How Do You Structure a Good Narrative? Find Out... In the Adventure Zone!

So everyone who reads this blog probably knows that I am a huge fan of audio books. Last month, I had the opportunity to take advantage of Audible's two-for-one sale to pick up Seraphina and A Darker Shade of Magic.

I promptly devoured both books in under a month.

The only problem with getting through more than one book I really enjoy that quickly, is that my expectations run so high that, unless my next book really grabs me off the bat, I tend to kind of slough through it. No discredit to the title I'm currently on, but I've only gotten about half an hour into it so far... and it's been a few weeks.

What I have been listening to, as a sort of palate cleanser, is a ton of podcasts. One of which is the purpose of this long-overdue post; a fortnightly D&D podcast called The Adventure Zone.

The podcast follows a 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign played by the McElroy family, who are behind a number of the other podcasts I've found myself addicted to over the past months. Griffin, the youngest brother, DMs the homebrew campaign, and his older brothers Justin and Travis, and their father Clint, play the roles of Taako the elf wizard, Magnus the human fighter, and Merle the dwarf cleric respectively.

The campaign, now a little over two years running, started out as a side-episode of the brothers' flagship podcast, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and was essentiallythe family running through the Lost Mines of Phandelver module that came with the 5e starter set. As one might imagine, the quartet weren't taking themselves too seriously. I mean, 5e was still brand new, only Griffin and Travis had ever played any D&D before, and c'mon, Justin named his character Taako.

Quickly, however, the pet project took on a life of its own, with Griffin crafting his own spin on the Forgotten Realms setting, setting the heroes up with an organization known as the Bureau of Balance, charging them with the reclamation of a number of potentially world-ending artifacts. Taako, Magnus, and Merle are often flippant, if not downright ignorant as to the dire implications of their mission, and with often cartoonish NPCs being manned by Griffin, the podcast and the narrative it weaves goes heavy on the humor with an occasional beat of seriousness, probably as a means of making sure the game didn't devolve into little more than MBMBaM with dice.

About a year ago, however, there was a noticeable shift in tone. The stakes with each new mission were getting higher. More of the world and the inhabitants that Griffin had created were being revealed. The PCs, while still generally maintaining their devil-may-care attitudes, started to form real connections with one another, and with a number of the NPCs. Each of the missions, or story arcs, has become a little more nuanced, a little more serious. Comedy has become less the backbone of the narrative, and more the necessary pressure-release-valve. The past two episodes, the last two of the arc The Eleventh Hour, have been some of the most emotionally taxing storytelling I've come across in a while.

I've never talked about it here before, but one of my most favourite storytelling techniques across media is this sort of sliding scale of levity and seriousness. Final Fantasy IX, Trigun, Love Hina, The City Stained Red, Riyria, and so many more I can't think to name all share this pattern of starting off light, humorous, borderline irreverent in some cases, only to gradually reach the point of throat-punching your heart repeatedly by their eventual resolutions. It allows the audience to more quickly connect with characters, I think, when their quirkier sides are allowed to shine so completely. It plants the seeds of real investment that get cultivated as the characters start to really get put through the ringer, and by each story's climax the audience finds that they, like the characters they've grown to love, are now hanging on for dear life. This technique is one that I've desperately tried to hone in my own storytelling, and frankly it's almost infuriating to see that the McElroys have managed to capture it with such elegance.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that I cannot recommend The Adventure Zone enough. It transcends being simply a real-play Dungeons and Dragons podcast and is truly just quality storytelling, regardless of whether or not you're a fan to tabletop RPGs. You can probably start off with the next episode, as it will be the start of a new arc, but you're doing yourself a disservice by not starting from the beginning.

Oh, and I mentioned this on Tumblr, but it bears repeating: If Travis McElroy, or anyone Travis-adjacent is reading this: I will make time in my writing schedule to aid in the novelization of Magnus Burnsides' backstory, happily.

Ad Astra 2016

It has been a crazy week here at Dragahold, and we're only at Wednesday!

I have been crazy promoting the guest blogs I've been doing, which, if you're looking for an aggregate for them:

I want to once again offer my sincerest thanks to all those guys for offering up space for me to post on their sites and plug my books - it's a huge honour, and I recommend you go check out their work, too!

