Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

D&Determined to prove a villain?

“To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to become a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Since I started Dungeon Mastering D&D, a few people have asked me on separate occasions why I don’t permit evil-aligned characters in my games. Initially, it was out of reflexive distaste. When I first started playing D&D, whenever my fellow party members did something evil or evil-adjacent, it frankly made the game less fun for me. I made the game less fun for myself on occasion by making evil choices that were, in retrospect, outside of my character’s alignment.

Until I started DMing, I’d sort of assumed that most players, at worst, played fantasy world Jack Bauers. You know, people who did bad things, but who were basically committed to a kind of code that nudged them toward heroism. Later on, I discovered the legendary player archetype of the murderhobo—easily one of the most felicitous coinages in the English language. From my first session as a player, I knew I wanted to be a DM, but I also knew that I didn’t want to run a murderhobo campaign.

One time, when we were scouting out a goblin stronghold, I cast charm person on a goblin, and after we got the information out of him, another player and I simply beat the confused sod to death while making wisecracks. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but in retrospect, I was really ashamed of myself. Partly, I was upset that I wasn’t true to my character—which is apt to happen when non-thespians engage in sustained improv sessions—but I was also a bit disgusted by the glee with which I’d made my character murder someone with no capacity to fight back. My wife and I also had a bad experience playing an evil one-shot at a con, which sort of cemented my prejudice against that kind of game. That prejudice has begun to crumble a bit, but it’s taken a while.

In the past few years, I’ve reflected quite a bit on why I don’t want to run that kind of campaign. My instinctive distaste for evil roleplay as I experienced it has underlay the justifications I’ve conjured, but the following reasons are the result of introspection and observation.

There are two pretty pragmatic reasons I don’t permit evil characters. Extrapolating from my own feelings as I participated in situations with evil RP, I figured that there must be other players who also would find their game to be less fun in a party with evil characters. While I think people who enjoy playing evil characters can have fun playing good or neutral characters, the reverse is not necessarily true: some players simply wouldn’t have fun playing evil characters. Therefore, I don’t feel like I’m boxing out the people who would enjoy evil characters. Good characters won’t ruin the game for someone running an evil character, but one evil character could bring the game down for other folks. For the sake of maximum fun for everyone at the table, it’s simply easier to proscribe evil characters.

The other practical reason is a corollary to that. Evil characters are more likely to drive internal tension in the party, especially if there’s a lawful or chaotic good character committed to high ideals. Players who aren’t thoughtful about their choices could very easily torpedo a campaign without attention to common goals and intra-party politics. And that’s just if their evil actions are outwardly-directed. Stories abound of evil characters murdering their own party members or getting their party killed, and that can be a social disaster for a lot of groups.

My other reasons for proscribing evil characters are a bit more abstract. The most kneejerk reason for not permitting evil characters makes me sound like a fusty old marm—“there’s enough evil in the real world, why recreate it in the game?!” I’ve repeated some variation of that numerous times, but even I don’t find it all that convincing, for reasons I’ll get to later. It took me a while of running Dungeons & Dragons to realize the major reason why I don’t want evil characters in my game, and it’s one that is unique to being a DM. Running a game is not about what you don’t permit at your table; it’s about your vision of what you want to create with other people. That is, I think a good DM isn’t there simply to place negative boundaries, but to use boundaries to give positive shape to a particular kind of storytelling experience.

He almost deserved it.

I couldn’t articulate it at first, but the game I was interested in running was an epic heroic adventure. Whatever pretensions I have, at heart I’m a kid who grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time. To me, fantasy stories are about people who save the world because they succeed in the struggle to become better versions of themselves.

Great fantasy is about the forging of heroes, and great fantasy heroes like Bilbo Baggins or the Pevensie children inspire us because they show us how hard it is to be worthy in a world that too often fosters or celebrates unworthiness. And great fantasy storytellers understand that we need to see heroes fail as well as succeed, or else they are not convincing. Because we can relate to failure and human flaws, we can therefore also relate to our heroes when they overcome those failures and flaws to become superheroes. Overcoming obstacles does not just make fantasy heroes better people, it serves as a way of redeeming their worlds—and by virtue of their inspiration in readers’ lives, our own.

