Dark Souls and Storytelling

For any avid fans of Dark Souls whom are looking for my interpretation of the story in any of the Souls games, I’ll save you the trouble now of reading: I will not be laying out the story. I have failed you.

What I want to talk about is the way that Dark Souls tells a story and how I have borrowed it’s method when it comes to it’s unique way of telling a story. It’s story is equal parts narrative, exploration, and revelation.

Dark Souls doesn’t tell you a story. Not really. It offers up a world that has a rich narrative and silently bids you to do what you will with it. The game play in Dark Souls is pretty simple: you are a the Chosen Undead and it is your job to go forth, defeat those that stand in your way, and “link the fires.”

You can play and enjoy the entire game without ever asking any questions. Dark Souls compelling game play basically distills down to “get good.” Each enemy, no matter how menial, is dangerous. You must learn to fight each enemy, gauge the terrain, find the exploits, and defeat those in your way. It is a very difficult game, but the reward is that fist pumping excitement when you finally grasp victory. The game does an amazing job of making you feel like you accomplished something.

Here is a question I started asking myself about halfway through Dark Souls: why do I need to link the fires? You start to notice that enemies and areas aren’t ambiguously named. There aren’t places like “The Dark Forest” or “The Forgotten Castle.” Locations and (most) bosses have distinct names and titles like Ornstein and Smough, Seath the Scaleless, Crossbread Priscilla, and Dark Sun Gyndolin, just to name a few.

If you were like me you begin squinting at the game and silently mouthing, Who are you?”

If you pay attention to the environment and start to pour through descriptions on your items (sneaky bastards) you can start to piece things together. It may seem as though a lot of these areas are simply slapped together for game play sake, but the writers behind Dark Souls had a definite, clear story in mind for the game; you just need to dig it up.

The only reason I think this method works is because they made double sure that you don’t have to know it at all to play the game. The game itself is about combat and exploration, and they put a lot of time creating a rich, cohesive world to run around. It feels like a 3D Metroidvania game:  massive, sprawling segments with things to find and secrets to uncover. Diving deep into one area to find the key to unlock another. Pathways that wind back into themselves to create this sense that everything is connected (sometimes literally).

For many people, I understand that having to find the story seems ludicrous. But what really works for me is the fact that I didn’t even know the story was there, and I got to have that feeling of satisfaction of slotting pieces together and realizing what happened. There is no greater feeling of excitement and urgency than realizing midway through a segment that you know what happened, and you suddenly see everything with a new gaze.

And you find this by paying attention to the world environments, and reading descriptions from items. As an example:

Havel's Ring Dark Souls 3

You get this ring after defeating Havel in Dark Souls. He’s not actually a boss, just a heavy plated knight at the base of a tower. Almost innocuous. You wouldn’t have known he was important unless you got his equipment.

Each item has a description like above: it tells you immediately what it does, and then if you are interested, it tells you a little about the wearer or the world surrounding it. You find out that the knight was named Havel, and he fought alongside—wait, Gwyn the First Lord?

And then more questions fill your mind: what the hell was Havel doing at the base of that tower? What was he guarding? Why is he here? And where is Gwyn?

Eventually you find other items that begin to fill you in on what happened. And this happens for any number of bosses, characters, or areas until you have a complete, albeit hazy understanding of what happened. Your exploration and determination uncovered the mystery. It’s really satisfying.

And then you start to realize that the environment is also telling you a story. There is a castle full of undead soldiers and barricades trying to keep something out, but what were they fighting against? There is the abandoned city of Anor Londo: where did everyone go? What is this massive library apart from the city for? What were they studying?

The scope of the games becomes much more enjoyable when you realize that nearly every single thing matters to the narrative hidden beneath the surface. Things as simple as “What is this monster from the first area doing in the last area?” become massive clues to the world and story at large.

