Back to Where It Began

Replaying on my XBOne means screenshots! Finally!

In many ways, my life started over in the spring of 2011.

I was three years out of an emotionally abusive relationship that left me questioning my worth, abilities, talents… everything. I was two years out from finishing my MFA, and the two years of that program, while amazing, were intensive and overwhelming and left me feeling burned out creatively. I was one year out from having purchased my XBox 360, and starting to rediscover my love of gaming. And it was that spring I was loaned a copy of BioWare’s Mass Effect.

Mass Effect engaged me in a way Halo and Left4Dead had not. While I loved the world and character of Halo, and quickly learned what it was to be in fandom again, the storytelling, characters, and world of Mass Effect engaged me completely. That particular semester, I had an end of day study hall duty that happened to be comprised mostly of gamers. We had great discussions about gaming, and at one point, a student, knowing my love of fantasy, suggested I’d like Dragon Age, since it had a lot of the same elements as Mass Effect. So I borrowed it. And it was just medieval Mass Effect.

Except… NOPE. It was so much more.

Alistair, Fianna, Morrigan, and Cat the Dog

In very little time I was fully immersed in the Blight-stricken land of Ferelden, and terms such as “The Maker”, “Ostagar”, “Orzammar”, “Circle of Magi”, “Andraste”, and “Tevinter” (eventually the most important of those!) became familiar. I fell into the plight of Ferelden and got to know Fianna Cousland, my Grey Warden, better than any character I’d ever worked with before. Her romance with Alistair (the first time I ever played) happened slowly, but also suddenly. It came unexpectedly, as did the relationships she forged with her companions. I was shocked when Zevran betrayed her in a back alley later in the game because I didn’t understand approval ratings. I struggled through the endlessness that was the Fade because I didn’t yet understand BioWare’s penchant for puzzles. I slogged through the Deep Roads because I didn’t yet know how much BioWare loves tormenting us (it’s okay, BioWare, I still love you).

I initially told Morrigan no way in the void was she going to sleep with Alistair. And then watched Riordan fall from Fort Drakon and realized Alistair or Fianna would have to kill the Archdemon, and reset to an earlier save.

In subsequent playthroughs I learned more about the mechanics and how to spec characters and build rapport so my team stuck with me. But a funny thing happened. I’d been so burned out creatively, but Dragon Age woke something up in me. These realized characters in this amazing world with its deep lore fascinated me so much, that I wanted to write about them. I hadn’t wanted to write in years, and, having received my MFA, figured if I did ever write again, it would have to be serious original fiction.

Fuck that. I wrote my first Dragon Age fic, “Beautiful Prison”, in June of 2011. It was a short bit about Alistair waiting to be recruited by Duncan. He tells your Warden the story in conversation, but I wanted to see the scene through his eyes, feel the tension in his mind.

Writing that piece felt like waking up to a new world. Possibly coming out of Uthenera, to use another DA word from their Dalish Elvehn culture. The words didn’t stop flowing. I needed an outlet and found a Facebook group dedicated to Alistair. I started finding friends to talk about DA with. I started crafting Dragon Age-themed things: from painting canvas shoes, to a fun little alphabet scrapbook, to my first ever cosplay, for PAX East 2012, where I got to meet the Dragon Age creative team. I met my best friend, who invited me to play D&D with her family and some friends.

So dragon. Much age. Wow.

A lot of people may scoff at the idea that a video game could change my life, especially when I was already in my thirties when I stumbled up on it. But through Dragon Age I branched out. I found a new friend group. Luna (BFF) invited me to her group’s annual Christmas party, where I met extended friends who weren’t in our D&D campaign. It felt nice to branch out and be creative. It felt nice to be social in different ways (though I totally loved my cats and my apartment, and did really enjoy going out with my work friends). But at that party, in walked my husband.

He wasn’t my husband then. Of course. Bard was one of the first to arrive after me. He was tall with dark hair and wide brown eyes and an adorable smile. We hit it off immediately and spent the next week chatting on Facebook. By March we were dating. By that July, 2012, we were engaged. By July 2013, we were married. In that time I kept writing, producing DA fanfic and articles for a DA fan site. I kept learning new cosplay skills and developing new D&D characters. Luna and I hung out a lot, and how cool was it that I got to move down the street from my best friend?

