Dotted Lines: How Information is Presented in Return of the Obra Dinn

The Obra Dinn is a ghost ship of macabre vignettes and mundane intricacies.

Chekhov’s Monkey

Return of the Obra Dinn is an important game, not just because it’s won its fair share of accolades and awards, but because it’s a masterclass in presenting information. The art style, sound design, writing, and mechanics all work together to make your job as an insurance investigator for the East India Company difficult but crucially not impossible. Even with the help of the ship’s manifest and a magic pocket watch that shows you a deceased person’s (or animal’s…we’ll get to that later) final moments, determining the name and manner of death or disappearance of each of the ship’s 60 occupants is a monumental task that took me nearly 14.5 hours to complete on my first playthrough. But I was enthralled for nearly all of that time, and the few hours of frustration and tedium that I experienced only made my progression through the game that much sweeter. So strap on your boots, and let’s dive in, shall we?

I frequently had to reference the book’s glossary to remember that the Orlop is a deck on the ship and not an officer.

Spoilers ahoy!

If you haven’t played Obra Dinn yet, I strongly encourage you to stop reading and go play it! It’s fantastic. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll learn something from the experience (Lucas Pope is even fine with you refunding it).

The map of the ship quickly becomes a knotted web of arrows and diamonds moving through both time and space.

Learning to See

Okay, still with me? The most striking part of Obra Dinn, at first, is its 1-bit art style. Lucas Pope chose to emulate the style of early Macintosh video games, and it shows. He’s written a lot about how he achieved the dithering effect in a forum post and elsewhere so I won’t go into the technical aspects of it. Suffice to say, it’s complicated. But beyond instigating nostalgia for retro games, the art style performs a very important mechanical function as well. It gives the game an almost clinical atmosphere, allowing the investigator/player to go about their business dealing with pure facts. The blood and gore are mostly subdued by the high-contrast aesthetic, as are many facial features and other details. Only the most important bits shine through the filter, the bits you’ll need to focus on in your newfound occupation as a recorder of death. Early on, I found myself constantly zooming in on faces and other details just so I could find my footing amidst the chaos.

Sometimes, the only clues you have are proximity and vague association.

Drawing Connections

But as I got further into the game, I spent less and less time in the first-person mode and more time with my nose deep in the manifest. This is because, as you gather more clues and more and more faces become clear to you, you can start to narrow down identities almost Guess Who?-style. It’s very difficult to brute force your way through the game since the book only confirms your guesses after you get three correct solves, but it is possible to “cheese” some details for individual deaths, a strategy I used fairly often. Sometimes, my word choices would be slightly off or I’d mistake one person for another, and I’d go through a string of options until the satisfying “Well done.” message appeared on the screen. As soon as you lock in three correct guesses, the game instantly recognizes them and typesets them into the book, so you can very quickly select and scroll through several possibilities until the game confirms them as true. The design and navigation of the book itself are a little unwieldy, but the clumsiness reinforces the notion that you are in 1807 and that you need to be very sure about your guesses if you’re to have any hope of succeeding.

While four men participated in this firing squad, only one of them actually shot the victim.

Subverting the Past

Several times, I was sure of a victim or a culprit or a means of death, only to be proven completely wrong hours later. I would have several pages filled out but none of them were registering as correct so I would have to once again sift through details and memories until I realized the mistakes I had made. It’s these devils in the details that Lucas Pope wants you to focus on, and you likely won’t notice them at all on your first few viewings of a particular scene or scenes. Seemingly mundane scenes might have massive repercussions for you, the investigator, because of the ancillary information available in them besides the stark death of one individual. Pope masterfully misdirects you into paying attention to certain actions while the stone, cold facts wait for you in the shadows. If you aren’t looking or listening for them, you may very well not discover them, and I suspect many players will walk away from this game before they’ve solved every fate. A few can only be discovered by aiming your pocket watch at a cow skull, a barrel (inside of which is the corpse of the Obra Dinn’s only stowaway), or the curled-up husk of a terrible crab-like beast.

Chapter II Part 1 becomes one of the most important scenes in the game for the player because it allows you to identify sleeping crewmates by their bunk numbers and other small details.

Supernatural Struggle

I know I even wanted to quit several times along my journey, but Lucas Pope accounted for this eventuality. Once you’ve viewed every possible death scene on the ship, it starts to rain over the Obra Dinn, and your boatman grows more anxious to leave. You can choose to leave the ship behind right then and there, without ever filling in a guess. If you do so, you are presented with the claims report for the Obra Dinn along with a letter from Miss Jane Bird, one of the few survivors of the tragedy. She informs you that Henry Evans, the ship’s surgeon and your employer, has passed away, but, if you were able to solve a significant number of fates, she also tells you that she, Emily Jackson, Henry, and one other passenger took up residence in Morocco. In this way, Pope rewards the player for giving up early and exploring the end game, because now you are suddenly armed with the knowledge of four more entries in the manifest, which hopefully compels you to rewind your save and get back to your prescribed work.

Leaving the Obra Dinn for good becomes more and more tempting as the tangled circumstances become ever more involved.

Mapping Faces

The real experience of Return of the Obra Dinn lies in the agonizing detective strategies you must employ to be certain of each and every person’s identity. You must observe their clothing. You must recognize accents. You must, in rare cases, memorize who a person is so you can see who they killed from afar. You must be willing to scrutinize every detail of a person, from their tattoos to what shoes they wear to their accouterments (such as a messenger bag or a pipe…or a monkey). You must scan the map and the crew sketches until your vision blurs in order to recognize the relationships between the ship’s officers, mates, stewards, crew, passengers, and their lodgings. Only after you’ve mastered these details and accounted for every contingency will you become an Obra Dinn expert and the end game will finally open to you.

This is maybe one of the most devious puzzles in the game. You not only need to determine the identity of the deceased, but you also need to recognize that he was accidentally shot through the wall (and did not die from an earlier spike wound) AND know the identity of a shooter who is too far away for the book to identify.

