#205: The Showstopper

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When it comes to TV shows, very few reach iconic status the same way Game of Thrones has. It’s become a cultural cornerstone, and it’s mentioned in tweets from the LAPD all the way to Burger King and more. With Instagram posts accruing millions of likes, the Game of Thrones’s actors’ accounts are full of people reminiscing about the seasons and their favorite memories from eight years of craziness. Game of Thrones represents, to me, something special, even though the last season wasn’t all that wonderful; it represents a family tradition and connection, a connection between freshman year roommates and acquaintances, a connection between friends during my study abroad trip. No matter where I went, Game of Thrones seemed to follow me, one way or another. I’m so glad I was introduced to it by my friend Chris during my freshman year of college, and I’m so glad to have spread it around to many other people, including my family, who I would then talk with about it for years to come. Game of Thrones is talked about on Twitter by practically everyone I follow, and those who don’t talk about it talk about not watching it whenever they can. It’s a show that everyone is aware of, for one reason or another, and the hype and cultural influence is nearly impossible to ignore. That’s why I’m paying tribute to it in this post; despite everything wrong with it, despite all the weird, last-minute decisions and haphazard pacing, despite it all, I’m still happy to have spent all this time talking about a show that’s truly captured my life. I can only hope to experience something like this again in my life, a show that becomes so deeply entrenched in our culture, that’s nerdy and fantastical, that I love and share with anyone who can hear me. It’s been a wild ride, guys.

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#182: The Long Night

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Talk about complete and total darkness. Not the type that’s momentarily scary, but totally enveloping and ruining. The kind of darkness that makes you question what’s real and what’s not. Absolute carnage takes place in the darkness. After watching Game of Thrones season 3 episode 8’s “The Long Night,” I feel qualified to talk about this darkness, because the episode was dark in more ways than one. The tone and mood of the episode were similarly dreary and frightening, while the atmosphere, setting, and lighting were terrifyingly dark as well. In some parts, the dead seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut, rampaging over anything that even dared to touch them, such as the Dothraki horde with their flaming swords of doom.

By the time this post reaches my blog, it’ll be long past the release of this episode, but I figured it was worth discussing anyway because I bet this episode stands the test of time for awhile. Some may disagree about the overall quality of the episode, but I think having the battle take place in one, 80-minute spectacle felt like the right thing to do, rather than drag it on for longer than necessary. They had to finish it right there and then, as the dead were already picking up and animating the bodies of those who were fighting against them. It would’ve been a hundred times worse otherwise.

I loved the scenes with the red mist, as Winterfell became overrun by zombies and the dead. It really brought home the aspect of dread. I was completely, totally stressed out for the entire episode, and I know others were too. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to film such a thing, to put it all together into one major episode. The budget must’ve been sky high, to begin with. I’m just happy one of my favorite series is coming together like this.

#154: The City of Guilds

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Originally, when I wrote yesterday’s post, I had intended for it to be about Magic: the Gathering again, but instead I had the inclination to discuss the one WoW guild that still stays in my mind after all these years. Now, I’ll be discussing guilds in a different context, specifically the guilds of the city of Ravnica.

When Alex and I decided to play magic again, we did so by buying guild kits, these wonderful little packages for about $20 each that contained lots of modern format-legal cards. I bought the Golgari one, and Alex bought the Orzhov one. We’ve smashed the two decks against each other repeatedly over the past few nights, getting our nerd on with the help of Wizards of the Coast. I’ve taught Alex how to play the game with some tips and tricks as well as just general info about how phases work, what combat is like, et cetera.

When I first started playing magic, I liked the Boros Legion the most. That’s the red-white themed guild, full of chump blockers and flying angels with haste and vigilance. They swarm and descend upon the evils of the world, as they are a standing army of zealots. From a gameplay perspective, I enjoy playing Boros because they are aggressive, and games generally end quickly and easily. If you fail in being aggressive enough, you lose, but if you manage to make a stampede of guys at once, it’s unstoppable and enough to take over the game from then.

