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Alfred Shortstaff and the Cavern of Time Second Edition!

I got around to reading Alfred Shortstaff and the Cavern of Time from cover to cover in print, which is a good medium to, sadly, find err...

Monday, March 27, 2017

Painted Talisman Figurines!

I've owned Talisman for a couple of years now, and consider it one of my favorite board games. It is a bit slow, but the balance and general roleplaying atmosphere of the game have been a lot of fun to play with. One issue I had is that the figurines in the game were all a straight gray color. It was somewhat annoying to track which player was on which space on the game board. This weekend, after using them as game pieces in the D&D game the other week, I decided to finally sit down and paint the figurines. I consulted their class cards, which look like this:

And, since their models accurately reflect their pose, it was easy to copy their look in paint form, like so:

Painting all the figurines gave me quite the unexpected challenge. I didn't have a huge selection of colors, so I had to mix them together regularly. There were also some rather fine details that I had to focus pretty hard to complete, such as the thief's mustache and the priestess's necklace. Here is one held in my hand for size reference, if you're not familiar with Talisman:

In short, it was a fun new form of art that I have little experience with, and I was glad that the figurines turned out so well. After painting them with acrylic paint, I sprayed them with sealant so that they'll last longer. I'm sure they'll make Talisman a lot more fun to play, and because of the range of classes available, they'll make handy miniatures for any future D&D games I run!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Arena Games: My Experience Finally Being a DM!

Two weeks ago, after aspiring for two years, I finally was able to try out DMing a game of Dungeons & Dragons! I always thought I'd find a group and play as a player before actually running my own game, but the game that some coworkers run at work was too slow for me (Only two hours a week, split up between two days), and the GURPS game I play with my friends leaves much to be desired (I really hate the GURPS system, and I found myself being too picky on the DM), but luckily watching Critical Role gave me all the experience, inspiration, and motivation I needed to give it a shot.

The players were my siblings and their significant others, and my wife. None of them except maybe my brother and brother-in-law were too excited about the idea of playing a game that is largely stereotyped as a game played by pimple-faced single men rolling dice in their mom's basements, but I assured them that it was much less nerdy than they might think—it was like a board game where literally anything could happen. I also told them they could count humoring me with a game as an early birthday present, which seemed to work.

I prepared an adventure from the Warcraft Roleplaying Game Manual Lands of Conflict, called "Arena Games." This was partly because I love Warcraft so much and know the lore well, but it was also because the adventure was perfect for both a first-time DM and first-time players. It had a rather narrow storyline and enclosed physical location where I could lightly "railroad" the players so they couldn't throw too many unexpected twists into my plans, it had a simple conflict, several simple battles, some secrets, and a boss battle at the end.

I wanted to make sure every one of the players' needs were covered so that we could have the smoothest possible experience playing. Normally, players hunker down for a long campaign where they spend time creating their characters, their characters' backstories, and choices for things like feats and spells, but I knew that would bog down the session and possibly bore them instead of give them a good first impression of the game, possibly opening it up to more games in the future. So I made five character sheets, each covering a different race and class, with filled out stats, backgrounds, spells, and cantrips, for them to choose from. I also made spell cards so that no one would have to look up anything in the Player's Handbook, and even weapon and item cards that they could consult for damage and whatnot. I assured my players that, though the game would be the most complex board game they would ever play, I would do all of the complex behind-the-scenes calculations, so they wouldn't have to worry about any of it.

The day finally came, we prepared by putting the kids to bed early, snacks were prepared, and we sat down and began our session of Dungeons & Dragons together. I set the atmosphere with a premade playlist, including several tracks from World of Warcraft that fit the situations they would encounter. I began by allowing everyone to practice roleplaying with a simple request. I explained where the adventure took place—the Stranglethorn Vale jungles—and asked them how their specific character ended up in such a place, given their background. My brother, playing the high elf wizard Lynalis, said that he had heard of an ancient ruin in the jungle that he wanted to study. His girlfriend, a goblin named Bizby, had left her previous city as a hot suspect of crime and wanted to start a new life in the pirate coastal city of Booty Bay. My wife played a night elf healer named Alania, and was searching for new ways to commune with her nature goddess, Elune, in the jungles. My sister played a Wildhammer dwarf I originally had named Fargrim, but since a female had picked him, I changed him to a female named Fargrima. She related the backstory of Fargrima as a wandering hunter who had made his way to Stranglethorn in search of new trails and game. Finally, her husband played a half-orc fighter and ex-soldier named Thromak, who had been kicked out of his town for excessive brawling and had wandered south.

I explained that during their travels, they were one by one ambushed by forest trolls, who had enslaved them as gladiators in the ancient Gurubashi Arena. Owned and ordered by the cruel troll Bloodstone, they were now imprisoned along with many others and forced to fight for sport. I began by explaining their predicament and introducing them to the other NPCs in the cell with them. They soon found out that Bloodstone had sent a search party to capture a demon to fight the combatants in the arena. This was news of great alarm, as a demon would surely kill everyone in the arena. Where once there was a chance of survival in each match, now there would be certain death.

It was interesting to see how my players roleplayed. They treated the game at first like a board game, where they discussed plans and strategies with each other out of character. I encouraged them to stay more in character by pointing out that the guards could hear them conspiring and talking in different NPC accents, but throughout the
game they often forgot that their characters should be considered as real people who didn't know everything that the players themselves did.

