Reading & listening in 2018

Every year I keep a list of the books I’ve read and then add the list to the Books Read List page of this blog. If you look at the Books Read in 2018 list and compare it to the last couple of years, you might think that 2018 was a poor year for reading.

Well, I would counter, it wasn’t as bad as 2013 or 2015. Even so, I would admit that I feel a little bit of disappointment in seeing that 2018’s count is twenty books fewer than 2017’s.

Screenshot_PodcastsBut then I would remember that 2018 could also be described as the Year of the Podcast and the Year of the Non-Traditional Narrative: in 2018 I began listening to and watching actual-play D&D campaigns podcasts and web series, Eberron Renewed and Critical Role.

For the past few years I have chosen a book series to binge-listen to during my long commutes for my summer teaching job. Instead of choosing a book series in 2018, I chose to listen to my friend’s D&D podcast Eberron Renewed. Some 90 episodes later (each weekly episode running between an hour and an hour and a half), I estimate that the amount of time I’ve spent listening to this podcast is the equivalent to about a dozen audiobooks. Eberron Renewed is just a very long narrative being “written” collaboratively and in improv.

And if I had been reading instead of watching Critical Role? Well, that’s another very long narrative being told in real time that also amounts to about 15 books in terms of hours. (Though I could just as well have been watching other TV shows to be honest, which I haven’t had the time for.)

Then there are the BBC and PRI news and linguistic A Way With Words podcasts I listen to at work, when I could be listening to audiobooks.

So it’s not that I’m not getting healthy doses of narrative, fiction, news, ideas: I am. I’m getting them from not only reading and listening to audiobooks, but also from unexpected, non-traditional narrative sources by following along other players’ D&D campaigns. Getting my entertainment from these sources and from playing RPGs myself with my friends has had me thinking about role-playing games as narrative sources, as sources or modes of entertainment: a form of oral narrative, community narrative, an exchange between those who create entertainment and those who are entertained by it and the nexus of when those groups happen to be the same people gathered around a table with character sheets and dice.

I’ll be exploring some of the ideas that have sprung up in my musings about RPGs as non-traditional narrative sources in an upcoming blog series.

Do you keep track of what you read? From what sources do you get your doses of fiction?

D&D 5e: Maya d’Lyrandar

As mentioned in a previous post, my monthly gaming group has started a campaign in the D&D setting Eberron.

Maya Zandos d’Lyrandar
Bard Class (airship captain extraordinaire!)

D&D Maya mini 2

Maya’s mini, painted by our other GM (who also painted Tess), and her dragonmark-themed dice.*

Maya is the daughter of Admiral Valanthe d’Lyrandar and heir to the dragonmarked House Lyrandar. Despite her early years and training in Stormhome, she calls the Lhazaar Principalities her home: Admiral Valanthe established a significant Lyrandar enclave in the pirate confederation due to the growing tension between herself and her twin, the House Baron Esravash.

She is captain of the airship Falling Skies, which was taken during the Last War. Maya was promoted from Midshipman Zandos to Captain Zandos a decade before her time by seizing, as she calls it, an opportunity. Airships are powered by bound elementals and when a ship is taken as a prize in battle and the crew subdued, the new presumptive captain must obtain the cooperation of the elemental in order to take control of the ship. Standard procedure allows the first lieutenant priority, and thus win a promotion and his first ship. But the elemental of Falling Skies wouldn’t talk to the first lieutenant, nor to the second lieutenant. As the captain and lieutenants discussed what to do next — they were considering towing the ship back to the closest Lyrandar enclave to let other high ranking lieutenants have a go — one of the midshipmen slipped over to the dragonshard at the helm, placed her hand on it, and asked the elemental its name. ‘Aeris,’ it answered with surprise. ‘Excellent,’ said the midshipman, ‘My name is Maya. What was your last captain like?’ Before the officers could intervene, Maya had established a rapport with the elemental and it would talk to no other. While some in the House were disgruntled at this turn of events, others noted the daring that is admired in House Lyrandar leaders.

One of Maya’s philosophies is: Good things come to those who seize opportunities.

Eberron - Rinmaru Mega Fantasy - Maya 3bAfter the cataclysm of the Mourning ended the War, Maya transported cargo and engaged in privateering — seizing opportunities — as well as attending society functions whenever she was in port. For both her status and her winning personality, Maya always gets invited to the best parties. It was at these parties that Maya came to know Lady Ceana d’Cannith, heir to House Cannith; Claire Loreden, the famous fencer-at-law; and Jett Keshi, an enigmatic Brelander spy. These four, along with Maya’s ship engineer, Jerrick Torrn of House Tharashk, and the gnomes Gnor and Rong, agreed to open their own inquisitive firm in Sharn. After a mishap with the Prime Minister’s cousin, however, they relocated to Stormreach in Xen’drik and took the name Skyfall Inquiries, Ltd.

