I have only just returned from a 7-day respite in a far away land. A land where the drinks flow readily, the food is exquisite, and the magic is there as long as you are looking for it. What is this long-forgotten civilization of artisanal glass-blowing and dwarven rations? It goes by a name only whispered in dark corners and seedy taverns.
And what, pray tell, did I accomplish while in this dark city state; a secluded island of rich history, crowded busses, and a vibrant night life all wrapped up in the thin coating of tourism and mini golf?
Nothing. I did nothing. And it was the greatest Nothing I could have hoped for.
It was in this nothing that, for the first time in nearly three years, I was truly "away." My mind could rest, and it could wander. It could take note of my now practiced ability to easily make conversation, to make new people feel at home, and rejoice in new connections forged through such friendliness and courtesy. I got to meet many new people, some of which will remain friends beyond this experience, and all of which are accomplished nerds (including a pair of leather workers and armorers). I was immersed in a culture of ease, where tastes could be explored, conversations organic, and sheer existence celebrated.
I haven't been on a cruise in some time, and now that I am home, it is safe to say that was the best one yet. It wasn't the ship, or the food (though it was amazing), or the staff (they're pretty cool people), but it was company we kept - the people we met, the conversations we built, and the strong connections we made, that would define this experience.
And, of course, this got me thinking during the 3-hour drive home from Jersey - on the importance and significance that rest serves in a D&D campaign, and in life, and I think I broke it down into four main elements.
Recharge - The Obvious One
In game, you take a Short or Long Rest. Short Rests regain some abilities here and there dependent on your class features, and allow you to spend Hit Dice to shrug off damage a little easier than spending spells or potions. Long Rests heal you completely (in most systems), and you regain your spells and options, like a nice reset.
In life, we use rest to help our bodies and minds recharge. It exponentially increases our capacity to love, forgive, care, and share our energy with others. A human without sleep doesn't last long when it comes to empathy, communication, or any measure of joy. Without rest, we cease to function as people. So, take time to rest, if for nothing else than to refuel and rejuvenate your spirit to tackle tomorrow.
We need alternative views to grow as people, and these require time to process for each person that remains open to them. You ever get so wrapped up in a problem that you feel like you're going crazy, only to take a moment - a deep breath, even - and discover the solution the next moment? Yeah. That. Take a moment, give yourself a break, and come at it from a new angle. Everyone is healthier for it.
In game terms, this works precisely the same way. Combat, puzzles, and social challenges can be augmented and creatively solved the more angles you can work, and the more ideas you are open to. Considering the ideas and perspectives of others, while allowing yourself time to process said avenues, expands your imagination and problem-solving. So do it. Please.
Exploration - Wandering Is A Form Of Rest
Not all those who wander are lost, and this is most true when we allow ourselves space to roam. Too often in life, we become stuck in our path, locked into our chosen lane. Rest allows us to wander outside of that lane, open ourselves to new experiences - often outside of our comfort zones. This is a good thing. It keeps us flexible and moving toward a global literacy. Try things that are scary to you, try the road less traveled, and give space to new thoughts and ideas. Let them evolve and change, and open the door to revisit them to see what new facets of your being have now surfaced.
In a game, this is best represented by "side quests." Whether it be for a rare item, a shred of character background, or as a natural consequence to a poor decision...the best side quests are often more fulfilling than the main story. They could last a few days in game, a few months, or represent a brand-new arc of the story. Often, we learn much more in our wanderings and can grow tremendously just by venturing off the beaten path, so that once we return, we are forever changed; stronger, faster, more skilled than ever before, making our return that much more triumphant. Not that the main quest is somehow diminished, and, in fact, it only strengthens our desire to return to it at the close of our wandering. It bolsters our resolve, and equips us to move forward. Which reminds me...
Preparation - Pointing Forward
Often referred to as "downtime activities," extended stints of rest offer up opportunities to build elements, infrastructure, resources, and education for the challenging road ahead. In game terms, this is when players accomplish feats of extended research, business connections, stronghold building, magic item construction, SHOPPING, and, ahem, personal side quests. It helps to provide the players with not only a chance to breathe, but a means to point forward toward their personal and group goals, with the opportunity to prepare appropriately.
