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.
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.
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.
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.
So, this coronavirus lockdown thing is pretty shit. Outside of work, I have no real discernible skills that I can put to use in this time, especially as I’ve got an ‘at-risk’ person at home (unless you want anything proofreading remotely, or some help building your latest D&D character!), but what I CAN do is share a list of streamable media that may help you feel better while you’re staring down the endless pit of despair that is the state of the world at the moment. Enjoy!
NB: I’ve tried to stray away from the ‘obvious’ – for example, EVERYONE knows Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the absolute best and most feel-good thing around – but I have included a few old classics that you might not know are on your platform of choice. I’ve also left Disney+ alone because not everyone has it, and you tend to know what you’re getting in to there. This list is based on the UK regions of each streaming platforms, so availability may vary.
Comfort food viewing
Here’s the good stuff – easily bingeable, reasonably warm and cosy, and all-together great television.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Amazon Prime, Seasons 1–7)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include my favourite TV show of all time! It has its problems, but having just rewatched it over the last few months, it still give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s my ultimate comfort watch. Sad about stuff? Want to see the apocalypse get solved? Watch Buffy punch some evil and listen to Spike snark about something and everything will be okay.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Netflix, Seasons 1–14)
If you’ve never watched this before… well, now is the perfect time. The Gang are truly the worst of humanity, and no matter how much you cringe at their escapades, you still can’t look away. Particularly great episodes include Thundergun Express, Charlie Work, Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games and of course, The Nightman Cometh.
The Toys That Made Us (Netflix, Seasons 1–3)
This documentary series about how all your favourite toys were made is extremely soothing television. There are some truly fascinating stories behind the origins of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, how Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because a best-selling toy line, and the longevity of the Star Wars toy line, and there’s also plenty of factory floor conveyor belt footage. Almost as good as watching Viennetta get made.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (All4, Season 1)
Six episodes of pure comic genius. If ever I need cheering up, this is the one. Imagine all the shittest horror movies and B-movie sci-fis you’ve ever seen, and then stick Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade in the middle of it. Bloody magnificent.
Elementary (Amazon Prime, Seasons 1–5)
What’s more cosy than Lucy Liu solving crimes? Nothing, that’s what. Okay, I guess Jonny Lee Miller’s in this as well, but Lucy Liu still does a LOT of crime solving. With far more satisfying character development than the BBC series ever had, Elementary is the Sherlock adaptation we didn’t know we’d been waiting for.
This Country (BBC iPlayer, Seasons 1–3)
I’m a current resident of the Cotswolds, but I grew up in a ‘town’ not too dissimilar to the village featured in This Country, and I know that rural living is boring as hell when you’re a kid. Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe’s escapades surrounding village life are not only extremely relatable (at least, for me) but are absolutely hilarious. There are some really poignant moments in this, too, but really, we’re here for Kurtan’s bitching and Kerry’s anecdotes about Swindon Town Football Club.
What We Do in the Shadows (BBC iPlayer, Season 1)
Building on Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s wonderful film, the series of What We Do in the Shadows focuses on a group of Staten Island vampires, including your favourite and mine, Matt Berry. The series is equally as funny as the film, if not more so, with just as much warmth, and with perhaps even more ridiculous situations. A verified supernatural pick-me-up.
I bloody love sci-fi. Most of the time, people instantly think of the super serious stuff, but there’s plenty of silly to love. Sometimes, you want a hard-hitting conspiracy thriller but in this time of crisis, here are a few series that’ll make you smile, rather than twist your brain too much.
I miss this show SO MUCH. I was gutted it only got two seasons. Based on the novels by Douglas Adams, it follows ‘holistic detective’ Dirk Gently and unwitting sidekick Todd (Elijah Wood!) as they try and solve murders, disappearances and more through the interconnectedness of all things. There could be aliens. There might just be different universes. There’s definitely some body-swapping. It’s got tons of charm and some outstanding wardrobe choices – kudos for having the best made-up band t-shirt in the world.
Star Trek: The Original Series (Netflix, Seasons 1–3)
Boldly go back to where it all began on Netflix with TOS. Netflix has ALL the Star Trek, and while I can heartily recommend most of it, there’s something about TOS and all its batshit insanity that makes it the perfect watch at the moment.
The dynamic between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is still some of the most compelling viewing in the Trek universe, and of course, there are always plenty of big-ass space clouds in case you think things are getting a bit too deep. I watch Trek on a Monday night (virtually, and have done for years in its various different guises) with my best friend and we send each other snarky comments about it. Seeing as this is the closest you’ll get to movie night with your pals, I’d suggest you get on Facebook Messenger/WhatsApp/iMessage and do the same.
