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.

Me — The Wave™ Cometh.

My fall semester is starting to look very scary. I’m taking 5 classes and I’m still going to try my best to be working full time, and it’s starting to look like—without factoring in writing time or any homework—I’ll be either in class or at work at least 65 hours per week. If I’m also actively playing Dungeons & Dragons and weekly binge watching shows with a good friend of mine, that cuts down any “me” time I have to about 6-8 hours a week.

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I might die.

I’ll probably die.

I hadn’t thought about it until now, but that novelette/novella I’ve been outlining is now in a very dark spot. I haven’t started writing it yet, and at this point, when that 3-month long tsunami of business hits, I won’t be able to get anything done. I’ll still update this blog as often as I can, but I’ll be impressed if I can come up with any short stories during that period. Heck, I literally have to stop going to the writer’s group I’ve been leading for over a year now just to be available to take some of these classes. (It’s only for a few months, but still.)

It’s starting to dawn on me that right now, these next few weeks, will be the most open my schedule will be until next summer. If I want to get any substantial writing in, it needs to be now.

Transforming into a machine is going to be tough. All my brothers/friends will be playing new games soon, and I won’t be able to. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth comes out two days before The Wave™ hits. (It will be henceforth referred to as The Wave™.) So while I wanted to play, that’s just not happening. Dragon Quest XI comes on in September, and I’m super excited for that, but I’ll have to wait for winter break to get a chance at it. At least it’s a single player experience and I’m the only one interested in it, so there’s no risk of spoilers. Speaking of spoilers, it’s going to be really hard to follow Critical Role during that time, although maybe I can somewhat keep up via podcasting at work.

It’ll be tough, but I have high hopes for the future! If all goes well, by this time next year, I’ll have two AA degrees, enough money saved up to afford my own car, and I’ll be finally stepping into the crushing weight of adulthood where you have no idea what you should be doing with your life and by all that is holy, you had better figure it out soon because you don’t want to be that guy that lives with his parents for too long, even though the economy of Southern California doesn’t allow for any alternative at your age, and if you don’t somehow win the lottery you will never enter you’re going to be stuck like this for the rest of your life because good things come to those who aren’t you, and with the acceptance of that fact comes the existential dread that life will only get worse from here on out.

So you know, fun stuff!

 

Review — War Crimes

Of the many novels written in the Warcraft universe, I’ve actually read a scarce few of them. To be honest, this is only my second. However, having played WoW off an on for the majority of my life, and having many brothers and friends that are well versed in Blizzard and Warcraft lore, I’m quite familiar with the characters and events, generally speaking. I won’t give spoilers here, though, for as familiar as you may be with the story before and after this book, the novel itself does contain some pretty neat, self-contained things.

War Crimes is a somewhat recent addition to what surprised me to be a collection of over twenty canon books, and chronologically it was the latest addition to the universe until Before the Storm published last month. It takes place between the Mists of Pandaria expansion and the Warlords of Draenor expansion, serving as a segway from one to the other. It explores the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, the former Warchief of the Horde after he basically killed thousands of people and was, to put it mildly, a jerk to everyone, even the people who should have been his friends.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect much of this book. The main plot is a trial, and I hated Garrosh’s character simply because he’s boring. In fact, if I were to buy a Warcraft book, it probably would have been one of my last choices for those reasons. When I’m reading a story like this, it’s generally because I want to dig deeper into a universe I’m already familiar with, and not only does this book basically not have that, but it doesn’t have very much action in it, either. It is, as you might expect, almost entirely placed in the Temple of Xu’en, where the trial takes place.

But the book is fair. To call it a bad read or a waste of my time would be out of line. It does the characters justice while also showing different sides of them. It explores the morality and virtues of many of the main characters in Warcraft lore, and you see different sides of them you might not otherwise notice. Flashbacks are used as evidence in the trial (via magic, of course), so we also get to see some interactions between characters outside this moment in time, and that can be really interesting when you didn’t realize those characters knew each other at X point.

I’d say one of the best things about this book is that it’s a balancing act of two parts, and it does a great job. Writing a book (or any piece of media) based on a game where the player has a direct impact on the environment or story of that game is hard. You have to either pretend the player doesn’t exist, which makes any player made choices seem inconsequential, or you make the player a main character, which only works if they don’t get to make their character. The second part is writing a part of the story that isn’t important enough to be essential to the gameplay, but is interesting enough to not waste the reader’s time.

War Crimes does a great job on both of these fronts. The players are the ones that managed to defeat Garrosh and put him in “prison”, but they aren’t necessary for the trial. Players want combat, and this part of the story has very little of it. You wouldn’t want a trial scene to be in your video game anyway, unless you’re playing Ace Attorney, in which case what is a bloodthirsty orc doing there? As far as being interesting but not essential, the story does a good job of that, too, exploring nuances of characters, as I’ve already explained. The ending of the story is a bit obvious if you’ve played the beginning of Warlords of Draenor, or have seen even the trailer of it, but nonetheless it’s a good read.

