Sorcerers and Snobbery

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While I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve only openly ‘loved’ Dungeons and Dragons these past few years, it is, nonetheless, a lifelong passion of mine, properly kindled during the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights eras, and complimented with a love of the fantasy genre that has spanned The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings in between.

What I don’t think, however, is that I have any sort of ownership over either DnD or the genre itself – but boy, I’ll tell you what, it is rife in the DnD community. Rife.

I’ve had a fairly tepid appreciation of Chris Perkins’ lack of humility and the dismissive attitude he has to the community for a while now, but I also love 5e that much that I’m willing to sit him quietly in my blind spot and just consume his content cf. his personality.

James Haeck annoys me for many, many reasons, not least of which is his choice to use awful language choices (in the spirit of: ‘why use a small word when a diminutive one will do’). If you’re a writer, catering to an online audience, and you have to link to a word you’ve used on Dictionary.com when challenged on it, then you’re either too proud to use an editor, you have a bad editor, or you’re just a wanker.

James Haeck of EGtW and DnDBeyond.com Fame [Source: Twitter; WOTC]

Of course, Haeck shares similar acclaim to Perkins in that he had the distinct honour of having co-authored the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, which has seen incredible popularity since COVID forced everyone inside and Critical Role saw a resurgence. But in contrast to Haeck’s aesthetic evolution from affable nerd to channelling Inigo Montoya represents less of a ‘glow up’ and more of ‘lean in’ to the vapid personality traits of celebrity, my appetite for reading his content goes from tolerance to actively avoid.

Not a great position to be in when Haeck pretty much wrote everything on DnDBeyond for the past few years.

Nonethless, I do want to close out this tirade with a qualification. Both Haeck and Perkins are big fish in the DnD world, and to some extent, they both – quite rightly – couldn’t care less what I think of them. Whatever I might think of their personalities, they still, ultimately put pen to paper, knuckled down, and have contributed to the game we all know and play and love.

That’s not nothing.

No, my lament today is much more of a personal nature, and it’s to do with a friend who has recently discovered DnD. In the real world, I’d be quite pleased for him. In fact, I’m happy to admit I started off quite pleased for him. This lad was someone I had directed in theatre a few years ago, and he falls into the overlap of gamer, actor and nerd much like myself – so it was only natural that he find a home in DnD. Today he made a post about how much he loved DnD and couldn’t wait until the next session – and I’m not afraid to admit – I was a little jealous. Here’s a man who can have a regular, face-to-face game with friends and enjoy everything about it, while I’m being mocked by C-grade friends and struggling to find ten minutes to teach my son the dice mechanics of the game. But they’re my problems, not his, and so I suggested that he watch some Critical Role to tide him over between games. His response? “Duh, how do you think I got into it?”

Well, no, actually, I know that’s not how you got into it. You posted that on Facebook as well, you muppet, and I know that a good friend introduced you into his game first – so revising your history for me doesn’t work. But I’m too introvert to call out that little untruth, so let’s move on. My next step was to celebrate CR with him and call out some of the early victories of Vox Machina (I’m only early into Campaign 1 myself!) but then I was curtly told: “You’re talking of Season 1. I started on Season 2.”

OK, fine, perhaps it would be quicker just to tell me to go fuck myself?

The thing is, this heightened sense of self-worth in DnD isn’t unusual. I find it on the Critical Role Discord Server (which I soon left), I find it among people in the forums and groups I visit, and I find it talking to people who get a regular face-to-face game with friends and pizza and beer.

Today while “playing” DnD with my kids, I have to admit, I got a little glimmer of joy in my heart when my wife said “I’ll play!” but as it turned out it was just a ruse to stir up my son. I appreciate the ruse, we stir him up like that all the time, but as it turned out it was just another extension of her active distaste for Dungeons and Dragons.

So, now people who play it are self-important, know-it-all, insular little types who are empowered by the likes of Haeck and Perkins in elevating their social status. (It’s a terrible analogy, but it is like watching a very bad extension of the Washington DC riots, whereby Trump inflames his base and then they take action against “someone” – in DnD this can be anyone, including others in their own playing group.)

People who don’t play it are still riding the old wave of “DnD is for Nerds”. Something to be hidden away or ashamed of. It’s almost like being more interested in geriatric pornography would be a more socially-acceptable pastime than DnD, and that’s saying something in the year 2021, when we’re all supposed to be a little more understanding and a little more tolerant – perhaps, that is, as long as we confirm to social ideals.