The Payoff

While its ending is little more than icing on a very satisfying cake, it does serve to fill in the gaps in the story that is mostly told from end to start, completely backward, just like the sequences of death scenes you’ve stepped through. Similar to the story of The Monkey’s Paw, the crew were punished for trifling with the Lovecraftian secrets of the deep and summarily executed one by one. When you’ve finished identifying the last death, you’ll be able to flip through the completed book page by page, knowing that each and every detail was determined solely by you through much time and determination, and that is an achievement unique to this game, worth celebrating for years to come.

From a certain point of the view, the Captain doomed them all.



Campaign Diary: Dragon Heist Session 0-1

For years, I’ve been trying to wrangle together an IRL D&D group in SLC that meets regularly. It’s really only taken this long because I prefer to play with people I know and in the comfort of a friend’s home rather than at a gaming store with strangers. I’m not against Adventurer’s League-style play—it just hasn’t interested me very much. But for the past two weeks, I’ve had 7 or 8 players, mostly newbies, to introduce to the hobby and teach how to get their best playing experience. It hasn’t been easy, but so far it’s been mostly successful. In an ideal world, I’d run a group of 3-5 players instead, but I’d rather have too many than too few. If my players are reading this, know that I’m going to try to keep these campaign diaries as spoiler-free as possible, but any text that looks like this: “Minsc and Boo send their regards, for goodness is better left unseen.

So far, the 1st-level party, in alphabetical order, consists of:

  • Anel, the Half-Elf Druid
  • Bishop Paddock, the Trickery Domain Cleric
  • Desir, the Half-Orc Warlock and her bobcat, Gizmo
  • Dim the Drow Light Domain Cleric
  • Finesse, the Human Fighter
  • Link, the Green Dragonborn Barbarian
  • Lorelai the Halfling Rogue
  • Sancho, the Human Fighter

We have a good mix of spellcasters and brawlers as well as the one rogue, so I’m pretty happy with the party balance. I haven’t run into any problems with having too many PC’s yet, but I imagine I will have to increase the difficulty of some encounters down the line. What the party lacks in tactics they should make up for with sheer numbers. I’m running Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which, until the sequel just came out, was the latest adventure module from Wizards of the Coast. Dragon Heist has four possible main villains, and our campaign is set in the winter season (those of you who have read the adventure will know what that means). It’s still a long ways off, but I don’t think this group is the type that would enjoy being thrown into a massive dungeon crawl like Dungeon of the Mad Mage. So I’m still working on what we’ll do next in the event that we actually finish Dragon Heist. DMsGuild has some adventure options from independent writers for groups that want to continue to play in Waterdeep after Dragon Heist, but I may just come up with my own material after this campaign.

The party has followed the adventure to the letter so far, which I’m thankful for. One of my main concerns with running Dragon Heist is that Waterdeep is huge and has hundreds of NPC’s. I’ve made a concerted effort to learn as much as I can about Waterdeep in just a few weeks. This has mostly involved forcing myself to stare at Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion in the back of the book until I internalize the material. I don’t have much prior knowledge or experience with Waterdeep, so it’s difficult for me to absorb the history and lore of such a rich and diverse setting all at once. But I think presenting the City of Splendors as convincingly as possible is key to running this kind of adventure. Dragon Heist has its share of dungeons (not counting Undermountain), but it’s mainly about faction relationships, investigation, and political intrigue. I’ve given the players short summaries of the setting, but getting them up to speed and invested in Faerûn is a challenge all its own.

I also bought Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep, but I haven’t found cause to use it yet. It doesn’t help that the book is 25 years old and assumes a different point in the Forgotten Realms timeline (before the Spellplague, yadda yadda yadda). I think it will pay off in the future when I’m starving for more details. I have relied heavily on another secondary resource, however: A Friend in Need by Valeur RPG. It’s a short document of condensed notes on the first part of the module with some added suggestions for encounters and how to run each section. Any DM could create such a document for themselves, but it’s well worth $2 to pay someone else to create the notes for me. I will absolutely purchase the rest of Valeur RPG’s helpful Dragon Heist products as we go.

valeur rpg

Aside from giving each player some brief setting notes, I’ve also reviewed each player’s character sheet for accuracy, bought them each a color-coded folder for all their documents, created a Facebook page and group for the campaign, created Facebook events for each session, posted a couple of relevant Matt Colville videos, and provided them all with a copy of the Code Legal of Waterdeep, which essentially tells them how much trouble they’ll get in if they break the law. I also had to buy a new Plano tackle box to store my minis in as well as a marker board for tracking initiative. I’m making extensive use of my DM Binder, which is where all my personal notes and handouts go. I had a couple of the players keep track of initiative for me during the game, and that gave me some more bandwidth to keep combat interesting.

dragon heist campaign tools.jpg

I think just about every DM would be worried their party will jump straight into Undermountain after being introduced to the entrance in the Yawning Portal, but Dragon Heist does a good job of dissuading them from that suicide mission by attacking the tavern with a troll and some stirges that climb up the well. The encounter also serves as a good introduction for Durnan the barkeep, who’s already one of my favorite characters in Waterdeep. After learning the basics of combat through dispatching the monsters and a few bandits, the party accepted Volo’s quest to find his friend Floon. The  trickery cleric saw it as a good opportunity to play Volo in a game of cards, and I used that encounter to give them a copy of Volo’s Guide to Monsters in-game. I’ve decided the book gives the user advantage on Nature (Int) checks to determine the characteristics of monsters if they have ample time to study the tome, which I think will lead to some fun interactions.

