This past Saturday was a late one.
Starting just a little after 7:00pm, the Gray Owls embarked on their fourth chapter in the world of Io-Firma, continuing to explore and augment their experiences in the terraced city of Stormwrack. They took care of business, had meaningful conversations, powerful investigations, and deep exploration. It was 1:00am before they even engaged in a fight. As such, at the close of the session, it was 3:20am.
Not the longest session I've ever run here. That honor still belongs to the early Knight Owls of Season 1 for 21+ (session close at 5:25am, woof). And the length is not the point of this post, but it helps grant perspective when considering what it takes to have a session like that: one that doesn't serve a Three Act Structure, like most Knight Owls sessions.
Gray Owls is special in its construction. The world is dangerous, deadly, and difficult; the players know this going in. They are also allowed to play any kind of character that could fit in this world - they don't have to be heroes. In most cases, they're not. They're just people trying to find their way through, one small step at a time. Some struggle with inner demons, others with outer ones, and all with trust and companionship. That last element is the most organic of any team in any campaign I've ever run. They don't trust each other - they have no reason to - which makes the moments where they stick up for one another, or disagree, or insult, or instigate all the more potent and invested. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is supremely important to any successful campaign.
These characters aren't the heroes, but they are the protagonists of this story, and this story is a constantly evolving weave of each of their individual stories as they crash, clash, and move together. Saturday was a weave, then a minor explosion, as the intentions of one member spilled over and against the intentions of others. Such a clash of ideals, views, and actions was dangerous, but compelling in magnificent ways. The impact was raw, and difficult to swallow, but the group fell together, finding some semblance of a truce before ending the evening.
Without caring about one's character or the characters of others, this clash might have dissolved a party. This is a good group of players who understand the difference between this fantasy world and our own, and are completely content with everyone's secrets, agendas, and plans, even when they go against the majority. Such player investment in everyone's secrets - not in knowing them, but in their existence - demonstrates an excited level of trust between players; yes, their secrets might become extremely dangerous, detrimental, or downright terrifying to the group as a whole, but everyone loves the fact that they exist.
Secrets are what makes this world tick, and everyone is invested in seeing them slowly revealed through action (or inaction), and only when the times are right. Although, after this last clash, that time might be sooner than we think...
It fills me with joy that knows no end when not only players show an interest in how my world works, but when they add to its lore with their own stories, and work to find their own niche inside the atmosphere; find a way to make their character "fit" inside the world. In such a setting where secrets can get you killed, having players not only embrace this idea and respect it, but also add upon it, then ACT upon these elements, makes the world believable. It breathes life into the dynamics of this city, legitimizing everything about it. Its life, its people, its economics, its classicism, its magic, its business, and its law.
This is a two-way buy-in for the world at large, and investment in the world is only undermined when players create and pursue characters that would not fit inside the scope of world and clash with the expectations of it...but this is not a game breaker (more on that below). ;)
When you care about the story, either your own or others, you sometimes begin to covet that story, becoming frightened of what might happen if you push too far, wander too long, or say too much. True, there are consequences to dumb actions, but one should not be afraid to experiment with their characters. Take them down difficult paths, make difficult decisions, and see how the dice roll.
There's also a lot to be said about stacking the odds in your favor. Strategy goes a long way in supporting the wild card in the group, and allowing space to experiment. All that being said, remember: not all experiments work, and most have consequences.
Growth and Relationships
Remember how I said that characters that are built outside of the frame of the story can undermine it if they're not careful. While that can be true, it only remains true if the player-character in question does not grow. If they remain in a position where they refuse the world, its possible relationships, connections, and forces, then they will either die or be left behind. However, if they enter the world like a fish out of water and LEARN and grow and change to adapt the world to their arc, then they embark on a compelling and dynamic journey. It's okay to start out of the box, as long as you allow your character to EVOLVE and change as they are exposed to more of the world.
Relationships are the true core of any tabletop experience. Between players, between characters, between enemies, and allies. In Gray Owls especially, this is felt in big ways when it comes to companionship, family, acceptance, and loneliness. They make distinct discoveries that drive their paths in new and interesting ways: the realization that they are not alone, or perhaps they always were, or that the thing they're fighting for is something they already have, or that vengeance has consumed them, or that they have more brothers and sisters in this fight than they thought. It is the connections that we build between characters that binds us to this world, no matter how tumultuous, difficult, or mercurial they can be.
And that is a true investment in this world and the next. Always be aware of the relationships you cultivate, the ones you keep, for all leave an impression.
See you at the table.
Key Traits Through Character: Barbarian
For the longest time, I would vacillate between two distinct character builds: full martial powerhouse or full controller caster. The times that I would move between the two were great learning experiences, but I would rarely find my stride. Only recently have I had the opportunities to flex my character building muscles and engage in some great role-playing outside of that comfort zone (in no small part due to my team of GMs being in charge of their own groups that I can take part in).
But in the beginning, back in the beginnings of Pathfinder and before the debacle that was 4th Edition (still a decent system, just poorly received - more on that later), I would cut my teeth on playing Grignor, my half-orc barbarian.
Grignor was a product of some great physical rolls at character creation, so, as a balance, the DM and I agreed that he would be a little...off. Speaking in a third-person-faux-russian accent most of the time, Grignor's average intelligence was undermined constantly by his impulsive nature and low wisdom, often getting the party into some zany antics...then, by sheer force of character and overwhelming power, pulling the party back through.
