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.
PS: keeping this blog and site running takes time, energy, and funding. Consider helping out by visiting my Patreon, The DM's Den, found HERE, for extra benefits, rewards, and products. Have an awesome day.
Trigger Warning: in this post I reference the very real topics of Rape, Sexual Assault, and Torture as narrative devices and themes.
How This Topic Came About
After running 6-8 campaigns steadily for nearly 3 years, I've seen some weird things. Dark things. Players making difficult decisions, real character moments, some pretty messed up imagery... There's a large well of possibility in the huge range of fantasy, and as I allow more "adult-only" narrative content, the foray into dark fantasy only deepens that well.
However, as I explore these elements along with my players, in recent times I have recognized a distinct and powerful aversion to a few key topics, especially when wielded in specific contexts. Normally, I'm pretty open about playing a full spectrum of genders, orientations, moralities, and motivations, but after four separate players in different campaigns have referenced the same idea that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth... I think it needs to be addressed.
Elements That Will NEVER Be In Io
For all of the things that are wrong in my fictional world - even the very dark Sixth Age - THAT is not one of them. Magic is broken, people are manipulative, flirting and low-level harassment exist, violence, even racism depending on your region... But when also a decent chunk of the leadership is matriarchal or in all intent genderless, even the existence of such a thing seems ill-advised for whoever would dare to approach it (anyone attempting such a horrid act would probably be killed on the spot by ANYONE nearby).
There is quite literally no sexism in Io. Male and female adventurers, politicians, academics, nobles, and prostitutes all have equal gender representation. So when you remove that systemic bias, that culture becomes less and less viable. Which is why when peeps try to weave it into their backstory...I honestly get a little squeamish; I realize now because I've tried to build a fantasy world that is an ESCAPE for my players. And maybe, that topic is just a little too real to be able to handle it appropriately. Too many levels, too many layers, and too much trauma.
AND, I'm the freaking DM, and I am not comfortable with its existence in my fictional world. Done.
If you want coaching in formulating a traumatic event / dark defining moment in your backstory, I've got training in that; I've got a million other ways to make you a haunted soul, just NOT THAT.
And for all the awful things that I am comfortable portraying as an actor, I am NOT OKAY portraying the literal scum of the earth that would seek to rob someone of their power and agency in such a grotesque manner.
There are no rapists in Io.
I think that's pretty reasonable.
Explicit Sexual Assault and Explicit Torture
Coming from the same vein, this represents more of a promise from me to you.
I WILL NOT sexually assault or torture your character. Even in an evil campaign. It robs the player of power in ways that are systemically traumatizing.
This is a game. And you didn't sign up to be traumatized.
Love who you want. Race, gender, orientation; polyamory, monogamy, friends with benefits. They all exist in the world, but the levels of detail would (of course) depend on the age and maturity of each table, so we use our judgement to what is appropriate. Relationships can exist without a lot of details, or can be more overt.
BUT...I don't care. And neither do the people in Io. You can be gay, straight, nothing, and everything. You be the character you want to be.
If you make someone uncomfortable and they have voiced as such, and you don't listen, then we certainly have a problem. That's a social boundary at the table and away from it, so be open to each other's comfort levels and the type of game we all agreed to play through our social contract.
What Else To Consider
Contextual Flirtation / Harassment / Respecting the word "no"
Horndogs exist (male and female) and we've all met our share of creatures legitimately DTF, but often in Io, flirtation ends up being either consensual, or, if the flirter doesn't get the desired response...THEY STOP. Or maybe they try a different adorable tactic. They won't be bullies about someone saying no.
Now, there are other forms of "flirtation" that bleed toward harassment and/or manipulation. I try to save this type of personal narrative interaction for settings like Gray Owls (21+), where the players are mature enough to move appropriately with such things and easily separate character and player, and the cloak and dagger aspects of emotional manipulation offer an extra layer of play, instead of a psychological danger.
Things get more complicated with the concepts of Demons, Devils, and Angels. Demons are all about that chaos, but Devils want it to be your decision to buy into their deal; they're all about their rules and contracts. Angels, too. So if a character outright refuses, it doesn't mean the entity won't stop trying, but they'll never outright force them down multiple paths - there must be a sequence of active decisions to lead them to such a point.
Also-also, creeps exist. There's a dude in Dragon Heist that's a lascivious little creep, but though he might talk about all the creepy things, he's in no place of power when met with the party; and if he were, that's not what he's into, so taking the power wouldn't be fun for him. In Io specifically, creeps exist, but they will offer an invitation - to which the player-character can always decline. They might be insulted, or otherwise miffed (depending on the social structure/time period/setting), but they will NEVER force themselves upon a person (what a concept, right?). A noble brat will react differently than a lord or lady depending on the setting, and the context. But yeah...no.
Now, in settings like Gray Owls, in the deep dark city underbelly, nasty people exist who do some pretty messed up stuff, but still... NOT THAT. We can get plenty dark without going there.
Player-Characters Flirting With NPCs / PC + NPC Relationships
Most of the time, this is a compliment train trying to get a discount on something, and in a high-fantasy world, I'm cool with it.
There are numerous relationships, engagements, one-night-stands (again, not explicit, "fade to the fireplace"), marriages, and complications I have run (and I'm currently running) between NPCs and Characters. They're fun, informative, and rewarding for those that want to buy into that sort of exploration.
It's if a player begins performing a strip-tease for the NPC that I, well, might GET A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE.
(Don't call me "Daddy"... It's a line I didn't know I had, but THERE IT IS)
Use your common sense. Read the room.
[This scenario has been rectified, but I keep it here as an example, not a damnation]
NPCs Are People Too
And I mean it. NPCs are played by me; you can't just stab them all in the heart and loot the bodies without natural consequences catching up to you (not out of me seeking vengeance, but because straight up murder is usually frowned upon).
But in a more personal sense, if you treat an NPC like garbage...expect them to react as an actual person would when treated like garbage. If you're using this power fantasy to take out your aggression on a friendly NPC that has no connection to your actual life...yeah, they're going to respond realistically to such harassment. Maybe that leads to a great character moment - we can weave it into the story somehow, maybe - but don't be surprised if the cleric you've been treating like trash doesn't want to heal your dumb ass. Just food for thought. These guys and gals aren't programs; I'm going to play them like people (because we're always teaching).
Remember The Four Agreements
Don't Take Things Personally
Don't Make Assumptions
Always Do Your Best
Be Impeccable With Your Word
You will suffer less pain, less misunderstanding, and more respectful play at the table.
Why Omissions Are Powerful
As I was formulating the words for this entry, it brought me down a very pervasive rabbit hole.
It could be that when I was constructing Io, I was discluding all of the elements (one at a time, as they arose) in my own world that I found culturally stupid. And for all the things that are wrong in my fiction, I am glad to say that these are not any of them moving forward. There's nothing wrong with pursuing a safer place to stretch your imagination; where the echoes of our lives can be left at door.