From there, the party took a short rest, bought an Unbreakable Cage from the Old Xoblob Shop (same rules as the Unbreakable Arrow from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything except it’s a small cage), did some detective work at The Skewered Dragon inn, and kicked down the door of a warehouse where four Kenku have just ambushed them. So far, so good. We’ve gotten through about half of the first part of Dragon Heist without much trouble. The city really opens up after the second part, though, so I’m looking forward to letting the players be more independent in their exploration and decide what they’re most interested in doing. There’s an overwhelming amount of possibilities between the factions and the 40+ guilds, but I think I’ll be able to manage as long as I know what the players want to do next a few days before each session.

Overall, I like Dragon Heist so far and hope we get to play through a lot more of it. I  probably wouldn’t recommend it for first-time DM’s, unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Waterdeep already, as it calls for a lot of improvisation and study (see the Starter Box for a better point of entry). But for new players, I think it works really well, because the city has clear boundaries and more than enough play space for many, many sessions. If your group is more interested in slaughtering everything in their way and getting as rich as possible, you may want to just roll 5th-level characters and skip to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but I’m really excited about running a more story-focused campaign with some interesting twists and turns. The next session is scheduled for tomorrow night, and I’m planning on finishing the first part of Dragon Heist with enough time left to set up Part 2. I’ll try to post another Campaign Diary before the weekend.

Until then, thanks for reading, and feel free to hit me up with comments or questions.



On Turning 30 – Part 2: 40 Goals Before 40

Okay! Now that we’ve gotten my 20s out of the way (and thank you all for reading, it means a lot) let’s get into the future. So far so good. I have a lot of plans, and the exciting thing is I don’t really know how realistic some of my goals are. It will depend a lot on time and circumstance. I first started thinking about a list like this about a year and a half ago when a work friend showed me her 30-before-30 list. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d like my next decade to look like already, but who knows how my ambitions and interests and means will change over the next ten years. Some of these are still fairly vague too, which I know doesn’t make for the most interesting reading or the best goal-planning.  For now, I’m working with the list below. I’ve split up the tasks/goals by category, which I think is wise to do at this stage if you’re thinking about making a list like this. There’s obviously a lot of crossover between categories, however, so just play fast and loose with it and go with your gut.

Experiences to Have

1. See the Chicago Symphony
2. See a Broadway show
3. See the Metropolitan Opera
4. Travel more
5. Go to at least one convention out of state every year
6. Move out of Utah, eventually (I think this is inevitable)

Skills to Improve and Milestones to Hit in Creative Work

7. Be a better listener
8. Study drawing/animation/cartography more
9. Study voice acting/improvisation/acting more
10. Make a VR game
11. Reduce gaming time and create more art
12. Get better at playing piano and take more lessons
13. Publish a hack of an RPG
14. Publish an RPG adventure
15. Publish a non-adventure RPG supplement
16. Make a “walking simulator” (narrative-heavy, first-person exploration game, maybe with some puzzles)
17. Publish a short story or novel (all of these writing/design goals will be self-published works, to make it easier on myself and also, because I just hate gatekeepers)

Health Goals

18. See a therapist regularly  for a while (I think this is good for everyone)
19. Spend less time on social media and YouTube
20. Exercise more/reach goal weight/defeat sleep apnea (~160-170 lbs and fit is ideal)
21. Stay true to my relationship goals/respect myself/value myself more
22. Get an outdoor/more active hobby

Career Goals

23. Get a job that I enjoy
24. Work in game archiving/restoration/preservation for a while
25. Enact and update my new career plan (this could be a blog post or several on its own)
26. Go back to school and maybe get a doctorate? (I don’t know exactly what I’d go back for at the moment, it just seems like something I’ll want to do…maybe animation)
27. Network more/ask for help more/seek out mentors
28. Plan to continue making music a part of my personal and work life
29. Eventually, work just for me and live off the profits of my creative work

Just-for-Me Goals

30. Get a car
31. Get a pet
32. Get a PSVR or other VR headset
33. Blog about my 20s and my 40-before-40 list (I can cross this off now, hehe)
34. Write and run an RPG campaign completely of my own design
35. Read at least 120 new books (~1 book/month)
36. Finish my to-play list of isometric RPG’s (this could take anywhere from 600-800 hours of play time if I’m being honest)

  1. Baldur’s Gate 1, Dragon Spear, & 2 (with lengthy expansions)
  2. Planescape: Torment
  3. Torment: Tides of Numenera
  4. Pathfinder: Kingmaker (this reportedly has gotten much better since launch, but it’s also over 100 hours long)
  5. Divinity: Original Sin 2 (luckily, I’ve got some friends dragging my ass through this game right now, and it’s pretty fun with a group)
  6. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (ugh, Deadfire. I want to love thee so badly. May start over in turn-based mode)
  7. Icewind Dale 1 & 2 (Beamdog still haven’t released an Enhanced Edition of 2 yet, which is odd, maybe because Obsidian still holds some of the rights?)
  8. Fallout 1 & 2
  9. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
  10. Ultima VII: The Black Gate and Part Two: Serpent Isle

37. Map and finish a classic dungeon crawler (Eye of the Beholder, Might & Magic 4/5, Wizardry 6/7, etc.)
38. Save more and be better with money/plan more for the future
39. Pay off my credit card
40. Learn a new language


41. Make a 50-before-50 goals list!
42. Level design, level design, level design… (I’m assuming I’ll spend a lot of time on this anyway)
43. Maybe make more YouTube videos? (I dunno, I needed YouTube and this blog as outlets eight years ago, but they feel stale now that I have better means of expression)

I’ve always been more oriented around projects and skills, so the way this list shook out doesn’t really surprise me. I am trying to focus more on serving the people around me and bettering myself as a human being, though, which is a big difference from how I saw things 10 years ago. The real challenge will be to break each of these down into specific, actionable, obtainable steps so that I’ll actually do them. But 10 years is a long time, nearly as long as I would consider myself to have been a fully-functioning human. Anyway, thanks again for indulging this moment in my life, and I’ll try to post more soon. Farewell! May you set reasonable goals for yourself and work to achieve them too (and don’t forget to celebrate all your little victories and failures).


