Sunday, April 14, 2019

Your Ultimate Map to Dragon Age Inquisition's Skyhold


Skyhold has not just been claimed time and again, but sacked as well. We've managed to uncover some remnants, including a scratching under a pillar that mentions the name given by your witch. Old but still long after the place had been built over. But the author knew something of its first purpose, or at least, something of a legend.
— Skyhold Archivist

So here's an embarrassing confession: As much as I adore Dragon Age, unfortunately my innate horrific lack of direction means that I still get lost IN THE MAIN HALL. Every time.

I mean, how many words have I written about Solas's romance? But if you asked me where his quarters were, I'd say, second on the right upon entry into the great hall.

And... I am wrong. Every time.

I just can't seem to get it right. And I have similar mental blocks about plenty of other Skyhold locations. And since I blog about Dragon Age as well as writing fanfiction, this comically means I am CONSTANTLY jumping in and out of the game simply to remind myself of precisely where people are.

Yeah. This is... it's pretty humiliating. I've only been playing the same game for, oh, THREE YEARS?

But finally here, I have rallied my Merrill inner-self and created something I simply couldn't find (which is where most of my blog post ideas come from): An ultimate guide to Skyhold. And believe me, I've Googled!

So here's my take. Luckily, it was incredibly fun (and easy) to do this, because the Keep designed by the BioWare team was so beautiful, huge and comprehensive.

So here goes! Rejoice! Or throw things at me. Really, it's your choice. But I hope this may prove useful to many Dragon Age fans, so here's hoping.

Touring Skyhold

Let's recap: When we first get to Skyhold, there's definitely a need for some housecleaning. While in good overall condition, the castle is pretty decrepit.

At first, we only get access to:

  • The Great Hall
  • The Throne Room
  • The War Room
  • The Undercroft (some refer to this level as the Atrium, which I avoid—I just find it misleading)
  • Rotunda: Solas's Quarters (and Frescoes)
  • Rotunda: The Library
  • Rotunda: The Rookery
  • The Upper Courtyard
  • The Armory
  • The Training Grounds
  • Several (not all) Battlements and Crenelations

We then open up Skyhold gradually to include following entirety:

  • Throne Room
  • Great Hall
  • Josie's Office
  • War Room
  • Rotunda (Solas)
  • Rotunda (Library)
  • Rotunda (The Rookery)
  • Rotunda (Leliana's Chapel)
  • Cullen's Office
  • Cullen's Quarters
  • Kitchens
  • Inquisitor's Quarters
  • Herald's Rest Tavern
  • Undercroft (Please note that I've added that so it's visible on all maps)
  • Prison
  • Vault
  • Vault Library
  • Vault Treasury
  • Wine Cellar
  • Guard Tower(s)
  • Quarters (Skyhold Main)
  • Quarters (Herald's Rest)
  • Battlements and Crenelations
  • Chapel
  • Courtyard
  • Garden
  • Stables
  • Armory and Armory Barracks
  • Infirmary
  • Requisition Office
  • Training Grounds
  • Exterior Lawns, Courtyards, Tents and Shelters
  • Views of Westernmost Tents and External Watchtowers

Expanding the Maps

In the following maps, I've attempted to really, truly and definitively map ALL of our beautiful and much-adored Skyhold. I've done a little subtle Photoshopping on the maps here and there (primarily to make the Undercroft visible on all levels, simply for structural reasons), but not much—most of it isn't fancy, and is accomplished simply in hopes that I'm providing a more detailed and clear way to find your way around, to explore the game with ease, and to reference it clearly.

The maps are organized as follows:

  • Level One (Main Level)
  • Level Two (Second Floors Across the Keep)
  • Level Three (Third Floors Across the Keep)
  • Vaults (All Vault Levels)
Here goes...

Level 1 (Main)

Cullen's office has this weird aspect because it's actually not on a ground floor, but in this case it qualifies because there's apparently nothing underneath.

Level 2 (Second Floors)

Please note that I've corrected Sera's room location and moved Cole to the 3rd floor.

Level 3 (Third Floors)

Among the latest updates, I've corrected Cole's location and proper floor placement.

Please note the updates in the image above. The third level is especially interesting because, as readers Lady Iolanthe and Erica Nichole pointed out, there is a huge tent barracks on both sides of the frozen river to the West. Slightly Southwest, within the circle of the peaks, we an also see individual standing watchtowers (please excuse me as I instantly flash on the fabulous lighting of the beacons moment from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—don't judge me). It's a terrific detail I had not only omitted, I've never even seen that view until they alerted me to it! I love how many beautiful details this game provides. There's always something new to discover. Thanks to Joy M., I also fixed Sera and Cole's placement in the Herald's Rest.

