The Push and Pull of Scrutiny
I have always been a reflective person. I did it constantly in school growing up (defining what it meant to be a decent person while struggling to find my own place), in college (learning to be a musician and a teacher in deluge of philosophy and pedagogy), and now, as a Game Master, I do it even more.
I am constantly worried about the state of my players; their happiness, fulfillment, meaning, investment, and overall comfort levels. And it's exhilarating, so I don't mind. But sometimes I get days like this - where I feel like I failed somehow; failed to reach someone, or made them feel bad when that wasn't the intention. And though teaching in a public school is a job that hones in on specific students; how they grow, change, question, etc. - THIS job of Game Mastering feels so much more...personal.
As Game Masters, we're really GUIDES above all else. As John and I have stated countless times in our podcast, we work through Consequences, not Punishments, and this mentality must persist through every facet of our narration and storytelling. We have to enable our players to reach their best selves. Often, on top of a full working knowledge of the world and the game mechanics at large, we have to know those awesome abilities that each character has and help them realize their best options (in a kind way) on and out of their turn. Be kind. Always. Support your players, don't punish them.
That has always been my mission - but I dare say that I am slipping to some degree. It comes from a place of improvement, but it could be I was pushing in the wrong direction. My allowance in custom materials and interpretations is something that is never going away, but as we continue to grow and I build our Mastering Certification, I know I've been trying to curb toward following the core rules most of the time. However, I have felt that I've made a few rulings that were not fair, and with me, I take each and every ruling I don't agree with like a punch in the face. I think on it often, and then try my darnedest to automate my solution so it never comes up again. :)
John Tanaka, one of our other Game Masters, does these cool live-streams each day over on our Facebook page, and in one of them he talked about a brilliant book called The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. I have consumed this book, and I've taken it up again, and I think it applies to all walks of life, but in our mission here at Game On - to become our best selves through gaming - it matches quite perfectly from a Game Master and Player perspective.
The internet can be a swarm of rule lawyers, and though the "enlightened" point of view is gaining a voice - that it's a game, people, relax - there are still those keen on stating that "your fun is wrong." To help deflect some of this scrutiny, I've rolled back some of my home-brews in favor of RAW (Rules As Written), and been much more up front (in speech and in writing) on the things that I have kept. But so much of what we do ISN'T viewed by others; it is only viewed and experienced by the other players at the table - it's more intimate, and contextual, so the more amorphous the concept, the more circumstantial the ruling, and those will invariably change moment to moment.
So, before I go on, let's take a look at those four points of understanding, as presented and paraphrased from Ruiz's book, with some personal reflection thrown in.
1) Be Impeccable With Your Word
Do not speak ill of others or gossip. Do not accept, internalize, or believe what others say about you, or your thoughts about yourself.
I think on this and I realize that this was one of the points in High School, and school in general, that I happily failed at. I don't archive, internalize, or hold onto ill will. There's just too much going on in my own head, which opens the door for the latter, which is to remember that "not all the stories we tell ourselves are true." We have to remember that our words have power, and can propel good or evil forward - personally or interpersonally.
When we fill the world with our own voice too often, we use up our own well of words. We need to be silent sometimes; both to observe, and to speak from a place of intelligence and kindness - never to betray ourselves by telling cruel stories.
2) Don't Take Anything Personally
Any reaction implies that you have accepted (agree in at least some small way) with what was said or done. Everything people say or do comes their own perception and paradigm of the world, and has nothing to do with you.
Taking things personally is what made me a better teacher in the beginning, but it came from seeking to avoid perceived pain, as opposed to augmenting my craft. Glad to say that the latter is now the common practice, but the former sneaks in at times when exhaustion creeps in (secret lesson: take care of yourself - exercise, eat right, meditate, you get the idea).
What really sucks is when we subconsciously hold onto perceived ill will. It is rare if I do it now as an adult, but when I do, it's deep, and reveals a clear weakness in my inability to let it go. I did this once in the last year, and though the experience propelled a lot of positive change and leveled up my business and game mastering and leadership - all good things - I was still holding onto the venom...only to discover through a third party that it was all a misunderstanding anyway. That was months of wasted energy - whereas I COULD have sought out a solution by simply talking to this individual (see #1). Perceived possible pain at the interaction held me back from a simple solution.
3) Don't Make Assumptions
Don't operate from a preconceived understanding of the world or your relationships. All assumptions are limitations and failures to communicate.
This ties directly into a mentality that perplexed individuals in High School. I had a mantra: Assume Nothing, Question Everything, Change Something. It meant that I tried not to make assumptions about people and situations, would clarify (a lot, so much to the point that others thought me a dullard) understanding for myself and those around me, and make constant adjustments to my behavior and routines to try to be a better person. Not sure if it worked, but thinking on it now, it still makes a lot of sense.
Not to say that you can't use intuition, and learning, to better equip yourself for certain situations, the key here is to KEEP LEARNING. No single entity knows everything, and all knowledge deserves deeper understanding. Don't take things at their face value; the details might open your mind in new and challenging ways - and that's a good thing.
4) Always Do Your Best
Make your efforts all about what you can best accomplish in your current situation, so that you're always satisfied and happy with yourself. Don't overwork, but don't work merely for a reward.
This is what I strive for each day, but the most important component of this description is "in your current situation." The things that you cannot control do not weigh upon your personal performance. Do what you can with what you have, and make THAT the best it can be. The rest will be learned over time and progress.
