Spreadsheets: the best way of keeping DM notes, ever?

Note to my players: Alz and Xur. If you’re stalking my blog, skip this article because there be spoilers ahead. This works on an honor system.

Keeping track of plans and notes is probably one of the toughest parts of being a DM (right after ‘finding a group to DM’ and, even more challenging, ‘finding a group to play’). For very long time, I’ve relied on LibreOffice Writer to keep up. However, as the length of notes grows and party starts to juggle multiple side quests at the same time, scrolling up and down the document quickly gets annoying. Details quickly become hard to find, there’s page after page after page of unimportant details that you don’t need at this time, but can’t hide away and everything just becomes a mess.

I’ve been handling this limitation reasonably well for the longest time, until eventually came the time for me to dust off my “5d dungeon” thing and throw it at my discord group. But a problem soon appeared: planets are a filler. They have lots of fluff, you get to describe the environment to your players a lot, but at the end of the day there’s not all that much to do while traveling. Players quickly move from planet to planet, and I, as the DM, must scroll back and forth, searching the 60+ page document for descriptions of how planets look and who populates them.

The map of the 5D dungeon, shamelessly stolen from reddit. Keeping notes for this thing is a major mess.

Eventually, there came idea. Wouldn’t it be easier if … I don’t know, I just kept the notes for the planets in the same spreadhseet where I keep the map?

Sure, the idea initially sounds dumb. Text in my Excel? one might ask themselves. Isn’t that for numbers and shit? Aren’t those squares a bit small for text? Can a single cell even contain multiple lines of text? The answer is, of course, yes and no.

The last question is an absolute yes — ctrl+enter will add a new line into the cell (if you’re using online spreadhseet editor, you should take care that you don’t accidentally hit ctrl+r afterwards). As for the rest: the good news is that if the text is too wide to fit within a single cell, it will generally overflow and fill up the neighbouring cells (as long as they’re empty). However, a cell will not overflow up and down.

Notice how the second line of the bottom text is cut off.

In case that spread is unwanted, we can insert content (empty spaces count) to the neighbouring cells. This will hide the overflow:

You can guess in which squares the spaces are

This behaviour is great, because it allows me to hide a lot of text into very tiny area. This makes managing notes easaier: you only enter the most necessary info in the top row of the cell, and hide the fluff below the fold. Everything that’s hidden becomes visible if you double-click the cell for editing.

Since we can style text in every cell much like we can style a word document (except in a slightly more primitive way), this works great in practice. Let me explain on the example of the 5d dungeon map.

Spreadsheets note in action

Three lines above every ‘planet’ currently display only the most basic and necessary info that I need at any time: name of the planet, its size, what kind of environment the planet has, planet description, and quick demographics (with most important races in bold). If I need more info about environment, I can just click the cell that hosts environment info and I’ll get a full description until I click away:

Need to know about demographics? Let’s double-click that:

WoW, so very original. What next, you’ll rip off Guild Wars 2 as well?

All in all, that’s pretty basic stuff, and there certainly are some downsides to using spreadsheeds for what’s not their intended purpose (you have to do manual line breaks) — but damn. I wish I started using spreadsheets for notekeeping sooner. They outright excel at that task.

FAQ: Why not install [insert specialized software here] or use [insert webpage]?
A: because I hate installing too much stuff / because it probably doesn’t run on Linux / because I already have enough tabs and user accounts as it is.

Orc Histories: Volume I

Author’s note: yes, I accidentally spilled my homebrew all over my 5e Monster Manual. What you gonna do about it?

Chapter 1: Creation Myth

There was a time before orcs. In that time, only men, elves and dwarves walked the world. Their gods felt a sense of pride and accomplishment turning the world, their prized sandbox, into a landscape filled with those who worshiped them.

Not all liked that. Nerull, god of death and darkness, saw the world and — being Nerull — that the men and elves and dwarves need to go. For that, he needed an army: an expendable war force that would do his bidding. With that in mind, he started capturing those of other races and slowly corrupting them into a form that would befit his goals.

Thus, orcs were created: big and strong — as strong as possible! — and with reduced capacity to think for themselves, as Nerull felt this was the easiest way to ensure that the orcs will do his bidding, and to not fear death. There were only a few that were granted cunning and wits, and they had to prove they deserve them.

Chapter 2: The First Conflict

Nerull unleashed hordes of orcs on the unsuspecting world soon enough. Quick to breed, orc-kind became a force to be reckoned with and a great threat to other races. As such, Nerull and orcs quickly caught attention of other gods. Corellon Larethian stood up for elves, Pelor for humans, Moradin for dwarves. Yet even with their powers combined, the conflict ended in a stalemate: for a long time, they were not able to defeat Nerull and the hordes of orc fighters.