Since I use the "Always Night at Skyhold" mod, I've lightened and brightened this a bit, which detracts from the picture quality, but on the other hand, you can clearly see the Inquisition encampments on both sides of the frozen river below, as well as the watchtowers marching off to the left. It's a great detail I would have missed (thank you, readers!).

Level 4 (Vault Levels)

Please note the expanded prison space, which literally drops off in the rear due to that massive ancient foundation-area explosion (Veil raising?), as well as the relocation of the Treasury to what should now be the correct spot (behind the painting at the end of the Vault Great hall).

Lingering Questions

One of the most surprising conundrums I had here was trying to match up the Inquisitor's quarters with the entry below them off the Great Hall, because, well... they don't seem to match up. Because once we enter, we are immediately shown as being substantially to the Northwest of where we were (and yet, still not far from the Great Hall entrance).

Is Skyhold also like the inside of the TARDIS, and bigger on the inside? Hey, nothing would surprise me. Inquiring minds!

Also, as my final and most burning question: Unlike Dragon Age II, however, we see NO SIGN of the privy, so... WHERE ARE THE BATHROOMS? 

(Note: I was kidding here, but I did love this detail in Dragon Age II...) As for me, I hypothesize that Skyhold could possibly have some rudimentary plumbing (which has been around in our world since before the Romans, after all), and that mages could then make quick work out of the need for hot water from there.

And where are the quarters for the rest of the army and inhabitants? Off in those tented encampments? They'd certainly make for brutal living (and I imagine the residents would rotate in and out of Skyhold due to those frigid conditions).

Meanwhile, as best I can quantify, the named aspects of the map offer lodging for approximately 20 additional people. Obviously, Skyhold in fact houses many more people than this. I headcanon this as simply being due to the fact that there's far more of Skyhold than we see. Which I get—the design team did an AMAZING job of creating what we see in as much detail as we get! I'm guessing it probably holds 100 residents easily, and 200 at a pinch.

Missing Rooms and Mysterious Quarters

The little mysterious elements still get me. Who lives in the upper room with the bow on the dresser? Who lives in the quarters with the fascinating (possibly Chasind or Avvar) antler-thing on the chest? Why isn't anyone fixing up the numerous still-decrepit guardrooms and quarters across Skyhold? And—first and foremost—why is that freaking gap still there almost two years later in that hallway to the War Table?! Why doesn't Cullen ever fix his roof?

Also: Is that Bull's room atop The Herald's Rest? My take is: Yes, since it's where he seems to live and hang out, since the room includes an ax in the footboard, and it's also where he's caught canoodling with a romanced Inquisitor, in one of the funniest and most poignant moments in videogames I've ever seen. (I'm biased, of course.)

If you revisit the "Advisors surprise Bull & Inky en flagrante" scene, it's very clear exactly where the scene takes place—the room with the ax in the headboard, top the Herald's Rest. This has reluctantly convinced me that it is, in fact, where Bull probably sleeps.

Although I still think he'd be neater than that. Sure, I think he'd have an ax in the footboard, but I also think his military/Qunari training would make him neater and more precise in general because those are also less revealing on a personal level.

But what do you think? Did I miss anything here? What secrets of Skyhold do you wish you could unravel?

I'd love your ideas and input on anything I got wrong here, or whatever I can add that would be helpful... let me know!

And thanks as always for reading!

NOTE: Ma serannas, readers (Christina, Erica Nichole, Joy M., and Lady Iolanthe)! Thanks to your eagle-eyed feedback, I've updated the Main Floor Map to include the original Surgeon location (near the Tents), as well as adding the Prison to the Vault Map. Please let me know if you see anything else!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Vampires, Dragons and Dreams: The Rewards of Fanfiction

I thought this week I'd talk about what fanfiction—specifically, Dragon Age fanfiction—has meant to me, and how it has inspired me outside of the fandom.
This is going to be a slightly odd post from me, but it's one I feel deeply about, so thanks for bearing with me.

