The following is a sweet shooter.
Another draft of my own head, I wanted to make something that goes down quick and easy - like the liquid courage one downs before a tough job. We'll need two fruity liqueurs, some vodka, and a smidge of cola.
The Sidearm Recipe
1/2 oz Raspberry Liqueur
1/2 oz Vanilla Vodka
1/2 oz Peachtree Schnapps
1 oz Coca-Cola
...Makes about 2 shots or one shooter.
Mix it up, pour it out, and suck it down. If too fruity, swap out the Vanilla Vodka for a measure of standard or Black Vodka.
Good job, kid, now go punch that Orc in the face! You'll be fine.
Easy going this week.
Shoot straight and responsibly.
World-building. It’s a term that you’ll hear in a variety of contexts including literature, cinema, television series, video games, and our usual focus, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of Dungeon Masters became Dungeon Masters because of the creative control they have over their own world, and a lot of players come to Dungeons and Dragons to relax into an immersive experience that combines the intricacies of careful craftsmanship and the thrill of spontaneous play. It’s a space that not only allows us to momentarily escape the troubles of our real lives, but also empowers us to confront those same troubles in a practiced and graceful way. That being said, if mishandled, worldbuilding can also be confusing, exclusionary, and at its worst prohibitive to a player’s enjoyment of a D&D experience.
Now I will be the last person to downplay the value of worldbuilding when crafting an immersive experience, but the prep work alone doesn’t contribute to immersion. Immersion is all about the delivery of intricate information you as the Dungeon Master have spent time carefully crafting, and when mishandled this can have a variety of less than ideal outcomes. Reserve too much information and it's easier for the players to resist immersing themselves in your vision. Ramble too much where the players don’t have the chance to make choices and interact, and they get bored. So what’s the solution?
In my experience, it all comes down to frequent and honest communication. Some players will be more interested in the world than others. Some players will have extremely detailed backgrounds while others are fine creating characters they learn about as they go. So let’s create a space where everyone wins, including you, the world-builder.
Let Your Players Create Too
Now I will admit, my world building is nothing exceptional. I have little interest and skill in crafting highly specific settings with complex layers of intrigue and novel ideas that keep my players guessing. Most of my interesting world-building concepts are rearranged ideas from other sources (but then again, isn’t all art?). So this is a little tip that has gone a long way for me.
My players often create locations, home towns, and points of interest in their back stories that become focal points for a campaign. For example, in my latest game, I had a player create a town next to a forest of fairies. Boom. In the game. This is probably the most direct way that a player can be included in the world-building process, and it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your boundaries for creating your world. If that player mentions something about the world’s overall economy, or another major component you’ve thought through, ask what they’re really trying to convey, and then ask if you can edit or include additional details that further integrates their setting more closely with the overall world you’re creating. You’re creating something together, just like the story you’ll spontaneously tell later on at the table.
Organizing A Reference Document
Now, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many sudden shifts for many different people. In terms of D&D, this led to a shift of at-the-table play to online play, which led to my greatest discovery: Google Drive. And this in turn led to the greatest world-building tool I’ve ever had: the Google Doc. What this tool allows for is you, the Dungeon Master, to detail a world’s common knowledge to your heart’s content, as well as include homebrew rules and systems, with your players’ understanding that you can edit and expand on information you present.
With the shift from tabletop to online gaming, one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself and my gaming preferences is how much I love storytelling in gaming, and how my focus on mechanical understanding was to deliver the story I wanted to tell on my terms, without the DM telling me my idea didn’t fit what the book said. So when I sit down to DM games in my latest world, I view my players as storytelling contributors that write for their own characters, and I want them to have every tool imaginable.
So, I started with a Setting Reference Document (not to be confused with 5e’s SRD, which is a whole different can of worms). The Setting Reference Doc includes a gazetteer (in the fashion of Eberron: Rising from the Last War or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount) with brief descriptions of the major regions that any character would reasonably know about. For an analogue to our real world, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that England has a Queen and Japan had warriors in its history named samurai. By elaborating on a few key iconic details from each region of the world, it gives each player a sense of what the overall world is like, as well as decide where their character hails from.
Once they make that decision, it’s time for a one-on-one conversation with each player. While every player knows the information in the living document about each region, I give each individual player more specific information about their home region, that they are free to share with other players (or not). This is how you create complex systems of character information without making it feel as if the DM is gating information from everyone. Each player has a little more information in one area than the others, and it allows them to express unique perspectives on different situations as the party dynamics mature and develop.
The key concept here is conversation. It’s not about hiding things from your players. It's about giving them the proper tools to allow themselves to immerse themselves into your world and ask better questions to drive the story. This happens by communicating what you want, and listening to how they communicate what they want. And it's not going to be perfect each time, but the more you respect the angle they’re taking with their character, and rewarding that with exclusive details about your world, the more trust they’ll have in you to take them through an immersive and rich experience.
Nuts and Bolts Tip: If you’re planning on using a Google Doc to communicate your world-building, expectations, or other homebrew systems, make sure you’re the only one who can edit it and the players you invite to view it are commenters. You don’t want one of your players to accidentally delete all of your hard work.