Much has happened in those intervening years: several PAX Easts are in the book, I have a sprawling Dragon Age headcanon with a huge series of fanfiction following my Inquisitor (Inqusition’s 2014 release changed even more!). I live down the street from Luna, and have made more friends through DA. I’ve tapered off my cosplaying some, but retain the skills I learned through sewing for it. Oh, I have a kid! In 2015 Bard and I welcomed our Smol Human. He started kindergarten this month.

And I’m still writing. In 2018 I got the confidence to try writing original again, taking inspiration from Dragon Age, Skyrim, and other games. I’m working on my series and loving it. Though I don’t always have a lot of time to work on it, I’m not overwhelmed or feeling disappointed or burned out by it. I’m creating again, I’m working with fantastic authors, and I feel alive in a way I didn’t before picking up Dragon Age: Origins in 2011.

I feel ya, Fianna. 2020’s been like that.

Earlier this month, BioWare released a teaser trailer confirming work on DA4 and the fandom went wild. It’s been six years since Inquisition, and to finally have more news (than just Solas’s voiceover with a graphic) sent us into an uproar. With that, I decided it was high time I booted up Origins once again and revisited Ferelden. Bard asked me if I’d play a different character and make different choices this time.

I see the appeal. But I wanted that feeling of coming home, of the Blight bringing people together, of waking up after a long sleep and coming to life again. I wanted to go back to where it started. Back not just to Origins, but the origin of where the last nearly 10 years have brought me, and that means playing Fianna’s story.

It felt good.

Like coming home.

Life, Love, and Dragon Age

Today is the unofficial Dragon Age Day in the community! Though I’ve made some posts and tweets about how it’s impacted me, it’s also been a long time since I blogged, so how better to get back into the swing of it, than to blog about how a little video game completely changed my life?

The year: 2011. My cousin had loaned me Mass Effect, and I was really enjoying it. I got (and sunk a huge chunk of time into) Mass Effect 2, and was really loving the writing, the story, characters, and music. That year I had a great study hall duty: in my classroom, last period of the day. It ended up being a bunch of gamer kids, and one day I mentioned I was really into Mass Effect. One student said, “Oh, if you like that, you’d like Dragon Age. Want to borrow my copy?”

Of course I said yes.

My initial impressions were that it was a Medieval Mass Effect, and I wasn’t initially sold. It was enjoyable enough… so I kept playing. And played some more. Other than my students, no one else I knew was into the game, so I took to the internet. Dragon Age began to dominate my thoughts. I started wanting to write–

–This was the biggest thing. I’d finished my MFA a couple years before this, and since finishing that degree, aside from a NaNoWriMo, I was feeling kind of burnt out on writing. I just felt like I didn’t know what to write. Before my MFA I’d been really into fanfiction. The Dragon Age world was worming into me in a way a fantasy world hadn’t since Tolkien. I loved the characters and the world. The dialogue. The voice acting. The story. The fact that my Warden could essentially be who I wanted her to be…

This was one of the first ways Dragon Age changed my life. I started writing again. I felt like I had stories to tell, a feeling I hadn’t had in years.

Of course, finding a community of other DA fans was the other major impact. I joined a Facebook group, fans of the character of Alistair. Through that, I met many people I am still connected to today, and am pleased and privileged to call friends. I also met my best friend (I’ll call her Luna). Luna and I clicked; we messaged each other and found out we only lived an hour apart! After several months of chatting, she invited me to her home to join a D&D campaign. I’d never played D&D before, but I also was looking for a new social outlet, and gamers were my people. I accepted.

I cannot fully express my gratitude to Luna, even now, for trusting me enough to invite me into her home, to meet her family (including her then-toddler daughter) and friends. Dragon Age introduced me to my best friend, and that started another snowball of life-changing events.

I kept attending D&D at Luna’s. It was the highlight of my week! And then Luna invited me to their annual Christmas party, which was our D&D group, and their extended friends group. It was December 18th, 2011. I always remember that date, because that was when I met my husband.