This past week, Archive of Our Own (“AO3”), that many-tiered palace of fanfiction magnificence from the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), received a Hugo Award nomination, for 2019 Best Related Work. It's a truly historic moment in fanfiction—one that, for the first time, grants a new level of legitimacy, recognition and value to fanfiction writers while also publicly and openly acknowledging the ways in which fanfics can transcend fandoms to enter the larger entertainment and cultural landscape.

Understandably, the reactions across social media from the fanfic community and fandoms (including, of course, Dragon Age, where I take part) were unabashedly delighted. The social media aftermath did, of course, include a few inevitable snide comments from some who felt the juxtaposition of the words "Hugo" and "fanfiction" sullied the works of "real" writers, but the fact remains that it's a huge deal for those who write fanfiction. If you published fanfiction work on AO3 this year? You can now say, albeit with a glint of humor, that you are technically a Hugo nominee.

I'm part of that fanfic community too, and proud to be. So I thought I'd talk about what that has meant to me in this post.

Not least, how much pure fun writing fanfiction can be. 

Variations on a Theme

One of my favorite things about playing Early and Renaissance Music back in college was the idea of "ornamentation." Musically, ornamentation is when you're given a relatively simple stretch of music, but you 'ornament' or 'decorate' that passage with your own twist, often to intensify or add aural texture to (for instance) additional movements or repetitions after the first one. It's basically the centuries-old version of riffing in rock or jazz today—of taking a melody and running with it, giving it your own voice.

When you ornament a melody, do you own what you create? Not usually. Bach or Purcell (or Gershwin or Davis or Sondheim etc.) are still the authors of that original melody, and that's as it should be. But you can change it, play with it, adapt it, and it's your performance. Your own particular variation. You can even use a single ornamentation as inspiration—as a jumping-off place for an entirely new, original melody.

It's fun to play with a melody, to see what you can bring to it. And that's really what fanfiction is, at heart—a chance to riff on a melody you love.

Vampires in Cyberspace

Back in the 90s, just out of college and still trying to find my voice as a fiction writer, I joined a group of Anne Rice enthusiasts writing fanfiction inspired by her universe. At the time, I'd been enchanted by the beautiful writing, and by her florid, Baroque, larger-than-life characters, as well as by the combination of classic Gothic literary elements with ageless, beautiful, wealthy and glamorous figures forever cut off from the modern world. (I wasn't such a fan of the series after book four, but those first four were superb.)

So we started writing together. We were a group of about a dozen writers (aspiring and published), editors, and more who started interweaving shared, individual "journal-type" entries into longer fanfic works on an ongoing basis. We were driven, delighted, and serious about the work. The writing was terrific, and the feedback was steady and consistent. 

And the writing just got better and better. It started with high drama and gothic vampires in the modern world, but in the end, a surprising amount of the work was pretty good stuff—original, distinctive, and evocative. Soon, the fangs weren't even an ongoing element at all. We'd just needed the inspiration of fanfiction to get us going.

As this took place during the Internet's Medieval period, we started out writing together on AOL, then after complaints from Rice's lawyers (Rice was and is staunchly against fanfiction, even though we were a private group and the work was not accessible publicly), we moved across several online services. We went from AOL, to Prodigy, to Genie, where (to silence Rice's people for good) we grudgingly changed the names of all our characters and continued to collaborate happily for several years. To this day, the crackling screech of an old-fashioned modem gives me nothing but a smile of nostalgic joy.

The entire experience was a milestone for me. Not only did we create some good work, within a few years we began to meet up in real-life too, both in New Orleans, as well as individually and in smaller groups through the years. The core group has remained close in life as well as on social media, and several remain treasured friends of mine even decades later.

That experience gave me my first taste of the fun of participating in fandom—one that I was to discover even more powerfully in Dragon Age two decades later. But I'd never quite appreciated just how prophetic and important this experience had truly been for me as a writer.

Until this year.

Words by the Year

At the beginning of my vampire fanfic period, I worked in entry level production and animation for a year or two, then spent two years as a magazine editor (during which time our group's vampire fanfic project naturally faded as we all went off to do our own separate projects). Following that, I spent most of the ensuing two-plus decades as a working freelance writer, on press releases, brochures, media kits, and more. And I'm proud of that. I'm not a household name, but I've published a decent amount of fiction, hundreds of articles and features, and been paid by Writer's Digest and The New York Times Company. In some ways, I did what I had set out to do.

Yet... I'd really always wanted to tell more stories. Unfortunately, far too often, the fiction always had to give way for the other work. It was just one of the side effects of freelancing. So I worked on my stories or infrequent plays at night, and that was still satisfying, although I lagged far behind my other writer friends who were overwhelmingly focused on fiction. Still, I got some work out there, and I was happy about doing that much.

