D&D — Aleor, A Shattered Empire

I’m gearing up for a diary of my current D&D campaign, as we’ve just finished our 12th session and have spent roughly 40 hours in this world. Before telling the story of some lowly commoners, though, I thought: what better place to start than with an overview of the world?

 

Our story begins in the region of Aleor, named after the once-great empire that tamed much of the southwest portion of the large continent of Irumos. At its peak, the Aloran Empire spanned thousands of miles, and its growth was only hindered by deserts to the south, mountains to the north, and a vast chasm to the east.

At that point, the empire had consumed virtually every sovereignty in the region, but to refer to the Aloran Empire’s golden age as a time of peace would be a gross simplification of the details. When the Empire annexed lands into its controls, the laymen were largely unaffected, as the taxes they paid often remained consistent. Their lords, however, were then required to pay taxes of their own to their new kings, and so on to the Emperor themselves. This often bred conflict between local lords and kings, and the empire rarely intervened so long as it meant that they were getting their taxes.

But even beyond the infighting of men, the other forces of the world are always at work in Aleor, some more mysterious and more malevolent than others. The northern city of Dûnmarch fell prey to these forces in a sudden and violent eruption. In a matter of hours, what was once a bustling city built at the pinnacle of the Drowsy Peaks became an abandoned ruin in the deepest crevice of a fresh cavern at the mountain range’s base. A few short years later, what was once a small rain forest exploded into a voracious jungle, growing and overgrowing everything in its path, consuming the Lockjaw Peninsula despite the best efforts of the tens of thousands of people that lived in that region, including the capital city itself.

Hundreds of years later, the Aloran Empire is still prevalent, though it is a mere shadow of its former self. Its new capital is Ashfall to the the north, and though the city is one of the largest in Aleor, the empire itself has little influence on matters more than a few hundred miles outside of it. And though much the the region’s largest cities have fallen and returned to the wilds, new cities are forged. Aqila, the city of craft and magic, is now one of the leading centers of power in the region, rivaling Ashfall and Port Artellis to the south.

Much remains hidden about Aleor’s past, as the civilized world has only recently been starting to get back on its feet. Dark times threaten to persist, and there are forces that threaten to destroy everything now that there is no mighty empire to protect the people. With a little help, though, perhaps new fires can be forged to shine a light into that darkness. After all, one of the major themes for the campaign in this new setting is simple.

Reclamation.

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 — 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 — Black Panther

This review is going to be super casual because I’m super tired and I saw this movie like two weeks ago. In all honesty, I usually review things within a few days, so all the concrete stuff and details I would have had to talk about has already left my brain. Plus, I’m not a big fan of reviewing current stuff because I can’t do it justice without spoiling it, but I also hate spoiling things if it is current. So read on without worry. No spoilers here.

So, obviously, you have to see this movie because it’s pretty much as awesome as everyone says it is. It’s your typical fun Marvel movie with all the humor and cool action stuff you’d expect, but Black Panther has had some of the best emotional scenes I’ve experienced in any movie in recent memory. With as well made as those scenes were, it’s hard to pinpoint it down to one reason, but if I had to pick one thing, there is just some stellar acting.

Now, I’d never consider myself a big Marvel person. I have (relatively) no interest in the comics, and apart from playing some games (such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance), I really have no knowledge of the characters. I know some people who are comic buffs, so I know some background, but really this isn’t my thing though. As a child, though, if you had asked me to pick a favorite Avenger, though, I’d have said Black Panther. In all honesty, none of the other characters really stuck out as interesting to me (except Iron Man a little bit). Because come on, how is a stealthy ninja-cat guy not at the top of everyone’s list always? Dr. Strange is cool, too, but I knew nothing about him before the movie and he’s not an Avenger, so he doesn’t count.

Anyways, here’s the number one thing that made this movie really work for me: the worldbuilding. The culture of Wakanda was quite interesting, and the steps it took to be so different from the everyday world shows some real creativity. I found it inspiring for both classic epic fantasy worldbuilding and interestingly informative in both sci-fi, as well.

The biggest, and admittedly nit-picky problem I had with this movie was that it just had so much going on. There’s tons of characters, several plot threads, and a few time skips. I got it by the end, but the extra legwork I had to do to follow which character was which and how they were related to this other character was a bit tough sometimes. Again, it’s not that bad, but I’d imagine older audiences might have the same problem. And this is one of my biggest concerns for Infinity War—I suspect it will just have so much going on that actors and plot pieces on an individual scale will start to get lost. Black Panther started to tread into that territory, so we’ll see.

There’s a lot that’s amazing about this movie, and it’s actually very impressive that they managed to introduce so many characters with so much depth so quickly. I did have some other critiques, but they’re really negligible, unpopular, and (slightly) spoiler-y. Not to mention, I’m super tired. So I’ll just leave it here. I would say that this is probably the best movie in the MCU yet, with maybe Wonder Woman at #2. (That’s a joke.) I honestly don’t expect to like either Infinity War movie more than this one, but who knows?

