Posts Tagged ‘world building’

critical-role-castI’m only 65 episodes behind the curve, but I’m a fast learner when it comes to the fun, entertaining, and surprisingly heartfelt Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) web series, Critical Role. A live broadcast and weekly peek into a world beset with ancient dragons, barbarian hoards, and some rather unconventional gnomes, Critical Role follows the exploits of Vox Machina, a group of mostly heroic adventurers as they traverse the fictional land of Tal’Dorei. The intrepid band of misfits, however, are brought to life by an equally, and mostly, heroic group of dice-slinging voice actors, all of whom have been playing their characters for three years; two on the live stream and one year prior to the inception of the show. The characters and their actors are as follows:

  • Vax’ildan “Vax” (Liam O’Brien) – a half-elf rogue/paladin and twin brother to Vex’ahlia
  • Vex’ahlia “Vex” (Laura Bailey) – a half-elf ranger/rogue and twin sister to Vax’ildan who also has a pet bear named Trinket
  • Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham) – a goliath barbarian
  • Keyleth (Marisha Ray) – a half-elf druid
  • Percival de Rolo “Percy” (Taliesin Jaffe) – also known as Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III, a human gunslinger
  • Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel) – a gnome bard
  • Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson) – a gnome cleric

And guiding our heroes in their exploits is the world-building powerhouse of a Dungeon Master (DM) that is Matthew Mercer. Pulling some impressive double-duty, Mercer not only crafts the realm of Tal’Dorei but he also effortlessly voices all of the non-playable characters (NPC), running the gamut of high-born ladies, lowly orcs, and a thoroughly confused bear.

I’ve only played D&D, and some other tabletop games, a few times in my life with varying degrees of DM and party performance, but I can say wholeheartedly that this is the first time in a long time that I’ve ever wanted to get back into gaming. Hell, this is the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to join somebody else’s game just to experience the energy and absolute fun they have for roughly three hours every Thursday night. The camaraderie of the players and the DM is infectious because they’re just as invested in the welfare of their characters, just as shocked when a plot twist occurs, and just as devastated when events go horribly, horribly wrong. To put it another way, they love their characters and it shows to the point where even a husk of human emotions like myself can get a little teary-eyed.

So, really, this is just an overblown, non-ranked list of reasons why I’m now obsessed with Critical Role. Trust me, it doesn’t disappoint.

Oh, and SPOILERS for the series. Just in case.

 

The Gameplay

 

This seems like a no-brainer, but a significant portion of what makes Critical Role such a success comes from how the players, and by extension the characters, interact with their fictional environment. Setting aside the little character moments and exploratory missions (we’ll get to them in a bit), when Mercer tells the party to roll initiative to battle some greater foe, they’re in it. No one slouches, everyone pulls their weight to support the success of the group in destroying beasts and baddies alike. The physicality of the players speaks louder and louder as the battle rages: eyes wide, mouths agape, everyone fidgeting with nervous energy at each role of the die. Full sessions have been devoted to taking down one enemy (to be fair, it was a dragon) until Mercer asks, “How do you wanna do this?” and the whole group explodes with excitement knowing that the killing blow is just moments away. I’d be lying if I said my own erratic movements didn’t mimic theirs. Even smaller, more desperate, moments are rife with tension as the characters struggle against mind control or frantically try to resurrect one of their own.reaction

