What The Black Sheep Did Right
So recently we hit up 4th Edition as a one-shot. One 6-hour foray back into the black sheep of the D&D legacy at level 2, and...it was pretty cool.
Now, I'm not new to 4th Edition. I cut my teeth on 1st edition, and scaled those characters through 3.5 and Pathfinder, then we churned out a new campaign in 4th Edition. Sure, there were elements I didn't like - the out-of-left field feel, the power sets, the strange board game nature of it all - but it was still D&D, and we played it through all the same. The mechanics were just the mechanics; we still had our story to tell.
Fast-forward to 5th Edition, and our now about 4 years teaching it and running it, and returning to 4th edition is...not that bad.
There are a great many things that 4th Edition does very well.
1) Roles are clear. Each class is broken down into one of four main categories of roles: Controllers, Defenders, Leaders, and Strikers. With your lives on the line, and the mechanics to back it up, there's never a question of what role you are supposed to fill; maybe a question of a secondary role, but not the primary.
2) Tactics are KEY. Immediately, in fact. Our first fight we played like 5th edition - Goblins, no trouble, right? Wrong. Each goblin has more hit points than I do (and I'm a Minotaur Warlord), and none of us could go toe-to-toe with any one of them. It's expected at a fight that two things happen - you immediately use your Encounter powers (more powerful attacks/spells usable once per fight) to eliminate threats early and second, you draw fire to the Defender, while everyone else wrecks enemies from a protected position. Oops.
3) Action Economy Works. On your turn, you have a Standard Action, Minor Action, and a Move Action. Now, these aren't necessarily the same as 5E's Action, Bonus Action, and Movement, mainly because EVERYONE has a Minor Action (like drawing a weapon, opening a door, etc.) available, and certain powers or abilities consume one of those three actions. As long as you have the action type available, you can spend the power, so if you've got a power that's a Minor, another a Standard, and another a Move...you're using three cool things that turn. You're not moving, but still, three cool things. Also, also, you can make your Standard into two more Minor Actions instead, making the economy more flexible. When you're learning the game, that can add time, but, just as with any system, you get faster. And, because this system IS so mechanic-driven, it's rare that you'd have a strange interpretation mix-up that would bog down play anyway.
4) All of your stats are important, with three mains. For each class, there are at least three primary ability scores, and each of your powers will use one of them. Often, INTELLIGENCE is one of those, so the worth of your stats is elevated and definitively depends upon your class, which is refreshing.
Now I said before that there were certain roles meant to be fulfilled by each class. In a balanced party, you need at least one of each role represented. If you have more, good job, but one of each is definitively needed to avoid a dreaded a TPK. ;)
Controllers deal with large numbers of enemies at the same time. They favor offense over defense, using powers that deal damage to multiple foes at once, as well as subtler powers that weaken, confuse, or delay their foes. Wizards are obvious Controllers from the first Player's Handbook, with the Druid, Invoker, Psion, and Seeker joining up from the PHB 2, and PHB 3.
Defenders have the highest defenses in the game and are good for close-up offense. They are the party’s front-line combatants; wherever they’re standing, that’s where the action is. Defenders have abilities and powers that make it difficult for enemies to move past them or to ignore them in battle, taking the fire off the other more "squishy" classes. The proverbial "TANK" of the game, this is where you find your Fighters, Paladins, Warden, and Battlemind.
Leaders inspire, heal, and aid the other characters in an adventuring group. Leaders have good defenses, but their strength lies in powers that protect their companions and target specific foes for the party to concentrate on, as well as strike and give bonus attacks, movement, or defenses to allies.
These classes encourage and motivate their adventuring companions, but just because they fill the leader role doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a group’s spokesperson or commander. The party leader—if the group has one—might as easily be a charismatic warlock or an authoritative paladin. Leaders (the role) fulfill their function through their mechanics; party leaders are born through role-playing. Obvious Leaders are found in the Cleric and Warlord, with the Bard (duh), Shaman, Ardent, and Runepriest fulfilling it later.
Strikers specialize in dealing high amounts of damage to a single target at a time. They have the most concentrated offense of any character in the game. Strikers rely on superior mobility, trickery, or magic to move around tough foes and single out the enemy they want to attack. The term we might swing toward them is "DPR" or "damage-per-round," which is our way of saying you deal a bunch of damage to one dude at a time. Not always a glass cannon, the Striker might last a bit longer than a Controller, but still shouldn't act like a tank to survive. Strikers in 4E are found in the Ranger, Rogue, and Warlock (blaster), with the Avenger, Barbarian, Sorcerer, and Monk joining the fray.
If nothing else, I find it enlightening to have the roles well-defined and supported by their mechanics. When learning the game, new players can lean on only the powers they've selected; options are clear, and their expectations are understood.
In a lot of ways, a blank canvas can be terrifying, so the embedded structure of 4th edition helps support new players in selecting limited powers that further their selected role. Because of this, I thought it fun to further explore this through character building. So, for a little while, each Tuesday at 6:00, expect a bonus blog on character building...and we'll kick it off with the Ranger in 4th Edition. See you there.
We've all been there.
The group's been together over a year now and things just don't seem right. Johnny's SO ANNOYING - he's late, he's loud, and he repeats himself all the time! Adam doesn't let the DM speak - no one knows what's going on, and Alex is *still* on his phone looking up cat videos. We've fought beholders together, yet we're still not...blending.
When a scenario like this presents itself, it's important to take a step back and recognize one big circumstance and answer a question: is it something about today, or has this been a trend? If the former, take a deep breath. Let go of the things that linger, and urge the group to join you in this; you'll all be better for it, and it might help alleviate a few things on people's minds. Everyone's allowed an off-day.
If the latter, still take a deep breath, but there might be reason to explore the various facets that can affect a group's alignment (not mechanical alignment, mind you).
This one's up front because it's the most persistent, and holds up a realistic truth: not all people get along. But it's the WHY that's important, and a personality misalignment is often expressed in MANY ways. It's complicated, which is why it is difficult to explore, but once a player becomes self-aware and cognizant of their own personality or incongruence with others, changes begin to manifest.
Awareness goes a long way, and a growth mindset will aid you. It could be as little as the way you say hello, or your brand of particular-ness. Reflection is important in all walks of life - use it.
But there are a few more specific elements that one can consider in the group and in life that may augment your perspective at the table.
Assuming Intent (especially negative)
We reference The Four Agreements quite a lot in the Podcast and in this blog, but SERIOUSLY dudes, it's because it keeps coming up. Inferences are important - they take facts and observable factors, coupled with experience, and help you navigate your world efficiently. However, assumptions about people, their intentions, and intended effects in interpersonal situations...cause pain and misunderstanding.
I've had conversations with people where it seems we come to a mutual understanding...only to have them rewrite their own narrative and assume wide-reaching intent, returning angry and confused. I try my best to be Impeccable With My Word - make sure that I am clear and up front - only to have others assume something very different. Assumptions like this at the table only sew misunderstanding and discord. Take people at their word, and if you must assume, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Pace, "The Plot", and Obsession With YOUR Story
When you are playing, you are furthering "The Plot." That is all.
That plot can be role-play heavy, group discussion, combat-driven, a big blender mix of everything... Whatever you decide to engage in at the table...is the Plot of this GROUP STORY. It cannot, and will not, ever be all about you.
The speed, or pace, of this story is decided on by the players. The DM is the guide, but not the impending sword-of-damacles wall pushing you in a direction. I've got hooks and floating elements for ya'll, but if you spend 3 hours shopping and everyone's having a good time, then that's the episode, and that's great too. From a player's perspective, placing emphasis on "your story" over everyone else's invalidates the group story, and in case you haven't noticed, this is a GROUP GAME. Now, some players may have more spotlight at certain times than others, and that's totally cool, but that doesn't mean that before that spotlight wasn't also "the plot."
If you must be in the spotlight, share it; invite others to come along (they can always refuse). If your character is already doing something, avoid jumping into another person's activity. This is a shared experience...share it.
Flow and Resistance + Contributions and Withdrawals
Sessions that just plain CLICK are my ultimate goal as a DM. Everybody's rolling, everybody's all in, the rapport is awesome, and everything just...flows. Achieving Flow is described as reaching a supreme "lack of resistance" with the players. Tiny rulings, circumstances, voices, characterization, pace, style...it all works and everyone has invested in each element in play, creating a worthwhile flow.
Resistance is felt when players clash over rulings, there's a misalignment of play style, roles, and any moment where things grind to a halt. Sometimes resistance is necessary to clarify rulings and understanding, but there is a particular balance inherent in such clarification, which demands that you ask yourself a very important question: Does it matter? Sometimes we focus too much on micro; take a step back and see if, in the macro, does it matter if the word you use is points or slots? No? Then use what you need and remove your ego from the situation. If it DOES matter, then talk through it, and if your overruled...get over it. You can address it again outside of the game.