Until three years ago. 

The Deep Roads

I'd had a pretty challenging decade, caregiving my stepfather through terminal cancer, taking a year or two in New York, then returning to battle my Mom's foreclosure while nursing her through a brain tumor that would also ultimately prove terminal. This was followed by the loss of her home and most of its contents and memories, and I moved back to the Northwest to regroup and recover.

It's probably not surprising that, in a kind of delayed reaction, I wasn't exactly creative for awhile after the move.

Even a year or two after relocating, I was still blocked. Not just from writing, but from dreaming. I've always been a daydreaming fool, to the extent that my Dad used to tease me by asking, "What color is the sky in your world?" and I'd laugh. No matter how bad life got before this point, I could always shut my eyes and think of potential worlds and characters. Those dreams were where my stories came from.

Then I stopped. 

Losing the Dreams

Looking back, of course, I realize that I was depressed and traumatized and still coming to terms with everything I'd been through. But within the moment, I couldn't understand it, and didn't know how to deal with it. 

So I didn't.

I ignored it. I worked on my PR and freelancing. I edited stories for others, and was even able to do some editing on unpublished works I had previously drafted or completed in the past. This work gave me the faintest breath, now and then, of the creative impulse, of my desire to tell stories, but it wasn't much.

The hard truth was, for all intents and purposes, when I stopped dreaming, I stopped creating fiction. I had lost all investment in my own work and all belief in my writing abilities when it came to stories or worldbuilding. I felt stale and stagnant. As a storyteller, I just felt like I'd lost something precious. I have a lot of friends who are writers, but I couldn't even share this with them—there was something almost embarrassing about it for me. It was too personal, too painful.

Then last year, for extra frustration, after nearly a year of editing and revision on a new novel draft, for the first time in my life, I lost an entire work (and series of files). In other words, my novel Van Gogh Sky was toast. Missing. Kaput. I'm normally obsessive about backups, backups and more backups (mirror drive, DVD, cloud, and external drive) but the novel was just gone. The only draft I had left was the one from three years earlier—before a full year's work of revision.

The worst thing about it? Honestly, I didn't even mind that much. I wasn't even sure it was worth publishing. For all I know, it was subliminal on my part (it's never a good sign when you're more excited about the cover of your book than about the story inside).

Then came a silly video game, of all things. And it woke me up.

Getting the Magic Back

To the mystification of my family and friends, I fell for the Dragon Age universe two years back, and I fell hard. I am absolutely sure that some of my loved ones are still scratching their heads over the sheer, odd specificity of it.

It's not a mystery to me. Because when I fell in love with the world of Dragon Age, I rediscovered a spark and fascination that took me back to those Anne Rice fanfic days, and even farther, back to my childhood days of falling into Tolkien and Middle-Earth, scribbling runes in spiral notebooks and dreaming of other worlds.

Soon, it wasn't enough to be an enthusiast. I wanted to join in. So a year and a half ago, I began this blog. I wanted to try for an almost literary take on analyzing the characters and stories of Thedas that I hoped might be new and different, and to find a place for myself within that fandom—and I've been humbled and delighted to have achieved that, to a small degree. It's been so satisfying, and I've treasured the friends I've made and the interactions with the amazing fan artists and creatives, as well as with many on the BioWare team, who have been so generous, patient, and accessible with us fans.

Then something unexpected happened. As part of diving into that world in a really deep lore-oriented and character-analysis basis, I began to get story ideas about some of the characters from the games and novels. I went from headcanoning characters and situations for my analyses to imagining entirely different ones.

I began to say those two words every writer loves more than anything: "What if?"

I hadn't said them in a long time. It felt good.

Full Circle

And just like that, for the first time in years, I wanted to write fiction again. I was imagining stories; I wanted to explore alternate universes and options, to imagine romances between opposite or even unromanceable characters, to use my knowledge of the lore to create new potential situations, tensions, even villains, if I could. Just like every other fanfic writer. 

So I began writing those imaginings down, simply because I wanted to read them myself. I had zero aspirations beyond telling stories based in that world that wouldn't leave me alone.

Once completed, I began publishing my works over on AO3. I was a little shy at first, like I was doing something nefarious by the dark of the moon. I'd spent most of my adult life insistent that I should be paid for my words, and now I was sharing them for free.

