D&D [Underdark]: Dungeons and Actual Dragons

In the D&D game I play in on Mondays, my druid has recently come into guardianship of a young red dragon wyrmling. Against the better judgement of part of my party I gave him a name that was NOT food related. This party is constantly at odds and rather than attempt to save the poor thing (while he was still an egg), they wanted to make him into a dragon egg omelet. Hilarity did not ensue.

Anyhow, thanks to me, our party is +1 protective dragon. It’s pretty great so far. Since our party is mostly in travel mode at the moment, escorting part of our npc group home, my druid has been spending her time teaching the little guy to forage, speak, fly and fight. I’m working on skills that she has, so she can better train him, so tonight I opted to teach him about Religion. She’s a worshiper of Silvanus herself and thought this would be a good start.

Our DM is never the best at spur-of-the-moment dialogue but the exchanges we’ve had as druid & dragon have been pretty great so far. Tonight’s produced this moment.

Dragon: What’s Religion?
Druid: Well, it’s the thing we call it when you decide to spend your time and energy paying love, attention and respect to something or someone.

Dragon: Does that mean you’re my religion?

And that kids is how you make me fall in love with a baby dragon.


I’m giving today’s post to share with you a cause near and dear to my heart, #INeedDiverseGames.

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D&D [Holloway]: Player Questions

In what I’m sure will be a continuing series, I bring you a very pertinent questions my players are currently pondering. In today’s edition I bring you a question from my Tal’Dorei game, currently taking place in a city heavily modified from an old 3.5 campaign.

On learning that the city they’re currently in has abnormal ghosts who function more or less as living citizens:

“Do they poop?”

To be fair, it wasn’t the very first question they asked. It also didn’t take very long for our group’s Wizard to get to it either. But you know, as the DM, I appreciate that they’re taking an interest in the great mysteries of the city. I’m sure as they continue to learn more, the questions will evolve–

No, let’s be honest.
Until they solve if and how these specific ghostly humanoids poop, they won’t be happy.

Every campaign has one. The Adventure Zone had tacos– I have ghost poo?

Look out level 20.
In which our intrepid adventurers have 17 levels to figure out how exactly it all works.

On a related note, their curiosity reminds me of a certain druid from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series. I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of creature they are, humans (tieflings and halflings in this case) have an inherent need to know how other creatures poop.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Today I had a whole day off work without any scheduled plans. Save one, finally, spend some time with a distant friend who is on a completely opposite schedule from me. Used to be she and I could make time for a chat on Discord pretty regularly, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. And since she works third shift even in the time we have off, finding more than an hour to actually chat is difficult. Both of us having the day free — and a workday for most everyone else — meant we could get together.

Today, we picked up a game to play that we’d both been putting off so we could play it together. I bought Life is Strange: Before the Storm, the prequel game to 2015’s Life is Strange by Square Enix and Dontnod Entertainment, during the Winter Steam Sale with a day just like today in mind. All three episodes of the game had been released, meaning if I wanted to spend a day on it, I could pick it up and finish it that same day.

So I did, with a friend on the other end of a Discord Chat and Steam broadcast. All hail the power of technology to bring people together.

Before the Storm picks up the story of Chloe Price some time before the events of the first game, before her friend Max returns from another school, to their hometown of Arcadia Bay. Instead, we meet the friend we’d only seen in pictures and spoken of in the past tense, Rachel Amber. Rachel and Chloe meet out of the blue at a concert one night and a very fast friendship, relationship, forms between them.

We learn more about Chloe’s stepfather, before he married her mother and we meet Rachel Amber’s parents. There are a few return names and faces in the students at Blackwell Academy as well, in addition to some new ones.

Overall, the game is compelling, as I expected it to be having played the first one. The original however has a very specific power/control set that pulls you through the story and helps you achieve Max’s goals. This one doesn’t have that. And… I don’t think it’s a worse game for it, but I’m definitely not a fan of the mechanic they choose (i.e. Chloe’s “superpower”, the Backtalk challenges). Aside from that however, the choices are meaningful, the story is wonderful and while the dialogue is very often clunky, it makes an impression.

For instance:

In episode two, “Hell is Empty”, we see the consequences of Chloe and Rachel’s actions from episode one culminate in the expulsion of Chloe from Blackwell. From that moment, there’s several really difficult scenes between Chloe and her mother, Joyce. These also include Joyce’s boyfriend, David.

I had a very difficult time with these scenes for two reasons. One, having come from a set of broken home where both parents remarried to different levels of success, I’m familiar with what it’s like having a new parent introduced into your life. Two, as a trained foster parent and adoptive mother, I know what it’s like to try and be a parent to a teenager you’ve only just met. Both are difficult for a variety of reasons. I don’t know there’s a way to do it “right” but in as much as the game makes it all feel like it’s done “wrong”, then I think they did it well.

To be honest, I repeatedly said how much I hated it as I made the choices the game presented me with to get through those conversations. None of the choices felt like good ones. And while we only see the choices presented from Chloe’s perspective… if there were a different game where you had to make the choices from Joyce’s, or even David’s perspectives, I have no doubt they should feel much the same. There’s no right or perfect way to change the make-up of your family in a way that’s going to feel good to everyone involved.