It was the latter instances that taught me the most about the power the barbarian could possess. The main mechanic of such a class, in many systems, is their Rage Feature. Flying into a Rage grants the barbarian particular bonuses that give them the fighting edge in combat and often increase their survivability. In a party of mostly casters and a custom rogue sub-type, the party would buff the heck out of Grignor and he would charge whatever the enemy was with the utmost confidence. Dragons, land sharks, mind flayers, beholders, and a 100-foot tall flesh tornado...we would stand victorious through teamwork, and quite a lot of insane force of will and confidence.
So here, in the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, joining together with 2000 others as we sing along to Bad Wolves' cover of the Cranberries's Zombie; like one angry, tumultuous, sonic wave of force and rage - I am sent back to those days, and wonder what I learned so profoundly through playing that character, and how it has changed me to this day.
Here, let me share some life lessons learned from playing a Barbarian.
1) Anger Can Be A Tool
I was a frustrated kid. Though my standard disposition is pretty pleasant, and I was by no means one to wail against the system, but I was definitely weird. I was prone to overthinking things, then responding in often angry or violent ways. These were acts of frustration directed at my own inability to express myself; they weren't sudden - they built up over time, and they were always a product of directing that anger inward, toward self-improvement. But when you're a weird kid anyway, and kids can be cruel, sometimes you lash out.
These outbursts didn't help in making or keeping friends, so I worked out something.
My anger could be a tool. That powerful energy surging through me could be focused on a task - yard work, writing, exercising, composing - something that took my whole focus, and I could perform furiously without incurring penalty. Later, through meditation and the martial arts, I would continue to control and send this energy into work or words or mental clarity (after a little "primal scream therapy," that is).
My anger was not "wrong," it just needed to be funneled into something useful. As a barbarian, your Rage is only used effectively in combat, and is done beautifully. The rest of the time, you can be an otherwise intelligent, if not dopey (in my case) adventurer in high-flying shenanigans.
But WHEN you get angry - and let's face it, there's a lot to be angry at - take a deep breath and focus that surge of energy on something useful. Any berserker knows that if you don't pick your targets, you're a danger to yourself, your party, and your enemies all at once - and nobody wants that. Wield it like the great axe it is, and change something that needs it, instead of destroying what's closest.
2) Physical Prowess and Confidence Can Power You Through
I was never an athlete, but my physicality has always been very important to me. I never like feeling physically weak, and once I learned how to do a proper push-up, no one was going to stop me, but momentum was difficult. I would often shift between months of intense work outs, and months of inactivity and excuses.
During the former, I was often alert, focused, and confident - even on the days that I wasn't prepared for things. Keeping a consistent workout schedule, even with hang-ups, shortening workouts, and a lack of results (more on that when we talk about the Monk) - kept my confidence flowing. I knew how much I could lift, how many miles I could run, and my overall fitness level at all times. I knew I could make my way through most of what was being thrown at me because I knew my limits, and where I could push.
In play, the barbarian can back up their tough talk because they're built to be tanks. They can, like Grignor, power themselves and their party through tough situations if by nothing but a primal force of will and the confidence that they won't go down without one hell of a fight.
3) Emotion Is The Breath Of Life
In lives of tact and social preparedness, moments of raw emotion are often avoided.
Unfortunately, I feel, such moments - no matter how intense - reveal our humanity in one of its greatest forms. We are emotional beings. We feel, we change, we influence, we inspire, and we create - through the expression of those raw emotions. Some of my best work was produced from deep sadness, introspection, or unbridled anger. When we feel these extremes and let them flow as energy, we become capable of great things and great change.
Barbarians wield their high emotions as fuel for their Rage, often citing distinct background traits or triggers, and all are tied to their inner-most feelings. It is this level of feeling that can put people off, or set them aflame, but it is an important aspect that further illustrates the depth to which the barbarian cares.
We are complex beings, not one-trick ponies, and our loves and hates run much deeper than we think. Do not fear them - let them flow, then reflect on what they might mean.
Swing low, sweet greatsword.
I'll see you at the table.
So this came up recently, and maybe it's because this is my job, but I cannot shake my knee-jerk frustration stemming from arguing briefly with a player over the Help Action in combat. So instead of ranting about it, let's take a look at it. :)
The Help Action is a drastically under-utilized Action choice in and out of combat as its benefit is pretty amazing. Simple, but amazing.
It's free Advantage for an ally's next skill check or attack roll. That's it. Super helpful, but that's it.
From the Player's Handbook and SRD:
"Working Together: Sometimes two or more characters team up to attempt a task. The character who’s leading the effort—or the one with the highest ability modifier—can make an ability check with advantage, reflecting the help provided by the other characters. In combat, this requires the Help action. A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves’ tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can’t help another character in that task.
Moreover, a character can help only when two or more individuals working together would actually be productive. Some tasks, such as threading a needle, are no easier with help."
Because timing is important, and the issue arose during combat...
From the Combat section: "You can lend your aid to another creature in the completion of a task. When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn.
Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some way team up to make your ally's attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage." Remember that a Grapple or Escaping a Grapple is considered a melee attack.
