Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: Dimension 20, Fantasy High

What is this? Brennan Lee Mulligan is a veteran UCB improv teacher who got hired by College Humor’s spinoff Dropout TV, where he started a DnD channel called Dimension 20 to “vodcast” a series of actual-plays, starting with this one. The show exists as a YouTube channel and podcast. The odd numbered episodes are entirely theater of the mind role-playing and the even numbered episodes are entirely combat with custom made models and miniatures, so I ended up listening (sped up) to the odd episodes and watched the even episodes on YouTube.

The people involved:
  • Brennan Lee Mulligan is DM
  • Emily Axford plays Figueroth “Fig” Faeth
  • Zac Oyama plays Gorgug Thistlespring
  • Siobhan Thompson plays Adaine Abernant
  • Lou Wilson plays Fabian Aramaris Seacaster
  • Ally Beardsley plays Kristen Applebees
  • Brian Murphy plays Riz “The Ball” Gukgak
I should say at the beginning that this is the very best of the actual plays I consumed. If you only do one, do this one, even though it’s long (This season takes about 30 hours). It’s the best because the DM and all the players are professional improvisers and really know how to create a compelling and funny story on the fly. This one will make you laugh and cry.

What I learned about DM’ing from listening to it:

DnD can be anything

The idea for this season is “What if John Hughes wrote a DnD campaign?”, and the show is set in a very modern-feeling high school with cell phones (called crystals) and motorcycles. It’s sort of like the movie “Onward”, with all the realities of modern life with a fantasy overlay on them. Brennan is just having fun throwing in any story element he wants. In Brennan’s “Adventuring Academy” podcast,, he says:
  • It’s funny to hold Tolkien, for example, as the gold standard for fantasy, because specifically what Tolkien set out to do was create a new mythos…He was like, there should be a mythology for England, and mythologized Hobbits as these little country squire English people that are pretty identical to how he lived his life, like, a bunch of snacks during the day, smoking pipe weed, sounds like what that dude was about in his personal life.  So if you’re an American DM living in 2020, why not mythologize the subject of your own real life and create the fantasy version of that?
You can take time for character if you keep things snappy.

Brennan makes a daring decision: He starts with all six characters at home with their respective parents, and the other players just have to listen to each scene. One risk is that the other players could get annoyed at having so much time not focus on them. He gets away with this, first and foremost, by having all six scenes be very entertaining. The other risk is that it could take forever for the adventure to get going after six scenes. But this brings us to Brennan’s greatest skill, one which all of the other DMs I listened to weren’t as good at: He’s really brutal about cutting off scenes. He cuts away to other characters mid-scene to keep things snappy. This is a such a nice change from DMs who let scenes drag on forever.

The three levels of DM’ing.

In the “Adventuring Academy” podcast, he frequently tells the story of the one time he tried to DM a pre-made module, back in high school. He carefully prepared all the maps for the big dungeon crawl beforehand. To start the adventure, he just wanted to do a little scene-setting, so he told his players that they were at an arranged dwarf wedding, and he mentioned a few details such as the fact that the bride wasn’t super into it. His players unexpectedly said, “If’s she’s not super into it, we’re going to rescue her from this.” And so they did, and the wedding party came charging after, and that became the adventure, and they never got to Brennan’s wonderful maps. He returns to this story in several episodes to make it clear that you have to let the players take the story in any direction you want and so there’s not much point in pre-planning. 

 But here’s the thing: In every other episode of Fantasy High, they play an action scene with elaborate figurines and models that had been made weeks before by his model maker. In the fourth episode, there’s an elaborate car chase with Tieflings, and the way they had wound up in that car chase felt totally organic. It had felt like they had wound up there because of some surprising, unpredictable decisions the characters made. But clearly Brennan wasn’t surprised, because he’d told his model maker what to make weeks in advance.

