Review of R. A. Salvatore’s Companions Series

Companions Series Review Cover Image

Welcome to another installment of Ogre’s Book Club. This time I’ve got a review of R. A. Salvatore’s Companions Series for you. The First book in the series is The Companions, The Sundering, Book I which is the also the first book in the six book The Sundering series. The remaining three books in R.A. Salvatore’s storyline are oddly subtitled The Companions Codex I, II, and III. The books I’m reviewing in this article are:

R. A. Salvatore’s Companions Series Clarification

Wizards of the Coast, publishers of the current, 5th Edition, of Dungeons & Dragons created The Sundering event timeline to explain changes in the game world/universe. This series consists of six books by six authors. The first book, by R. A. Salvatore begins the series and then spins off into The Companions Codex books.

Discovering R. A. Salvatore

I haven’t read any of Salvatore’s work in some years. I originally discovered his work in the late eighties when I found a copy of The Crystal Shard on my local bookstore’s shelves. This first discovery of Bruenor Battlehammer, Regis, Cattie-Brie, Wulfgar, and the now legendary Drizzt Do’Urden sucked me in right away. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it! Over the years, I drifted away from from Salvatore’s writing as my tastes changed and my interest in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games flagged.

My recent discovery of the Critical Role Podcast and the resurgence (and unprecedented) popularity of D&D piqued my interest in the state of the game and the game world, in this case Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms. I’ve not kept up with the happenings in the game and the changing of editions and publishers and owners. So, I decided to read the The Sundering series to get caught up. At the end of the first book, I realized the storyline doesn’t continue in the second book of The Sundering series, instead spinning off into other books. So, I followed the storyline through Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf.

I should note that I’ve already bought the second book in The Sundering series, The Godborn, The Sundering Book II, by Paul S. Kemp. However, I haven’t read it yet because I got sidetracked with Salvatore’s novels (and a handful of other books). I previously enjoyed reading Paul S. Kemp’s Erevis Cale books (years ago) and hope this book lives up to those. I’ll publish a review in the future.

A Note About Spoilers

In this review of R. A. Salvatore’s Companions series, I’ll do my best to avoid serious spoilers, but some detail will inevitably leak out when writing a review of a four book series. I will do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum an if in doubt, I’ll make it obvious so you can skip it.

The Companions, Sundering Book I Cover Image
Cover. Artwork subject to copyright.

The Companions, The Sundering, Book I

The Companions, The Sundering Book I is a refreshing dive back into R.A. Salvatore’s work. I hadn’t read any of his work in a while and enjoyed this book. This book takes place during the time where magic in the Forgotten Realms has gone haywire and after the death of Drizzt’s companions. For those folks that read earlier books where Bruenor Battlehammer makes peace with Obould Many Arrows orc tribes, this book takes place a century later.

I think what I liked best about this book is that it has little to do with Drizzt Do’Urden. Sure, he’s a very central character, but he’s not a big player in this book. Instead, his companions take center stage (for once) and their new lives are interesting and entertaining reading.

I can’t really spoil the book, so this will sound vague, but this book is about Drizzt’s companions, an offer from a god to be reborn and to return to aid their friend, Drizzt, in a time of need.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Nigh of the Hunter, Companions Codex I Cover

Night of the Hunter, Companions Codex I

Night of the Hunter picks up immediately after The Companions. For long-time fans of Drizzt Do’Urden, the fact that the Drow goddess Llolth is constantly plotting his demise and rules her domain by fostering chaos and intrigue won’t be any surprise. For new readers, this book will take you deep into the drow underworld and the plotting and scheming of arch wizards and and matron mothers.

Meanwhile, on the surface old companions reunited find new adventures and a few old enemies. This is a stage setting novel for the following two books.

Rise of the King, Companions Codex II Cover Image

Rise of the King, Companions Codex II

There is no interruption or gap between Night of the Hunter and Rise of the King. The story continues as skies darken and the plotting and scheming of drow, frost giants, orks, ogres and gods begins to take shape on the surface. The action picks up here and the drow intrigue is thick.

Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf, Companions Codex III Cover

Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf, Companions Codex III

Vengeance begins exactly where Rise of the King left off. The companions are separated and struggling. War and destruction are thick. Dwarves and other surface races are in disagreement and the evil armies are everywhere. This book is great fun and fans of Salvatore’s style of describing fighting won’t be disappointed. Without spoiling anything, this book wraps up this portion fo the story arc, but it doesn’t end the story. Salvatore has been writing Drizzt Do’Urden stories for 30 years, why stop now?