I'm trying to build a better world to play in, even if it's all in my head. And I would rather cultivate an intriguing diversion, then a reminder of all the awful we see. What if we all had the ability to punch the reset button on all the big, bad, and ugly - just for a moment - and see what would actually be possible? That's an empowering thing. It is my well of hope. My guiding light.
Oh, and magic. Magic's pretty dope.
Treat each other well.
See you at the table.
Hey everyone! I took April off to do some birthday cleaning, figuratively and literally. Those of you that follow me on social media know I just completed an online "garage sale" / 10-year purge recently, and the energy that such an endeavor released has been monumental.
It's amazing how much clutter we allow into our lives, and how many things we hold onto that weigh us down. Enough. Is. Enough. I feel lighter, stronger, and more motivated than ever. Here's to my next year. :)
It was only just May the 4th, and any nerd worth her salt knows what's up. It seemed a no-brainer for me to run a very special kind of game, and in preparing it, and running it last night, I've made a few key observations on how it's changed over the years, how my style has changed, and how I prefer to run my games in this system.
Saga Is The Best Version, don't @ me
I've played the original D20 Star Wars (where Jedis are broken beyond reason), the West End variations (very open and creative), and the most recent Age Of Rebellion and all its various extra settings (weird dice and conceptual misalignment, still good, just weird). But what I've always returned to is Saga Edition.
Star Wars as a property has a problem when it comes to their tabletop settings and systems. They don't maintain support on older systems, actively discarding and going out of their way to forget they even existed. Everything's out of print (or hundreds of dollars), resources are fan-made only (well done, chaps), and everyone pushes the new stuff down your throat. Now, I understand a business model where you have to push the new products out...but Saga was SO GOOD. I don't want your new edition with new rules and weird dice; nothing was broken, so why fix it?
But WHY is Saga so good?
Well, it took the best of the giants at the time, Pathfinder and 4th Edition D&D. Now, the latter was getting panned, and the former heavy on the rules with lots of floating modifiers, conditional effects, and active rolling. We've talked about this already.
But Saga took some of that weight and just made it static. You have Defenses, not bonuses. You use skill checks in combat, and numbers aren't *as insane. Let's get into it.
There's no AC in this game. Instead, enemies will be targeting one of three static defenses: Fortitude - your constitution and strength to resist poison and getting thrown around, Reflex - your dexterity and ability to dodge, feint, or parry, Will - your mental clarity and focus. Now, in Pathfinder, these numbers would be bonuses to opposed checks against a Difficulty Class etc... But Saga takes a page from 4th Edition and keeps these numbers as static defenses. These are the numbers your enemies and you roll against to hit them and cause damage and debilitating effects, which is much faster and cleaner.
Perception and Initiative can be treated as static as well (rolling in a clear "passive Perception"), but my players prefer rolling for Initiative for familiarity and that possibility of striking first. Rolling with crazy bonuses IS fun, don't take them all away!
In 5th Edition, there's a proficiency bonus that increases every few levels; in Pathfinder, you've got skill ranks - points you distribute each level to offset your weaknesses and augment your strengths. In Saga, you get an automatic bonus of 1/2 your total level rounded down automatically added to ALL OF YOUR SKILLS. Then, like most systems, the appropriate attribute modifier is applied, maybe you've got a training bonus (+5), and that's it. Most of what you "distribute" by selection is done at character creation. After that, the numbers take care of themselves.
Feats and Talents
The bread and butter of Saga Edition is found in their Talent Trees and Bonus Feats. Let me explain.
There are only 5 Heroic Classes to play in the game.
Jedi - Noble - Scoundrel - Scout - Soldier
But each of these Classes has *at least* three different Talent Trees, and each class is awarded a Talent selection every odd level in the Class. These Talents can give passive or active bonuses, special powers, penalty removals...tons of cool stuff, and it's all very straightforward in how it operates (again, going back to targeting one of those three Defenses, or offering an easy bonus/alternative combat choice). Some Talents require others in order to be taken (Talent "chaining"), but it's never too alarming; the connections make sense and are easy to do.
And Talents fulfill other requirements later, like Prestige Classes (Bounty Hunter, Jedi Knight, Ace Pilot, etc.), but you can always take levels in another class to gain access to another Talent Tree. Multiclassing is fully supported and encouraged because, at the end of the day, your character ISN'T just a Noble, or just a Jedi, they're a complete person with various skills and, ha, talents. Leia may have started as a Noble, but lord knows she has Talent with a blaster and we KNOW she's force sensitive. There are no "capstone abilities" in each class, just an ever-expanding web of Talents.
Now, Feats suffer the same problem they do in Pathfinder, but instead of 2000+ of them... We're under 75 easy. And so many of them streamline the choice down to the player. Take Power Attack, a Pathfinder staple, for example: trade melee attack bonus for damage. Except, the player chooses how much to take away every time. I want to deal an extra 10 damage? Take a -10 to the roll. Only 5 damage? Take a -5. You choose the level of risk; that's an interesting choice, and we don't need compounding Feats to work through that.
Feats exist to help specialize the player, each class offering Bonus Feats at ever even level in a Class from a select list that makes sense. On top of this, each character gets a Feat from the big list at 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, 15th, and 18th level...but the amount of required chaining is either nonexistent, or only 2 or 3 in, and the bonuses along the way make sense. Yes, using a lot of Feats take some getting used to when you come from 5E, but at least this system flows a lot easier and is much simpler to digest. And since I come from the other end, I'm happy to teach the transition. :)
The Force and Destiny
The Force operates in two big ways in Saga: in the form of Force Points (a D6 added to a roll) and Force Powers. Jedi and other Force users collect powers in their Force Power Suite to wield within the world, slowly expanding the suite as they take Force Training (a Feat taken multiple times, based on your Wisdom).
Now, as per Raw, the Powers you have count as one use of said power, and this is where I split from RAW and flow toward my own preferences.
+ The Powers in your suite are treated like spells known and prepared. It tracks that a Force user that uses a Force Push would be able to push multiple times; they wouldn't forget how just because they already did it once.
+ Some Powers require the use of Force Points to work, while others can be augmented by the Force (using points), but most don't require burning them. Your pool only increases and replenishes every LEVEL, so no.
+ Most Powers take a Swift action in combat. I've seen Obi-Wan swing a lightsaber and shove a stack of droids in the same turn, so you guys can do it too. Force Lightning, on the other hand, may take a little more oomph in the action economy (unless you're a certain skill level in the Sith traditions).
Destiny Points function much like inspiration, but I add a nice big D12 instead. It's not *just* a re-roll, it's a possible value (you pick how you want to use it).
AND - Because my setting is in the Old Republic, when the Force is prevalent and surging, I added a mechanic to wonderful effect last night.
Your Force dice and Destiny die can Ace. Acing is a mechanic utilized in games like Mekton, Deadlands, and the entirety of Savage Worlds (probably a ton of others, but those are the ones I know). Anywho, if you roll the max number on a die, you roll again and add the two values together (Ace again? Keep going and keep adding). And because you can add a Force die to anything, a punch to the face might send someone through a wall...and isn't that awesome?