The other half of this has to do with contributing to the experience of the group or withdrawing from it. This is most often felt when we joke around in the middle of play - which is awesome, by the way. BUT, a quick quip in the middle of a scene contributes to group play, but pulling up a youtube video to show everyone in the middle of a scene withdraws from it. These two sides of the same coin show respect for everyone's play and disrespect for everyone's play. It's a balancing act, and one that will have missteps of course, but must be a skill that is cultivated. If you find a player, or players, are withdrawing from the game (or pulling others to withdraw), it is worth a conversation. Remember, it isn't the jokes, it's the longer, tangental withdrawal, especially if other players are bothered by it. If that's the type of game you agreed to, alright then, but if NOT, check yourself.
Ultimately, if it goes against the social contract... Don't do it. I'll say it again, this is a group game.
Antagonists In The Party and None Of Us Are Perfect
If players are escalating each other, and failing to take responsibility for such actions, instead citing the other as the problem... Congratulations, you're kindergartners. I'm so proud. Take responsibility for your own actions; if you're perpetually late, fix that. If you seem to clash with another player, discern why (don't just let it sit there, this is an opportunity to grow), and ACT on it. If you always cite others as the problem, and evidence suggests the contrary, then you might be playing victim - own that and grow up.
This might seem like some tough love right now, but a role-playing group is a vulnerable thing. Playing with others can be hard, and this setting is especially beautiful in how accepting it can be. I am so honored to have cultivated a community that legitimately cares about its members and their wellbeing, mental health included, and am horrified when I hear of the awful experiences people have come from. And yet, none of us are perfect. We are all seeking our best selves through play with others, and because we all come from different places, there are bound to be some clashes. These moments, as difficult as they might be, are opportunities to grow, pivot, and reflect. And the community will be there to help you.
However, if you find yourself UNWILLING to grow or adapt to smooth things over, if it rallies against your own concept of yourself and "you've tried everything," then maybe this isn't the group for you. Sometimes taking space IS the best course of action; removing yourself from the situation gives context and perspective where none were present before.
Luckily, we DO exist in a space where there is always another group to try. :). We'll wait for you.
See you at the table.
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For all the math involved in Pathfinder, they certainly had their creative character concepts down.
When Vigilante dropped, where the player has a literal alter-ego to manage, I was getting excited. When alternative classes were introduced, like the Antipaladin or the Samurai, I knew we were on to something special. The third in the latter's introduction is the Ninja.
The Ninja introduced an interesting concept (at more for me than the others). Though it was an alternate class for the Rogue (makes sense), its progressive powers were an uneven split between Rogue and Monk through the introduction of Ki, with added Ninja flair in the form of Tricks. This seemed to open the door for Pathfinder to introduce Hybrid Classes - classes inspired by and borrowing from two main core classes as "parent classes."
One such that springs to mind for 5E conversion today is that of the Skald.
What IS A Skald?
In Pathfinder, a Skald is a hybrid between the rage-filled Barbarian and the charismatic musical Bard. A Skald wields music and rage together to bolster her allies with courage and mettle, and crush her enemies with doubt and fear.
Now, when I present this idea in conversation in 5th Edition, I am too often met with the image of a half-orc barbarian picking up instruments he doesn't know how to play, playing them badly, then smashing them against foes (with the Brawler feat, to boot). The image ends up being more like:
Which I must admit, is pretty cool from what it looks like... But the whole thing's often played for comedy only, unfortunately. The awesome artistic rendition above serves well in a Battle of the Bards scenario, which is intended to be silly and over the top.
But this concept should be fueled by the power of both classes; not a bard who's bad at barding, or a barbarian who just happens to be (hilariously) a poet. Take for example this image instead:
Now THAT'S a Skald. A warrior who fuels their talent with rage and power, spreading that sonic force to its allies. It fills them inspiration and power, not comedy at its absurdity (which still has its place in certain games, don't worry). So how do we build this guy?
1) Attributes and Distribution
Something John and I discuss often when we try to build multi-class concepts is the problem of too broad a spectrum of necessary attributes in order to be effective, and this concept does not convert well out of the gate. We've got three of six (arguably four if we're going strength) that will be essential to our build, and that's Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma (duh). Normally, I'd say Strength too, but we'll be spreading thin - we're going Dex Barbarian already.
Race: Tiefling (Charisma bump is nice, and I'm sick of the Half-Orc Barbarian trope)
Standard Array: 15-14-13-12-10-8
Welp. You don't need to be smart to sing.
INT: 9 (+1 Racial)
CHA: 14 (+2 Racial)
This tweaks my nerves a little bit, as I often want one stat at its highest possible run as early as possible (my gut reaction is to put the base 15 in CHA, then +2, for a total of 17...but then we're left with slim pickings for our DEX and CON scores, and we need all three decent to make this work). Not to mention we won't qualify for Barbarian multi-classing without at least a STR of 13.
2) Class Selection Order
This might feel tricky, but our taking a look at what we get up front makes this decision for us.
Barbarian First: Light and medium armor, shields, Simple and Martial weapons
Barbarian Second: Shields, Simple and Martial weapons
Bard First: Simple weapons, hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, shortswords; THREE skills; THREE instruments
Bard Second: Light armor, ONE skill of your choice, ONE musical instrument
Now, take into account that by going into Barbarian later I STILL get unarmored defense, so as long as I have a Shield (which I will), I'm still fine. Barbarians get all weapons regardless, so Bard makes sense up front for skill versatility and a plethora of instruments with which I can sing my wrath.
4) The Need For Home-brew
The most glaring issue up front here is the fact that you cannot cast spells or concentrate on spells while raging, but my solution is pretty simple: ready? You can cast spells while raging, and you add your Rage damage to your spells (where applicable, like a spell that deals damage). In order to do this, you must have at least 1 level in both Barbarian and Bard.
Instead of a brand new archetype, or building a new feat structure, sometimes a little flavor swap and rules switch is all you need. This way, we still support the benefits of both classes.
Now, this build REQUIRES a home-brew allowance, which makes it contingent upon your DM's allowance, but since you're not delving into Unearthed Arcana territory, this feels very smooth. And I don't feel that it is exploitive in any way.
Giant thanks to John Tanaka for helping me streamline my thought process on this one.
More insanity on the way.
I'll see you at the table.
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This past weekend marked the beginning of something, and I would be lying if I wasn't the best mix of terrified and exhilarated.
I was invited/demanded/reserved-my-spot-immediately-following-the-last-one to attend a cool little shindig at Questers' Way called Quest Fest. At the close of every official semester, we hold a weekend event on Saturday and Sunday where we invite local artists and small businesses to take up space in the center and sell their wares, along with big deals, free classes, and our fantastic D&D Dinner Theater for charity on Saturday night. It's always a blast, but this time...something was different.
For one, I wasn't working. Well, I mean, not for the center. I was one of those local artists. And after having a YouTube channel (to middling success) for years now, becoming a professional dungeon master, and beginning to step into the very complicated and rewarding lens of painting miniatures just over the last year, it is a singular experience to be fully transitioning into legitimately selling my wares like some sort of underground fantasy resource.
I don't really have a business, mind you. I'm just a dude with a Patreon trying to make his way in the universe by providing good stuff for my fellow gamers that isn't going to break their wallet, and I'm happy to meet you where I can if it means you get more playing at your table. And it was that level of wheeling and dealing (and being on my feet, actively engaging with nautical tons of kids and adults) that I wasn't expecting.
I. CRAVED. IT.
It was beautiful. I had parents bringing back memories of when THEY played, kids lighting up as they imagined unlimited worlds unfolding before them, held insightful discussions with old and new players alike, and sold out of dice almost immediately! It was magical. I love talking with peeps about games, podcasts, stories, and painting styles. Got a lot of tips from some vets in the business, and got a few compliments too.
And D&D Dinner Theater finally starting to hit its niche. We've got a few more kinks to work out (don't worry, we've FINALLY got a sound guy secured for next time), maybe a little more plot to follow, but it's clear that its heart has settled into place. The rest will be easy. ;)
But the next day brought about a unique, surreal, and humbling observation.
My dice sold in under 90 minutes. 10 deals of miniature lots sold in the 30 minutes before D&D went live. No one knew what minis they were getting, but they bought them anyway. Barely anyone physically visited the shop on Sunday, yet I made back my investment through private messages and updates on available stock. The response rendered me speechless for a time.