This is not the only kind of fantasy, nor is it the only way to write great fantasy. But it’s the conception of fantasy coded into my DNA. As a DM, I need to love my players’ characters. I need to root for them. They can and should fail sometimes; my players should absolutely roleplay their characters’ flaws. But I can root for inept, wayward, misguided, unlucky, or otherwise maladapted heroes. In fact, heroes like that are perhaps more endearing by virtue of their flaws—I’m even more invested in them succeeding. By contrast, an evil character’s chief flaw is also his ideal. If an evil character succeeds, then that’s the opposite of heroism. Then she hasn’t become a better version of herself—she’s only become more crafty, underhanded, or powerful.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not interested in running a Forgotten Realms variant of Natural Born Killers or Goodfellas. These happen to be films that I personally despise, despite the fact that they are made by master filmmakers working at the top of their game. I’m mature enough to concede that these are masterpieces, in the sense that they make maximal use of film form to tell truthful stories about indelible characters. They are also the kind of stories that I don’t think I could tell truthfully, nor would I want to. Telling these stories wouldn’t be true to who I am or to the kinds of stories I most deeply value.

Which is not to say that I don’t want to be capable of telling those stories some day. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the role of DM, I find that my ambitions grow accordingly. Recently, I’ve been watching High Rollers: Dead Reckoning, and it seems to me to be a classic model of how to run an antiheroic campaign.

From session zero through the campaign proper, Dead Reckoning shows a D&D group in total control of their characters, their setting, and tone. The characters are antiheroes, but the players find ways to give dimension to them, embracing what makes them disturbing without losing sight of what gives them humanity. It’s also a game where internal party tension is part of the point of the campaign, keeping with the tradition of Dirty Dozen-style suicide squad missions. Mark Hulmes, the DM, has a knack for balancing mordant humor with a pervasively dangerous situation that compels the group to work together to survive, even as the moral complications of that situation threaten to pull the group apart. It’s a campaign that thrives on roleplay, and for the experienced, imaginative players in the High Rollers cast, it certainly seems to be thrilling drama.

I’m not there yet. But my kneejerk aversion to evil characters in my stories contradicts one of the main reasons I love D&D in the first place: the immersion in the experience of an imaginary world where your choices define the story. Good stories need to be real, and some players might feel that me placing evil characters off-limits makes their agency less real.

Placing that kind of limit also implies that I don’t fully trust my players to play certain types of characters. As DM, I play evil characters all the time, and I don’t think anyone would argue that there isn’t a difference between a DM running evil characters and players doing so. But just as players enjoy tangling with a complicated evil NPC with morally-ambiguous goals, I think some players would enjoy that kind of dramatic tension within the party. RP-oriented players especially could generate productive drama from that kind of tension, and they would probably appreciate having the freedom to explore that.

I can’t imagine throwing an evil PC into a campaign without having a conversation ahead of time with everyone in the group about it. First, to make sure that every single player is on board with this—if anyone had any reservations at all about being in a party with an evil PC, that would be a no-go. Second, to make sure I understood what makes that character tick, and what the appeal would be in playing that character. Maybe a question as simple as, “What does playing an evil character add to this campaign?” would be sufficient. And if nobody found the answer persuasive enough, that would be that.

Joe Manganiello joins Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffee, and Marisha Ray on Critical Role.