So, what’s the lesson here? Does DnD have a cultural problem (moreso than its recent redress of racial stereotypes)? Am I too soft-skinned? Is this a broader human failing being seen through the lends of DnD or – as I suspect – are humans just a little bit shit?

I love fantasy. I love the mechanics that DnD gives me to be able to play in that kind of fantasy world. I think, if anything, the strength of the game comes from my ability to enjoy it in spite of these flawed personalities – both big and little.

Though, I have to admit, I do wonder from time-to-time if the grass is greener over with those Pathfinder folks.

Candlekeep Mysteries

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I bloody love Candlekeep. Make no mistake about it, Baldur’s Gate was my introduction to the Dungeons and Dragons universe and Candlekeep the first location I ever truly explored.

At the time, everything about being constrained to the BG story annoyed me – I hated being forced to being Gorion’s Ward and having a pre-existing relationship with Imoen. Later in the game I hated the whole ‘Bhaal Son’ thing. But in my older years, having matured, I can appreciate that this was but one of many stories I could enjoy in the Forgotten Realms, or DnD in general.

(All of this, of course, with the exception of Minsc and Boo. Minsc and Boo are infallible.)

One thing that never disappointed me though, was the locations. The isometric maps of Candlekeep and BG and even the wilds that surrounded the cities and places to visit were living, breathing characters on their own. I visited every shop and every store room. I fought assassins and I read books and for a map that was essentially one big circle around a castle, it was undoubtedly my DnD hometown. And now, to see Candlekeep serving as the new location for the adventure anthology, Candlekeep Mysteries – well, I can tell you this is a day one purchase for me.

One of the things that is great about the collection of stories is that WotC have recognised that there is a market for ‘small bites’ of DnD. Sure, some people might love an enduring, multi year campaign … but others have time for a one shot once every few months, and nothing more. After all, life has shown us in the past twelve months that we need some agility in how we live our lives, and so setting up a book of one shots and giving people a chance to taste DnD, rather than scaring the hell out of people who know nothing. It’s a smart move – and I like it.

I want to get a game together for later this year, and while I was planning on grabbing an Internet one shot, I reckon this mystery-style approach could be just the gateway drug we all need.

Let’s see how things go.

Aramoor

The islet village of Aramoor was originally a trading hub, though has increasingly fallen from this status to simply becoming the home for a small collection of (very) rich nobles who established themselves there in Aramoor’s trading highs, and the supporting industry that keeps them in the lap of luxury. The most well-known of these families are the Pistleweeds, who continue to control many of the trans-continental shipping routes, and who ensure their monopoly through an unrelenting grasp of power, money and appetite for murder. Thankfully, this bloodthirst requires Daylin Pistleweed, the eldest son and current Director of Pistleweed Transport, to travel extensively – making Pistleweed Estate an immaculatley kept, but rarely used, piece of property.

The outskirts of town are home to an overtly haunted graveyard, where demons and the dead walk freely among the gravestones and the nearby wreck of the Sunset King, an old merchant ship that saw everyone killed while in-port at Aramoor as a result of a combined mutiny and unknown third-party attack. While the citizens of Aramoor would rather not have any ghouls walking so freely nearby, the undead have, by-and-large, left the living alone, and so they remain free to stay in the graveyard under the ever-watchful eye of the Merchants’ Guard … a once-mercenary solider force that has long-since become the official constabulary of Aramoor.

Bexley

The township of Bexley is largely concentrated around the House of Hathor, a large religious complex within the township, serving as both a place of worship as well as a specialist school established for clerics in their later or post graduation years of scholarship.

The Head Cleric, Archbishop Varbun Lei, acts as the head of both the church and the township, with a small village council used to give the impression (but in reality, serves little purpose other than the inflate the ego of those participating) of democratic governance.

Fort Marlow, nestled just inside the South Gate to Bexley, serves as the regional outpost for a small collection of soldiers reporting to Colonel Melvar Ragetide, an aging old warrior looking forward to his retirement, but still with the air of both respect and responsibility.

The local tavern, the Two Statue Arms, is a nod to the dual statues of soldiers standing by Bexley’s main gate.