Many games have done this. Filling you in on tidbits of history with item descriptions. Dark Souls wastes nothing, not even these descriptions. Armor sets usually tell you a tiny bit about other countries, establishing the world at large. Weapons might tell you about the bearer and why they have this. Some tell you about how characters knew one another. The more you collect and observe, the more you understand the world around you, and no one had to fill you in in a cut scene.

I can’t really full explain it unless you are already excited about the Souls games, so I’ll save you the gush. But what has affected me the most from these games is how I want to tell a story.

I have been accidentally doing this in Rogue Trader; I try and build backstories for basically every important NPC I create, and I keep this information up to date on a wiki for my players.. I put extra information on the wiki so that my players can go read more about what they are doing, and maybe sprinkle in a couple of questions they could be asking.

This has been my emphasis for my proprietary DnD realm I’m building. I want each area to have the quest, but also have enough of a story written into the details that the players can basically locate secret objectives. I want the world to feel rich with mystery, because the feeling of discovery is awesome.

A haven’t really experienced this much as a player outside of video games and some books. But I want to encompass that feeling in Rogue Trader and my story writing, that feeling of exploration, discovery, and revelation. I will endeavor to continue and I will always look to Dark Souls for inspiration because the feeling I got while playing that game is irreplaceable.



My Distinct Lack of Music

I’m a daydreamer. It’s bad—I would say I’m daydreaming nearly half of the day. If you see me, and I’m being quiet, I’m definitely somewhere deep in my mind imagining vast battles, heroic triumphs, or solemn goodbyes. This is especially true if I’m listening to music.

Cutaway to tiny Daniel sitting in a movie theater with a bowl cut and a slack jaw. Watching [insert movie] and getting caught up in the climax. Those pivotal scenes always punctuated with a score that enhances those moments. The crescendos when the protagonist wins, and the diminuendo when all feels lost.

Half the time, I wouldn’t remember the exact scene in the movie, but whatever song is was gets stuck in my head for the rest of time. This still happens to this day—certain scenes in shows and movies and games have a score or soundtrack that just fucking crushes it.

Furiosa being stabbed and desperately trying not to drop Max.

Raiden facing off against metal gear Ray.

Colonol Mustang bringing his enemy to their knees.

I look at the image and I can hear the music. I know not only the song that plays, but  very nearly the exact part of the song that is playing.

I think I was 12 when our parents bought me my first portable CD player. I listened to CD’s laying around the house for a while, but I soon learned to burn my favorite songs to CD’s. Dad showed me KaZaA and how I could download my favorite songs and then burn them, and that moment basically defined my imagination for a long damned time.

This gave way to MP3 players which I used until 2014. I still have one or two of my borked MP3 players in a box somewhere. For a good long while I used my PSP as my music player. I can remember walking around the adidas campus, listening to music, and daydreaming about stuff.

Then I was given my first smart phone. This changed everything. Not only could I store my own music on my phone, but I could stream music to my phone. My daydream game had been improved significantly.

It’s been a couple years now. I still get lost in daydreams all the time, usually about Rogue Trader, Dungeons and Dragons, or some other thing I need to write. I listen to music and try to carefully curate music for when I’m running a game for my friends. The problem I’m facing now is that I am basically out of music. I’ve listened to everything I have way too many times.

Now that I can search for a song from my phone, I don’t discover music anymore. I’m always listening to the song I was thinking about. I don’t listen to the radio, and I don’t see enough movies or shows to really find more. Now when I find a song I really like, I listen to it on repeat for sometimes hours until I’m over it.

I’ve been using things like YouTube Music and Amazon Music to help me branch out and explore, but it doesn’t really help me find more because that requires me to listen to the music.


I am simply terrible at listening to music and enjoying it. Songs take me somewhere—somewhere I’ve been before; somewhere I want to be. New songs struggle to do that. Most of my favorite songs and albums were accompanied by something else, and I’m taken back to that moment while I’m listening. It’s really difficult for me to find new music because it frequently feels soulless or that something’s missing. I think this is a big reason why I don’t like rap and country—it’s hard to daydream over it.