Now, I’ve played in plenty of games where I’ve really thought through the world building process. However, in the heat of the game, not every player is going to pick up on every little detail you describe, and some may not even interpret the same detail the same way. By having your world-building details written down and accessible to your players, your players can clarify details with each other. If they remember a location but don’t remember its name, they can look it up. If they hear the name of something, and they know if they’ve heard it before, they can look it up. And if your players discover secrets about the world they’re characters may not have known before, you as the DM can always update the document to contain the most detailed information all players would reasonably have access to.
There’s a certain beauty in being able to say “look it up in the doc” or “you can find it in the doc”. And just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a punishment, or a “gotcha!” It just empowers your players to create compelling characters using details you’ve provided them so that they can respect the work you’ve put in while creating unique characters that allow them to express themselves. Everyone wins.
As a DM, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve seen a DM forget details, and then try to scramble to pretend that they didn’t. And this situation only gets messier if none of it is written down. It gets even messier if a player wrote it down, and the DM tries to cover their butt by saying they misinterpreted or wrote it down wrong, creating tension with that player.
If anything, not only does a living document organize your thoughts and creations into a useful tool, it also keeps everyone at the table accountable. If a player tries to say they didn’t understand something you’ve made abundantly clear, other players are empowered to help you adjudicate. If you’ve made a mistake, other players have something you’ve written to keep you on track. I’ve found ever since implementing a living document detailing my world, my players have felt that I’ve been more accountable in delivering a quality experience, which has actually led to more trust in my judgment. Fear of accountability is a symptom of doubt in ability. The DM that fears accountability or being called out for a misruling they’ve laid the precedent for is one that tends to be more interested in maintaining an unbalanced power dynamic than one that’s interested in crafting the most quality experience for everyone, including themselves.
And ultimately, this is our goal. When your players are included in your thought process, imagination, and creativity, they become more interested in the little things that make your world yours. And that leads to their investment and ultimately their immersion. It’s okay to hold onto some secrets about your world for your players to discover. In fact, it’s encouraged. However, it's a whole other thing to get them to care about the secrets your world holds that they can discover. And the best way I’ve found to get players to care about your world is to make them a part of it, from its design to its play at the table.
When you present your document, I recommend running it as part of a session zero. Explain your expectations, variant game mechanics and why they’re more appropriate to the style of game you’re going for, then dive into the nitty gritty. Where are the players going to go? What races can they play, and do they conform or differ from the traditions set by the PHB? What are the problems in each region, and how could they fit into a character’s story?
A great tool to ignite a player’s imagination while character building is the ten question exercise I posed in the previous Study Hall post. If you can ground the players in the world, while also having a consistent resource for information you freely give, and give them exclusive information based on the choices they make at character creation, you present far more investment into your world, and they begin to actually care about it. That’s what increases immersion. And that’s what makes D&D so magical.
Study Hard, Play Hard
One of the first games I ever ran professionally had a stalwart knight with a belabored backstory full of twists, turns, and dead siblings. His name was Denimus Umbra, oldest brother to the main not-villain of the first arc, Warrick Umbra (whom he thought was dead; actually nearly assassinated by the head of the church of Tiamat, along with his two younger brothers...who Warrick saved by summoning hounds to hold their spirits to the material plane) ...He wasn't in the right campaign.
Let's drink to his memory!
The Classic Daiquiri
Even before all your frozen daiquiri variations found their marks, the Daiquiri was a creature of elegance. Another simple cocktail of minimal ingredients, best served cold.
It is a vehicle for light rum, simple syrup, and a little lime. Simple and to the point.
2 oz light rum
1 oz Lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
Serve chilled or not, whatever works.
Denimus was a Paladin in the Third Age of Ionian Lore. He served his station with heroism and virtue. ...Which means, we have some nasty smite damage to work into this simple cocktail.
The simple answer is to roll in some dark Rum; probably Kraken. Instead of Lime, how about some Lemon? Grenadine (simple syrup with pomegranate) will fill that role. And then we need something else; a tiny radiant punch at the end.
2 oz Kraken spiced rum
1 oz Cherry Liqueur
1 oz Lemon Juice
3/4 oz Grenadine
---Makes 4 shots total
This is where the metaphor gives way in favor of convenient alliteration. This will not remind you of a valiant knight charging into battle. Instead, this goes down smooth and sweet, SMITING you after the hit with a nice buzz. As I'm discovering, I make things that are tasty and strong, so be careful how many spell slot shots you dole out with this one.
A Gimlet is something I never would have found had I not dedicated some measure of my being to the study of mixology and freelance bartending. If you've been reading me for a while, you probably have some idea why.
There are some ingredients that I can use easily across many facets of my repertoire, and this is because I understand them more intimately through personal experience, experimentation, and requests. So that's Rum, Whiskey, Vodka, and Tequila.
I've had one request for Gin. That's it. (and, if that taste-tester is any indication, I did REALLY WELL with it)
The Classic Gimlet
So the Gimlet, wink wink, uses Gin as its Core. If that doesn't float for you, Vodka can also take that place. After that, we just sweeten the pot with Simple Syrup and Lime. Try this out:
2 oz Gin (or Vodka)
3/4 oz Simple Syrup
3/4 oz Lime juice
Serve over ice and enjoy.
