Aug 312015

Wil Wheaton’s RPG show, Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, recently finished its first season, and it’s been a lot of fun, not to mention a very well-done story. Normally, you wouldn’t think that an RPG show would make for particularly good television (even if the “television” is airing on YouTube), but it’s a testament to the world-building, story, characters, and players that it worked as well as it did.

Titansgrave doesn’t have a traditional fantasy RPG setting – the world it’s set on is a combination of high-tech (characters wield blasters and travel on air ships) and fantasy (1 of the protagonists is a caster, another specializes in a variety of potions). The races are also a combination of traditional fantasy (elves and dwarves) and new races that would seem more at home in a science fiction story (the reptilian Saurians for instance). I don’t really get the references Wheaton made in his blog post, but the concept did remind me of the 80’s He-Man cartoon, which I enjoyed when I was really young.

That said, I was a little timid about the concept when it was first announced. Like I said, it had similarities to another show I liked, as well as Star Wars (of which I’m a huge fan and is basically a fantasy set in space), but the concept sounded like it ran a huge risk of being cheesy and clunky. If the technological and fantastic elements don’t feel like they were naturally part of the same world, the whole show was going to fall apart because the audience was never going to be able to suspend their disbelief enough to get into the story.

Luckily, Wheaton and his story-making crew really did this story right. Magic and machines co-existed effortlessly, without any awkward break from 1 to the other. I really want to credit the story team behind the show with doing such a good job with that, they really took the time to polish out the details about what was doable with magic, what through technology, and which options the inhabitants of Valkana would find most feasible.

Another particularly nice touch is the addition of having the players come up with secrets their characters knew but the rest of the party did not. It gave Wheaton, as DM, the opportunity to craft the narrative in a way that would bring some of those secrets to light at key moments in the game, which made for some really nice growth moments for the party as they learned more about their companions’ pasts.

Of course, a show that’s built around filming an RPG lives and dies by its casting decisions, and this show nailed the casting. They were genuinely having fun with their characters, the quest, and the world in general. The fact that these players have acting experience helps – they were really able to get into how their characters thought and their motivations, which is something I’d never be able to do in an RPG game. Wheaton as DM was wonderful as well. All the aforementioned story/worldbuilding would be wasted if Wheaton couldn’t communicate this over the course of the game. Between the genuine enthusiasm and enjoyment of the players, Wheaton’s great story-telling, and Wheaton’s willingness to play along with the players’ whimsical actions throughout the whole season, this campaign was just plain fun even with the seriousness of the main quest.

The other key component to a D&D campaign is dice-rolling. This is pretty hard to convey in anything remotely entertaining in video format, but the system of displaying the total value from the dice, any modifier from the character’s stats and the total value that yields was a great way to quickly communicate the relevant numbers. I should also point out that this show is using the Adventure Game Engine (AGE), which has a “stunt” system – whenever a player rolls doubles during combat, they get to perform 1 or more special actions (Titansgrave has an episode 0 that explains a lot of this in much better detail). This is called out in a special section of the dice roll graphic so you can see when players have the points available and you can get excited along with them. I imagine the producers had to make sure there were camera shots of each of the dice rolls so they knew how to populate the infographic in the bottom third of the screen, but the editing cuts were smoothly done so the only inclination that this would have happened is just speculating that this is what they would have to had to do to make show production work.

The stunt system seen in the show isn’t unique to Titansgrave, but it’s still neat and adds to the appeal. Basically players roll 3 dice during combat, 2 of which are the same color and 1 being a different color. If a player rolls doubles on any of their 3 dice, the value of the differently-colored die also counts as their “stunt points”, which can be used to enhance the player’s turn in combat. It was a great way of adding additional stakes to the rolls and allowing for some narrative flourishes to the fights.

One of my favorite parts of Titansgrave was the slow start the show got off to. I’m a big believer that a good fantasy story (and I view Titansgrave as being inherently a fantasy story, regardless of the technology on Valkana) is inherently epic. That means not rushing the quest along to get to the big climatic battle at the end or speeding through the heroes’ journey. The journey itself is where fantasy stories excel or fail. Titansgrave did a fantastic job with this, spending the first few episodes without even a main quest, just a group of people with something curious who seemed to keep finding trouble. By the time they got their “main” quest to confront the source of the various creatures that had been attacking them and the other inhabitants of Valkana lately, it just felt like an organic extension of everything else they had been getting themselves into lately.

There was an episode towards the middle of the season that was largely about driving the storyline forward to the conflict with the ultimate villain behind all the monsters and other enemies the party had been facing. Given my aforementioned preference towards epic fantasy with a focus on the journey itself, watching an episode devoted to accelerating the quest along was disappointing. I should point out here that I had originally forgotten how long Titansgrave was originally scheduled to run. Given that information, the “moving along” episode made a lot of sense, because it was time to get these guys focused in time to finish the story before the show ran out of episodes. And just to be clear, it was still a good episode, I was just sad to watch the story I was thoroughly enjoying following accelerated (in a manner that seemed fairly artificial) along. Like I said, once I realized that the show was only slated for about 10 episodes this season, the episode in question made a lot of sense to get things to some type of practical ending by the time Titansgrave finished its season.

Towards the end of the season, I found myself wondering if Wheaton would do a second season of this show. Specifically, I was wondering if Wheaton would do another season set on Valkana (continuing the Titansgrave story), or if he would create an all-new world to explore. Given how difficult it is to do sequels that meet or exceed the quality of the original story, I was hoping for an all-new storyline. It would have opened the door for another unique setting, new fascinating characters, and, if any of the original cast wasn’t able to return for the next season due to scheduling issues replacing them wouldn’t be nearly as jarring.

Those thoughts ended once I watched the season 1 finale. I had the same initial reaction to the ending as the players when the ending was revealed. I was originally expecting an entire, self-contained story with a more…definitive ending, so the exact way things concluded left me wanting more, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I wanted an epic fantasy, and this ending left that option on the table – instead of getting 1 epic (and epically long) season, we’re getting an epic fantasy saga that’s going to spread over multiple seasons. As great as this season was, I’m completely on board for that idea.

At this point, all that’s really left for me is to sit down and just completely binge watch the entire season – probably both soon and just before season 2 starts. It’s a great story, with solid pacing that would keep the show from dragging on in 1 long run. I personally recommend starting from episode 0 for a good primer on the world and the characters. The show’s only 11 episodes long (counting episode 0), easily enough to fit into a nice, lazy weekend (even a nice, lazy Saturday if you’re that fortunate).

Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana is a great show that’s different from anything else you’re going to see on television. If you have any interest in RPGs, or just good fantasy storytelling, Titansgrave is well worth watching. Watching this show has me interested in maybe trying to play an RPG myself, even though I’m pretty bad pretending to be somebody who isn’t me. However, Titansgrave made the whole experience look like so much fun that I’m willing to give it a go, crappy role playing and all.

 Posted by at 5:30 PM