Joe Manganiello is a good example of a player who knows how to align his evil character’s goals with the party in a non-game-breaking way. In Critical Role and Force Grey: The Lost City of Omu, he plays Arkhan the Cruel, a paladin of Tiamat, the major villain of D&D Fifth Edition’s first major storyline—an evil dragon goddess. Besides just being great at calibrating his role-play presence to the groups he’s in, Manganiello makes a point of clarifying his character’s motives. I loved how, in Force Grey, when he’d use his paladin powers to restore other party members’ hit points, he’d say, “A gift from my queen.” It was creepy and funny—here’s this giant evil red dragonborn proselytizing with that classic apostle’s gambit, the healing miracle. It gave the party reason to trust him, and while Arkhan clearly saw most of them as useful pawns, it was still a comprehensible, recognizably human dynamic. And in a deadly campaign where everyone needed to rely on each other in order to survive each encounter, it at least established that Arkhan wasn’t the kind of character who would needlessly waste their lives. After all, if they proved really useful and felt a lasting bond with him, he could exploit that later.

Another way of approaching the problem would be to abandon alignment as part of character creation altogether. Satine Phoenix and Jason Charles Miller talked about this in GM Tips. Unlike Phoenix, I do think that good and evil are generally useful categories. But it might (might) be more useful to have players simply focus on nailing down their characters’ traits, goals, ideals, and flaws in more depth rather than leaning on alignment as a definitive category. During gameplay, players would be free to form their own judgments about each character’s morality, and the customs and other social pressures of the setting would also play a part.

The risk is that I’d end up running a misbegotten bastard variant of Blood Meridian. The potential reward is that players would have a bit more freedom to find their own redemptive arcs, and I’d have more freedom in emphasizing the complicated nature of justice in a fallen world. I have that freedom now, but my players might feel like they don’t. Maybe dispensing with labels can let us address certain ideas and situations with more clarity. One of my favorite moments in Dead Reckoning came after one of the party members straight-up murdered a NPC as a sort of misguided mercy killing, and another rebuked her in no uncertain terms: “That was wrong.” Instead of having the DM rule out that kind of behavior at the outset, it might (might) be more meaningful for players to face the truth squarely on their own terms: right and wrong are made tangible by when you can make your choices and act accordingly.

One of the things I never fully appreciated about D&D before I started running it is how risky a venture it is. Things can go off the rails pretty quickly, and a bad call as DM can destroy a player’s entire experience of the campaign. Then again, things can go off the rails in a good way. In the first campaign I ever ran (and it’s still going!), I presented the party with an artifact that would turn the bearer chaotic evil as long as it was on their person. I did this after we’d been playing for a year, and I felt like the group could handle it. I even had a shortlist of those I expected to be the one to pick it up. The player who picked it up rolled with the temporary alignment shift brilliantly. For the next four or five-ish sessions, the party was never far from the precipice of disaster, but there were tons of memorable scenes and creative role-play. It’s one of the high points of my short career so far as DM, and all I really did was present my player with a different set of choices and let her rip.

That kind of calculated risk is one I may run again at some point, but it will depend greatly on the player, the group, and the campaign itself. At the end of the day, as most GMs say, it’s all about whether the group has fun. If I ever get to the point where everyone at my table thinks it would be fun to party up with a villain, I guess we’ll see what happens. This is not a personal goal, but it is a possibility about which I’ve very slowly begun to shift my stance from resistant to ambivalent. ☕

Mark Hulmes (DM), Chris Trott, Katie Morrison, Tom Hazell, and Kim Richards on Rogues One: A High Rollers Story.

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Is it Thursday yet?

Last month, my wife and I finally stopped being outlaws. We had been watching Critical Role on YouTube for several months. Not on Geek and Sundry’s official channel mind you. Nope. Some user had thoughtfully put together his own playlist, updating it each Monday with the latest episode. I fully realize that this is the 21st century, and that a vast majority of people don’t care if they’re illegally pirating stuff. Screw those people. My wife and I spend precious little enough of our money on entertainment, but we figured that if Critical Role had given us nearly 150 hours of joy over the course of the last year, the least we could do is support it in the only way that matters in a marketplace. So we bought a Geek and Sundry Twitch subscription.