Now, there are some snobs out there who will INSIST on the idea that this is emphatically NOT a Gimlet, and for those people...fine. Omit the Lime and Simple Syrup for 1.5 oz of Rose's Lime Cordial (chalk full of high fructose corn syrup).
Both are pretty yummy, and I'm going to break it anyway, so pick your poison; I don't really care.
A Dwarven Gimlet?
Dwarves love Ale and Whiskey, and this will be neither, though some tones will be represented. The lime and the gin complement one another splendidly, so the additions are minute and serve only to slightly darken the effect.
2 oz Gin
3/4 oz Triple Sec
3/4 oz Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Lime juice
1/2 oz Drambuie
3-5 dashes of Aromatic Bitters
A splash of Lime Tonic Water
Pour this sucker over ice and enjoy.
When you play Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons long enough (especially from the DM side of the screen), you’ll start to notice some patterns in the game’s design. The most powerful magic items always bestow no more than a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls. You almost never see the upper limit of a player’s ability score go above 20, and even from monsters they cap at an absolute ceiling of 30. No matter how many numbers you try to stack, there’s a limit to how high you’ll get your attack bonus to hit and how many hit points your character can build to. So why limit these numbers? What’s the difference between the bounded accuracy model of 5e and the treadmill model of Pathfinder? Which one is preferable, and what is the upside and downside of each?
First, let’s dive into the term “Bounded Accuracy”. Like I stated earlier, no matter how savvy you are character building, your bonus to hit can only be so high. In 5e, the upper limit to a reasonable player’s bonus to hit is fairly standard, and the upper limit to a creature’s armor class also tends to be set. Heck, even Tiamat, a literal god in Faerun, has an Armor Class of 25, meaning that anything with a higher AC has a higher AC than a god. What this does is give even lower level creatures a reasonable chance to hit a much higher level creature, even if that chance lowers with a wider power gap. It means with favorable luck (and tactics), even a lower level party can potentially defeat a much greater enemy.
Let’s compare this to the “treadmill effect” of similar d20 systems. For example, in Pathfinder, certain creatures can have ACs in the upwards of 40s, and the system rewards mathematically minded players to combine as many features as possible to create a statistically superior character with the right choices. What this ends up meaning is that a low enough level character has virtually no chance to hit a creature with a wide enough power gap. A goblin just plain won’t hit a player of a high enough level with a high enough AC. And while Pathfinder has a bevvy of conditional modifiers a clever player can take advantage of in order to close that statistical gap with careful planning, ultimately the odds are still stacked against the lower level combatant.
So let’s look at the pros of a treadmill model first. It rewards players with an exhaustive understanding of the rules (given that your table is playing by the rules-as-written, which most Pathfinder games I’ve heard tend to do) and by making optimized characters. Of course, the cons are that the encounters that a Game Master can use are bounded in scope. At one point, if the minions of one tier are no longer valid threats, they have to use minions of an appropriate tier. The minions have to keep up with the players, which may feel forced or may not make sense in the context of the world.
The pros of a Bounded Accuracy model like D&D are that the numbers tend to be simpler. Rather than having players focus on mechanical advantages they can leverage to statistical superiority, a bounded accuracy model brings the focus of play to description and effects, and although numbers are relevant, oftentimes it's the qualities and conditions of the pieces in play that make D&D combat engaging. A goblin has the possibility of hitting a 20th level player character in 5e, meaning they can still present a threat in high numbers or if they get to attack with advantage. The con of course, is that players that use quantities to measure their character’s power may not be rewarded for optimizing their character. After all, especially when using standard arrays, there are only so many “optimized” builds you can create in 5e’s system.
In his series Happy Fun Hour, Mike Mearls once said that “the more small choices you give players when making a character, the more small schisms in power you’re creating”. To find evidence of this, look no further than 5e’s Feat system in comparison to Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, feats are small bonuses to your character you get every other level (at least from what I can remember, I have a very obvious bias here). In 5e, Feats are larger packages of benefits you get every fourth level, meaning that 5e characters usually only get five opportunities to customize their characters in this way. These larger choices mean that the schisms in power are also less in number, and more importantly, more obvious. I’ve had plenty of conversations with Pathfinder enthusiasts that to make some character concepts work, there is a specific chain of feats needed. While some may argue it exists in 5e, the need is far smaller.
So Why Do We Care?
Great question. I mean, like I say in most of these, it’s the question to end all questions.
My answer is that understanding the design process behind a game system allows the adjudicator of that system (in this case the Dungeon Master) to deliver an experience with greater skill and information. If a DM understands that only the most powerful creatures of a realm have an AC of 25, it gives them a reference on how strong a creature they create is in relation to the party in a more meaningful way. If a DM wants to create custom content, including magic items, subclasses, or custom features, they know how to balance that content in relation to the system.
As silly as it sounds, creating a +4 magic weapon in 5e actually breaks the system, whether you agree with it or not. It breaks the upper limit of the Bounded Accuracy model the system is intentionally designed with, and if you try to fix this break with stronger monsters, then you risk changing to the treadmill model of Pathfinder, and the focus of the game changes.
