So This is Christmas, What Have You Done?

So This is Christmas, What Have You Done?

I’ve survived. I think that’s a fairly accurate summary of 2021. It has not been the all-out catastrophe that was 2020, or even the minefield of 2019, but instead, more of a quiet struggle to keep on an even keel as the world continues to fall apart around me. But I’ve built up some resilience, thanks to NHS-funded therapy and a gradual acceptance that this is probably what life is now, so I’d better make the most of it while I can. 

So in that vein, there were a few things I accomplished this year and a few things to be proud of, believe it or not. 

I finished a D&D campaign that I had written completely myself, based around a dragon who’s poaching significant figures from their place in time and placing them in a living museum. Ironically, I did this about 12 months before the Fizban’s book came out, which would have been extremely helpful, but what’s done is done. I’ve had a lot of fun playing D&D over the years, but this is perhaps the most joyous campaign yet – ostensibly thanks to good company, even if we did have to do most of it over Discord. It also gave me purpose in a time that was sorely lacking it – I needed to write the next chapter of the adventure each week, I needed to be ready to run it every week. There was no time for losing myself in panic when I had shit to do. 

I also tentatively started a novel towards the end of the year. It’s very, very early stages and like many other projects, has the potential to peter out without significant deadlines in place but it’s a start. I took part in the Writer’s HQ Write a Tiny Novel challenge and that really gave me a kick up the arse – I’ve definitely been missing community when it comes to writing. My university days are almost 10 years behind me (and isn’t that terrifying) but I miss having that feeling of camaraderie. I’ve signed up to the 12-month WHQ membership in an effort to give myself some accountability, so we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully, that threat of wasting money (after all, I am of northern stock) will shift me into gear. 

Like many years, I’ve tried to read as much as possible, and this year, I’m up to 74 books, surpassing my original target of 60. Books have always been an escape – according to my mum, I was devouring books with words at the tender age of two – and I’ve needed that more than ever. I’ve mostly read new things, but a few old favourites have cropped up too. I can’t wait for the next Locked Tomb book to rear its head, and I’ve really been diving deep into my Star Wars Extended Universe, because I’m nothing if not predictable. 

Of course there are still things to aim for. We got a cross trainer and while I did pretty well with it in the summer, I’ve gone into hibernation mode this winter, so I really need to pick that back up. I actually need to continue writing the book, and setting myself appropriate deadlines – here’s hoping the aforementioned WHQ membership will help with that. I’ve got better at not staring at my phone, but there’s always more I can do. And it’s all too easy to slip out of connection with people – so I’m going to try my best to keep up with those important to me.

Also, I drastically failed at The Year of the Vamp. Maybe if we’d had more lockdowns and a better stock of videos on Amazon Prime, who knows. 

Of course, this wouldn’t be a round-up without me listing a few of the things I’ve enjoyed most this year, so here’s what I’ve been into in 2021. Obviously, not all of it is from 2021 (Type O Negative definitely) but it’s what’s been getting me through.

Music
AFI – Bodies; Creeper – American Noir; Quicksand – Distant Populations; Hayley Kiyoko – I’m Too Sensitive for This Shit; Type O Negative – October Rust

Podcasts (yes, this is the year I discovered podcasts)
Take A Look Around; I Don’t Even Own A Television; Dragon Talk; SmartLess

Books
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine; Nothing I Do Is Funny Anymore by Rose Damian; The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara; the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson; Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Video games
Ghost of Tsushima (PS5); Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (PS5); The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Switch); God of War (PS4); Mass Effect Legendary Edition (PS4); Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)

Movies
Black Widow; Dune; My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission; Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans

TV
What We Do In the Shadows; Hawkeye; The Mandalorian; Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba; Future Man

The End of A Road

This weekend, I wrote the final encounter of the D&D campaign I’ve been working on since last year. It was a bittersweet afternoon – on the one hand, it feels great to finally reach the conclusion and it’ll be fun to actually put that on the table (in person!), but on the other, what the hell am I going to do with my time now that I’ve finished? 