So, in short, Saga Edition functions like a streamlined D&D in space with laser swords and wizards.
It was so good, and it reminded me why I liked this system so much and why I miss it so terribly.
Get ready for a resurrection - we've got more stories to tell.
See you at the table.
For all the math involved in Pathfinder, they certainly had their creative character concepts down.
When Vigilante dropped, where the player has a literal alter-ego to manage, I was getting excited. When alternative classes were introduced, like the Antipaladin or the Samurai, I knew we were on to something special. The third in the latter's introduction is the Ninja.
The Ninja introduced an interesting concept (at more for me than the others). Though it was an alternate class for the Rogue (makes sense), its progressive powers were an uneven split between Rogue and Monk through the introduction of Ki, with added Ninja flair in the form of Tricks. This seemed to open the door for Pathfinder to introduce Hybrid Classes - classes inspired by and borrowing from two main core classes as "parent classes."
One such that springs to mind for 5E conversion today is that of the Skald.
What IS A Skald?
In Pathfinder, a Skald is a hybrid between the rage-filled Barbarian and the charismatic musical Bard. A Skald wields music and rage together to bolster her allies with courage and mettle, and crush her enemies with doubt and fear.
Now, when I present this idea in conversation in 5th Edition, I am too often met with the image of a half-orc barbarian picking up instruments he doesn't know how to play, playing them badly, then smashing them against foes (with the Brawler feat, to boot). The image ends up being more like:
Which I must admit, is pretty cool from what it looks like... But the whole thing's often played for comedy only, unfortunately. The awesome artistic rendition above serves well in a Battle of the Bards scenario, which is intended to be silly and over the top.
But this concept should be fueled by the power of both classes; not a bard who's bad at barding, or a barbarian who just happens to be (hilariously) a poet. Take for example this image instead:
Now THAT'S a Skald. A warrior who fuels their talent with rage and power, spreading that sonic force to its allies. It fills them inspiration and power, not comedy at its absurdity (which still has its place in certain games, don't worry). So how do we build this guy?
1) Attributes and Distribution
Something John and I discuss often when we try to build multi-class concepts is the problem of too broad a spectrum of necessary attributes in order to be effective, and this concept does not convert well out of the gate. We've got three of six (arguably four if we're going strength) that will be essential to our build, and that's Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma (duh). Normally, I'd say Strength too, but we'll be spreading thin - we're going Dex Barbarian already.
Race: Tiefling (Charisma bump is nice, and I'm sick of the Half-Orc Barbarian trope)
Standard Array: 15-14-13-12-10-8
Welp. You don't need to be smart to sing.
INT: 9 (+1 Racial)
CHA: 14 (+2 Racial)
This tweaks my nerves a little bit, as I often want one stat at its highest possible run as early as possible (my gut reaction is to put the base 15 in CHA, then +2, for a total of 17...but then we're left with slim pickings for our DEX and CON scores, and we need all three decent to make this work). Not to mention we won't qualify for Barbarian multi-classing without at least a STR of 13.
2) Class Selection Order
This might feel tricky, but our taking a look at what we get up front makes this decision for us.
Barbarian First: Light and medium armor, shields, Simple and Martial weapons
Barbarian Second: Shields, Simple and Martial weapons
Bard First: Simple weapons, hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, shortswords; THREE skills; THREE instruments
Bard Second: Light armor, ONE skill of your choice, ONE musical instrument
Now, take into account that by going into Barbarian later I STILL get unarmored defense, so as long as I have a Shield (which I will), I'm still fine. Barbarians get all weapons regardless, so Bard makes sense up front for skill versatility and a plethora of instruments with which I can sing my wrath.
4) The Need For Home-brew
The most glaring issue up front here is the fact that you cannot cast spells or concentrate on spells while raging, but my solution is pretty simple: ready? You can cast spells while raging, and you add your Rage damage to your spells (where applicable, like a spell that deals damage). In order to do this, you must have at least 1 level in both Barbarian and Bard.
Instead of a brand new archetype, or building a new feat structure, sometimes a little flavor swap and rules switch is all you need. This way, we still support the benefits of both classes.
Now, this build REQUIRES a home-brew allowance, which makes it contingent upon your DM's allowance, but since you're not delving into Unearthed Arcana territory, this feels very smooth. And I don't feel that it is exploitive in any way.
Giant thanks to John Tanaka for helping me streamline my thought process on this one.
More insanity on the way.
I'll see you at the table.
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This past weekend marked the beginning of something, and I would be lying if I wasn't the best mix of terrified and exhilarated.
I was invited/demanded/reserved-my-spot-immediately-following-the-last-one to attend a cool little shindig at Questers' Way called Quest Fest. At the close of every official semester, we hold a weekend event on Saturday and Sunday where we invite local artists and small businesses to take up space in the center and sell their wares, along with big deals, free classes, and our fantastic D&D Dinner Theater for charity on Saturday night. It's always a blast, but this time...something was different.
For one, I wasn't working. Well, I mean, not for the center. I was one of those local artists. And after having a YouTube channel (to middling success) for years now, becoming a professional dungeon master, and beginning to step into the very complicated and rewarding lens of painting miniatures just over the last year, it is a singular experience to be fully transitioning into legitimately selling my wares like some sort of underground fantasy resource.
I don't really have a business, mind you. I'm just a dude with a Patreon trying to make his way in the universe by providing good stuff for my fellow gamers that isn't going to break their wallet, and I'm happy to meet you where I can if it means you get more playing at your table. And it was that level of wheeling and dealing (and being on my feet, actively engaging with nautical tons of kids and adults) that I wasn't expecting.
I. CRAVED. IT.
It was beautiful. I had parents bringing back memories of when THEY played, kids lighting up as they imagined unlimited worlds unfolding before them, held insightful discussions with old and new players alike, and sold out of dice almost immediately! It was magical. I love talking with peeps about games, podcasts, stories, and painting styles. Got a lot of tips from some vets in the business, and got a few compliments too.
And D&D Dinner Theater finally starting to hit its niche. We've got a few more kinks to work out (don't worry, we've FINALLY got a sound guy secured for next time), maybe a little more plot to follow, but it's clear that its heart has settled into place. The rest will be easy. ;)
But the next day brought about a unique, surreal, and humbling observation.
My dice sold in under 90 minutes. 10 deals of miniature lots sold in the 30 minutes before D&D went live. No one knew what minis they were getting, but they bought them anyway. Barely anyone physically visited the shop on Sunday, yet I made back my investment through private messages and updates on available stock. The response rendered me speechless for a time.
Our world is overrun by access. Technology, internet, sharing, tweeting, instagram... Sometimes we catch things, sometimes not. But for those that subscribe value actively to something, they will commit it to their personal world. They will share it to the stars and hope that another sees its rays and finds the same value in it that they did, and share it again. This core of a perpetually rippling collective memory and experience is what drives a tribe nowadays. A tribe; a group of people who have rallied behind an idea, a concept, a mission, a neighborhood, a person. Something, or someone, they trust. They'll give them the benefit of the doubt, back them when they need help, and shout their praise when their voice isn't loud enough.