The Ultimate Call To Action
The close of the book is probably the best - and simplest - fire to light under one's soul. Ruiz calls you to be an entity that takes ultimate responsibility for your own suffering and level of happiness and fulfillment. I interpret this into three focused mindsets: The Warrior, The Magician, and The Mystic. Those three avatars are in a constant feedback loop at all times, no single one taking full control of us at any one time, and that balance of trinity is never more apparent than when I'm running a game session - and the sessions where I struggle is where I have forgotten these mindsets. (I'm paraphrasing and adapting here, so don't @ me, bro)
The Warrior - the warrior is in control of his own behavior. (see also: Bushido) A warrior IS NOT a berserker; we are not controlled by our emotions, instead we control ourselves, and how we spend our energy; we do not deplete it with fruitless things. We have a limit of our own each day; a well that is pulled from as we engage in tasks and with others. Some tasks drain us, while others replenish. I have never built up my own energy reservoir more than in the last year - discovering the things and people that create that positive Feedback Loop of energy that helps me replenish my reservoir, and allows me to pour my soul into the people and elements that need it most - like my fellow players and their enjoyment of the game and their stories. TL;DR - only spend your energy on the good stuff; that choice is something you're in complete control of.
The Magician - a magician is one who is tapped into her creative mind; she tells stories, paints pictures, and forms new and distant worlds at a whim. She spends energy in creating, brainstorming, and seeing what could be possible - often in charismatic ways, taking others along for the journey. The magician is called into being all those moments when we allow ourselves to imagine, to create, and to play using our open world as the canvas. TL;DR - you're never too old to imagine new things, or bring them into reality; that's how invention is born. Never stop imagining.
The Mystic - the mystic views the world through an augmented lens, always keen to continue growing and learning - never allowing herself to stagnate, or become stuck in the ways of others less enlightened. This view of the world is not popular, but it saves our energy for the causes that matter. The mystic shows itself any time we stop to listen before speaking, research before reacting, and decide to engage without betraying our own center. You no longer rule your behavior by what others may think about you - a trait foreign to so many in this age. How mystical. TL;DR - never stop learning, and don't be afraid of adjusting the lens through which you view the world.
Augment Your Games
Resolve interpersonal issues...personally, and kindly (#1 and 2). If it's a topic that would benefit the group as a whole, and it stems from an interpersonal moment, deal with the latter, then address the former. This avoids feelings of passive aggression, and doesn't place that player on the defensive in the company of the team.
Made a mistake? Own it (#1). Most recent example for me: I got it in my head that order of operations mattered in 5E (some editions and other games rule that it does, but the elegance of 5E does away with that)... It doesn't. Hunter's Mark? As long as it's still your turn, you can cast it before or AFTER your attack, and still gain its benefit (just roll a D6 for the extra damage). Don't know why I got stuck on it so bad - I was wrong. :)
Support Your Player Abilities With Kind Reminders or Suggestions (#1, 2, 3 and 4): I would do this often with my newer players, but as time has rolled on, I haven't been as consistently helpful. I've been a little stuck in my own head lately, hence revisiting this awesome book, so I admit to dropping the ball a few times. Even with veteran players, if it's once a week, especially nearing the end of a long day, they might forget stuff. ANYBODY can forget their abilities; it's a lot to manage. It isn't our job to make them feel bad about that - it's our job to help them be their best selves, even if doing so wrecks my monster/encounter/spell/NPC/Legendary Action/Supernatural Ability. Group game, buddies.
Take a step back (#1, 2, and 3): It can be easy to get stuck in the trap of misreading a player's resting face as being bored, them in character to them actually being angry, and a high or low emotion moment coloring our actual perception. If we're ever unsure, though, we can always communicate (#1, and #3) interpersonally, and hopefully learn from such a communication. As these games are as much building trust and empathy as they are creating fun encounters and challenges, kind communication can only make the whole experience better.
Adapt and move on (2, 3, and 4): Maintaining momentum in a game is very important, so I try to have either a resource open or I've studied the rules enough to have them memorized to be able to respond to a player quickly and easily. But it's impossible to know everything, so having that resource nearby is key. If a ruling comes up in play and it isn't 100% clear from the RAW (rules-as-written), make a ruling then and there, and move on. You never want your game to halt for a discussion on the "intended ruling" of a rule. Then, also, see if you can err on the side of the player, not the DM, to put the power in their court instead. Players aren't inherently combative; it's a product of feeling screwed over by bad DMs, so give them a little more sway and see what they do with it. You can always have a discussion AFTER THE SESSION IS OVER.
Be KIND to one another. Always. No creature on this planet starts off cruel - these things are learned. If you revel in making players feel bad for forgetting their abilities, punishing players for out-of-the-box concepts, railing against GMs who are learning, or rules-lawyering people to tears...please UNLEARN this mentality. Kindness builds trust and empathy; two key components to any successful campaign. It tells players that you've got their backs at the table, even if the villain of the story is out to get them. That's the GAME, not the players and the GM; separating the two helps build immersion, and releases the tension of an involved story, without spilling over into the real world.
It's a powerful relationship - don't break it by being intentionally mean.
I'm sure there's a lot more I could connect here, but I think that KINDNESS is the main theme here. Your words have power. Not all the stories you tell yourself are true. Never stop learning. Always do your best. The rest...ain't worth the energy. :)
See you at the table.
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.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.