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.

D&D — Curating 5th Edition Pt. 2

(This is temporarily being published today. I don’t quite have this week’s prompt story ready, but I did have this. I’ll switch the two tomorrow.)

 

Last week I talked about how the basic rules, The Player’s Handbook, should not be taken as Gospel. I mentioned how all games of Dungeons & Dragons are homebrew to some extent, because it’s all about making calls in circumstances nobody could have prepared for.

But really, one of the greatest assets of the 5th edition of D&D is how malleable it is. I would hesitate to call the system simple, because I don’t think any table-top RPG could be called such. But what 5th edition does is it sets out a layer of rules that are easy to follow, and once you understand what all the layers are, you can do what you want with them.

The key thing about that is that you need to know what the layers are. If somebody were to ask me if they could make their own class rather than use one of the ones in the book, I would discourage them from that idea. Not because I don’t want them to be creative, but because I think that’s simply the wrong way to tackle it. The classes in 5e are each designed to have half a dozen (or more) subclasses once you hit level 3. Paladins choose their “Sacred Oath”, bards choose their “Bard College”, rangers choose their archetype, etc. (This is also why a campaign of everybody running the same class is totally viable, but that’s a tangent.) I think making a new class is the wrong mindset, because the existing classes are already made like templates with different skill trees. If you’ve got a cool idea, I bet there’s a way to purpose it as a homebrew subclass of a pre-existing cleric, or sorcerer for example. This will also save you a lot of trouble down the line, believe me.

If your player wants to invent a new race, it’s a little different. It’s not as complicated stat-wise, but it can be a little annoying for a dungeon master. If you’re the only Mantis-person in the world, that’s a strange thing to put into the narrative, and it will always be prevalent. It doesn’t matter if the stats of a Mantis race are just copied over from Elf, because the DM would have to implant Mantis-people into his world just to make it so your character isn’t out of place. (Making them exclusive to this one island nobody has ever heard of does not solve the problem, because you’re still the only one.) This particular point will be specific to the dungeon master, though. Matt Colville doesn’t really allow any exotic race like Tiefling in his campaign, even though it’s an official, valid race. (He’s not wrong. It’s his game to run, after all!) So while making a race for one specific player is annoying, it’s doable as long as the DM is okay with it.

But there are things that are totally reasonable to invent on your own, especially as a DM. Magic items, for example, are things I almost never take straight from the book. Typically, I think about it’s origin and what it’s purpose was, and then I make something based on that. Let’s say a traveling merchant did a favor for a wizard as he passed through town. As thanks, the wizard made him a ring that allows him to haggle for better prices when he sells this goods. If the party gets their hands on it, I would say they are better at persuasion checks when selling. Buying stuff is a whole different story. (But as compensation I’d give a more hefty chunk because it’s a specific circumstance, like +2 or +3 to those checks, rather than a simple +1 when haggling.) Presenting very specific tools to the players will often adapt their play-style accordingly, as something like this will naturally make the party (even more) prone to looting everything they can find from bodies and dungeons.

Literally anything in the book is subject to change as you see fit. Like the idea of throwing a vampire into your story, but your players are far too weak to handle it? Just change the stats to make him less threatening. Instead of getting into how you’d do that, I’ll just direct you to Matt Colville’s awesome, albeit lengthy, video about it.

I said this last week, and I’ll stress it again. You’re all coming to this table to have fun. Don’t let the rules stop that from happening. The rules are for optimization. You can pick and choose what rules you like because you want to maximize the enjoyment for the players. In fact, once you play this game enough and you know all the ins and outs, you can easily bend the rules to have more fun!

 

D&D — Curating 5th Edition Pt. 1

One thing that I had never quite understood until recently is that 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is so malleable. It’s like you get this giant rulebook and you learn how things work. You don’t have time to read it cover to cover, but let’s be honest, nobody does. In fact, it wasn’t even meant to be read like that, even for dungeon masters. The rulebook is just there to provide you the blueprints for the building you and your friends are creating together. It tells you how to set up the scaffolding and presents a rough idea of where to go from there, but really, it’s not an instruction manual. The Player’s Handbook is meant for reference— solving disputes in a pinch, or understanding the idea behind a rule, but it isn’t set in stone.