It’s no secret that D&D has been a saving grace for me over the past two years. As my mental health took a deep dive off a cliff (more about that here), it was one of my key coping mechanisms. Regular routine plus a creative endeavour equals a somewhat happier Robyn. So, it’s understandable that a part of me is a little scared of the current phase coming to an end. Of course, it’s not the end of my group’s game nights – far from it. If anything, we’re finally moving back to in-person sessions, but I may well be taking a back seat from the DM duties to let someone else take a turn.

Throughout the last nine or so months, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that running a game on Discord does need you to step in more than you’d like to move the story along. I’ve learned that dropping story threads doesn’t really matter as long as everyone’s having fun. I’ve learned that it’s okay to throw RuPaul’s Drag Race UK queens in as random characters when your party needs you to invent yet another shopkeeper. (A’Whora, I hope I’ve done you proud as the town’s maverick tailor.) But most of all, I’ve finally found joy in creating things again. 

I’d started to get my mojo back a little bit before the pandemic began. I’ve dabbled in fanfiction since I was a teenager, and I wrote a few video game-inspired pieces before COVID rolled around, but then, it did, and any hope of me writing more – whether original fiction or otherwise – seemed very, very far away. But D&D gave me a deadline and a focus, while also giving me some flexibility, and absolving me of the need for my writing to be anything but fun. The pressure’s off – I only need to make sure the people at the table are having a good time, and as long as they are, then my work is done. 

The campaign may be over for now, but I’ve still got a good number of story threads we can pick up on, should we ever want to return to the city of Phlan. I’ve even figured out ways I could connect it to the new Feywild module, if we start playing that one. When it comes to D&D, the story is never truly over. 

The question still remains: what do I do with my time? Technically, there’s nothing stopping me writing a whole new campaign – I just don’t necessarily have a place to test it. I can world-build, craft NPCs and even write lore around the setting, and when you put it like that, it’s basically writing a story, right? So, maybe every Sunday, I can just sit down and write. It’s more intimidating than D&D, that’s for sure, but if I keep thinking “story” and not “novel”, it feels a lot less insurmountable. 

On the other hand, I have a lot of Assassin’s Creed still on my PlayStation hard drive. Send me creative vibes, please. 

An Open World: How Assassin’s Creed Kept Me Sane in Lockdown

Eivor from Assassin's Creed Valhalla

I’m standing on top of a hill in Gloucestershire – Cleeve Hill, in fact. It’s not the same as the one I see off in the distance every day as I head out for a government-sanctioned walk, but it’s older, more primal. I hear voices emerging from Belas Knap, an old barrow burial ground, so I put my hood up and stalk on over. Bandits are ransacking the graves, so I take my trusty axe from my belt, raise it high and go on to mete out my justice, Vikingr style. In this moment, I’m not Robyn – I’m Eivor of the Raven Clan, and England is mine to command.

Of course, I’m talking about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. (Belas Knap is an English Heritage site now and probably has security up the wazoo – no bandits about these days.) I’ve racked up about 75 hours of gameplay since getting it for Christmas, and I’m nowhere near the end of the game. It’s virtually all I’ve played for the past three months, and I’m unlikely to stop any time soon. More than any other game series, Assassin’s Creed has been a saving grace throughout the endless disappointments of the 2020s, and without it, I would likely be in a very dark place indeed.

In January 2019, I was formally diagnosed with anxiety, but I’ve been plagued with it all my life in truth. I’m a worrier, and I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. My anxiety got worse throughout the year as my parents split up and I finally got diagnosed with a thyroid condition after weeks of dismissals from the doctors. I got a virus in the following January that wiped out all my energy, but after I got over that, everything seemed like it was starting to settle down. I had higher hopes for the year.

Then COVID-19 rolled into town and it all went down the shitter. 

Suddenly, faced with this viral threat I couldn’t control, I started Googling every last little symptom I experienced. Work slowed down to the point where I was staring at a screen for hours with nothing to do, having gone through even imaginary bullshit tasks to keep myself occupied. These things combined do very bad things to one’s brain. I was convinced I was worthless, that I had some kind of life-limiting disease and at worst, I would pass it on to my partner who already has a weaker immune system thanks to his diabetes. After numerous panic attacks and a lot of sleepless nights, I finally got my shit together, spoke to my GP and started medication. I embarked on CBT sessions and started getting some semblance of myself back. I’m still not there, but I’m getting better. 