There are a couple of episodes that stand out in particular regarding moments of triumph and potential tragedy. In the case of the former, I’d recommend episode 52, “The Kill Box,” wherein Grog, unable to defeat his uncle, leader of the barbarian herd, in single combat, calls upon his friends for help. There are plenty of moments where each character shines but the best bit of teamwork comes when Vex flies in on her broom (long story) and sucks a badly beaten Grog into her necklace (just go with it) to get him somewhat out of harms way. She then releases Grog from high up in the air, giving him the advantage needed to deliver the deathblow to his uncle. It’s definitely an engaging three hours of fictionalized combat and by the end even the players look exhausted. In the case of the latter, it would have to be episode 44, “The Sunken Tomb,” that finds the party searching for enchanted armor beneath the city of Vasselheim. Neglectful in the wake of defeating a Beholder, Percy accidentally sets off a trap that kills Vex, but the party, joined by some guest adventurers, springs into action to bring her back. It’s really more about Laura Bailey’s reactions as well as the other players. The second she realizes what negative hit points means there’s this gutted look on her face as the others search for spells to resurrect Vex. Everyone’s practically in tears until Mercer informs them that she’s alive again.

 

Character Moments

 

It would either be awfully dull or too stressful to watch a group in a constant state of combat. Luckily, the players are actors and they act the shit out of these characters. While some episodes are combat heavy, there are others where the most action that happens is the group goes shopping and some epic haggling ensues. The breathers are needed, though. It gives the party time to rest and recuperate and it gives us, the audience, a few moments alone (so to speak) with the characters, all of whom have their own little story arcs, wants and desires, that tend to overlap with the main story. There are too many character moments to name, and all of them have landed some fantastic one-liners or shared some tears, so here are a few favorites:tumblr_nl9tzk10pe1r201t0o2_1280

  • Vex and Vax – pretty much every episode has a nice moment or two between the twins, Episode 40 has a brutally emotional scene as Vax pleads with Vex not to stray too far from his side in the wake of a dragon attack, but one of my favorites involves some boots, ghostly servants, water and flour, and some brother/sister heckling (Episode 56, “Hope”).
  • Grog and Pike – after Grog purchases a new, badass hat, Pike decides to try it on and takes it for a run (Episode 57, “Duskmeadow”).
  • Keyleth – I’m pretty partial to the druid princess’s awkward high fives after some kind of emotional admission (Episode 44, “The Sunken Tomb,” and Episode 65, “The Streets of Ank’Harel”)
  • Scanlan – any time Scanlan sings to inspire. Anytime (All episodes) Also…Spice? You spice? (Episode 65)
  • Percy – there are a lot of very sweet moments where Percy waxes poetic or wallows a bit, but it’s really when he’s acting like a spoiled rich kid that he shines. His attempt to get Scanlan’s daughter out of prison is a particular favorite (Episode 39, “Omens”)
  • Group Effort – that time opening a wooden door was a nearly impossible task (Episode 29, “Whispers”)

 

Matthew Mercer is Amazing!

 

This can’t be effectively described in words. You have to see and experience just how great of a DM Mercer is. Just know that his character work, as well as his world-building, is phenomenal.

Charity

 

The cast and crew of Critical Role have been supporters of the charity 826LA since the beginning, encouraging fans to donate during the broadcast on Geek & Sundry and thanking those who do on air. However, due to the overwhelming generosity and creativity of their fans that made for some sweet Critmas day unwrapping, the players each chose a charity for fans to support in lieu of the money going to smaller items like dice bags or gigantic bear statues that take up space and are hard to store.

D&D For The Good of All

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We’ve definitely come a long way from the days of Mazes and Monsters, but there are still certain stigmas associated with gaming and gamers that keep people who might find RPGs to be a pleasant experience. Currently, we’re in a bit of a cultural upswing in regards to D&D-style role-playing. I don’t know what, if any, influence Critical Role has had where the bigger picture is concerned, but it’s certainly at the forefront of the pro-gaming change to the status quo. Not only do we have Critical Role, but Matt Mercer and Ashley Johnson are part of the Force Grey filmed RPG show for Nerdist. There’s also Dan Harmon’s Harmon Quest on Seeso that mixes live role-playing with animation and one of the best shows on Netflix, Stranger Things, features the main characters playing D&D as bookends to the series. Small steps, yes, but important nonetheless.