Our world is overrun by access. Technology, internet, sharing, tweeting, instagram... Sometimes we catch things, sometimes not. But for those that subscribe value actively to something, they will commit it to their personal world. They will share it to the stars and hope that another sees its rays and finds the same value in it that they did, and share it again. This core of a perpetually rippling collective memory and experience is what drives a tribe nowadays. A tribe; a group of people who have rallied behind an idea, a concept, a mission, a neighborhood, a person. Something, or someone, they trust. They'll give them the benefit of the doubt, back them when they need help, and shout their praise when their voice isn't loud enough.
My success that weekend was in no small part because of the small tribe of people that frequent Game On, that like my Instagram, that listen to my podcast, that read this blog. Your love, your joy, your stories, your value...it warms my soul. And I hope I can do better for you, always.
Thank you for playing with me. It is an honor, My Tribe.
See you at the table.
Thursday D&D is now my oldest campaign. Running since my inception into the Questers' Way model, they've been fighting cultists, talking to dragons, crushing beholders, and squaring off against Ancient Ones riding gargantuan titans for nearly 3 years now. And last Thursday marked the close of the final arc of the story.
We'll have one last dungeon crawl at level 20, 5 years later, as our epilogue next week. After that, 150 years pass into the fourth age of Io, and we start anew at Level 2. It's been quite a journey, and they're not the easiest group to run ;), but the lessons are real with this crew and I've changed a lot since we started.
Here's what I picked up.
When I started the Thursday game, I was coming off a blend of 10 years running and teaching Pathfinder, and though I fell in love quickly with 5E, I had made some assumptions regarding its player options.
The system is deceptively simple and highly accessible, but I had listened to the cry-babies online declaring it "D&D Basic," and decided to create specific Prestige Classes based around lore and player discovery. It created a very special and unique option inside my custom world, where "secret" classes actually existed that could augment player builds, and could only upgrade through experimentation, player exploration, and discovery into the deep layers of the world's history. I still think it was a great decision. It adds a lot of rewards for players that invest of themselves in the history and machinations of this fantasy you've spent so much time on.
But after two years of deep-diving mechanics, game mastering, game design, player-master interaction, social development, and the study of flow... I realize I made a boo-boo. Not a mistake in flavor, nor in reward, but in mechanics.
It's a little thing, and the more you do the more you realize that "it's the little things" that matter most. In this case, my Prestige Class of the Aegis - a powerhouse of a Cleric that wields the souls of the dead to unleash fury upon her enemies - and the final form of a Ranger with a Legacy Bow - a weapon that levels up with you; semi-sentient and created by a god - created an issue with Action Economy and TMRPA (Too Much Rolling Per Action), respectively.
The Aegis's main mechanic involves gaining Furies - souls of dead warriors unwilling to pass on - and spending them like Ki Points to unleash powerful attacks, augment healing spells, and create more options. Unfortunately, as long as you have Furies to burn, there's no limit to their use, and at high level in any class, you're already managing so much... It eats up time easy when you're able to summon an Action Surge every turn AND cast AND fight. On the other side of the table, the crazy-bow-now-living-winged-armor attached to the Ranger added an extra attack, but the main time suck is derived from two main extra elements in play: the bow requires a Con save when it hits or the target takes extra necrotic damage. It's also got a crazy bonus (with a high level character with max Dex), so hitting is often, mean more rolls for me. On top of this, IF she rolls a natural 20 on the bow, she rolls Constitution damage on the target, on top of everything else. Moving forward, leveled up weapons will deal static numbers, instead of rolling more... And in terms of time, it always feels more effective in flow and execution to have a power spike (the awesome power of rolling 8d6 for a Fireball) than many small spikes of damage, so if I can eliminate the parceled rolls where I can, everyone still feels effective, but turns take less time.
In the fourth age, Io-Shar, though it is a more industrial time period of naval exploration (after the world flooded), home-brew materials are much tighter and more balanced; action economy manipulations have higher costs, and there's less compounded rolling. The bonuses are also much more subtle; there isn't a need to add a whole new system to track when it could be as simple as a palette swap in damage type. New age, new prestige classes and custom feats open up (hello, Knife Expert), but this play test has heavily informed what special elements are extended to the player. A little goes a long way - there is an elegance in that design, and it keeps the playing field even across the table.
I look forward to the interesting things I can give them this time around. :)
Self Actualization / Player Agency
NPC's can be tricky business.
Introduce them as careful lore drops, powerful relationships, killer resources...but never have them solve a problem for the players. Good gods. Holy cows on toast with mayonnaise. Don't do it.
NPC ex machina is not the way to go if it comes out of nowhere.
Well-established order of guards and officers? Sure thing. Sudden mass teleport wizard is sudden. If it feels like a puzzle to the players and they're enjoying solving it, don't help them with an NPC. Hints are fine, solutions can hurt the party.
...Unless they're utterly lost and confused. Help them along, but don't do it for them. EVER. If you do, you run the risk of insulting them and equally "playing without them." And that's just rude. ;)
Clear Intention Of Background
Some players want their background conflicts resolved in the grand arc of the story, while others use their backgrounds predominantly to inform their play style from session 1 and need it no longer.
Now, this group in particular was one where I didn't get that feel easy from most of them. With a high mix reactive players with a few proactive ones, some offering extensive background information while others offered a few sentences explained away, the hindsight of the matter is obvious but the player execution and my observations were misunderstood often. When you give a hook that to you is obvious, but the player misses completely, and therefore doesn't pursue it, one might assume that the view of their background fits into the former category.
Compounding confusion, still, are those that feed very little into the overall narrative, but then wonder when "their story" will be featured, but say nothing - instead assuming they were forgotten. Please talk to your DM; I won't be offended - it's much worse if you don't approach the issue until the end of the campaign and I wonder why NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. :)
Like many GMs out there, I'm not a *dick*, but I can't read minds. There are so many stories of a player misinterpreting a DM's intention, or of the GM making an assumption about a scenario that ended up being incorrect, or seeming to ignore obvious intentions. In the same vein of: "if I knew it was a problem, I would have fixed it right away," though we can intuit quite a bit the longer we're at the table, our human nature begs us to err. We miss things, we get caught up in the narrative, and we lose sight of players. I am imperfect, as are we all, so open communication helps everyone. Also, GMs, CHECK IN WITH YOUR PLAYERS MORE. I picked this up as a requirement when I started Gray Owls and OH MY GOODNESS is it an essential element at every table. I don't know how it took me that long to put in my workflow OMG.
Moving forward, with each new campaign, I've started to put together a few questions for character creation; some fulfill the essential detail of world building, while others touch on player intentions - what do they want to get out of this experience?
1. Where was your character born? Describe it as best you can; do you reflect on this place positively or negatively? Would you ever want to return? Why? Do you have a family there? How did they treat you? Were there any important people in your life growing up? Why did you leave?
2. What is your character's goal in life; what do you seek? When did you "grow up" and start taking care of yourself?
3. What emotion best describes your character? What emotion do you bring out in others?
4. How do you carry yourself? What are your means/dress/attitude as you move through life? What do find valuable?
5. What is your comfort zone? What is your greatest fear? Personal tastes, quirks, and opinions?
6. Player: What kind of story do you see your character fitting into? What role do you see them filling?
7. Player: Please weigh (3 being most important to you, 1 being least important) the Three Pillars - Combat/Social/Exploration
8. Player: How do you interpret your play style? What are your pet peeves? What do you respond well to?
9. Player: How do you want your character to die? (this is more important than you think; it strikes at the heart of our own values - your story could end abruptly, and if it did, how would they meet that end do you think?)
10. Player: Do you want your background details to be referenced or hooked into the story? You can always change your mind - just let me know.
Now, especially number 10 I can see a few of my fellow GMs hemming and hawing over. "You mean we have to bend over backwards to make this character's weird backstory fit into OUR GRAND NARRATIVE??? How dare they assume they'd be so important - they should be happy just to be playing!" ...Hmm.
This is a group game, and it's really important that everyone understands the type of experience they're getting into. Clear expectations are a good thing; Trust and Empathy are two main factors to building a great table of play. Now, do I have to make that character's stuff the most important element all the time? No. Absolutely not. But I can give them sprinkles of content more directly spun into the story. It won't happen all the time, and sometimes it might not even come up, but IF I KNOW going into this that there is a clear desire to wrap up a specific story thread, I can find more ORGANIC ways to weave and tie these disparate threads together. It might even be a limiter of location; hints of the conflict in the north (echoes of another character's story), but we don't need to go there now. It's just a sprinkle.
Everyone's connected to something. Everyone's from somewhere. We don't know everything going in; the mystery is the fun part, and some players want their mystery. Others don't care for it; I need to know which one you are.
Players Learn Too, And Comfort Tells Stories
And when they do, their real play styles come out. It's amazing what comfort will do for the table, and how much it reveals what a comfortable player actually WANTS to play, and if that concept doesn't jive with how their current class works, there will undoubtedly be a desire to play something different.