And when I start to fall back into that pit of endless despair, Assassin’s Creed is there to steer me back. I started with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in the summer, a game I hadn’t really clicked with before. It felt too overwhelming when I first started playing it – there were an insane amount of quests, many daily or weekly ones with relatively short timers on it, and an almost endless world to explore. As it turned out, all I needed was a global pandemic. I dove back into Odyssey’s version of the Peloponnesian War with aplomb, sailing from island to island to track down each little dot on the map until I could say with certainty I had seen it all. Each quest is designed to hit you in short, sharp fashion and you can complete a step of a quest, or one of the shorter side quests, in just a few minutes. The dopamine hit was real, and I found myself dipping in for half an hour here, a couple of hours there to feel as if I’d actually done something with my day. As Kassandra, I felt accomplished – a far cry from how I felt as myself. 

In a summer where travel was largely forbidden or dangerous, the chance to swan off to Greece and its glorious islands, even if through a screen, was more welcome than ever. And all the while, I was exploring ruins before they became ruined, strolling through squares and past landmarks that I had seen in real life (I often joke that I was able to navigate Florence and Venice thanks to my extensive knowledge of Assassin’s Creed II, but it’s also a hilarious truth) and soaking up the sunshine on beaches and hilltops inbetween stabbing people with my spear. It was the ideal escape. 

Fast forward to December, and I finally got my hands on a PS5. After blitzing through Spider-Man: Miles Morales and dabbling in Sackboy: A Big Adventure, I eventually got around to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in January – just in time for Lockdown 3.0. This lockdown has felt different to the others. The first time, we didn’t know what was happening, and while it absolutely knocked me down and spat in my face, I at least had the summer months to look forward to. November’s lockdown was nothing in comparison and we had the promise of Christmas waiting in the wings, even if it turned out to be a smaller, quieter affair than most of us were hoping for. This time, it’s been dismal, cold and dark, so perhaps Valhalla proved to be the right tonic for that. The beauty of Norway in all its frigid glory gave way to a more untamed England, but one that’s still recognisable – so if I could only explore my back garden until Easter, then maybe I could rediscover my homeland from a different perspective. 

My favourite parts of Valhalla have been finding those places I know and love and seeing just how different they are. I delighted in raiding Evesham Abbey – the place I grew up – and seeing what would become my hometown burned to shreds. Traipsing around the Forest of Dean (or Denu, as it was known then) reminded me of how magical it still feels to this day, and gave me a desire to seek out the more hidden, pagan areas of Gloucestershire that I know I’m yet to find. Cumbria, the land of my birth, wasn’t really part of England as the Vikings knew it yet, but I galloped hard across Eurvicscire, seeking the breathtaking view of the dales. 

Some of the game’s most memorable bits are hidden in ‘world events’ – little sidequests that you stumble upon as you roam around the map. They have fixed locations, unlike the time-sensitive quests of Odyssey that could pop up anywhere, but through the world events, I’ve discovered an England like no other. I have met the 9th century equivalent of Keith Flint from the Prodigy, who proceeded to yell ‘smack my bishop’ as I pounded my fists into the face of a particularly obnoxious priest. I’ve brought a band back together after they fell out, springing one member from jail and using my poetry skills to give another her muse back. Axehead might be a favourite of the AC community but I much preferred meeting Degolas the archer, who smeared his arrows with pig shit and gassed out his entire family home, and then shoving him into a much needed bath. 

There have been gentler moments, too, like the game of hide and seek between Eivor and a rambunctious group of children, and the time when Eivor recovered a fellow (dead) warrior’s axe from children playing games with it, thus allowing him to enter Valhalla. Moreso than any other AC protagonist, Eivor carries a measured wisdom alongside her violent nature – the soul of a skald, you could say. It’s in these moments of empathy and care that I feel hopeful. Sure, it’s great fun to go smash some Saxon heads, but little vignettes like this keep drawing me back in for more, if only to distract myself from the cruel world outside. There is always more to find, always more to explore, and always more to lose myself in. 