They tried to make some rudimentary plans for escape, but soon they were called in to a fight in the arena. Now they began to really enjoy the game, now that some specific rules were given and some action was introduced to the story. They were assigned to fight six harpies, capturing one and killing the others. The fight was simple, and they enjoyed the descriptions of how the rules and dice rolls came into effect. I was also very impressed with how they fought, using their abilities to ensnare a harpy with vines and throwing a net over it, which worked perfectly. I was expecting the harpy to escape, but the double entanglement made it nearly impossible for it to succeed on an escape roll. The other harpies were dispatched, and the players triumphed.

They heard news that the demon was closer than they had thought, arriving most likely the next day. Judging by the way they were conspiring to make an escape, I was afraid they were going to try and make a run for it, despite me making it clear that the hallways were patrolled by guards they stood no chance against. Luckily, though, they didn't do anything too chancy. The next day, they were assigned to another battle against four venom spiders. This battle had some gimmicks in it that were fun for me to pull against them: for example, nearly invisible spider webs that they had to have a successful perception check to spot, which they didn't. Some of them got stuck, which made for a fun aspect for them to play against. This was when the first Natural 20 was rolled, by Bizby when she made an attack roll with a flintlock pistol. Doing so with such a weapon does 3x damage instead of 2x, and she happened to roll full damage on top of that, making it do absolute maximum damage and completely obliterate the spider. Unfortunately, I realized later that she should have had disadvantage on the attack since she was stuck in a spider web, but hearing her say "This is the most excited I've been in a long time!" made it worth it. It was fun to see the characters having a good time.

I also admired the players' use of tactics in the fight; Alania used her priestess power of charming beasts against a spider, and Lynalis used some spells to interesting effect as well. Thromak had a hard time scoring a hit with a crossbow, and even when the trolls told the players to stop (as the crowd was too focused on the demon arriving outside the stands), he still shot one of them once, finally landing a hit, and then complying with their request. Fargrima got a couple of bad hits by a venom spider, which seemed to be the first time they realized their characters weren't immortal. Luckily, as a dwarf, she was resistant to poison damage.

The trolls hurriedly escorted the players back to their cell (before which Bizby tried to roll a sleight of hand check to pocket a flintlock pistol. I thought that would have been an interesting development, but she rolled a Natural 1, so the troll noticed her and slapped her for trying to be sneaky), and then soon left the cells unattended to go help fight the demon. At last, the players had an opening in order to escape. They cleverly used Bizby's tinkering skill to fashion a lockpick out of some old lyre strings, and then successfully picked the lock. By this point, it was close to 11:45 at night, so we decided to close for the day. Happily, the players wanted to schedule another date to finish the adventure with another session. That was a good sign they were having fun—a part of me worried they would've considered four hours a session long enough. It helped that the game ended on a cliffhanger.

The following week, we played again. This part of the story was a bit more unknown... I was a bit afraid that they'd skip all the action and just run out and end the game. Luckily, most of the players decided to help out the other prisoners by finding the keys and unlocking them. If they had built more of a relationship with their cellmates, they would have joined them, but they didn't really include any of them in their plans, so all of the slaves ran out without a word. There were three rooms with some hidden treasures in them, but the players only searched one of them, and then decided they had to hurry and get out of the now collapsing arena.

They met a human named Marcus who told them that there were children in the arena that he was trying to free, and they decided to help him. I had a timer set for five minutes that sent the players into a frenzy of anxiety. They really felt the urgency of the situation and tried to be as quick as possible in describing what they wanted to do. I was impressed at how they picked one child cell's lock, broke down another by kicking it down, and then using Lynalis's Ray of Frost spell to freeze a lock in order to make it break more easily (in my DM terms, this meant lowering the DC to break it, which was satisfying). By that point, they all ran out with Marcus, and the timer ran out, causing part of the roof to cave in and deal damage to those who failed a Dexterity save. The written adventure said this would cause a lot more damage and cause the entire arena to cave in, but I didn't want to punish them for taking chances, so I just made one section cave in and block off their path. The easier path for me that had been planned out was for them to just use a Strength check to move the rocks and then move up to the other side of the arena, but they instead decided to just turn tail and run through the menagerie instead. This was the first twist I hadn't been expecting, but it turned out to be a lot of fun anyway.

They entered the menagerie, where animals were held for the gladiators to fight. It was caved in and everyone except for three scavenging gnolls were dead, so they fought the gnolls and decided to take a short rest to heal up. In 5th edition, a short rest is normally at least an hour long, but I had decided beforehand to take the Critical Role way of making them 20–30 minutes long to keep things going. This still seemed like too long when a demon was attacking the arena though, so I decided to just take the variant approach of making a short rest more like a breather of 5 or so minutes for the sake of the storyline; the spellcasters really needed a mana boost and everyone could use a bit of healing, so it was a good move. Now the players were met with a conundrum: there were a bunch of huge beasts stalking around in the arena, which was their only way to get to the other side and escape. They had the good strategy to use a dead animal from the menagerie as bait in order to distract one of the giant salamander lizards, and Alania used her animal handling skill to keep a hippogryph at bay, since they were generally partial to night elves. Then they all made a run for the other side. Fargrima waited too long and took a fire breath weapon attack from the salamander, and Alania strayed too close to a menacing thunder lizard and got a lightning breath attack, but they both survived. This was my first instance of fudged numbers: normally the attacks were supposed to do 7d6 damage, but I reduced it to about 2d6 so their frail, level 2 characters wouldn't find the end of their adventure there. It was enough to scare them into being more careful, but not enough to kill them outright.