The more this group learned about how the game works, the more effective they became, but also the more some of them drifted toward other builds, concepts, and ideas. This type of momentum is helpful to notice; in a way, it reveals a player's true nature. Like the first campaign was our test run. The next one is where we're going to really shine; players and DM alike. We take what we learned about the game, ourselves, our styles, and how to advocate for the experience we want...and finally, just PLAY.
See you at the table.
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I'm having trouble walking at the moment. My whole body hurts. I am currently lying on my back, pondering all the ways in which I have destroyed myself. A beautiful boulder rests upon every fiber of my being, like some stone slab cut perfectly Looney-Tunes style into the shape of my prone body. I am sore, bruised, and broken.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Motivation is something so many of us struggle with, and so many give up just when we start to reap the benefits. A lot people think it comes down to convenience, but I think it more specifically defined to a lack of resistance. We bring it up a lot in this blog and our podcast as a State of Flow in gaming, but flow can be achieved and maintained in all facets of our lives. The key here is building in that lack of resistance.
We recently opened a gym in addition to other things we offer through my business at large, not just my Game On! stuff, and the impact is palpable. I can now schedule my workout days around my work at the center, and already I can feel the shift in what has become possible for my training, my health, and my mental focus. But with those gains, I can already feel the familiar pull away from it all.
We all get it sometimes. The nagging, lazy bit of ourselves that manifests when we start making the most progress toward leaving it behind. It is the tiny voice that tells us we'll never get there, the one that complains in the middle of your chest press, that hammers your legs with doubt, and that seeps pride into your skin so you avoid safety in favor of stubbornness.
This is not something that is given to you after a week of work. Hell, you won't get it after a month, or maybe even a year. Great progress will be made in this time, but it is not the result. We will be shrouded in tiny victories; threads of hope bound together each day to form an unbreakable cord of resolve and perseverance.
Everything that I am and could be has been a product of my own choices. I am not the victim of my own circumstance and I prove this every day that I rise from sleep and seek the greatest version of myself, and it is with this knowledge that I take hold of the tethers of my own destiny...and pull. And I do this with the full knowledge that I am tearing down what I once was - the habits formed, the mistakes made, the lessons unlearned, and all the ugly bits. This will be painful, and I accept this pain, for I will rise from it, building as I go. I will sift through my own rubble, deciding what to keep and what burns.
This is going to suck. And here are some practical ways - mechanical habits, devoid of motivation, but full of functionality - that I'm going to do it.
Rest Times and Rest Days
Only key in on one rest day, never two in a row. That's mine anyway.
This past week looked like this:
Monday - Gym after work - Chest and Legs
Tuesday - Rest Day 1
Wednesday - Gym before work - Back and Arms
Thursday - Rest Day 2
Friday - Home workout - Bodyweight Blitz
Saturday - Kickboxing, Karate, then Gym - Arms and Shoulders
Sunday - Home workout - Bodyweight and Cardio
This sort of works, but I'd like my Rest Days to be Thursdays and Sundays, instead opting for Tuesday as another "gym rat" day. I think I'll get a better spread, and I'm working out consistently at 5x a week while avoiding a two-day rest period where I can fall into a slump. DISCIPLINE is key here to build the better habit.
But DURING workouts, I find my biggest time suck is in resting. My home gym workouts would take far too long due in no small part to the amount of time I was carelessly resting between sets. In the gym, the focus is different. I have taken the time out of my day to go to a space that is not my home to use equipment that isn't mine in order to build my best self. There's an onus there. Other people are here to do the same thing, so I'm not going to waste my time or theirs; the pressure's on.
So, I give 20-30 seconds between sets - sometimes I even count out loud, especially if I pushed hard enough to shatter my own metacognition. It keeps me moving. Instead of workouts taking 3 hours, I've knocked them down to 90 minutes for the same benefit. Employing my next element, I've got 'em down to under that.
Supersets, "Triplesets," and Circuits
Sometimes I get bored. Sometimes I get distracted. Sometimes I have a lot of workouts to get through and I feel pressed for time. So I double them up.
Single, focused sets are good. Great, even, and certainly have their place. But I'm always one to use Supersets and Triplesets to keep me moving and motivated on those days I have difficulty focusing.
A Superset is when you take one exercise, perform one set of it, then immediately perform another set of another exercise without resting between. For me, this practice serves two functions: 1) It's more efficient, and 2) for muscle growth and dynamic fatigue, it's amazing. Instead of just extending an exercise, or performing another set on the same exercise, I'm still working but the muscle groups are different enough that the grouping of the previous exercise "rests" while another works. That aspect of rest isn't actually true, mind you, but the difference in movement is the point here. I do my 20-30 second rest after completing the second exercise.
And if a Superset is effective, then a Tripleset must be awesome, right? Well, yeah, but we can also call that a Circuit. A circuit is a set of 3 or more exercises performed one after the other, then resting. I use Circuits to keep me moving (efficiency) and to pump (reach hypertrophy) faster, while maintaining strength training. It also lets me check off more exercises in my book in bigger, more satisfying chunks. :)
One More Rep...
Yes, the name of this week's blog is Embrace The Suck. And I mean it. Embrace it.
Accept that this is going to be uncomfortable. Anything worth it will reach a point of discomfort. This is mine.
There will be days that I will crave the things I don't need. Days I don't want to work out. Days I want to lay in bed and avoid the challenges my life will bring. And those days will SUCK.
But those days won't stop me. Because I know they're coming (a few have happened already, and I've crushed them). I know the feeling of doing pushups and your body lazily prodding you with "you don't need to do any more, that's enough," and the feeling of pushing through that to get one more rep. I know the feeling of pushing to failure, even when one more rep feels like miles away, and you have to fight against your own doubt and pride and hunger just to push through.
But I will. And it's going to suck. This is going to hurt. This is going to challenge every fiber of me. But I will become stronger; I will become better. And it will be that one more rep that is the difference between raw willpower and falling off this wagon. And to the latter: I REFUSE.
BEAST MODE ENGAGED.
I'll see you at the gym.
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Recently I had the honor to play in a new event type we're offering at the center: Modular Madness.
Now, witty title aside, the event structure is certainly no One-Shot scenario (though we did have a character death in the first combat - curse those Nat 20's), and not as grand long-form as a Knight Owls or Gray Owls. What it is is a set of 4-6 sessions planned over roughly 4-6 months. We meet and play for approximately six hours each sitting with 2-3 breaks between the action. We do this to experience and play through an actual module inside the given game system.
This time around? We're playing Dragon Heist.
Run by John, with a strict party of 6 adventurers at maximum, and no clue of each other's complete intentions, we muddled our way through chapter 1 of the adventure at our first session about a week ago. IT WAS A BLAST AND A HALF, and I've done some thinking on the experience.
I play a Yuan-Ti Wizard named Soren Finranda. He's a little creepy, keeps to himself, but is generous and cunning when he needs to be. Now, I've played wizards before, but I wanted to take a specific approach when it came to Soren.
This Yuan-Ti is not strong, nor is he dextrous in any way. My Constitution gives me +1 HP per level, and with 6+1 HP at first level...yeah, I have 7 hit points walking into this. With no armor and barely a dagger to my name, I have no business being a damage dealer. And, dare I say, until higher levels, nor does ANY WIZARD, and here's why.
Soren's spells are not built for dealing damage. Sure, the Yuan-Ti race feature gives him Poison Spray, and he grabbed Toll The Dead like a boss, but the rest is rounded out with Mold Earth and Minor Illusion. Yes, I skipped Prestidigitation this time. All of his level 1 spells? Grease, Shield, Sleep, Silent Image, Unseen Servant, Magic Missile.
Soren's whole schtick is to wait and plan, and in a system where I often play Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Monk, Sorlock...this was old school D&D. There's a rite of passage that follows the low-level wizard; the knowledge that all it takes is one errant arrow and a failed saving throw versus halitosis and BAM you're dead. You have to be careful, smart, and save your VERY limited spell slots for the most opportune moment.
And Arcane Recovery... Well, Arcane Recovery at level 1 allows you to "recover" one level 1 spell slot (1/2 of the two you have at the get-go) during a Short Rest. Over the course of chapter 1, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, so no long rests, meaning all I've got is one Arcane Recovery to recover ONE SPELL SLOT. Make 'em count, gents.
So I did.
Grease the troll so my melee buddy has advantage, and keep my distance. Arcane Recovery. Sleep the ambushing archers because they're close together and I rolled high on the 5d8 Hit Point pool (I'll at least drop one of them). One slot down. Summon Silent Image to confuse the heck out of a major foe and SKIP that combat altogether. By now, I'm tapped out. Just cantrips to go on. Use Minor Illusion to cover the mishaps of my allies and divert attention - fail a stealth check and nearly die from one arrow to the chest - then Poison Spray for max damage because why not?