Bounded Accuracy exists so that players will actually think less about the game’s math and more about the game’s story. 5e’s mechanics are intentionally simple and flexible to allow DMs to deliver custom, satisfying experiences to their players. The mechanics are a tool, not the experience, and by understanding the design process, it empowers a DM to create their own custom content to deepen their world without breaking the system that’s been so elegantly crafted for them.
That isn’t to say you should never mess with rules or purposely break your own system to deliver a specific experience: it just means if you break the rules, you’re doing so intentionally with knowledge of some of the consequences of doing so. I’ve played with +4 and +5 weapons before, and it leads to disastrous power gaps that invalidate the stories of other party members. (Now putting such abilities on some kind of charge mechanic…)
So that’s all I have to say on Bounded Accuracy for now. Hopefully this gives y’all something to chew on, especially for the creative DMs out there.
Study Hard, Play Hard
Let's take a quick look at a lovely little game of sanity, horror, and the cosmos.
Call Of Cthulhu has had a long, satisfying run, and though the major mechanics have pulled away from the influences of 4th edition and Pathfinder (like COC D20) in favor of more nuanced D100 play, the theming and expectations have stayed consistent.
Let's get one thing out of the way immediately: this is not a game of HEROES.
In fact, so much of what we see in play and in its surrounding lore supports and reinforces the idea that each of us, though a cut above the average human and exceptional in some way, are just regular people. And with that, subject to mental breakdowns, psychic attack, possession, and a quick, gruesome death. We are squishy, delicate bags of flesh just doing their best against forces we have little knowledge of.
This is ELDRITCH HORROR. Dark shadows, tentacle beasts, unexplained occult, and the energy of grasping at the very edge of understanding - just enough to be able to act - in the face of very likely doom.
And anyone who plays this game, KNOWS THAT. They know they might get decapitated if they take a wrong turn and roll badly; they know that their character's life is inconsequential to the grand scheme of the universe, and they're here for it. This is a game of atmosphere, immersion, PROPS, and cosmic horror.
So, noting the fact that I am alone in my den while my wife is at work pondering about my singular not-hero in a cosmic horror dystopia without the help of a Keeper (the GM)...I still find the best way to begin understanding a system is to comb through and make yourself an adventurer! ...I mean...INVESTIGATOR!
This is not your daddy's D&D. Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition utilizes 8 "pools" of specific characteristics for your Investigator, plus a Luck attribute. Each one is generated *a little* differently, but each one will use some combination of rolling some D6's and multiplying by 5.
We'll take a look at each one while we generate it:
STRENGTH (STR) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 15 x 5 = 75
Strength is tied to one's athleticism and ability in hand-to-hand combat. Pretty straightforward.
CONSTITUTION (CON) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 12 x 5 = 60
Constitution is your health, vigor, and vitality. Your resilience to injury, poison, and attack.
SIZE (SIZ) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 9 + 6, 15 x 5 = 75
Size...worries me. It is supposed to represent height and weight as a single number, the higher it is, the bigger you are? Can...can creatures reduce that score? (Probably)
DEXTERITY (DEX) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 11 x 5 = 55
Dexterity is what you think it is. Agility, coordination, flexibility, and quickness.
APPEARANCE (APP) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 16 x 5 = 80
Appearance can be equated to one's "charisma" score, carrying with it both one's physical attractiveness and personality.
INTELLIGENCE (INT) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 6+6, 12 x 5 = 60
Think of Intelligence in this case as a combination of Int and Wisdom; investigative ability, remembering and sorting information, and solving puzzles.
POWER (POW) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 16 x 5 = 80 (woot!)
Your Power score also creates your Sanity score (at least for now!), so I feel good. Power, unlike Strength, is your force of Will. It's your mental fortitude and presence; personal, intrinsic, even mystical, power.
EDUCATION (EDU) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 10+6, 16 x 5 = 80 (yay, I think)
Education is your book knowledge and level of, well, education! Higher the score, the more educated you are.
LUCK (Luck) - 3d6 x 5 (though later in the text it says roll 3d6 x 5...weird)
My roll: 8 x 5 = 40 (oops!)
Luck is used in the game to alternate the fickle hands of fate. Looks like I'm none too lucky.
What My Numbers Mean
Well above average strength, and approaching "one of the strongest people you've ever met."
Slightly above average healthy human.
Pretty tall and strongly built.
Average human. Sigh.
Exceedingly charming human.
Slightly above average human intellect.
Strong willed, driven, and possessing a high potential to sense and connect with the unseen and magical.
Master's degree held, and a Bachelor's to boot!
Unfortunately, we now make adjustments based on our Investigator's age. I'll keep mine around 35 to keep it simple. According to the chart, I need to make an Improvement Check on my Education, meaning I need to roll 1d100. If I roll higher than my current EDU score, I get to roll a D10 and add that to my EDU. My roll: 29. Guess I took a year off to get exceedingly handsome.
DAMAGE, BUILD, and HP
We add our STR and SIZ scores together first: 150
My Damage gets a +1d4 bonus, and my Build gets a +1.
If I add my CON and SIZ scores together (135), then divide by 10 and round down, I get my Hit Points!
...Remember what I said about being squishy?
There are a few other derived statistics, but let's keep going.
Now it's time to figure out my class! Yes! The best part...the best...