 When they made it to the other side of the arena and escaped, I made them encounter a wounded troll guard, which was originally supposed to come up to them as they went up the stairs, provided they hadn't taken the menagerie route. Bizby tried to intimidate the troll to leave them alone, but being a tiny, 3-foot goblin trying to intimidate a 7-foot troll, I made her try the skill check at disadvantage and it failed as expected. Lynalis had an idea that I hoped would come into play: using the spell "Disguise Self" to make himself appear as a troll and tell the guard to stand down. Unfortunately, he cast the spell directly in front of the guard instead of beforehand, which made the DC for a Deception check much harder and at disadvantage. Ultimately, the troll got sick of the prisoners trying to manipulate her and attacked. I should have let her take one swing as a surprise roll before initiative was rolled, but instead, Fargrima came out on top in the battle and simply blew the troll's head off with a flintlock pistol. It was a funny exchange, but I began to see that the pistols were somewhat overpowered. I kept hoping someone would roll a 1 or 2 while trying to attack with one of them so that the gun would misfire and be broken afterward, but it never happened. Luckily, I had only given them 5 musket balls to use with the guns. The manual said to give the players 20.

The players continued through the arena, finding some better weapons in the armory and outsmarting a couple of timber wolves through a trap they made by surrounding a door. Eventually they made their way to the exit. I was afraid they would pass Bloodstone's office by, since they were pretty intent on getting out of there, but I made the room sound intriguing to the rogue, and she decided to sneak in to see what was in there. From there, I was able to entice the wizard with the description of a bookcase and the others with the details about the sounds of battle they could hear outside the window. They all entered, and when Lynalis inspected the desk, I handed his player a physical note for him to read (it was written in the Morpheus font, which I thought was a nice touch—that's the font that letters are written in on World of Warcraft), which gave them a bit of a look into the mind of Bloodstone and make him more of a target that they'd want to kill. They also unlocked a desk in which they dodged a dart trap and found a chest of 100 gold and a Dwarven stormhammer, their first magical item, which Fargrima was excited to get and wield.

Finally, the group left the front door of the arena, where they saw the demon (a felguard), a troll guard, and a furious Bloodstone who was trying to capture his prize demon alive despite a lot of damage done to it by several wannabe heroes (whose bodies now strew across the ground). I was excited to see how they'd handle this final battle. Nothing was technically stopping them from just running and escaping like most of the other combatants, but obviously that would make for an anticlimax. Luckily, they really wanted Bloodstone to suffer for imprisoning them, so they watched the battle waiting for one of the forces to beat the other so they could clean up afterward. Luckily for my plan, Bloodstone's guard entangled the demon in a net and was preparing to enslave him as well, so they sprang into action. They began to attack heroically, expecting to win just as they had all the other battles, but things went south quickly: Bloodstone cut down Thromak in one blow with his greataxe, and I decided in the moment that he would have at least one class in Barbarian so he could pose more of a challenge, so he went into a rage as well. Eventually they got Bloodstone down to a mere 7 hit points, and then Lynalis cast a sleep spell on him, which worked. He slumped to the ground. At that moment, the demon killed the troll guard, broke out of the net (I rolled a 3, but fudged it), and ran over to Fargrima, who had hit him in the head with her stormhammer. He also did enough damage to knock her unconscious in one blow, which was oddly satisfying for me. The Dungeon Master shouldn't want his players to fail, but it's also fun to give them enough of a challenge that they get seriously hurt. The others killed the demon, and then turned their attention to Bloodstone.

At first they debated torturing him or executing him in his sleep, and I personally hoped they'd show some kind of ironic revenge by locking him up like he had them, but eventually they decided to just wait for him to wake up, taunt him a bit or let him say some final words, and then kill him. What they forgot was that trolls regenerate, and after about 30 or 40 seconds in game, he had regenerated about 30 hit points. Lynalis noticed this, so they sprang into action to attack again. The first shot on him when he was asleep was an automatic critical hit, but it didn't kill him, so it allowed me some time to give him a furious monologue when he saw that his prized demon was killed. They all fought some more, and finally, after two Sacred Flame spells that did only 1 damage, Alania cast Sacred Flame again and rolled an 8. He only had 7 hits left, so I said "How do you wanna do this?" She decided to make him explode with divine energy, which was an amazing way to end the battle. I think every player managed to get a "How do you wanna do this?" finishing blow at some point, which was a nice happenstance.

Having freed themselves from the arena, the adventurers parted ways. Bizby took the chest of gold and made a run for it, Alania began to tend to the wounded (primarily Thromak and Fargrima) and nurse them back to health, and Lynalis found among the dead one of their former cellmates, Jai'nora, whom he had admired, still barely alive.

