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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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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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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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.
Hey peeps. I'm not perfect. No player or game master is. But I've had better days, and whenever life kicks me in the head, I tend to go through a cycle of reflection, beat myself up a little (I'm not as harsh as I used to be), then take a look at a few things that I can change to make everything flow just a little better.
Warrior mindset, ya'll. Let's break it down.
A State of Flow
A State of Flow represents a "lack of resistance" from the player and the game master during a session of play. It is achieved when each player is fully invested and focused on the session, and the GM never feels like they're fighting the players. This doesn't mean that the players take a backseat, quite the opposite actually. The players have a strong sense of how their characters operate and what they would do, thus flowing along with the GM, and their constant adjustments to the players, without causing hiccups; whether they be stretching the rules, misinterpretations, not paying attention to descriptions, being unclear on their actions in combat - there are many, many ways to interrupt the State of Flow. However, EVERY game will have these hiccups. What we as players, GMs, and the group as a whole need to do is try to minimize our recovery time to return to that lack of resistance. This way, EVERYONE benefits from cohesive play. Here are some ideas to help achieve that, coded to GMs - Players - or Both.
Setup and Breathe - Both
Everyone is allowed a bad day. It happens. Maybe you're running late - you got hung up at work, you're stuck in traffic, something came up. Maybe you were just in an argument, and it's weighing on you still. Maybe your head's just not in the game yet.
We've all felt this, no matter the cause. However, with 2 hours of play, I want to get into my play-time as soon as possible without carrying external baggage into my little escape from the outside world. I achieve this by entering and setting up, before engaging with the rest of the story, closing my eyes, and taking a few breaths. I let my emotions flow and take the time to reset, effectively opening my mind and body to the game. When I open my eyes, I can imagine that I am in a new state; whatever happened before does not matter NOW. Now, I am focused on telling a group story with my party.
This works for both groups, and in many moments of life. As teachers, many of us need to switch gears from class to class. We cannot allow the upsets or flow of one class to color our teaching of another; each one must be treated like new. So such is each game session; I do not want to bring in other elements from my life into this game - I want to be focused and intent on playing, so I can get the most out of my experience.
It might be strange at first, but I have led some deep breathing exercises or STOPPED A SESSION and made everyone take a deep breath, when I felt the flow becoming an absolute train wreck. I encourage every player and GM to take the time to set themselves up (get their character sheet, dice, organization, everything), close their eyes, and take a deep breath or two before entering the fantasy world. It may be a few extra moments, but it saves a million headaches down the road, and you will get faster at it. So take a breath, and let's go.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Distraction - Both
This one flows directly from above, but it's more personalized. I KNOW that if I have my character sheet on my computer, I am bound to engage in other things (email, correspondence, marketing, BLOGGING), or at least feel the pull to do so during a gaming session. It's the way my mind works; which is why playing in a session is so healthy for me, as it reminds me to slow down and pay attention, instead of just powering through checklists of tasks. Similarly, I try to keep my phone at bay. Sometimes I do need it nearby, but it's flipped over, and it's ALWAYS on silent. I will never, ever pull up a meme on my phone to show to ANYONE during play, because I know if I let myself do that, that I will fall down a slippery slope of distraction.
That's ME. Now, others can be completely engaged and focused while using their phones. However, if you ever find yourself getting distracted, YOU NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT. If you feel yourself being pulled into your phone instead of the game, and it's causing hiccups in your flow and the flow of others, you need to recognize this and put it away. Some people can have their computers out and they know that they'll still be engaged, so I'm not saying "NO ELECTRONICS AT THE TABLE." We live in 2018; I get it. We've got great tools - we're also all individuals with brains and meta-cognition and the ability to introspect. If you are causing hiccups in your own state of flow or the flow of others due to your own external distractions, take ownership of this fact, and make a change. This helps build trust, empathy, and accountability into the group.
Streamline Dice Checks - GMs
Sometimes GMs try too hard to engage party members individually during a group task. This burns time, and can split attention unintentionally. I am guilty of this on a few occasions, and I am working to recognize it earlier than the night after, but it helps to put a few things into perspective.