My success that weekend was in no small part because of the small tribe of people that frequent Game On, that like my Instagram, that listen to my podcast, that read this blog. Your love, your joy, your stories, your value...it warms my soul. And I hope I can do better for you, always.
Thank you for playing with me. It is an honor, My Tribe.
See you at the table.
I knew this day would come. It's the close of week 7 and I can feel it. I've hit all my muscle groups, with extra days allowed to hit arms a second time and *finally* get a bodyweight-only workout...and I feel awesome. But I've noticed a few things.
1) My weekly pushup count plummeted
Clearly a product of placing weight training (and for good reason) at the forefront of my exercise regimen, as opposed to the other way around. Now that I'm hauling weights four times a week with Kickboxing and karate spliced in and a full bodyweight day on Sundays...woof, buddy.
I checked my numbers yesterday. I went from averaging 750 pushups a week to 340. I'm tired, yo.
But here's the kicker. This is EXACTLY what I need. Think about it.
IF I can achieve the level of consistency I am right now:
Mondays - Chest and Triceps
Tuesdays - Back and Biceps
Wednesdays - Legs and Shoulders
Thursdays - REST 1
Fridays - Bodyweight or Rest 2
Saturdays - Kickboxing, Karate, and Arms
Sundays - Bodyweight or Rest 2
...AND get my pushup count back up to 750 a week, I'll be goram unstoppable. Here's to the hill I'm climbing.
2) I don't care for ice cream, or dessert, much anymore...
I mean, I still have them, but they're once in a LONG WHILE. Ice cream? Once every two months, if that. I know I've said this before, but cake just doesn't do it for me anymore. Sometimes pie, or a cookie, but these are cravings, not habits, and they need to be the RIGHT KIND of quality to make it worth it.
It's like my wife and gluten. She can't eat it, but she isn't allergic. It's an intolerance; and I remember in the beginning of making the appropriate changes to our lifestyle - those little moments when cravings struck - but if we're going to go through the discomfort, it has to be worth it. High quality food that includes gluten might be worth a bite or two, but that's it; just to satisfy the craving. ;)
And even then, when I've found the "great" slab of sucrose...all I want is a little. Not a whole slice; not a whole pie. Just enough to satisfy, and that little bit...tastes AMAZING. It's funny, the longer you go without something, the better it tastes once you have it again (as long as it wasn't junk to begin with). And really, isn't that...better?
It's the same reasoning I have difficulty with the idea of building up a "tolerance" to certain drinks. If the reason is to get buzzed...then wouldn't you want that to happen sooner and more efficiently than longer and less? I know that's an entirely separate debate, but I appreciate that because of my other health issues, one drink is all I'll ever need, so I need to make sure it tastes good, too. If I'm going to have something special, I need to make it SPECIAL.
This entire experience has helped me treasure the foods and treats I took for granted, and has reminded me how to separate my needs and wants, while still enjoying my life.
3) Eating right...isn't that hard.
Chicken. Broccoli. Rice.
With me, sometimes rice is too much, so I double up on protein and vegetable, with some healthy fats.
This is what I have most days of the week, and I'm sure peeps would poo-poo that. "What's the point in living" you say, "if you can't eat all the other good stuff?"
Yes, food is a social thing, it is a pleasurable thing; the culinary arts are an essential part of our core humanity. ...But that doesn't mean I should gorge myself on pastries in lieu of a decent steak and vegetables. You can still eat flavorful, filling, and amazing food without hurting yourself. Breaking it down to the basics above keeps things cheap for me (budget's been tight lately, go figure) 5 days of the week. The other 2 days? I eat what I want. And what I want, though with a little more cheese, a little more grease, still includes Protein, Vegetable, and Carb. Does it mean that I can't have that milkshake if I really, really want it? Nope. ...But I might be paying for it later (especially without a Gall Bladder) during my next workout.
This whole process makes me acutely aware of my own dietary consequences, and sooner or later in this, a choice has to be made. Do I want to get better, or not? Do I want to lose weight/get stronger, or not? Yes? Then changes start happening.
Listen to experience. Don't go cold turkey on this stuff. We are creatures of habit. One day per week - eat clean. Dedicate yourself to that one day. Then make it two. Then three. Then five. Keep it there for a bit, and watch your sabotage cravings melt away. Trust me, the first little bit's gonna' be tough, but you got this.
And then, after weeks of hard work, and that little craving sneaks in...try a little bite. See if it still tastes good. If it does, take one more bite. Then put it away. Save it for your next rest day. Make it SPECIAL.
Eating is a part of our joyful lives, but be aware of how much of something you're putting in your body. Moderation is key, so whatever you eat, just make sure it's worth it.
See you at the table.
The internet appears to exist in two camps: those that praise 5E for being accessible, elegant, and a return to the classic days of D&D without sacrificing new avenues AND those that hate 5E, and call it D&D for babies. While Pathfinder is the essential "D&D 3.75," fixing the broken nature of 3E, and 3.5, with nautical tons of published content, options, and possibilities - D&D superheroes with limitless possibilities. Or that Pathfinder is an overcomplicated, standardized system where rules rule all and the amount of required reading far outweighs the power of play.
And I say to you, hordes of the internet, is it too much to enjoy both?
Seriously. Why pick sides, when you could just enjoy both for their individual merits? I play Pathfinder and 5E. I play Fate Core, and Starfinder, and Serenity RPG, and Exalted, and Werewolf. I enjoy them all. ...You're allowed to like multiple things, people!
But for a lot of folks, it comes down to preference and what they can get into initially. We live in a world of global understanding. Say the word "gym" and everyone gets a pretty clear image in mind. Say D&D, and anyone with a concept of a D20 system starts making some assumptions, and has a basic framework. Say Pathfinder, and the circle gets smaller, and there have been many moments where players have wondered "what's the difference?" Why pursue Pathfinder when I have 5E, or why look at 5th Edition when I already have Pathfinder?
As someone versed in both, and who actively plays in both often, let's break it down. :)
Rules and the Role of the GM - Social Paradigm
The first major difference is one found in the social philosophy that surrounds each game, and the observed trend of mentality across general play. What I'm pointing to are the social trends at the table, and how each system supports or struggles with a certain paradigm. The question is this: Are the rules flexible?
Now, it's often an assumed answer in most tabletop scenarios that the GM rules as they see fit; if something makes more sense to the narrative, the circumstance, the rule of cool...whatever your term - this is a social, group game - the GM can rule differently. However, not every system makes this understanding a PART OF THEIR RULE SET explicitly. Pathfinder does not, while 5th Edition does, and what this does in broad strokes is build two distinct types of players: 1) Players that interpret rules as written universally (RAW), and will fight the GM on rulings, and 2) players that interpret the rules as guidelines and openly accept and play-test homebrewing, circumstantial rulings, and work with the GM. While one camp keeps things mechanically sound and universal table-to-table, they don't give the GM a lot of narrative wiggle room (from a mechanical standpoint, we'll get to social soon), the other supports cooperative interpretation of the rules. Hell, even the dudes and dudettes that helped write the damn Player's Handbook use a ton of homebrew rules and content in their home games. The door is open, people.