* * *

In short, it was everything I had hoped it would be, even though I did forget to use the venom spiders' web attack ability and had to fudge a few rules for balance. For a first-time game, I think it was a good learning experience for all of us. My wife, for instance, realized that she would have liked playing more of a barbarian character than a healer. I really hope we get to play again someday, even if it's just a one-shot exploring a dungeon or something similar. I did award the characters experience, and they added it to their sheets excitedly, so who knows? The adventures of Fargrima, Bizby, Thromak, Alania, and Lynalis may not be over after all.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Hourly Comic Day 2017

I've never done this before, but this year I remembered just in time and was able to participate! Had a lot of fun and definitely exercised my punchline-making and observance skills. Enjoy a snapshot of my nerdy and somewhat boring life!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Battle card 2.0: Wild Archon

I just had the urge to resume working on these now that I have a lull in responsibilities. Hopefully I'll be able to use this motivations to get back into Knight Guy. I liked the way this Battle Card turned out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Voice Acting and DMing - or - Why Dreams Don't Come True

When I first started this blog, for some reason I thought it would be fun to make an entire feature of this blog about complaining. My very first post even established a name for it, "Complainin' Hour," complete with stupid made-up quotes about why complaining is awesome. Well, as dumb as that was, I'm gonna have to do it in this post. A part of me regrets referring my WarCraft III Easter Egg video fans to this blog, but first and foremost, this is a personal blog, so by golly, I'm gonna let this frustration out whether you imaginary readers like it or not. Today's topic: DMing and voice acting.

My Elusive Dream

Fact #1: I've always wanted to be a voice actor. When I was a kid, my brother and I messed around with the computer mike and sound recorder, and I made all kinds of weird skits using my voice. I even learned how to use only "Add Echo," "Increase Speed" and "Decrease Speed" to make vocal effects, from chipmunks and ogres to robot voices and sounding like I was coughing into a radiator. I also tinkered around with my computer games, making an entire sound set of my voice for Worms 2 and WarCraft II, and stretching my amateur acting abilities to their limits by voicing characters on my Starcraft and WarCraft III maps.

As I got older, I began to admire more and more the famous voice actors you hear everywhere: Mel Blanc, who voiced all the characters on my childhood favorite show, Loony Toons; Jason Marsden, the friendly voice of nineties characters like Max Goof and Tino Tonitini; the child voice actors on Disney's Recess and The Magic School Bus; Matt Chapman, the comedic voices of Strong Bad, Homestar Runner, and everyone else on that site; and of course, the voice actors who are so ubiquitous they can get annoying, mostly Jim Cummings and Jeff Bennett.

My admiration for voice acting further increased every time I saw a behind-the-scenes featurette on animated movie DVDs, showing the actors in all their enthusiasm behind the mike. I also began to recognize video game voice actors, which added a whole new level of yearning in my dream. I noticed that most video game voice actors mostly voice animes. Though I've liked very, very few animes, I'd voice a hundred characters on them no matter how cheesy, if I could voice just one Warcraft character.

Of course, though, being a voice actor isn't easy to get into or whatever. You have to be born into a family with connections to show biz, or have an agent as a family friend, or get your foot in the door as a child actor. And no amount of reading my own audiobooks, voicing over WarCraft Easter egg videos, adding foreign accents to my portfolio, or tinkering with my voice on Audacity is going to ever make me a voice actor. My voice isn't even that great sounding anyway.

My Wasted Talent

Fact 2: My personality seems designed for Dungeon Mastering (DMing). Ever since I was a kid, I was making up games. I wanted to be a computer game designer when I grew up (another elusive dream, but I digress). I made up fake game manuals, strategy guides for games that didn't exist, websites for games I would never finish, hundreds of playing cards, board games with milk caps as game pieces, fully illustrated forums, games that consisted of nothing more than Windows folders and .txt files... and I invented a roleplaying game without ever hearing about Dungeons and Dragons.
I also have always liked to write, though I lack the skill to finish what I start without others' participation and input. My Alfred novel never would've succeeded without my cousin writing half of its plot in staggered sections. I dropped out of my creative writing degree because I just could not let my flimsy writing skills stand on their own.

Whenever I play a board game, I make it an experience. I don't just move pieces around and draw cards. I put on music based on the game's genre. My voice takes on an accent of someone in a relevant time period or setting. Game mechanics as simple as a pawn removing a bishop become epic scenes of peasants violently rising against a tyrannical clergy in my illustration.

I am also a driven person in social settings. I take initiative in crafting experiences for other people, whether that be adding tasteless garnish to food to make it look more presentable, making sure things at appointments are set up precisely and directly on time, and always looking for the easiest, most efficient way to make someone comfortable when giving instructions.

All of these things would make me a wonderful DM. I'll admit I'm proud of these talents. And yet, they are wasted. Why? Because I am the only one I can find as driven as I am.

Give and Take? Mostly Just Give

Years ago, the play-by-post forum Argaenothruzil (the cradle of my novel's first origins) was run entirely by me for my friends. I wrote the storyline, crafted the setting, invented lore, compiled avatars, designed maps, balanced gameplay, wrote instructions, and offered to reply to every player's posts as soon as I could. And I did. For as long as they were willing to reply to mine. Which wasn't very long.