Easthallow

Easthallow

The mostly-frozen waters of Easthallow Bay welcome you to the crisp always-winter air of this hardened farming region, best known for growing robust, quality produce all year around. The relative stability of the cold climate allows for a year-round harvest cycle, though the plentiful harvest trade-off is that produce varieties are limited to larger root vegetables and some smaller – both literally and figurative – crops of maize, though this is typically turned into bread and other food for local consumption, rather than export.

The wealthy inventor, Gilliam Bates has a summerhouse located in the region, described as Bates’ Refuge, as he is known for holding ‘think weeks’ at the house to contemplate life, the issues of the day and the universe.

Notable residents of the region include Nothe Keslel, who runs a small apothecary business just outside of Easthallow itself, though rather than Easthallow’s good name, it is more her notoriety as an alleged King-killer that drives much of her sales.

Power Rangers Battle for the Grid

Ahh, Tommy. It’s good to see you again.

You have to admit, Xbox Game Pass is pretty good. For a game that I’d never pick up off the shelf at EB Games, for an IP that I grew up with and I love, this was a great way to quickly consume a rather mediocre game that seemed to focus on exploiting the Power Rangers IP rather than make a fully fledged game. I mean … even Injustice made a better mobile port for its games than the console version does here.

Mortal Kombat!

Make no mistake about it. This is Power Ranger Mortal Kombat, and it’s a ‘lite’ version at best. No difficulty changing, not really a lot of appetite to chase achievements and a fairly rudimentary game concept doesn’t really spark some Marie Kondo joy, so I’m happy to have had the opportunity to play it, but it’s a no from me.

Assassins of Kings

I knew about King Foltest only because he was one of the primary Gwent heroes in The Witcher 3, but I never really made the connection between ‘the card’ and ‘the character’, but it all makes perfect sense really when you think about the number of cards based on NPCs in W3 as it is, there was always bound to be a few nods to the earlier games littered throughout.

I’ve recently finished the Prologue to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and it is an absolute banger. It places you front and centre of a battle with Foltest, as he seeks to reclaim his (illegitimate) children from a baroness named Maria Louisa La Valette, and in what culminates in a great little ‘taster’ to the world of the Witcher, you end up in the sewers, fighting soldiers and knights, and by the end of the level you are helping Foltest to escape a dragon.

Perfection.

Despite the fact that the game is just all-around solid, what pleases me the most is how similar it is to The Witcher 3.

I absolutely have the aspiration to crack on with W2 … but by God, I know the level of commitment it took to clear W3, so there is a little demon on my shoulder reminding me of that each and every time I hover my controller over the game.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve added another title to the pile of shame.

37.733 Miles

TT Isle of Man

I hate motorcycle games. Other than the fact that I’m not very good at them, there’s a good chance that there’s a deep psychological trigger for me reminding me that I’m not very good at riding the real thing either.

In either case, I’m a sucker for a free game and a few easy achievements, and so with one of this month’s Games with Gold being the TT Isle of Man, I put my metaphorical helmet back on and took to the streets.

To be honest, there’s not a lot different about TT Isle of Man from almost any other motorcycle racing game I’ve played – and I guess that’s not necessarily unexpected, but in an age where driving games like Forza can really innovate, I guess I expected … more.

After struggling through the rather bland and long-winded tutorial (it probably wasn’t that long, but boy it felt like it), I did a quick check of the achievement list to see what was a reasonable few challenges to tick off the list. The single lap of Snaefell Mountain seemed to be a reasonable result, thinking that – like other races – it would be a few minutes of bike-riding pain to earn a quick-and-dirty cheevo.

Twenty minutes into the ‘race’ though (and I used the term loosely – it became apparent a few minutes in that I had no chance of being any sort of challenger), and I regretted my decision. Bland environments, terrible compatibility between player and game and just an all-around insufferable achievement, and needless to say I’m glad that I did it and don’t have to do it again.

I’m sure there’s a niche motorcycle racing market out there.

I’m just not it.

From Pajitnov, With Love

I quite like Tetris. I think it’s one of the few timeless games that has managed to find its way into the hands of people from about three or four generations – and do you know what? It’s still just as fun as it ever has been.

I was a little surprised to see in the past week that EA’s Tetris Blitz would be ending in April this year, and instead the product had been licensed out to a new company, N3TWORK.

Um, excuse me? Rude!

