Two years ago, I asked Wil Wheaton a question. Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana was the answer.
Okay, that’s a little more dramatic sounding than it actually was. On the last day of GenCon in 2013, I attended a TableTop Q&A hosted by Wheaton, the show’s personality, and Boyan Radakovich, the show’s producer. Even though TableTop was a huge hit (it was even presented with the Diana Jones Award that year), because it was a Sunday, there was a small enough crowd that it felt more like a hangout between a few friends. Anyone who wanted to ask a question pretty much got the chance.
When my turn to ask a question arrived, I asked about the lack of RPGs in the schedule for season two of TableTop. Though the show focuses on board games, my favorite episodes from the first season were the Fiasco and Dragon Age episodes. Wheaton said he was glad I asked that particular question and proceeded to swear the audience to secrecy. He excitedly announced that they were in the very, VERY early stages of planning an RPG spin-off show. There were no specifics to share at that time, but he wanted us to know that he had definitely not forgotten about RPGs. As you can imagine, I was more than a little psyched about this news.
Fast forward to Spring of 2014. TableTop announced a crowd funding campaign to finance a third season. There were other stretch goals beyond the bare minimum needed for the third season, but the super-secret RPG show was tacked on as the ultimate stretch goal. If they somehow reached $1 million, they would make the show. By the time the incredibly successful campaign was done, they had raised over $1.4 million. The RPG show was a go, but it would still be another year before we began to hear anything concrete about it.
At the beginning of April this year, the name of the show was finally announced as Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana. At first, the only information we received was that it would use the unreleased Fantasy AGE system from Green Ronin and would be a mix of science fiction and fantasy, similar to Thundarr the Barbarian from the early 80’s. By mid-May the cast of players was revealed to be Hank Green (DFTBA!), Laura Bailey, Yuri Lowenthal, and Alison Haislip. In Early June, the first episodes were released, and just after GenCon, the tenth and last episode was aired. Now it’s all available on YouTube.
So, was it good?
Overall, I highly enjoyed all ten (plus a prologue) episodes of the show. On a pure entertainment level, the story Wheaton and his players told drew me in, keeping me invested and eagerly looking forward to each episode as they were released. Just as TableTop is a good way to show people what board games are all about, Titansgrave could serve equally well in explaining to non-gamers what RPGs are all about. This rings true for so many things, from the way the players get immersed in the story, how they interact with each other, and all the way to how the dice can be perversely fickle in how they roll. Then there are the in-jokes that so easily spring up in gaming groups that are comfortable with one another. This time, though, we get to share in those jokes. There’s a reason people were already wearing ‘Five gold and a party!’ t-shirts at GenCon.
Interestingly, my one minor quibble with the show actually falls into the realm of GMing, that thing we tend to focus on here at the Stew. The show is great for showing what it’s like to play in a game, but doesn’t necessarily provide a good guidebook for new GMs on how to run a game. Wheaton, as the GM, keeps his decisions fairly close to the vest, making it difficult to see where his skill at running the game is actually coming into play. There were also a couple of occasions where it felt like the players were being told their characters’ reactions rather than being given the opportunity to react. To be fair, this probably comes from the editing needs of creating a cohesive story and editing a several hours of play time down to an entertaining, hour long show.
The real treasure trove of GM inspiration is probably in the related books Green Ronin released at GenCon this year. Not only did they release their Fantasy AGE rulebook, but they also released the Titansgrave adventure series book. The second one is not a setting book, unfortunately, but it does detail everything the PCs did in the show. An all-star cast of game designers and writers contributed to the show, with many taking turns writing the adventures that drove the show. These authors include Chris Pramas, Will Hindmarch, Keith Baker, Nicole Lindroos, Leonard Balsera, and more. The interesting thing is that each adventure is presented in the book as it was written, not necessarily as it was played on the show. Right there that provides some insight into the things that the GM had to adjust or adapt for his players.