Eventually, the three gods cooked a plan: Pelor and Moradin were to distract Nerull — and with Nerull’s attention directed elsewhere, Corellon was free to mess with Nerull’s creation using means of magic. There was great many tricks that Corellon would try to use, and the first to work was the one that changed the way the orcs are born.

Corellon cast a curse on the orc-kind, that would cause all orcs be born fighters and with little desire for a bond with a child-bearer, in a bid to end the orc-kind by making sure no kid-bearing orcs are ever born again. The curse did not succeed entirely in this way: while it did reduce the number of child-bearing orcs to be born, it did not prevent that from happening completely. While a rarity, child-bearers were still common and fertile enough for the orc-kind to continue.

The curse had some unforeseen consequences that carried a benefit for Nerull as well: with fighters (with few exceptions) not being interested in fucking child-bearers or anyone else, they could finally dedicate all their brainpower to their true purpose: fighting and killing.

Effects of this curse still last — and can be seen clearly — to this day.

Chapter 3: Gruumsh’s Rebellion

Pelor, Corellon and Mordin did not like the new development. While the orc numbers did decrease at first, Nerull quickly dealt with the problem. While he was not able to reverse the curse, he managed to work around it in different ways: by making child-bearers only good for bearing next generations of orcs, and restoring will to fuck at least in those who rose to a place of power within their tribes.

The three gods had to form a new plan. The next worthwhile idea was presented by Moradin: his plans was to grant one of the orcs wits and wisdom — enough to realize that the orc-kind is being taken advantage of. With no better ideas at the time, Pelor and Corellon agreed.

After some consideration, they picked an orc while Nerull wasn’t watching: a promising fighter, named Gruumsh, and followed through with the plan. One day, Moradin appeared before Gruumsh, and granted him wits and wisdom to see how orc-kind was exploited. The relevation made Gruumsh mad, and Moradin was quick to offer him a deal.

He was to convince the orc-kind to rebel against Nerull and free themselves from his rule. As an award for his success, he was promised a godhood and a place for orcs to live — the latter under condition that orcs won’t war other races and expand beyond their lands.

The deal was made, and Gruumsh kept his end of it: he started raising a horde that fought to free themselves from Nerull. His campaign was a great success, since most tribes didn’t appreciate being used by their creator. Not all orcs wanted to join him in fight against Nerull and even raised arms against him — but at the end of the day, with almost all the orc-kind under his banner, the tribes resisting the freedom were defeated. The orcs were finally free from Nerull.

Chapter 4: Gods’ Betrayal

But the gods had no intentions of keeping the promises they made. When the war against Nerull was won, Gruush waited and waited to be given godhood, he waited for Moradin to show up and make good on the promise. But that didn’t happen.

Eventually, it was Nerull who came to him in the darkest hour of the night and told him the truth: that the gods he made a deal with were not planning to give him neither the godhood, nor the lands for orcs to live in. Gruush didn’t believe him at first: he still remembered very well that Nerull has made orcs to serve him and his evil means and thought Nerull was trying to use him for his intentions. Nerull replied by irrevocably granting Gruush the godhood he desired, and said: ‘‘Then come with me, and see it for yourself.’’

Gruush followed Nerull into the domain of gods, where all the gods were gathered around the world map, crafted upon a sphere. He reminded the gods what he was promised, and tried claiming the mountains for the orcs — only to be denied by Moradin: mountains have been taken by the dwarves. He tried claiming forests, only to be denied by Corellon: forests belong to the elves. He tried claiming the plains, only to be denied by Pelor: those were claimed by the mankind. He tried picking some more spots, yet for each and every one it turned out that it’s been already claimed.

This didn’t sit well with Gruumsh: he let out a mighty and furious bellow, cursing all other gods for their treachery. He took his spear and started whacking at the map of the world until it started breaking into pieces, wowing that the orcs will wage the war on everyone forever — a promise the orc-kind has certainly kept well to this day.

Of Tabletop RPGs, Railroading, and Video Games

So I’ve recently stumbled over this meme.

Of course, this was captioned with ‘TTRPGs > Video games’
 

It’s very hard to resist rising up to the challenge in hopes of earning that delta — especially given how everything about that meme is wrong. The long story short is that this meme incorrectly assumes two things:

  • video games railroad players
  • this isn’t an assumption per se, but something tells me that whoever made this meme fundamentally misunderstands the problem people take with being railroaded

And we’ll handle those two problems in this order.

Side note: Am I getting too triggered over a meme? Possibly, but there’s some potential discussion to be had about this issue ~~and I’ll probably get to recycle these arguments on reddit within the next 2 months~~.

Of video games and railroads

The first thing in the picture that’ll trigger most nerds like me is the hidden implication that video games are more or less the same. Truth is: they aren’t — if anything, they’re the most diverse form of media to date — and all “railroad” to varying degrees.