I’m sure someone reading this is like, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” And I agree! I frequently wish I could switch it off and just enjoy an album for what it is. But that album needs to inspire me, or take me somewhere in my imagination for me to really want to listen to it again and again.

There was a massive period of my life where I was listening to a lot of symphonic metal (black metal or heavy metal depending on who’s categorizing it). Bands like Epica, Nightwish, Kamelot, Within Temptation—most of their songs are metal but include symphonies or choruses. It just makes it feel epic—like a soundtrack. And that really clicked with me. I couldn’t even tell you what half of the songs were about, but the melodies, crescendos, and diminuendos all played nicely to whatever scene was playing out in my head.

I have trouble finding new genres that make me feel that way. I will sometimes stumble upon something, but I wear it out way too quickly.

I wouldn’t really call myself a music lover, but music is critically important to my imagination and my inspiration. Half the time when I’m trying to write a quest for one of my games, I need to find the right song first. I’m not sure what music means to all of you, but in many cases I feel like music is an I.V. drip to my soul, and without it my imagination begins to dry up.



The Infernal Battalion (No Spoilers)

I’ve written briefly about Django Wexler’s series the Shadow Campaigns. It was a book I picked up one day in Powell’s because the cover looked dope. I poured through if over a couple days and was immediately hooked on the series.

Last week I finished the final book in the series: The Infernal Battalion. It was an excellent conclusion to an excellent series and you should absolutely pick up the first book.

The pitch: it’s a fantasy story set in the nineteenth century. Flintlock rifles and cannons dominate the theater of war. Our story begins in the country of Khandar where an army known as the Colonials have been stationed. The country of Khandar hides much beneath it’s great deserts, and a man shows up to take control of the army, and seek a dangerous relic—the Thousand Names.

Fuck—I just like, re-psyched myself up for the first book.

But instead, the last book, The Infernal Battalion.

What Django always does is set the tone and the direction of the book in a clear manner, and within the first couple chapters. This might sound obvious, books need these things, but his books never speak at length and they never stray away from the central premise.

Many of the books I read fancy themselves grand fantasies that plan on unraveling their many threads over the course of several books, and it leaves some of the middle books far weaker than others because they were a holdover—a book meant to connect threads and fill space. But not Django’s—he writes grand fantasies, but still remembers that each book needs to be a useful, interesting read. The Infernal Battalion was the conclusion to his grand fantasy, while being it’s own book on contrast to the others. It had it’s own story you followed along, but it also wrapped up threads from three or four books ago.

I love each individual character and I can tell you at length who they are and why. They feel real. I was deeply invested in their arcs! It was so weird to think back to the first book and see where they started. Winter Ihernglass in the deserts of Khandar, serving under captain Marcus d’Ivoire. They meet Janus bet Vhalnich, the strange but brilliant man sent to Khandar to bring the conflict to a close. From these three we rapidly meet an ever growing cast of characters, each important to the story and fleshed out in due time. And no single character goes to waste! As the last book progresses you see that nearly each character, no matter how small, ends up having a role to play in how it all comes to a close.

So many times I was just mouth agape as I realized that this nobody character isn’t even just useful but things would not have been the same without them. Django is a mastermind of story—he plots the courses for his books with the reader in mind as much as the story. He knows how to subtly let characters fall from your mind and then brings them back just as you were forgetting they were players.

This book stressed me out—and it’s so damn satisfying! Django knows not to let death and sacrifice become common place. Django knows a very dangerous secret: if he wants us to feel sad that someone is gone we need to love them first. The winding and dangerous journeys the characters go on left me guessing until very nearly the end. Nothing is sacred, and it makes the ups really powerful, and the downs really meaningful. You can’t help buy play into his hands as you desperately reach for the comforts of cliche, but then he wrenches it away from you with situations far more real than you were ready for.

The same feeling can be said about the story itself! Each book is it’s own book, but you begin to look back and it feels like the first book was a decade ago. You think to yourself, “this story used to be so much smaller,” but you realize that you never even noticed anything changed. It’s all one story, but deftly cut up into five, deeply satisfying books.