Conclusion: Review of R. A. Salvatore’s Companions Series

Final thoughts on R. A. Salvatore’s Companions series. I’m glad I read these four books. It was nice to read about characters that I loved when I was much younger. I know that most folks that read Salvatore’s stuff really like his Drizzt Do’Urden character, but he’s never been my favorite–I’m at the point where I skip the short ‘journal entry’ chapters in Drizzt’s voice. I always appreciated Drizzt’s supporting cast much more. Regis, Wulfgar, Cattie-brie and Bruenor were fun to read about again. And in many ways, they’re the star of these recent books. That was a treat. Of course, you wouldn’t know it–all the covers feature Drizzt.

I am not a big fan of the Drow underworld in the Forgotten Realms. I think Salvatore has become the de facto expert in D&D Forgotten Realms Drow world building, but for me it’s just not that entertaining. For that reason, I’m skipping the next three books in the series. Who knows, maybe I’ll pick them up down the road, but right now it’s not on my list of things to do. If you’re curious what comes next, The Homecoming Series picks up where the Companions Codex Books leave off. The books in the series are:

What’s next?

I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels for the first time. After reading books based on a game world that are required to comply with game rules so fans can emulate the stories, it’s refreshing to read something unhampered by any of those concerns. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s taken me so long to pick up a Discworld novel, but I’m hooked. Pratchett is hilarious and inventive. I’ll post my impressions fo Pratchett’s richly imaginative and often hilarious stories in another blog post.

Oh, and I also read other things. When I’m not reading science fiction or fantasy, I do read other books. Here’s a short list of what I’ve ingested in the past couple of months:

Thanks for hanging in this far and reading this long review of R. A. Salvatore’s Companions Series. I hope you enjoyed it. See you next time.

Critical Role: The Best Thing To Happen To Dungeons & Dragons. Ever.

Critical Role Cast

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UPDATE: The campaign finished up at over $11.3M. Wow.

So, What’s This Then?

Unless you play Dungeons & Dragons or are a game geek, you probably haven’t heard or Matt Mercer and the gang that make up Critical Role–“a bunch of nerdy ass voice actors that play Dungeons and Dragons” (Matt’s words). For a lot of people, that changed this week when Critical Role’s Kickstarter campaign raised over five million dollars in less than 72 hours. At the time of this writing, the campaign is approaching six million dollars and still has 42 days of fundraising time remaining in the Kickstarter campaign. That’s incredible. On Monday, March 4th, Fortune magazine published an article (yes, Fortune published an article about a D&D Kickstarter …. whaaaat?) that said Critical Role’s campaign could possibly break the 2013 record set by the campaign to bring back Mystery Science Theater that raised $5,764,229. Guess what? That happened yesterday, March 6th. Right now, March 7th 2019 at 8:11 PST, Critical Role’s fundraising effort has brought in $5,880,802.

The Critical Role Cast. From left to right … Back Row: Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, Matthew Mercer – Front Row: Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham

So What?

If you’re still with me, and you’re unfamiliar with Critical Role, you’re probably asking “so what? What is it, why do I care, what are they raising money for?” I’m glad you asked.

Critical Role is a weekly broadcast show on Twitch of Matt Mercer and his cast, wait for it, playing Dungeons and Dragons. Yup. They play that nerdy ass pen and paper game that people made fun of us about when we were kids back in the day. Not only do they play a game and broadcast it, they record the broadcast and put in out on Youtube, they also publish it as a podcast. Right now, there are over 160 episodes spanning two campaigns and a whole slew of spin-off shows and segments you can watch, for free.

Here’s the kicker: Millions of people watch and listen to the show from all around the globe. These fans, some of them downright rabid, are affectionately known as “critters” and they have a hashtag to prove it. And nearly forty three thousand of them have ponied up between $10 and $25,000 in pledges to the Kickstarter campaign. That’s kind of a big deal.

It Didn’t Happen Overnight

Here’s how that happened–and it’s not an overnight success. Mercer and the cast have been playing weekly D&D sessions and broadcasting them for five years. In the early episodes, the Critical Role gang is happy to get to a handful of subscribers. When they hit a few thousand they are genuinely stoked. Their success took years of playing the game and broadcasting it weekly. When players are unavailable or on vacation they video call or conference call in. That’s dedication.