Why was this? I can't imagine. If the idea of an RPG sounds fun in the first place, why not make the most of it? If the forum's leader is willing to do 90% of the work, why can't you offer 10% in exchange? I guess you'd have to ask my friends, because the majority of the stories written in this way went unfinished, and their existing content was written so slowly it rapidly lost its appeal. My friends claimed they were "busy" and provided other excuses for not posting on the forum more often. And yet, I was just as busy, and found time to post to five or six people's stories when they couldn't find the time to post on just their own. It's been said that friendship is about give and take, and while some complain that their friends take and never give, sometimes I wish I had friends who would take anything at all.

A few years ago, in order to incentivize myself to work on Knight Guy more seriously, I started a writing group called Escutcheon. I invited my writer friends. I found a time and day each week when we could all meet. I reserved rooms at the local library where we could go and discuss our works. I made Facebook and Google groups where we could schedule our next meeting and post our work for others to read and comment on. I came prepared with specific questions about how my work could improve, and answers to their inquiries. I compiled ideas for topics to discuss. We came, we met, we discussed writing, we explored various mediums of writing, from poetry and prose to comics and even music, and everyone was excited to bond as writers while improving their writing.
Take a wild guess what happened.

A few weeks went by, and though the members attended, no one seemed to "have time" to read each other's work but me. Eventually, one member stopped coming, then two others. They didn't respond to comments on the groups. Eventually, the group dissolved, despite my very, very best efforts.

Image result for munchkin boxA few years later, at my job, not being able to join the Dungeons & Dragons group there, I began my own group to play the board game Munchkin. I brought my copy of the game, sent out invitations, complete with simplified instructions on how to play for new players. I verbally invited my friends to the group. Enough people joined for us to have a weekly group. I reserved a room each week and was there with the game set up and ready to go at 12:01 p.m. so that no one would have to waste any of their lunch break. Of course, the players took their precious time arriving most of the time, and over time, the players, despite having a wonderful time each week, began to dwindle and join other gaming groups. Eventually it was only down to two of us, and after trying fruitlessly to play the game with only two players, I disbanded the group. Another casualty not of a lack of effort, but a completely out-of-my-control lack of engagement. Why? I couldn't tell you in a hundred years why. Making experiences fun for people is my forté, and yet it seems to be a wasted effort.

And then there's Dungeons and Dragons. I discovered Dungeons and Dragons in 2015. After buying the guidebooks online, I was fascinated to find that the game wasn't nearly as nerdy as I thought—it was full of story writing, logic, math, and roleplaying mechanics that I had been implementing into countless other board games for years. I quickly collected other sourcebooks that encompassed other things I found interesting converted to game form—building strongholds, creating other planes of existence and planets, and the entire collection of WarCraft Roleplaying Game books. I tinkered with mechanics in my head, found other roleplaying games like Tunnels and Trolls, the Mistborn Adventure Game, GURPS: Discworld, and Dying Earth as ways to satiate my endless hunger for "gamifying" actions of life itself as well the fantasy realms I enjoyed in other mediums. And yet... I just read the books. I never had any chance to play. I listened to podcasts about it, but they soon turned boring or ridiculously crass. I read countless stories of D&D experiences online—every one I could find—and marveled that such events could occur in a game with rules. All my life I had played games that had limitations on them in terms of graphics, scope, size, or choice of action, but in D&D, anything could happen, and I yearned to have my own adventure where I could enter a world without bounds, or create one for others.

At last, my buddy and I managed to create a group. It was to be a group of him, myself, and three other people. Well of course, knowing my luck, only one of the other players showed up at the first session, but we had a blast anyway. I thanked Fate for allowing me to finally indulge in the type of game that I had been longing to play for years: the type of game that all of my talents and personality quirks seemed to resonate with, with the perfect balance of fiction stories, roleplaying mechanics, logic, and, most lacking of all I realized, social interaction. I laughed and bonded with the members of the group over the game we played, and though it was a sacrifice to meet each week in terms of setting aside other appointments, it was so immensely worth it, and I looked forward to

But the other players never did show up to another game and the other existing player said he couldn't play anymore after like three sessions and we had to disband the group and we can't find anyone else to build it up again.

The Lemon Juice for My Papercut

This past week, I was fortunate enough to find the show Critical Role. It will finally quench my thirst for experiencing a secondhand form of D&D, much more than those podcasts will, but at the same time its existence seems like the universe's personal mockery of my ambitions in life. The D&D game in the show is DMed by Matt Mercer, a professional voice actor and an expert DM. Not only does he direct the game for his players in a smooth, engaging, epic, fantastic way, but he does amazing voices for the characters he creates. What's even more incredible is that every player in his group is a professional voice actor as well. This makes for a tremendously torn experience for me to watch it. Each player speaks for his or her character with a voice that sounds like it's from a video game or a TV show—because it literally is. Some, such as Laura Bailey, voice characters in video games I play. Here all in one room are a group of the type of people I admire most playing the game I find the most engaging, in an expert, professional way that I will seemingly never experience. Matt Mercer manages to play a weekly game of D&D with essentially a group of eight other celebrities—certainly they must be busy—and yet I cannot find more than one other person in my entire region who will commit to spending a few hours a week humoring me with a session of the game; more than one other person at work who's willing to play a game of Munchkin each week; more than a couple of people to discuss writing with every once in a while.