I had to be quiet, careful, and cunning. Especially with average damage working out the way it does, and with a module setting with a high emphasis on laws, stealth, and cloak and dagger, my job is better served as a controller, not a blaster.
The Most Expansive Spell List
The wizard spell list is extensive. The biggest one in the game. And though there are some spells that we'll never get (lookin' at you, Eldritch Blast), what we do get can alter time and space. It's hard to argue with a well-placed Fireball, but I beg you to consider the less obvious options. Options like Charm Person - which can end a combat if you're on point, later following the Dominate Person and Dominate Monster train; Detect Magic and Identify keep you knowledgable of the arcana that surrounds you (not to mention spell traps around your allies); Disguise Self; Feather Fall has saved many lives in MANY campaigns; Flaming Sphere coupled with Pyrotechnics (flaming marble madness in a smoke cloud of chaos); Suggestion, to really drive a point home.
And most of those I just listed are lower leveled spells, so you'll have more opportunities to use them. An expanded spell list offers you options, and each spell has a reason to exist; I urge you to collect as many spells as you can into your spell book and entertain the option of each - play through the mental landscape of its use, usefulness, and level of control on the social, exploration, or combat fields. The rest is up to how patient you are with your tactics and how creative you can be with its use (but always have a backup plan ready in case it goes sideways).
You have the resources to be smart, and a wizard is a great class to practice playing smart.
The first time I played in 5th Edition I chose a wizard, and picked as many damage-oriented evocations as possible. Through playing, however, I began to understand more of the game's mechanics; not only my own, but how other players and enemies navigated all the pillars of play...and how magic can infiltrate, manipulate, augment, and dilute these mechanics.
And after 2 and a half years of teaching the game, talking the game, designing the game, plus over 10 years in other systems... I get it. My knowledge of how the game works, action economy, and how each spell functions makes me finally work like a wizard. Knowledge is power.
I understand how powerful prone is, so Grease is obvious. Silent Image is confusing and powerful to less inquisitive creatures, so of course I have it. As AC continues to rise, and I don't want to be seen as a combatant, then spells like Toll The Dead and Poison Spray, that require saves, are very advantageous early on...and will continue to be as I try to be secretive. On top of this, as my options continue to increase (the most expansive list in the game), I can continually adjust my focus each long rest, making me extremely flexible day to day.
Returning to the wizard allows me superstar moments. Time to wait, watch, and listen...then throw out a clutch spell that's going to change the landscape of the encounter. I have the power to alter time and space; you can bet your butt I'm going to wield that power with Intelligence to maximize its effectiveness, no matter what.
Knowledge is power.
See you at the table.
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Every Game Master has their fair share of custom content and home-brew incorporation. We add a mundane item here, a magic item there, pull from previous editions, or adapt from other mediums. Hell, maybe we'll change the setting altogether; flip the script and play in the whimsical alternate dimension of: Milwaukee.
Whatever the case, each Game Master has their own house rules and a whole bevy of alternative items, mechanics, and elements ready to be created, discovered, and reinforced by their players...
So I thought I'd talk about mine.
The Timeline Of Io's Seven Ages
My setting of Io enjoys seven distinct settings, or Ages, in its interwoven timeline. I did this originally to be able to offer an abundant mix of games inside the same system but with a progressive timeline. What this created was a beast of internal consistency, where the actions of a party of adventurers on Tuesday could potentially affect the world experienced on Wednesdays, and the actions of the Knight Owls could have echoes in the Gray Owls campaign. I was careful to allow a large enough passage of time to avoid any weirdness, but the extra-meta knowledge of players in multiple campaigns has been pretty cool.
What it's also done is allowed me to create a literal progression of industry from age to age, unlocking special race, class, and item options setting to setting - all of which have lore and reasoning implications. ...Like how the heck Illithids (literal Mind Flayers) became a playable race in the 6th age of Io-Firma (the Gray Owls setting). So here's a quick overview of how each Age functions and what type of setting it offers.
The NEXUS: where all creation began - the world and its gods came into being in the Nexus, where the raw energy found in its core flowed through the planet and forged the elemental forces. Many believe it still exists to this day, somewhere far beyond the planar circle yet intimately close - like a door waiting to be opened. The details of its location have been lost to antiquity, a single remnant referred to only as The Song Of The Ancients.
Io-Temm: The Worldshaping - The first age of Io, where the Seven Wings birthed the now known pantheon and their inevitable war that shaped the main continent of Erena, the disparate islands of Abaddon, and the kingdoms beyond the Aether.
Io-Sooth: Mortal's Edge - Classic D&D fantasy setting; the second age entertains the birth of the mortal races, created by the first known pantheon. Tiamat and Bahamut - Dragonborn; Pelor - Humans; Morahdin - Dwarves; Corellon - Elves; you get the idea...
Io-Ren: Balance and Ruin - The flames of industry have begun to burn and the mortal races try to harness the power of the gods, ushering in an age of demigods, exploration, and tempting fate. Campaigns: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Knight Owls Season 1
Io-Shar: The Broken Seas - After a cataclysmic event involving an ancient being ripping a hole in the plane of Water, the world has flooded and expanded into an age of naval piracy, massive sea creatures, and temporal storms. Campaigns: Wednesdays, Knight Owls Season 2, Knight Owls Season 3.
Io-Empyr: Cloudsinger - After a sky pirate and his merry band pierced the Veil Of Heaven, cities rose into the sky, forming Clusters of new nations and expanding the world further. Steampunk airships, sky pirates, and tears in the threads of the Feywild and Shadowfell summon a whole new caste of creatures and entities that threaten to take the sky for their own. Campaigns: Cloudsinger (YouTube)
Io-Firma: The Reclamation - Magic is broken. A Prime God is dead. The world is dark and deadly and cold. Shattered psions, enlightened gnolls, ancient detectives, hired guns, and mature themes, this is not an age of heroes. No, this world is just a tad...gray. Campaigns: Gray Owls (21+)
Io-Nixx: The Sundering - Not much is known of this age, as only one adventuring party has caught a glimpse of it. It is a battle; constant and enormous, where literal gods clash in the skies. It may even mark the end of the world as we know it.
So, depending on the age, we can assume that certain gear is available as industry increases. Sooth and Ren are pretty similar, but Ren's adventurers begin to discover the powerful Legacy Weapons from Temm (the first age), tapping into the power of the gods before the turn of the age. Cataclysm changes things in Shar, and the world adapts; ships, naval warfare, cannons, spell cannons, automated ships, subs - Outlaw Star style ship combat. Empire allows more steampunk gunslinging, taking the naval concepts to the air at the peak of an industrial revolution. Then Firma comes along and everything breaks, and it breaks hard; whole classes are gone, or changed dramatically; races disappear, others resurface with new abilities, and no one truly knows how the world works anymore - with magic mostly illegal for the lower class, now we've got to find other ways to get it (drugs, I'm talking about magic drugs).
So without going into too much detail with the various Ages, the following are *mostly* available in all of my games.
I like to employ all that the Player's Handbook has to offer for 5E, but sometimes I draw some extra inspiration from my Pathfinder days (extensive weapon lists), and add on a little extra blades for good measure. None of these are Masterwork (so no +1's, or cutting through resistances), but there might be some other cool perks. I've always been a fan of incorporating more martial arts weaponry (given my own background), and like utilizing die steps to help illustrate a power increase. Also-also, not everything is available at every shop. These custom mundane items, along with other items, might fluctuate depending on supply, demand, harvest, and other such factors age to age. Again, lore and reasoning for the world. The mass production of Duskweave in the third age led to a near extinction of the Displacer Beast packs, and no one's heard of a Pack Lord in eons. Whoops.
Claymore - adapted greatsword; 2d8 Slashing - Two-Handed, Heavy
Katana - adapted longsword; 1d8/1d10 Slashing - Versatile, Finesse, Monk
Wakizashi - reskinned Scimiar; 1d6 Slashing - Finesse, Monk, Light
Chain Maul - 2d6 bludgeoning - reach, thrown, grapple from 10 feet
Chakram - 1d6 slashing - thrown (10/30)
Gauntlet Blade, Retractable - 1d8 slashing - 4 lbs. - concealed, retractable (Shar+)
Monolith - 1d12/2d6 slashing - Versatile
Naginata - 1d8 slashing - reach, heavy, two-handed, brace
Tonfa - 1d6 bludgeoning - AC +1, Light, Monk
Sai - 1d4 bludgeoning - Light, Monk, Disarm on critical
Nunchaku - 1d6 bludgeoning - Light, Monk, x3 on critical
Plated Robes (not armor) - AC = 11 + Dex Modifier
Duskweave Leather - AC = 13 + Dex Modifier, Light Armor
Ironwood Scale Mail - AC = 14 + Dex Modifier (max 2) - Disadvantage Stealth - 35 lbs.