In life, rest - TRUE REST - allows our minds and bodies the valuable time to be "away" from it all. Then, we can return slowly, reintegrating the elements of our lives that we actually miss...and begin to build the tools necessary to augment and expand upon what we ACTUALLY want out of our lives, while leaving the excess behind. For me, it was a hard look at where I am and where I want to be; recognizing the elements of my life that I no longer need or want, and the elements I want more of; creating a clearer work/life balance separation for my own peace of mind and to help fight fatigue; FINALLY building a business model that not only supports the pursuit of my dreams, but keeps me sane on the way.
We need this facet of rest the most, yet so little of us have the opportunity to experience it. Even if we LOVE our jobs (and I do), we all need to get away for a bit to recognize all that we can do - all that can become possible - when given the time to prepare. And in case you're wondering, THERE IS NO LIMIT.
I'll see you at the table. I'm off to build a castle in the sky.
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.
So we have a Livestream on Twitch. Didn't know if you knew that. Not many do, but those that do have been entertained quite well for the 14 episodes we've been running. You can find us HERE on Twitch, and 2 weeks behind up on YouTube, and, if you're a patron of our podcast (of any tier), you have access to the whole show in podcast form (soon with theme music and behind-the-scenes chatter pre- and post-show).
The Livestream itself is classic D&D adventure time for 90-minutes set in my custom world of Io-Empyr (the fifth age of my interwoven timeline), and features steampunk airship combat, sky pirates, floating cities, and dangerous foes from the Shadowfell and the Feywild as they vie for control of the skies. The show is called Cloudsinger, and features a rag-tag 4-person party of awesome adventurers attempting to trust one another as they navigate this high-flying world, all while dodging their various pasts, new enemies, and alarming secrets.
It's freaking awesome.
The experience itself marks the 6th campaign that I run weekly, and there's something very unique about running an adventure online in front of a digital audience; for the DM and for the players. My partner in podcast crime, John (Solomon Blackedge in the campaign), put it best: we're "accidentally professional." Everybody brings something unique to the table, and we run the gamut from REALLY experienced tabletop players to players just working through the main mechanics; we're patient with each other, celebratory of our successes, flabbergasted by our secrets, and no one metas too hard. We know others are watching, so we try to bring our best selves every time...and it's always an absolute BLAST.
I am always appreciative of this particular screen grab: Adam in disbelief, Jenn laughing but disgusted, John owning his live role-playing, and Lisa's just watching it all with a mask of utter apathy. Professional D&D players, everybody. ;)
Now, none of us are brand-spanking new, and we all follow a distinct mission here at Questers' Way Game On: to become our best selves through gaming. So, I thought it fun to take a look at the standard of play that I hold my Game Mastering to, and how it changes and levels up when you bring it to the Livestreaming Stage. ...Because it certainly changes things.
Clear, Consistent, Mechanical Rulings
The internet can be an unforgiving place. I've had my fair share of trolls on the internet, but D&D fans can be a little...possessive of the thing that they love so much. Critical Role isn't perfect on rulings, and they even bring it up as a defense: they're far from paragon players, and part of the fun is making mistakes.
For me especially, with custom rulesets for airship combat, special weapons, home-brewed monsters, whatever thing I bring up - I'm keen to explain my reasoning for its existence, and then play it through. In that case, if I reflect and find something does not work the way I wanted it to, I have to let my players know AND my audience online know if I change it and why. Now, upon writing this practice down, my brain screams: "Well, DUH" and this is because ANY campaign benefits from this practice, online or off, but online it is an absolute necessity. Rule and mechanic transparency is essential to keep the audience in the loop; in a way, they're playing too. :)
Always Moving, Even When Standing Still
Pacing can sometimes be tricky, regardless of the campaign. No person can be on-point all the time, and no party will be pushing for plot every session...and that's a great thing. Action can happen without "action." Character development is just as powerful and entertaining (sometimes moreso) than any fight. Sometimes the audience needs rest, too, and these key moments of "still movement" keep the characters growing and the audience involved. As a DM, don't be afraid of them. This is a group story, and few stories are one fight all the way through (and still entertaining).
Audio Setup Needs To Be Simple and Clean
We started the Livestream utilizing an online tabletop music resource called tabletopaudio.com. This is a copyright-free audio site where each audio segment lasts ten minutes and can be pieced together into a pretty solid playlist. ...However, with enough technical elements through the iPad (my main interface to save space in our setup), we had to abandon it. Still a great resource that you can find HERE.
Moving forward, we're hitting this on three fronts.