If you were, to say, attempt to break the grapple of an ally currently being grappled, you are indeed "helping" them, from a narrative sense, but you are not taking the Help Action - you are spending your Action to break a grapple, aka a type of attack. HOWEVER, in combat, I might rule that IF you taking the HELP ACTION, that ally can spend their Reaction to make the Escaping a Grapple check with Advantage. That way, the current player burns their Action, to take the Help Action, and the ally burns their Reaction to "work together."
There were really three options that could play out three different ways mechanically:
1) Take the Help Action = the ally has advantage on breaking their own grapple, on their upcoming turn, due to help. Yay. (PHB/SRD pure rules)
2) Take the Help Action (with "working together" interpretation, PHB/SRD + DM) = the ally spends their Reaction now to attempt to break their own grapple with advantage.
3) Take the Attack Action (not actually PHB rule, but nothing bars it from being ruled by the DM) = Attempt to break the ally's grapple yourself. -- Especially helpful for a physically stronger character to use that brute force to free a physically weaker character from bonds.
I'm not "ruling it differently," friends; that's what it says, that's what it means.
The difficulty in real time was a clarity of Action. It was not clear to the player or myself which would be more appropriate: Help Action or Action to break grapple, but the player insisted at the time that they were the same - they are not. In the future, I will endeavor to be more clear in communicating that difference, and offering up that "work together" ruling involving the other player in need of the "help," which is perhaps where the initial confusion was.
It was a small thing, a small moment, NOTHING that ruined anything. The evening freaking ROCKED.
It just bugged me. ;)
So I'm writing about it.
See you at the table.
There are few shows that I can site that really help to capture that element of adventure, sword, and sorcery, AND that hold true to the idea of a classic dungeon crawl through the progression of a big story, with big consequences, that nonetheless focuses on the party dynamic. So, you know, like Dungeons and Dragons, in its purest form.
The Right Time To Come Out
The 90s was a good time for anime's introduction to western audiences. Sure, the weird stuff poked through, but this is where we got Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho, nautical tons of Gundam, and the surge of Toonami. Late 90s gave us such gems as Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop...and the plethora of "pocket monster" smoothies amidst the king of Pokemon.
Nestled at the turn, releasing as a 13-episode OVA in 1990 was Record of Lodoss War, and I fell in love with it immediately. Episode 1 opted to drop us right in the middle of the action with a standard 1st edition adventuring party (Wizard, Cleric, Fighter, Elf, Dwarf, Rogue) and a good ole' fashioned dungeon crawl complete with traps, gargoyles, and a fire-breathing dragon fight. It. Was. Awesome.
And it captured the spirit of such a visceral and intense set of encounters, as well as the lore and world-building present in all the best game sessions. I felt an immense pull into this world, and felt the danger with the characters. Watching it again now...it still holds up, and is devoid of so many cash-grab, fanservice-y tropes that so many series in the same vein today would throw in. Emphasis remains on character development, exploration, combat, and social interaction. It's impressive.
A Deep World, and A Better Focus
Perhaps the reason this speaks so well to me and why my mind wanders to it today is because of Lodoss's world and its deep development. It is clear from the beginning of this 13-episode epic, intended to take place over two years, that this is a well-established, thought out, and lore-driven setting with rich history and a potent pantheon of gods, demons, and dragons. Magic exists, but few know it and few know how to use it properly. Worlds like this are forged with legends, beasts, and great stories.
Created in 1986 as Dungeons and Dragons "replay" setting by Group SNE, the Record of Lodoss War was already steeped in deep D&D roots. Replays are not novels, so to speak, but still act as transcriptions of rpg gaming sessions, and are intended to both "replay" the events and hold interest. There are three recorded Replays of Lodoss War, adapted then into seven sets of novels and manga published from 1989-1993, with two supplemental tales to fill in gaps. Record of Lodoss War is essentially the first volume of the main story, following the main character, Parn, and his party. Halfway through we get a time skip, a nice respite, and Parn's party shifts around, gaining new allies and bidding others farewell.
Without going too deep, the story's progression is keen to show the grand scale as it tips during the war, but the main focus is always on the adventuring party and their dynamics. Their needs, their quests, their troubles, and how they handle them together...or alone. And everything oozes with that classic D&D magic.
It is what I believe to a great example of a full campaign. True, the ending comes down to Parn himself, and is less a party victory (though they play an important role), that's more the culmination of the hero's journey (and it does feature a trope I'm not happy with front and center, unfortunately)...BUT, it's still a good time. And the majority of the series holds true to that story development. You get the sense that these guys have traveled together; learning and growing and changing into the epic heroes we see at the end.
And maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to achieve something close at our own tables.
Enjoy your anime.
I'll see you at the table.
So. There's a thing that happened on the stream.
The characters are Level 2 at the moment - very close to their next milestone - trudging through the sewer system under a reservoir, when they happened upon a dangerous creature.
This creature is pretty nasty, and going toe-to-toe with it in such a tight space proved to be devastating in regard to hit points, especially when it rolled a natural 20 and hit the mage for well over her maximum hit points...
The PHB is very clear on how instant death works, and I admit that in my 3+ years of professional DMing...it has NEVER come up. So of course, online, in front of a live audience, it does.
MY RULE for insta-death is as follows: a character is instantly killed is they are pushed to negative twice their maximum hit points in a single attack. This means that a character with 14 hit points as their maximum has to be hit into the negative by 28 or more hit points in order to die instantly. This ruling has always been there, but this was the first time it came into effect, and though it SAVED the mage, it still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
The reason I altered things was to help safeguard early characters, but I try to balance it with my death DCs rising and requiring rolls and skill tests in order to resurrect a character (it gets harder every time). BUT maybe it was the live show that brought it all into perspective.