Elderwood Scale Mail - AC = 15 + Dex Modifier (max 2), Medium Armor
Ballistic Duskweave Doublet - AC = 14 + Dex Modifier, Medium Armor
Dragon Plate (specific materials required - AC = 18 w/resistance to the element associated with the dragon scales used
SHIELDS (I treat shields as weapons. Direct reference to my Pathfinder sword and boarding, so there you go)
Buckler - 5 gp - AC +1 - 3 lbs.
Constructivist Shield - 65 gp - AC +1 - 4 lbs. - Can be used as a reaction to raise your AC. Does not occupy a hand.
Round Shield, Light - 15 gp - AC +2 - 6 lbs. - Bash 1d4
Round Shield, Heavy - 30 gp - AC +2 - 10 lbs. - Bash 1d6
Tower Shield - 100 gp - AC +3 - STR 17 required - Disadvantage Stealth - 20 lbs. - Bash 1d8
Duskweave = made from Displacer Beast pelts, and thus has a smoky dispersal that shifts and moves as the armor moves.
Magic Items and Ammunition
Now, many of these additions are lifted from my Knight Owls Armory, but if you don't normally venture over there, you'd never see them. So here they are anyway for your consideration.
Charged Arrow - 150 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals 1d6 lightning damage and is consumed upon impact.
Boltslinger Arrow - 650 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow creates a 5 foot wide lightning bolt in its path to the target. All creatures caught in the bolt's path must make a DC 10 Dexterity save for half damage, or take 6d6 lightning damage. The arrow is consumed upon impact.
Bonebreaker Arrows (bundle of 10) - 50 gp - deals bludgeoning damage in place of piercing.
Burst Arrow - 500 gp - when fired, this arrow splits into 4 separate arrows; the user must make an attack roll for each arrow. These arrows crumble to dust after impact.
Divine Arrow - 150 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals 1d6 radiant damage and is consumed upon impact.
Flesh-Hunter Arrow - 200 gp - adds +4 to the attack roll. (when you REALLY need to hit that dragon)
Frost Fling - 500 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 2d10 cold damage and is shattered upon impact.
Green Gremlin - 400 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 3d6 poison damage and crumbles shortly after impact.
The Sapphire Chakram - 250 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 2d6 thunder damage and is consumed upon impact.
Immolation Arrow - 600 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow's impact creates a 5-foot radius fireball with the target at its center. All creatures caught in the blast must make a DC 13 Dexterity save for half damage, or take 6d6 fire damage. This arrow is consumed upon impact.
Soothsayer - 2000 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this ancient arrow deals 2d6 force damage and allows you to see through it until it impacts an object or creature.
Topaz Burst - 250 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 2d6 lightning damage and is consumed upon impact.
A good many of the magic items in Io are remnants of the past, but as time marches on, more and more wondrous things become available to the standard market, such as:
Cloak of Shadows - 1000 pp - an adapted Cloak of Elvenkind that grants the wearer advantage on Stealth checks and imposes disadvantage on creatures trying to perceive you. Also, when moving after sunset, roll a set of percentile dice. On a 75 or higher, the shadows wrap around you, granting you Invisibility until you make an attack, cast a spell, or meet direct sunlight.
Ring of Animal Influence - 5100 gp - this ring has 3 charges, and it regains 1d3 expended charges daily at dawn. While wearing this ring, you can use an action to expend 1 of its charges to cast one of the following spells: Animal Friendship (save DC 13); Fear (save DC 13), targeting only beasts that have an intelligence of 3 or lower; Speak with Animals.
Ring of Bravery (Attunement) - 2000 gp - wearing this ring grants you Advantage when saving against becoming Frightened.
Ring of Enlargement (Attunement) - 5500 gp - by turning the tiny, clicking inner track of this ring, you increase your size category by 1 for 1 minute. This ring can only be used once per Long Rest.
Ring of Protection (Attunement) - 6000 gp - You gain a +1 bonus to AC and Saving Throws while wearing this ring.
Ring of Spell Storing, Minor (Attunement) - 3750 gp - this ring stores spells cast into it, holding them until the wearer uses them. This ring, when delivered to you, arrives empty. It can fit 3 levels of spell power at once.
Alchemy and Herbalism
Alchemy and Herbalism, especially as it pertains to potion making as a pursuit, has really come to fruition in Io-Shar, where my industry-heavy players reside. They crave that personal control of their universe, and I LOVE IT.
So, potion-making in Io borrows from Skyrim, The Witcher, and my own head, as well as a blend of other home-brew resources dotting the landscape of Reddit, DM's Guild, and the Open-Gaming License. All that being said, let's run it down a bit.
Quick Brewing Overview
In Io, there are a large number of known ingredients that create specific effects in the brewing process, while others might augment or dilute others. Bloodgrass, for example, can be used to add an additional 1d4 to the healing amount for a healing potion you are brewing, but Rubygrass (grown in the Feywild), will actually REMOVE a d4 from the healing (the taste is sharp and difficult to swallow). So we use Herbalism to "enhance" the potion. We call them Enhancements. Some can cancel each other out, while others augment the effects.
Then, there are ingredients that we actually derive the Enchantment from. We treat them as our Core. The intended potion effect. Like using Void Root to brew a Potion of Flying.
Finally, we need a Base. The liquid that we'll be using. Some potions can be brewed in water, while others require Holy Water as their Base, or Salt Water, or Liquor. Specific liquids may also imbue the potion with specific properties.
So, if I want to brew a Healing Potion, I need at least a Base and a Core.
Base: Water. Core: Cherrymoss Extract. Then 3 hours.
If we want, we can mix in some Ground Ephedrana to increase the die step of the healing potion from 2d4 to 2d6. Finish the brew and you've got a "boosted" healing potion that heals 2d6+2 hit points.
And that's one potion. Booyah.
....Experimenting with all of this is going to be A LOT of FUN.
So there's a lot going on, and I haven't even talked about the Prestige Classes or the Legacy Weapons (they're coming, don't worry), but this post has gone on long enough, and hopefully it clears up any confusion from looking at the lists from the Knight Owls armory moving forward. :)
See you at the table.
I was recently invited to sit in and play at a friend's long-running Pathfinder game. Everyone just made it to 14th level, without milestones, so they've been playing for awhile.
A well-established group who have spent enough time through some amazing adventures to achieve a high-level sense of play and a complete lack of resistance for the DM in charge. It's clear the group and their DM have a lot of love for the game, their story, and the individual players and characters.
They ran like a well-oiled machine, with clearly defined roles for the players to help each other out as well as a strong idea of their functionality in combat, AS WELL as a justified means to protect each other and trust each other's abilities and agency when stuff gets real. Remember what I said about that lack of resistance...we'll be swinging back to that.
So I'm coming into this after a long stint of running Pathfinder, then falling headfirst into becoming a professional GM for a company who has helped foster the creative, and soul-driving endeavor of offering unique opportunities for players and game masters to become their best selves through tabletop gaming experiences. I write this blog, publish fiction, make custom content, and record show after show of an online campaign and a kick-ass podcast. NONE OF THIS is to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate that, more often than not, I'm not the player at the table - I'm the one behind the screen managing this chaos.
Which means on those rare occasions where I'm offered an opportunity NOT to do that, I tend to take distinct care to create something functional, fitting, and, for the love of Sauron, to KNOW WHAT I'M DOING. I have a certain calm to my preparation nowadays, and in Pathfinder you've got to know (or at least have the reference ready) what your stuff does to keep things moving and ask the right questions to clarify. I had the honor of working with the DM beforehand, hashing out a backstory that fits inside the awesome steampunk 1840's Yukon Gold Rush with subtle magic elements and a weird freaking train, then set to work chaining feats and working the numbers to stay competitive with this established crew. Not everyone knew I'd be coming, so I didn't want to bog anything down, nor arrive with no concept of my character (NEVER ARRIVE without your character already done. I mean it. If you are familiar with the system, there is no excuse. Do your damn homework).
So, life runs a little later than intended and I roll in a bit late with food and drinks as penance, say my hellos and mark my place. I like to be compact; character sheet and all accompanying abilities/spells/etc on a clipboard, selected dice in my rolling box, pencils at the ready, and spare paper in the clipboard. I even came with a coaster for my caffeine, just in case! The session begins shortly, and the team as is has some planning to do, so while they converse in character directly next to me, I turn toward our DM and we work through some short interactions to set up my individual plan and then... I wait.
And I loved it. True, every now and then there might have been a quick interaction where I could investigate something, look around, listen (I was being smuggled in a coffin surrounded by a den of vampires, by the way), but until actual combat began - I needed to literally wait. It was splendid.