Now I wouldn’t want to sell the game on those conversations, they’re uncomfortable and frustrating. However, given how clunky and sometimes performative some of the dialogue can be in other parts of the game, this is one of the times when it absolutely feels real.

TAZ: Podcast — Amnesty arc

Aside from Critical Role, The Adventure Zone is the one actual play D&D series I’ve been able to get into. Maybe I enjoyed it so much from the beginning because I was already a huge fan of the McElroys. I enjoy Griffin & Justin’s work at Polygon and I’ve been listening to the three of them on MBMBAM for a long time now. They started sort of at the right place, right time for me.

I’d been watching Tabletop on Geek & Sundry for a couple seasons, I’d started getting into Critical Role and looking into story-like podcasts that were something other than Welcome to Nightvale. And then the McEl-bros started The Adventure Zone.
And as I mentioned in yesterday’s post… they just sort of started. There was no long lengthy introduction to their characters, there was no overly detailed explanation of anything. Griffin just started narrating and they just ran with it. As much as I love Critical Role (and that’s a lot) something about the tight time of the TAZ podcast and the extreme humor they pack into those hour-ish long episodes really connected with me. Plus, Griffin’s storytelling is pretty amazing. He started with that first Phandalin adventure that a lot of D&D 5th edition groups start with and then… he made the whole thing his own. Which is EXACTLY what you should do as a DM. Just start. And then figure out the story you want to tell. That doesn’t always come before the players are around the table for the first time. At least, not the whole thing.
Anyhow. I say all that to say this, TAZ is one of my favorite things going. It’s one of my favorite podcasts and fans of McEl-content, TAZ specifically are really, pretty great. The McElroy brothers have gone out of their way to try and make listeners comfortable with the stories their telling in the best way they know how. They don’t always get it right, but the effort is always apparent.
With the ending of the TAZ: Balance arc, they guys have been working on shorter story arcs. Clint, their dad, ran one recently using the FATE system. Griffin is picking up a short arc using the Monster of the Week rules. Travis is working on his currently and cards are in the air on what if anything Justin will run before they pick up with a longer arc again. 
The first mini-story arc, Commitment, wasn’t my favorite. The 100 years arc in Balance that solidified how the end of the bigger story would play out was a low point for me as a listener. I’m not crazy about monster-of-the-week shows in general but I bided my time for the story to finally come full-circle. It did and when the whole story paid off, I bawled my eyes out in the final episode.
Commitment though, I felt disconnected from almost completely. I didn’t listen to all of their set-up episode, I gave introductions about 15 minutes and moved on. The story was alright, the humor was present but really, I got through those episodes because the brothers are still themselves at the end of the day and know how to make jokes deliver. While it didn’t resonate with me on a story or rpg level completely, it was worth it to listen to Clint stretch his storytelling abilities and Griffin take a turn as a player. 
Now in our second arc, with Amnesty, I did make it through all of the setup episode although it was a near thing. The episode released Friday 1/12 though, that was something. And honestly, I wish this is the episode they used as their “set-up” episode. I didn’t need to listen to them describe the game play and their characters for an hour. This hour long episode where each character Duck, Lady Flame & Edmund get a tiny adventure for themselves that we can assume is building to all three characters getting off on their adventure together. 
So, yes, one of the things that helps ties things together better here is that Griffin’s had three years of GM experience with the Balance arc. Whether or not all of the pieces in that story were successful is up to listener interpretation, but most fans can agree that the story pays off in the end.
For this first real episode of Amnesty, Griffin spoke into existence a story… and everyone just yes and-ed the hell out of what he provided them with. I really wish the previous episode had just been skipped. We’ll get just as much knowledge of your character from context clues and in-game interaction through the course of this arc as you gave us in that one set-up episode. I find that makes that build up unnecessary. 
This is a bit of a rambling through process about how games and stories begin and what I think is successful. Sorry about that. But I wanted to post about TAZ today because I really did enjoy this episode. It was a good salve for being strangely…. caught up… on Critical Role. 
I’m looking forward to what this new arc brings us (Bigfoot? *fingers crossed*), aside from the banging new intro Griffin wrote for it. But two days, two good beginnings on stories for my two favorite actual play games? 
Yeah, I’m good here.

Critical Role Season 2

Maker bless these nerdy-ass voice actors. Season 2 is off to a fantastic start… well, after some technical difficulties that kept the Alpha stream down for a little bit.

Although even before that, I thought that I might miss it given that the weather is bad here and we went without internet for a few different hours earlier in the evening. But, it came back on and stayed on for the entirety of the new episode. I switched back and forth between YouTube and twitch to watch a steady stream until the Alpha stream was back up. Alpha has people’s names and character portraits and they were slowly being updated throughout the evening as we learned who was playing what.