 

Story — Iron: The Sixth World

There are those in the Lower Valley that would teach you of their Mother’s grace. The light of the moon gazes upon the world with a brilliant yet peaceful eye. They cling to their ideals because they are at the mercy of their gods. Without Yone to cultivate their crops, without Umera to bring them light, and without Ienta and Iella to harness the tides, humankind would have no place in this world. If the gods forsake us, they say, we would all be lost.

But there are those of us that do not like being beholden to powers out of our reach.

The Iron’s Chosen see the world differently. It is not a place of submission and acceptance, but one of opportunity and growth. The culmination of thousands of years and eras as new gods emerge and defeat the old.

The first god gave birth to everything. Iltar, whose being was the Sun, blinded the cosmos with his radiance and showed dominance over all. Nothing could withstand him, until Jegzol came. His was the body of the world, and this armor shielded him against his father’s oppressive light, and soon Jegzol became the dominant god. But Jegzol was arrogant. He put all his faith in his armor and paid no heed to his weaknesses. Elene, the lady of waters, saw that his armor had cracks, and so she poured all her substance into him, restraining him with her entire essence of being. In this way, Jegzol was suffocated, and Elene took his body for her own. Now she had both Jegzol’s armor and her fluid form, so she was confident that she could not be overtaken.

It was then, during this third age that Umera, the mistress of the moon, came. Her brilliance was like that of Iltar, yet it was strong and sturdy like that of Jegzol. Like all the other gods, Elene fell victim to Umera’s beauty. But like the farmers will tell you of their Mother, she was no fool. She saw Elene’s craftiness. “Take me if you can,” Umera stated. “But if you falter when I go, you will be cursed with loneliness for eternity.” Elene graciously accepted, but as soon as she did so, Umera had disappeared. You see, Umera cast a spell on Elene, so that she lusts after anything she gazes upon. By doing this, Umera showed her superiority. When in sight, Elene gazes upon Umera’s beauty and leaps for it, but the Mother never stays long.

Eohr, whose form was that of wind, saw this unity and nodded solemnly. There was no way he could defeat Umera on his own now. Elene would protect her, and the two of them together were unstoppable. But Eohr was clever, as well. And so he went to Elene while Umera was away and said, “I see you have great power.”

“I do,” Elene said, but saw none, for Eohr was shapeless. “Who is it that speaks to me?”

“It is I, Eohr,” he replied. “You are cursed to love that which you can see. You cannot see me, and therefore I am immune to your fate. But I see that you are lonely. If I embrace you and hold you tight, will you claim me as your own, rather than the temptress Umera?”

Elene said that she would, and so Eohr embraced her. Elene forsook Umera’s light, because though her curse still held, it knew less sway because she had felt the touch of another. Eohr’s cunning and his union with Elene was the fifth world, and this persisted for many years.

Many of the gods thought that this was the way it was to be. Eohr and his unity of Elene, who still wore the armor of Jegzol were perfect.

Ferreus saw this world, however, and saw weakness. The last few gods had asserted their dominance through cunning, not power. Ferreus knew that strength was the only way to secure an unyielding hold, and so he stole pieces of Jegzol’s body. These pieces were burned, turned white with power. When they cooled into iron slabs, that power remained, and Ferreus used this power to show real strength. The earth, the winds, and the seas were powerless to stop him, and so Ferreus heralded the sixth world: one ruled by superiority through iron. He taught that competition breeds power, and so gave the power of iron to all the lesser beings of the world.

There is strength to be had in cunning and words, to be sure. But no amount of words can slow a blade aimed at one’s throat, and no amount of cunning can stop a crossbow bolt. Remember that should you choose to align yourself with the Chosen.

Learning! — Fantasy Name Generators

So this post is sort of a cross between my typical ‘Learning!’ posts and a ‘Review’ post, but I thought it worked better here because it will serve it’s purpose better as a tool for learning rather than a subject of scrutiny.

Today I’m going to talk about a website: fantasynamegenerators.com. It is a resource for a lot of things. First and foremost is that it gives you random names for various purposes. If you can’t think of a name for a character in your book, this works well. It isn’t simple “generate thirty common fantasy names” situation, either. It has very specific generators for every situation.

Let me clarify a little bit. Let’s say you can’t think of a name for an elf character. Does the site have an elf name generator? Of course. It also has a name generator for dark elves and half elves, too. Three different generators for elves is nothing to sneeze at, but this site goes deeper. Blood Elf and Night Elf name generators from World of Warcraft, Elf and Half-elf for Dungeons & Dragons, Elf and Half-elf for Pathfinder, all the Warhammer elf races, generators for Lord of the Rings AND Lord of the Rings Online, as well as Magic: The Gathering, The Witcher, The Inheritance Cycle, Dragon Age, as well as a name generator for Harry Potter house elves. You want an elf name? Well, you’ll need to be more specific because there are nineteen different elf name generators on this site. Are some of them duplicate generators? It’s entirely possible, but even if there are lots of duplicates there is still more than enough variety to keep a creative person flowing with inspiration.