I got to watch these people work. The few I knew in the party came over to check on me, apologizing that it was "taking so long," but if it was, I didn't notice. It was an honor just to watch, adding to the scene with my silence, with subtle actions here and there. No one knew what I was; I didn't announce any of my character or my mechanics when I arrived - they weren't sure if I'd be friend, foe, or something more, only that I was playing...at some point. And no one asked; not out of ignorance, or dismissal, but out of respect. I'd like to believe that they, too, understood what I was reveling in.
I was enjoying the subtle power of Silence.
Space To Listen - Space To Exist
Actively listening to the players, the party, and the game master.
This is a skill, and often I feel we forget it. We replace it with a need to be heard constantly, eager to be listened to rather than to allow others a similar space. By literally shutting our mouths and opening our ears, we begin to engage with the world around us in new and dynamic ways. I was ENTHRALLED by the antics of this party, and though I think that was in no small part due to their own nature, I'd like to entertain that my own active listening helped just a tad in holding my attention. I was consistently fully engaged in everything that WASN'T my turn, and I was remarkably happy to, well, WAIT.
Space where I wasn't flapping my jaws also allowed my active brain to shut up for a second, and just exist for a time. Errant thoughts - like looking up a feat, making sure that random mechanic worked the way I thought it did, checking my numbers quickly - can still occur, and I can quietly take care of them without interrupting flow (what a concept), but for most of that preamble, I am 100% engaged with everyone's story that IS NOT MY OWN. I am excited and energized by their cool powers, interesting ideas, and role-playing. It gave me a moment to read the room, and to appreciate the beautiful world that the DM had made with these players - take note of the great care with which they've crafted this experience, and sit in awe of seeing it all work, like controlled chaos.
Space To Reveal - At The Opportune Moment
Wait for your mechanics to shine before they are revealed.
This one I have to be careful with, because rules are important. The GM needs to know that you are not taking advantage of something/cheating/fudging your numbers/etc; trust is important, so the GM needs to know what you are and what you can do, and you MUST make sure that everything you can do is well within the rules you are operating with.
IF you are fulfilling this already, here's a suggestion: try NOT telling everyone about what your character can do right away. Create nuance and mystery by NOT showing them your character sheet right away, so when you get an opportunity to show what you CAN do, the beat hits harder. Case in point:
Combat begins shortly after I hop out of a coffin and dust a vampire, catching the sniper rifle it was holding and loading it as a Free Action (hint, hint). We roll Initiative. The highest player is at 24...except me. I rolled a 33. 19+14. ...I will revel the look of awe at that table, just in a small way. Mechanically, it's all kosher. Dexterity is a 22 (+6). Inquisitor gives me my Wisdom modifier on top of Dex (another +5) for Initiative, Gunslinger Initiative +2 (HINT), and a trait at character creation that grants a +1 (6+5+2+1 = +14).
That's one small element, and a neat little moment. My turn rolls around, and I use Deadly Aim to take a full round of 4 shots (reloading for free), with a prayer of Judgment (attacks are now magical) with +16 damage on every hit, and +22 to hit most shots - to strike down a vampire that just got slammed by the barbarian in a surprise round for nearly 160 damage...which was heavily reduced by resistances...then he got my blessed bullets and took full damage.
Yeah. I'm a holy Gunslinger Inquisitor with a southern drawl and fantasy-themed bible verses. Take into account that I still work all of my mechanics in my own voice, that's a fun reveal in the first round of combat, and it helped establish my own schtick early on. Plus, EVERYONE at the table is now experiencing this character at the same time as their own characters - I didn't talk up his personality or his voice or his abilities beforehand. Add on that I spent some Grit (special skill points that create cool trick shots and targeting) to alter the battlefield and provide utility to the group, and it's pretty cool.
The best part? They haven't seen everything I can do yet. And they won't, unless the opportunity presents itself. There's no reason for me to brag about the cool things I can do. It's so much more fun to use them when the time is right.
There's a big difference between telling everyone all the cool spells you can do, and SHOWING everyone the awesome spells you can do at the best time. The impact of the latter is so much greater, and it creates something beautiful and refined from a cooperative story experience. Try it out, I dare you.
Giving Way - To Think, To Breathe, To Be
While I was in Bermuda, my friend Jesse and I went wandering. We witnessed a curious thing: they have a specific sign on the roads. A familiar white, upside-down triangle with a red border and black lettering. What we would immediately recognize as a Yield sign, instead read the words: "Give Way." Together, we were pleased to see this. Jesse was pleased because it changed the language to allow people to think of someone other than themselves while driving, but bringing the fact home, my podcast partner in crime, John, swung it a bit further. When you Give Way to someone, you're not actually giving up anything. Instead, you are "Gifting" space for another.
When we practice silence, we gift space to another to fill, or we can choose to not fill such space. Quiet moments do not HAVE to be filled with noise, or speech, or music. I like to think sometimes that in gifting my silence to another, I might have given them a sense of peace and quiet in a world inundated by distraction and stimulus; so loud and uncaring that we feel we must speak constantly lest we be drowned out by the void. But you don't have to. I give you space. Try filling it with BREATH instead of words; you'll be surprised what you discover.
You ever feel like you're the only one speaking? Try stopping for a moment and assessing the room. Spotlight is important, sure, but high-level play comes from everyone's willingness to share that spotlight. Being aware of our personal time, our character's spotlight, how much time that uses, how our role-play may miscommunicate because we're bored, and thousands of other miscommunications because we don't feel like becoming engaged in the stories of others. A party that hasn't already experienced a lot of adventuring together (like, years of it) can feel pretty delicate.
Our silence, coupled with active listening, can help communicate an absolute respect for a person's story, but this is a two-way road. Kind and patient people can use up that empathy on a person that fails to notice their own spotlight hogging over and over again. Try this little thought experiment: on a group chat, if the majority of the last 10 minutes of posts is you...STOP. Give someone else some space to speak. At a table, if the last 45 minutes have been your character's scene, try to find a way to wrap it up. Once in a while is fine - but all the time is obnoxious. That's tabletop 101, gents.
The Well-Oiled Machine
This group flows.
Not one moment came up where the DM had to hush the players, or argue a point, or fight to get something across. Everyone at the table was absolutely engaged with the stories of each other, mine included (thanks, guys and gals). We got up, wandered the room, had in-character conversations throughout the house, all within the world, and the DM was aware of all of it. It is abundantly clear the level of play that this group enjoys; they adore the world that has been constructed for them, and it is a joy to play within it. They respect each other's time with immaculate care and fun, and we were happy to play until the wee hours of the morning (I barely noticed).
Now, part of this is a product of the extensive amount of work that each of them has put into their character's mechanics, and for the fact that they've got a literal human encyclopedia at the ready in the form of the host (thanks, buddy), but those are the roles they've established over years of play, and they are clearly dedicated to this cooperative campfire story. Even if I didn't have years of experience in Pathfinder, as long as I didn't behave like an obnoxious jerk, I'm certain I still would have had a blast with these people.
If I ever get invited back, it would still be my honor to wait quietly for my turn. ;)
See you at the table.
Those of you within our closer circles have already seen, or heard of, the exploits of my Pathfinder character, Bigby. His story has been driven into the hearts and minds of all he graces with his crotchety presence, and many have been saved (or horribly killed) by his hand. And though playing Bigby was A LOT of fun, there were pitfalls in my approach to him, at least mechanically speaking... So let's take a look.
I wanted to make an old, grizzled, crotchety fighter well into his 60's...that can still swing an axe and battle monsters that would make his ancestors shake in their armor. He's a little forgetful, but he means well, and he gets frustrated when things get too complicated. Not one for political moves or cloak and dagger, Bigby deals with his problems directly and decisively, and holds little stomach for cowards. His backstory is pretty tragic in connection to his many sons and estranged wife, his entire destiny tasked to wreak vengeance upon the warlords, gangs, and circumstances that took each of his sons from him. And this doesn't do much to help his own mental state, as sometimes he sees the ghosts of his sons following him through life, but also guiding. He doesn't feel guilt for their deaths, almost at peace with the idea that they cannot rest until he fulfills vengeance for each, and they grant him the fortitude to soldier on.
That's some heavy and sad stuff... So I tried to make him the buffest of buff old men.
Tearing Into The Mechanics - My First Optimization
I've gone in depth a bit HERE, when I gush about my love of Pathfinder and its numbers, and give a little heads up as to the plan of Bigby's build. BUT, it's worth noting that ANYONE can build this character. There's no homebrew here; everything he has is within published, canonical materials inside the Pathfinder D20 system.
So, CORE CONCEPT - Grizzled FIGHTER, adept at close combat, hard to hit, hard to kill; literal tank of the party.