These two camps represent the extremes, and there are thousands of striations in the middle, but it does reveal an interesting trend in the standardization of play table to table. Pathfinder offers so many options, with so many numbers, that the whole thing WORKS no matter who is running it; it is mechanically sound from a mathematical perspective, but (often) can result in more arguments if you have a looser DM and stricter, rule-based players. But 5th Edition, with its looser approach to running the game, opens the door to ALLOW higher mechanics if desired, but never requiring it. The ruleset is flexible enough to augment in subtle ways to add complexity, or strip down to bare essentials, and both approaches are supported; you won't break anything. All of this can be waived with a good group and clear social contract, so the systems themselves may not be fully to blame; these are just my initial musings.
In my experience, players that approach 5E from a Pathfinder background are industrial, mechanics focused, and eager to try strange builds. It supports organizational creativity, but they are often disappointed at the smaller number of perceived options out of the gate. My players that approach Pathfinder from a 5E background are immediately overwhelmed with the breadth of material (creating a Level 1 character should not take 2 hours, new system or not), and for some, the level of bookkeeping out of the gate turns them off completely...but those who stick around enjoy what is a highly versatile system that, once you get it down, can be truly amazing - it just requires a lot more investment.
I'd be lying if I said Pathfinder was easy. I've been playing it 10 years, and there's still things I forget about. True, I don't have to study it as deeply as 5E for my job (YET...the podcast is coming), but the learning through osmosis was essential. And, each time I build a character, I go through the process all over again. There's a lot to flip over from the D&D editions, and the parallels are pretty interesting, but you have to know what you're looking at to make the numbers work. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND investing in a fillable, calculating PDF when building a character. It not only puts numbers where you sometimes forget they'd go, but in working with the calculator, you'll start to figure out more directly how the game functions mechanically.
With so much content available, streamlining it all into a digestible format can be very time-consuming (future blog topic), and I think that this fact is the main blame to character creation taking so long. There are lists upon tables upon subtables upon archetypes upon traits and so many floating modifiers and circumstantial bonuses...that it can get a little nuts. BUT once it's learned, the system is extremely powerful. ...But it has to be LEARNED.
D&D 5TH EDITION
Anyone with access to the Open SRD content can begin play in the 5th Edition ruleset, as it was released for free to the public via the internet. Now, to be clear, Pathfinder started MUCH SMALLER than what it is now, just like 5E, so the size isn't what I'm arguing here. It's the lack of initial numbers, and ease of organization.
Emphasis is placed on narrative interest and group play as the main paradigm, and the language used, though employing game terms, is much smoother and easily accessible. Spellcasting requires less bookkeeping (we'll get to it), the system is more forgiving, there are less circumstantial modifiers (though they're still there), and everything feels cleaner in its organization. Less reading required, and many less moments of looking back and forth from different sections during character creation.
So let's break down the big differences, why they're there, and how I choose to roll with them at my table.
Confirmed Critical (PF)
What it is: When you roll a Critical success, often referred to as a Natural 20, but in Pathfinder threat ranges can be wider - so a "Crit" could be on a rolled 19, or 18, and so on. When this happens, you don't start your multiplier celebration; instead, you roll to "confirm" the critical by rolling the dice again to meet or beat their AC. If that SECOND roll is successful, then you start doing your crazy critical bonuses. If NOT, you still hit them, congratulations, roll damage.
Why is it there? - The critical bonuses in Pathfinder get a little nuts. Not only do you have weapons that crit on a 18-20, but some of those take the damage and multiply it by 3, or 4, or 5. Others get extra swings, special effects, bleed damage... Nasty stuff. So, increased critical chance mixed with huge consequences created an extra check to help justify the nasty.
Do I use it? - No. And here's why. Rolling a critical is celebratory, and being on the other end (as player) when you *finally* roll a crit, only to then roll to confirm and fail...takes the wind right out of my sails. If you work so hard to fight for that critical, only to have it fail anyway...it just sucks. In a game where creatures can have 40 AC and 2000 HP...yeah, buddy, you own that crit. Have fun. AND I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE THAT DOES THIS. Countless GMs, friends, and fellow player outright wave this rule. It cuts down the time, keeps the game rolling, and joins in on the celebration of the luck mechanic in the game.
Skill Ranks (PF)
What it is: Each level your character is awarded a handful of points (your class allowance + your intelligence modifier) to distribute as extra number bonuses to the skills of your choice. If a skill is included in the list given by your collected classes (because multiclassing expands this list), then adding as little as 1 Rank in it gives an additional +3 bonus (trained bonus) to it once. You can never have more Ranks in a skill than your total character level.
Why is it there? - This is one of the ways that Pathfinder avoids a blanket Proficiency Bonus and puts more agency into the player each level. It creates a pool of customization; you can choose to play into your inherent strengths by pouring points into "trained" skills, or just put them in any skills you like. You'll still get the Rank bonuses, and it helps you mitigate skills you were initially weak in. (this is how I got around Bigby's AWFUL perception bonus...put Ranks into it)
What do I think? - This is one of my favorite things about leveling up in Pathfinder because I'm a skill tree kid. There's a clear correlation between the point I put into a skill and what it will do in the game. This is how you get +20 to skill checks, people. And with no cap on the numbers in Pathfinder, you can go for the highest bonus you can. Plus, it adds to the level of customization; it's a core element, and I still love it.
Base Attack Bonus (PF) vs Proficiency Bonus (5E)
What it is: Base Attack Bonus (BAB) is a general bonus that is added to all attack rolls in Pathfinder, while your Proficiency Bonus is a general bonus added to attacks and trained skills in 5th Edition. Pathfinder - increases as you level up; some classes it follows your level, while others progress slower, and it is a cumalitive total in all classes that you have levels. 5th Edition - Proficiency Bonus starts at +2 (added to trained skills and attack rolls) and increases by +1 at distinct total level tiers, ending at a static +6 at 17th level.
Why is it there? - BAB and PB in both games are a numerical representation of your overall ability to do things. In Pathfinder, it ends up being an extra bonus to attacks, and 5th Edition uses it in place of Skill Ranks, and as a bonus to attack rolls, and saving throws.
What do I think? - Both make sense for the games they are in. The numbers get bigger in Pathfinder. Everything is tighter (lower numbers) in 5th Edition, so of course they rolled Skill Ranks and BAB into a general progressive bonus. Less to manage, and it works.