Right. This isn't going to work the same way, is it?
Not in the slightest! Let's go!
An Investigator's Occupation isn't their class, like in D&D. In fact, there's nothing of the sort. COC isn't a game about level progression or powerful features or capstone abilities. It's a dark, horror fantasy that is all about personal, terrifying storytelling.
The Occupation determines what Characteristics grant you Skill Points (for allocation), Credit Rating (more on that later), Suggested Contacts based on that Occupation, and the 8 skills that define the Occupation. There's an extensive list, and it's not even close to complete or comprehensive, because you're invited to MAKE YOUR OWN Occupation based on the time period you're operating in.
Because I don't know what I'm doing, I'll just pick a Diver.
Skill Points are your EDU x 2 + DEX x 2
My Skill Points: 110+160, so 270 (yay?)
Credit Rating: 9-30
Contacts: law enforcement, smugglers, coast guard
Skills: Diving, First Aid, Mechanical Repair, Pilot (boat), Science (Biology), Spot Hidden, Swim, and one specialty.
Allocating Skill Points
This is where I need to stop and ask some questions.
Do you only have access to skills tied to your Occupation, or can you take a skill not on your list?
--- You can take skills not connected to your Occupation. These are Personal Interest Skills and whose points are derived from your INT score x 2 (so 120 for me).
What is the benefit between Occupation skills and "untrained" skills? Can you even do a thing untrained?
--- Seems that I add the additional "percentages" to skills that have my Occupation? Unfortunately, it seems the RAW is particularly vague on this, despite it's apparent mechanical lynchpin importance! It clears up a few things by offering an anecdotal walkthrough, but why didn't they have that in the actual workflow of the rulebook?
For now, I'll place my points in what I know well, and allocate my personal ones in some sick brawling and knife fighting skills. As a diver, I'd assume I'd know how to at least defend myself against an eel or two, right?
Backstories and Equipment
Personal descriptions and backstories can be decided randomly by rolling on tables, or just used for inspiration. Here you decide your ideologies, people and locations significant to you, treasured possessions, traits, and any other backstory connections.
After that, your Credit Rating comes into play to give you an idea of overall wealth and lifestyle, also letting me equip a few things, but not much I need to go into here. I've got the important stuff, and after that it's up to my Credit Rating to explain away certain expenditures. Just like any other value in the game, it's something you roll for.
And That's Part One...
With my Investigator made, the next step is to deep dive and put the little sucker into practice. I am very much a kinesthetic learner, so experience goes a long way in amplifying a system and understanding it on my terms.
I'd apologize for the cliffhanger, but I don't actually care. ;)
The Moscow Mule is a simple alchemy. A little vodka, even less lime, and a whole bunch of ginger beer. It's simple, clean, fizzy, and satisfying.
How To Make A Moscow Mule
The ye olde classic doesn't need much at hand.
2 oz Vodka
1/2 oz Lime Juice
4-6 oz Ginger Beer, or just fill your glass to the top
Don't forget ice!
The Den's Spin on a classic
The true star of this drink is the Ginger Beer. It is the vehicle for every heavy-hitting alcohol in the main suite. In fact, switching out only that aspect and leaving the rest is where we get all of our usual variations on this drink.
The Moscow has Vodka
A Mexican Mule uses Tequila
The Kentucky Mule is Bourbon Whiskey
The Gin Gin is...Gin. With some mint and simple syrup.
Jamaican Mules use Rum.
A Glasgow Mule uses Scotch.
Irish Mules use Irish Whiskey.
After that, we start changing more of the fundamentals. We dash in some chocolate bitters, or some fruity vodkas, or maybe change up the soda. A REALLY simple variation would be to take the Mexican Mule and try it with Ginger Ale and GOLD Tequila. I call it the "Midas Touch."
But in the spirit of Moonriver, experimentation lends to experiential discovery, and though I may study this pretty deeply, I still find combinations that surprise me. So what hasn't been done yet by the mainstream?
Let's look at the fundamentals. You have:
A Core Liquor
A Sweet or Sour element
Ginger is the blanket that brings this all together, but what if I broke that first? Sprite doesn't get enough love in this house, so that's our new Soda component. Lime? How about Cherry instead? Now, the Core. I'm inclined toward a cinnamon whiskey just because I know it might tick people off.
2 oz Fireball
1 oz Cherry Liqueur
Fill with ice and Sprite
It's a Blood Moon Mule. Let's try it out...
I'm a Goram genius.
Drink responsibly and try not to howl too loudly.
Wait, when did this become an EDUCATIONAL blog!?
Blasphemy, I know, but hear me out for a moment. When spending time with my extended family, I'm often the one called upon to entertain or regale them with a new game to play that they've never heard of. Unlike my side of the family, though, this other side doesn't necessarily share the same intuitive enthusiasm for tabletop play and focus. However, my niece and father in law are both very curious, and will always try something new with fervor and flexibility, even if it isn't their norm.
So each night of our socially distant "vacation", I have taught them a game. Nothing too crazy - no Power Grid or Defenders of the Realm territory; this is NOT the population to play-test my RPG-in-a-box (the last test, though awesome, ran 4 hours straight). No, I'm giving them games that are completed in 15-30 minutes tops. Games with simple rules that are easy to pick up, but challenging to master. And in playing and teaching these games, I noticed something revealing.
