be online with the help of meetup groups like Roll20.

For me, Critical Role is the pinnacle, most ideal version of what D&D could be. Other streams are entertaining, but in my experience, none of them are stories being told the same way that Critical Role is. If I wanted to mess around and goof off at a table with a bunch of friends, there are dozens of different board games we could play with way less effort. Dungeons & Dragons is the only one that allows me to alter my identity.

Learning! — You, Me, and the Rule of Three

“The Rule of Three” is something that gets thrown around a lot in many fields. I’d say they’re especially prevalent in my fields of writing and theatre/improv, but it appears everywhere.

In fact, saying “the rule of three” is immediately misleading because there are so many rules of three. That’s simply because 3 is a magic, holy number. You have the Christian trinity, the 3 act structure, the 3 Musketeers, you name it.

To put it very briefly and very simply, 3 is the perfect number to establish a pattern or a group without overwhelming the audience of the message. It’s easy to describe the function of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but as soon as you add a fourth, it starts getting exponentially harder to remember which is which. It’s the same thing with the 3 Musketeers.

If you have 7 of something in a story, you can’t reasonably expect to teach the audience about each individual thing and expect them to hold interest. Their attention span will only last for about 3 or so.

The logician in me thinks its unfair that 3 gets so much praise for being the holy number. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, you see.

So this is to say that when you’re writing something, whether its a story, a piece of worldbuilding, or a plot, you know whatever—use the rule of three. Don’t put five characters in a story that works with three. Don’t put 2 try-fail cycles unless you have a good reason for doing so. When you write a passage using lots of repetition, communicate the idea thrice. (I was about to quote Marc Antony’s usage of the phrase “honourable men” in his famous monologue, but he actually states it 5 times, not 3. Damn Shakespeare and his 5’s!)

You get the idea. But this rule is a bit different in improv (and comedy writing in general). In fact, it’s a lot more specific than just “use the number of three because it’s a good psychological tool”.

When you’re writing a sketch, or performing in an improv scene, the first time you use a joke it’s funny for it’s own sake. When you later repeat this joke it becomes a callback—it’s funny because of the reference. But when you use this joke again, you can’t simply repeat it, because then it becomes repetitive in its own sake. You’re milking it. Instead, you find a way to turn the joke on its head and present it in a way the audience doesn’t expect. In The Three Stooges’ “Slowly I Turned” sketch, you see lots of uses of the rule of three. Funny enough, the actual punchline of the joke is used 4 times, but the last two times its used in a way that isn’t expected.

All this is to say, in conventional writing the number three is a good rule of thumb to know how many times to use a trope or with establishing rules/characters, and in comedy it’s a good way to get punchlines, but only if you subvert expectations on the last use.

 

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.

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.