Since that early beginning, they’ve accumulated a massive fan base. This is due to Mercer’s creative Dungeon Mastering and the cast’s engaging characters and the performances that go with them. Let’s remember that “nerdy ass voice actor” part from the beginning of this article. Every one in the cast, including Mercer is an actor. So, they bring a whole other level of role-playing to the game. This level of performance engages the audience and coupled with the anticipation of a great or terrible roll of the dice, it makes for a lot of fun to watch.

There’s something special about not knowing what’s going to happen next and realizing that the people you’re watching don’t know either. It creates a level of excitement that is hard to duplicate. I also get the impression that unlike many gamers, the cast of the show isn’t (or at least wasn’t) super knowledgeable on the game. They hadn’t all read the Monster Manual cover to cover. They were still surprised, excited, and/or scared when Mercer presents them with a monster to fight or a villain to contend with.

Veteran gamers have often read all the books multiple times and the sense of fear, excitement, and wonder is gone. They know all the strengths, weaknesses, and tactics to dispatch the threat and the overall joy of game play suffers as a result.

So, the massive success of Critical Role’s Kickstarter campaign is built on five years of creativity and dedication. No small feat.

Critical Role is Expanding the D&D Audience

Why, you ask? Because those of us that grew up in the eighties remember a time where D&D was blamed for all sorts of outrageous things like suicides and satanic worship. Don’t believe me? Read the New York Times and BBC articles on that topic.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in sixth grade. My friends and I would play at recess, next to the monkey bars. A few years later, I joined a gaming group and we played weekly, sometimes more. Back then, if you mentioned D&D to anyone, you were either weird, or satanic, or both.

I eventually moved on to other games and table top war-games , but over the years I’ve picked up and played a little D&D or it’s offshoot, Pathfinder, a few times over the years but not regularly or frequently.

I discovered Critical Role in a local newspaper. Imagine my surprise when I roll into my local coffee shop and see the free newszine that usually talks about local events with a cover page featuring D&D–and the headline isn’t about chaos, satan, or mayhem. Instead, it’s actually positive. What? In that article, theres’s a brief reference to a popular Youtube channel and podcast and that’s how I learned about Critical Role (Here’s that article by the way).

Over the next two months, I binged on the entire first campaign (115 episodes) in podcast form. I listened to it while washing dishes, on road trips, etc. I finished episode 115 on the Morning of March 4th and thought I’d write a blog post about it. I had no idea, how popular Critical Role is. Now I know. The first thing I ran across was the Kickstarter campaign. I had to read it several times to realize they’d cracked three million dollars in the first day.

So, I started digging around the Internet and found fan pages, a wiki site, and a tremendous amount of content based on Critical Role. Holy smokes!

And that got me thinking … (always dangerous) … Matt Mercer and his crew have contributed to something that has elevated the game and made it accessible to millions of people that wouldn’t ever go near it otherwise.

Before, if you wanted to learn about D&D and didn’t have a friend that played and could introduce you, you had to either stand at the Barnes & Noble game section (usually near the cafe where people can watch you be a nerd) and pick up books, self conscious about who was watching you because you might be scarred from the 80s hate the game got, or you had to wander into some dingy game store and see if people were playing in the back room.

Now, you can pull up a Youtube video on your phone or listen to a podcast wherever you are and satisfy your curiosity and find an immediate community of people as nerdy as you are. That’s wonderful. What’s more, is that the people on Critical Role are charismatic, they make the game seem cool. They knock off the stigma. That’s why I say that Critical Role is probably the best thing that’s happened to D&D, ever.

Mercer and the gang have succeeded in making the game at least a little cool. Don’t get me wrong, kids are probably still getting stuffed into lockers for being nerds and gamers aren’t suddenly transforming into charismatic, well-adjusted socialites, but the stereotypes are getting pushed aside. That’s always good.

How They Play The Game

Now, if you’re still with me, let’s talk about the way Mercer and the Critical Role gang play the game. The most important thing to me is that they don’t argue. There are moments where you thing a bit of rules-lawyering might creep in, but it rarely does. They laugh a lot. They are having fun. The players actually role-play (remember what I said about them being actors). They act out conversations and they breathe life into their character. Because it looks like so much fun, it makes people want to try it as well.

People certainly like the cast and treat them like celebrities, but they love the characters. They love the adventures and challenges the characters face and defeat, most of the time. When characters die, and they do, (sorry for the spoiler) people actually cry (cast and audience)–like they might in a movie with a sad ending.

