The party (John Tiller the Paladin of Vengeance, Dexter the Thief, Magic Man, Endo the chosen of Gond, and Alton the Aasamir) is together in the Glendaldil, the Outer Planes kingdom of Chauntea, the goddess of life and harvest. After dueling against her champion, Meeleelah the Woodelf Avenger, to test their worth for an audience, they rest and await the goddess’s summons to petition a bold request: to return the world of Altara back into its previous existence before the Time Devourer, the Aboleth Queen Cadencia, had consumed it.
I’ve been doing some revisions to this blog in my spare time – how fleeting it is – and after rereading some of my older posts I feel that I have to make some adjustments in not only my life, but also what I post and how often I post it. In my mission statement for this blog, back when it was called Let’s Kick This Pig: A D&D Blog, I opened my very first post with “A gnome, a dwarf, and a wood elf walk into a bar…” That was level one, that was the beginning of my Dungeons and Dragons: Altara Campaign which started in the Dungeons and Dragons starter adventure The Lost Mines of Phandelver. Comparing that with how I have opened this post, there are some realizations that hit me pretty hard, and it isn’t a good feeling.
The opening lines for this post read like a word salad, or, better yet, it reminds be of the 102nd episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – Darmok. For those of you who aren’t savvy to TNG and all its superiority over all things with “star” in its title, put simply the Enterprise meets a race of people who’s language can be understood by the their translators, but the way the speak is incomprehensible. For some space of time (I’m not the biggest TNG fan, so I don’t know the exact star dates), the Federation has been trying to open a dialog with this alien (to them) race, but they can’t understand each other. When asked simple question or hailed, the aliens (the Tamarians) would say things like “Kiteo, his eyes closed,” or “Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.” Word salad, right? What you expect a stroke victim would sound like moments after the brain scrambler. Well, after some episodic style run through, and not to spoil too much, the Enterprise and the Tamarians figure out a way to communicate with some space-opera sci-fi acting and then in the next episode we never hear about it again.
The key to communication was not the action in the episode, but the final “Daddy Picard” talk that summarizes the events that transpired within. Again not to spoil anything, it’s a great episode that is worth a watch, but it breaks down to allegory and relatability (which WPS is telling me isn’t a word, but google is – so fuck it, I’m going to use it).
Relatability: Of course the opening of this blog entry is word salad. You (the reader) have no reference as to where the players are, who the players are, what events lead to this, and why the world is needing to be returned because… no one has told. The last actual post I made about my campaign setting was back in April of 2016 (Home Alone: Set Up and Pay Off – you can read it here), and even that seemed a bit “word-salady.” A lot has transpired since then. The lowest player level is 10, the only two remaining characters from the original party is John Tiller the Paladin and Dexter the Thief, and there has been nearly a year of missing information (probably sixty sessions worth of missing information) since now and then. Coming to this realization feels like an anxiety chest-knot on the verge of panic, just waiting to spiral me towards a xanax and an early night.
I remember, for this blog, I had built up this image in my head of using it as a campaign diary for my players, my self, and for DMs looking for resources (as well as players looking for cool tricks to pull out on their DMs in sticky situations). I had built and readied pages, site features, and articles for unique magic items my players would find, cities they would visit, and maps – so many maps – of dungeons my players had explored. I planned to summarize player interactions, scene stealing moments, and epic table top stories that either gave me something worth writing about or that just outright wowed me as a story teller. But alas, looking at my blog now I can see that it never truly came to be; and that saddens me. I feel as if there is a need for apologies to be made, but who exactly should I be apologizing to, and to what end, is something I have to figure out. (And, like all things, a writer can’t figure his way out of a paper bag with out writing about it)
To those of you who had subscribed to my blog, followed my twitter, or sent me e-mails brimmed with questions and anticipation for what resources you could plunder for your own campaigns, or the others that were just in it to read the stories (albeit listening to them, like Matt Colville’s Campaign Diaries, or watching them, Critical Role, are a bit more entertaining); I feel as if I personally let you down. There was a theme, an expectation, a promise I had laid the ground work for that I failed to make good on. I never really followed through with my initial intent, and every time I tried to put my ass in the chair, place my hands on the keyboard, and make this whole thing right – well, I didn’t. I went against my very own mission statement, I broke a promise, a promise I made to you.
Also, seeing as I am a writer and if there isn’t anything to hate you might as well hate yourself, I feel like I have let myself down. I let my campaign crawl level after level without taking sufficient campaign story notes or keeping track of exactly what I was handing out to my players (I just now realize my party’s thief has a Dragon Orb Artifact secreted away on his person somewhere, and that was a plot hook I believed would have been solved by now). I let entire sessions slip by, slowly fading into the background radiation of my memory as the weeks – months – plodded on, never to be properly deconstructed and explored to their fullest potential. Wasted potential. Snips of information to pick through, insightful clues, table rulings, player interactions, and problem resolutions which could have been read by DMs, old and new, for inspiration and ideas to better the experience of their table top night. It got so bad that at some points I let this apathy -calling it what it is – towards cataloging my campaign on this blog to start seeping into my actual campaign note taking, even going so far as I, the DM, had to stop and ask myself “what is party even doing anymore?”