Full Attack Round (PF) vs Extra Attack (5E)
What it is: Pathfinder: As you progress in level in a single class, there is a moment where one gains access to a second attack. This second attack, however, suffers a -5 penalty to its roll. So, effectively, if one were to attack twice, the bonuses would be +6/+1 (before adding Strength or Dexterity modifiers that is). Also, you can only take that second attack if you move no more than 5 feet (1 square) this round. This is referred to as a Full-Attack Around, where you stand mostly still and wail on your opponent. As your BAB increases, though, your amount of attacks available also increases, and before you know it you're attacking 4 times in a round. 5th Edition - *some* classes gain access to the Extra Attack feature at 5th level, allowing you to make a second attack when you take the Attack Action on your turn. There is no penalty to this second attack, and you can move freely on your turn within your movement speed. Only the Fighter gains access to 4 attacks when taking the Attack Action at 20th level.
Why is it there? - It takes time, energy, and focus to hit multiple times or to fire multiple shots, and Pathfinder represents this effort by creating penalties or limiters to ensure that a player must sacrifice something to swing their axe and cleave down an army. 5th Edition supports faster combat with straightforward Action Economy, so the bonus never changes no matter how many attacks you have (less math) and believes that the more skilled you are with a weapon, the more efficiently you can attack, therefore it would never sacrifice movement.
What do I think? - I think the Full-Attack Round overcomplicates things, but I understand the penalties from a mechanical perspective. For ease of play, I have seen GMs rule that once you gain access to that second attack, you can just attack twice now, and still move freely. In my games, I still use the scaling penalties, but allow movement; because hey, if YOU guys can attack 3 times and be mobile, so can my monsters, so it's still fair. Any adjustments I make are made on both sides of the table.
Feats, ASI, and Attribute Limits (PF and 5E)
What it is: Okay. I've gotta' break this down carefully.
Feats in Pathfinder - ...are essential. They are many, and some are hyper-specific, while others are generally awesome. Some offer circumstantial bonuses or abilities to support specific builds, while others give static bonuses to help off-set flaws. And MANY have specific prerequisites in order to be taken in the first place, so "Feat Chaining" is required to get the most out of the system (and there's a lot to read). Because they're so important, EVERYONE gets them at every odd total level, regardless of class, and other classes gain Bonus Feats at specific levels.
Feats in 5th Edition - ...are optional. They are a variant rule employed by most GMs that allows players to opt out of their Ability Score Increase (or ASI) to instead take a Feat. Each Feat grants a main benefit, sometimes with a +1 to a specific ability score (as per the flavor of the Feat), with a few auxiliary benefits as well. Since you're giving up a numerical increase, you often get quite a bit from each Feat, and very few have prerequisites. Racial Feats complicate this truth slightly, but there you go.
Ability Score Increases in Pathfinder - ...Occur every 4 levels. You may increase an Ability Score by 1. There is no limit to the Ability Score number (I've had a Strength of 30 before).
Ability Score Increases in 5th Edition - ...are tied to the progression in a certain class. Most classes get them every 4 levels in that class, but others get extras at specific intervals (*cough*, Fighters and Rogues, *cough*). At each ASI, you have 2 points to distribute to your Ability Scores. HOWEVER, you cannot increase an Ability Score beyond 20.
Why is it there? - Pathfinder is a system of micro adjustments, and each Feat is an interesting choice for the player, but the benefits are minimal at the onset...awesome as the game progresses. It's a slow burn, like building a mech, and when your character comes online, all that careful selection and planning makes you a god. But you need to plan well. 5th Edition keeps numbers tight, so it's a trade to take a Feat, but what you get is so much more in comparison - more options, powers, and flexibility. Or you can play without them, and lose nothing in the flow of the game. Play without Feats in Pathfinder? Oops. I broke it. ;)
What do I think? - I've always been good at organizational creativity, so the Feat Chain only bothers me when I'm a caster, because I'm managing spells too. And because I love numbers, the Feats that create those insane bonuses are a rush to play with...but navigating the swell of feats available and sorting great from good from junk is a process. Again, 5th Edition is fast and most feats can be taken by anyone, making it less of a predetermined path for the ideal build, and more a cool character choice to open up a few options.
What it is: Woof. This is the big one. In Pathfinder and 5th Edition, you can prepare a certain number of spells to cast based on a few factors each day/long rest. That's not our issue.
As per RAW, in Pathfinder: You prepare EACH CASTING of a spell, and once it's spent, it's gone. So, if I prepare Cure Light Wounds... I've prepared to cast it once. Once I cast that spell, I can't cast it again, even if I have more Spells Per Day available. I would have had to prepare it as a casting again. So if I've got three Spells Per Day, and I want to cast Cure Light Wounds three times that day, then my prepared spells look like this: Cure Light Wounds, Cure Light Wounds, Cure Light Wounds. ALSO, many spells have more powerful versions at higher levels...that you must learn individually, like a brand new spell.
In 5th Edition: you prepare the use of a certain number of spells each Long Rest, not the number of casts of each spell. So you could prepare Cure Wounds, but still expend all of your first level spell slots (not spells per day) by casting Bane 3 times instead. This isn't a waste of Cure Wounds because of the added benefit of Spell Slots, where you could simply cast Cure Wounds (a 1st-level spell) using a 2nd level Spell Slot and make it more powerful at the same time.
Why is it there? - Power is important in Pathfinder, and knowledge is power. Magic is also much more discrete and distinct, so power levels are explicit. So spells of varying power levels are much more complex than their weaker counterparts, therefore they should be treated as separate spells. 5th Edition frees up magic use and interpretation, using Spell Slots to make casting more flexible and keep caster options open.
What do I think? - I've never employed this rule completely in Pathfinder. Ever. Any caster I've played, and any caster that's played with me, has held to the prepared spells rule, but never the number of casts per spell name. You have three 1st level spells per day, you prepared Bane, Cure Light Wounds, and Bless. This means you have three options every time you cast, not one casting of each spell. Why be that way? In extension, 5th Edition wins here, clearly and distinctly, because of Spell Slots.
If I'm a Wizard and I learned to cast the spell Sleep, why do I have to learn a more powerful version of it later? As I level up, it's implied that I'm learning quite a bit about the weave of magic and gain access to more powerful spell levels anyway, so why can't I just cast Sleep at a higher level? Nope, you need Sleep II, or Sleep IV. But in 5th Edition? Yeah, go ahead. Add an extra 2d8 per level above 1st. Great! Thanks, buddy.
You know what this also does? CUTS THE BOOK IN HALF. What a concept. Write the spell once, add a blurb of what it looks like at higher levels, and you're DONE. Duh.
Traits (PF)* vs Backgrounds (5E)
What is a Trait?
Traits are considered backstory "seeds" that give a mechanical benefit equal to about half a Feat at character creation. If used, characters can take up to 2 Traits, and never 2 traits in the same category (Combat, Racial, Regional, Religion, Faith, Campaign, Social, Equipment, Family, Magic, Mount). If you want more Traits, you may take Drawbacks - penalties that tie into possible story hooks or detriments - and gain more Traits. GM approval required.
*Not all GMs play with Traits. I've met a lot of Game Masters, and guys that have been running the system for eons didn't know they existed. With so much available at the onset of play, many feel Traits unnecessary, but including them can help create a clearer picture of where the character came from while adding a *minor* mechanical boon on top of it.
