Saturday, July 28, 2012

Drizzt Thoughts

When I got the Drizzt board game a while back, I was a little embarrassed to admit it.  It was hard to say exactly why; it just seems like there's a bit of a stigma against Drizzt fanboys.  Or if there isn't, maybe there should be.  I was looking back at some older blogs, and found one I wrote when I was still reading the Icewind Dale trilogy.  This is what I wrote:

Icewind Dale: The Crystal Shard
by R.A. Salvatore

I'm halfway through the second book in this trilogy, and so far it's pretty good. The first book, The Crystal Shard, introduces us to Drizzt Do'Urden, one of the most well-known characters in D&D lore. Drizzt is a Drow (that's a dark elf, for you non-gamers), but he's a good guy, which is rare for a Drow. Which of course, means he's an outcast - his own people think he's too nice, and other races think all dark elves are evil. Drizzt is the ultimate "fan service" character, the kind of hero Todd McFarlane would design if he wrote novels instead of comics. There is absolutely nothing about this character that isn't "cool". He fights with a pair of scimitars, he can summon a black panther, he can hide like a ninja, he knows magic, and he's nearly untouchable in battle. Even his weaknesses are badass: he's allergic to sunlight, and he's a social outcast; so he stays in the shadows and wears concealing hoods. This is exactly the kind of "ultimate" character you would design if you were a twelve-year-old boy.

That said, the book is surprisingly absorbing. Salvatore, who some might remember for killing a major Star Wars character in Vector Prime, is actually a pretty good writer. I didn't care for his Star Wars writing at the time, but here he seems to be more in his element. I think he has more freedom here, even within the boundaries of D&D's strict rulebooks, because he's using his own characters. While Drizzt is obviously Salvatore's favorite, the other characters get plenty of time to shine. They aren't nearly as deep as Drizzt (a couple of them feel like they walked right off a standard Character Sheet), but they have their moments. I do wish the book had a stronger female presence, though. The only major female character, Catti-Brie, gets very little screen time. I hope she has a larger role later in the trilogy.

If you've been wanting to try any books set in the D&D universe, I would definitely start with this one. it looks like I enjoyed the books early on, and had high hopes for the future.  After that, I kept reading them for a while, but they gradually got worse and worse.  Now Salvatore isn't the world's worst author, and obviously I found him acceptable enough (since I've read more than 20 of his books), but he does bug me sometimes.

Some specific things that get on my nerves:

1. He reuses certain annoying phrases a lot. For example, several times he describes Wulfgar's height as "closer to seven feet than to six." There's so many ways he could say the same thing - "Nearly seven feet tall", "Built like an orc", or even a literal "Six-foot-(whatever)-inches." But no, Wulfgar is perpetually "closer to seven feet than to six." It's such an eye-catching phrase. I might have thought it poetic if he'd just used the phrase once or twice and let it go, but he makes sure to use that exact phrase at least once in every book where Wulfgar appears.

He also uses the phrase "or tried to" a lot during his action scenes, in a way that undoes the bit of action you just read.  Things like, "Artemis slashed Drizzt's arm with his dagger... or tried to, but the drow was too quick." ...or... "Wulfgar smashed the ogre with his hammer... or tried to, but his hammer was deflected by the ogre's shield." ...or... "Bruenor broke out of his shackles, overcame the prison guard, escaped the evil temple, burned it down, and saved the entire world... or tried to, but the shackles were too strong."  Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.  I actually enjoyed most of the Drizzt books... or tried to, but little issues like this got in the way.

2. He kills off a lot of characters I like, while constantly bringing back characters better left dead/retired. Eventually I got pretty sick of Drizzt's past constantly coming back to haunt him. It's like Salvatore mines his older books looking for characters who might have a grudge against Drizzt, so he can make them come after him. Continuity is commendable, and sometimes it's cool to see the return of a good villain, but it's also a big world out there full of brand new villains Drizzt could be fighting.

3. Okay, this is an extremely anal little nitpick, but... in one book, he uses the word "fortnight". Hey, I know, it's a medieval-esque universe, so all historical references are fair, right? Except... in the Forgotten Realms, a week is 10 days long. I just can't imagine a reason these people would have developed a word that means "14 days".

4. In the books, he doesn't give a lot of clues as to how to pronounce Drizzt's name. I hate authors who do this, because you get used to pronouncing it one way, and it's hard to unlearn it later. In at least one interview Salvatore himself has pronounced it "Drits" (which makes no sense, and may have been a slip of the tongue), and other sources say it's supposed to be pronounced "Drist".  (For more insight, see "The Ultimate D&D Pronunciation Guide" on ENWorld.)  I seem to remember a scene in one of the books that basically makes fun of readers who pronounce it "Drizzit", which is kind of a jerk move IMO.