The player was alright with it (her dying, that is), but it was going against my original ruling - that no one was actually aware of in the first place. Revealing it looks like a cop-out, even though it's always been that way, but now that it's out there... I am taking a hard look at it.
I Reserve The Right To Change My Mind...But Not Fate, and Not Time
After contemplating and discussing this topic with several parties, and thinking on it myself - especially after learning so much about game systems over the last 7 years - I see no real need to hold onto that rule. So to be clear, this will be how I rule Instant Death, and how I always rule anything that resurrects characters.
Save DC Increase: Each time you die (three saves failed or instantly killed), and are successfully brought back to life, there is a consequence. This is represented by an increase in your Death Save DC. It increases by 1 every time you die and come back (this includes the spell Reincarnate, btw). So, a character that has been killed and brought back successfully must now roll an 11 or higher on their death saves for a success, as opposed to the standard 10 or higher. Die twice? 12 or higher. And so on. There is a consequence to you dying; it is now harder to cling to life.
Resurrection Skill Challenge: bringing a character's soul back to their body is an involved and powerful process. As such, I require a Skill Challenge for a Resurrection spell. The bigger the spell, the more involved the challenge. A spell like Revivify requires only one roll with a DC equal to the character's current Death DC.
A spell like Resurrection is an hour-long process with characters finding ways to pull their friend back to the land of the living. It's an opportunity to immerse yourself in the relationships in your party, and find meaning in bringing them back. I ask for three "offerings." These are creative interactions; whatever the player character deems as a way to usher the entity back to the land of the living. Players have prepared poems, potions, offered a childhood toy, grown a tree - whatever you like. How you present it can help a lot. Then I pick an appropriate attribute or skill and you roll against that same Death DC. A success brings down the final roll (me) DC by 1. A critical success drops it by 2. Conversely, failures and critical failures increase the DC by the same amounts. When all three offerings are finished, I do a straight roll against the adjusted DC (based on the offerings' successes or failures) and we see if the soul was ushered back to the body. So far, I have run 8 total rituals in this way, and 3 Revivify quick rolls. Only 1 has been unsuccessful, but 2 others were within 2 points of failure. It's great role-playing; and sometimes, creatures just die, and that's okay.
DEATH CAN COME AT ANY TIME
Moving forward, you're dead outright if you are pushed to negative your maximum hit points, just like in the PHB.
As for our little gnome friend in Cloudsinger...she's still alive. But her Death DC just went up by 1. That's the balance. :)
I'll see you at the table.
Today marks Day 8 of beta testing the first tier of my fitness program, and I'd like to share with you some of the benefits I've taken away so far. Get ready for some fit talk.
The first thing I do every morning is take 5-15 minutes to myself and meditate.
Meditation is equally one of the most foreign yet essential things for a modern human existence. It was used since antiquity to foster a stronger link between mind, body, and soul, and helps to focus and fortify our spirit to tackle whatever challenges are going thrown at us each day.
I recently recommended meditation to a good friend of mine, and, as she puts it, she's "only been able to relax her face so far," (which is huge, btw) but it makes a massive difference to her day and she feels it when she doesn't do it. The more consistently she practices the skill, the more effective it is, and the more effective she is throughout her day.
There's a funny thing about meditation. Everyone has their own image of what it looks like and what it's supposed to do, and how fast that should work. Thing is, each of us is a unique organism. We all have different stresses, habits (good and bad), education, paradigms - yet each of us can benefit from mindfulness, and relaxing our bodies, and fortifying our souls. So many people can benefit from meditation, but they give up before they really reap the big benefits, and often the reasoning is: "I'm not good at it" or "I'm not doing it correctly, so why try?"
If you feel like that, here are some questions to consider:
1) Are you in a space that is comfortable, quiet, and free of our digital distractors? - Yes
Then you're meditating. We have a saying here in the center: Disconnect to Connect. We use it to remind ourselves to put our devices away when we're in a class, or in the cafe, or in a game session; to free ourselves from that pull and open the door to connect with the people physically with us. What we're doing here is allowing our mind to reconnect with our bodies by creating space for this to occur.
2) Are you focusing on your breathing? - Yes
Then you are meditating. Our brain can be a stupid, blind, chittering monkey recently stung by a hornet - but we interrupt its strange path with breath. Breath is essential for every facet of your being; by focusing on it - even if you're only successful in bursts of a few seconds - you interrupt your panic pattern and bring what is most pressing forward. If everything is small details, imagine it flowing out of you, to rest instead next to you, to be sorted later. Not now - you're breathing.
If you are following those two practices, you ARE meditating. Everyone starts in different places, but everyone can benefit from taking just a few minutes each morning to focus their spirit and relax their body. Do not get discouraged; never compare your "skill" to another - we're all different, and there is no point in getting down on yourself because you're not doing it like him, or her, or them. Meditation is a muscle, and it needs to be trained. Best thing about it? You can train it every day and the workout's real short. :)
Here's what I do:
Working Title - Flowing Circuit
I sit on my couch so my feet can rest on the floor (as opposed to cross-legged). I allow my back and my neck (most of all) to rest against the pillows of my comfy couch. *Now, this usually prompts my cat to come over, but I won't shoo her away; she just wants to sit with me.*
1) Start with three long and slow breaths, in and out through my mouth, careful to use my diaphragm to open up my lungs from the resting state of sleep.