  • You have Sandbox games and simulators. Think Sim City, Cities: Skylines, Minecraft, Terraria, Factorio … are there rails? Yes, for you to place them. Are you being railroaded? No. Can Tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) do any of that? Not really. Yes in case of Sim City, actually — reddit and forum threads by DMs saying their players want to play a city builder who ask for advice are surprisingly common   but your DM will have silver hair by the end of the month if he doesn’t already.

This is probably not the kind of railroad(ing) you’re thinking about.
 
  • Stealth games like Stxy and Thief, or “optionally-stealth games” like Deus Ex and Assassin’s Creed (especially the early ones) tend to have fairly linear stories, but levels tend to offer multiple paths and multiple ways to solve a problem. And even in the story department, you sometimes don’t get railroaded as much as you think — original Deus Ex would be a decent example of that.

    While we’re talking of stealth: stealth in TTRPGs is hard to pull off well, and any stealth system you cook up in a tabletop setting can’t hold the candle to the video game thing due to the inherent limitations of tabletop RPGs.

  • Non-turnbased competitive games like CSGO, DotA2, League of Legends, Rocket League … there’s not much rails there either (except if you play Train or Overpass). There’s about as much railroading going on here as in your average sport. And it goes like this: you get a map (the game equivalent of a dungeon) and then you get to outsmart the other team the way you want. There’s nobody that will prevent you from rushing mid on Dust 2 the same way a bad DM would prevent you from checking out a random room in the dungeon for no reason. That’s the kind of experience TTRPGs can’t offer, at all.


AVOID RAILS IN YOUR GLOBAL OFFENSIVE MATCH WITH THIS ONE TRICK! VALVE HATES HIM!
(Note that Office and Canals aren’t excluded because of rails, they’re excluded because they’re trash.)

 
  • Then you also have various kinds of strategy games. Say, Command & Conquer in general, Civilization series, things like that. They’re all pretty open-ended with nobody telling you what to do. These kinds of games are generally impossible to railroad as well.

  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes? Okay, you can have that in a TTRPG pretty much verbatim. I know because I sneaked that into my last session, and it was great. 11/10 would recommend.

  • Next up on the list are open world RPGs. Things like The Witcher 3, which – again – doesn’t really railroad you all that much, judging by the first 18 or so hours.

    MMOs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 should also get a honorable mention here. In general, they are not really that heavily railroaded (at least not until the end game stuff, for which I can’t speak). Neither of the two games will prevent you from going to zones way above your level (or way under your level). You can pick and choose what quests you’ll be doing – especially in WoW, bit less so in GW2 cos story missions. Most quests tend to be very simple in both games, though.

And then there’s everything else. There’s a bit more linear games that don’t give you choice, there’s linear games where your decisions end up having an effects. There’s games that switch between A and B plots, with decisions that tend to have an effect on the outcome of the story (The Banner Saga). There’s tons of racing games which cover everything from hyper-realistic simulation to stuff that’s about as unrealistic as it can get, there’s sports games   and I’m not sure term ‘railroading’ is even applicable to any of those.

The problem with railroading

At the end of the day, not liking railroading boils down to one thing:

People don’t like it when their choices in games don’t matter.

Yes, even in The Witcher the game will give you about three predetermined options to pick from when making a decision; and yes, some may consider that railroading. But the fact is: the game won’t borderline make that decision for you. Furthermore, that decision may or may not have consequences later down the line, and at the end of the day nobody will consider that the game is railroading them.

Meanwhile, when you’re being railroaded by your DM, none of that holds true: you’re often being borderline forced to solve the issue in one particular way, and you know that your choices matter about fuck all.

But what about linear, single player games like Half Life and Portal and Spec Ops: The Line, you ask, what’s with them? You don’t get to choose in those games.

True. You don’t. Since people don’t get to choose, they can’t feel like their decisions don’t matter. Okay, that last statement isn’t completely true, but it’s close to the truth. This is not inherently a problem with railroading, but it helps explain why people who complain about being railroaded in D&D might go and outright praise games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Expectations vs reality play a massive role in whether you’ll consider linearity a railroad

How a game is advertised has a massive effect on how railroading is perceived. Portal games, says on the tin: “Linear puzzle solver.” Play the game, you get linear puzzle solver. Expectations == reality, things check out. Spec Ops, The Line. Tin can says “linear shooter with generic gameplay, but story is strong and the game is outright nasty towards you.” You play the game and that’s what you get: It’s a shooter alright, but the story is worth the praise and the game does make nasty jabs directly at you during the loading screens. Expectations are fulfilled once again. Then you ~~open up the Player’s Handbook which tells you repeatedly that D&D is a game of player choice in the first three pages~~ I’m just kidding, what kind of player would read the PHB even if they could read it for free? Mine certainly didn’t. Instead you listen to your DM, or reddit, or internet in general try to sell you the game by stating that you, the player, gets to decide what to happens in that D&D game. So you’re like, cool, let’s play. And you play the game, only to discover that you don’t actually get to call the choices. Being salty is more than understandable in that scenario. (Worth pointing out, because one of my groups didn’t get the memo: shit decisions you make having shit outcomes isn’t railroading).


