With a bit of delay, I have just finished watching the first season of the RPG show by Geek and Sundry, Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana.
Let me say it: it was incredibly fun and entertaining, and it deserves a spot in my favorite shows. Most likely the best YouTube series I have ever watched. Even more, it really made me long for playing RPGs again, after I stopped last year because I have moved away from the city where my group was playing and after a few months of Skype, it was not really working out.
All in all, I think the series has great writing, great characters, great people and a great chemistry in the group, and that is what has made the show so entertaining to watch. Of course there are some aspects that I would improve for the upcoming season 2.
I think Wil and his son Ryan really did a good job here. They invented a brand new settings for the Fantasy Age RPG (heck, basically this RPG system was made / heavily adapted to this show!).
I really like the mixture of magic and technology, with a touch of steampunk-esque flavor, and the mixture of character’s races, skills and traits make the adventure balanced and fun.
It was really nice to go beyond the most classical settings of the RPG: a group of adventurers (typically the fighter, the mage, the ranger, the cleric and the assassin) that enters a dungeon, kills a lot of minions and underlings, getting to the boss and defeating him. After the triumph, they all go back to town and proceed in a completely unrelated adventure. Let’s be honest, a LOT of the normal D&D campaigns develop like that. I’m not here to say that it is necessarily a bad thing, but I really liked a complete different setting and the integration between technology and magic, despite not being a completely new trope, blends well.
Great Characters and Players
This is really what made the show shine. I am genuinely positive that each of the player, well.. also Wil, is a wonderful human being. Funny and nice, each of them played their character to a noticeable depth. I really think the traits and skills of each of the characters really blend in and reprise their psychological side.
- Aankia (and Jeremy): She definitely comes off as a nice but troubled saurian (I thought it was spelled saurion, glad I checked) engineer. A bit distrusting of other people, but nevertheless good. The trauma of her father’s loss was really tangible in her actions.
- Killiel: up until the very end, Allison is good at playing her wary ranger. She always scouts the surroundings, similarly as she is always scouting the land for her real father. I really think Allison was good at giving a sense of incompleteness of Killiel and the longing for this figure, but always with her eyes open.
- S’Lethkk: the nerd of the group (the only really dabbling in magic), with a really dark past (I’m not 100% sure, but I think he unknowingly made a pact with a demon about his power) in his quest of reuniting with his half-brother. Despite his terrible rolls, he often turned out to be decisive in fights: he rarely hits, but when he does, enemies die. I also think Yuri played very well the psychological aspects of his character (also beside the brother stuff): speaks less than his companions, taking more time to think about stuff. He’s the guy that does not give way to blind anger, unless in extreme distress, as we saw during the season.
- Lemmley: I saved for last the best piece of the cake. I really think Laura is the best RPG player that I have ever witnessed. She really got into her character: a deadly (really deadly!) girl, a bit crazy and jumpy and naive and incredibly good. A sweet, mad, girl that cuts up her victims with Dr. Lobotomy. I think her acting is what really added flavor to every scene in this series: she took up a bit of a leader role, because of her quick thinking and “rushy” attitude, she was guiding the group. And I think it turned out pretty well for the group, even better than expected. The way Laura describes each of Lemmley’s actions is just perfect: never over the top, always believable (form the physical point of view) and in line with her character. I am seriously considering watching Critical Role just because she is also there. The troubled part of Lemmley was also played extremely well: she acts stronger than she is because she is very vulnerable to her true form, really being embarassed of her “cyborg” part.
- The master: Before watching this show, I had played with a few good game masters, but none of them was as a good storyteller as Wil (to be honest, none of them was dedicating more than a hour to planning each of the sessions). On the next section I’ll delve more into the mastering of the group
The way the whole game was set up, was really good. I’ll leave aside the fact that it was a show, and subsequently filmed and cut and all those things that are necessary to the “cinematography” and the “series” aspects and concentrate more on the way Wil led the party.
Wil was very good at guiding the players to play their character to their full depth. What I just digressed about in the previous part would not have been possible if the DM was not encouraging the players, through the mechanics and the acting.