Orphan Black (Netflix, Seasons 1–5)
Introduced to me by the aforementioned best friend, Orphan Black is also absolutely mental. Watching Tatiana Maslany play at least four different characters an episode is like watching art in motion, especially when one of those characters is an uptight soccer mom (Alison is the absolute best and I will fight anyone that disagrees) and the next is a scam artist who is pretending to be a police officer. Good thing it’s also got the fabulous Felix to tie it together. If you’re after a series that’ll bring up the good ol’ Netflix ‘are you still watching this?’ screen, this is the one.
Farscape (Amazon Prime, Seasons 1–4)
Take one astronaut, throw him through a wormhole into a universe where all the aliens either have English or Australian accents, put him on a ship that’s ALIVE and in a symbiotic relationship with its pilot, plus add some Jim Henson puppets for good measure and you have the glorious, glorious mess that is Farscape. There’s so much cheese, but it’s so good.
Misfits (All4, Seasons 1–4)
I imagine most people reading this watched Misfits back in the day, but this teen drama about superhero delinquents only gets better with every rewatch. This video says it all. Go forth and relive.
I’ve saved the anime for its own section, but here’s some of the best Western animation I keep returning to when in doubt. A mix of epic stories, emotional coming-of-age tales and dubstep bees.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (Netflix, Season 1)
Possibly the best discovery I’ve made on Netflix this year, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a whimsical journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape, filled with mutated beasts and insects who have taken over the surface world. Kipo, a ‘burrow girl’ who dwells underground, suddenly finds herself thrust onto the surface and manages to survive through the power of friendship. Kipo’s optimism and selflessness is exactly what we need right now, so be sure to give this a try. It’s 10 episodes, what have you got to lose?
Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix, Seasons 1–3)
If you’ve never gone near A:TLA before, don’t worry – there’s no judgement here. Now’s the perfect time to start. It’s a bit of a slog through the first few episodes, but once Team Avatar make it to Kyoshi Island, you’re rewarded with an epic tale of magic, the cost of war and the bonds of friendship. It’s funny and heartwarming but also deadly serious – even though it’s a kid’s show, it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. Some of the big fantasy epics on HBO could learn a lot from Avatar.
The Dragon Prince (Netflix, Seasons 1–3)
Once you’ve burned through Avatar, you might want to give The Dragon Prince a try. Developed by several members of the original Avatar team, this Netflix-exclusive has much of the same warmth while deftly handling politics, bereavement and familial ties. Also, there’s a very cute dragon and excellent LGBTQ+ representation to boot.
Transformers: Robots in Disguise (Netflix, Seasons 1–2)
It’s no secret – I love Transformers. I love the stupid cheesy Michael Bay films, the original cartoons and pretty much everything else. However, Robots in Disguise is probably one of the best Transformers properties in recent years in terms of having a decent story, great characterisation and yes, of course, some big stompy robot fun. Bumblebee and his squad of misfits are stranded on Earth, separated from Optimus Prime, and living in a junkyard. They’re tracking down Decepticons and making horrendous puns. It’s great.
Tales of Arcadia (Netflix: Trollhunters Seasons 1–3, 3Below Seasons 1–2)
It’s impossible to recommend just Trollhunters or just 3Below, so here’s my love letter to both of them. In the sleepy suburb of Arcadia, teen misfit Jim suddenly finds himself in the middle of an epic war between forces of light and dark, becoming the titular Trollhunter and drags his friends along for good measure. So far, so fantasy. But soon enough, the alien prince and princess of Akiridion-5 crash-land in Arcadia, turning their spaceship into a home, which is where 3Below comes into things.
Both series effortlessly weave into each other, creating a fairytale universe unlike anything in recent memory. All together, they invoke a real childhood sense of glee and mischief, with some outstanding voice talent (and big names like Kelsey Grammar, Nick Offerman and the late Anton Yelchin) on hand to provide proper laughs and real moments of emotion. I totally cried at the ending of Trollhunters.
Anime, my dudes
Most anime fans will recognise the big hitters on this list, but if you’ve never really given anime a try, now’s your chance. Crunchyroll is largely free with ads (you just won’t get the latest episodes), and some of the quintessential classics can be found on Netflix. I’ve largely tried to stay away from the ‘big’ action and sci-fi shows, with a couple of notable exceptions, and have instead focused on some gentler favourites of mine.
In my humble opinion, FMA: Brotherhood is the best anime ever made. I’m probably talking through rose-tinted glasses from my teen years, but one thing still stands to this day – it’s a hell of a ride. Edward and Alphonse Elric use alchemy to try and bring their mother back from the dead and pay the price – Ed loses his arm and leg, and Alphonse loses his entire body.
