#406: The Graduation

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This won’t be about graduating and the process of graduating; rather, this will be about the amazing episodes of The Adventure Zone that Alex and I have been listening to recently. Having the opportunity to listen to podcasts with Alex has been wonderful. It’s become sort of a bonding experience between us, where even though Alex has already listened to the episodes before, we get to talk together and share experiences together. One of the things we’re working on is doing more stuff together, whether that’s watching shows together, enjoying dinner together, or listening to podcasts together while we do other things in the meantime.

Currently, there is an encounter going on in the training tavern, involving the skeletons and the main party. They’re attempting a heist, and there’s this peaceful music playing in the background, and it’s all such a nice, pleasant atmosphere. When I play D&D with my after-school group, it’s always chaotic, hectic, and over the top. The students are so devoted to their characters, but they don’t really role-play as much as I would like. They try to meta-game very hard, which is fun at times but it doesn’t always end up in a smooth story line.

In The Adventure Zone, they are devoted to their characters and role-playing together. They have rich, deep backstories and they’re woven into the overarching story seamlessly, like when Argo’s backstory is mentioned by Jackal in episode two and he’s teased about what he’s potentially hiding from other people. I am a huge fan of this style of storytelling.

Currently, I’m learning about Squarespace, which I already used to create a website back when I was unemployed last year. It was as easy as it seemed, but unfortunately the website is no longer in service because I don’t need it any more. I have another job!

#384: The Dice, Part 1

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After a crazy adventure into the world of Dungeons & Dragons this past Wednesday, a group of the students I play with asked me if they could borrow the dice we use so that they could play D&D over the weekend with each other. While I have no idea how that’s going to happen without a DM who’s familiar with the rules (these kids didn’t know about spell slots until our last meeting), I still believe in their creativity and imagination. These are kids who absolutely love imagining worlds in their heads, and they love playing games, and they love winning. Even though D&D isn’t the type of game that you can actually win, people will still try to win by rolling really high on the dice for each roll.

Since the Dungeons & Dragons club has begun, it’s consistently been one of the highlights of my work week. I’m able to channel my creative juices into some meaningful work, and I get the chance to interact with some of the students I teach in a less formal setting, where they are free to cast ridiculous spells and do ridiculous things.

As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog before, I’m not the kind of person who’s strict about the rules of D&D. It’s made me forget, sometimes, the appropriate thing to do when playing, but I fudge them a bit and it ends up working out fine. The real problem is when kids ask me a question about something I wish I knew but I don’t actually know too well. In those cases, I just have to give up and admit defeat. As a teacher, it’s always better to be honest than to pretend you know something, as kids see through dishonesty very easily. It’s just in their nature.

#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.

#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.