Realizing this, I decided there’s really three levels of DM’ing.
  1. The first level is: “Stick to the story, stay on rails, don’t improvise, do what I tell you to do, just let me finish this pre-made module.”
  2. The second level is: “Anything can happen, let the players lead and the DM scrambles to keep up with their imagination.”
  3. But the third level is, “The players feel like they’re in complete control, but actually the DM is invisibly channeling the story in the direction he or she wants it to go.”
It’s like the gambling scene in “War and Peace”, where Dolokhov has total control of the card game against Nikolai, deciding in advance just how much he’s going to win, and Nikolai has no idea, and just thinks he’s having bad luck.

There are just a few places where Brennan’s efforts show. Near the end of the season, all six get calls from their parents begging them to rush home because the parents are under attack. But two of the characters, who don’t really like their parents, refuse, and say they’re going to stay at school investigating the mystery. So Brennan lets them do that for a while, but then he has their parents call them back and really beg them to come home. It just briefly becomes clear to us that Brennan has decided they all have to go save their parents in order for him to get the story he wants and he’s not going to take no for an answer. It’s one of the few times you can spot him putting his thumb on the scale.

Would You Be So Nice As To Leave Me Reviews?

Hi, everybody!

As you probably know, the best way to help an author / podcaster is by leaving reviews wherever you can! (And preferably five-star reviews, because that’s just a handsome number of stars!) If you could help me out, I’d greatly appreciate it.

I’ve always been inordinately proud of the Amazon reviews of my first book, “The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers”: 230 reviews with an average of five stars! If that book has been helpful to you, feel free to review it here.

But I’d rather you review my new book, if you’ve had a chance to read it, “The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love”! Tragically, it seem that Amazon has set up a complex screening algorithm for reviews these days, so they don’t all show up and take a long time to post if they do, so I’ll probably never get anywhere near as many reviews for this one, but if you could try to make it past the screening process, I’d really appreciate it! Review it here.

Both books are apparently easier to review on Goodreads, so please feel free to rate the first one or the second one there!

Maybe you like the audiobook of my first book? You can review the book on Audible. (Click on “More options”)

And you’ll be able to review the new audiobook as soon as it debuts on May 3rd!

If you’re a fan of “The Secrets of Story”, I would love an iTunes review, especially because one of the featured reviews on this page is entitled “so-so” (I don’t see how you can do it here, but you can do it by searching for The Secrets of Story Podcast in the iTunes store, then clicking on Ratings and Reviews)

Or you can review that podcast on Audible! (Once again, click on “More Options”)

And while you’re on iTunes, you can also review “Marvel Reread Club”!

Or Review “Marvel Reread Club” on Audible!

At this point, it’s the end of a long day of reviewing Matt Bird stuff, so kick back, relax and watch the sunset. Thanks so much for any help you can give me!

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Secrets of Character: The Checklist!

I know you guys love your checklists, so I went ahead and made a checklist out of the new book! It is even more true of this book that you should not do everything I suggest here! Just pick a few from Believe, a few from Care and a few from Invest, then watch your character come to life!

Download the checklist here!

Monday, April 25, 2022

Marvel Reread Club Episode 28: January, 1964, Part 1

MRC revisits Marvelmania in the first half of January 1964, with Spider-Man #8, Fantastic Four #22, Journey Into Mystery #100 with Thor and Tales of Asgard, and Strange Tales #116 with the Human Torch and Dr. Strange! Tribute to teen-agers! The kookiest hat! Mr. Hyde, the king of the seven seas! Crude pepper receptacles! No Rock Hudson! Psychedelic Strange! Check it out!

Friday, April 22, 2022

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: The Adventure Zone

What is this? Griffin, Justin, and Travis McElroy had a freeform podcast that dated back to earliest days of podcasting called “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” Similar to HarmonQuest yesterday, they ran out of content and decided to play DnD for just one episode to kill time, inviting their father Clint along. It was an instant hit and they spun it off into its own episode called “The Adventure Zone”. DnD 5th Edition had just come out. It had a Starter Kit, but didn’t have a Player’s Handbook yet. This is the only actual play I listened to that’s using a pre-made module, “The Lost Mines of Phandelver”, from the Starter Kit.