1) I've returned to Syrinscape. This an app available on mac or pc systems that is chock full of sound sets, music, and sound effects to help with your overall atmosphere and immersion. I did a review awhile back about how I found their music to be less than satisfactory, and opted out. I have since grown up a bit and I love that it's all copyright free. That's the big deal here. Plus, the interface doesn't take much to get used to, so I'm pretty pleased overall.
2) I'm writing music for this campaign. No joke. I write music, I've published two albums, had works premiered with live orchestras - I got this. It's a bit of work, but it's going to add something truly special to Cloudsinger that sets it apart from the rest of our weekly campaigns. If you care to take a look at my old stuff.
3) Cross-chatter needs to be at an absolute minimum. This is a theater thing: if everyone is mic'ed, then everyone can hear EVERYTHING you are saying, even if it's a funny joke you just thought of. Sharing is okay, but the timing needs to be clear. We're not going to talk over each other because A) that's rude, and B) it overloads the recording with essentially white noise. The dudes on Critical Role are respectful because they're good people, but also because it serves the recording tech tremendously.
Go With What Is Most Comfortable For You
No one wants a stilted performance. Not from the DM, not from the players. It's our game, first and foremost, so we're going to play the way we want to play. The audience will comment, but I don't really watch the chat during the stream, and that is so I can give my whole self over to the players I'm playing with. By keeping myself centered on them, and not on external hardware, I can be my best self.
In addition, peripherals are great tools. DnD Beyond comes up quite a bit and we decided to give it a go as a group to help ourselves get organized. Unfortunately, technical difficulties, connection issues, and the product of staring at a screen all the time just to check your abilities has started to pull people out of the action, or at least made it a little inconsistent. So, back to pencil and paper, dude. DnD Beyond is a great resource, and I still use it often to build out and test characters, but for OUR live show, we operate better without more tech at the table to look things up. It makes everything smoother, focused, and more intimate. ;)
Know Your Character, Know Your Stuff, and Get Organized
This one is a standard I always hold myself to. I am a professional, of course. ;) But this stretches beyond the DM.
When you're in front of others, like a performance, a certain level of preparation goes a long way in helping the audience become immersed, the players staying engaged, and story flowing well. Players that do their homework on their abilities, clarify understanding before and after the game, and think critically about the feelings, motivations, and personal stories of their characters will sync up to the world with alarming speed and precision. The less you have to guess about how your character would act, the better you can ACT, and therefore play.
The times that I have prepared my character - just got myself more organized, put myself into their headspace prior to the session - the more fun I would have, and I'd avoid those little hiccups of second-guessing. Subtle moments of pause when I didn't know what to do...disappeared. And I'm not the only one to put in some extra prep.
John, for example, runs a "test Solomon" in another campaign to help flesh out how THIS Solomon acts. This way, Cloudsinger Solomon is the strongest iteration of the character, and John clearly has a ton of fun playing him. Jenn and I have meetings every so often to chat about her backstory and where her character's motivations lie. Lisa is very up front about how Spifi acts, and Spark...well, remains a mystery, but in a good way (Adam B.'s on point as a cat-person).
We're eager to play, but we have an external responsibility to do so in the first place, so that little extra pressure is enough to warrant bringing our A-game every time. And that little bit of extra responsibility brings nautical tons of fun to the table.
Any campaign can benefit from these elements - I wouldn't save them for online-only experiences. I've been using music sets, sound sets, and mixes for a LONG time in my regular games, and I'm often recording the sessions for my own internal consistency. I do my homework every time, but any good DM should. Great players prep themselves before a session to ensure smooth play and fast fun. It's a great way to upgrade your gaming experience.
However, these elements I find to be absolutely necessary if you're running something online. The addition of an external, broad audience adds another layer to your game, and it puts some onus on you and your players to literally be entertaining...but don't add pressure that sacrifices fun. With so many people on the planet, if you're having fun, there are bound to be more peeps out there that like your play style. So, keep things moving, sure, but PLAY YOUR GAME. It's your time to have your fun - we're just along for the ride. :)
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.
So this came up recently, and maybe it's because this is my job, but I cannot shake my knee-jerk frustration stemming from arguing briefly with a player over the Help Action in combat. So instead of ranting about it, let's take a look at it. :)
The Help Action is a drastically under-utilized Action choice in and out of combat as its benefit is pretty amazing. Simple, but amazing.
It's free Advantage for an ally's next skill check or attack roll. That's it. Super helpful, but that's it.
