Geek & Sundry’s newest show, Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, kicked off this week with not one, but two episodes–Episode 0 appeared on the radar shortly before Episode 1, giving viewers a twenty minute rundown of the settings and the rules for the new RPG show while also providing a brief summary of the basics of roleplaying games before introducing the four players and their roles in the game:
Aankia and Killel are the rogues in the group, Lemley is a warrior, and S’Lethkk is a mage. Between them, they’re a mix of races (one in particular, S’Lethkk, has an interesting pedigree you’ll have to hear for yourself) who have come together to adventure and explore the world of Valkana, decades after the Chaos War.
Wil Wheaton does most of the narration for Episode 0, but there is a nice little bit at the end where the players get to share their “secret” with Wil–this is a nice game dynamic that I’m certain will come into play over the next 10 episodes. The AGE (Adventure Game Engine) for Titansgrave was developed specifically to help game masters create their own fantasy-based setting based on a variation of the Dragon AGE game, and it has a number of new rules and game mechanics (including the Stunt mechanic) that are demonstrated in Episode 1.
Episode 1, however, is what a lot of folks have been waiting on… and the 41 minute opening episode gets right to it. Wil gives a short plea to go and watch Episode 0, but for those who don’t want to do so… there’s a 3.5 minute cram course on Titansgrave before the game begins. What follows is a nice partially-animated tale of Valkana and the Chaos War, with nice sound effects and visuals added to the static artwork. The voiceover is nicely done, too.
When the game begins, there’s already a slight backstory brewing–the party is a group of street performers, and they’ve recently found a smooth magical cylinder that they’re somewhat anxious to uncover the origins and powers of. Wil quickly puts them on the road to Nestora where the party is directed to find a certain tavern as well as a sage who might be able to help with the sphere.
As the party crosses into Nestora, they find the Pegasus Roadhouse and do a bit of name dropping (*Gurlock!*) when they squeeze through the crowd to find Winifred. The party discovers they have come at the right time. It’s celebration time, and it’s free beer at the tavern! Apparently it’s time for Gurlock to make an appearance and share a new beer: Ye Old Chaotic Neutral.
At this point, I’d like to address a few production items related to the series. First, anyone who has ever watched more than one recorded RPG session has probably noticed the low production values. Single camera shot, poor sound quality, lots of non-game-related banter… the list goes on. To the Geek & Sundry’s credit, this new series has the same level of polish fans have come to expect from so many episodes of Tabletop. The sound quality is great–no wondering who is speaking, not a lot of uhs and umms. Editing can get rid of a lot of that, but it’s also quite apparent that we’re watching a set of folks who are keeping in mind that they are being recorded for public consumption. They stick to the game, keeping the banter focused. Any non-game comments are still often meta and a nod to the fact that the players know they are playing a game.
Speaking of the editing, it’s top notch. Multiple cameras make such a noticeable difference, and the editor(s) have done a great job of changing the POV only when necessary. Wil isn’t always in the frame when he’s speaking, and it’s nice to catch glimpses from the players and subtle (or not so subtle) shifting as the action changes and players pick up on plot cues.
Finally, viewers will certainly notice and appreciate the stage that’s been set for the game. Some pinball and arcade games in the background, a nice couch in the center framed by three other chairs. Wil to the far left, players to the right. This is how all RPGs should be played!
Getting back to the action… Wil keeps the story moving along, and what I really enjoyed was seeing him put his players on the spot during a Boasting Contest in the tavern. It’s called an RPG for a reason, and the players were able to riff on one another and assemble a quick story that involved a crystal that can apparently put out forest fires. Just watch and you’ll understand.
There is one round of combat in Episode 1, and what I found interesting was how it was handled almost without any minis or map. Viewers are treated to a bit of artwork that helps to picture the setup (a beer caravan being attacked), but I’m uncertain if the players had access to this artwork when this was filmed… my thinking is probably not. That means Wil used nothing but theater-of-the-mind for narrating the combat. It’s not my style as a GM, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it when it’s done well. The players did a bit of divide-and-conquer as they took on the attackers, so as you watch pay attention to how Wil describes the scene and how the players choose to attack (and who to attack).
I’m still trying to figure out the game mechanics–rolling 3d6 appears to be the standard, and players get to add modifiers based on their attributes but also certain combinations of dice (involving doubles or a trip-6) allow Wil to work with a player to create an elaborate bit of storytelling to resolve a combat round or an NPC encounter. I’ve always been a fan of both GM and players playing off of one another to build a scene or resolve a bit of action, and Wil and his players do a great job at it. This bodes well for future episodes.
Complaints? Not really complaints… more like requests for more information. Having watched plenty of Tabletop, I’m hoping they can find a way to present the dice rolls and combat details in some sort of visual on the screen–they already show Initiative and character HP/AC in on-screen graphics. We couldn’t see the double rolls (or the trip-6) on the table, and I think showing them as a graphic would be nice… along with the modifiers. Also, until we get to know these players and their characters, I’m now wondering if having the names (player and character) appear on screen occasionally would be helpful.
All in all, however, I’m quite pleased with Episode 1. It was just the right length–40 minutes a week (give or take) doesn’t feel too short or too long. I’ve already mentioned the high quality of the editing, artwork, and sound, and I can only see those getting better as the players get into their groove and the post-production finds new ways to present Wil and the players and mix in the animated scenes.
A big congratulations to Wil and his players. I enjoyed watching Episode 1, and I was easily convinced to tune in next week for Episode 2. I hope you are, too.