There isn’t a lot more I can say without talking about the plot of the book. But I’ll tell you now—if you enjoy military fantasy, demons and magic, and really deep, lovable characters (and their sex lives)—you need to read these books.


Quest Writing

So I’m about to come out of hiatus for the Nemo crew and their DnD game. We took a break because during the holidays we couldn’t consistently have everyone there. It was a good time to take a break as well.

I used some of that time to talk to them about alignment and character motivation. A couple times now characters have used a version of the phrase, “Why are we doing this again?”

That’s fine if you are losing track, or your attendance hasn’t been perfect, but there was one line said that made me really start thinking about characters and quests. The tiefling cleric player said to the other players:

“I know Dan is trying to steer us towards this…”

I have been thinking about that line basically since she said it. I want my players to feel like they have choices, but more importantly that those changes matter and will affect the world around them.

Around the same time, my Rogue Trader players were busy trying to figure out where they belong in war on Port Footfall. Without any discussion, or even any questions, they sided with one merchant over the other. The decision made sense to them emotionally so I wasn’t too worried, but what I found interesting was that they sided with him without knowing what he was asking them to do.

It occurred to me (and was revealed to me by some more experienced GM’s online) was that I was doing this all wrong. I was writing grand scenarios and plot twists and stuff, when really that should be on the players. They were playing like they were actors in a play. There was a script, and they followed it.

Now— that’s not a bad way to play. But what was missing was character engagement. The players were doing what was asked of them, or picking from a limited number of choices instead of making their own.

Players making their own choices is what the core mechanic of RPG’s is. In my quests, I still put plenty of things in their path that they could choose to interact with and would change the course of events, but even more fundamentally, the players didn’t choose this quest for themselves. They didn’t say to themselves, “Hey! Let’s bring a Merchant Fleet to the Koronus Expanse and establish Battlefleet Koronus.” or “Hey! Let’s go bring down a rival merchant and steal a bunch of his assets.”

I had inadvertently made the choice for them. This gets tricky the more you think about it though, because the GM needs to prepare and the like. But what I missed was that I didn’t provide them options. I can still prepare quests, but it needs to be their choice to go on them.

It’s why my players went to Rain all died that one time. For the first time in the game I had let them loose and they chose an adventure to go on.

It’s why some of the greatest stories are simple. It’s why the heroes journey is so prevalent. There is a deed that could be done, and the hero wants to do it. Whether it’s taking down Darth Vader or riding eternal on the Fury Road; adventures need to be fun because someone wants to do it.

So I’m going to change the way I write quests. I will present issues and let the players decide what to do. I’ll still write all of my planned quests, but they will have to be the ones to choose to do them. I will instead present them with some primal reward, whether its rewards or revenge, but I think the possibilities will be a lot more satisfying to discover if the characters are finally in the story. So to speak.


The 2017 Takeaway

This was a pretty busy year for me since I kept starting projects that have no designated end point. I started two (almost three) different RPG campaigns as a Game Master.

I built my own DnD sandbox world called Nemoria and I’m brainstorming for it nearly every moment I’m awake. In Rogue Trader we recently finished our first arc and I’m preparing for the next one. It doesn’t feel like I achieved a ton this year until I read my post about 2017.

First up: read more. While I have by no means read a lot I have definitely read more this year than the last ten years combined.  For me it was quite a lot, but I read like 9 books. I probably would’ve made it through more but a Steven Erikson book tripped me up bad. I think I legitimately spent like four months slogging through it. It was rough.

Next on the list: run a Rogue Trader campaign. Judging by my crazy number of Rogue Trader posts I think we can say that’s going well. We’ve had hiccups and pacing issues but I think we finally have an understanding. It sounds like people are having fun and are wanting more.

Oh damn this is a good one: have my credit card number under $500. Well, I can’t claim that I did this all myself. Mom and dad stepped in for the final bit and my credit card is gone. That card has been paid completely off and closed.