On Turning 30 – Part 1: Lessons of my 20s

Hello! Today is my 30th birthday, and I wanted to write a bit about what that means to me. Part 1 is about the big lessons I learned in my 20s, and part 2 will list 40 things I want to do before I turn 40 (and I promise that skydiving is not included anywhere on that list). A lot of people don’t even live this long, which is already one weird thing to think about. It gets harder and harder not to compare oneself to others as one gets older, growing awareness of mortality aside. But, all things considered, I’m happy with my life so far, and I’m looking forward to the next decade. I am also a little scared and worried that I will somehow not live up to what people expect from a 30-something person. But that’s about as much anxiety as I’m feeling right now. Mostly, I’m excited about the future and to look back at all that I’ve done so far.

I earned three degrees in my 20s, and that’s meant a lot to me personally. I can also say with some confidence that all three have helped me get a steady job or a paying gig at some point. I have not landed that coveted spot (that I don’t really covet so much anymore) at a game development studio yet, like some of my EAE school peers have, but I have had a few close calls, namely with Riot and Bungie in the last six months. And I’ve learned a lot from each new interview and application experience. Becoming a business systems analyst at UHEAA was a huge career step for me in 2017, and I’m still proud about obtaining that position. I would consider that my first “real” job because I earn a decent salary and have a lot more freedom, but that’s a superficial notion at best. At the end of the day, I’m still in an office and still in the middle of the corporate grind, which is not so different from anyone else or where I used to be.

I had my first brushes with real health problems in my 20s, and I know I’m lucky I didn’t deal with illness more sooner. But kidney stones, food poisoning, and sleep apnea will do a great job at making you want to be a healthier, more physically fit person (not to mention my half a dozen relatives that passed away, most often from cancer and old age). I also can deal with my depression and anxiety a lot better now than I ever did in my early 20s, but I mostly learned how to do that the hard way. Take it from me that, whether you think so or not, your physical and mental health will affect every aspect of your life in ways that won’t even seem real. Becoming an adult means not only learning how to take care of others better but to, first of all, take care of yourself. Your friends will put up with your bullshit for a little while, and some will do so for years, but you owe it to yourself and them to figure it out. Don’t wait for someone else to help you, because either they won’t or it will be too little too late.

Moving away from home has been good for me, but your mileage may vary. I still don’t own a car, but most people my age do. In my case, I had to deal with a bit of culture shock in moving to Salt Lake City from Iowa. Mormonism is very strange to be around at first and pervasive throughout the entirety of Utah. But you can get used to anything if you’re exposed to it long enough. My Mormon friends still surprise me sometimes, in good ways and not great ways. I like living in SLC for the most part though, it’s got all the advantages of big city living without many of the problems that much larger cities face. People get married and have several kids here at an extremely young age, though, which means the dating pool shrinks rapidly as you get older. I’ve met many great progressive minds here, Mormons included, and we all sympathize with each other over the silliness that goes on in this weird little bubble hidden away between the mountains (“best powder in the world!”).

Going home gets more and more difficult. Christmas last year was so boring I nearly wished I hadn’t gone. And there’s only so many homophobic or racist remarks one can stand at the family reunion table. But my perspective has really improved for the better. While I still have some nostalgia for small-town Iowa, I don’t feel the need to go back nearly as strongly now. Most of my friends from high school and college have moved away, but we still keep in contact through social media and Slack, which is good enough for me to stay sane and happy. I highly recommend Slack and Discord (maybe Reddit…) groups of like-minded people whenever you need a pick-me-up.

I’m continually amazed at how good I’ve gotten at things that matter to me. I’m much more organized and responsible than I used to be. I’ve honed a handful of skills to a high enough level that I can impress even myself. I knew so little of gender and sexuality and real feminism 10 years ago, but a few very special people have enlightened me to the point that I can at least stand up for what I know is right with confidence and care. I’ve learned that most adults are still faking their way through life, they’ve just become better at it. I’ve learned to predict my own emotional and physical responses to different kinds of negative events (failure, heartbreak, politics, friends moving away, etc.) and how to deal with them well enough that I don’t wallow in self-pity for months on end. I’ve dealt with real loneliness and come out the other side better for it, safe with the knowledge that I’m strong enough to be truly on my own.

Achieving the age of 30 for me has meant learning what I need to put up with and do to be happy as well as exorcizing the parts of my life I don’t need or that are weighing me down. It is an achievement, though, I feel that pretty strongly. I have learned and relearned, repeatedly, that life is about being happy by making those around you happier. I’ve experienced this in music, D&D, relationships, school, even the dead-end jobs I’ve had to take to make ends meet. I’m a different person now than I was at 20, but I carry that person with me still and check in with them from time to time, letting them know things will be okay, even, even, even if they need to feel sad or afraid or isolated for a little while. Because I’ve lived long enough to know I have the power to change the things I want to if I try hard enough for long enough with enough of the right people.

The Tales of Team Juicy – Ep. 1: Session 0-4 – The New Juice

The year is 1492 DR, in the magical world of the Forgotten Realms…

And it is winter in Faerun along the Sword Coast, during the month of Alturiak, a time of both celebration and danger, hope and chaos, death and renewal. Villains of great and terrible powers work at their evil machinations in the shadows, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness, and yet the forces of good largely keep them at bay, through the sheer might of spell and sword. Points of light and civilization shine despite the shroud of the wilds and darkness, and it is here that would-be heroes, of which there are many, may find their fortune and glory.