5. He spends a lot of time going down certain tangents, only to change his mind and undo it later. I won't give examples because they'd contain spoilers. Besides, some of this can be blamed on the release of 4e. When Salvatore decided to start preparing for 4e's timeline (which meant advancing his universe 100 years), he altered a lot of plotlines so he could wrap up some of the characters' stories. So I'll give him a pass on some of it...  but it still felt like a big waste of time seeing him undo things that he'd spent entire books putting together.  And now that 5e's coming up, I do wonder if they're going to advance the timeline again, and what Salvatore will do about it.  If 5e elves still only live around 200 years, then there's only so many times they can advance Drizzt's timeline.

I could go on with minor nitpicks.  For example, Guenhwyvar seems to change sex an awful lot more than most panthers.  But I'll just say "A Wizard Did It" and move on.  Anyway, it's pretty easy for a layman like myself to criticize, dismissing all the work that goes into these books.  I don't actually think Salvatore is a bad author, though I do think he's a bit overrated.  I see the Drizzt books as the kind of cheap paperbacks you buy to read on an airplane, and never think about again.  And really, there's nothing wrong with that.

Despite all my misgivings about Drizzt, I do think he's a marketable character, and I wish the right people would realize that.  Given how GI Joe eventually became "GI Joe featuring Snake-Eyes" and the X-Men is often billed as "Wolverine and the X-Men", I seriously think Drizzt is the kind of character that could pull D&D into a more mainstream level of popularity.  Sure, D&D fans think Drizzt is already overexposed.  But I'd bet most non-gamers have never heard of him.  A lot of players would probably prefer their hobby remain underground, but personally I find it annoying to support a company that always acts like it's on the verge of bankruptcy.

My God, what have we done?
So at the risk of overpopularizing a character I don't really like, I think a well-done Drizzt movie, if seen by enough people, could make D&D a lot more popular.  Drizzt is exactly the kind of fanboy-driven breakout character that sells products.  Eventually we'd see Hasbro action figures and plastic scimitars on the toy shelves, a cartoon series, and even Drizzt candy.  I can't say it's a better world, but maybe with a better budget WOTC could do something really... interesting.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

You're Having Fun Wrong

Warning:  Long, self-indulgent post.

A few years ago I used to play on a NeverWinter Nights persistent world called The Silver Marches (not to be confused with "Tales of the Silver Marches"). The Silver Marches was a roleplay-focused server, in that they expected everyone to stay in character and to have some passing knowledge of the Forgotten Realms. They looked down on players who constantly went out into the wilds by themselves, just to kill monsters over and over for xp. After all, experience points is an out-of-character motivation, and you were only supposed to do things your character would do.

Actually, there were a lot of activities they frowned on, to the extent that I wonder how anyone actually had fun on their server. They didn't want you farming mobs just for xp, but doing the same quest twice was also out-of-character, and there were only so many scripted quests available. They wanted to encourage people to explore in groups, but only if they had a real reason to be together.  Plus they didn't want people in groups more than a few levels apart, which is admittedly a valid concern (it made it too easy to powerlevel the low level characters)... but if we're supposed to stay in character, why wouldn't we want to team up?  A mechanics-based rule in the midst of hundreds of roleplay-related rules just makes things that much more frustrating.  With only about 15-20 people online at any given time, getting a good party together was pretty damn difficult.

They claimed to encourage original characters, but every time I saw someone come up with a truly unique character idea, they got shot down.  Part of the fun of running an RPG is how players will take your ideas into directions you never considered.  But in the Silver Marches, it was like the admins only wanted people to play a very specific way.  They may as well have handed us all scripts.

Long story short (too late), it was a wonderful module with lots of fun areas to explore, but it was bogged down by strict roleplay rules and a judgmental staff.  Even their message board was a bit draconian with its rules.  They got so paranoid about moderating flame wars that eventually the most minor disagreements would get a thread locked.  The mod's owner was actually a nice guy, if a bit easily stressed-out.  But his best friend/adviser was a hardcore gamer who constantly wanted to make the module tougher.

One of the changes that was proposed most often was the idea of permadeath.  We're talking about a game where many players die 10 times a day.  I understand their point of view - why would anyone fear death if they're just going to wake up at the local church and keep going?  Sure they lose a little gold and xp, but if they power through a dungeon by attempting the same monsters over and over, the net xp/gold gain might outweigh the cost of death.  So I totally get why unlimited lives makes death seem like a minor inconvenience.  They hoped that if they instituted stricter death rules, players might treat their lives with more respect, and be more careful about what they choose to fight.

But this is what you have to understand:  Video games are not true RPGs.  Not even the most detailed MMOs can give DMs the amount of creative control a pencil-and-paper RPG allows.  There were too many out-of-character ways you could die, such as computer glitches and server lag.  It absolutely sucks to permanently lose your character just because your internet disconnected during a fight.

In addition to permadeath, the Silver Marches admins also considered a system by which you would have to face your deity in the afterlife, and convince them to send you back to the mortal plane. This idea never got past the "wouldn't it be neat if" stage, so I don't know if they would have accomplished this through conversation trees or if you'd have to wait until a DM is online. Either way it sounds like something that would be neat at first, but would get tedious after a while. Though I suppose they wanted it to be tedious, so the player would be encouraged to let their character stay dead and start a new one.