Geek and Sundry, of course, is the web-based entertainment company founded by Felicia Day. Capitalizing on the cachet Day earned with The Guild, G&S is home to nerdy shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Co-Optitude, which Day hosts with her brother, Ryon. (Wife and I are fans of those, too.) G&S is a multiplatform presence, streaming videos from its official website as well as YouTube. Twitch bills itself as “social video for gamers,” which is apt enough. The platform includes live video streaming and chat functions, so you can watch your buddies play Halo or Hearthstone and comment on the game with other users besides the gamer in real time. Most of the popular channels are devoted to video gaming. G&S offers a variety of shows that are primarily oriented toward tabletop gaming.

What makes G&S’s Twitch experiment so intriguing is that it’s live. It seems, in other words, that broadcast media has come full circle. People from my generation and those even younger probably only know about old-time radio from movies like Woody Allen’s Radio Days (from what you might call his “peak Farrow” period), or perhaps they listen to shows like WPR’s “Old Time Radio Drama” (or whatever else is locally available outside of Wisconsin). While Twitch does allow its users to archive livestreams on their channel pages, the real draw is watching shows that are devised with the affordances and limitations of a live broadcast in mind.

Subscribers from around the world participate in the chat, peppering the hosts with questions, unsolicited advice, and solicited recommendations. While there are some shows designed around the chat function (like the recent trial of The Scavenger), most simply feature a confab of young, charismatic nerds playing games like Rock Band or HeroClix. The genius of Day and Wheaton is that they figured out that there was a fairly sizable niche audience of folks who would enjoy watching young, charismatic nerds play tabletop games. TableTop itself is almost paradigmatic in this regard. Each episode features Wheaton and four celebrity guests playing a different tabletop game, cracking wise about the diegetic absurdities of the games and sublimating their own cutthroat competitiveness into self-reflexive jibes. (Not to mention erecting a mythology around Wheaton’s own incredibly bad luck throughout most of the first two seasons. For instance, you now say, “I just Wheatoned,” when you roll really badly with your dice.) Unlike TableTop, the games on the Twitch channel unfold in real time, so many (though not all) hosts come from an improv background, flexing those theater muscles to carry two- to three-hour games with breezy insouciance.

That’s part of what makes Critical Role so special. As the host and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer opens every episode: “Hello! And welcome to Critical Role, the game where a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons!” That’s pretty much it, but it explains very little about the show’s core appeal. What the description misses is just how gifted these actors are and how expertly they deploy their improv skills to flesh out and inhabit their characters. Some, like Sam Riegel and Marisha Ray, use something very close to their own accent and timbre as they play (respectively) Scanlon, the gnome bard, and Keyleth, the half-elf druid. Others, like Travis Willingham and Orion Acaba, demonstrate their professional range to give an Anglicized working-class growl to (again, respectively) Grog, the goliath barbarian, and upper-class twit brogue to Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer. The use of accents and different timbre is a helpful marker in the cast’s code-switching, as they flip merrily between their in-game characters and real-life personalities.

That, too, is part of the charm. Like any great improv troupe, the cast revels in surprising each other with totally in-character moments of ribaldry or pathos. One of Willingham’s greatest moments in the show, for instance, is when Grog locks himself in an outhouse to have a conversation with his cursed, sentient sword, Cravenedge. Though utterly hilarious, it carries some emotional weight, as one of the other party members, Percy (played with devilish calculation by Taliesin Jaffe), had just recently been delivered from bondage to his own cursed weapon. While Grog doesn’t want to pose a danger to his own group, he relishes the power given to him by the sword, and he’s no more inclined to sacrifice that power than Percy was, even with his growing suspicions. Similarly, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey play twins, Vax and Vex (respectively), whose comic bickering rings solidly true, but whose co-dependence delivers some of the biggest emotional impact in the series, especially when one or the other flutters over death’s threshold, instilling the other with uncontrollable panic. All of the characters often make very bad decisions for reasons that make total sense, and it then becomes the job of Vox Machina, their party, to pull their reckless butts out of the fire.