Enter: A sizeable band of novice adventurers, their destinies uncertain but hearts full of determination who have journeyed to the world-renowned Waterdeep, the City of Splendors. Unlike most of Faerun, the diverse Waterdhavians live in an advanced society of technological marvels and modern luxuries. Horse-drawn coaches carry the rich and poor alike down the cobblestone streets delineated clearly with monikers like “The Way of the Dragon” and “Thunderstaff Way.” Waterdeep draws much of its wealth and power from the Sea of Swords and deep harbor for which it is named. Throughout the city, factions and guilds of both kind and ill intent vie for power and control, recruiting any who can be swayed by gold, vice, or virtue. The City Watch and City Guard keep the peace among the commonfolk and enforce The Code Legal, while the formidable forces of the Griffon Cavalry, Blackstaff Tower, and the Walking Statues protect the city from more deadly foes without and within.

Among the city’s seven wards lies a fabled tavern that has stood for centuries: the Yawning Portal. Owned and run by its esteemed and mysterious proprietor, Durnan, the Yawning Portal attracts people of all kinds due to the craft of its ale, the fineness of its lodgings, and its connection to Undermountain, the largest and most dangerous dungeon in all of Faerun. Serving as both a cautionary tale and an enticing challenge, many adventuring parties pay the price of one copper piece to descend into the dungeon’s depths, yet few ever return. It is here, in the Yawning Portal, after an exciting tavern brawl, that our heroes met with Volothamp Geddarm, a true gentleman and a scholar, whose work includes the well-reviewed tome: Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

Clearly impressed with the skill and cleverness of the party, Volo recorded the features of these promising members thus for posterity:

  • Link, the tall Green Dragonborn Barbarian, who follows the philosophy, “speak softly and gruffly and carry a great axe.”
  • Dim, the Drow Cleric of the Light Domain, blind of sight but pure of heart, a guiding lamp of honor and goodness, arisen from the subterranean lands of his ancestors.
  • Anel, the Half-Elf Druid, curious and crafty, who spies through the eyes of the spider and the rat and brings the magic of nature to this labyrinth of stone.
  • Desir, the Half-Orc Warlock and her bobcat familiar Gizmo, worshipers of a demon fiend and wielders of black magics.
  • Lorelai, the Halfing Rogue, light-hearted and dextrous, she’s sure to help the party in a pinch.
  • Bishop Paddock, the Half-Elf Cleric of Trickery, who has all the devilish charm and wit of a street-corner magician and potent spells to match.
  • Finesse, the Human Fighter, kicker of doors and shooter of crow-men, she’ll take any fight and likely emerge the victor.
  • Shih Tzu, the Elf Monk, whose furious blows reduced her enemies to a bloody pulp just seconds after entering any arena.

Volo hired Team Juicy to track down and rescue his kidnapped friend (and lover?) Floon Blagmaar, and so the Team verily followed Floon’s trail, first to a warehouse, and then to a sewer hideout. Along the way, they dealt with the members of both the Xanathar Guild and the Zhentarim, two factions responsible for the current blood and corruption in the streets. They also encountered one Renaer Neverember, a noble of Waterdeep and drinking buddy of Floon. The Xanathar Guild had mistakenly kidnapped Floon instead of Renaer, and so Renaer vowed to help the party with their mission. Together, ingeniously using a paper bird to lead them to the hideout in the sewers, Team Juicy and Renaer successfully fought off the Xanathar’s mercenaries, rescued Floon and returned him to the Yawning Portal, safe and sound. Though lacking in gold, Volo offered as a reward the deed to a ramshackle manor house in Trollskull Alley, which the team quickly christened Chateau d’Juicy. Indebted to the Team for their work, Renaer left the party with this insight: his father, Dagult Neverember, the ousted lord of Waterdeep, hid a hoard of half a million gold dragons in a vault somewhere in the city, and it is rumored it is the location of this treasure that the Xanathar, Zhentarim, and other forces now fight desperately to discover.

Having made a name for themselves and performed many feats of valor, Team Juicy ascended to Level 2 and began fixing up their new piece of real estate in the hopes that it would once again attract patrons. Fundraising activities and dealings with the neighborhood commenced with gusto and came to a head at a grand gala party, during which many citizens attended and the charismatic cleric of trickery, Bishop Paddock, disguised as his alter ego Ledian Wingfoot, delivered a most moving speech, which compelled both the hearts and coin purses of even the most miserly misanthropes to open wide. A few members of the party have even fallen in with some of the local factions, such as Force Grey and the Emerald Enclave, and begun questing to further their own ends. Now, armed with newfound knowledge, experience, and recognition, Team Juicy stands poised to become real heroes of Waterdeep, perhaps even like those sung about in the legends of old. But beware, adventurers, for evil stirs, unsleeping, in the dark alleyways and secret places of the city, and the treasure of Dagult Neverember, containing unimaginable wealth, lies hidden somewhere, waiting for only the boldest and bravest to obtain…

Campaign Diary: Dragon Heist Session 2-3

Somehow, the last couple of weeks got away from me, and I’m sitting here writing this on a Sunday night again. But I don’t want to get too behind on this series, so I can at least write a brief report on the last couple of sessions now. This is going to be a little rushed and rambling, though, so forgive me for that. Since Session 1, the party has successfully completed Chapter 1 of Dragon Heist and moved into Chapter 2. Tone-wise and gameplay-wise, they are very different chapters, and I’ll try to elucidate how different they are in the coming paragraphs.

First of all, though, our Sancho player has decided to play an elf monk named Shih Tzu instead of a human fighter. She’s new to the game and joined at the last minute in the first session, so I’m glad she decided to make her own character before Session 2. I helped her finish it in about half an hour thanks to all the practice we got making characters during Session 0.

During Session 2, the party didn’t make as much progress as I would like, but overall I think the players still had fun. I was hoping they would finish the rest of Chapter 1, but by the time they got to the dungeon, everyone was tired and not looking forward to doing more fighting. They first fought the Kenku in the warehouse and rescued Renaer Neverember, a waterdhavian noble, from his hiding place. They also got to talk to more of the City Watch and used a paper bird to hilariously guide them to the Xanathar Guild’s sewer hideout. I don’t think Chris Perkins intended the paper bird to be used in this way, but it was such a funny and creative idea that I didn’t want to say no to it. Plus it was really funny to picture the entire party holding onto a rope trying to restrain a tied up paper bird that just wanted to get to its destination. Once they arrived at the hideout, they fought off a gazer and a couple of goblin guards. They even thought to seal up an arrow slit using a Mending spell, which probably technically is an abuse of that spell, but I rewarded the player’s creativity in that instance as well.