So those are the reasons why I’m currently obsessed with Critical Role. Maybe this encouraged you to check it out or maybe you’re already a fan. Either way, what are your thoughts on the show? What are your favorite moments? Characters? I’m eager to know.

Oh, and…Is it Thursday yet?

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It’s the start of a new year, so I thought I’d move forward by going backward. Yeah, I know what I said.

When I get self-reflective, especially about my decision to pursue writing, my mind wanders back to what really solidified my love for writing in the first place. And as much as I purport to be passionate about History and my profession as an Archivist, my passion for writing was a result of being a fan of the sci-fi television program Andromeda.A_77544

For those of you who somehow missed this gem of a show, Andromeda is about the adventures of High Guard Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo), a man displaced in time, as he tries to rebuild the fallen Commonwealth that once united the galaxies. Along for the adventure are the ragtag crew of the junk ship Eureka Maru – Capt. Beka Valentine (Lisa Ryder), mechanical genius Seamus Harper (Gordon Michael Woolvett), enigmatic alien Trance Gemini (Laura Bertram), and Magog spiritualist Rev Bem (Brent Stait) – as well as Nietzschean warrior Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb) and the Andromeda’s sentient android, Rommie (Lexa Doig).

The series was created by Robert Hewitt Wolfe, based on unused material by Gene Roddenberry, and ran from 2000-2005, though admittedly only the first two seasons are consistently good. Might have something to do with Wolfe’s unfortunate departure from the show during the middle of the second season over creative differences with the studio; the bone of contention being Wolfe’s desire to steer away from primarily standalone episodes in favor of long-form storytelling. Why do I know his approach would have been better? Because when Robert Engels was brought in as Wolfe’s replacement, and the episodes became more standalone, it started going downhill fast. Not that there weren’t good episodes during Engels’s run, but the overall quality of the show took a huge dive in the third season primarily where the main characters were concerned. It’s like when Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing at the end of the fourth season and as season five rolled out under new management it was obvious they didn’t understand the characters or how they interacted with each other. The same goes for Andromeda – I’d invested a lot of time in the friendship of Beka Valentine and Seamus Harper only to watch the two characters, who essentially acted like brother and sister, drift further and further apart. Then there was that whole “Hercules in Space” debacle that was the fifth season, but that’s really not worth your time.

HarperOkay, backstory out of the way, it was around Wolfe’s departure and Engels’s arrival that I started mulling around a lot of ideas in my head; ideas that focused on how I imagined the characters interacting and how they’d react to events within the episodes. Again, I kept focusing on Beka and Harper because they had the most history within the timeline of the show and yet it went largely unexplored. So, this being the early days of internet fan forums and interactions, I found one that seemed to have the most activity and started writing what were essentially tags to each episode focusing on Beka and Harper. Entitled “Coda”, though not to be confused with Wolfe’s own “Coda” script posted after the series ended, it was my way of getting ideas out of my head and exploring what I thought was a fairly rich science fiction universe. Eventually, the forum shut down (I still can’t remember the name of it), but a new one sprung up, the still-operating ExIsle. If you dare, I’m pretty sure a few of my stories are still posted and awaiting someone’s critique of pieces written when I was in high school. I cringe at the thought of all those grammatical errors and oddly worded sentences.

The point is, when I started writing these stories another avenue of creativity opened up to me. I’d written poetry before and a couple of pieces where I experimented with prose, but it was just something I dabbled in, not something I took all that seriously. As I continued to post to ExIsle, I began to focus more on the stories I produced and it was through the process of writing fanfiction that I developed the skills I utilize in my writing even now.