GMs should assume that we have limited time at all times - this doesn't mean that we need to RUSH anything, but it does mean that precision and efficiency go a long way.
Don't require rolls for simple tasks, just move through it narratively.
If the group is engaging in a group task, have everyone roll at the same time, and announce the DC and what happens down the line to each player.
(Sometimes) Pre-roll opposed rolls if you're really strapped, so they act as general DCs instead of live rolls. I don't do this often, as it can kill that "live play" feeling for me, but using a general DC based on a creature's attributes can still speed things up.
A roll should only be used for a task where the outcome is unclear.
Strip Away The Gravitas - GMs
I like to describe things with accurate language, but still fantasy-oriented, like a good book. Sometimes, however, elements can literally get lost in translation, and players miss details. In this way, precision and transparency are more important than flowery language. You want to ensure that the visual of the players is the same visual you had in your head, thus everyone is moving together through this collective theater of the mind. If everyone has mostly the same picture in mind, you have a much lower chance of running into inconsistencies with character decisions (like someone assuming that a wall was a door, but the character would have known this, it was the player who was confused because the description was not clear to them) based on preconceived notions on the layout of the room.
This works for mechanics as well. You can be general, but your terms should match those in the book. In combat, for example, it is imperative to note what a creature is doing in established terms so players know exactly what they can and cannot act on. "The bandit uses his Cunning Action to Disengage from the group, then uses his Action to attack with his crossbow" INSTEAD OF "The bandit moves away from you, then shoots you with his bow" - "Do I get an Attack of Opportunity?" - "No, he Disengaged." - "Then how can he attack me?" - "He has Cunning Action, so he can Disengage as a Bonus Action." - "Oh, okay."
Or in the case of Legendary Actions and Spells and Counterspell: "He spends a Legendary Action to use his Disrupt Life Feature (features are not spells, and therefore cannot be counter-spelled)" versus "He uses a Legendary Action to CAST A SPELL (CAN be counter-spelled)." Neither of these spoil anything about the enemy; no one learns anything "secret" about them, and I don't fall into the assumption of trying to "trick" or "trap" my players by omitting elements that they could have acted on. The worst arguments (and wasted time) I've seen in play have often stemmed from that lack of clarity: "Well, if it's a spell, I cast Counterspell." "It's a Legendary Action...so it isn't a spell per se." "Well, is it a Feature or does it say he casts a spell?" You get the idea. The players don't have to know WHAT spell is being cast (a check might reveal it, or not, up to you), but they NEED to know that the entity is casting a spell, because they've got tools to counteract that; if you ignore those tools, you've robbed them of agency, and mucked up the process.
Finally, try to separate cinematic flavor text from mechanical changes. I fall victim to this, too, and it can be frustrating when you're trying to describe a battle cinematically. You might go into a cool description of a particular blow to a creature...and the players will interpret it as a mechanical change. "He's driven to his knees by your strike, the armor visibly denting from the raw force of your impact" - "Oh, so his AC went down!" - "No, it just hurt him a lot." - "But you said his armor dented!" - "But it doesn't affect his AC" - "Well, he must be prone, then; you said he went down!" - "...sigh." Whereas if I describe: "The force of your blow is so strong it knocks the feet out from under him (I move his piece to make him Prone). He falls flat on his back and now prone, the wind momentarily knocked out of him." I added a mechanical clarification to my description, using established terms, and no one clarifies or fights me. Sometimes in the former, I will have to clarify by saying instead "He is MOMENTARILY driven to his knees." See what I mean?
Though, the latter example is also a Player thing. If the GM does not announce a mechanical change, don't argue that there is one, but ask a clarifying question - this way, the GM isn't put on the defensive, and they have an opportunity to make adjustments where needed; this is smoother, and thus faster.
Prep Your Turn - Players
It bothers me to no end when a player casts a spell on their turn...then stares at me as if I have memorized every single spell in the book (I do memorize many of them just out of osmosis, but there are hundreds of spells) and know exactly what their spell means, their save DC, and what I am supposed to roll. It's YOUR turn - look up your spell, know what it does, know the save and your DC...prior to your turn.