I’d gotten out of an abusive relationship three and a half years prior to all of this, and had pretty much sworn off dating. I was happy with my cats, my games, my D&D, my Dragon Age. But I chatted with future-husband at the party (and thought he was pretty cute). He and I found each other online that night and spent the next week chatting. And… we just didn’t stop chatting. We started hanging out more in early 2012; I’d spend time with him before D&D at Luna’s. Sometimes he joined in as an NPC. By March 2012 we were officially dating. By July 2012 we were engaged. By July 2013 we were married… and now I lived about a mile away from Luna!

In that time Luna and I started going to PAX East (husband came too). We started learning more about cosplay. We played Dragon Age 2, and were there when Dragon Age 3 (which became DA: Inquisition) was announced at PAX East 2012. She and I have pictures of us with the developers and writers. We’ve gotten signatures.

When Inquisition came out in 2014, things changed again. The characters, story, and world of Inquisition swept me into the thrill of Thedas once again, and the sheer amount of writing and DA crafting that came as a result still boggles my mind. I cosplayed for PAX East 2015. I bawled my eyes out when Trespasser came out. That was the year I also had my son, and the following year for PAX East, I dressed him up as a nug. It was hard to get time in to play the game between work and momming; but always worth it when I could.

The writing continued, and I’ve made more friends through DA fanfiction. Through that community I’ve joined others who are writing and publishing and in 2018 my friend (who goes by Schattenriss on AO3, so I’ll just refer to him as such here–he’s a FANTASTIC writer btw) and I made a pact: we would take our talents and each write a book in 2018. And we did! And 2019 we were writing the drafts of the sequels! While neither of us are published (yet) we’ve been making strides toward that. Just this year I submitted to an open call for submissions, and got a request for the full manuscript. It was the most validating experience in my writing life thus far.

But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point if I hadn’t started writing DA fanfiction, and found such a great community of writers. I wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t met Luna, if I hadn’t taken a student up on his generous offer to let his geeky English teacher borrow a game. I literally would not be in the life I have now if I hadn’t played Dragon Age, and honestly, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me–because from that, so many other amazing things have come.

Thank you BioWare, and the hundreds of people who have worked on all aspects of the Dragon Age franchise. For the tie-in materials that make the world bigger and deeper and more real. Thank you Luna for your friendship and love and support. To my husband and the Smol Human, for being my family. To Schattenriss, to Nerine, to Tallulah, for their encouragement, for pushing me to go beyond Thedas.

A popular line in Dragon Age: Origins is “Funny how the blight brings people together.” It is funny, but it’s also wonderful, and I will always be grateful for it.

Delirium in the Imperium

Part 1 of Dorian Pavus: Scholar of the Inquisition

Gaming is a big part of my identity, and has been since I was a kid and we got our first NES console. I’ve played quite a few games on a few different consoles over the years, and one of my favorite game series is BioWare’s Dragon Age. BioWare is known for their immersive storytelling, complex characters, and relationship building. The lore gleaned from the codex entries paints a picture of a rich, vast world full of possibilities. 

Thedas (literally shorthand for The Dragon Age Setting) is full of the expected humans, elves, and dwarves, but also the horned Qunari. It hosts a complex magic system that shapes beliefs, cultures, and even the world as a whole. The world is divided between the south, which is skeptical of magic and mages, and goes to sometimes extreme measures to ensure that magic doesn’t dare “rule over man”, as the Chant of Light forbids. And then there is my specialty: my favorite location, possibly because we know so little of it so far, or possibly because what we do know is fascinating: the northern lands of the Tevinter Imperium.

Throughout the first two Dragon Age games Tevinter is the shadowy land to the north, filled with ambitious magisters who don’t fear magic, nor do they subscribe to the most basic belief about magic: that it is meant to serve man, never to rule over him. The Tevinter characters we meet are stereotypically ambitious and yes, a bit evil and all too happy to let their magic establish their rule.