The inner perfectionist in me really started to emerge where dialogue is concerned. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, Harper is a hyperactive, fast-talking, socially-inept genius responsible for a lot of exposition and technical jargon. So, naturally, I became attached to the character but it made for a difficult learning curve when it came to writing him. As a fan of the show, I had the benefit of seeing the finished product, the hard work of the show’s writers and the actor bringing the character to life. I felt then that it was only right to try and at least capture Harper’s voice whenever possible. Harper also had a darker past as a slave on Earth that produced a few prejudices and nightmare fuel when dealing with Nietzschean overlords or fearsome Magog, but it was important, at least to me, to keep his sense of humor intact. It was a tension reliever as much as a defense mechanism and it seemed only Beka, Trance, and to some degree, Rev Bem, who could see through him. I think there was also an unspoken challenge in getting Harper’s voice as close to the television show as possible. His voice stood out, which made him both the easiest to differentiate and yet the hardest to pin down. Being on the forum meant I read as much as I wrote and whenever an author managed to capture what made Harper Harper it made the story that much better. In sins-bekaharp-smmy mind, it meant the author figured something out. They listened to the cadence, the rhythm, and the sound of Seamus Harper and managed to channel it into their writing. It’s a skill I continue to hone as I move towards more prose writing, but it’s just as helpful for writing academic papers as it is reviews. Voice is important; it’s distinctive and if you can figure out a character’s voice, then you can figure out your own.

The science fiction environment of Andromeda was a huge factor in the type of fiction I read and tried to write early on. The worlds and people created for the show were fairly simplistic, but also grounded in particular traits that gave me a good baseline: Nietzscheans were genetically minded brutes, Nightsiders were greedy opportunists, Perseids were peaceful scientists, and the Magog were straight up nightmare fuel. Easy enough. Then you factor in the collapse of civilization (on some planets) after the fall of the Commonwealth and the efforts of some, not just Dylan Hunt, to rebuild albeit in less than ideal circumstances. The show definitely covered all of the typical tropes used in every science fiction show at some point, but there’s nothing wrong with tropes so long as you at least try to bring something new to the table. The most fun, however, was creating the technology. I’m not a super-techy person but writing fanfiction for Andromeda let me stretch my imagination to make up tools, vehicles, weapons, and ephemera that could “logically” fit into the universe. The worst, though, was explaining how tech worked, especially the inner workings of the Andromeda herself. Again, it went back to keeping in sync with the show. How did they describe slipstream (their method of faster-than-light travel)? How was Rommie the android separate from the main A.I. of the Andromeda? What the hell was that string of words Harper just put together that sounded vaguely important to keeping everyone alive? I felt it necessary to have a base understanding and maintain some authenticity to the show as a means of laying the foundation for my own creations. I applied the same tactics when I wrote fanfiction about Stargate: Atlantis and Lord of the Rings. But that’s just me. Not everyone feels that way. Besides, when push comes to shove, who’s going to argue about the improbable things in a fictional setting? Oh, wait…

andromeda-1d1Thankfully, I was never on the receiving end of angry diatribes about how true I remained to the world of Andromeda or whether or not I depicted a character poorly. I was lucky at that moment in time because no one was policing me and my creativity and fan forums were mostly civil. Above all, the people on ExIsle were encouraging and supportive. At one point I had two ongoing stories that I wrote while in college and I tended to publish both on the same day to the point where the frequent readers dubbed that day “Sam Update Day.” It was sweet and it came along at a point in my life where I didn’t have a lot of friends so getting that kind of support and encouragement from people who had the same love for the show as I did meant a lot. Having that connection and the ability to critique without attacking meant I could experiment with the stories and not feel like someone was going to immediately dismiss the premise or a new character. I returned that kindness as well; commenting on stories, giving my opinion, but also being encouraging of new writers and new ideas. We were bound by our shared love of Andromeda and that was all of the credibility required. I really wish it was the same now, but I know that’s not entirely true.

So, yeah, that’s pretty much where it started. Every person finds their spark of creativity somewhere, mine just happened to be with wonderfully flawed sci-fi show. I’m certain all of you have one as well!

Joshua Williamson returns to talk about all things Ghosted! There will be spoilers for the entirety of the book so beware and be warned!

 

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