I never would have thought I could replace my entire D&D group with a single robot.
 

Overly obvious railroading is also frowned upon in video games as well

The Mass Effect 3 thing might not be a typical railroad, but it goes to show that even people who otherwise like video games don’t like when they don’t get the choice they were promised, or when their choices don’t have the impact they were promised. Mass Effect 3 promised the choices you made in the first three games would matter in the end, and they did somewhat … right up until the last 30 or so minutes of the game, where everything pretty much boiled down to the color of the ending cutscene. The internet was up in arms about that for at least a few months.

And that’s just one example: people will complain about railroaded missions in video games pretty much regularly. If the game does this thing where you can see enemies from far off and could kill them from afar without having to engage in a massive close quarters combat, but you ultimately can’t because the game pretty much makes them invulnerable until you trigger a cutscene which triggers a fight … Do that too much, and players will complain. Guaranteed. With Skyrim, people got uber-butthurt because the game wouldn’t allow you to kill the people who told you to kill Pathrunaax. In fact, they didn’t like it so much there’s a mod that fixes that.

So what have we learned today?

The image that caused all of this is mostly wrong.

Also, I want my delta.

Epistle 3, D&D edition

This post has been migrated from its old post and backdated according to the file timestamps. Backstory and references are explained here).

Dearest Players,

We hope this letter finds you well. I can hear your complaint already: “Sergor’s company! We haven’t heard from you in ages!” Well, there’s plenty of excuses to be had, but there’s no sense crying over every mistake. We just keep trying until we run out of cake. The quest gets done and you bring some loot home for the chars who are still alive. Truth be told, we’ve been trying to reach you for nearly four months now, and only recently with anything that resembles success. We know that a lot has happened since the last letter and that you’ve been eagerly awaiting the next update, so let us give you a hastily update.

When we sent off the last letter, we’ve just finished fighting a group of bandits in their lair. Fearing that we haven’t slain all the bandits (given we entered the mines during daytime, we figured some of the bandits could be outside. They could return at any time, catching us off-guard while we rested), we quickly retreated out of the mine and wrote the letter in the safety of the forest while resting from the fight. Then, we followed the path — no detours this time.

We eventually came to the—

[most of the text in the next few paragraphs seems be smudged to the point it’s unreadable]

After making our way across the bridge, we quickly came upon a small town, barely anything more than a square — still, we managed to find a messenger, to whom we gave the previous letter. After wandering around the city for a bit, we found a noticeboard with all sorts of contracts. One of those contract in particular has sent us on a path we never expected.

The contrast was posted by the town’s major, who was a shady character. We were to take a package to Crow Rock. We weren’t told about its contents, nor we were allowed to open it. We ended up taking the contract, as it paid well and led us to Crow Rock, a town where we had some unfinished business with a dragon. Somehow, we even managed to beat curiousity, avoiding sticking our noses into the nature of the thing we were carrying.

When we handed the package over and were paid our money, we made our way to the lord of Crow Rock, as instructed by the dragon. We eventually met him, and he gave us a little something for our trouble (after verifying we speak the truth. He even included something for Gmuk!) — but he promised us even more if we help him with the quest.

He explained to us that the King was doing evil things — making deals with orcs and goblins, which terrorized the kingdom for his personal gain. We were also told that the king was looking for a certain magical artifact, that would (by the legends, at least) grant him immense power if he used it properly. We were to find it first and destroy it. The reward was certainly great and appropriate for the dangerous task — not to mention that we were to have a dragon accompany us. We were given some time to think about it, and after a long discussion we agreed to accept the mission. A lot of work has been done for us already: the mages at Lord’s disposal made a compass that pointed towards the approximate location of the artifact (don’t ask us how it worked). The compass didn’t show distance, but were told that the artifact is far away and moving. How far? Nobody knew exactly, but we were told to expect trouble along the way.


Bogdan was kind enough to make a quick sketch of Crow Rock during one of our downtimes.

The trouble has started before we even left: for some reason, Neri called Lore, the dragon, ‘chicken fucker’ one too many times, which resulted in the dragon swiftly helping to solve the elven overpopulation problem to the fullest extent he was able to. This was a problem because she was the only person who knew draconic — but fortunately for us, Lord provided us with a dwarf — Bogdan — who was able to act as a translator. Unfortunately, everything she owned was destroyed in the fire she burned in as well.