I’ve already mentioned that excessive Googling of symptoms is one of the things I struggle most with in my battle against my anxiety, and Valhalla has proved an excellent distraction. Not only does it get me out of my head, but it means I’ve got something in my hands that isn’t a phone. The lightning-quick PS5 loading times mean that I don’t have the opportunity to search for anything, and I’ve fallen back on a physical notebook to jot down the requirements for any altar offerings. It’s not something I can do all the time – after all, I can hardly drop work to go and play the PlayStation if I’m feeling particularly twitchy – but knowing that I’ve got that escape ready when I need it is often comfort enough.

I am hoping that this lockdown will be the last one. While I know I’m going to struggle getting back into society when it finally does end, I know that at least there is a place I can go to when things get too overwhelming. Ninth-century England aside, there are numerous Assassin’s Creed games I haven’t tackled fully yet – Assassin’s Creed Revelations among them – so when the stresses of the present become too much, I can leap back into history and explore the world from a different view. 

Becoming a True Dungeon Master – The Start of My Own Campaign

Becoming a True Dungeon Master – The Start of My Own Campaign

Throughout the pandemic, my friends and I have kept up with our weekly Wednesday game sessions, moving them online until we can hang out for real again. It could happen eventually, you never know! In that time, we’ve tried out a few different RPGs, such as Edge of the Empire and Numenera, but we’ve always come back to D&D. There are several good reasons for that – it was how we met, it was the first game we ever played together, and it feels like home. We know the system, and it’s easy to pick up and play, which makes all the difference when you’re trying to play it online through Discord. 

After running a year-long campaign and several other shorter campaigns, I figured by this point, I’m not a bad DM, and I made the decision to finally take the plunge and start writing my own campaign. Set in Phlan, a long-neglected part of the Forgotten Realms with a brief mention in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, my campaign was originally supposed to be a series of brief one-shots with a city setting to link them, and somehow evolved into a full-blown story with twists and turns and a mystery to solve. Not only has it been really good fun, but it’s also been great for me mentally – to actually have something to work on, with a weekly deadline, means that I dedicate at least a couple of hours a week to something creative. It’s not a foolproof way of keeping the lockdown demons away, but at least for those few hours a week, my focus is substantially diverted, and I’ll take all of that I can get at the moment.

However, there’s a big difference between picking up a pre-written module and crafting your own, so here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Listen to your players

On the whole, the big pre-written modules like Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal are all crafted in a way that’s easy for you to follow, and are no doubt going to excite and entertain your players. The D&D creative team have years of experience, backed up with decades of material to draw from. They know what they’re doing. As a novice campaign writer, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know I’m having fun doing it. I also need to make sure my players are, too. 

So after each section of my campaign, I ask them what they’d like to do and see if there’s anything else I can add to develop their characters’ stories in particular. I’ve played games with groups who love to fight, fight, fight, whereas other groups want to go and explore the setting and make friends with a whole bunch of NPCs, so getting regular feedback means that I can develop the campaign in a way that fits with my players’ tastes. I’m also making notes as we go – whenever they make a suggestion in-game, or take a guess at what might be happening behind the scenes, I jot it down to see if I can somehow incorporate it or use it. The ideas might not always work for my purposes, but sometimes, there’s a little gem in there that might reinforce something I was trying to do or actually be much better than what I was planning!

Develop an overall plot – but don’t be afraid to mix it up!

When I first came up with the idea for my campaign, I took a look at other modules and figured I was probably looking at around 10 chapters. I took my idea and figured out how to best split it up into those chapters – much like I would if I was plotting out a proper story. Then, I’ve been working on each chapter as time goes on. Crucially, I didn’t try and write each chapter up front. I looked at the first few, to get the adventure off the ground, and then I’m working on each one as it comes up. This means I can incorporate side quests, either at the request of my players or if it would suit the story at that point, and I can change my plan as the players do and encounter different things. While I want to keep the central thread of my story very much the focus, I want my players to come to it in a way that feels natural for them – after all, D&D is very much a collaboration. I also find that whenever I prep anything, I’ll maybe use about 60% of it and the rest will be off-the-cuff, as a result of how my players react. So there’s no point in writing too far ahead!