Obviously they were trying to attract a very specific (and rare) type of player, and most of the server's actual players weren't it.  When I finally got sick of their rules, I went and made a module of my own, promising myself that I wouldn't make any of the same mistakes the Silver Marches admins made.  Itropa was a moderately successful persistent world, with hundreds of areas, many regular players, and it stayed up 24/7 for several years... and I built it out of spite.

Itropa was a whimsical universe based on bad sci-fi tropes.  I set out to design my module so that no previous knowledge of the universe is necessary. New characters were recently-arriving immigrants to the setting, so that the players could discover things at the same time their characters did. Detailed FAQs about the universe were available to players who wanted to know more, but I always stressed that it was not required reading.

There was no death on my server.  Instead, dying characters got teleported to a hospital where they were fixed up and sent on their way.  That might sound wimpy to some people, but you know what?  It didn't make the game any less challenging, or the roleplay any less dramatic. 

That's one opinion that I carry over into pencil-and-paper RPGs as well.  I'm not a hardcore player, I freely admit it.  Realism has it's place, and I don't want a game to be too easy. But there's so many ways to add challenge without the risk of death. I face challenges every day, at home and at work, and I rarely come anywhere close to getting killed. You don't risk dying in Monopoly or basketball, and those are plenty challenging. In a well-written RPG plot, the risk of failing your quest should be more than enough incentive to keep your character from doing haphazard things. Meanwhile, death has a tendency to grind plotlines to a halt (one of my favorite campaigns ended early when the wrong combination of characters got killed). It also creates other problems, like whether to allow the new character to be the same level as the rest of the party.

The first 4e campaign I played in, the DM started out by saying, "I'm not going to kill your characters." Despite this near-immortality, it remains the deepest RPG campaign I've been in, and the lack of death did not cause our characters to be less cautious. When I DM, unless a player does something incredibly stupid, I generally allow them to decide how long they live. If one of them dies in combat and can't be revived through in-game mechanics, I give them a choice. If they want to keep the character alive, I will find a way for the character to survive. Maybe they wake up in a prison cell, and have to find a way to escape. Maybe they are revived by a mysterious benefactor who has another quest for them.  These near-death experiences can be great plot hooks. Of course, I'm not going to force a player to keep playing the same character if they want to try something new, but I do want to give them the option of surviving if that's what they want.

I like optimistic storytelling.  But of course some people are just into gritty, hardcore realism, and never want to revive a dead character. If that's fun for you, I respect that. Personally I associate this death obsession with emo goth teens, and I consider it a sign of maturity when you grow out of that stage. Okay... so maybe I don't respect it after all. But at least I recognize that I should respect it, and it's wrong of me to label someone as "immature" or "emo" just because they like hardcore gaming. For myself, I think there's too much death and sadness in real life to fantasize about that when playing a game. Now, I don't want to roleplay riding a unicorn down Gumdrop Mountain to deliver lolipops to Care Bears, either. But I like my motivations to be more creative than just staying alive.

In retrospect, I was wrong to judge the Silver Marches admins.  They built their module with a specific type of user in mind, and I was the one who was in the wrong place. So were most of their other users, from what I could tell; it's a pity they couldn't find more like-minded people to play in their world. It would have been nice of the admins to say, "Okay, if that's not how you want to play, then feel free to use our module to play how you want." But I seriously don't feel they were under any obligation to do so.  Bottom line:  It is not my place to judge how someone else has fun. 

As long as I'm bragging on Itropa a bit, here's some pics of the module:

Welcome to Itropa.  Here's some things you might see...

Robots fighting at the arena.

Hovering robot vs. giant crabs.

Snorf village.

Pirate ships.

A robo-pirate.

Shapeshifter races.

Spaceship console.

UFO sighting.

Fencing training.

Music concert.


Pop culture references.

Everything's better with ninjas.

More pop culture references.

Giant bugs!

Art school.

Don't look behind you!

More bots!

More giant bugs!

Big ol' scorp.

Water lizards.

Evil guys.

Wizard kids.

Plant monsters.

Big ugly things.

Costume shop.

More big lizards.

Ancient rituals.

Robot vs giant lizard.

Some fantasy elements remain.

Christmas episode.

Fairy bar.

Alternate dimensions.

Extra-dimensional creatures.

Flying sharks!

Time warps!


Big bosses!



Cool hangouts!



Killer furniture!


Spider thing!

I'm flying!

What happened here?

Skeevy dives.


Tough guy.

Desert warfare.

Robot weaponsmith.

Sports arena.

Robot factory.

Bug-eyed space mutants.

Butcher shop.

Ice lizard aliens.

Pretty flowers!

Genetically-enhanced scorpions.

Flower shop.


Celebrity cameos.