We left the town soon after that. The path would be easy if we were riding on the Lore’s back, but we had to walk as the dragon couldn’t carry all of us with all our gear. Thus, we had to walk through the hills. The roads were full of turns, ascends and descents — all of which slowed our progress. He felt bad for us “lesser creatures, uncapable of flight” and walked with us out of solitude. Every now and then, he did take off, into the sky and was our eyes in the sky. He gave us early warning about any orc, goblin, bandit ambushes and encampments, which we cleaned or avoided based on our mood.

I, Kvothe, made sure to keep the spirits up by playing my lute and singing songs. Everyone enjoyed my songs. True, Sergor said that ‘‘[I] can’t sing for shit’’ and that I’m ‘‘an annoying little gypsy that should be thrown off the edge of the world’’ and that he’d ‘‘rather experience Lore burning him to death than listen to me play the lute or sing;’’ while Gar threatned to break the lute on my ass if I keep playing and singing. I’m sure they didn’t mean it and that they really like my performances. Kali also liked my songs. She even had nice words to say about me, telling me that one day I might become a good musician. Bogdan said nothing of my singing for the first few days. I did talk with him on a few occassions though, and after a few days he taught me some of the dwarven songs. ‘‘The best thing about dwarven songs is that they sound great regardless of whether you can sing or not,’’ he said as he taught me. ‘‘After you’ve had enough ale and beer, it doesn’t matter whether you’re tone-deaf or not anymore.’’

Our first longer stop was Bogdan’s hometown, a dwarven town of Vergenband. It was located a bit off the path, on the border between hills and mountains. Some of it was located at the end of the valley (but still in it), but most of it was under a mountain. This left our dragon mostly bored, as he wasn’t let into the mountain part of the town for various reasons. Gmuk was at first not allowed into the town either, as dwarves feared he might steal things. After some convincing (and Bogdan’s good word), Gmuk was eventually let into the town, proving dwarves’ fears correct the first chance he got (fortunately for us and him, nobody caught him. We only learned about his theft later, when on our way again). In the meantime, we enjoyed a longer rest (about a week), did the town some favours, replentished our food supplies for free (turns that Vergenband was allied with Crow Rock). In exchange for our favours we did to the town, we were then directed towards a druid’s. We were also given a letter by the chief dwarf of Vergenband, which instructed druids to provide with with some help.

The stop at the druids was a short one: upon receiving the letter, they gave us some tamed beasts to ride: Bogdan was given a great mountain goat, Sergor a direwolf, Gar a wyvern. I, Kali and Gmuk — even together, we weigh next to nothing — were allowed to ride Lore (although both Lore and Gmuk protested the idea of Gmuk riding him — it took a long time to convince them both). A druid named Joshua Nissan — the keeper of the beasts — also joined us, riding on a great fox.

After leaving the druid’s groove, there was no more planned stops for us. We continued to follow the compass for long days, which soon turned into weeks. The compass was pointing mostly to the north, slightly to the west. Its direction didn’t change much; the landscape, however, did. The hills soon ended. Then, the forests were gone as well: we travelled across the grassy plains, with settlements few and far between. Eventually the forests appeared again, followed by hills again (this time smaller than the ones surrounding Crow Rock) soon afterwards. After crossing the hills, the villages and towns became more common, and the fields were plenty.

The lands were significantly colder, too. This wasn’t a big problem for us: we spent some money on a good set of warm clothes. Direwolf, goat and fox were also protected by a thick skin and fur of their own, but it was obvious that the wyvern and the dragon were not comfortable (apparently the ability to breathe fire doesn’t mean there’s a fire burning on the inside). As we reached a town at the coast of a sea (which the compass told us to cross), we have made a decision to send the wyvern and dragon home. Of course, the dragon opposed and insisted on staying. In the end, the only creature to return home was the wyvern, and Gar had to join Sergor on the direwolf (neither of whom liked that too much).

But as we tried to buy a passage across the sea for ourselves and our beasts, we discovered another problem: our money was all but gone, and Crow Rock Lord’s influence was worth nothing in the town. This meant that we had to seek out a few contracts in order to earn money. Lore also felt like he needed rest; he was also aware that people were curious about him not attacking them and burning their town. He planned to capitalize on that, so he picked a spot near the docks and had Bogdan erect a sign, which said:

’U can’t touch this.’

’Unless you have skrilla, then you can.
You can also scratch my ich. I don’t bite
(if you contribute towards my pile)’

Makes me wonder if Lore knew Duncan, actually. Below that, the sign also said, in draconic:

‘If you can read this, I’ll argue with you about anything. 1 gp / 5 min’

Unsurprisingly, nobody took him up on that offer (as draconic-speaking individuals are few and far between), but by the end of the week, he had a modest hoard of about 30 gold pieces worth of gold and silver pieces.