Overall, this book is a good read if and only if you are interested in understanding the personalities, flaws, or beliefs of the major characters in the Warcraft universe. You really get to know the characters as people in this book, not as the walking stereotypes they can sometimes fall under. If you want to read action scenes, understand the lore of Azeroth (or Draenor etc.), or read about the major events of the world, you’re better of picking up pretty much any other book in the universe.

As a side note, it dawned on me reading this book how little opinion Warcraft players probably have based on the characters in the lore. Basically any player will tell you that Cairne Bloodhoof, or Vol’jin, or Jaina Proudmoore are basically cool people. (Or at least they were, given various points of the story.) For as divisive as Warcraft tries to be—splitting the players into Alliance or Horde—I’ll bet 90% of the playerbase will be able to tell you which are the honorable, good characters from both factions, because while the lore tries to paint in broad strokes of “good and evil”, it does a great job at putting both of those extremes in either side.

Review — Heroes of the Storm (Jun. ’18 Edition)

Since Heroes of the Storm is basically the only game I play given how busy I am, I think it’s only fair that I take the time to dedicate a little bit of my blog to it every once in a while (beyond saying “I’m still playing HotS” in the monthly updates). Being an online, MOBA style game, it’s constantly getting new features and characters to play, so reviewing it at one stage of its development will be totally different from another, even in broad strokes like “state of the game” as I intend to talk about here.

So, for timeline context—the newest character and battleground were released a few weeks ago: Yrel and Alterac Pass. This is following the releases of Deckard Cain and Fenix.

Overall, Heroes seems to be in rough shape, even with the newest batch of content. Keeping myself updated on the subreddit for the game means reading a lot of complaints about how toxic people are (as with all MOBAs), how reporting other players does nothing and there’s no reason to do so, and how frustrating a lot of characters are to play against. There’s a power gap between newer characters and older ones simply because the system is advancing, albeit slowly.

Unfortunately, Heroes of the Storm was crippled from the beginning. The game’s foundation is an engine (at least) nine years old, as it started off as a mod to Starcraft II. This means that connectivity issues and overall capabilities are limited from the start, and it can’t compete with new stuff, given how fast the gaming industry evolves. This will always be the biggest issue with the game—it’s built on old foundation.

And you can see the aging in the game, too. Older heroes like Raynor have very simple abilities, such as “increase attack speed” or “push enemies back”, whereas heroes like Fenix have “fire a laser that spins around your hero twice, hurting and slowing enemies it hits as it passes”. This becomes a problem when most of the characters being picked in high level play are the ones that were released in the past few months.

Overall, Heroes of the Storm is pretty solid. The best thing about it is that the vast majority of games last 15-25 minutes, and only on rare occasions can you give or take 5 more minutes. It’s completely free, you can play with up to five friends, and there is absolutely no “buying power”. You simply can’t buy stuff that gives you the upper hand against your enemies. (The only thing is, as with most MOBA’s, you have to play a lot in order to be able to buy the characters with in-game currency. Not a lot, mind you, and there’s no hero that you can’t buy with in-game currency, but it’s worth mentioning.)

It does have loot boxes, which the entire gaming community hates right now, but honestly I think it’s fine in this case because it’s mostly cosmetic, and you get them at a reasonable rate.

The game is, as it always will be, at it’s best when you’re playing with friends that don’t take things too seriously. Being competitive is fine, but there’s something about MOBA’s that really churns up hatred for other people. So as long as you’re fine with losing, and you can have fun without blaming the people you’re playing with (even if it is their fault), you can have a good time.

Me — June ’18 Update

Well, here we are. I’d like to thank the academy for this astounding accomplishment. Spring 2018 semester is over. The Summer (and hopefully my penultimate) semester is fast approaching. I have big news (for me), too. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my friend’s apartment in Oregon, after having flown for the first time in seven-ish years. This is the first “vacation” I’ve ever had to myself, but I’ll get to that.

So as always, here’s the Monthly Update Topic Order™: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things.

Alright, I finally have some blog news: I will be resuming the weekly fiction portion of my blog! Every Sunday I’ll be posting a flash fiction based on an image writing prompt. I intend to also record them and upload these videos to YouTube around the same time they post to my blog, but we’ll see. I don’t intend to be posting chapter excerpts of anything, though. Just the weekly flash fiction. Plus, that way, you won’t need to have read anything else of mine to enjoy them.