For his part, Mercer comes across as an incredibly fair and creative Dungeon Master — the guy that plays the narrator, sets the story, and provides the environment for the characters to interact with. He also plays all the bad guys. He’s very talented and I didn’t realize for many episodes that the game world in which the campaign was taking place in wasn’t something published by Wizards of the Coast, publishers of D&D. Instead, it’s a world Mercer created. The world, Exandria, is incredibly well realized. So well, in fact, that he published a world guide that has hundreds of great reviews on Amazon.

So, that’s why I think the Critical Role team is probably the best thing to happen to D&D, ever.

The Campaigns

Vox Machina Screencapture from the Animated Series Trailer – Left to right: Vax, Vex, Scanlan, Grog, Keyleth (hidden by Grog’s axe), and Pike

In the five years that Critical Role has aired, the team has completed one campaign and is over fifty episodes into the second campaign. The first campaign chronicles the adventures of Vox Machina, a group of companions that get into an incredible amount of trouble (mostly of their own making) but also turn out to be heroes to the realm. The campaign has multiple story arcs and takes the group through fights with vampires, zombies, a lich (undead wizard), a conclave of evil dragons hell-bent on destruction, monsters and demons, and finally a confrontation between gods.

From left to right: Cacuceus, Nott, Caleb, Jester, Fjord, Beau, Yasha. This gorgeous piece of Mighty Nein fan art drawn by Max Dunbar www.max-dunbar.com

The second campaign chronicles the adventures of the Mighty Nein. For fans, this new campaign brings excitement through the players new characters. You get used to Sam Riegel being Scanlan in the first campaign. It’s fun to watch him play a completely different character. Laura Bailey, Vex the half-elven ranger in Vox Machina, shifts gears to play Jester, a Tiefling, in the Mighty Nein campaign. The versatility of the actors is fun to witness. And of course, Mercer brings his A-game to make it all happen.

Check it Out for Yourself

Books and Comics

The Animated Special/Series

You can check out the Kickstarter campaign of the Vox Machina animated series if you haven’t already. Right now, you have over a month to contribute if you want to. I’m excited for the Critical Role gang and with them much continued success.

And by the way, since I started writing this blog post, the Kickstarter campaign has raised another seventy grand–it’s at $5,951,451 and rapidly counting upward. Wow.

Character Sketch. Playing with my Cintiq 16HD

dwarf concept sketch

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I’m a clumsy digital artist. I have a lot to learn, but I’m certainly enjoying the process. I doodled this character in pencil yesterday and snapped a photo of the sketch that I subsequently opened in Photoshop and colored using my Cintiq 16HD display tablet. There’s a lot I’d like to improve, but the process is fun.

Sketchbook Sketch.

Learning the shortcut keys in photoshop so you can manipulate your tools without taking your eyes and attention of your drawing is key. Without the shortcut keys you find yourself breaking your concentration and making entries to change tools constantly. My most used shortcuts are:

  • B for the brush tool
  • I for the eye dropper tool
  • R to rotate the canvas
  • Z to zoom in and out by dragging the pen left and right
  • L for the lasso tool
  • E for the eraser tool
  • the space bar for the move tool

New Toy: Sprung for a Wacom Cintiq 16HD

Wacom Cintiq 16

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Some years ago, I owned a Wacom Cintiq 13HD. I liked having a pen display quite a bit. Not having the hand-eye coordination issues of drawing on a tablet like my Wacom Intuos Pro and having to look at a separate screen was great. However, I didn’t feel like I had enough room on the 13″ display.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Wacom Discovery Center in Portland and got to play around with all of Wacom’s current products. I really liked the massive Wacom Cintiq Pro 32″ and 24″ but they’re a little overkill for me right now. So, instead, I bought the 16″ Cintiq that Wacom released recently. It lacks touch controls and doesn’t come with the Express Key Remote (although they are compatible), but it’s entry level price is pretty great by comparison to the larger tablets. Wacom’s new Pro Pen 2 with over 8000 pressure levels is included, however. The display connects with a 3-in-1 cable, so you need an HDMI port and a USB port to connect it to your computer. I use a late 2013 MacBook Pro, so I have these conveniently located on the right side.

Barbarian Character for an old D&D Game. Affectionately named Groo after Sergio Aragone’s Comic Series.

I’ll post a more comprehensive review in the near future. For now, enjoy this little clumsy doodle that I drew on my old 13″ Cintiq.