Backgrounds are important in 5E, but not really. The ones available in the book and their accompanying features are published options, yes, but you can just as easily pick 2 skills to be proficient in and a language, and roll it all into your origin story. Either way, you'll get two free skills and often a language or toolset, in addition to what your class and race give you. Again, simple, straightforward, let's play.
A Few Extra Notes
PATHFINDER has A LOT of options. Races, weapons, armor, potions, magic items...it's huge, and has a very effective and extensive crafting system supported by all those options. It is an involved system that rewards industrial planning and creative problem-solving, and remains at the heart of some of my most epic sessions. ...But you've gotta' put in the time to get the ruleset down, and it can get a little involved.
5TH EDITION has A LOT of flexibility, and can swing toward more complex features or toward more streamlined options without sacrificing balance. The material is straightforward and clear, and easily digested at the onset. Sure, there's layers, but you'll get playing fast.
Anything can be spoiled by a bad GM, or a bad table, but that's not the fault of a system. Create an effective Social Contract before engaging in any tabletop experience.
As with any game, the GM can choose to add or omit anything she pleases, as long as she discusses and justifies it with the players. A Feat you don't agree with? Strike it from the system. A rule that makes you feel weird? Make an adjustment and test it out. None of this is in stone, which is why I don't understand some of the hate being flung over a social fantasy game on some of the forums these days.
If you're still on the fence, pick one and try it out. What's the worst that could happen? You don't enjoy yourself? Great. Try something different. The best teacher is experience.
See you at the table.
PS: Next week will be centered on New Beginnings. Campaigns have ended, here's to the new adventurers!
Writing this blog each week takes time, energy, and focus. If you enjoy reading it, maybe consider taking a look at my Patreon, and helping support its creation.
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.
Writing this blog each week takes time, energy, and focus. If you enjoy reading it, maybe consider taking a look at my Patreon, and helping support its creation.
I'm having trouble walking at the moment. My whole body hurts. I am currently lying on my back, pondering all the ways in which I have destroyed myself. A beautiful boulder rests upon every fiber of my being, like some stone slab cut perfectly Looney-Tunes style into the shape of my prone body. I am sore, bruised, and broken.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Motivation is something so many of us struggle with, and so many give up just when we start to reap the benefits. A lot people think it comes down to convenience, but I think it more specifically defined to a lack of resistance. We bring it up a lot in this blog and our podcast as a State of Flow in gaming, but flow can be achieved and maintained in all facets of our lives. The key here is building in that lack of resistance.
We recently opened a gym in addition to other things we offer through my business at large, not just my Game On! stuff, and the impact is palpable. I can now schedule my workout days around my work at the center, and already I can feel the shift in what has become possible for my training, my health, and my mental focus. But with those gains, I can already feel the familiar pull away from it all.
We all get it sometimes. The nagging, lazy bit of ourselves that manifests when we start making the most progress toward leaving it behind. It is the tiny voice that tells us we'll never get there, the one that complains in the middle of your chest press, that hammers your legs with doubt, and that seeps pride into your skin so you avoid safety in favor of stubbornness.
This is not something that is given to you after a week of work. Hell, you won't get it after a month, or maybe even a year. Great progress will be made in this time, but it is not the result. We will be shrouded in tiny victories; threads of hope bound together each day to form an unbreakable cord of resolve and perseverance.
Everything that I am and could be has been a product of my own choices. I am not the victim of my own circumstance and I prove this every day that I rise from sleep and seek the greatest version of myself, and it is with this knowledge that I take hold of the tethers of my own destiny...and pull. And I do this with the full knowledge that I am tearing down what I once was - the habits formed, the mistakes made, the lessons unlearned, and all the ugly bits. This will be painful, and I accept this pain, for I will rise from it, building as I go. I will sift through my own rubble, deciding what to keep and what burns.
This is going to suck. And here are some practical ways - mechanical habits, devoid of motivation, but full of functionality - that I'm going to do it.
Rest Times and Rest Days
Only key in on one rest day, never two in a row. That's mine anyway.
This past week looked like this:
Monday - Gym after work - Chest and Legs
Tuesday - Rest Day 1
Wednesday - Gym before work - Back and Arms
Thursday - Rest Day 2
Friday - Home workout - Bodyweight Blitz
Saturday - Kickboxing, Karate, then Gym - Arms and Shoulders
Sunday - Home workout - Bodyweight and Cardio
This sort of works, but I'd like my Rest Days to be Thursdays and Sundays, instead opting for Tuesday as another "gym rat" day. I think I'll get a better spread, and I'm working out consistently at 5x a week while avoiding a two-day rest period where I can fall into a slump. DISCIPLINE is key here to build the better habit.
But DURING workouts, I find my biggest time suck is in resting. My home gym workouts would take far too long due in no small part to the amount of time I was carelessly resting between sets. In the gym, the focus is different. I have taken the time out of my day to go to a space that is not my home to use equipment that isn't mine in order to build my best self. There's an onus there. Other people are here to do the same thing, so I'm not going to waste my time or theirs; the pressure's on.
So, I give 20-30 seconds between sets - sometimes I even count out loud, especially if I pushed hard enough to shatter my own metacognition. It keeps me moving. Instead of workouts taking 3 hours, I've knocked them down to 90 minutes for the same benefit. Employing my next element, I've got 'em down to under that.
Supersets, "Triplesets," and Circuits
Sometimes I get bored. Sometimes I get distracted. Sometimes I have a lot of workouts to get through and I feel pressed for time. So I double them up.
Single, focused sets are good. Great, even, and certainly have their place. But I'm always one to use Supersets and Triplesets to keep me moving and motivated on those days I have difficulty focusing.
A Superset is when you take one exercise, perform one set of it, then immediately perform another set of another exercise without resting between. For me, this practice serves two functions: 1) It's more efficient, and 2) for muscle growth and dynamic fatigue, it's amazing. Instead of just extending an exercise, or performing another set on the same exercise, I'm still working but the muscle groups are different enough that the grouping of the previous exercise "rests" while another works. That aspect of rest isn't actually true, mind you, but the difference in movement is the point here. I do my 20-30 second rest after completing the second exercise.
And if a Superset is effective, then a Tripleset must be awesome, right? Well, yeah, but we can also call that a Circuit. A circuit is a set of 3 or more exercises performed one after the other, then resting. I use Circuits to keep me moving (efficiency) and to pump (reach hypertrophy) faster, while maintaining strength training. It also lets me check off more exercises in my book in bigger, more satisfying chunks. :)
One More Rep...
Yes, the name of this week's blog is Embrace The Suck. And I mean it. Embrace it.
Accept that this is going to be uncomfortable. Anything worth it will reach a point of discomfort. This is mine.
There will be days that I will crave the things I don't need. Days I don't want to work out. Days I want to lay in bed and avoid the challenges my life will bring. And those days will SUCK.