Our company had a bit more luck: between all the contracts (neither of which was too difficult), we managed to collect about 50 gp. But the dwarf earned the most: he bought a cheap but sturdy longbow, some paint and a small iron rod. He spent the week carving a long, legged fire-breathing serpent into the longbow, using the iron to burn black lines on the surface of the bow and paint to make the serpent which twisted around the bow pop out more. The longbow looked marvelous, and although though the serpent looked nothing like it, Bogdan said it was inspired by our dragon. He managed to find a buyer for the bow before he even finished making it — a rich nobleman bought it for about 1600gp. Lore was mighty jealous when he learned of that.

But at last, we had more than enough money for a while: we could buy passage on a ship and we could buy food. Unfortunately, the last ship big enough to take us across was gone so we had to wait. It took about two for a new one to come. With no other contracts, we rested. Bogdan continued on carving in his downtime, selling his carvings, and Lore continued on trying to make the crowd throw money at him for pets and scratces. They both earned some money — and while the luck with the longbow didn’t happen again, Bogdan still managed to make 50 gp of profit. Lore’s hoard was another 60 gp. Gmuk — who nobody kept an eye on during the downtime — managed to contribute a few stolen items, 20 gp 89 sp in cold, hard coins (which were probably also not acquired in legitimate ways). I tried to do my job by singing and performing in the streets, but unfortunately I didn’t earn much. Across two weeks, I only got about 6 gp worth in coins, although some people — probably mostly the poorer one — also gave me food. I base my assumption about their wealth on the fact that more often than not, the food they gave me was rotten. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.

After two weeks, we were finally aboard the ship. It took another day for the ship to actually leave the port, and another half dozen to land on the other side of the sea. The weather was cold, and as soon as we crossed the mountain formation running along the coast, it became even colder, to the point where sometimes, mornings would show grass covered with frost. Lore didn’t take that well, but he was adamant about not returning. I think we all knew this will spell eventual doom for the dragon, so when we stopped in an outpost which primarily traded furs, we put Bogdan’s money to work. We bought everything they had, hired some help and started making clothes for the dragon. Obviously, people thought we’re ‘‘absolutely retarded’’ — as Bogdan observed — but we didn’t care, and neither did they. After all, our gold was their paycheck. In the mean time, we also bought some warm clothes for ourselves: the tailors claimed we’d be fine even if we made it to the northern edge of the world.

This ordeal delayed us by another week, but eventually the dragon was wrapped in warm furs from head to the tip of his tail. Of course, his clothes prevented him from flying, but he rather didn’t complain as he knew he’d be shown the way home. As we continued to march forward, settlements became rarer and rarer, to the point we wouldn’t see one for days. Forests — which were exclusively spruces at that point — were also getting thinner, eventually yielding way to endless grasslands that were only disturbed by occasional river and small hilly areas.

In one of the valleys of such hills, we fell into a drow ambush. The drow nearly killed Bogdan — he barely made into cover. Once in cover, Bogdan asked the druid if he would throw him his longbow and arrows, saying it made more sense for someone who can’t take much beating to take a ranged role. The druid, of course, disagreed (he had learned a lesson about throwing in his earlier life) and they continued to argue while the rest of us had to deal with the ambush themselves. Fortunately, at least Lore was of help, making sure the fight ended quickly. Bogdan and Josh continued to argue throughout the entire rest that followed.

Eventually, the compass has led us out of the hills again, into the wide plains. The grassland was full of snowy patches, and the nights were now really cold. Too cold for Lore, despite the clothes. In one of the nights, a blizard appeared out of nowhere. Lore, as well as other beasts, used his big body to shield us from cold and snow. The blizard was followed by immense cold. Gmuk fared the worst of the company, with a few frostbites and nearly hypothermic, but he survived.

Lore didn’t. When we woke up, our beasts already shook the snow off them. Lore was completely still, looking like an undisturbed pile of snow. At first, we hoped that he managed to survive, but after pushing the snow off him it became apparent that he’s dead, frozen solid. The prayers were said, to whom depended on which gods one followed (if any). The druid, having no gods to pray to, instead prayed to spirits and the nature. We didn’t have enough time for proper burial, though: with Lore gone, we had to redistribute our supplies among the other beasts (we did salvage the furs in Lore’s clothes, though, in case we needed them). With only three beasts and seven of us, we also couldn’t ride (at least, not all of us). This further complicated our food supply calculations, as we were going to move ahead slower. In the end, we guessed that we can afford to walk forward for a few more days, so we pressed on.