Next one was “build one goddamn robot by 2018.” Technically that’s a check on the list. I built a kit that comes with all the instructions and parts needed to do some modular builds. I built it, but it wasn’t as in depth as I wanted. The really complicated one’s that will teach me about parts and programming cost thousands of dollars. But yes— I built a robot.

Listen to more podcasts and watch less YouTube. I would say I don’t watch less YouTube, but I watch YouTube more productively. I go on less re-watch binges, and I only watch new content. I do listen to more podcasts— I’m up to date on Welcome to Nightvale. I listen to Dear Hank and John as well as Unpopular Opinion. There are a handful of story podcasts I jam through.

Better eating habits. Debatable. I would say this one didn’t go well. I still snack and drink soda, but I did lose 20 lbs. So uh— sideways pass.

Total Party Failure on “I want to draw more.”

I have been walking a lot more this year. During the summer I was walking nearly ever day, at least thirty minutes. Mom gave me a fitbit and I was hiting 10,000 steps maybe every other day. As I mentioned previously, I lost 20 lbs— so something is going right. It’s much harder when its cold and rainy, but I was doing well when it was warm.

The last part of my Plan for 2017 was “do more.” I think I’ve succeeded. I probably wasn’t as productive as I wanted. I always fantasize about basically starting a Bauhaus of creativity with my friends. I started Rogue Trader, which spawned a bunch of campaigns within our group. Ellis is running a campaign, and so is my buddy Mikey. Basically everyone at my work wants to play now. We started a second blog, which is still going and that’s cool. I still want to try and have a novel/novella written by my birthday. I’m not feeling confident about that one but we’ll see.

So what is in store for 2018?

I can’t say I honestly know. I’m doing a lot now and I know what I’d like to try and do so I’ll list that now in no particular order:

  • Beat more of my video games.
  • Read my shelf full of “books I haven’t read yet.”
  • Finish my Nemoria module
  • Write a story. A finished one, not pieces.
  • Do at least one bit of freelance game dev writing
  • Publish something on GM Guild

Tall orders, but I surprised myself this year. Let’s see if I can go two for two!



My Collage Experience

Man I totally remember making collages. I remember making a bunch for various projects. Same as you, however, I threw them all away promptly because I half-assed them anyway.

As I’m getting older I’m learning that my memory isn’t supremely effective anymore. I now carry a notebook around everywhere I go specifically because I can no longer trust myself to remember things.  I started doing this about a year ago and its far more effective.

If you had asked about collages, pinterest, and vision boards a year ago I might have scoffed at you. Hell, even to this day my response to Pinterest is something like, “I don’t get it.”

Last month it occurred to me that I need to start being on Pinterest more. No because I believe in using it as a memory bank, but most of my good ideas come from viewing someone else’s cool ideas.

Most of my ideas aren’t even full thoughts as much as they are cool puzzle pieces I write down that need to be linked together later. I’ll have a cool idea for a Rogue Trader encounter, or a strange monster, or a weird side quest and I’ll jot down the idea.

The funny part is: when it comes time to write shit I always forget to look at my notebook. My written collage of ideas is gone mostly untapped because I’m a space cadet.

Anyway: collages. I wish I made more of them. I would love to have enough time to freakin’ collage and storyboard each and every quest I write. I would love to spend time really look-developing each planet, town, enemy, and NPC I create. I can’t really do my formal collage because my more cleverer players might figure out what’s going on inside my brain.

But here, in no particular order, is my vision board— not including RPG specific ideas.

  • Finish the Rogue Trader campaign
  • Finish the Nemoria campaign
  • Run a Numenera campaign
  • Run a Coriolis campaign
  • Anime
  • Christmas monsters
  • Not having college loans
  • Long weekends of playing video games
  • Dark Souls + Bloodborne
  • Music that gives me goosebumps
  • Not having college loans
  • The strange voices I talk to myself in
  • Learning various accents from around the world
  • Not having college loans
  • Writing a book
  • Working at a tabletop gaming company
  • Doing freelance writing
  • Not having college loans
  • Wishing I could draw
  • Wishing I could matte paint in photoshop
  • Robots
  • Cigars
  • Tül Pens

Now my faithful reader, do me the favor of imagining what that might look like.