Since I actually had a little extra cash at GenCon this year, I was able to pick up both books. I am definitely a fan of the show, so I was curious about them, but I also thought it would make good review fodder. How well does the book prepare you to run a Fantasy AGE game set in Valkana? It was important to discuss the show itself first, because whatever the book has to offer, it will be difficult to divorce it from the show. So, part two will come after I’ve had a chance to dig into the books and formulate some thoughts on them.
In the mean time, have you had a chance to watch Titansgrave? Pick up the books? What did you think?
Ive watched Titansgrave up to episode 9 so far, and have enjoyed it. which is unusual, as its not the first time I watched streamed or edited for online viewing rp sessions, and they normally fail to hold my attention for more than three minutes. I guess Titansgrave shows the advantage of having professional actors / comedians / presenters in the party… as opposed to the incoherent ramblings we gamer normally engage in: one time our GM secretly recorded a game session. When we listened back to it; it sounded like the denizens of the local asylum had got their hands on a shed load of booze and were babbling nonsense at each other!
so they did a great job. I agree it doenst showcase what the GM does… but then would that be entertaining to anyone?
I’ve found most other taped game sessions to be a bit too long. If I’ve got three or four hours to kill, I’d rather be playing a game than watching someone else play one. There are some really good ones out there, like the PAX’s Acquisitions Incorporated, or Geek & Sundry’s other RPG show, Critical Role (which has amazing voice actors as GM and PCs).
I think a GM centric show could be interesting, but not in the same way as this was.
I agree that it’s more of an inspiration to players than to GMs. Because the main GMing technique displayed is heavy scripting. I would even call it borderline railroady. But I can understand why they would go that route for a web series with a fixed length.
I suspect it’s an artifact of the adventures being written by a talented stable of writers, instead of a GM responding to the player actions. For module play, they seemed to do a good job of personalizing it, drawing in character specific goals, and improvising reveals of character secrets.
I will say that Wheaton does an EXCELLENT job of bringing the world and its cast of characters to life. That’s something I realized I probably should have mentioned in the main article.
I was surprised to enjoy Titansgrave; while Tabletop covers good games, I’d usually rather spend my hour attempting the games with friends over watching actors play. That’s probably at least partially due to limited video watching internet time, but some is a bias towards participation instead of watching.
I do wonder about some of the game elements. Wheaton got good narrative out of encouraging the players to have secrets–but it also sounded like “how I GM” instead of instructions in the rulebook, which seems like a missed opportunity.
I was under the impression that the notes were his–but that also explains some of his mannerisms, where he retreats to his notes, or skims looking for something. You’re a lot less familiar running an adventure written by others than one you worked through yourself.
The camera and table setup were also interesting. It did a pretty good job of capturing the feel of a player looking across at fellow players. I also think they were smart to have everyone face the camera statically, instead of trying to sit around a normal table and move the camera to lean over various people’s shoulders.
I didn’t pick up AGE yet and I don’t know that I will. Maybe Matthew will pop in to discuss the probabilities of getting doubles on three dice, but it seemed like they frequently had stunt points to allocate, and that slowed things down even with editing.
It was a show I’d be happy to share with people who ask, “So, what is roleplaying anyway? How do you play without a board?” It’s a cleaner, swifter, better moving version that we usually get around a table (in part due to editing–like never waiting for people to total their initiatives, or dropping an announcer voice over the actual dialogue).
At the Titansgrave panel at GenCon, Wheaton said that there were many times in the game where he would look down at his notes as if there were something there, just to give himself time to think about how to respond. That’s part of the reason why I don’t think his ability to improvise as a GM was really showcased.
My wife and I watched the whole series, and enjoyed it. I think episode 9 was the one time I got a little annoyed by the differences between RPG for a show and actually playing/running a game. While I understood the “show” reasoning behind it, if any GM outside of a show setting spent an entire 45 minutes monologuing while only giving each player one or two active decisions to make, I think folks would rightly leave the table feeling a little annoyed.
Yeah, episode 9 was the one that bothered me. There were a couple of moments in previous episodes, but I could let those ones slide. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they actually RP’d more of it out, but they had Wil narrate in that way to make it more compact for the episode.