2) Eyes closed, I breathe slowly through my nose.
3) I reach out with my mind and try "feel" the tip of my nose. (I know, I know, stay with me) It's going to tingle a little, especially the first time, but find it. Now, I imagine a bead of energy, like a warm mote of light, at the tip. It enters my skin, and I begin to follow its spreading path as it courses slowly through my face, stopping to observe all the intricate pieces along the way.
4) If I get stuck, or a random thought sneaks in...the mote pauses, warming the spaces it has already touched. I focus on my breathing, and let the thought flow to its conclusion, and breathe it away.
5) I continue this process; moving the energy across my eyes, my forehead, my mouth - all the muscles of the face - then up my scalp, down the base of my skull, to flow down the cord of my spine while spreading like wings along my back. I feel and appreciate every muscle fiber; some need more attention than others, and that's fine. I'm not going to ruminate on the why; just flow.
6) When you reach the base of your spine and have spilled down your chest, you might feel a slowly spreading surge down your arms and legs; most of us have better circulation (due to use) to those areas, so energy flows faster. Also, you'll be accessing your third and fourth chakras. Heart and Solar Plexus - Heart's got Compassion, Love, Empathy; Solar Plexus has Power, Will, Energy, Emotion. The wealth of our energy, life force, ki, whatever; I just know that I've always had a lot of it. Once your mote accesses this pool, let it flow through your entire body. Revisit all the wonderful locales of your body and flood it with that warm, calming light.
7) When you're feeling good, or your timer goes off, take those three long and slow breaths again as you open your eyes, bringing yourself out of the map.
Steps 1-4 are good for most people. They either won't have time, or patience, or some other factor will step in, before they can go further. But this is a muscle; and it can always get stronger. There is no plateau. Just like in the martial arts, there is always another layer. Consistency is where we reap the greatest benefit.
IF YOU SKIP MEDITATION IN THE MORNING - you can always do it later. I pick the morning because it's going to help the rest of my day, guaranteed, so I better start my day with it. If you miss it, and those panic feelings begin to creep in and you feel out of whack, try this:
Take in one short, one long intake of breath through your nose, then exhale slowly out your mouth. Try to take in more air each time, and slow the exhale each time. Do this 3-5 times; if you can, close your eyes.
Why? Pattern interrupt with a kinesthetic change (short-long breath, then exhale) to make your brain focus on something else. Then move forward with a fresher perspective. :)
Why I Meditate: It provides power for my day. My mind can jumble and I hate feeling behind; taking a moment, instead of falling down the rabbit hole, is essential for staying on track. But by doing it FIRST, I have stimulated my own Willpower to continue the trend throughout the day. I'll be guaranteed to be more even, calm, pleasant, rooted, present, and in control of my universe. Booyah.
Instructor Mary and Master Jenny have often said that stretching is even better than a fresh cup of coffee in the morning. Now, let's not focus on my stretching levels next to the martial arts masters, but the point still stands. ;)
Naturally flowing from the body mapping mental relaxation and energy acquisition of meditation, it's time to stretch. Take 5-10 minutes and do whatever you can.
I end up on my back first, elongating my spine and realigning my shoulders so they don't round forward. I stretch my lower back and rotate my toes. Flip over - Child Pose, Cobra, Cat-To-Cow for ab control, Dragon Stretch, seated toe touch, then toe touch alternating legs. On my feet - all my dojo stretches; Heaven and Earth, slow splits, Butterfly. Find a wall - rotator cuff stretch, forearm stretch. GENTLE neck pull - it will feel SO GOOD.
Why I Stretch: I need to be able to move when I need to. I like burst energy, I've always had a lot of it, but I'm not going to hurt myself when I need to fly into action. This is preventative mostly, with added benefit of augmenting that meditation thing I just did. :)
Go for a walk. Go for a run. Do what I've been doing lately - walk your neighborhood with bursts of sprints for longer and longer periods of time. Bike rides are great. Move with a friend. But get up and get moving!
For a lot of people, this is when they'd work out, and for many that's fine. I ask to wait on your workout time just a tad more. This "move" is really to cement the previous two things you've done for yourself already. You've reconnected your mind, body, and soul while preparing your physicality for the day - go outside. Feel the planet. Even if it's cold out. New Englanders, I understand, there are exceptions; but even if it's raining, get outside. It's just water - jackets exist. Unlike the silly college kids that scream at the sky when they prance around in pajamas in a downpour...you know jackets exist. And I love walking in the rain; it's cathartic to feel the water flow over me - even in the cold. A brisk wind reminds you of the fireplace that waits for you; a vicious downpour sends you to huddle under a canopy with a good friend; moving alone brings joy to moving together.
...You do know jackets exist, right?
What does this have to do with gaming?
Stronger mind, stronger body, balanced soul = better gamer. ;)
See you at the table,
I have run a lot of games.
This statement is not a pat on the back. It is to communicate the level at which a game has affected me. Often, I'll run a session and it lingers for maybe half a day. I recount its story beats, write things down, reminisce the little moments, and begin planning toward the next one. There's a lot to focus on; so I listen to the recording after a few days and get to experience it again and make any necessary adjustments to my storytelling, tactics, and flow. Then it's done, and I keep moving forward.