As for writing plans, well… that’s why I’m only posting one thing of fiction a week. I’m still not really devoting any effort to any larger project. Lisa Stenton has once again found herself in a muck of irreconcilable conflicts too large for me to enjoy writing her stories. I just… don’t know how to make technology and urban fantasy marry without copying other writers or making it stupid, and frankly it’s hard to hit the exact right chord I was going for with her stories. I think “The Last Laugh at the Lake of Lava” was pretty good, though. Spear Gate’s new outline is still on the to-do list, but it’s honestly not that interesting to me anymore. ‘Cause, you know, that’s what new writers do. We love something until it’s hard and then find a new passion project. So, as for now, still no bigger project. Oh well.

Lately I’ve been playing almost exclusively Heroes of the Storm and World of Warcraft. Less so HotS because I’m kind of burnt out on it, but I did calculate that in about 600 games (or about 200 hours) I’ll have reached level 10 with every hero in the game. Problem is, all the heroes that are under that cap are because I don’t enjoy them much. So instead I’ve been playing WoW, mostly as a way to pass the time while I listen to podcasts.

Speaking of podcasts, I’ve finally caught up on Story Break! This means I’m caught up on six of the eight podcasts I’m interested in. After that I intend to listen to podcasts I have no hope of being caught up on. Ones that have hundreds upon hundreds of hours of content. I also have some unread audiobooks on my phone, so I still need to dive into those.

As I said, the Spring semester is over. I’m almost done getting two Associate’s Degree’s though. I just need about six classes total, so that’ll be great. I have tentative plans for what I’m going to do after, but nothing concrete. So after the Summer and Fall, I should be done… ish.

Okay, so Oregon. I’ve only been here for about 18 hours as I’m writing this, and roughly half of that has been asleep, but oh my gosh. So many trees. Living in So Cal means that I’m used to sky lines being rocky mounds of… you know, rock. But Oregon is swarmed with trees, I’ve never seen so much green in my life. There’s just… so much. It’s honestly pretty much the same (it’s less than a thousand miles, after all), but at the same time, so different. I’ll talk about it more later.

One thing I didn’t account for on this trip is the fact that I’m introverted. Being around friends for nearly 72 hours straight is… well, let’s just say I’m tired and it’s taking a lot out of me. I want to have fun, but it’ll be a struggle to keep my mental energy running for that long without burning out.

Also, the Tuesday and Wednesday blog posts will be late. I won’t be back home until late Tuesday night.

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.

Me — Epic Scope

I can’t be the only one that feels it. That chill down your spine when something awesome in a book or movie happens. Heck, video games can do it, too! That surge of emotion that is almost overwhelming if it hits you the right way. That moment, in any medium, when you realize something is much bigger or different than you had expected. Sometimes these moments come in the form of a plot twist, but it doesn’t have to be. In some cases, it’s simply the execution of the scene or a simple angle in which a scene is shot. Here are a few good examples (from several different genres):

The slow pan at the beginning of Wall-E that shows the enormous towers of garbage that have been meticulously organized, providing context at just how long this has been going on. That reveal in Fullmetal Alchemist when you realize what the characters are truly up against. The moment in Star Wars when you see Darth Vader’s flag ship and see how tiny the star destroyers are compared to it, and realize how terrifying a force the Empire really is. That sense of awe the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King cinematic trailer inspires, both because of the tragedy of the context and the vast might Arthas wields. When Ancalagon, the largest and most powerful dragon that ever lived in the world of Middle-earth, was defeated, and his fall destroyed an entire mountain range.

At its basest form, scenes and moments like these are my true passion. I want somebody to experience something I made, and feel that surge of emotion, be it one of terror, shock, sadness, elation, doesn’t matter. My ultimate goal, as a creator, is to provoke that emotion in as many people as possible.

Focusing this objective towards writing epic fantasy, I have so many of these scenes in my head that I hope will one day translate onto the page. A single man halting a wall of arrows, then hurling them back towards an oncoming army. A floating city, thought to be untouchable, falling from the sky and crashing into the landscape below. A person, whose name is synonymous with death itself, strolling through the city streets, searching for the main character. Three people mortals would consider gods, standing in opposition of a being that dwarfs their immense power.

I could go on, but these descriptions may mean nothing to you. These are each fully mapped out scenes begging to be written. Unfortunately, a scene with epic scope such as these require context. If I write a short story about an impervious city being torn down, it’s a bit difficult to sell the idea that it’s an “impervious city”. My universe is literally built upon scenes like this, whether I realized it at the time or not. In fact, this universe was birthed from what I intend to be a big reveal (though if you know me or do any sort of research on my website you probably know what that reveal is).

I don’t know if I will ever tell a story that brings a chill down somebody’s spine. It’s one thing to describe an epic scene, but it’s another thing entirely to experience that scene after having been given context as to how big a deal that moment really is.