This site works for everything. All of the naming conventions for whatever fanfiction you want to write are all given to you, because a good chunk of the name generators on the site are from pop culture. But even if you’re working on a unique world of your own design, this site helps a good deal.

Whenever I’m trying to develop names for cities in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or in any of my fantasy worlds in my fiction writing, I use this site. Not every generator works for my purposes, but at least one works every time. If anything, I just need to do some digging to find it.

Do I always use names from this generator? No, of course not. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I often grab names from it even when I am actively using it. Instead, I use the generators for inspiration, or insight into the naming conventions of whatever it is I’m looking for. Remember, it’s all about the creative spark. This sort of site isn’t meant to tie you down into any sort of rules. Quite the opposite. If it gives you a name you like, if it only started with a ‘P’ instead of an ‘F’, then it’s a success, because guess what: it is entirely in your power to change it. It would be silly to keep looking until the site gave you the perfect name. Instead, use the generators as foundations that you can throw your own color onto. That way the site is still pulling the brunt of the effort and allowing you to add the flair and the finesse. When I use this site, I often splice the names it gives me together, or sometimes the names I see spark an idea for an original one, in which case I have only the website to thank for pushing my own creativity along.

But maybe I haven’t convinced you of how useful this is as both a worldbuilder’s tool and a writer’s resource. This website also gives instructions in its spare time. It can give you description generators. It has society descriptions, armor descriptions, backstory descriptions, planet descriptions, you name it. If your town is too boring to interest a reader or your D&D party, pull up the town description to help add some flavor!

But wait, there’s even more. Recently, Emily, the website’s creator, recently launched a second site, called rollforfantasy.com. This site is geared more towards worldbuilding and roleplay than it is towards writing, but I still find it very versatile. Not only does it have guides for how to handle certain situations or how to build a stronger campaign for you and your friends, but it also has specific tools to augment the experience for you. It has puzzles you can implement into your game and free music you can use to set the tone of each session.

And you know what my favorite thing about all this is? It’s not the ingenuity or the vast amount of knowledge there is to gain with these sites. It’s the fact that they are constantly updated on a weekly basis. Not only that, but she responds to e-mails within days. She’s so active on these sites, and really, it’s a resource I couldn’t do without these days.

Any person working in any creative field (even as a hobby) could gain a lot using these sites. I highly recommend checking them out, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll exhaust yourself clicking all the links well before you think you’ve learned enough to solve all of your creative problems.

Learning! — What Every Character Needs

Back in December I talked about how I make characters. The simple explanation is that, like with everything, I start with an idea I like, and build from there. I keep expanding until the thing that I have is fully fleshed out. The idea is the important thing.

But I’ve realized that with characters, it’s still only half the picture. It isn’t enough to have a good idea and arbitrarily add things that make sense, because we’re using this character in a story, not in real life. Now, when I say “using it in a story”, I mean any story. This character can be from a game, a novel, or even be your Dungeons & Dragons character. One thing that aspiring writers don’t realize is that even in stories that resemble real life, stories are not real life, but I’ll cover this some other time.

So, you have that ‘idea’ which is the basis for this character, but you don’t know what “expanding until it’s fleshed out” means. No, you don’t have to make a family tree or figure out what their childhood was like (although if you want to, by all means). There are two things that every character in every facet of storytelling needs in order to feel believable and “real”: flaws and goals. They need to have very clear personality traits that are undesirable, and hopes for the future.

That’s it. It’s important to note here, that just because a character has flaws and goals does not immediately make them believable, just that a character without one or both is incredibly difficult for anyone to relate to. (This is also a tool some writers use to make characters less ‘real’. A god or extremely powerful figure in a story may be presented without flaws, for instance.)

Whenever I make a character important enough to be given a name or focus in a story, I give them flaws and goals. In order to determine what they should be, it’s important to think about what medium this character is presented in, and how they will be presented to an audience (even if that audience is your D&D group).

For example, the goals of a ‘Villain’ should be very clear and defined. In fact, that may even be the first thing you want to start out with, because the ‘Hero’ will often have to take action and make decisions based on what the Villain is doing. The flaw(s) of the Villain may be the way the Hero manages to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. On the flip side, the goal of the Hero could be to simply “stop the Villain”, or it could be something more indirect, like “serve the greater good”, or “make things return to the way they were”. These are cliche responses, of course, so for a character as integral to the story as the protagonist, you may want to think of something more interesting, but it’s a start.

The flaws for the Hero are generally what makes victory so hard to attain. Frodo is not exactly the best man for the job of ‘Ringbearer’ (in some respects), which makes braving Mordor such an ordeal. If the same job was given to Gandalf (who has minimal flaws, if any), it would have been a different story. The story of how a wizard flew some eagles to a mountain and then dropped the ring in with no issues. Nobody wants to read that story.

Just as everyone has flaws and goals, so to should characters. Even unattainable goals are still goals, and even simple flaws like ‘selfish’ or ‘rude’ work. Just keep in mind that the more important the character (to a story or game), the more in-depth and descriptive these flaws and goals should be.