But something about last Saturday has been sticking with me. More than any other game I have ever run. I've listened to the recording three times through already (7.5 hours each time, whew), and I'm still finding moments I love. It's clear that everyone at the table, especially me, really needed this one.
I've run games full of laughter, overflowing drinks, intense arguments, and awkward situations before. Grays had all of this, and more, held together by strands of respect and support. We had many situations of people pairing off with unexpected acquaintances, just to make sure they're alright. Characters stepping in to help what could only be considered to them, a floundering stranger in high heels. Characters acting like, well, themselves; making decisions based on their individual needs, their goals, their etiquette, deep and profound desires and feelings; all while attempting to keep a group of 'weirdos' from getting into trouble, then fighting alongside them to save a little girl. Connected by threads of real interaction between people who love this setting, this game, and their collective story.
And, with a mature setting and a full range of narrative possibilities, one might assume that at some point the story would have derailed into absurdity... Except it didn't.
John has mentioned A State Of Flow in one of his live-streams on the Facebook page as experiencing a lack of resistance. Though characters resisted in their own ways, there were no moments of drag from the players. Everyone was a part of this world, and they made each experience their own. Nothing was forced.
But it was the interplay between characters that spoke the most to me. It could be a product of the setting. The 6th Age is not a kind place, and Chapter 1 communicated its dangers in big ways. That experience, I know, stuck with people. They're not heroes; no one truly is. Many still don't know each other's names. And why would they? The world is dark and full of terrors. Some have been running all their lives from it, and may be still. There are secret agendas, challenges of faith and trust, and the assumptions that follow a life of betrayal.
Yet, in character, each player found another to stand with. To look out for. Many in small, but truly profound ways. And the players bonded...in ways I could not have predicted. In just two sessions, even with some new faces this time, an accord had been struck.
I've seen good teams before, and I've run some great games with flow, but like I said, this was different.
I could see it. There, on the edge of our collective psyche. The possibilities of our adventure; the abrupt, cruel ending to an individual story, fleeting moments of happiness that you must fight for, unexpected relationships blossoming from luck and circumstance, a beckoning journal of secret intentions, a lingering sense of unease as the rain hammers down in this beautiful city of dark alleys and dangerous jobs. And then there was the through-line. An unbreakable cord forged in friendships and imagination. A line that trusts you even if you haven't been honest; a line that has your back even when you believe you don't deserve it. A group that reminds you that you are not alone.
A family. In its greatest sense. Smashed together and barely hanging on. Powerful, screwed up, and beautiful.
Thank you for your time and attention. This is going to be one hell of a story.
See you at the table.
Back from vacay, ladies and gents, and I've been catching up on John's videos, and our Game On! content that I missed, and the whole process got me thinking.
There have been a few rules that I have adjusted in my games. Some to add flavor, others to streamline, and a few to add flair to an encounter or a creature. So I'd like to present those to you, complete with what it actually says in the book (if anything), what previous editions might have ruled, what I rule, and why. This way, peeps have a better idea on what to expect in my own games.
Let's get started.
1) Powerful Enemies Auto-Crit Unconscious Characters
ME: when a creature drops to 0 Hit Points, they fall unconscious. If struck by another blow in this situation (being at 0 Hit Points and otherwise helpless), the character loses 2 death saving throws automatically, as if being struck by a critical hit, dubbed "auto-crit." This occurs even if the attack is beyond 5 feet away.
Book: "If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death."
Subnote regarding Conditions: "Unconscious [...]. Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature."
Why: When working with intelligent tacticians, a creature at 0 HP is an easy target. You are helpless, and those that have the capability to notice the overall strength of a party - or have witnessed your healing capabilities - know that it would be unwise to ignore you just because you fell over. This mentality, coupled with the fact that you are HELPLESS before them in that moment, deems many creatures the ability to auto-crit on your lifeless form, forcing you to lose 2 death saving throws. This is less a custom ruling, and more an adjustment of the capabilities of certain creatures. A mindless grunt won't take notice, but a seasoned sword fighter would, and would probably take advantage of such a situation. I call this feature Twisting The Knife, and intelligent creatures above a certain CR will often have it.
But why, though? Dangerous entities should remain dangerous, and going toe-to-toe with something dangerous is risky. This ability adds dynamic stress to a situation when someone goes down, and it also offers opportunities for villains to do more than just wipe out a party. They can force ultimatums, draw their blades toward the party's cleric and force them to back down, lest they decide to end her life then and there. It can create a Change Of Circumstance, and can further alter the battlefield. These kinds of moments can define an encounter, and those are the things I love. Building interesting encounters with dynamic foes.
2) Critical Hits Double The Rolled Number, not dice
ME: when you score a critical hit, I have you roll all relevant dice involved in the attack (including Sneak Attack, Smite, and the like) BEFORE adding modifiers. Then, total that number and multiply it by 2. After that, add on your relevant modifiers.
Book: "When you score a critical hit, you get to roll extra dice for the attack's damage against the target. Roll all of theattack's damage dice twice and add them together. Then add any relevant modifiers as normal. To speed up play, you can roll all the damage dice at once."