The commitment to character consistency has intersected with the challenges of live broadcast in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most controversial moment in the show’s run so far has been the departure of Orion Acaba after episode 27. Independent of the real life drama surrounding the event, the sudden departure was not entirely out of character for the flighty sorcerer, and his official farewell (performed by Mercer) in episode 37 was a somber highlight in the epilogue to the party’s first full arc without Tiberius. Another long-running challenge for Critical Role has been the incorporation of its gnomish cleric, Pike. Because Pike’s player, Ashley Johnson, pursues a live-action career that calls her away from Los Angeles, where the rest of the cast is based, she’s been missing for huge swaths of the show, not least including its initial few episodes. While she worked on Blindspot in New York City, Johnson telecommuted via Skype for several episodes. The distance and technical difficulties for Johnson meant that Pike was forced into a much more reactive role within the party, but her sporadic appearances also had the effect of reminding the cast and their characters how vital she is to the dynamic of Vox Machina. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show was Johnson’s surprise appearance on-set for Episode 22, during a shooting break for Blindspot. The delight of the cast members to be reunited with Johnson was perfectly intertwined with the delight of their characters, who had not been together for four weeks. The necessity of having the players actually be present together physically in one place is something that can be dealt with in a live format, but it’s not something that can be “shot around.”

When technical difficulties occur in real time for us, the audience, it’s also about a thousand times more frustrating than a jam-up on YouTube. After all, when we were watching Critical Role on YouTube, we might have to abandon the video if YouTube was being stupid and come back to it later. That sucked. Then again, we rarely watched an entire episode all at once anyway. Critical Role episodes average three hours, and some have stretched past four. Given our schedules, my wife and I don’t usually get home until after 8:30 pm, and we’re usually asleep by 11. So while we were watching on YouTube, it became our custom to watch CR in one-hour blocks or so, breaking each episode into three nights’ entertainment. Besides prolonging the pleasure of each episode, finishing one also meant that we only had to wait four or five days until the next one.

Now that we try to watch Critical Role on Thursdays, when it airs (7 pm Pacific Time for its cast/crew, 9 pm here in the Midwest), that rhythm is severely disrupted. While it’s unusual for us to manage to stay awake until midnight on Thursdays, we usually watch at least two- to two-and-a-half hours as it streams live. That is, unless Twitch poops out on us. Or we poop out from fatigue. Neither of which is the worst thing in the world. And full episodes are uploaded by the next day, so we can pick up where we left off pretty quickly. But Twitch is, in our experience, still rather buggy. And since Critical Role is literally the first regularly-scheduled program that we have made a point to watch at its regularly-scheduled time since we got married,[1] not being able to watch it at that time is so much worse.

Worse, because we usually finish watching each episode on Friday nights. That’s awesome, in the sense that we get to finish the latest episode almost immediately afterward, and on our own schedule. But it also means that we have to wait until next week Thursday to see the new episode, and a less-than-perfect experience makes us all the hungrier for a better experience the next time. Which is usually no less than six days away, as opposed to the four or five it normally was when we watched episodes on YouTube.

There’s a bigger reason why it’s worse, though. After being spoiled for years by services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, which are at their best when you get to marathon episodes in large gulps, waiting for Critical Role each week is practically an exercise in discipline. There’s a reason why the fan-sourced tagline for Critical Role, “Is it Thursday yet?” is how Mercer closes each episode. The hunger for each episode is not felt by each fan alone; we feel it together. That time slot on Thursday is special because that particular time slot really means something. It’s the only time when all of us—the fans, the film crew, and the cast—get together for the Critical Role experience live. In real time. It happens first and for real only on Thursday. Everything afterward, while still thoroughly enjoyable, is not unique. It’s reproduced. That doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the episode, but it also cannot replicate the sense of live connections being forged in the moment.