I've also been going nuts trying to get all my ducks in a row For Ad Astra this weekend, and I'm thankful that I can finally share my full schedule with you all!

Official Ad Astra 2016 schedule!

This is, of course, only the official programming schedule, and doesn't include the following:

  • Deanna and I will both be at our table in the Dealers' Room all weekend whenever we aren't otherwise predisposed with panels etc. Copies of The Summerlark Elf, The Missing Thane's War, The Council of Tymenthia, and Dragon in the Doghouse will all be available, as well as copies of Wealthy Merchant (The official Four Kingdoms card game), Build Them! (Deanna's all-ages deck-building game), as well as several of Deanna's art prints will be on sale!
  • After-hours, you can expect to find Deanna and I doing all sorts of social industry-type things. I'll keep everyone posted via Twitter or some such.
  • Sunday morning at 10am, I'm going to be DMing a D&D game for Deanna, and our fellow Ad Astra guests Aaron Lenk, Agnes Jankiewicz, and Professor Morbius. Location is TBA for that, but keep an eye on Twitter and/or Facebook and Instagram, and drop by and say hello!

This is going to be, far and away, the biggest con, activity-wise, for both Deanna and myself to date, and we're both so looking forward to it. Please, if you see either of us there, don't hesitate to come up and say hi!

In Which I Write Some Words, Preen About Said Words, and Eat Other Words

It's done, you guys. The Missing Thane's War is finally finished.

Well... not entirely finished per se... the first draft is finished, which, to be fair, is still a 61,500 word gorilla off my back. I still need to do a bit of editing on some things that I realized needed tweaking in hindsight before I ship a beta draft out to be pored over, but I took the day off from my manuscript today (I've been working on it more or less consistently since April, I figured I could take a day).

Part of what I did to preoccupy the time I otherwise allocated to this next book was to pore over the new fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook.

Yes, I know... I just finished complaining the other week about how Wizards of the Coast unceremoniously abandoned my edition of choice, but I did maintain that I'd keep an open mind about 5e. Well, last weekend I started running the 5e starter set adventure The Lost Mines of Phandelver with five players, two of whom had next to no DnD experience. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed running the game (which included five pre-generated characters) so much, that this past week I caved and bought the PHB, having all available character options now gloriously at my disposal.

I wanted to see how character creation felt with the new system, even though as a DM I really have no reason to roll up my own characters, so I decided to see how well one could customize a character by rolling up the four protagonists from The Summerlark Elf.

Rolling up Enna, an elf wizard, took me longer than anyone else, in part because she was the first character I created, and in part because any class that has spells to choose will inherently take longer to create. It took me about ninety minutes using just the PHB and the form-fillable character sheets provided on the DnD website, but after rolling up one character it was easy to get the gist of it, and I was able to roll up O'doc, my final creation, in about forty minutes.

It was a fun exercise, and I have to say I think I was able to create pretty good representations of my characters. I wanted to share the results, so here they are! Feel free to print them off for your own group, and see what kind of messes you can get my characters into (and out of)!





Excuse Me While I Grognard

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition soft-launched yesterday, with the starter set being released at select game shops, and the free basic rules PDF showing up on the DnD website. This is kind of a big deal, as Wizards of the Coast has been very publicly crafting the release for the last two years. Lots of people are very excited, and seeing as DnD is kind of a large part of why I do what I do, I thought I might take some time to write my thoughts on the whole thing.

A lot of what I've seen so far is interesting. The idea of having a core rule set as a framework from which you then add whatever supplemental rules best fit your table is an interesting idea, and is very indicative of the fact that WotC had one primary goal with 5e: try to please everybody.

...everybody except those of us who play 4th Edition, anyway.

To elabourate, I'm sure that plenty of people who played 4e participated in the last two years of open play test, and contributed to the final result accordingly, and that there are plenty of people who played 4e who are very much excited to give the finalized 5e a shot. My issue is not that the opinions of us 4e players were ignored, but that ultimately, our preferred edition was cast aside.

I get it, when WotC released 4e, most of the devotees of 3.5e cursed the company's name, and jumped ship for Paizo's 3.5 re-skin Pathfinder. Much of the internet panned 4e as "too videogamey" or "un-rollplayable". Truth be told, I'm fully willing to admit that 4e does have it's hang-ups: combat can be slow, especially with inexperienced players, the idea of combat powers can lead to a lack of creative play from inexperienced players, a lack of codified rules on roleplay can make it hard for inexperienced players to rollplay.