Why: I first saw this practice adopted by Matthew Mercer of Critical Role, and it seemed to really speed things up. As cool as it is to roll a literal mountain of dice (which is what we Wizards LIVE for), the associated math can often bog down play in intense situations. So instead, I have peeps roll the appropriate dice involved, double the total, then add on modifiers. This also allows me to grant opportunities to the players to further multiply their damage with my custom Assets, special weapons that harken back to Pathfinder (where swords grant a x2 critical, with critical on 19-20; while most axes only crit on 20s, but offer a x3 multiplier), situational bonuses, and great ways to communicate a creature's weaknesses (oh, that creature is weak against Psychic damage...we'll just double that number now). ;)
3) Better Descriptions Yield Lower DCs
ME: the better you describe an action or present an argument, especially in character, the lower the DC to beat. Conversely, the more vague you are or the more terrible you present an argument, the higher the DC.
Book: this one's up for DM interpretation. For each thing you're trying to accomplish, the DM decides what ability or skill is relevant, then sets a DC in their mind all the way from 5 (Very Easy) to 30 (Nearly Impossible). There's no hard and fast rule here.
Why: it adds agency to a player's ability to PLAY. Improvise, argue, call people out, fall flat on your face. You get to use your acting and descriptive abilities to better (or worsen) your chances at success. Which is a good thing.
4) Downing Potions
ME: downing a potion consumes your Bonus Action, but not your Standard Action. FEEDING a potion to another character, which is more involved, consumes your Standard Action. No, you may NOT down two potions in a turn (thus consuming your Bonus and Standard actions). I allowed that once, to disastrous effect. Never again. The DM will remember this...
Book: this one required some clarification. This was later ruled as Use Magic Device or Use Magic Object, but either way consumes your Standard Action, just like the Use An Object Action.
Why: Sitting there downing potions, unable to do much else can rob a player of their class abilities, and I'm not a fan of that. This way, there's still a cost to using a potion, but to a seasoned adventurer, downing a vial of liquid doesn't take much.
5) Called Shots are a thing
ME: you can specifically target something by claiming that you are making a Called Shot. This sets up a few changes to the battlefield. 1) By targeting a specific place, you make the shot or strike exponentially more difficult, as combat is fluid, so the AC for this shot gains a +5 bonus. 2) If you hit, you deal an extra 10 points of the weapon's damage - BUT if you miss, you have disadvantage on your next attack this round, as you recover from the creature dodging you. 3) Hitting may cause a Change of Circumstance - maybe it partially blinds them (disadvantage on attack rolls), knocks out their knee (advantage against them), or some other flavor that I have to make up (which is actually fun).
Book: the term Called Shot does not exist in D&D 5th Edition, but it's existence is referenced in previous editions and exists in all its glory in Pathfinder. Pathfinder grants penalties to the player, instead of boosts to the AC of the target.
Why: this offers a mechanical opportunity for players with keen observation and tactics to change the course of battle, but with enough risk to support their own skill or specialization. A well-built archer can accomplish this more times than not, and our critical-fishers (advantage fishers) can achieve this to change the course of a tough fight, rather than just hitting it again.
And there you have it. Five ways that I like to augment my games. As these are custom rules, they may change, but they've gone through some rigorous testing and I'm pretty pleased. What custom rules do you use in your games? I'd love to know.
Till next time, friends. Hope to see you at the table.
This one gets a little heavy, folks. It's related, I promise.
I was an angry kid. I would often explode in fits of rage and screaming. Stomping, snapping, throwing, breaking.
I broke so many toys, threw so many books, and screamed so many foul things. And after being scolded on my "public decency," I made sure to have these episodes in private.
As I grew older, they would evolve with me. Manifesting in new bursts of energy laced with malice, I would retreat into silence and fear, punishing myself over and over. Because, you must understand, I never lashed out at others. Save for the few moments I stomped and screamed when I was young - and when I saw the people around me and how scared and confused they were - I learned that this was NOT how a young man acts in public. So I was quiet, respectful, and kept to myself.
My anger made people uncomfortable. So I buried it. And as I grew older, I found different ways to bury it. My anger was burned as fuel; I wrote the best music when filled with rage; I spoke the best when I was fired up at myself; I performed the best with a fire in my belly.
But anger taxes you. It robs you of your grace, your energy; it can sap your reason and patience, and can blind you from what matters most.
I didn't care. I could be better. Of course I could be better. I could practice harder, learn more, stay up later, work harder, sleep less, disappear from the world for awhile while I work. No, you can't rest. There's no time to rest. How dare you sleep, you lazy sack! You've wasted your whole damn life so far and you're still so lazy to think there's time to lay down? Be better, damn you!
My inner dialogue was a lot more...colorful. It would manifest in surges of practicing, as if that would make up for a semester of poor habits and low motivation. Stints of good habits, only to be broken in a week. That voice that says I WILL CHANGE that grows quieter each day. Anger, and the energy it grants you, is finite.
And then I embraced the martial arts. I began to realize the most powerful tool we all possess. The secret isn't to push through, but to stop. And breathe.
It is our breath that binds our soul, our ki, to our bodies. Patience lets you focus, and breath allows your body (and your mind) to be patient.
Even when I was studying the martial arts every week, I still used anger to fuel my learning. I had already "wasted" 10 years learning different systems, while my friends were already testing for black belt. I was BEHIND. How dare I become behind; people looked up to me, and I let them down!