What am I doing wrong? If something I'm doing is glaringly obvious, then by all means, please point it out in the comments. I've tried everything possible to make games and groups inviting to others, and still their interactions with me fizzle out after no more than three or four weeks. It's not that the people themselves lack interest in the things—these same people hold gaming and writing groups of their own with their other friends. Perhaps the thing that is most difficult to accept is that in my friends' lives and in groups like Critical Role, having a happy, exciting, fun, fulfilling group of dedicated friends this is clearly possible, and yet despite my hardest work and most fervently exhausting and thorough efforts, I have no personal evidence to confirm it.

Dreams Are Stupid

I've said this before, and I hold to it more and more, but I think dreams are stupid, and the idea that "if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything" is utter garbage. The way I see it, if you're born with vocal talents and happen to have the chance to do voices in shows and media when you're in high school, AND you happen to love voice acting, you are a very lucky person named Matt Mercer, and I envy the crap out of you. But guess what I am? A lowly editor in a marketing startup with barely enough free time to read, update comics, or work on countless dust-gathering unfinished projects. A guy with no free time, and yet enough drive to sacrifice what little free time I have in order to play a game I've always longed to play if I could just find a handful of people to call friends. Apparently, though, even that's too much to ask.

I have a multitude of things to be grateful for, of course: a wife, three kids, a religion I trust to be true, a close family, and the resources to at least practice my talents by myself. I'm thankful for all of these blessings. But why, after all this, would the universe curse me with desires I can't fulfill? With aspirations that even my most fervent efforts would not begin to satisfy? Time and time again I have tried to prove just how much I want what I want, and the best I can achieve never lasts long enough to keep me satisfied, because of completely uncontrollable circumstances. Why couldn't my innate desires be to call having a family enough? Why couldn't I in my situation be born with the one dream of becoming an editor? Instead, I find myself locked into a pigeonholed destiny in a rapidly passing life that could end any day, just like everyone else's could, yet with so much effort spared toward a dream that very well could never happen?

A part of me believes that, perhaps, in the afterlife, all of this disappointment will be made up for, but that doesn't take away the desires I have right now. It doesn't stop me from buying RPG manual after RPG manual and reading through it by myself, knowing that I may well never get to see the rules played out in person. What sort of lame waste is that? I wonder if the most inspiring movie star who would ever live, or the doctor who could find the cure to cancer, or the political leader who could unite all nations under one banner of peace, was perhaps born in a tiny, plague-ridden village in a third-world country, doomed to carry water from a well his whole life and die from tuberculosis without ever having the resources or the contacts needed to make his talents known to the world.
Though my hopes of entertaining others with my voice and playing a stupid make-believe game seem insignificant compared to that, it seems odd to me that any aspiration should exist at all if there's no way for them to be individually fulfilled. If games have taught me anything, there's always a way to win, but sadly, it doesn't seem to be that way in life. At least as far as dreams go.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Snippet: "The Fireweaver"

Inspiration, especially in writing, is a really weird and often frustrating thing. I wrote this snippet of a novel I intended to write almost two years ago, in the world my cousing and I created, Shaarzahn. I stumbled upon it today and am amazed at how intriguing it is. It draws me in immediately to the story and I'm dying to read more. I don't remember writing a lot of it. I remember having an idea, but not enough of one to assemble into an entire novel. Why did I stop writing? What made me stop where I did? Why can't I ever finish what I start? It's frustrating for me to find such radiant and pure gems buried in the sand, but gems that I know will likely never be cut into the shape they need to be to live their potential as refined, sparkling cut jewels. Well, at least I have material here in case whatever muse first whispered this story's beginnings to me ever chances to return.