At the end of the day, yes, WotC could have made improvements to 4e. Truth be told, later releases like Halls of Undermountain and The Neverwinter Campaign Guide really tried to push a lot of the non-combat options 4e had to offer, but in the end, WotC opted not to stay the course and hope to weather the storm, but to cut and run. 4e materials were only published for four years before the 5e play test was announced. Sure, all the seasons of Encounters up until the most recent were 4e compatible, but by and large, the edition was unceremoniously dropped and left for dead.

That, ultimately, is what bothers me most about the 5e launch, not that my preferred edition is no longer being published, but that it was never given a proper chance to evolve, or at the very least that it wasn't even given a proper send-off.

Anyway, long story short, I'm not going to be an edition snob. I may even eventually pick up some 5e material, but if you're at my table, expect to pick some at-wills, encounters, and dailies, because I love 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and Avandra knows someone needs to.

Everyone's Story

So let's start things off tonight with a couple good pieces of book news. Firstly, my hometown comic shop Stadium Comics (which, it's worth mentioning, is owned and operated by two of the nicest, most down-to-earth individuals I've had the pleasure of working with) is the latest to be added to the list of shops that carry The Summerlark Elf. If you live in Brampton, be sure to swing by pick a copy up, and pick up some comics while you're at it, because Kevin and Ricky are good guys.

Secondly, this Saturday, May 3rd, I'll be doing my first interview about TSE! I was put in contact a couple weeks back with TJ Redig, a fellow speculative fiction author, and host of the Speculative Soapbox Podcast, a short-form podcast wherein small-time fantasy, sci-fi, and other speculative fiction authors get a chance to promote their work. My interview will be live at 9pm EST, and will be available for streaming and download sometime thereafter.

I'm sure I've lain this point on a bit thick before, but I really enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. The game has been part of my consciousness in one form or another since I was a kid, when my dad bought my siblings and I the "New Easy-to-Master Dungeons and Dragons Game" from Toys 'r' Us back in the early '90s (this is a story outlined in greater detail on my tumblr page here, should you wish to read into the matter further). The thing about when I enjoy something, is that I become an absolute sponge about it, trying to mentally ingest anything and everything I can find on it. I could just as quickly tell you the last song on the UK cut The Clash's debut album (1977), as I could tell you who invented the frontside rock 'n roll (Eddie Elguera), and what were the original three playable character classes in the D&D White Box (Fighting Man, Cleric, and Magic User). As such, I also have a habit of scouring Youtube for whatever visual media I can find in an attempt to slake my unending thirst for trivia. This leads me to this video posted by author Ethan Gilsdorf.

It's an actual super-8 recording of a young Gilsdorf and his friends playing D&D. There was something heartwarming about the video because, though it lacks any audio, it shows one thing that makes tabletop RPGs so unique. Part of why I love D&D is because whether I'm playing or DMing (usually the latter), I'm creating. It starts when I build a character, or think of an interesting adventure hook for the players, but that certainly isn't where it stops. If I'm thrown into a situation where I'm being interrogated by the city guard, how do I react? Conversely, if my players don't take my hook, or find some other way to circumvent what I had planned, what do I do next? By their very nature, tabletop RPGs require you to try and think as creatively as you can for the duration of play. As a writer, there's no better way of keeping my creative mind as sharp as it can be. Don't get me wrong, writing every day is important to maintain motivation and momentum, but working on the same project constantly can easily lull a person into inanity, and something as visceral as a roleplaying game can oftentimes give your creativity a nice kick to make sure it isn't becoming sedentary.

That isn't the real reason this video is so great, though. What the video shows in spades is a bunch of friends getting together and enjoying an evening. Of all the positives I can think of to playing tabletop RPGs, what comes out on top is that it's an amazing social experience. You may wind up making new friends (I have), or seeing old ones in a new light (I also have). I enjoy writing because I get to tell my story, but I enjoy D&D because I get to be a part of telling everyone's story, and that kind of combination of creativity and camaraderie is something that I think everyone ought to experience at least once in their life.