The series shows their journey from lost children to fully fledged alchemists, taking on a corrupt government and exposing the hidden truths of their craft, all while trying to make each other whole again. It’s beautiful storytelling, and like most good anime, juxtaposes extreme darkness with moments of whimsy and light. I come back to it every few years and am floored by it every time.
Yuri!!! on Ice (Crunchyroll, Season 1)
When it debuted in 2016, Yuri!!! on Ice immediately leapt to the top of the anime charts in Japan and became the most talked-about show in years. Anime often covers less talked-about sports, but figure skating was pretty new territory, and to throw in a love story between its two male lead characters as well? It’s not like “boys’ love” shows are rare, but to become such a cultural phenomenon was something else.
Regardless of the hype, it’s a wonderfully crafted show, and on first watch, I binged all 12 episodes in one go. On the one hand, I was dying to see the relationship between Yuuri, our titular character and hero, and his idol and coach Victor develop, but on the other, I had to know if Yuuri was going to become the world’s best skater, or whether his rival, Russian firebrand Yuri Plisetsky was going to steal those gold medals right from under him. It also has a fantastic theme song.
Sakura Quest (Crunchyroll, Seasons 1–2)
Not much happens in Sakura Quest, in the grand scheme of things. It’s a quiet series, but one that I adored when it first aired. Yoshino, who is struggling to get a job in the big city of Tokyo, accepts a job as the ‘Queen’ of Manoyama, an ailing tourist spot that’s slowly shutting up shop. The story follows her attempt to put the village back on the map, helped by a gang of local residents determined to see their town flourish once again.
As someone who’s worked with a lot of hotels in administration, based in quiet towns that aren’t exactly tourist hotspots any more, I felt a real kinship with Yoshino – even though she’s not from Manoyama, she eventually takes to her new role with determination and tries to do the best she can for the village. Sakura Quest is a slow build, but a very rewarding one.
Fruits Basket (Crunchyroll, Season 1)
I was ecstatic when I found out that Fruits Basket, or Furuba if you’re a fan, was getting a new lease of life. Tohru Honda lives in a tent in the wilderness, following the death of her mother, and finds a new family in the Sohmas, who all transform into zodiac animals when hugged by a member of the opposite sex. The new version follows the manga much more closely and as a result makes for a slower paced yet more involved watch.
Not a huge amount happens throughout the course of the first season as far as plot is concerned, but watching the relationships between the show’s main characters blossom and strengthen over the series is a joy. If you know your fanfic tropes, it’s very much a hurt/comfort kind of series – learning the ins and outs of why each Sohma has inherited their specific zodiac animal and how it’s affected their lives is sometimes a difficult watch, but ultimately very rewarding.
Flying Witch (Crunchyroll, Season 1)
If you’re after some low-key, extremely chill viewing for a quiet night in, Flying Witch is perfect. Makoto, a witch in training, leaves home to go and live with her relatives, where she can practice her witchcraft and learn how to help others in the community. There are talking cats, plenty of broomstick flights, and lots of gentle slice-of-life moments with a supernatural twist.
My Hero Academia (Crunchyroll, Seasons 1–4)
This is pretty much how I got my partner Charlie into anime. My Hero Academia does have plenty of big, stupid action scenes, but it’s also far more than just a Saturday morning cartoon. The line between hero and villain becomes blurred on many occasions, and the show handles the question of ‘what is true power’ with a real grace. The camaraderie of Class 1-A also makes for great fun, so if you’re looking for a superhero show with a difference, you’ll find no better than My Hero Academia.
Sweetness and Lightning (Crunchyroll, Season 1)
I mean… how could you not fall in love with this show? When high school teacher Kohei’s wife passes away, he’s left to raise their daughter Tsumugi by himself. He’s not a great cook and relies on ready meals to keep them both fed, but after a chance encounter with a student, he resolves to make homemade meals for Tsumugi every night. It’s absolutely adorable. I also love cooking shows, and in terms of simple, delicious recipes, Sweetness and Lightning delivers – I made the vegetable gratin and it was good. Cosy comfort viewing at its finest.
Given (Crunchyroll, Season 1)
While Yuri!!! on Ice might be the most talked about “boys love” series in recent years, Given is far more down to earth and yet just as enthralling. Barely-there Mafuyu brings his guitar to school and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ritsuka, who invites him to join a band. Throughout the series, the two discover their feelings for each other, while Mafuyu tries to accept a difficult past. While Mafuyu and Ritsuka’s relationship is front and centre, the show explores multiple LGBTQ+ relationships between its cast, with the upcoming movie meant to focus on the other band members, Haruki and Akihito. The soundtrack is also as excellent as you might expect.
Anyway, that’s the list. However you’re getting on at the moment, I hope you find something to enjoy here – let me know if you check anything out! Also, if you’re cultivating an Animal Crossing island, drop me a line on Twitter.