- - -

ali An-destan drew his camel-wool cloak closer and shivered. It didn’t seem right to be up this late. Whether or not Zalir was smiling on him at this time in his life, he still felt the lack of the sun-god’s unmistakably powerful rays of sunlight. And being forced to remain not only awake, but outside, during the dark, cold night of the Kharazim desert was… unsettling, to say the least. The moon was out, but its light was cold, foreboding… like the sun-god’s jealous brother who could only mimic the glory of true sunlight.
            “Here they come,” said Hizan. Rali looked to where his friend was pointing. Sure enough, in the distant cold moonlight was a cloud of dust being kicked up by the hooves of four or five horses. Their riders were dark—black shadows against the bluish night sand, almost like extensions of the black of night itself. Rali felt a pang of fear shudder through him, but he tried to cover it.
            He looked at Hizan, trying to lighten the darkness with a smile. “No turning back now, right?”
            Hizan smiled back, but Rali could see fear behind his eyes. Hizan was a couple of years older than Rali, and a couple of inches taller. His own cloak pressed tightly against his bald head as he looked back toward the riders. “I guess not. You scared?”
            “Yes,” said Rali.
            “Me too,” admitted Hizan. He looked back at the dust cloud. The riders were already slowing, even though they were still a hundred or so yards away. “Do you think they see us?”
            Rali pulled out his long knife and a lump of flint from his pouch. He struck the two together, making brief sparks illuminate the air. The riders paused for a moment, then sped up again toward the two men.
            Rali pocketed the knife and flint, then closed his eyes, trying to swallow his fear. Why was he so jumpy? He had been through much more terrifying ordeals than this. Some of them in the past few days. And he had handled them beautifully, like he always had. Perhaps this was more of a “dread” sort of ordeal, though. Acting on impulse was always second-nature to Rali, but this stewing in impatient dread of what could happen was much worse.
            The riders finally arrived, stopping in front of Rali and Hizan. Rali closed his golden eyes once more, imagining himself in an alley, facing another thief. Time for talk. No fighting even… at least, he hoped not… just talk. He could handle that. He opened his eyes.
            One of the riders dismounted. His head was wrapped in a black camel-wool scarf, and he had an equally thick and dark vest over a linen tunic. His arms, however, were bare, and golden bangles shone in the light of the desert moon. Two unsheathed swords also shone, one at each hip, as well as a single orange gem on a golden chain around his neck.
            “Shouldn’t you be leaving the night watch to the Tibaa?” the man asked in a high, raspy voice.
            “They cannot be trusted,” said Hizan carefully, “for they shun the light that must be embraced.”
            The rider nodded at Hizan, then extended a hand to clasp his wrist. He reached to Rali, who shook it, nodding. His hand felt rough, as if it had been grated on rocks. Or perhaps scarred by holding the wrong end of a sword many times.
            The other riders dismounted. It turned out there were five of them, and they formed a sort of half-circle around the two men. They were dressed in cloaks, more like Rali and Hizan, except for their choice of black attire. They each also had two swords at their waists.
            “Hizan An-Tosif?” asked the head rider. Hizan raised his hand and bowed respectfully. “And Rali An-destan?” Rali mimicked the gesture.
            “Who do we address?” asked Rali, hoping he was acting the way he should.
            “You address Sharoh, the first-chosen of Zalir, brother,” said the head rider. “You will learn the names of these your four other brothers in time. For now, we must talk business. But first, shall we sit?”
            Rali looked at Hizan, who seemed relaxed. He tried to relax as well as they all sat cross-legged on the sand. They each pulled their cloaks up beneath themselves as they sat.
            “Now,” said Sharoh, removing the scarf from his face. “You know why I am here. I am here to bring you into the horde of the sun-god.” Sharoh’s face looked as rough as his hands were. He had a black goatee, but some parts of his chin were scarred where no hair grew. “I have heard of your… inexperienced thefts in Ptaliram, which is why I sent Zalir’s second-chosen to reveal to you my intentions to recruit you. The question is, why are you here?”
The two men hesitated. Rali spoke first. “We wish to accept your recruitment, sir.”
Sharoh’s golden eyes flashed at Rali. “There is no sir,” he said as Rali’s spine turned to ice, “but Zalir.”
“Yes… brother,” said Rali.
Sharoh smiled, the fire in his eyes immediately gone. “You wish to accept? Fine enough, but why? Why leave the town of your birth, your houses you call home, your thieving routes, your reputations? Surely you’ve worked hard to become the clandestine thieves you are. You have avoided the capture of the amin, or else you would be dangling from the ropes on the Tree of Thieves right now. As far as my men have gathered, you aren’t even suspected or wanted men. For all the amin knows, you are upstanding citizens who do good for the community.”
Hizan spoke next, leaving Rali relieved. “You flatter us, brother, but we are not as silent as you say. The amin is indeed suspicious of us, and were it not for your timely arrival, we may have been making our last few robberies before being strung up.”
The head rider smiled. “Ah, so it is out of desperation that you accept my invitation?”
“N-no! That is…” Hizan fought for words.
“What he means is, Zalir be praised that you have come to take us to our next station in life,” said Rali. “It truly is by providence’s hand that this opportunity has presented itself.”
Sharoh nodded assent. “Perhaps. It is common for Zalir to shine upon those who hide in the shadows. Perhaps he has seen it fit to bring us together for mutual benefit.”
Hizan nodded, bowing his head again.
“What, brother, is this mutual benefit?” asked Rali.

“Yes, I have been a bit vague about it, haven’t I?” said Sharoh. “I accept your reasons for joining, and will now explain. In the palace, in the Grand City, there is a man who Zalir sees fit to dispose of. He has grown fat on the money of those who serve him, but his real sin lies with the Tibaa.” 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Relic Story: Mr. Arrow

I stumbled upon this as I was looking through my old WordPerfect documents. It's not a bad story for a thirteen-year-old. The actual metaphor for the entire thing being a computer is a tad clumsy, but I like the pacing and flow of the plot. The inspiration from the story comes from my family's computer's tendency of basically never working. The CD Rom was always having issues, and at the time of this piece, we had a virus or Spyware on our computer. The ending is a reference to my brother Redge calling my uncle, a computer wizard, who walked him through the steps of eliminating the virus.