From the Player's Handbook and SRD:
"Working Together: Sometimes two or more characters team up to attempt a task. The character who’s leading the effort—or the one with the highest ability modifier—can make an ability check with advantage, reflecting the help provided by the other characters. In combat, this requires the Help action. A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves’ tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can’t help another character in that task.
Moreover, a character can help only when two or more individuals working together would actually be productive. Some tasks, such as threading a needle, are no easier with help."
Because timing is important, and the issue arose during combat...
From the Combat section: "You can lend your aid to another creature in the completion of a task. When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn.
Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some way team up to make your ally's attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage." Remember that a Grapple or Escaping a Grapple is considered a melee attack.
If you were, to say, attempt to break the grapple of an ally currently being grappled, you are indeed "helping" them, from a narrative sense, but you are not taking the Help Action - you are spending your Action to break a grapple, aka a type of attack. HOWEVER, in combat, I might rule that IF you taking the HELP ACTION, that ally can spend their Reaction to make the Escaping a Grapple check with Advantage. That way, the current player burns their Action, to take the Help Action, and the ally burns their Reaction to "work together."
There were really three options that could play out three different ways mechanically:
1) Take the Help Action = the ally has advantage on breaking their own grapple, on their upcoming turn, due to help. Yay. (PHB/SRD pure rules)
2) Take the Help Action (with "working together" interpretation, PHB/SRD + DM) = the ally spends their Reaction now to attempt to break their own grapple with advantage.
3) Take the Attack Action (not actually PHB rule, but nothing bars it from being ruled by the DM) = Attempt to break the ally's grapple yourself. -- Especially helpful for a physically stronger character to use that brute force to free a physically weaker character from bonds.
I'm not "ruling it differently," friends; that's what it says, that's what it means.
The difficulty in real time was a clarity of Action. It was not clear to the player or myself which would be more appropriate: Help Action or Action to break grapple, but the player insisted at the time that they were the same - they are not. In the future, I will endeavor to be more clear in communicating that difference, and offering up that "work together" ruling involving the other player in need of the "help," which is perhaps where the initial confusion was.
It was a small thing, a small moment, NOTHING that ruined anything. The evening freaking ROCKED.
It just bugged me. ;)
So I'm writing about it.
See you at the table.
There are few shows that I can site that really help to capture that element of adventure, sword, and sorcery, AND that hold true to the idea of a classic dungeon crawl through the progression of a big story, with big consequences, that nonetheless focuses on the party dynamic. So, you know, like Dungeons and Dragons, in its purest form.
The Right Time To Come Out
The 90s was a good time for anime's introduction to western audiences. Sure, the weird stuff poked through, but this is where we got Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho, nautical tons of Gundam, and the surge of Toonami. Late 90s gave us such gems as Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop...and the plethora of "pocket monster" smoothies amidst the king of Pokemon.
Nestled at the turn, releasing as a 13-episode OVA in 1990 was Record of Lodoss War, and I fell in love with it immediately. Episode 1 opted to drop us right in the middle of the action with a standard 1st edition adventuring party (Wizard, Cleric, Fighter, Elf, Dwarf, Rogue) and a good ole' fashioned dungeon crawl complete with traps, gargoyles, and a fire-breathing dragon fight. It. Was. Awesome.
And it captured the spirit of such a visceral and intense set of encounters, as well as the lore and world-building present in all the best game sessions. I felt an immense pull into this world, and felt the danger with the characters. Watching it again now...it still holds up, and is devoid of so many cash-grab, fanservice-y tropes that so many series in the same vein today would throw in. Emphasis remains on character development, exploration, combat, and social interaction. It's impressive.
A Deep World, and A Better Focus
Perhaps the reason this speaks so well to me and why my mind wanders to it today is because of Lodoss's world and its deep development. It is clear from the beginning of this 13-episode epic, intended to take place over two years, that this is a well-established, thought out, and lore-driven setting with rich history and a potent pantheon of gods, demons, and dragons. Magic exists, but few know it and few know how to use it properly. Worlds like this are forged with legends, beasts, and great stories.
Created in 1986 as Dungeons and Dragons "replay" setting by Group SNE, the Record of Lodoss War was already steeped in deep D&D roots. Replays are not novels, so to speak, but still act as transcriptions of rpg gaming sessions, and are intended to both "replay" the events and hold interest. There are three recorded Replays of Lodoss War, adapted then into seven sets of novels and manga published from 1989-1993, with two supplemental tales to fill in gaps. Record of Lodoss War is essentially the first volume of the main story, following the main character, Parn, and his party. Halfway through we get a time skip, a nice respite, and Parn's party shifts around, gaining new allies and bidding others farewell.