I've played these games before, but not extensively. The rules and mechanics are few, but structuring and planning your moves takes forethought, organization...and MATH. Yeah, you heard me. Organizational, quick recall, multiplication, probability, and risk assessment.
I am not a genius [though I've never been tested ;) ]. I have struggled with so many facets of my life that others excel at in common practice. And yet, I was executing key functions of my play in record time (apparently). Chunking numbers and weighing moves with precision and poise, ready to help my fellows immediately if asked, because I could SEE all of their options laid out. And to think on this more deeply, it is simply that I have had more PRACTICE utilizing these skills than they have.
I've always had a good "math brain." Numbers and probability blended with mechanics and organization; this is why business and budgeting come so easily. And when I play these games with others who have also a history of tabletop gaming, I find that they, too, have obtained a general skill-set in "quick" math and organization, and I venture that this is because they practiced like I did.
We practiced through play.
So let me share with you three simple games that are quick on the draw and you can be certain are also helping you and your kid master some math facts (DON'T TELL THEM).
Chunking and Pairing - Quixx
Quixx is a game you learn in minutes.
On your turn you roll six dice (2 white, then one each of Blue, Yellow, Green, and Red); then you make one or two choices based on what you rolled. You make these decisions in order.
1) You add the two White dice together, and decide to use that number or not (and other players can do this).
2) You pair ONE White die with one of the colored dice and add those together (only the active player does this).
You decide to use one or both of the numbers you've "chunked" and cross them off - white is any color you want (#1), color is the color that white is paired with (#2).
The thing to remember in Quixx is that each row is accessed from left to right in sequence. This means that if you cross out your Red 4, the game actually tells you to put a line through 2 and 3 on your sheet. That's because you no longer have access to them, even if you roll a "2" or "3" later. And you HAVE to cross off SOMETHING, whether it be the White, the Color Pair, OR, if neither of those are desired or possible, a Penalty Box (the game ends after four of those are crossed off).
As you cross off more colors, your end score is multiplying, so more crosses in any color is a good idea. However, after you have at least FIVE crosses in a color, if you roll (or someone else rolls with White on their turn) the furthest number to the right, you can cross off THAT number and the Lock symbol next to it, and LOCK that color. This removes it from the game, and nets you two more crosses for your total. When two colors are Locked, the game ends.
With that impetus, the game becomes a balance between holding out for those low or high numbers, trying to avoid penalty boxes, and trying to end the game faster by Locking two colors.
Building Skills: every turn you're rolling dice, chunking quick addition, and comparing those values to desired outcomes. Us D&D folks do this all the time when we roll our favorite greatsword or fireball, so our eyes are used to putting together the numbers into easier sets to add, but the additional value comparison and choice of strategy adds a new layer to that judgement. Simple, yet complex. Anyone playing will get A LOT of practice in quick number crunching and value assignment.
Probability and Risk Management - Category 5 / 6 Nimmt
The game known as 6 Nimmt was a joy to play in my household growing up. Introduced to us by my eldest brother, the deceptive German game involves placing numbers in rows by the closest ascending value, filling slots in each row. If your number WOULD HAVE filled the sixth slot in a row, you must collect the five previous cards and add them to your score pile. Your "sixth" card then becomes the first in the new row.
This is a game like golf. Points are bad. Each card has upon it a certain number of oxen, each worth a point. Cards have anywhere from one to seven points, and with how the game is played, some rows can add up VERY QUICKLY. But it's not all terrible.
The game uses a deck of 104 cards and can be played with anywhere from 2 - 10 players. Each player starts with a hand of 10 cards each and selects in secret each round what card they'll play. After 10 rounds, everyone's hands are empty and we total up how much each of us took. This keeps rounds moving, but how many people are actually playing MATTERS in terms of probability.
See, with 2 players, you deal 10 to each player, then set out 4 cards to begin each of the four rows. That's only 24 cards out of 104 that are in play. You don't draw cards during the round, so what you have is what you have. Now why does that matter?
We each select a card every round and place it face down in front of us. When each of us has selected a card, we flip them at the same time. After that, the outcome to the round is mostly automated. The lowest number is placed first - it goes in ascending order within the closest distance to a number. If we use the above example, where the right-most number in each row is what we are comparing against, and with three players, we had the following numbers: 54, 16, 87.
16 is placed first, settling in right next to the 14. It is the closest row number in ascending order. After that, 54 is placed...next to the 50, but not the 60, as 60 is higher than 54. The 87...is placed next to the 60. But wait! 87 is closer to 100 than it is to 60! But the numbers must be in ascending order. 100 to 87 would be a DEscending order. Say there were more cards in those rows, and the row ending in 50 was one of them. The fifth card in the row is 50, 54 would be its sixth card - but each row can only have 5 cards, so the 50 row is collected by the player who played the 54, and their 54 starts the new row. That stack of 5 cards? Well congratulations! Add those to your score pile and get ready for the next round!
But what if someone plays a card that's lower than all of the right-most numbers? Well, my dear adventurers, that person (if they go first), will have a choice. If your number is lower than everything, you choose the row you want (some are better than others), taking the lesser of two evils, and your card becomes the new row (regardless if the old row had 1 or 3 or 5 or any number cards). Pay attention, though; as the row you take may mess up another's plans in probability...