Now, the battlefield changes during play, and that can affect people's plans, especially casters, so when it settles on their turn, they may have to scramble. I understand that, and it totally happens, but you as a player are responsible for understanding the capabilities of your character. The hiccups, actually, occur when someone casts a spell...and then sits there, as if they have forgotten the other elements required in casting a spell; some spells are spell attacks (where the character rolls), others are saves (where the enemy rolls), some have varied effects, conditions, contingencies. If you're not sure, have the spell description nearby; the idea here is to be organized, so that you take responsibility for what your character can do.
For EVERYONE, try to have an idea of your Movement, Action, and possible Bonus Action before your turn. Just like board game etiquette, you are expected to think about your turn PRIOR to your turn occurring. Things can change during play, and that can affect your turn, but if you're watching the battle unfold and thinking actively about your turn, you've already made adjustments as you go, so the interruption of flow should be small anyway. And when you take your turn, declare what you're using and how: "I spend my 50 feet of movement to run around the back of the beholder, and I spend my Action to attack twice, and then my Bonus Action to use Flurry of Blows and attack two more times (rolls dice, concludes actions). I'm done." My turn is over.
The trouble we run into is present in three ways. First, we're only waiting until our turn to even approach thinking about what to do. All that time between was us being distracted and departing from the scene. So, when our turn arrives, we're playing catch-up. Sometimes we need to pee - I get it, everybody does it - but when we come back, you make it a priority to catch back up before it's your turn. If you return and it IS your turn, then the pressure's on and you need to make some quick decisions.
Speaking of speed, the second way we interrupt flow is when players forget HOW the mechanics work and the steps needed to execute certain actions. For example: Attack and Damage. An Attack requires a D20 roll, then adding Proficiency Bonus and Ability Score Modifier to that roll (this should be ONE number next to the weapon on their character sheet for simplicity), and announcing the total. THEN, if you hit, taking the appropriate damage dice, rolling those, adding on the appropriate modifier and any extras (again, marked clearly on their sheet for ease of calculation and speed) and announcing THAT total. We get bogged down when that checklist is unclear or we skip steps.
The third way...is detailed in its own section below.
Respect The Scene / Wait Your Turn / 6 Second Rule - PLAYERS
BE EVERYONE'S BIGGEST FAN. If it isn't your turn, plan your turn (so you're ready), but celebrate the achievements and actions of your allies - this keeps you engaged in the scene, no matter what it is. This also makes your fellow players feel FANTASTIC. Now, this requires some caution - remember that when it isn't your turn, it isn't YOUR turn. Try not to, in your celebration of others, begin to add your own character into other player's turns. It's one thing to cheer on a player using an awesome ability and another to horn in on that use of ability; Ken uses Deflect Missiles - we all cheer and high-five him / Ken uses Deflect Missiles and Colton mimics him doing so, rolling an unprompted Performance check out of his turn trying to distract the Duergar chieftain. The former celebrates without taking the attention away from Ken, while the latter pulls the attention away from the active player. There's a difference.
The key point here being that you need to Wait Your Turn; plan it out, sure, pay attention, celebrate, but WAIT for your time to shine. This also means that you should be aware of your side conversations. If you're engaged in everyone's turn, those side conversations will be minimal to none, and that's great. I hate the feeling that comes up when I'm playing, it's my turn, and everybody's chatting about something else - but I'm quiet and engaged in their turns, how come they can't show me the same respect? And though that may not be people's intentions, it can come off that way; we want to avoid that perceived double-standard of respect. And though it might feel like you're waiting a while the first time, I guarantee that it makes everything flow faster. You'll be back to your turn before you know it.