Gotcha. So, in order to fully benefit from all the things the system has to offer when it comes to combat, I have to be a Fighter. The Fighter class has persisted in D&D and all of its variants as an industry standard. Often viewed as a "simple" or straight-forward class, the Fighter is considered a master of martial combat, proficient in just about everything (except Exotic Weapons, in this case), and wearing any armor they can get under the sun. This can make them unbound when it comes to equipment, but also equipment dependent in order to keep up with casters and other variants.
The main benefit of the Fighter in PATHFINDER however is their ability to Feat Chain.
I once did a video on this exact concept, but looking at it from a negative managerial point of view when comparing how Pathfinder handles Feats as opposed to 5th Edition D&D. Upon revisiting Pathfinder in the last year and a half, I've come to appreciate the huge amount of thought and mechanical considerations of the extensive Feat list in the game. It really makes it so incredible things are possible mechanically.
Fighters can "feat chain" because of a blend of two main mechanics. As Feats are essential to making a functional character, EVERY character (regardless of class or multiclassing) gains a Feat every odd total level (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th...you get the idea). A FIGHTER gains a Bonus Feat at level 1 in the class, then every EVEN level in the class (so 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th...you got it). Therefore, if you're following here, as long as you stay straight Fighter and do not multiclass, you are effectively gaining one Feat EVERY LEVEL, and TWO Feats at level 1 (when most others get one). Add in the fact that a Human gains an ADDITIONAL bonus feat at level 1...and we've got it made early and often.
Let's RECAP. Bigby, at level 1, is a Human Fighter, so he starts the game with 3 Feats of his choice (it should be noted that the bonus feats from the Fighter must be classified as Combat Feats [there are different categories], but there's no reason for us NOT to take a Combat Feat when considering our plan here).
Level 1 Choices
Concept Path - Human Fighter, 3 Feats to start, good golly
How do I want to fight? Well, armor is awesome, and I want to get the best bang for my buck with any gear I'm using, and hit hard and often. Great offense with great defense? Of course. Sword and Board.
This choice immediately puts me at a combat disadvantage without Feats. If I want to slice and bash, I am now engaging in Two-Weapon Fighting, and in so doing suffer HUGE penalties to my attack rolls (a whopping -6 on your primary attack and -10 on your off-hand attack). These penalties drop a little if the off-hand is a light weapon, but I don't want that (it's my shield. Not gonna' happen). Penalties like this make sense, though. Any schmuck can pick up two weapons and swing them around, but they're not TRAINED in it, so they won't be as consistently effective. This is how Pathfinder uses numbers to represent this lack of training.
Which means, I need to lower that initial penalty. Feat #1 is easily Two-Weapon Fighting, which drops my initial fighting penalty to an even -4 for my primary and -4 for my off-hand. With a great starting Strength score of 20 and modifier of +5 to add to my attack rolls, I'm doing okay so far (+5 modifier to both attacks, after math = +1/+1).
Now we add in the fact that every class benefits from a mechanic called the Base Attack Bonus (or BAB) - a general numerical bonus to each of your attack rolls (not unlike the general Proficiency Bonus from 5th edition). In a martial class, your BAB often matches your class level, but for more varied classes, it progresses a little slower. Bigby is a Fighter, so his BAB equals his Fighter level easy, adding another +1 to each attack in his two-weapon fighting (+2/+2).
So, Feat #2? Improved Shield Bash. Normally, if one were to bash with their shield, they would lose the bonus to AC (Armor Class) that the shield provides in the round following the turn that they bashed; justification being that you're too busy crushing a dude's nose with the shield to use it to defend against oncoming attacks. Improved Shield Bash allows me to bash...and keep my AC bonus. Also, less thinking for me.
Feat #3 - Double Slice. This feat allows me to add my Strength modifier to the damage roll with my off-hand (where normally I would not be allowed to...so yeah, less floating numbers for me. Nice and streamlined.)
RECAP: Attack twice each round with a +2 to each attack, keep my AC bonus when I do so, and add my strength modifier (+5!) to both attacks. With a d10 for his Hit Points, and high Con score (17, so +3 HP), Bigby's pretty beefy so far.
Fast-Forward to Level 6
Bigby's seen some things, and taken only a few hits along the way. Most of the damage dealt to the party has been dealt to others, because at this point, between Armor Training, a rare set of Warplate, and a Ring of Protection, his AC is 27. That means that most thugs have to pray to hit him with a Natural 20. To top it all off, his hit points are easily triple the other party members (a gaggle of casters, a druid, and a rogue). He's grabbed a good many Feats along the way, each adding to either his attack/damage with a shield, or his AC with a shield. Quick breakdown:
Level 2 - Fighter Bonus Feat: Shield Focus = +1 AC while wielding a shield
Level 3: Two-Weapon Defense = +1 AC while wielding two weapons (shields included in Close Weapons category)
Level 4 - Fighter BF: Missile Shield = longbow or crossbow bolt hits me? Nah, I block it with my shield once per round.
Level 5: Weapon Focus - Shield = +1 Attack roll with Shield
Level 6 - Fighter BF: Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (second off-hand attack, so two shield bashes)**
**It should also be noted that when Fighters (and many other classes) reach Level 6, they can attack twice with their primary hand during a round whenever they take a Full-Attack Action (forfeit all but 5 feet of your movement to attack a lot). The way Bigby functions at this point allows him to wade into the fight, stand mostly still, and wail on enemies (attacking 4 times every round), confident in the idea that they will rarely hit him with their attacks...and if they do, he can take it.
With all of this front-loaded force, battles began to feel pre-ordained. Bigby was an unstoppable truck, even with his weakened Will saves; if he were upended by a spell, his party would back him up, and he'd only grow more angry at the idea that someone attacked his mind. His vengeance would be devastating and decisive.
I started to fall into a trap. I had picked everything I had based all within the realm of the rules in the game. But other than a few mind-affecting spells, Bigby was unkillable at this moment, and I felt myself becoming BORED. I had made a super-adventurer, and we were just over halfway to double digits in character level. What sort of insanity would Bigby be capable of when he reaches level 10, or 13, when I literally run out of applicable feats for the build (Shield Master happens, and by then I'm attacking three times with my shield, and suffering no penalties for it).
My mentality began to pull toward ripping through enemies, and tearing down conflicts with violence, not diplomacy, because that's what I knew to be MOST EFFECTIVE. Maybe it didn't help that the rest of the party had low agency themselves, so the violent old man was driving the story. It got a little frustrating, but we used it as an opportunity to BE FRUSTRATED in character.
But I cannot deny the rush of power in each fight...I just wish things didn't die so easily. Saitama-syndrome aside, a powerful player represents a unique challenge to a DM. He can scale the difficulty to accommodate for a beefy PC, but often at the expense of the more squishy player-characters. One dangerous martial combatant puts the rest of the party at greater risk. It makes sense, but from a group play scenario, it can get a little complicated.
The DM has to make sure that the main threats target the optimized player so as not to paint the picture of punishing the party for a player who just followed the rules, but then that player could feel, well, TARGETED for just playing the game. What really has to occur is a delicate scaling of encounters that affect the party in more dynamic ways. Instead of a big bruiser just becoming a BIGGER BRUISER, use intricate spells and traps to offset a heavy martial character, and provide a counter-balance to the rest of the party. A well-prepared wizard is a dangerous foe, even against the mack truck that is Bigby's build.
Pathfinder especially supports insane play through its mechanical system. Crazy-high numbers at low levels is not unheard of, and the entire system expects optimization and multi-classing as a rule. Playing the game can be exhilarating, satisfying, and massively entertaining...but it IS a LOT to manage, from both a player perspective (in ANY class) and the DM's perspective.
With so much going on, you might think you'd never be bored, but when you're nearly unkillable... You might feel a greater pull toward the more insane levels of shenanigans and odd-ball problem-solving that puts the group at greater risk. They're great stories, win, lose, or draw - but the ensuing madness can become the norm.
So what do we do?
Well, building a trust-empathy relationship with the party and your DM is paramount to having a positive experience regardless, and we (here at Questers' Way) err on the side of rising to the occasion as opposed to diminishing a player's power level (there's an exception to this, when players abuse rules, but this isn't it). If you have a powerful party, well, then you have to grow as a Game Master, and find new tactics, strategy, spells, and other tools to offer greater challenges. It's a push and pull, and you never want to appear cheap (like a monster "suddenly" gaining extra resistances, abilities, etc.), so having a discussion with the group of players is totally welcome and encouraged to help the GM level the playing field.
In the end, we're just creating more epic stories, and one must remember that this is a collaborative experience, not a GM vs. players mentality. An optimized player is not an insult to the game, they're an opportunity to grow.
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.