In the first two games we meet Caladrius, the magister helping filter elves from the Denerim Alienage into Tevinter slavery; Tahrone, the Tevinter mage experimenting on ways to stir up chaos in the Templar ranks in Kirkwall; Danarius, the wicked magister responsible for abusing his lyrium-marked slave, Fenris; and Hadriana, another magister and apprentice to Danarius, known for her cruelty to slaves. In these cases the characters are sadistic, ambitious, and seemingly irredeemable. The only sympathetic Tevinter character we meet is Fenris, an escaped slave bent on revenge against his former master. Fenris distrusts mages and magic in general, and as a Tevinter, gives us one angle on that location.

Dragon Age: Inquisition widens the world of Thedas, showing us more of Ferelden and giving us the opportunity to traverse quite a bit of Orlais. It also provides us with new characters from Tevinter, each one who shines light on a different facet of Tevinter society in a way previous characters, Fenris excepting, did. While most of the characters we’d met prior to this were flat, and their motivations empty beyond their ambitions, we get more depth in the Inquisition characters.

The central antagonist is Corypheus, a resurrected ancient magister: one of the first to assault the Fade, if the lore is to be believed (the Dragon Age developers are always quick to point out that the first line of Origins is “The Chantry tells us…”, meaning that, like everything, there may not be a simple explanation, or one we can take at face value). While he and the bulk of his Venatori fit the madman-bent-on-world-domination mold, Magister Gereon Alexius does not. 

Alexius shows us that domination isn’t the only motivating factor in this world. He didn’t join up to advance; he’s already a magister and a scholar (more on that later!), but he’s also a widower and a father with a dying son. Alexius is a powerful man caught in a situation over which he has no power. In Corypheus and the Venatori, Alexius may gain the power to save his son; his motivation is desperation. 

His son Felix is dying of Blight exposure, and his motives are driven by his father. Felix took ill after the darkspawn attack that killed his mother, and he sees how his wasting illness affects his father. Not much is said about Felix’s thoughts on this. Does he join the Venatori out of his own desperation? Does he join to keep giving his father hope? Or is it because his father barely lets him out of his sight for fear of losing him? Quite a bit can be left up to interpretation with him, but what’s important is that in the end he sees what grief and desperation has done to his father, and does what he can to help the Inquisition stop the Venatori.

In most of these cases we have characters making power grabs for what it can do for them, which is much of what we’ve seen from Tevinter characters (even if this time the motives are more complex). Inquisition also gives us Cremisius Aclassi, who originated as part of Tevinter’s soporati, or non-magic using class. Krem is a character who deserves a treatise in his own right, but one I’m neither prepared for, or qualified, to write, so for these purposes I’m focusing on his initial place in Tevinter society, and what he tells us about being from a soporati family.

If Fenris provides insights into the slave experience of Tevinter society, Krem shows someone who doesn’t have magical ability, but was also not a slave. This adds another layer of complexity and richness to Tevinter society. Tevinter is a complicated place where the mages aren’t herded into Circles, but sent for training–they’re more boarding schools or centers of academia than holding pens. They exist freely, cast spells freely, and even the poorest mage is still better off than the richest soporati. In the case of Krem and his family, they were comfortable enough; then a magister’s interference, even though well-intentioned, put the Aclassi tailors out of business. Krem’s father sold the family into slavery to survive, while Krem joined the military, and then eventually the mercenary company the Chargers. 

The novels and comics introduce other characters, but there is one notable Tevinter I’ve not mentioned yet, whose character and experience gives us even more insight into this society. Dorian Pavus is fascinating because he was raised with power and privilege, and could have become the flat, cackling magister that we’d seen in earlier games. His family is of the Altus class: the wealthiest, most powerful in the Imperium. He’s been bred for raw power and an impeccable bloodline, something he teases about lightly, but has just enough edge to his voice to suggest that it’s not the great practice the upper echelons of Tevinter society seem to think. Dorian comes from a slave-holding family and has some complex (and yes, often problematic) views on the topic. Dorian is a study in privilege who comes across as arrogant and self-assured, and not without reason. 

Dorian, however, is more than the flashy rockstar mage. Beyond his raw power and noble breeding, Dorian can possess a startling vulnerability; beyond his disdain for the practices of his homeland, he still loves Tevinter fiercely. He’s capable of acknowledging her flaws, and even when called out on some of the tough topics, he’s open to learning and admitting when he’s wrong.