When out of battle, and this one can be tricky to achieve without some patience, it is important to respect the scene that is transpiring. It may be an interaction between the barkeep and one other character, or a courtier and two characters, or most of the group talking down a hill giant while another investigates his house. Just because the rest of the party isn't there doesn't mean they should carry on their own conversations. Think of it like a theater production. No scene will transpire at the SAME MOMENT as another scene on the stage. Timeline wise, they might be happening at the same time, but we will SEE them at different times. What this looks like literally is the party watching and waiting and listening to an interaction until it comes to a close, and then taking an opportunity to engage in their own scene(s). Scenes where the whole party is engaged with the same things tend to flow pretty well, but the same principle can be used. If it doesn't involve you - watch and listen. If it does involve you - engage. If the former, and you want it to involve you - watch and listen for a moment that you might be able to enter the scene.
I know, it's a lot more waiting and listening, but if we've done everything else on this page, this one should be pretty easy by now. No person wants to feel drowned out by others, and everyone wants to shine, so respecting each other's scenes allows characters to shine without feeling like they're fighting to be heard, AND we get the added benefit of building up trust and empathy across the group.
Finally, don't try to cram a million things into your turn. Movement, Action, Bonus Action. 6 seconds, dude. The more you adhere to that main mechanic, the faster the rounds go, and no one can perceive that you're getting more bang for your buck during your turn as opposed to others. It also makes you more efficient if you assume that you only have those three (often two) things to worry about.
In conclusion, both GMs and players can do a lot to make our sessions flow better, but the greatest take away here isn't speed so much as taking a breath and staying present in the game. We all get hang-ups, and our brains can be more distracted than ever, but I have to remind myself: Slow is smooth, smooth is Fast. Slow down and take a moment; watch and listen to your fellow players; let them shine, so you can shine; get organized and let go of the day; take responsibility for your own engagement. And we'll all be better for it.
See you at the table.
PS: Remember, talking is free...unless it's a monologue.
...Please stop monologuing...
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.
We've all been there.
The dragon just bellowed its war cry and lifted into the air after our initial surprise attack (where we must have done, what, over a hundred points of damage!?) We scatter, trying to spread out and away from its impending breath...only to be hit anyway by one its frustrating Legendary Actions. Plans now cast aside in favor of stopping the cleric from being melted, I rush over and force feed them a healing potion...only to be stepped on by the dragon on its actual turn, and it proceeds to crit me to death.
Now at zero hit points and bleeding out, the blasted ancient creature decides to get one more strike in on my broken body, and there goes a death save. With the dragon on top of me, my allies only really have one more player turn to get to me before this ancient and intelligent being decides to step on me again with their now replenished Legendary Actions. "But I'm down!" I say, desperate to hold onto this character just a little longer. The DM shrugs, with a slight grin, and I try to hang onto hope.
The healing word comes in the nick of time and I'm conscious again...only to be rended in half by the green dragon. Curse words follow...but I'm cool with it.
Should I be? Or was that DM being a jerk?
The Separation of GM and Character
Behind the screen, the GM or DM is responsible for every creature the party interacts with, whether that be through combat, exploration, social situations, or a mixture of these. A good GM will do their best to embody the voice, the physicality, and mental acuity of each creature; the latter here informs their tactics best in combat. And combat, from the enemy's perspective, is NOT fun for them. They are in a life or death scenario; they aren't just going to lay down and die, just as you wouldn't.
Now, smarter creatures utilize better tactics. Creatures in better control of themselves won't be goaded into a trap. Creatures of average intelligence can tell when things aren't going well, and might try to run. This is why beasts get hunted; they often don't know when to flee or fight, and those that do, often live to another day.
Why do I bring all this up? Because none of these creatures are me.
I have to personify them; get inside their head, judge their level of tactics, their emotions, their level of courage, and many, many other factors in order to represent them properly. Every good DM needs to do this, and nasty creatures are nasty; evil creatures are evil; they don't care that you're the hero of this story - they want to eat your face, or your heart, or your soul. And that should be a dangerous encounter.
Now, if the creature behaves outside of their type or their intelligence, then maybe the DM is being a jerk, but I argue that is rarely the case, unless it's becoming a habit. Remember, asinine creatures can make intelligent decisions. I, for example, will use an Intelligence check to see if the creature notices a possible tactic (they often fail, as is their way), but at least it's possible.