Mr. Arrow

Mr. Arrow walked up the stairs into the main desktop. Many doors lined the walls, and each had a label. He pulled a list of instructions out of his pocket and read his task again. He wiped the sweat from his brow and walked past several working processors. They greeted him, but he paid them no heed.
Finding a door that read “Port C,” he slowly made his way into and through its corridor. After reading his instructions a few more times and following the directions through the winding maze, he found himself in a room with no more hallways branching out from it. Nervously, he began to root through the crates surrounding the walls. He noticed one that was blotched and reddish, as if someone had spray painted red paint on it, and began to search it. Suddenly his heart skipped a beat. He had found it! A large black card that read Spy-Warehouse Inc. As he pulled the card out of the crate, a red sticky film peeled off that had been attached to the inside of the crate. Mr. Arrow wiped the card on his shirt and turned it over in his hand, reading the details of it. All of a sudden, as he walked slowly towards the door, absorbed in the details of the card, he bumped into a Motherboard executive.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” the huge, red-faced executive boomed in his face.
“This card shouldn’t be here,” Mr. Arrow said, trying to cover his nervousness.
“Excuse me?”
“It was not imported here by normal means,” Mr. Arrow explained. “Mr. Norton thinks it may be corrupting the factory. In fact, it was spreading reddish film all over the stuff in—”
“It’s not your responsibility. If you think we have corruption in the factory, you should speak to an executive like myself,” the massive man growled. “You could be banished for coming in here without proper authority.”
“But sir, I had to act quickly. Why, if something like this went unfixed, the entire—”
“Let me see that card!” the executive’s muscular arm snatched the black card from Mr. Arrow’s hand. The executive read the details over a couple times, then he chuckled. “This is an important file. I wouldn’t dream of having this file gotten rid of. In fact, Mr. Arrow, while you’re here, make copies of this and have it distributed throughout the factory.”
He handed Mr. Arrow the card and walked away.
Mr. Arrow reluctantly went to the copier in the corner of the room and made two copies. He put one in a crate, and was surprised to find out that it began to excrete red liquid on the other files, crossing out certain words to change the instructions completely. He took the copies of the card and dashed out of the room.
As he began to find his way out of the complex, a voice crackled on the intercom, “Illegal access at Port C / Documents / MyFiles...” and began to list the path at which Mr. Arrow resided. He tried to open the door up a level, but the handle jammed. “Let me out! Let me out!” he cursed, jangling the handle. Executives began running out of rooms with pistols.
“Put down the card!” they yelled, but Mr. Arrow pulled out a portable cutting torch from his pocket and began to burn open the door. Screaming in anger, the executives began firing bullets in Mr. Arrow’s direction. Luckily, Mr. Arrow’s optic boots allowed him to zip around the room, dodging their shots. When they all stopped to reload their pistols, Mr. Arrow found enough time to break the door down. He dashed out into the main desktop, fleeing his pursuers.
“Get out of my way! Stop the executives!” he yelled to the processors, who obeyed him and began to fight the executives.

Mr. Arrow found the door that read “Recycle Bin” above it, and sprinted inside as fast as he could. He quickly dragged the cards into the bin amongst the other useless files inside and pushed the button that said Empty.
A robotic voice inquired, “Are you sure you want to delete these 62 items?”
He quickly punched yes and waited for it to empty.
To his dismay the voice said, “Cannot delete ‘SpyWare.exe’. Access is denied.”
He cried out and grabbed the cards. As quickly as possible, he ran into the main desktop and looked for the doorway that said “Add/Remove.” Finding it, and gratefully acknowledging the processors’ detaining the executives, he ran in.
He quickly accessed the inventory list of everything in the factory, and found “Spy-Warehouse Inc. files.” When he activated it, a large crane pulled all the cards from Spy-Warehouse Inc. into the large vat in front of the list. He typed in REMOVE, but the programs persisted. “Are you sure you want to delete the files from SpyWare?”
Are you sure? If you remove these files, you will not receive the benefits it gives.
Suddenly Mr. Arrow became aware of a beating on the door behind him.
Removing SpyWare will make it so you will not have the benefits such as
l free Internet access
l improved CPU usage
l etc.
Last chance to change your mind. Delete SpyWare?
Mr. Arrow’s heart began to pound as another reading came up and the door began to give way.
The benefits of free Internet access, improved CPU usage, and etc. will be deleted. Continue?
At last, the computer gave in.
The door’s hinges popped out, and angry voices began yelling through the hole between the frame and the bent door.
Mr. Arrow tried to prop things against the door, but he didn’t have much time.
“Give us the card!” murderous voices shrieked.
Mr. Arrow knew it wasn’t long now until the executives could get in. What was worse, they were beginning to shoot and cut at the door with their weapons.
All of a sudden, a deafening explosion rattled the entire factory. The vat that the files were in had combusted, and particles of the files were beginning to float upward into nothingness. The files were deleted. The viruses had not corrupted the computer.

The executives suddenly snapped into their wits as the door came crashing the ground. They all began to retch horribly, and the vomit on the ground was red. It dissolved into pixels, which the wounded processors began to automatically take into the Recycling Bin room.
Realizing what they had done, the executives apologized profusely. Obviously, the virus had corrupted them, as well as the files.
A hologram appeared in the room. It was Mr. Norton.
“Well done, Mr. Arrow,” he said warmly. “The viruses were deleted, and my team is now going to begin fixing up the infected files. Thank you for saving the computer.”

“Is that it?” Redge asked into the phone.
“That should do it,” Scott told him.
“Alright. Thanks again, Scott,” Redge said gratefully.
“No problem.”
 Redge moved the mouse, and Mr. Arrow clicked on ‘Restart Now.’ the computer would be all back to normal soon.