This is a huge, neon-lit warning sign, perhaps the last one you see right before the cliff, to any DM worried about his campaign jumping the shark and falling into absolute chaos. For this, I feel – and this is the most important point – as if I have let my players down (even if that feeling is just one I feel alone). Sure, they have fun at the table, at least they say they do, and they keep showing up every other weekend to play; but there are often times when the party asks a question about something I have completely forgotten the answer to or comes across some character or story arch that they have completely forgotten even existed. That is in no way a failing of my players. We have been playing for over two years and its easy to forget a half mentioned NPC or an item that was relevant some five or six levels ago; but when you are just about to meet a GOD and your players can’t remember exactly why they are meeting them or what they are requesting from them, you begin, as a DM, to wonder how much of this could have been averted and where exactly you abandoned the tracks… and how to find them again.
Enough feeling sorry about it, that solves no problem anywhere at any time. The question is how do I make this right? How do I condense nearly a year of information down to a few blog posts without creating a whole new workload for me to accomplish when time is quite literally money, and I’m running short of both?
The simple answer is I truly can’t. There is no way for me to recount every session and pull back each piece of information that not only chronologically depicts the story of my players, but is itself entertaining or contains a valuable lesson for DMs and players alike (i.e. worth reading). Somethings are just lost, like LOST lost. Sure I have my campaign session plans saved somewhere, preparation documents in my Dungeons and Dragons folder that are really just loose guidelines as to what I wanted to accomplish during each session; but once the tires meet the pavement (or, to fit the theme, the dice hit the table), a lot of my prep-notes are just stat resources and very little can be gleamed as to the actual in game events. When the dice are a’rollin’ its hard to keep track of some of this stuff if you don’t keep a lid on it (or at least jot it down in a journal you don’t accidentally scrap). And nothing is safe from this leakage. Regardless of prep notes, when it comes to NPCs sometimes they spawn themselves. Or to quote Kevin Flynn from Tron Legacy, “they manifest like a flame, they really aren’t from anywhere.” They were created for the moment, and sometimes that moment lasts and that NPC I made up on the spot had enough depth that the players believed them to be important to the overall story. Then later, since I never wrote it down, that NPC vanishes, completely forgotten by the man behind the screen who created them. Or conversely, NPCs which I deemed important during preparation faded out completely, along with their story hooks that opened up more experiences (and experience points) for the players. Even the player characters change; either the player got sick of playing the character and wanted to try something new or the player put the character in over their head and they died, or whatever. On top of that, and even worse, some players leave, or better, new players join. All of this was, and is, a huge swirl of information that I’m just carrying around in my skull, hoping – believing – that the minute i leave the table it will still be there for me when I start the next session. But that isn’t always the case.
There is a long answer here, though it doesn’t seem as long as what I’ve already written (it just won’t be a pleasant experience). There is a solution that I think I was unwilling to explore when I started the rough draft of this “house keeping” post (yes, I draft my blog posts several times, and read them aloud, so I don’t come off as a complete idiot on the internet – though I doubt I’m successful most of the time). I have to go back and do the foot work, dig through the mucky static of my memory. I have to organize the pieces that I remember in a coherent narrative tightly enough to fit on a few pages, and then I have to suck it up and ask the players for their input. I have to go to them and say, bluntly: “Your DM is bad at note taking, I am bad at note taking, and there are a lot of things I have forgotten, and I think some of them are important. If there is something you think I forgot, or something you think I overlooked, or something that doesn’t make sense – please, tell me. This is your game as much as it is mine, and I have been slacking on the bookkeeping.”
As much as my pride begs to differ, it probably isn’t going to be that bad. My players are great guys, really great guys that I’m lucky to play with. They are the first group I have played with where I feel truly comfortable as the DM, and other then a few on the fly rulings, they trust me behind the screen. We’ve explored a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons together, as daunting as that may have seemed, we’ve experimented with new classes and features, we’ve tested the bounds of the 5e CR system (a bit weak after 7th level), fought monsters that I’ve built from the ground up, and toured a dozen or so dungeons that truly felt like we were playing Dungeons and Dragons as it was meant to be played. And most importantly they make me feel comfortable enough to use stupid voices and play out character interactions, all without reminding me that I’m getting way too wrapped up in a game – because they know, to me, it isn’t just a game. It isn’t just dice and stats and monsters and treasure. It’s a dynamic story that, once you’re in it, you can’t find the binding or page numbers or writer errors or forced ideals or themes; it’s all the story. That’s something I love, both on and away from the table; it’s something I love being a part of, stories, and that’s something I will continue to love for as long as I’m able. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to salvage what I can and quickly get you all up to speed, so you can follow along with this story at home.