Before Session 3, I also solidified the calendar for the campaign and decided that the party arrived in Waterdeep on the 8th day of Alturiak, which is in the middle of winter. They are now playing around midnight on the 13th day of Alturiak. I picked that date, because Alturiak 14 is a holiday known as The Grand Revel, which I think my players will enjoy interacting with. It’s mostly a feast day of food and partying and dancing but also features some romantic traditions of bards and minstrels singing love songs for families and couples.

The party began Session 3 in the Xanathar Guild’s hideout in the sewers, and I thought they would spend the majority of the session in that dungeon. My players are much more interested in exploring and role-playing than fighting, though, so the dungeon played a very minor role in the session. What few enemies they did get fight, they absolutely demolished, boss included. Because there are 8 PC’s, they can get many hits in before the monsters have a chance to react, especially if they roll well on Initiative. I was expecting the half-orc wizard and intellect devourer to put up more of a fight, but they went down pretty easily. The lesson here for me is I’ll need to throw more bodies at the party in the future. Probably at least 3 or 4 enemies per encounter unless they have legendary actions, just to make the fights interesting.

Having rescued Floon and dispatched with one fight, the party high-tailed it back to the Yawning Portal and received their reward. Volo gave them their fixer-upper manor in Trollskull Alley, which they promptly named Chateau Juicy after their new party name: Team Juicy. I provided them with a handout deed for the place for them to sign which I got from the DM’s Guild for a dollar. It was an easy thing to make, but I think the players enjoyed having something physical to sign and read. They also were promoted to level 2, so I thought it was a good opportunity for everyone to take the time to learn how to level up. It also ate up about an hour of session time, which I was thankful for after the dungeon didn’t play out as expected.

From there, the party explored their new property, in which a poltergeist named Lif resides. Lif can’t talk, but the party decided not to kill him, so he’s going to help them rebuild the tavern if that’s what they decide to do. Lif was the previous keeper of the derelict property and only wants to see it turned into the bustling tavern it once was. The Dragon Heist book doesn’t detail how he died though or how long ago, so I didn’t have an answer when one of the player’s asked about that. I think he probably died in a fire in the wine cellar, but I’d like to come up with something more interesting before tomorrow if I have time. Maybe something that can tie into the main quest or a sidequest later on.

The party did eventually go back to the sewers and explore more, which used up the rest of our session time. They met the unfriendly Shard Shunner gang of halfling wererats and explored the house of a couple commoners through the druid who used her new Wild Shape powers to wander around as a spider, mostly unseen. The session didn’t have a natural, dramatic end so we just called it a night there, but I think the players enjoyed all the talky bits.

So now we’re onto Chapter 2, which features much more talking very few mandatory combat encounters, which I think will suit this group nicely. It also means I have to do a lot of improvising and preparing, though, so it’s putting me a little outside my comfort zone. Chapter 2 is supposed to be more of a sandbox whereas Chapter 1 was a pretty linear fetch-quest. The party can now fix up their manor for a large fee of gold, talk to the shopkeepers in their neighborhood, and even join factions when representatives approach them. Deciding which factions will approach the party and which members they will target took a lot of thought and consideration. I think I have a decent plan, but likely it won’t go exactly like I have it in my outline. At the very least, I can probably rely on The Grand Revel and the Trollskull Alley neighbors to take up about half the session.

As for the factions, I think I’m going to lean on The Harpers, Force Grey, the Zhentarim, and the Emerald Enclave. Most of the players like to be mischievous and are playing chaotic neutral characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if half the party joins the Zhentarim. A representative from the Emerald Enclave will probably contact the druid, and a Harper will most likely contact the rogue. The whole party will be contacted by Vajra of Force Grey, and I really want them to join that faction because of the missions they can receive at later levels. The other two official factions of Waterdeep, the Lords’ Alliance and the Order of the Gauntlet, seemed like they just had police work to do, which didn’t interest me too much and probably wouldn’t appeal to my players. There’s also a secret faction which may contact Dim, the drow cleric, but since he’s a good-aligned PC and the only drow in the party, I’m not expecting him to join the faction, if he’s even contacted.

And I think that’s about all I want to say for this post, as I’m getting sleepy and there’s more work to be done tomorrow. We’ve got this session and next week’s before Christmas vacation, so we should be able to get some good progress in on Chapter 2. In the event that the party decides they don’t want anything to do with the factions, I may have to speed them along to Chapter 3 and have them level up again very soon. But my goal is to spend at least one session trying out the sandbox style of play and trying not to let the pace lag too much while still keeping most of the party engaged as much as possible. Until next time, farewell!



E3 2018: Behind Glass

It’s Tuesday night, I’m exhausted from my morning trip from SLC to LA, and I’m sitting in one of the many scrunched-together black folding chairs of the freezing Novo theater, i.e. the E3 Coliseum. Geoff Keighley of The Game Awards fame has hosted several panels throughout the day, but now he’s presenting an entirely different kind of performance of his own design. Peter McConnell, wearing his iconic black fedora, sets up his electrified violin next to two other well-established game composers: Clint Bajakian on guitar and Mark Griskey on drums. The man in the seat next to mine asks if I’ve ever played Grim Fandango. “I never finished it,” I say, remembering the puzzles I was too lazy to figure out on my own. I only ever played the game after the remaster, because it was difficult to track down a copy of the original release for over a decade. But there are many like the person next to me that have played and loved the game since 1998.