Conversely, the same is true. Intelligent enemies can make poor decisions due to a number of factors. Perhaps they are emotionally compromised - like when they see a character murder one of their wyrm children; maybe they are filled with vengeance toward the Ranger/Rogue that just sneak attacked them for 57 HP, so they ignore the high possibility of their own demise in favor of attacking the one who has hurt them so deeply; or maybe their life is already forfeit, and they serve a greater purpose.
It came up in the first year of play on Thursday D&D (Group B). They were fighting a set of Legionnaires, led by a nasty Cleric of Air and Darkness. She was pretty cool; she had an adapted mace of sundering and a shield that could swallow spells, then reflect them back to enemies at twice the strength. She was also full of pride in her own abilities, having already had much success in laying waste to previous adventuring parties. It was this pride that killed her. She waited literally 6 seconds too long to make her escape...and the party wrecked her.
Now, note that I say that "she waited too long," not me. It was the character's pride and perception (literally a failed Wisdom save) that got her killed. I, the DM, saw the tide turning, but SHE did not. Me, Adamus, is NOT the character of Lady Vesheen of the Legion of the Rage. And that separation has to be true with every enemy they fight, every character they interact with, and every creature they meet.
If an intelligent, spell-casting dragon is sitting on top of you, and they are well aware of the impact of your character's efforts (because they SAW YOU and your allies, and are feeling the wounds that you have made), you can bet your poor butt that that dragon's gonna' make sure you stay down. That fits in with an older creature; it didn't survive this long by allowing its enemies time to get up.
Beware intelligent enemies, and beware old enemies. There's a reason that 20th-level wizard is still around, and it ain't pretty.
I try very hard to give each character a voice and personality that is not my own, to further solidify the separation. This way, my players know when I break character to address them out of game, and when they're talking to that mean ol' dragon and need to be on their guard. Sometimes, I can even apologize for the actions of the creature...but I justify them from its perspective. Yes, it sucks that the Beholder disintegrated you, but it recognized you as the healer, and it was tired of its prey healing. ;)
And when those connections are made by the creature - key observations and mindless primal reactions alike - I try to embody this connection with my voice, my tone, and my description of the creature's movements. This way I can communicate to them that THE ENEMY took notice, not me, the DM. If the enemy did not take notice, then I don't act like they did. This seems to help my players maneuver around the creature they are facing, in combat or role-playing, based on how they behave, and they never seem to take it personally if things go bad.
Motivations, Consequences, and Vengeance
All characters are motivated by something, and often in combat, that thing is SURVIVAL. They want to survive. And, most likely, they will utilize whatever they can to ensure that survival, or the survival of others.
When players make decisions, there are consequences. Some of these decisions are dangerous, others silly, and still others fantastic, but all have consequences, and all are natural consequences.
If you chop off the head of the first guard you meet in a new city...then the entire contingent of 40 guards are now descending upon you (because you killed a guard) to arrest and, if you resist, kill you...This consequence is rooted within the rules and LAWS of the world. This is not the DM acting out of vengeance - it is a natural consequence to the character's action.
Also, if the characters got quite lucky and super creative and absolutely wrecked the mob boss halfway through the campaign (as opposed to the final battle at its close)...and instead, his mid-bosses have begun an in-fighting extravaganza in order to seize power. This is an awesome natural consequence to a great fight, and opens the doors to a more complex arc.
However, if your character is being annoying and the DM has had it with your Baloney Sandwich, and a literal mindflayer lich riding a beholder bursts out of the ground... This is vengeance.
Consequences are a product of the initial action, and are thus related. A vengeful action is unrelated.
Vengeance GMs go after your character for no discernible reason, or use unfair tactics and justify it with "because I'm the DM."
Consequence GMs go after your character because you shot the wizard with an arrow and they recognize you as a threat.
There. Is. A. Difference.
Don't be a Vengeance DM. You're ruining it for the rest of us. :)
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.