But the more I posted, and the more I read the works of my friends and others within the fandom, I just felt proud. I was reminded again of how proficient fanfiction writers can be. And while it's true that, yes, the writing proficiency of a few AO3 posters I encountered demonstrated a somewhat shaky and colorful grasp on actual sentence structure, the vast majority of the works I read ranged from competent to lyrical, startling, and better than the latest books that filled my Kindle.

And all of it was fantastically imaginative. I was exhilarated at the sheer range of ideas and stories, at the collisions of fandoms and fictional universes. If you want to dive into a story in which Buffy Summers takes part in the Mass Effect universe, or where Leia has a fling with The Iron Bull or Spock, or where Legolas falls in love with Gimli, or Tony Stark, or Captain Hook, or Jaal... AO3 is the place for you.

Me, I was having a blast. I loved returning to fiction writing, and finding that the lamp had always been lit in that window, waiting for me to come back home. Just watching those chapters rack up week after week, much less getting reader comments and interactions, gave me a security and satisfaction I hadn't felt in years. 

The works I posted meant something to me, and I was genuinely proud of them. Not only did they complement my attempts to build a point of view for myself in the Dragon Age and fandom communities, but they were exhilarating and fun. Incensed when Solas actually dumped my poor Inquisitor, I wrote a silly fanfic play about her desire to drink herself silly and take petty revenge), then surprised myself with a Dragon Age: Origins novella, and then over the past year have further been publishing a full-length Dragon Age: Inquisition AU novel that's now 75% posted (48 chapters and 156,411 words so far). In creating and posting the novel over the past year (entitled The Breakers and the Broken), I've worked with a terrific beta editor, the invaluable Eryn Earls, who's every bit as talented as those I've worked with in professional publishing, and whose input has saved me from errors, repetitions, and egregious out-of-character moments, and overall, improved my fiction as only the best editors can.

Unexpected Outcomes

So that's my story. Over the past year, thanks to Dragon Age and AO3, I suddenly found myself a writer again, the way I'd envisioned it when I was young. I wasn't just a cold wordsmith, connecting phrases for press releases and brochures, I was writing nonfiction with heart and imagination, and writing fiction—fanfiction or not—that energized and challenged me.

Fanfiction gets a bad rap, and it's undeserved. But it hasn't only resurrected my writing soul, the entire experience has completely revitalized my fiction, both commercially and artistically. And on a commercial level, my fanfics have led people directly to my other stuff, and I have sold more works on Amazon in the past year than in the previous five combined.

And on a personal level, I'm doing the best writing of my life, I'm writing with a richer and more mature voice. I've challenged myself and evolved in the stories I'm telling, even if they're about characters I didn't invent. And (best of all) I've found an audience for my work, and gotten the encouragement I needed at a low point creatively.

Getting Back the Dreams

Sometimes writing can be tough because it's a solitary endeavor, one in which we hunch over a keyboard or pad of paper and transcribe our dreams or nightmares, then send them out into a silent universe. No longer. AO3 means readers echo back, asking questions, starting dialogues, arguing points, sending kudos. Because of the serial nature of the fanfic posting process, as with blogging, I'll often get reactions from people on social media with surprising rapidity. In addition, I participate in closed social media groups with other Dragon Age fanfiction writers (many of whom are far more prolific and successful than I am), and they not only provide community, support, criticism, and reassurance, but they too report a similar sense of joy at the organic way writers and readers interact on AO3. There's nothing like knowing you have an audience, right now, that is waiting for your next update (or, best of all, asking impatiently, "What happens next?").

Fanfiction has given me that. And nobody will understand this better than my fellow fanfic writers out there.

So I'm proud of AO3's Hugo Nomination. I'm proud to be a fanfic writer, too, and no matter what else I create in my own original fiction going forward, I plan on continuing to write fanfiction too, just for the spark it gives me. It has improved my craft, given me a readership, and inspired me when I needed it most. It has also further enhanced my enjoyment of the fandom communities I love.

Besides, to bring it all full circle, I have this great idea for a new Dragon Age/Anne Rice crossover. (I'm thinking... what if the vampire Lestat ended up at the masked ball at Halamshiral and wreaked a little havoc? Imagine the possibilities!)

Thanks for letting me ramble. I'll see you in my dreams!

"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

He doesn't call, he doesn't write, but finally, it looks like we might be hearing from Solas at last (2023?), as BioWare announces t...