After a short intro piece from the band, Tim Schafer, jolly leader of Double Fine, emerges from stage left, and for the next hour, I am entranced. Schafer and crew have come to reprise scenes and music from this classic PC adventure game about death and skeletons, Grim Fandango (they also announced the remastered version of the game will release on Nintendo Switch sometime soon). Schafer narrates and directs the scenes, and Jack Black admirably fills in the voices of many of the game’s side characters. But the real stars are the original voice actors that, to the letter, inhabit their classic roles from 20 years ago. Tony Plana is unmistakable as the charming-yet-sly Manny Calavera. Alan Blumenfeld’s Glottis is as larger-than-life as the demon himself. Patrick Dollaghan’s Domino, Maria Canals’ Mercedes, and Jim Ward’s Hector all feel real through the power of their voices, the music, and a few storyboards. This performance is the highlight of my E3 week, and an experience I’ll never forget. It truly felt like a love letter just for the fans of the game. I wish I could say the rest of my E3 week was as memorable.

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I’ve known about and been excited by the concept of E3 since I was a teenager. I read about both the hype leading up to E3 and the aftermath every year in Nintendo Power. As an adult, I’ve watched and live-tweeted my reactions to the whole ordeal off and on for years. But this time I actually got to go in person, and I have to admit I’m a little disappointed. I knew going in that E3 is not tailored to please the average gamer. It’s meant as a trade show for industry professionals and journalists to show off new products and make earth-shattering announcements that people can write articles about for months to come. I knew this, and yet I hoped that, with the public being allowed in for the second year in a row, there would be more for the fans to do and see.

But I kept getting the nagging feeling that I could be watching everything I saw from the comfort of my own home. Free swag was sparse. I spent around $150 on merchandise just to have some cool souvenirs (nothing I couldn’t get somewhere else). Lines to play and see the most exciting new titles were hours long, if they were open to fans at all. I waited for an hour to play about 5 minutes of the new Smash Bros., and all I can say without certainty is that it looks and feels like a Smash Bros. game. The Coliseum, while a nice gesture, was fairly hit and miss. At one session you might see animators drawing frames of a new Cuphead character or a discussion about women in games, while another session might amount to an hour-long advertisement for sports cars or graphics cards.

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I saw many professionals and celebrities I recognized in the flesh during my 3-day adventure, streamers and journalists and developers alike. I saw [REDACTED] having lunch in one of the show floor cafeterias. I saw the whole crew from [REDACTED] just chilling on the floor of an exit hallway. I saw Elijah Wood on stage talking excitedly about how cool his new game, Transference, was in VR. I saw Hideo Kojima and Darren Aronofsky talking to each other on the same stage, in a meeting of minds I imagine only happens normally behind closed doors. And yet, all of these people were wholly inaccessible to me and the vast majority of fans at E3. Because the industry people are there primarily to do their jobs, and their jobs at E3 do not include interacting with and getting to know their fanbase like they do at PAX and other conventions, as much as I wish this wasn’t the case.

So would I recommend the average person attend E3? Right now, I’d have to say no. Unless you’ve just always wanted to go and have the cash to burn and live nearby, your money and time are best spent at one of the many other nerdy conventions around the country. All together, my best guess is I spent about $1300 on this trip, which I’d say is not a bad deal for most big conventions. But considering there really wasn’t much for me to do at E3 other than gaze at games and people and products from afar, I can’t say it was worth the money. $250 for tickets alone seems exorbitant, so I hope they reduce the cost of the Gamer Pass in the future.

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I don’t mean to say I had a bad time by any means. I got genuine thrills just from the scope of the show. I could sense, intimately, that important events were happening all around me. I just would have liked to be a bigger part of any of them. So I probably won’t be going back for at least a few years unless it’s for an industry job. But I will take away the energy and enthusiasm I felt for games while I walked the show floor. Nothing is as motivating as being around thousands of other people that enjoy your favorite media as much as you do, and I highly recommend everyone attend an event like this as often as you can. Definitely go with willing and able friends too. Just maybe take E3 off the wishlist until the venue figures out how best to serve its fans.

And that’s about all I want to say about E3! Overall, it was a good vacation for me. I’d never been to LA before, and the city really grew on me over time. It has a lot of problems that are blatantly obvious as soon as you step onto the city streets. Traffic, poverty, and pollution all seemed rampant across most of the city. Two blocks down from a shady alley, you might find a world-class restaurant or a fancy museum. It’s this disparity that really struck me about the whole experience. The gap between the upper echelons of society and the poor and downtrodden has never been more clear to me than it was during the walks I took from my motel on the west side of LA to the LA Convention Center. I hope life improves greatly for LA’s citizens, many of whom were exceedingly nice to me (maybe just because I’m a 29-year-old white man, but I appreciated the hospitality all the same).

Now that it’s all over, I can’t WAIT to go home. I’m a little sad E3 went by so quickly, but, again, I’m also feeling more motivated than I have in a while to work on my own projects and build more of a name for myself. I’ll be blogging more, too, so you can continue to follow my thoughts here and on the daily @NCBurnham on Twitter. Peace!


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Looking Back: 7 Years of Grue

Seven years ago, I set out to create a personal blog for myself that would let me write about games. At the time, I was single, depressed, working part time at a college library, and I had little idea what I was going to do with myself since my undergraduate days had just ended. I was excited by the games work I saw my more journalistic friends doing, however, and I think that’s mostly what kept me going during the last 6 months of 2011 (that and Dark Souls). For years, I dreamed that I would be able to play trombone full time. And until the past few years, I could say I still believed in that dream. I still practice. I have yet another degree in music. But the demands of trying to stay competitive enough for auditions and traveling to said auditions proved too difficult for me when I realized I didn’t actually want to eat ramen for the rest of my life. And I’ve always prided myself on having more than one set of skills, which led me down the road of studying games more seriously and eventually getting a job as a business systems analyst.