Without going too deep, the story's progression is keen to show the grand scale as it tips during the war, but the main focus is always on the adventuring party and their dynamics. Their needs, their quests, their troubles, and how they handle them together...or alone. And everything oozes with that classic D&D magic.
It is what I believe to a great example of a full campaign. True, the ending comes down to Parn himself, and is less a party victory (though they play an important role), that's more the culmination of the hero's journey (and it does feature a trope I'm not happy with front and center, unfortunately)...BUT, it's still a good time. And the majority of the series holds true to that story development. You get the sense that these guys have traveled together; learning and growing and changing into the epic heroes we see at the end.
And maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to achieve something close at our own tables.
Enjoy your anime.
I'll see you at the table.
So. There's a thing that happened on the stream.
The characters are Level 2 at the moment - very close to their next milestone - trudging through the sewer system under a reservoir, when they happened upon a dangerous creature.
This creature is pretty nasty, and going toe-to-toe with it in such a tight space proved to be devastating in regard to hit points, especially when it rolled a natural 20 and hit the mage for well over her maximum hit points...
The PHB is very clear on how instant death works, and I admit that in my 3+ years of professional DMing...it has NEVER come up. So of course, online, in front of a live audience, it does.
MY RULE for insta-death is as follows: a character is instantly killed is they are pushed to negative twice their maximum hit points in a single attack. This means that a character with 14 hit points as their maximum has to be hit into the negative by 28 or more hit points in order to die instantly. This ruling has always been there, but this was the first time it came into effect, and though it SAVED the mage, it still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
The reason I altered things was to help safeguard early characters, but I try to balance it with my death DCs rising and requiring rolls and skill tests in order to resurrect a character (it gets harder every time). BUT maybe it was the live show that brought it all into perspective.
The player was alright with it (her dying, that is), but it was going against my original ruling - that no one was actually aware of in the first place. Revealing it looks like a cop-out, even though it's always been that way, but now that it's out there... I am taking a hard look at it.
I Reserve The Right To Change My Mind...But Not Fate, and Not Time
After contemplating and discussing this topic with several parties, and thinking on it myself - especially after learning so much about game systems over the last 7 years - I see no real need to hold onto that rule. So to be clear, this will be how I rule Instant Death, and how I always rule anything that resurrects characters.
Save DC Increase: Each time you die (three saves failed or instantly killed), and are successfully brought back to life, there is a consequence. This is represented by an increase in your Death Save DC. It increases by 1 every time you die and come back (this includes the spell Reincarnate, btw). So, a character that has been killed and brought back successfully must now roll an 11 or higher on their death saves for a success, as opposed to the standard 10 or higher. Die twice? 12 or higher. And so on. There is a consequence to you dying; it is now harder to cling to life.
Resurrection Skill Challenge: bringing a character's soul back to their body is an involved and powerful process. As such, I require a Skill Challenge for a Resurrection spell. The bigger the spell, the more involved the challenge. A spell like Revivify requires only one roll with a DC equal to the character's current Death DC.
A spell like Resurrection is an hour-long process with characters finding ways to pull their friend back to the land of the living. It's an opportunity to immerse yourself in the relationships in your party, and find meaning in bringing them back. I ask for three "offerings." These are creative interactions; whatever the player character deems as a way to usher the entity back to the land of the living. Players have prepared poems, potions, offered a childhood toy, grown a tree - whatever you like. How you present it can help a lot. Then I pick an appropriate attribute or skill and you roll against that same Death DC. A success brings down the final roll (me) DC by 1. A critical success drops it by 2. Conversely, failures and critical failures increase the DC by the same amounts. When all three offerings are finished, I do a straight roll against the adjusted DC (based on the offerings' successes or failures) and we see if the soul was ushered back to the body. So far, I have run 8 total rituals in this way, and 3 Revivify quick rolls. Only 1 has been unsuccessful, but 2 others were within 2 points of failure. It's great role-playing; and sometimes, creatures just die, and that's okay.
DEATH CAN COME AT ANY TIME
Moving forward, you're dead outright if you are pushed to negative your maximum hit points, just like in the PHB.
As for our little gnome friend in Cloudsinger...she's still alive. But her Death DC just went up by 1. That's the balance. :)
I'll see you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.