I enjoy playing the Golgari deck primarily nowadays, as they allow me to interact with the graveyard, and dredge up dead creatures for use later. It’s a blast to play because of that. Alex’s Orzhov is interesting too, though it’s very powerful and full of heavy-hitters that make playing against it an uphill battle.

#118: The New Raid

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(This is the first picture that shows up in the free picture search engine for “raid,” for some reason.)

Jimmy and I both agree, the newest raid added to World of Warcraft in patch 8.1, Battle of Dazar’alor, has been a smash hit. It’s a wild ride from start to finish, representing perfectly what an actual, all-out war between two juggernaut super-factions would look like, rendered into the game’s modest engine. There are hefty stakes at play from both sides; consider the targeted assassination of the Zandalari king, and the reckless defense and heated chase through the waters to hunt down Jaina Proudmoore. Amidst all the high stakes is heightened tensions between the two factions after the battle climaxes. No one inevitably dies, except for the king, which leads to the events of the war campaign and allied race acquisition in 8.1.5. This is all just about the raid’s story, touching nothing on the bosses, mechanics, aesthetics, and more. But it’s impossible to separate this raid from the overarching story, as it is a climactic moment in the tale so far.

My favorite boss I’ve faced so far has been Opulence, wherein the raid splits in two and follows treasure golems through cavernous paths lined with booby traps and flame engines. But if you make it to the last room, powerful gems await that can empower your character, allowing them to finish the golems and enter the second phase of the encounter, wherein you face the massive treasure elemental, Opulence. It’s a ridiculous fight, and I loved being able to experience it firsthand in LFR and Normal difficulties. Hopefully, with my gear level increasing so fast, I have the opportunity to raid on Heroic sometime soon. That might be too much stress though, and we already know I’ve talked enough about stress recently!

#99: The Return of D&D

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D&D made its miraculous, fantastic return over this past weekend, and I’ve been eager to write about it since it happened. What’s more monumental and exciting than an evening full of role-playing, creative writing, and friendship born through an online medium? The friends I’ve met through D&D are known primarily through D&D, and they exist just in that realm, but when we return to it, I feel like I’m returning to talk with long-term friends again. I have friendships with these people that transcends and supersedes what normal friends are like. We are

On this past Friday, I played D&D at a sleepover with friends who care about it quite a lot. They took it a bit more seriously, choosing to have a more stern and deliberate campaign than the improv-based, comedy-focused campaign I participated in on Sunday. It was interesting to see this dichotomy develop between the two separate campaigns; on the one hand, I loved having the chance to stretch my stuff in a serious story-line with actual implications to it, but on the other hand, it felt great to be loose a bit and explore the fantastical world that takes up my mind. Being a Dungeon Master is tough, but rewarding work! I love the opportunity to develop a campaign with my friends regardless, whether as a player or as a character taking part in the story. There’s so much value in having friends that are willing to role play and have fantastical experiences with. It helps me test my writing abilities while also hearing in a live setting how those abilities are manifesting.

It also provides me with an outlet for my creative writing. I don’t think that creative writing is just something that involves line breaks and stanzas in poetry; there are so many layers to being a creative writer, and preparing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign has to fit into one of them. It just so happens to also be a friendly activity, too.

My nose is feeling a bit stuffy, so I’m going to stop writing here for now. Perhaps I will return to write more of this later.

#89: The Adventure Zone

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Welcome to… the adventure zone! (Cue techno music)

The Adventure Zone, or TAZ as it’s abbreviated sometimes, is a fantasy RPG podcast produced and performed by the McElroy family: Clint, Griffin, Justin, and Travis. The four of them are actual family, and you can tell through their interactions in the game that they care for each other and have a storied history, like all family members do. Their interactions are genuine and easy to get attached to, after a long period of binge listening to the podcast. I can’t say I have a favorite character in the podcast, because they’re all just so likable, diverse, and creative. The characterization is mostly improv-based, but that allows for the people behind the characters to really play however they want and flesh out their individual character in whatever way they please.

I remember listening to episodes of the Rockport and Crystal Kingdom chapters in the car on the way to Boston with Alex, or to visit Alex, while she was doing her internship there. It holds special meaning because of that, as it was years ago and we weren’t nearly as familiar with the larger McElroy-verse of podcasts as we are now. Even going up to Syracuse, I remember putting on TAZ to make sure the drives weren’t so boring.