About half dozen days later, we arrived to a land permanently covered with snow, with some low, but pointy and rocky mountains rising out of the flatland. The one we came to first was even populated and had a lot of buildings: big homesteads and buildings that we didn’t know the purpose of (but at the end, it turned out that crops are grown in those buildings). The population of the settlement was about 500 people. All buildings in the settlement were warm — hot, even — which seemed unusual at first, until we were shown pools full of boiling hot water, coming out of the ground.

We agreed on a few days rest in the settlement — this time, we kept our eyes on Gmuk at all times, so he wouldn’t try to steal. Bogdan and Sergor climbed the mountain on which the settlement was built. From the top, they saw other mountains, shaped just like the ones we were on, except smaller. One of them featured a camp of sorts. This warranted a second look. We were all but ready to travel closer, but the people of the settlement gave us a spying glass, so we could observe from afar. Sergor and Bogdan then climbed the mountain again, observing the encampnent with the spyglass. They told us they saw ship in the middle of the settlement. This seemed strange and unbelievable as well, but the locals told us more about the ship: it’s called Naglfar and is said to harbour the undead. This is not at all encouraging. Especially not since the compass seems to point at the ship (or at least to the encampment surrounding it). Bogdan and Sergor double-checked: they rode their beasts around for the entire day, but the compass kept pointing at the ship and encampment.

So this is our message we’re sending you, we hope you see it (locals promised they’ll include it on the sledge-train that leaves for a trading outpost closer to the sea in a few days). In the next few days, we’ll try to infiltrate the settlement and destroy the artifact hiding in it. We don’t know whether we’ll be successful. We surely hope that you will be hearing from us again, but a part of me fears — as the dwarf would put it — this could be the last letter we ever send your ass.

But seriosusly, see you next time. Hopefully.

— [Kvothe’s signature]
— [Sergor’s mark]
— [ᛒᛟᚷᛞᚨᚾᛋ᛫ᛋᛁᚷᚾᚨᛏᚢᚱᛖ᛬ᚢᛋᛜ᛫ᛞᚹᚨᚱᚡᛖᚾ᛫ᚱᚢᚾᛖᛋ]
— [Gar’s scribble]
— [Gmuk’s fingerprint]
— [Kali’s sign]
— [Druid’s squiggles]

Epistle 3, D&D edition: reference guide

The story can be found here

Context, timing of the story

Understanding the background that lead to the story being written is not necessary, but I’ll include it. Long story short: I compared our seemingly never-coming D&D to similarly coming video game Half Life 3 (Half Life 2 episode 3). Yesterday, on the 25th of August, 2 AM local time the writer for Half Life series posted a blog post (Epistle 3), which detailed a plot for the never-coming Half Life game (archive, with names corrected). This gave us a closure, but also pretty much confirmed that a much-expected Half Life sequel isn’t coming.

Since I like to be on the bleeding edge of memes and references, I spent about 4-5 hours writing a story that would — just like Epistle3 — conclude the campaign in lieu of actual sessions.

The plan absolutely worked, as I care a whole lot less about playing D&D with that group now that the story is written. However, it’s worth noting that:

  • I still hope for further sessions. I just won’t be butthurt when my party fails to have time for a D&D session for the fifth consecutive month
  • The story as written is not what was supposed to happen in campaign.

I have toyed with the idea about making D&D into a Half Life 2 episode 3 we never got, but eventually decided against it for multiple reasons. The fact I binned the idea made it perfect for the ‘fake’ campaign ending, as I didn’t want to spoil the actual campaign for my party … if we ever get back to it 🙁

Before we go on to the rest of the references, be warned: I play too much Counter Strike: Global Offensive for my own good. Readers of my How to Train Your Dragon-based webcomic can attest to that.

Note on homebrew stuff

I think metallic dragons in D&D look retarded, so I homebrewed the “you can’t tell alignment by color in this campaign” rule (therefore: chromatic dragons aren’t unecessarily evil). This works because some of my players thought alignment is a dumb concept, so we agreed to just ignore the alignment part of D&D. Don’t judge, we’re fucking plebs, me as well but especially the players.

Notable Characters (PCs and NPCs)

The full cast of player characters comprises 5 people:

  • Gar, 25-30 year old human male. Paladin.
  • Kvothe, 16, human male. Gypsy. Bard.
  • Kalgathre Crawflower, human female, ~20. Kali for short. Mage.
  • Nerishana Bearcharger. Female elf, 20. Neri for short. Ranger.
  • Sergor Tigersoul. Male human, 22-25-something years old. Barbarian, wants to multi-class druid.