The reason this game changes so dramatically with the number of players is clear when you think about probability. the game runs 10 players at max with 10 cards each (that's 100 cards), then 4 cards to get things started. That means...EVERY number from 1-104 is now in play. Now your decisions have a lot more variables to consider, many of them in the form of OTHER PEOPLE and their own strategies. With less people, you can gauge different risk with less ranges of cards in play each round.
It's a fascinating, fast game, with a deep strategic backbone, and a rule set of a few sentences.
Building skills: risk management, probability, judgement, counting, and chunking.
Sometime in the span of 10 years ago, 6 Nimmt went out of print, but its mechanics and rights were bought and reprinted in the form of Category 5. Same game, but with hurricanes instead of bulls. *shrug*
Investment, Multiplication, and Risk Management - Lost Cities
In Lost Cities, you take the form of an archaeologist or mining explorer, seeking treasure and profit from five possible sites, and competing with only one other person.
Another game involving ascending order, you place numbers in sequential order to accumulate points (profit) in the sites you want to invest in. You can't always get all the numbers you want, though, and will have to make choices carefully on when to place that 9 when you're still holding out for the 8. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
On your turn, you Play A Card - investing in a dig, or "discarding" a color onto the divider that splits the board in two equal sides - then Draw A Card [either from the ever-diminishing deck OR from the top of a discard pile from the divider]. "One man's trash" and all that.
INVESTING IN A DIG
You invest in a dig by placing a card on your side of the divide in front of the color you desire. The number and color should match. From here, on subsequent turns, you try to place as many cards as you can in the dig to make a profit, but it ain't easy. There are two main factors in your way: 1) Ascending Sequence and 2) ...Costs.
Ascending Sequence means that the numbers you place must be in ascending order. You put down a 3 one turn, then a 4 next turn, then a 6 after that (and draw a 5!)...you cannot place that 5. It's too late. Each color only has 2-10 to work with in this regard.
Costs refer to the upfront cost of your dig. It comes up in end-game scoring, but you NEED to keep it in mind up front. ANY DIG you start automatically incurs a -20 point penalty. Things cost things. Tough. HOWEVER, the full range of numbers at your disposal can usually bump you over 20 points if you're paying attention. For example, I start digging in Red and over many turns put down 3-5-6-8-9-10. Add all those up and you've got 41... Subtract 20 for costs, and my score ends up being 21 for that dig. Factor in that you'll probably invest in 2 or 3 digs per game and that can add up...or 2 go really well and 1 BOMBS.
But there's a third factor that can work for you or against you: PARTNERS. Represented by a little card of gentlemen shaking hands, you can have up to 3 partners (probably investors, but you get the idea) in your dig's stack, but they must be played at the beginning of the sequence. One card takes your end score (after the -20) and multiplies it by 2. 2 cards = x3. 3 cards = x4. Sounds pretty great, right? Except this can backfire. If you don't turn a profit, your partners don't either, and those multipliers count with negative points too.
So I've got two partners up front, then my 21 in total from above. 21 x 3 = 63 points. Huzzah! But my other dig has three partners up front and I only managed to get a measly 3 and 9 on it. 12 - 20 = -8... x 4 = -32. All told, I'm actually back to 41, but that was an ouch, and if you're not careful with your spread, things can get real tough for you when the piper comes to collect his debts.
Building Skills: My wife and I LOVE this game. There are many strategies to win and it's a great way to cultivate patience, risk management, and portfolio business. Plus, with the game ending once the deck is depleted, using that "discard" option is a leet hacker play to prolong the game so you can get that last...10...down!
Today we're going to revisit my youth and share with you one of the first drinks I ever learned, and continue to enjoy!
I first learned about this drink while visiting a friend in Maine, and it stuck with me. However, it seems that very few people actually know about it. When I ask for it, I'm often met with a confused look. Luckily, it was burned into my memory, so every time I might order it I get to teach someone a new drink. Also, in my responsible social gatherings, this was the drink of request for many of my friends; they knew I could mix it and it was downright delicious.
Sex With An Alligator / The Alligator Tail
Ordering this is often hilarious. It usually comes out as "Could I have a Sex With An Alligator?" The waitress would nod, walk away...then return after about five minutes and ask, "You want the drink, right?" ...I didn't realize the alternative was an option?
The "Alligator" is a layered drink. You are to pour each element in order, so as to build a certain aesthetic as well as the progression of flavors.
The Recipe I Learned
1. Midori (melon liqueur) - usually 2 oz
2. Pineapple Juice - 2 oz
3. Raspberry Liqueur (Razzmatazz or Chambord will work great) - 2 oz
4. Thin layer of Jagermeister - about 1/2 oz or less, depending on preference, floats on top
The visual effect...is a murky swamp. Like the home of our favorite big scaly body of teeth.
This is a shooter, approximately 3-4 shots total. A little licorice at the front, then nothing but candy. It sneaks up on you, though. Make sure to respect the big green.
Want a little more orange in your drink? Then you want my Crocodile variation. Just switch out the Pineapple juice for Orange juice instead.