Keep a primer

In the middle of a session, someone is going to ask the name of the bartender, or of a random passerby on the street that they’ve somehow talked to. If that character rears their head again, you better remember who they are. I picked up a cheap project book, split into sections, that allows me to keep a primer on characters, key locations, and other details. I don’t write down much – maybe a short paragraph on each item that includes a brief description and how the players first interacted with it – but it means that if that person or place ever comes up again, I can quickly flick back. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to use ALL the gel pens. 

I’d also recommend getting a few tables that you can roll from to help you generate those ideas initially. The name table in the back of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is invaluable, but I also recently picked up the Roll & Play dungeon master’s toolkit, which is fantastic and has lots of inspiration for not just names and character descriptions, but items, Wild Magic surges and even critical roll effects.

Use software that keeps you organised

Scrivener is a lifesaver for D&D campaigns. I bought it for other writing projects, but it’s been ideal to keep everything all together in one place – from character notes to adventure outlines, I can pull up whatever I need mid-session.

Another fantastic alternative is Microsoft OneNote – I used this for years for blogs and stories, until I made the switch to Mac – or Evernote, if you’re not a fan of Windows programs. Essentially, anything that works like an on-screen notebook is perfect for this. You don’t want to be rummaging around your folders trying to find the notes on Character X, or the map for Dungeon Y. 

Find a decent map generator

Who has two thumbs and is terrible at drawing maps? This gal right here. I suck at anything artistic, and lo and behold, that includes maps. I’ve found two workarounds to this. First of all, I picked up the official Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated box for actual dungeon settings, so I can piece together my dungeons using pre-made tiles. Secondly, I discovered an online tool called Dungeon Scrawl, which is a very simple web-based dungeon mapping program. While I’m sure you can do all kinds of fun stuff with Dungeon Scrawl, I still have a lot to learn, but it was ideal for bringing my randomly generated dungeon, built by the tables in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to life. And, there are plenty of different styles you can give to your map, so if you want to share it with your party, it’ll look great!

Have a good dice bot on your server

We’ve been using Discord to play (other gaming platforms are available) because it’s free and we all have it for other gaming purposes, and one thing that’s crucial is having a decent dice bot. We spent the first part of our latest D&D run using a dice bot built for FFG’s Star Wars system – our first campaign – that had a polyhedral dice setting. Not good enough when it comes to D&D!

Avrae, the official D&D Beyond Discord bot, has easy-to-use commands and pulls a load of extra info from the SRD. You can integrate character sheets if you want to, or pull up spell information, or keep track of treasure. It requires a bit of effort from your players so they can get what they need out of it, but it’s an excellent resource. 

However, in true Dungeon Master style, I roll my dice behind the screen each session. Despite the fact that nobody is physically opposite the screen. It just feels right, you know?

We’re now a few months into my campaign and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. If you’ve been wary of taking the plunge into the deep, deep waters of campaign creation, don’t be afraid! Just take it steady, dip your toes into the shallows and before you know it, you’ll have a rich and exciting world for your players to enjoy.

2021 – Year of the Vamp

2021 – Year of the Vamp

New Year’s resolutions usually suck. I usually suck at keeping them. So this year, I’m not going to bother. I have enough that I’m trying to do — avoid getting COVID, make sure my anxiety doesn’t spiral again and result in any further mental breakdowns, and try several new recipes from the new Nigella book (she liked my photo on Instagram the other day, 2021 has already peaked). 

However, there’s one thing that’s been playing on my mind all night. I made a lofty claim that I’d watched over 100 vampire movies in my lifetime, a claim that I egregiously undershot. Instead, I sit at a measly 52. So 2021 is the year of the vamp — I’m going to do my duty and see if I can get to that glorious 100, or at least somewhat close. 

Armed with a Wikipedia list and numerous streaming platforms, I have a plethora of films to add to my list, from some Hammer Horrors to some weird European stuff. It could get wild. I’ve largely ticked off the teenage stuff, but who knows what Netflix has lurking in its bowels! 

Will I review all of them? No. Did I have an idea for a podcast series where I talk about the trashiest vampire films from the 80s to 2010s? Yes. Will it ever happen? Who knows. At the very least, Queen of the Damned is probably going to get a rewatch, and I’m going to drive my friends mad with Marius quotes. It’s the year of the vamp, and here’s my public declaration of commitment. I’ve got 48 films to watch, so let’s go.