There’s also about half dozen of named NPCs:

  • Lore, the red dragon.
  • Duncan Shields (only mentioned tangentially).
  • Bogdan, the dwarf
  • Joshua Nissan, the druid
  • Gmuk, a goblin the party captured in the first few sessions

Nerishana

The backstory of Nerishana is referenced in the story, where the dragon is said to be helping to solve the ‘elven overpopulation problem’.

According to her backstory, she grew up in a nomadic elven tribe. The clan started to number too many, so the leader of the clan decided that each youngest (probably meant as in ‘not firstborn’) child has to leave the tribe after the rite of adulthood. They may only return once they have proven their worth in the world. (In short: if you combine the Dalish from Dragon Age: Origins and Quarians from Mass Effect, you get basically this)

In previous sessions, she started to call ‘Lore’ a ‘chicken fucker’. I don’t like that, and by extension, the dragon doesn’t like that either.

Lore

According to my notes the dragon wasn’t named — despite being a potentially major NPC, so I had to make up a name. Why not a CS:GO reference? The dragon only appears to speak draconic.

Duncan, Bogdan and Joshua Nissan

Those characters are named after/reference real people. Duncan ‘Thooorin’ Shields is a CS:GO analyst. Bogdan and Joshua ‘steel’ Nissan are two CS:GO players, who had a bit of a drama some time back. Both Bogdan and Josh were created specifically for the story.

Game background

Before the events in this letter, the party was following the road north. They spotted a mine, so they took a detour and investigated the mine. The mine led to some caverns, inside of which there was a bandit camp. Bandits didn’t like the intruders, so the situation eventually ended in a fight, which ended with party killing everyone.

Memes and references to events and obscured stuff (in the story)

Still Alive

Well, there’s plenty of excuses to be had, but there’s no sense crying over every mistake. We just keep trying until we run out of cake. The quest gets done and you bring some loot home for the chars who are still alive.

This bit references a song from video game Portal, Still Alive (fun fact: Portal games happen in the same universe as the Half Life series)

Smudged text

Smudged text is not a reference. Instead, it is only meant to avoid spoiling the next planned segment in the campaign for the party (assuming the campaign continues).

Nerishana’s end

Is what happens if her player calls Lore a ‘chicken fucker’ ever again.

Bogdan’s/Lore’s sign

‘U can’t touch this’ is a reference to a song by MC Hammer. Skrilla basically means money. The writer of the letter making a connection to Duncan is referencing Thorin (CS:GO analyst, IRL Duncan) using the phrase when thanking a website that sponsored his videos, AlphaDraft, for the money. ‘If you can read this, I’ll argue with you about anything. 1 gp / 5 min’ refers to Monty Python’s Argument Clinic.

Bogdan’s serpent longbow

Is a reference to a sniper gun in Counter Strike: Global Offensive (Dragon Lore. The gun is available in various levels of wear, with the shiniest version (Factory New) selling for just under €1600 at the time of writing.

Bogdan asking Josh to throw him his bow and arrows

This references a mini-drama that happened in CS:GO community some time ago. IRL Bogdan and steel (IRL Joshua Nissan) were playing a CS:GO match. They were on the same team. During some round, Bogdan got dropped to 1 HP, and asked steel to drop him an AWP (long-range sniper rifle), because at a single point of health, he can do more from the distance. steel, of course, didn’t want to drop him an awp. Since both players are semi-famous in the scene (and since this happened during a live stream), this exchange became a hot topic for all armchair CSGO experts on reddit and gave us the SIMPLE ISNT BOGDAN meme.

Joshua and the throwing lesson

IRL Joshua Nissan (steel) was a member of the CSGO pro team IBuyPower, which was involved in a match fixing scandal. This resulted in steel (and others) being banned from competing in Valve-sponsored CSGO events (as well as some other pro leagues).

Naglfar

Since Borealis would make the HL3 connection too obvious, I decided to substitute the ship for a different one. The ship was delivered by Witcher 3 (which itself took it from the Norse mythology)

Stan

Multiple things on this page reference Eminem’s song Stan (and its Middle-Eastern themed parody):

  • The first and last sentence of the last paragraph (excluding the greeting above the signatures) are modified lyrics from the last Stan’s segment of the song.
  • Same with the d20 bit in the title (the ‘it’s prohibited by religion’ bit is from the parody)
  • The description in the document’s head (picked up by some social networks when embedding) features lyrics of this song, modified to include a How to Train Your Dragon as well as a meta reference.

Why Sergor’s company

No specific reason (and by that I mean it’s not inspired by the campaign itself. In the campaign, the party isn’t even a ‘company,’ instead it’s just a group that has no reason to stick together, thus not even worthy of the name).

For the purposes of this story, this had to be a company and it had to be named, so I looked at the names I’ve had at my disposal and figured which ones are my favourites. I look at which characters aren’t weaklings. Sergor won.


The story can be found here