He’s such a multilayered character, and between himself and Fenris, we are given one of the clearest glimpses into the reality of Tevinter life. But beyond all of that, what fascinates me most about Dorian is how intelligent he is. He’s a man who’s studied, who’s experimented, and who gets excited about magic in a way we don’t see from any other character. 

Because Dragon Age is my favorite game, and because academia is my favorite trope, it pleases me to present Dorian Pavus, Scholar of the Inquisition.

Academia: or, My Favorite Trope

I feel like everyone has a thing that draws them into a book. Some people really enjoy the found family trope, or a particular character. Recently author Yolandie Horak wrote a great post about her favorite trope, the Lovable Rogue. Lately I’ve been reading a duology, and between that, and my own work, have come to realize that my trope? My thing? is Academia.

I’ve always been an academic to a degree. I love reading; I love the smell of books, and I love getting lost in a library. And when I stop to think about it, a lot of the books I love are set in schools or at libraries; they incorporate books and academia as a major part of the story and the world. When I sort myself into a Hogwarts house, I come up Ravenclaw more often than not. I love when fantasy books incorporate a library into their world, and when a game has an academic setting I can explore.

There are two games I played relatively recently that incorporate the trope of the lost library: Thief and Dragon Age: Inquisition (both 2014). Thief has a level that is a ruined library (that is almost ruined by a very frustrating puzzle, but that’s more gameplay mechanics than anything else). The game overall is very gloomy, but this gloom works well for this level, and the idea of seeking out long-lost knowledge. Strange things haunt the corners; staircases move; paths change. Which way is up anymore? It makes the idea of getting ‘lost in a book’ a reality.

In Inquisition the Shattered Library is lost beyond time and space, accessible only by the mysterious Eluvians. Spirits of Knowledge and Study, the Archivists, linger, preserving the last words of those who remained in the Vir Dirthara. Books remain, but will shock those who try to take them from the shelves, as if protecting themselves. The Librarians, once caretakers, are transformed into violent guardians. At one point, Dorian Pavus (more on him at a later date) says, “Look at this place! Now that we have so many samples, how hard would it be to build Eluvians of our own?” Even after he’s dissuaded by a very deadpan Iron Bull, he explains that he’d like to make something magical that is also helpful; most of the magical objects they’ve dealt with over the last few years have been tools of destruction, and Dorian, ever the scholar, wants to use this new research for something good.

A Wizard and a Scholar

Recently I finished Ginn Hale’s Lord of the White Hell Book 1; I will do a proper review eventually! I liked the characters and the plot, but I realized what I really enjoyed most of all was it being set at a school. I liked the discussions of classes and homework assignments, and students studying and complaining about professors. I liked the kind Scholars and the gruff weapons Master. I’m reading the second book right now, and I am enjoying it: the plot continues to deepen, and I grow even fonder of the characters. I’m about halfway through, and I actually really miss the school setting! This isn’t a failure of Hale’s by any means; but it’s made me realize that yes, academia is really my favored trope.When I first read the Harry Potter series I loved the magical world that Rowling created, but it was the descriptions of the school: the library with its forbidden section, the classes students took and the tools of their trade. Maybe I was even a tad disappointed when the final book didn’t (understandably) focus on the schooling…

I think, to a degree, one of the reasons I enjoy Tokien’s work as much as I do is that he was first and foremost a scholar. I love seeing that side of him reflected in Gandalf, particularly in that scene in the Minas Tirith library in Fellowship of the Ring, and I love that Gandalf’s initial reaction is to run off to Gondor to do some serious research. And maybe to an extent, this is part of what I centered in on in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. I saw a lot of myself in Cath with the fanfiction writing and all, but most of the novel was set on a college campus, navigating roommates, classmates, professors, and assignments. And of course there’s The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, two thirds of which are set at the University, centered around a precocious (if slightly wise-assed) first person narrator. I love it.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, but given that the University and its library, and the quest for lost knowledge, play a huge role in my current project, I think it’s safe to say that academia is my “thing”. Is there a “thing” you gravitate toward in your reading habits and/or writing? Share in the comments!