Here’s the biggest thing I enjoyed about tonight. And it’s one of the things I like about Matt’s storytelling, about the way Critical Role began in general and one of the things I like most about new games I DM. There was no extended discussion at the forefront of who was playing what and which classes they were or what their abilities would be. There was no awkward discussion introducing each individual. We got these characters as if we were picking up with new friends. As observers we’re coming across the characters in medias res. As players, they’ve talked to the DM, they’ve talked to one or two other people in the group and they have things already in place.

It’s like a new television show. You get contextual clues about characters as the first episode progresses. Most shows do not sit you down like an episode of the fucking Bachelor and give you every person’s backstory. It’s one of the things I think SO MANY actual play shows and podcasts get wrong. [The Adventure Zone’s Balance arc did this really well. The boys didn’t know what they were doing the first time around and their first episode gave us brief intros and then they just jumped into the first adventure at Phandalin. I feel like in these more subsequent stories where they’ve spend a whole episode on character introductions, I’ve enjoyed those less.]

And as I mentioned, it’s one of the things I like as a DM also. I want characters that come to me sort of half-formed. I want players (and observers) to come to the story with little expectations. Learning through play is one of the best and most exciting things. You don’t know how a character (including your own most times) will react to certain situations until you come across them. So while you might plan to play a trickster (and be still my heart about Vex’s new character, Jester) until you get to stretch your legs with that character you still don’t know how they’re react in each situation.

As an aside about RP characters in general — this is why as a DM (and a player) I highly advocate for rolled stats and randomization tables upon creation. As a player, if I can completely randomize character creation, I will. I love rolling up a character that might not make much sense and then having to play and find out what I can do with them, and what they might grow up to be. I’ve played some really interesting characters through the years as a result.

When the first season launched, we got the characters and the game sort of already in progress just by fact that there was already a game happening. They just moved it in front of the cameras and stuck to a schedule. But they didn’t spend the first episode just explaining anything… Matt just jumped them right into the game with a minimal recap. I really appreciate that they kept that mystery for Season 2. The slow reveals of what people were playing, how they would speak, what they’d be good at and what exactly their roles would be, were fantastic. It wasn’t forced and it wasn’t over-explained. Over what might be another 100 episodes, we’ll figure these characters out pretty thoroughly, if experience with Season 1 has taught us anything.

I’ve got more specific character thoughts I want to put down, but I’ll save those for another post.

Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons

I know I’m behind the curve on the game Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons by Starbreeze Studios, but I just couldn’t not write about it after finishing it the other night. This game reminds me so deeply of one of my favorite video games of all time, The Path by Tale of Tales games. The Path came out almost 7 years ago but it’s got one of the most compelling retellings of Little Red Riding Hood I’ve ever played. There’s something about the way Brothers is played, the music and the imagery that is really reminiscent of what Tale of Tales did with The Path.

In Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons, you play the two sons of a man just fallen ill. The titular brothers work together to get their father to a healer at the start of the game, but it’s not enough and the healer points them in the direction of a cure. Nothing I’ve described is told to the player in words either written or spoken by the characters. There’s no subtitles, and while the characters are voiced the words are more akin to Simlish than anything else. You’re given very brief instructions on the screen on how to control the brothers – interacting with the space bar and the right cntl button, and the WASL and arrow keys. The right cntl button isn’t one much used in gaming on the PC and I was skeptical of first of how it would play but after a few minutes in, I found it was pretty easy.

screenshot from brothers a tale of two sonsThe unique mechanic in Brothers is that instead of moving between characters to accomplish both tasks, you’re essentially operating both characters at once. Both characters must walk in the same direction, you can’t move further if one of the characters is too far in the other direction. So that space bar and right cntl are used as the interactions which are sometimes done simultaneously and sometimes down in conjunction, in some cases holding both. The game is a platformer, so the boys must jump and catch and move to solve puzzles. Since both brothers sometimes need to be working towards their goal, it can feel like a real brain stretch to figure out the timing on certain aspects. There are some things that make this a little easier — you’re unlikely to fall off tree limbs or narrow walkways for one, which can allow you to smash one brother into a wall while the other finishing moving where you need him.

At my best, I found myself moving and jumping with the brothers simultaneously not letting their forward momentum be slowed down by my inability to function for both of them simultaneously. At my worst, I repeatedly lost one brother off a cliff when I let up on the wrong button over and over again. There’s no puzzles it took me too long to figure out and while the story is pretty much a linear journey from start to finish, there are some interesting little things the brothers can accomplish if you let them off the path where the game lets you explore. These are few and far between moments, but you’re often rewarded either by the story or an achievement for the extra effort.

screenshot from brothers a tale of two sonsFor a game where the main characters are so young, it does cover some grim subjects – starting the game with the death of the boys mother and their father’s illness and continuing into troll caves and a forest of giants slain in battle. The music and the artwork are both gorgeous and a large part of what reminds me of The Path so much, emotion often portrayed just as much by the sound or the look of an area as it is by the characters.

If you haven’t checked out this game before now, it’s $14.99 on Steam but it goes on sale often. It’s maybe four hours long, longer if you search for some of the more hidden bits, but more than worth the small impact to your wallet.