The people involved:
  • Griffin McElroy is the game master. He’s never done it before.
  • Clint McElroy, the father of the other three, is Merle Highchurch, Dwarf Cleric
  • Justin McElroy is Taako, Elf Wizard. He pronounces it “taco” and wants to invent the taco.
  • Travis McElroy is Magnus Burnsides, Human Fighter
What I learned about DM’ing from listening to it:

How to play with players who find DnD hard to take seriously.

One brother (I can’t tell their voices apart) talks about how, as a kid, he was a nerd, but he did like to say “At least I don’t play Dungeons and Dragons.” Both brothers who are playing bring a little of that attitude here.

Unlike the other shows/podcasts I checked out, these guys aren’t (yet) being paid to do this, aren’t hardcore gamers, and think they’re a little too cool for it, which I think is common. Griffin isn’t helping, because he’s sort of groaning at the names in the starter kit as he’s reading them.
  • Griffin: I’m nervous, like I’m not psyched about saying things like Neverwinter, and Gundran Rockseeker.
  • Brother: You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.
Finally, he realizes he’s losing them and improvises a solution:
  • Griffin: Gundran is actually going up ahead of you guys, with a fighter escort named Syldar Halwinter.
  • Brother: His name one more time?
  • Griffin: (apologetically) Syldar Halwinter.
  • Brother: Ugh. Sounds disgusting. I’m just going to call him Silly.
  • Griffin: Barry… Barry Bluejeans. I can call him, this is what I’m saying, this is our game, we can do whatever we want, I can start calling this guy Barry Bluejeans.
  • Brother: Syldar Halwinter does not stick in my head but Barry Bluejeans I’ll never forget.
  • Griffin: Okay, Barry Bluejeans, that’s his name now.
He adjusts his style on the fly until he’s taking the game just as seriously as his players. If they won’t accept serious DnD names, he’ll give them silly ones to see if that engages them more, and it works. Soon, they’re totally on board.

Other tips:
  • Unlike Critical Role, which we’ll look at later, Griffin announces they will never go shopping. “There’s a lot of like, game shit about having to stop and forage and how much money are you spending on food, but I hate all that stuff, I’m gonna leave it out”
  • Another way to adjust for people who don’t take DnD seriously: curse a lot. They come across “a very goddamn big spider.” At one point, they have this exchange: “Make a perception check.” “I rolled a 23.” “You see the shit out of anything.”
  • One thing I find frustrating and so do the brothers: When the DM says “roll initiative”, which just means “Kill this thing” but you still want to talk. The problem being that your turn lasts six seconds now, and it’s hard to say anything in six seconds.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Book is Out!

Hey, everybody, it’s my book birthday! Please buy a copy here or from your favorite independent bookstore. I know at least one person has submitted an Amazon review but no reviews have posted yet, so Amazon is apparently taking their time vetting them. If you enjoy the book, please leave a five-star review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Thanks so much!

Monday, April 18, 2022

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: HarmonQuest

So here’s the story guys. I’ve decided to introduce my kids to Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s really hard. So I’ve decided to start watching some “actual plays” (TV shows or podcasts or YouTube channels where people play DnD or similar games) and figure out some of the rules to doing it well. And I figured I would share some lessons learned with you!

Actual Play #1: HarmonQuest

What is this? The folks who ran the podcast HarmonTown speculated that it would be fun to play DnD on air, then one of their listeners drove to L.A. to offer to DM for them. He turned out to be really great and it took off. Soon they turned it into a TV show on the short-lived streaming service Seeso. They are playing a DnD-like game called Pathfinder around a table and we are cutting between watching them and watching an animated cartoon of what they’re describing.

The people involved:
  • Spencer Crittenden is the game master.
  • Dan Harmon (creator of Community) plays Fondu Zoobag, a half-orc ranger.
  • Erin McGathy, plays Biar O’Shift, a human barbarian.
  • Jeff Davis (the basis for Jeff on Community) plays Boneweevil, a goblin rogue
  • Every episode has a celebrity guest whose character won’t make it out of that episode. In the pilot, it’s Paul F. Tomkins as an orc named Teflanto
What I learned about DM’ing from watching it:

What do you do when your players’ commitment to roleplaying makes them less than optimal players?