Another of her philosophies is:  It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.**

mehndi dragonmark

Her mark looks like blue mehndi.

The dragonmarked House Lyrandar bears the Mark of Storm and Maya’s dragonmark covers the right side of her face, neck, and the entirety of her right arm. With this mark she can fly or pilot an airship or elemental galleon, and (through further training?) some weather working abilities. The Eberron setting was created for the earlier editions of D&D, but hasn’t been released for 5e, the system we are using. Thus, we are translating the Eberron setting into the new system, which means we’re still figuring out how the dragonmarks function practically. I plan to focus on weather-related spells when leveling up.

Eberron partyFor this campaign, our group held a pre-session party-making party to introduce our characters to each other and establish how they know each other and came to be working together for Skyfall Inquiries. We used the Fate Core system to create the character connections: using index cards, we wrote our characters’ names, tag lines, and the beginning of our characters’ first post-war adventure. Then we passed the cards around and added how our characters had supporting roles in those adventures. In this way we determined how Jerrick became engineer on Maya’s ship; that Maya, Jett, Ceana, and Claire frequented many of the same dinner parties; how Claire and Jerrick came to be mixed up with Gnor the Gnome (and his psychic friend, Rong); and so on. Then the GM led us in a pure role-playing session (no dice or character sheets) that served as the prologue to our first session.

These activities, combined with the group email in which we tossed the incident with the Prime Minister’s cousin back and forth round-robin style and the emails I’ve exchanged with the GM establishing the changes to House Lyrandar, have resulted in me as a player feeling more confident about both this new setting and my character. I’m also proud that I successfully built my character sheet on my own and needed only minor corrections. Needless to say, I’m excited to play my super charismatic half-elf bard airship captain who has a weakness for exotic jewelry, especially if it already belongs to someone else…


* Isn’t she marvellous? She even has a dragonmark. He also replaced the gun in her right hand with a sword. All of the minis he’s painted for this campaign are fantastic.

** I love that this quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Female admirals FTW.

The One Ring: Never split the party

This past weekend, my monthly gaming group decided to pause our campaign in The One Ring, which, if you can’t guess from the name, is set in Middle Earth. The setting begins a few years after the end of the Battle of the Five Armies, though our campaign has progressed a further decade or so. This is actually our second campaign in this setting and I really like my current character — so much so that in our last session she turned down a job offer from her king (and lost standing as a result) to avoid retiring her early. As a result, I am a little annoyed that we are pausing our campaign because I might have played her differently if I had known, but I also agree with the reasons for our decision.

no admittance

There was cake, though it wasn’t anyone’s actual birthday.

Our party consisted of three humans, two dwarves, and an elf. Two of the characters had the ‘Warden’ calling, meaning that their motivation for adventuring is to strive against the growing shadow spreading across Middle Earth: these were the elf and the Dúnedan (Ranger). Two others had the calling ‘Treasure Hunters’: the dwarves. Because we played our characters, their callings and racial prejudices, our party was often at odds whenever we encountered a crossroads and made it difficult to maintain a narrative arc as we did in the last campaign.

TOR campaign 2

It was a challenge dressing the women in sensible clothing without putting them all in exactly the same outfits. Except for the dwarf, that is. (There also wasn’t a mattock among the weapon options. Sorry, Lili.)

So the session after our characters reunited after splitting the party (never split the party, especially in a setting where it is near impossible to send messages to anyone with any speed, and especially when no one is where they told the others they would be…if they told the others at all), our group ordered pizza and discussed over the next several hours what to do next.

Our fortnightly gaming group plays RPG campaigns in ‘seasons’ to avoid GM burnout. Our current campaign, as I mentioned in a previous post, is in the Pathfinder setting Golarion. We are a few sessions away from reaching the end of a ‘chapter’ in our story, so to speak, and will pick up our campaign in Savage Worlds: The Last Parsec, GM’d by someone else in our group. This way the GMs both get to play in turns, we avoid the risk of getting tired of our characters or setting, and we all get to experience a variety of settings and systems.

We decided to do the same with our monthly group. Another of our group will GM, which will be new for several of us, and we’ve chosen the D&D5e system and the Eberron setting. Per the new GM’s rules, we immediately began building our party. To avoid a similar discord as our last The One Ring campaign, we are being more deliberate in how our characters’ backstories brought them together. As one of our party said: ‘We all chose to work together and we all like each other.

Thus, instead of a profile on Myfanwy Linalwen, my character in The One Ring, you get some insight into how our group handles party dynamics and avoids both GM and setting fatigue.