It’s become almost a yearly tradition for Alex and I to re-listen to the amazing Balance arc, a story and song with so much meaning to both of us. I haven’t even considered starting my re-listen yet, but I’m sure by the end of the year I’ll have a third round under my belt. We are a bit too busy with other listening interests right now.

I actually need to catch up on my TAZ listening sometime soon, but that’s besides the point. Maybe some day I’ll get it all done. We listened a bit in the car this weekend, and then stopped before the end. Also, a quick shout out to my friend Hallie for introducing me to this great podcast in the first place. Considering how much it’s changed my life, I owe you a big one. I’m hoping to convert my other friend Jimmy to the same side!

#88: Fire Emblem

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Since I started playing games as a young kid, I’ve been fascinated with blazing swords, fiery dragons, and relentless warriors of the fantasy genre. It’s something of an obsession, as I still play World of Warcraft from when I was in 7th grade and still write fantasy campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons when I have the time. If you read my most recent book review, you also know I love The Witcher and the book series that accompanies it, too.

So let’s talk about something new. Fire Emblem: Heroes is a mobile game I play from time to time, mostly at the gym or in the bathroom. It’s deceptively strategic, full of skills and knowledge you have to know in order to compete at the highest level of Arena play. There’s also, of course, a high bar for entry marked by money. If you have money and are willing to spend it, you can achieve as high as possible in this game. It’s a “pay-to-win” game if I’ve ever seen one, and yet I’m fascinated by it, too. I don’t spend money on it, at least never very much, and I try to limit how often I play. Considering my dad is (or was, I’m not sure any more) obsessed with Candy Crush and has spent hundreds of dollars trying to pass through all the levels, I’ve definitely learned my lesson from my elders. It’s not a good idea to go too overboard with games.

This game features everything great about fantasy games: dragons, deep lore, fascinating characters, and unique combat. You set up a team of four heroes (whoever you own) and you charge into battle against legions of other heroes, sometimes villains, sometimes not. My favorite mode is the Tempest Trials, when your group of four heroes needs to fend off wave after wave of randomized enemies for powerful rewards. Needless to say, that’s my kind of mode.

Book Review: “The Last Wish”

Good, solid fantasy reading. Sapkowski has a genre veteran’s writing style, indulging in picturesque setting descriptions, while the characters and their interactions make up the bulk of the story. Introduces many of the characters met in The Witcher video game series, which as a fan was a treat. Fairly quick, easy read that would be a serviceable introduction to any fan of the games. I can imagine it confusing someone unfamiliar with the games as background, though. Also, the writing has moments of sloppiness in its transitions from combat, to dialogue, to description within a single scene; near the book’s end, it became difficult to keep track of certain events. Not for everyone, but enough for me to commit to reading the rest of the series!

Of course, examples of fatphobia and misogyny abound in this text, with Geralt at one point referring to his rival and lover Yennefer as a “fat woman… or a hunchback.” Misogyny comes primarily through the side character Dandelion, Geralt’s personal bard, troubadour, and Sancho Panza himself, but a little bit more mischievous and a troublemaker. Dandelion wishes to seduce pretty much every remotely attractive lady around him, and feels his inferiority complex sting him whenever a woman rejects his advances, which is always. It’s meant to provide a bit of humor, I suppose, but his repeated insistence gives the interactions a different tone. While I was by no means expecting a book based in the Middle Ages to be progressive and forward-thinking, it still stood out to me. I don’t think all this necessarily detracts from the book, considering the setting, but it does feel a bit more “current” than the rest of the story; it makes me step away from the book and view it from a more contemporary lens, and I feel less than sympathetic to the characters.