Fans of Critical Role are called “Critters,” and both the fans and players commonly refer to the “Critter community.” My wife and I don’t participate in the chat (which goes way too fast), the Reddit threads, or on Twitter, where the cast interacts with Critters on a regular basis. Yet I believe we do feel at least tangentially connected to the Critter community. In old message board parlance, we’re lurkers. But that sense of participation is something that we’re enabled to feel each Thursday night by virtue of the fact that we watch the show live, as it is streamed. The story itself is improvised with each breath and dice roll; the players are putting on a show for us, but they are also putting it on for each other. We, the audience, are simply invited. That invitation to the event itself, though, is always and only for Thursday at 1900 Pacific Time. It is the only time when none of us, collectively, knows what will happen next, and it is the only time when all of us, collectively, get to see what happens next. It is the only time when fear that something could go critically wrong is held perfectly in tension with the sincere hope that everything turns out all right. We, the viewers and players, are bound together in time to each moment.

There is something utopian,[2] I think, in the voluntary discipline of this ritual. Ritual discipline is something I don’t think I have appreciated enough in my life. It is, to be sure, qualitatively different from weekly worship services. It is also qualitatively different from live broadcasts of sports competitions, like football games. While I appreciate worship services far more deeply than sports competitions, I do acknowledge that, much like live artistic performances, there is something necessary to the human experience for events that technically only occur once—here, now, for those of us present—but which are ritually repeated at set times. These things give meaningful shape to our experience of time and space, and the most meaningful of these rituals take narrative form.

One of the great lies told about worship services is that it’s the same old crap every Sunday. In one sense, that’s true. Liturgies are cyclical, and they draw upon the same source material week after week, year after year, century after century. Yet. With each week, year, century, millennium, this circumscribed time with its own circumscribed set of conventions is made new by the fact that those present—here, now—are never the same. We are always older. Always slightly different. Always experiencing this same time in a new way, filtered by our passage through time. We die. Others take our place. They are not us, but we are them. We are made new by our participation in the ritual, by experiencing collectively a totally unique event that nevertheless replicates a set structure at periodic intervals throughout our lives. The narrative structure of these rituals is what gives narrative structure to our own lives.

Like any conventions, though, the governance of our life-narrative is not totally beholden to dogmatic minutiae. There is room for improvisation and surprise. These are also necessary. There is a certain delight, or perhaps catharsis, that can only be had by bonding together with others in the surprises that unfold themselves within the conventions of ritual. That’s why it’s healthy when someone farts loudly in church. That’s why it’s shocking when a pro ballplayer suffers a career-ending injury on the field. That’s why we know when stand-up comic tells us the truth. Are these things always delightful? Cathartic? Perhaps there are better words. Joy and awe. Rituals are not meant to be dry, empty obligations, but celebrations of being alive, and they are meant to inspire gratitude that we are alive to recognize meaning in this moment: here, now, together.

Rituals build communities, and communities thrive on ritual. That is true for individuals, families, villages, nations. It’s true that my wife and I simply don’t have the wherewithal at present to be active in the online Critter community. For now, though, we have made a commitment of time and treasure to experience Critical Role as it streams each week. It is something we cannot pilfer or reproduce and retain quite the same meaning. In finally subscribing to one of our favorite shows, we have finally begun to participate, however marginally, in a ritual that makes the lives of thousands, una communitas sine finibus, just that much more vibrant.☕

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[1] I don’t count Doctor Who, which we typically get from Amazon the day after each episode airs. That’s pretty close, but not really the same thing as watching it as it’s broadcast.

[2] I’ve written very critically about utopia in the past. I’ve changed my previous position on utopianism about 165 degrees. Someday, perhaps, I may elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think utopian hope and utopian process are necessary components of any thriving community. I agree with Ernst Bloch that anti-utopianism tends to stifle positive social change; I disagree with any utopian theorist who views the shoring up of inherited traditions as inherently regressive, weak utopianism or as anti-utopian.


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