There’s not many games that have stood the test of time on my iPhone. Even The Simpsons Tapped Out was taken off there some time ago, and Gardenscapes is only hanging on there by a single nostalgic thread. Tetris Blitz, however, has stayed on my screen for a few years now. I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly religious-level of playing, but certainly once a week or a fortnight, I’d whip it out and see what kind of score I could get with the free boosts that I had collected, or, if the mood grabbed me, what kind of boosts I was willing to cash in on.

Do you know what I’m not willing to cash in on though? $8 of hard-earned money to be able to play Tetris on my phone without ads. GTFO, N3TWORK.

One of the benefits of having the large companies control gaming, is that they are less tied to marketing, or advertising, revenue. Sure, they still put ads in games, either as banner ads or as opportunities to recover a life or get some extra power – but they don’t put them up as a barrier between the player and getting into the game. They want you in their ecosystem to tempt you into micro transactions. Not to bombard you with cheap, crappy mobile ads.

N3TWORK, it seems, couldn’t give a toss what I think. Ads before a game, it is!

I have some other issues with the game, all of which are (allegedly) to be addressed in future updates, but I have to say, unless you don’t want iOS users switch over day-and-date you have your ‘full’ release, then be prepared for a multi-pronged onslaught between xCloud, Apple Arcade, Uplay Plus, and any one of a number of subscription services out to take consumer’s disposable income. You also need to try and deliver, at the very least, a like-for-like product.

Right now there is no Facebook Connect, no different game modes, and limited settings. I assume there is an Apple ID / iCloud connector somewhere working in the background … but I’m not convinced. I feel like this is something that could, and should, have been done prior to launch.

Perhaps I expect too much.

I’m going to keep the new Tetris on my phone for now – if only to hold out hope that it’ll get better. It’s a very thin, tenuous hope, but if Blitz is to be retired, well, it might be all I have.

Tetris has survived this long on my phone. There’s a very good chance that this’ll be the year it does not.

Blacker than Black

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege2020-1-19-23-10-2

For as long as there have been Tom Clancy video games, I have been in love with the franchise. Truth be told, I’ve never really liked Clancy’s style of writing because it is technically and character heavy, but his contemporary and near-future military setting has always appealed to me, as has the lore he built-out, first with the Rainbow Six series (assumedly with others’ input), and later with other franchises such as Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon. Truth be told, I take issue with some of the latter aspects of the franchise, only because I know they were created after his death … but I still love and cherish the setting, and so I play the games without complaint.

I’ve played quite a bit of Rainbow Six Siege on Xbox over the past few years since it was released, and now, going into its fourth year, I finally took the plunge and dived into the game on PC. I wasn’t sure if I’d already bought it or not, but from what I can tell, I simply had the cheapest, if not free-to-play, version on my PC, and so I lashed out with a heavily-discounted $15 purchase to grab the ‘Year One’ edition, which brings with it all the original operators and the full game itself. That, in itself, was probably unnecessary right now, as the main action in R6 is happening in an event called ‘Road to SI (Six Invitational) 2020’, and involves a deliberately crafted structure and course designed to simulate a real world military-sports event. Truth be told, it’s quite good fun, but if there was ever a game I wanted to bring across all my unlocks and perks and characters in, it’s R6.

Exhibit #813 when it comes to why games should have cross-save.

And so, I’m doing the slow crawl from Level 1 onward on PC. It’s served me well so far because people aren’t unnecessarily cruel and unusual in their ‘feedback’ (there are exceptions), but I think the value in the game comes from being able to undertake what I’ll consider ‘team-lite’ gameplay … going solo with everyone having the broadly-speaking same goal, rather than a more coordinated squad-based shooter.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege2020-1-19-19-49-7

For Assault, I’ve been leaning heavily into Glaz, because I like his infrared scope, and for Defense I normally go Rook for his body armour. I’m a simple man with simple pleasures, though I suspect the Road to SI 2020 event would actually be a good time to experiment with other operators – considering they’re all unlocked from the get-go.

For now, I’m keen just to have the occasional game and build up my renown without too much exposure to the broader internet. The internet is typically a fairly average place to play games with people you don’t know … so I’ll try and stick to Terrorist Hunts and the odd multiplayer when there are challenges that require it. I’m not a ‘bad’ player, but skill and capability doesn’t seem to mean much on the internet these days anyway. The list of things that will have you labelled ‘a letdown’ far surpasses those that earn a ‘good job’.