Matt Colville summed it up pretty well. The book is not D&D. D&D is what happens at the table with you and your friends. As a matter of fact the book isn’t even a necessary part of that journey. You can have a totally valid game of Dungeons & Dragons without any book or physical dice, because in the end, D&D is what you make it, so it involves a lot of imagination.

All that being said, the most important thing is for everyone to have a clear understanding of the way things are supposed to go. I break and bend rules all the time. Being a DM is about making calls others would disagree with. My brother likes the idea of casting Eldritch Blast (basically a laser beam) at targets 300+ feet away. The rules allow him to do this, but I interpret this to mean the spell can remain effective at that range, not his ability to aim. So while I would allow him to attack, it would be at disadvantage. At the same time, though, there’s nothing in the book that says how Eldritch Blast is cast. For all I know, it has nothing to do with one’s ability to aim, but that’s how I rule it, cause that’s how it makes sense to me.

It doesn’t always go poorly for the players, though. Spending hit dice to regain health is “Roll 1d8 (usually) + Constitution modifier”. Theoretically, if a player has a negative Constitution modifier, that means they can lose health in a rest. There’s nothing in the book that says spending hit dice gains a minimum of 1 health (unless I missed it), but it makes no sense to me. So I house ruled that to say your Con mod can only benefit you in a circumstance like that.

All games of Dungeons & Dragons have house rules. The game is too complicated to function without them, and people who are super strict about what the book says and never give the players any leeway tend to be a little awful to play with anyway.

So as Captain Barbossa said, “The rules are more like guidelines”. I often say you can break a rule once you understand why it’s there, but in this circumstance, you might not even need that. Remember, everyone’s fun is paramount. If somebody is having less fun because of something they don’t agree with, what takes priority, the fun, or the rules obstructing it?

Review — Tsuro

Tsuro has always been one of my favorite board games. It’s so simple it requires basically no explanation, but there can still be a lot of skill incorporated into the game. It remains an old favorite of mine partly because I don’t own it, and thus I don’t get to play it often, but recently I bought it on my phone for $1. It is literally the game but on a screen (plus achievements, which I’m never upset about), and the only feature I think the app is missing is the ability to move the camera. The angle it gives you isn’t the best.

But anyway, I’ll talk a bit about what this game is before I really review it. Up to eight players set their pieces (called “Stones”) on the edges of an empty grid (the board). They each draw three tiles from the deck, and these tiles are just lines. There are two endpoints on each side of these squares, and when you place it on the board, the players’ Stones go along the path until it ends, and a new tile is placed on the grid (on their turn or another player’s). The most common win condition is “Last Stone Standing”.

That’s the whole game, but here’s where the strategy comes in. Each tile has four lines and eight endpoints. A placed tile will always affect every Stone whose path it adds to. You can try to avoid the rest of the players by skirting around the edge of the board, or you can actively seek them out and try to get their path to go off the board, or send them crashing into other players.

Since there are dozens of different tiles, and they’re all unique, this game has almost infinite replayability, and by it’s nature, it gets harder and harder to stay alive the longer the game goes on. This means you can mess with people early on, only to be thrown halfway across the board in one turn. It’s simple enough for everyone to enjoy, and skill almost doesn’t matter.

If I have any critiques for this game, it’s that a lot of it is luck based. There will be many circumstances where you will be forced to rely on drawing a specific kind of tile, and when you don’t get it, you just lose. More experienced players will win more often, of course, but this is one of those games that even beginners have an almost equal chance to win, regardless of what happens. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t inherently bad, but it’s not always what you want in a board game.

The other thing is also a double edged sword, and that is it’s simplicity. Many learned and veteran board game aficionados (go redundancy) will prefer games with a more complicated nature. Tsuro is not only easy to set up, but one game can also end in ten minutes, which is far sooner than most tabletops. It’s great for getting beginners into what board games can be like, but it’s not something you can really spend the whole night playing.