Nowadays, I don’t have much free time outside of my full time job, which makes it hard to create much of anything, let alone make regular updates to this blog. But I did enjoy getting back into writing with the Critical Role posts and my 2017 GotY list. What I’m trying to say is, I’m recognizing that I still want blogging to be a regular part of my life. Though the words don’t come as easily now as they did back then, this post feels more meaningful than any I wrote when I still lived in an arachnid-infested basement in Iowa. So I guess this is me saying that you can expect more posts from me soon. At least, that’s the goal. But you should expect a slight shift in focus. I’m less interested in writing traditional reviews now than ever, and I’m more concerned with just staying creative on a personal level. So I expect future posts to be mostly about just that: how I’m trying to stay creative as a working stiff.

There’s a lot I’d like to write about. There’s a lot of work I’d like to be doing. It’s been very difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I can’t pursue everything I want to anymore. I’ll come up with ideas for games and stories and music that I’m all equally excited about. I may even work on them for a day or two. But realistically, it’s impossible for me to keep a regular schedule for personal projects when I’m away from home 10.5 hours every weekday. I have enjoyed streaming a lot more, and the Masters of Adventure podcast has been some of my best work. Going forward though, I want this blog to be about the time I spend thinking about and working on side projects, as well as more critical analysis of works new and old. I can’t say what the coming posts will be exactly, but I can say that right now I’m mostly thinking about CRPG’s, strategy games, Dungeons & Dragons, level design, and music.

So we’ll see what happens. Interestingly enough, my first post on this blog was about E3. It would seem that E3 continues to motivate me, even in 2018. The biggest difference this year is that I’m actually attending. My 14-year-old self would have been ecstatic to even watch an E3 stream, let alone get to go on his own dime. I am very excited to be going this year, if for no other reason than it’s been a dream of mine since the days of yore when Nintendo Power was still delivered to my mailbox every month. I plan on making a post about my E3 thoughts and experiences, either from my hotel in LA or after I return to my new apartment in Salt Lake City. Either way, I hope you enjoy it, dear reader. And whether you’ve been following this blog since the beginning or you just started today, know that I am extremely grateful for your time. It’s all we have.


Critical Role Campaign 2 Episode 4: Disparate Pieces – Recap

Besides the trial, Episode 4 is fairly uneventful storywise, yet not without its charm. Highlights include the party’s conversation with the newly-awoken Toya, Beau’s solo encounter, Caleb and Nott’s spa date, and a lot of shopping and bargaining shenanigans. But my favorite part was Matt pulling out a beautifully-drawn map of the Dwendalian Empire by one of my favorite cartographers, Deven Rue. She does truly amazing artwork, and the map was an awesome surprise to bring out on the stream. If you haven’t seen Deven’s maps before, I urge you to follow her on Twitter @DevenRue and check out her website. Matt’s prop game has been on point all season, so I’m sure he’ll have even more surprises for us in the coming months.

As the first arc of this campaign wraps up, the party has to make their own way, free from pursuit of the law or demons, for now. With an entire region’s worth of fantastic locales to explore, I’m extremely envious of Matt’s players. Soon to be level 3, they’ve gotten their sea legs under them and come together as a formidable team. I’m a little disappointed that Ashley Johnson has been mostly absent from the campaign so far and has missed a lot of the best moments. But there’s still a lot of Critical Role ahead of us, and who knows what Matt will throw at the party tomorrow night. See you next week!

Critical Role Campaign 2 Episode 3: The Midnight Chase – Recap

I’m half sick as I’m writing this, which is a shame, because episode 3 of Critical Role was fantastic. I really wanted to do a deeper analysis of it, but I think we’ll all have to settle for another surface-level recap this week. If you’ve neglected to watch the show up to this point, this episode is a great jumping on point. It’s got everything I want from an actual play with very minimal downtime for a live stream. I hope we get more like it and less like episode 2’s plodding investigation.

It starts as most good D&D sessions should, with combat. The party dispatches two more zombie creatures, but not without casualties. Mollymauk nearly dies, so Taliesin spends most of the session acting wounded or unconscious. It’s not a complicated encounter, but it does get the audience’s attention and gets the whole party rolling dice as soon as possible. The group then hides the zombie guard bodies and tracks the devil toad through the dead of night to the edge of a lake outside town. After a lot of negotiation and preparation back in Trostenwald, the party learns of an abandoned ruin named Crooked Stone on an island in the middle of the Eustaloch. The devil toad, of course, has made Crooked Stone its hideout along with the enchanting dwarf singer, Toya.

For the last hour, we witness a wonderfully tense and dynamic combat encounter that I strongly applaud Matt for setting up. He’s employed several elements that make the fight much more interesting than it could have been. First of all, it’s taking place at night, meaning the characters without darkvision (about half the party) need to create a way to see in the dark. Caleb’s Dancing Lights spell quickly takes care of the problem, but he still has to spend an action casting it, which critically reduces the amount of damage he can do. Secondly, the space isn’t completely flat. Trees, rocks, ruins, steps, and stone walls fill the arena, giving the PC’s and monsters interesting ways to interact with and abuse the environment. Finally, the devil toad and Toya have extremely powerful abilities that demand attention from at least one or two PC’s on any given turn. Because Beauregard spends most of her turns restraining Toya’s voice, she barely contributes to the damage done to the toad, leaving most of the demon-slaying to Fjord.

The rest of the party is left to deal with the monstrous toad and its three imp summons. Though the party eventually emerges victorious, I got the sense it was a very close fight and could have gone either way if the dice had landed differently. Even though I suspect Matt often tries to rule in favor of the party in order to keep them alive and having fun, I appreciate him posing real dangers to this low-level group, especially considering he has such a large audience to please. The episode ends with the toad blown in half and the dwarf girl unconscious in the party’s care. I can’t wait to see what she has to say when she awakes. Our heroes have some real clues to work with now and even got to test their mettle against their first boss battle. Is it Thursday yet?