Fantasy v. Sci-Fi: My GM Preference

I’ve mentioned before on this very blog that I have loaded myself up with stuff to do.  But one thing I don’t think I’ve spoken too much about is that I am a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Game Master for my coworkers.  I figured a lot of them might find it fun, and at the very least we can broaden some horizons and introduce my coworkers to another side of myself.

Recruiting players at work was fun.  I had to try and find people who would be in it for the long run, but I also wanted to find people who had never played a tabletop role-playing game.  I wanted to make sure we had both enough boys and girls.  To my surprise I actually encountered a lot of eager candidates.  With players selected, it was time to make a world.

I drafted up a map and a couple cities and dove in hard on development.  As of now we are on holiday break, but we have played approximately fourteen sessions— all about two hours each.

This post isn’t about that game, but I just want to establish that I’ve been running two campaigns for several months now.  The contrast between doing sci-fi versus fantasy has been illuminating for me.  When I have more knowledge and experience I may do a more speculative post on the pluses and minuses for running sci-fi versus fantasy, but this one I just want to talk about what it personally represents to me.

It comes down to choices and consequences.  My style— as I see it— is that I love having a greater theme at play that will require my players to make a choice and deal with a consequence.  I love seeing how my players are going to respond in an imaginary situation.  I do not like clear cut choices.  I am not a huge fan of Good v. Evil.  I love throwing my players into a grey zone and seeing how they decide what to make of it.

What I love about sci-fi is that for me a lot more of the game is about consequences or outcomes, while fantasy seems a lot more about making choices.  And it’s all because in one setting magic exists.

Now obviously you can write either setting to encompass any theme, but in general I feel as though there is a pretty clear divide.  Fantasy is a realm where magic and alignment are massive forces in play and the players must deal with things as they rear their heads.

The peoples are hungry because their crops all wilted.  What do you all do?

We cast “Plant Growth” at a lowly level 3.  It rejuvenates the land and instantly grows much of those lost crops back!  Or we find (or create) a supply of food and extort the starving populace for all of their hard earned gold.

You can essentially orchestrate anything you want since there is powerful magic out there.  You spend more time thinking about the solution because anything is achievable, and the quest is more about whether you want to be good or evil or neither.  Whether or not you get them food is moot since magic will solve the problem, but what you choose the outcome to be is where the game becomes fun.  It’s not a choice of whether or not its possible, but where you stand in the greater scheme.

Sci-Fi is much more difficult because you must solve problems without a wand to wave.  You cannot create from nothing.  The choice that you make to solve the problem often comes with its own consequences that will also need to be dealt with.

There is plenty of food and fuel in most futuristic settings, but now the problems become how they are allocated and utilized.  Great power exists because such power is needed to keep humanity strong in the vast, inky ocean that is space— but people are behind that power.  There is no clear good and evil when there isn’t a great, neutral power like magic to draw upon.  Whether or not the outcome will work out in the end, the players will have to choose— often the lesser of two evils.

The people are hungry because the crops all wilted.  What do you do?

We can help the city recoup their losses by helping re-sow their farms.  But that will take time and we will lose out on other opportunities while we toil on this planet.  Or we could spend a lot of money and bring them food to survive the season.  But that will cost us all of our resources.  Or we can steal food from another planet and bring it all here.  This population will eat while the one we stole from will starve instead.

I’ll reiterate: you absolutely can spin either setting to be about good and evil, or choices and consequences.

Fantasy seems so much less concerned when it comes with choices because you choose the outcome before you begin.  We need to help the people, or we need to slaughter the enemy.  Both are possible, but which is better for us?  Are we good or evil?

Sci-Fi is about the hard choices.  A pirate fleet is coming to raid the frontier cities, but we can only defend one planet since space travel will take too long.  Which colony do we save and which colonies do we doom?