This all being said, The Last Wish is also full of remarkable, interesting, fleshed-out characters, many of whom are female. Nenneke, Geralt’s friend and high priestess of the temple of Melitele, is presented as the book’s “voice of reason,” giving the protagonist opportunities to recover, refresh, and reflect on his misgivings. Her story intersects each of the short stories, bringing the overarching narrative back to the present, in a careful way. Yennefer, though described somewhat grotesquely, is smart, wily, and full of charisma. Calanthe, the queen of Cintra and brief antagonist of chapter 3, speaks with a regal tone and diction in front of her guests, but lays down the mask in front of Geralt; this juxtaposition of styles helps the reader view Calanthe as a complete character, while also exposing the royal family’s corruption.

Overall, a fascinating story that I would recommend if you’re interested in the genre. Otherwise, it won’t convince you to fall in love with fantasy, unless you already are familiar with the games, in my opinion.

Three out of five stars!

#55: The Witcher

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Since leaving my teaching job, I’ve had a lot of time to return to my hobbies, such as journal writing, blog writing, and of course, video games. It’s not a day without touching at least one game, whether it’s on my phone, the computer/laptop, or television. One such game I’ve taken an interest to recently is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Considered by many to be the game of the year in 2015, this game features a sprawling open world, a dark, unrelenting morality system, and the opportunity to slice, slash, and slay nearly anything you want to, whether it’s ruffians at the tavern or ghouls at your campsite. The Witcher 3 has helped me find new interest in open-world RPGs, especially modern, western-developed ones. I don’t think I’ve played a WRPG this consistently since beating Fallout 3 years and years ago. I’ve plugged 15 hours into it so far, and although I hope to beat

Speaking of witchers and witching, I’ll likely make a separate blog post about this sometime in the future, but I’ve recently gotten into reading the witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Spectacular battles and raging warfare abound in the books, as Geralt of Rivia slays many a monstrous foe. So far, I’ve found The Lash Wish to be a wonderfully easy, digestible fantasy read, which is what I was looking for upon buying it a few afternoons ago. Whether or not it lives up to the hype by the end, I can say for certain that it captures the feeling of playing the games well.

Yes, I know the books came before the games, and yet the games gave the books popularity, in the same way A Game of Thrones had a cult following before bursting into the mainstream thanks to HBO’s hit TV show. I am a fan of the mantra, “the book is always better,” but in some cases, the book is not where my experience with the media starts. For those who have had that privilege, that’s wonderful for them.

#14: The Fantastical

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In the debate between fantasy and science fiction, I’ve always leaned more towards fantasy. Magical spells, elves and half-orcs, epic quests, and limited technology are some of the hallmarks of a fantasy story, and to me, when these elements are combined in the right order and with the right attention to detail, they result in some amazing stories. Lord of the Rings, for example, remains one of the most iconic movie franchises of all time (and for good reason). World of Warcraft is still the most popular video game in its genre, 14 years after its initial release date.

Knowing all this, it probably comes as no surprise to anyone reading that I love Dungeons & Dragons. (In the future, this might seem outdated to people, but D&D has undergone a bit of a resurgence recently due to podcast storytelling. I just enjoy it, okay?) There’s something about gathering a group of like-minded people and entering a make-believe world together that feels fantastic. The camaraderie that develops, the layers of personality you unveil, the world in everyone’s creative imaginations. Working together with people to create something special, a space where all feel welcome in. No wonder D&D has found a resurgence in today’s climate; escaping from reality for a time to play with friends can be soothing, especially when the supplemented reality, the world of Faerun, requires intense concentration to follow completely.

I’ve had a few failed D&D groups, as well as a few successful ones. Some groups are destined to fail, and it sucks to see it happen. The group I’m a part of currently, in which I’m the DM during an interim campaign, is definitely on the successful side of things. It’s five people, and we gather over Roll20 to video chat and catch up on each other’s lives. It’s become an awesome way to connect with friends from across the country, whom I haven’t seen in person in years, and meet new people. You learn so much about people through how they play D&D.

An added layer of anxiety and stress comes from being the DM rather than just playing, as the game depends on your impromptu imagination, but it’s oddly exhilarating, too. Some types of stress aren’t as debilitating as they seem initially, once you’re in the thick of it. True anxiety is felt when the mind disassociates from the body, when you start thinking about how you’re thinking, but to me, with how busy things get during D&D, that feeling is impossible. You are swapping out characters, moving set pieces around in your head.