This was a huge problem playing with my kids. They just wanted to goof around and not take things seriously, but the DM or module-writer has often created bad guys with enough hit points that they can only be defeated by playing optimally. If you’re not trying your hardest, your characters will die and then nobody will have any fun. In the pilot, the three player characters are at a celebration in an orc town when cultists attack outside the city walls. Our heroes go out to fight them.

Then Jeff announces that, since he’s a rogue, he wants to sneak up on the bad guys, which means that he’ll cover himself and mud and run all the way around the walls of the city to surprise attack them from the other side. Spencer gently reminds Jeff that they’ve entered combat so every turn now takes six seconds, so his miss a lot of turns by doing this. Jeff doesn’t care, he thinks it’s funny and in character and he wants to do it.

Spencer realizes he’s not going to win this one, laughs along and lets him do it. This means that everybody would now probably get killed, but Spencer simply has the town guard unexpectedly show up to help with the fight (and promptly get killed off one by one.) By the time Jeff is done running around the city (and Spencer definitely cheats how long that would take), the battle is balanced again.

Some tips for getting your players to laugh:
  • When your PC’s say something out of character act like they’ve said it in character, such as when one explains about their group, “It’s like Entourage”, and then Spencer acts like the character has said that.
  • Spencer likes to put his players on the spot unexpectedly. He announces that Paul’s character is making a speech to the town, and abruptly stops talking until Paul ad libs a speech.
  • He reminds them of facts about their characters in character: “A father is everything to an orc.” “Even a half-orc?” “A father is half of everything to a half-orc.”
  • As always in DnD, the most fun is when someone either naturally (without using a point modifier) rolls a one or a twenty. When Paul rolls a one, Spencer has him accidentally set his head on fire. Paul keeps forgetting about it, because he can’t see the animation like we can, and it gets a laugh whenever Spencer reminds him. “With your head on fire?” “Still?? I guess I just got used to it. Like this is my life now.”

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Come Out to My Book Release Party

Do you live in driving distance of Evanston, IL?  Are you willing to splurge for a flight?  If so, come out to my book release party next Thursday at Bookends and Beginnings Bookstore!

Thursday, April 21, 2022 - 7:00pm to 8:00pm

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1

Evanston, IL 60201

Monday, April 11, 2022

Marvel Reread Club Episode 27: December 1963

Marvel Reread Club goes spinning into December 1963, with Amazing Spider-Man 7, Fantastic Four 21, Journey Into Mystery with Thor 99, Strange Tales with the Human Torch and Dr Strange 114, Tales of Suspense with Iron Man 48, and Tales to Astonish with Ant-Man and the Wasp 50. Gun guns! Perfectly legal incitement to riot! Cliffhangers! Two people pretending they can’t fly! Psychologically intimidating eye-holes! Slippery tops! Check it out!

Monday, April 04, 2022

Episode 36: Save the Cat with Sophie Beal and Gary Dalkin

The Secrets of Story Podcast is back, baby! We recorded an episode a while ago that turned out so poorly that it led to a falling out, but now we’ve canned that episode and we have a bright, shiny new episode that went much better. This episode, we welcome two very special guests! Sophie Beal is the Co-Director and Founder of Cadence Publishing, and Gary Dalkin is the Senior Associate Editor with Cadence Publishing and a freelance editor at To The Last Word. They have an article in the upcoming issue of Writing where they’ll debate the merits of Blake Snyder’s infamous book of writing advice, “Save the Cat”. They offered to preview that article here and the four of us have a good time hashing it out.

Meanwhile, Sophie and Gary ask you to check out “Sold”, their latest book from Cadence Publishing. The log line: “Fifteen-year-old Roza thinks she's leaving Albania for better things in the UK. But her dad has sold her as a slave. Whatever it takes, she has to break free.” 

And of course you should check out James’s latest novel “Dare to Know”!

And you can pre-order my new book, “The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love”, which is sort of book-long rebuttal to the titular advice in “Save the Cat”.