And when I finally achieved black belt - somewhere in a haze of adrenaline and anxiety - I felt empty. Not like an empty cup, eager for more knowledge, but like an old car...barely limping into the trade shop. I returned to class for a time, here and there, but I felt such a weight of guilt. Like I didn't earn it. I rushed it. I wasn't ready. Not by my standards; to me, I didn't EARN my belt.
And with every class in my new "position," as you come to realize that you, actually, know nothing - and when your goal for half your life has been to make it to black belt, and you DO, only to feel as if it were handed to you - that weight becomes heavier and heavier. So I responded the best way I knew how.
I got angry. And then, I got very, very sad.
I stopped coming to class, I stopped helping in our events, I stopped coming to kick-boxing. And then I stopped training altogether. It felt like a lie to me.
As of the date of writing this, I still haven't returned to the dojo. Something about it fills me with shame.
In fact, I feel a lot of shame for so many things. Like tonight, when I came home feeling like a bad storyteller. Like a bad player; a bad DM; and a slob who isn't able to get his life together.
And normally, feelings like this would crush me. Pound me into the ground until I cry myself to sleep and face the day exhausted, then repeat the process until I make myself sick with depression and call out for a day to recover. These feelings would do this. But they aren't. Not tonight. Because tonight I remembered something.
I remembered my breath. I felt it flow through me like water. And the more I waited, the more I recognized what it meant.
I am a brass player. I know the power of air. I was...I AM a martial artist. I know what breath does to my body, to my muscles, to my mind. My players have seen me use it before running a game, or when I need to focus despite being exhausted. It is equal parts the simplest and most complex element we have in our arsenal of control.
Yes. It is 3:47am and I'm not asleep, but for the first time in so many months, years even, I have stopped...to breathe. To stare at my wall and let my eyes drift over the collected business cards of acquaintances and allies, to pick apart their names and logos to form new ones, and set them aside for later worlds. To quietly, and deftly, take care of the house; gently purge accumulated books and instruments I've never needed or used, but kept to make me feel better; to recycle, tear, and burn away notes I've studied into oblivion. To covet and save the things that matter, and not only vow to use them, but organize them in a way that demands I do so.
My breath reminds me that that cruel voice inside is LYING.
I am not a failure.
I have nothing to be ashamed of.
I am a work in progress, and I get better every damn day. Sometimes we fall down, but it doesn't matter how many times we do. What matters, my dear friends, is taking a deep breath and getting back up again.
It's 3:52am and I am literally crying while I finish this post, as I have called my demons out for their kahnastrixa, and if you know that reference you are one of my favorite people in the universe.
So tonight when I face them, and every day moving forward, I'm rolling weighted dice. My inner monk is calling. Breath yields radiance. And my soul is ready to shine.
Yeah. That's right. I just ended this with obscure 5th Edition D&D references. Fight me. ;)
Remember to breathe.
I'll see you at the table.
Usually when I talk about tabletop gaming, I explore the intellectual and social elements of it. We level up our creativity, our rapport, collaboration, and teamwork. Not often do we get to talk about the physical side of things.
"Physical side?" you say, a quizzical expression leeching onto your face.
Why yes, young grasshopper! Our physical fitness is most important, and is often overlooked when one prepares for a gaming experience...
But really, it shouldn't. A sound body augments the mind, which helps us play better, faster, kinder, and more creatively. So why don't we exercise more?
Well, for many at least, the excuse is time management...and that's a can of worms we won't get into quite yet.
Instead let me share with you something quite quick. You might even say it is hasted.
HIIT workouts...did I just misspell something?
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training.
Short workouts, usually done in circuits of a few exercises for a number of rounds. 15-20 minutes of work, tops.
Now most people know I'm a push-up fiend, but the rest of my body needs help too, so first thing in the morning on Saturdays I rock this workout. Takes me a little over 15 minutes and keeps me fired up all day. Anybody can make time for that, and it helps kick the brain into high gear while burning calories before breakfast.
Workout A - 5 Exercises, 4 Rounds
10 Staggered Pushups
10 Leg Lifts
10 Raised I Pushups
10 Close Ski Squats
--15-30 second rest between rounds
Okay, so what's what? Squats are squats. Ski Squats are squats with feet close together, like you're skiing and about to hit slaloms. Leg Lifts are on your back, lifting your straight legs up and engaging your lower abs. Staggered Pushups alternate between one hand high, the other low; next round you switch. My Raised levels correlate directly to a step; Raised I is literally me putting my feet on the first step of a staircase and putting my hands on the floor at the incline, then pushup from there.
Hit (ha) this one for 4 rounds and you're good. If that was easy, then tack on Workout B below too.
Workout B - 5 Exercises, 6 Rounds
10 Raised II Pushups
10 Diamond or Inward Pushups
20 Scissors or Spreads
10 Burpees w/Neutral Pullup
--15 Second rest between rounds
Raised II is the second step on a staircase. Crunches are...crunches. Diamond pushups make a Diamond with your hands and kill your triceps - if you can't touch them together yet, just as close as you can and turn your palms inward at an angle. Scissors are achieved by lying on your back with your legs straight and elevated some inches off the floor - then you "kick" them up and down. Spreads are this, except you spread your legs in and out, all while keeping them elevated.
See? Who said gamers can't work out!?
Now get working so you can do at least A FEW of the things your character can do!
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.