You can feel his hand in the game, but it’s never too weak or too strong. I personally really liked how he, in a couple of occasion, described himself what the characters were doing. I have read about some people complaining that this felt a bit “on rails” for characters; this is somewhat true, but I think it can be helpful when the players are not 100% sure what to do, or how to do something. The role of the GM is to harmonize the playing, and the fact that he has full knowledge of every aspect of the PCs, can lead up to interesting interactions.
I think that sitting down with players at the begining of the adventure and coming up with a few personal goals, traits, stuff they are ashamed about, fears and, in general, secrets, is a great way of managing the interactions of the people. I have played in many games in which everything is out in the open, and every character in the group could be played by every player in the group: everyone knows everything about him and can subsequently infer how he is likely to react to anything.
Having some of the PC know about each other in some way is very good at creating believable interactions: it’s never white or black in real life and it should not be in a Role-play game.
Great mechanics of the game
I really really liked the Fantasy Age RPG system. I think it’s well designed to overcome the most frustrating thing that happens with the normal D20: the variability in outcomes. Let me put my mathematician’s hat for a moment: the distribution of the outcomes of rolls from a d20 is of course very different from rolling 3d6; this makes terrible rolls as likely as epic rolls, and everything else in the check needs to be encoded in the modifier. In a sense, the outcome space feels a bit too big, sometimes, which makes the game a bit too aleatory. Rolling 3d6 has a normal distribution, which for many skill checks is better suited.
To make a practical example, let us assume the group is travelling in a dungeon and to detect a figure lurking in the darkness a perception check is necessary. Leaving the perception modifier aside (both systems have it), in D&D you roll a d20: you are as likely to be completely distracted, distracted, normal, focused, or completely focused. If you roll 3d6, instead, you are much more likely to be “normal”, which is well.. the definition of normal. Epic blunders and epic wins are still possible (even less likely) but do not play too big of a role. On a normal D&D session i roll several 1s (and probably a couple of 20s). In the whole season of Titansgrave no-one rolled a 3. It’s the simple working of math.
This hugely affects the plausibility of the checks.
What to improve in Season 2
Now, the series and the games were great, but that does not mean there are no aspects that can be improved.
- Fights seemed too easy: Good RPG campaigns are hard and players have to be really careful not to die. In the series no-one died or even went unconscious (I don’t even know how that works, as a result), actually did not even risk being that. It tells a long story that the lowest a character went was Aankia at 20% of her max HP when Lemmley paid her a visit with Dr. Lobotomy, being under the charms of the Prophet.
- Magic was used only for damaging combat: I really like the utilities side of magic in many games and RPG. I think there’s more to it than throwing fireballs or lightning bolts, but we did not have a chance to see that. In a similar way, S’letthk only use one or two spells during combat, and mainly to do damage. Maybe more play in side effects than just hitting and hitting until HP are depleted.
- Leveling was a bit unclear or without impact. I do not mind in D&D, for example, that leveling up dramatically changes the ability of a player. Throughout this campaign, the character leveled but it only affected some of their skill points. I think that developing new abilities (in case of magic) or being able to perform better stunts give more depth to the gameplay. (Note: I don’t like when a wizard levels mid-dungeon and can immediately cast spells that he was not able before the encounter. You need to train.)
- Items: Only the staff of forlorn hope and Lemmley’s amulet (which she had already at the beginning of the adventure) had really meaningful interactions. I would have liked to see something more.
- More interaction with Jeremy: It would have been cool if Hank’s character is actually a dual character. That Aankia and Jeremy work more together even in fights. It ended up as a minor utility thing, which is still interesting.
- More! I liked it so much i would not have minded if they put extended uncut editions on their youtube channel. I just want more, I don’t care if they break off to re-do makeup. Just put a live feed for us! I really want to be there too, or feel like it.
All in all, I really really liked Titansgrave, and I would like to play something similar myself. Wil has been a great GM and the characters have been borderline perfect. I am really looking forward to season 2, and I just can’t wait!