But those days won't stop me. Because I know they're coming (a few have happened already, and I've crushed them). I know the feeling of doing pushups and your body lazily prodding you with "you don't need to do any more, that's enough," and the feeling of pushing through that to get one more rep. I know the feeling of pushing to failure, even when one more rep feels like miles away, and you have to fight against your own doubt and pride and hunger just to push through.
But I will. And it's going to suck. This is going to hurt. This is going to challenge every fiber of me. But I will become stronger; I will become better. And it will be that one more rep that is the difference between raw willpower and falling off this wagon. And to the latter: I REFUSE.
BEAST MODE ENGAGED.
I'll see you at the gym.
Writing this blog each week takes time, energy, and focus. If you enjoy reading it, maybe consider taking a look at my Patreon, and helping support its creation.
Though I am pleased as punch to be in the position I am, there are inherent stresses to game mastering.
How do I craft a collaborative story that stays exciting and engaging for my players?
How do I invigorate and incorporate their backstories in organic and powerful ways?
How do I challenge them without luring them into a TPK scenario?
These are GM focuses 101, but the major stressor for me is in running high-level encounters. Put yourself in my shoes: these players are level 16. They've been building these characters up for literally years by now. Huge in-world connections, businesses, kingdoms...they've made quite a name for themselves. And now, they're challenging the old world - ancient beings that have awoken and now threaten their home and maybe even the fabric of reality itself.
When you stand against something like that - when you crash against it - not everyone comes out alive. And we, at the table, need to be OKAY with that. And here's why.
Great Risk, Great Reward
No character is awarded plot armor in an adventure.
When I started this gig two years ago, this was a mantra I had to remember, and a lesson for all of my players at some point or another. Make a bad choice? You might be dead. You don't get to do whatever you want just because "you're the hero." Now, I've never been a vengeful GM - "rocks fall, everyone dies" - but there are Natural Consequences to poor decisions, and my fellow GMs and I like to allow a 3-step failure so the player can try to right their course before falling over the proverbial cliff.
However, as you continue to learn a game system and triumph over the initial hurdles of misunderstanding, problem-solving, and tactical awareness, there comes a time when you realize that you were never actually safe. That no hero of any level is immune to the vast dangers of a tabletop world, and that surviving such dangers nets you some tremendous rewards.
But no triumph is without risk, and as we level up, our adversaries scale WITH US. At low levels, we might be challenged by a troll - a large creature of great strength that regenerates (our first real puzzle, solved by the use of fire, that halts said regeneration), but as we get stronger, we become aware of the greater dangers existing in the world. They've always been there, but we wouldn't have had reason to bump elbows with these entities unless we were seeking our own deaths!
By the time we reach double digits, and are well on our way to levels 17 or 18 (the capstones of many class archetypes, but not the level capstone of 5E at level 20), we'll be interacting with literal gods, demons, devils, fey lords, great mages, liches (undead mages), ANCIENT DRAGONS... There's a bunch we can play around with, and some things in that iconic Monster Manual are downright scary (and that's not even scraping the surface of all the custom monsters and ancient beings older than time that I've constructed in the last year). Woof.
But for each massive threat in scale and scope, each victory garners immense reward. Sometimes you walk away with your lives and a ton of experience, other times a hoard and a few magic items, and maybe even a powerful ally or two - but it's all on a grander stage.
Hope you were ready to become superheroes, because it's time to save the world.
It Can All End So Quickly
There is sometimes an idea that circulates arguing that combat in D&D becomes a game of attrition. Mountains of hit points smacking into other mountains of hit points until one reaches zero. If a combat devolves to this scenario, we as GMs, are DOING SOMETHING UNEQUIVOCALLY WRONG.
1) An Ancient Freaking Dragon has been alive as long as they have been for a reason; they will use cunning, tactics, and their breath to easily end confrontations. They WILL NOT simply land and do hand-to-hand combat with the plucky adventurers when their breath can MELT ARMIES. This is why 9th level spells exist. If you have access to Meteor Swarm and you are beset upon by a band of seven creatures hell-bent on axing you a question...THEN YOU LEAD WITH METEOR SWARM. Because why wouldn't you? You're a smart creature.
2) Taking massive damage should have consequences. This is a variant rule, mind you, but one can get pretty creative when dealing with acid or lava, and sometimes I rule circumstances if you just took more than half your hit points in damage. It's gonna' take you some time to recover from that; maybe your movement suffers, maybe one of your attributes is in trouble (because, you know, you're MELTING), maybe your action economy takes a hit until you can overcome some of that damage threshold. ONLY EMPLOY THIS APPROACH after discussing and clearing it with the group, but such things can remove quite effectively the idea that you are "fine" until you're unconscious.
3) High-powered attacks and spells can deal a great range of damage. This is a game with a hard and fast luck element. Sometimes the dice are in your favor...sometimes they are not. So if an attack rolls 14d10 for damage, the full range of this is literally 14-140 hit points. Depending on class and Constitution scores, that can drop a high-level hero; but if I roll the average (about 84), I've dramatically hurt everyone, but probably haven't TPK'ed the party. Similarly, players can nail their saves and take half damage (or none at all - bloody EVASION). Also, player characters should be dealing tremendous damage, bringing all of their abilities, items, and strategy to bear. This could all end very quickly - it just feels longer because we're managing a lot more abilities, options, and possible outcomes. In real time, epic fights are over pretty fast.
Sometimes Your Story Ends
I didn't kill your character... The DRAGON killed your character.
The GM is NOT there to try and kill you maliciously. She's going to play each creature accurately and strategically as appropriate to their abilities, tactics, and personality. Ancient beings are such for a reason; they ain't stupid - if they notice that the obvious cleric is obviously healing everyone, well, then they might attack the cleric. This will never become a GM vs. the players kind of game; those are mean and we need to quit them. The GM should revel in the victory just as much as the player-characters; it's a group game, and their triumph is celebrated, but as enemies become smarter, the battles become tougher.
Yet when a character dies, many players take it personally. Like they were attacked somehow (outside of the game). Some even go so far as to blame the GM; accuse them of acting in a certain way out of spite. But the thing to recognize, that I feel I MUST SAY, is that "sometimes, a character's story just ends."
It isn't heroic. It isn't pretty. It can be sudden and horrible and unfair. And with the number of friends whose stories have ended this past year... How I wish I could have rolled them up a new character. But that's not how life works, and if we believe ourselves immortal, what is the point in struggling to live in the first place? In the words of Gandalf the Gray, "All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you."
When we suffer in a game, it offers us an opportunity to learn; to rise, and to learn. Sometimes that lesson is a product of a great loss - like the loss of a character you have spent years cultivating. But that's the game, and that's the risk, especially with high-level play. Sometimes heroes die when they challenge Olympus. But, at least for us, this is a game. You can always make another character. But don't hate the DM; we're not pulling our punches at this tier - you've earned the high-level play so when you win, you FEEL that triumph.
You wanted to fight gods? Well. Welcome to the Jungle.
See you at the table.
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Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.