Other versions cite using Whiskey Sour mix, but that wasn't the tasty version I learned. You want it? Switch out the Pineapple juice for a Sweet and Sour mix, or the Whiskey Sour. Go figure.
A while ago, Adamus released a blog post detailing ten questions that he asks his players in order to create dynamic stories and engaging characters. Recently, I did a similar practice, and asked ten of my own questions as part of a session zero for my latest story-based campaign. This is due to some profound discoveries I’ve made about myself and my relationship with Dungeons and Dragons, including that I’m energized by story developments over combat, and that my focus on mechanics has been motivated by story reasons, not quantitative ones. I want to tell my character’s story, not have it told to me by the Dungeon Master.
The centerpiece of all my favorite stories is the characters. A hackneyed plot can be saved by unique and deep character development, while often the opposite can’t be true. I tend to reject stories that have deep world building that lack great characters. So what makes a great character?
Personally, I find my favorite characters to have the following traits:
1) Great characters have some kind of conflict, whether it’s the conflict of their view versus reality, or a conflict between what they preach versus how they act. However this conflict manifests, it’s something that hangs over their head.
2). Great characters learn as they go. They aren’t the same person at the end of their story as they were at the beginning. I find characters that repeat the same mistakes over and over again to be frustrating, especially if the lesson they learn is the same one. That doesn’t mean their character has to do a 180 every time they fail, but there should be some kind of change, even if it’s gradual.
3). Great characters have a goal, even if it changes as it goes. Sometimes I’ll hear, “My character doesn’t have a goal. They’re just in it for the coin.” THAT’S A GOAL! They do stuff because they want stuff. And just because they start a journey where they’re in it for the money doesn’t mean they don’t create attachments and relationships as the story progresses. In fact, that may create a conflict that they learn from, changing their goal as they go. It can be a cycle.
Obviously this is a gross reduction of the complexity we could discuss when it comes to great characterization, but the last point I’d like to make is that none of these traits have to be big in scope. Some of my favorite stories are more intimate, personal journeys than they are grand quests that span the globe. Aang’s quest (from Avatar: The Last Airbender, now on Netflix and you should totally watch it) to convey his feelings to Katara is just as if not more important to him than defeating Fire Lord Ozai and saving the world from the Fire Nation military. Another great example is the Mandalorian, where the titular character’s quest of protecting Baby Yoda (don’t care what his canon name is) tends to be more praised than the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker. The rise of stakes does not mean the rise of investment, and often it’s the little changes that make the biggest difference.
So with that in mind, the ten questions I asked my players were intended to ignite their creative energy and deepen their understanding of the characters they wanted to portray. I started by asking my players these questions sequentially, gave them some time to let them simmer, and then worked through each question with the players in one-on-one follow up conversations. That way, they wouldn’t feel silly in front of other people. It was just them and me.
Here are the ten (and some of them have multiple parts):
1). Where were you born, and who was your family? Are any of them still alive?
2). Did you grow up in poverty, nobility, or the middle class?
3). How did you come upon your current profession (character class)? Who trained you?
4). Who else helped or hindered you along the way?
5). What’s your character’s view on politics and religion? (Ambivalence is a perfectly fine answer)
6). What is your character’s current goal(s)?
7). What does your character regret?
8). What lie does your character tell themselves to make things easier?
9). How does your character see their story ending?
10). How is your character acquainted with the party, or what about the mission hooked them in?
Now the first six are standard fare session zero questions. There are plenty of content creators that have spoken eloquently to the value of considering those factors when designing a character and their story, especially if you want to prepare your players to be situated in the world.
Question 1 allows the DM to give you extra information on your home town or region that you as a player can leverage in-game by calling out specific details that heighten the table’s immersion.
Questions 2 and 5 may heavily impact your outlook on the world and social dynamics.
Question 3 grounds your character’s abilities in the world.
The second half of Question 1, the second half of Question 3, and all of Question 4 help create NPCs that the DM can use as informants, allies, and even possibly rivals for your character.
And, Question 6 gives your character a motive and direction to create their own objectives if they so choose.
You’d be surprised how many players have trouble with Question 6. Until they get into gameplay, goals may feel abstract or silly. After all, the DM gives the party their initial mission that then helps the players leverage into proactive goals, right?
Questions 7 and 8 are the ones I noticed give my players pause. At Session Zero, nothing about them seemed too out of the ordinary, but in one-on-one conversations, every single one of my players had to take extra time to answer them. They’re hard questions we as a culture don’t have enough practice in exploring in an articulate way, and by making Dungeons and Dragons a safe space where you get to make an entirely new person to explore these questions, it can give us judgment-free practice to ask these questions of ourselves.
Now to pause for a second, let me make this clear: D&D is not therapy. It can feel therapeutic, but it is not a substitute for therapy. Your friends are not therapists, and even if they are, a recreational game is not the place for dealing with very real issues of mental health and wellness. What I’m saying here is that tabletop role-playing can be a launch pad for personal growth and development, but I will repeat: This is not therapy. Therapy is therapy. D&D is D&D. Both are valuable, both have their place, and there are many professionals much smarter and much more equipped than me that can speak to D&D’s relationship to therapy as a supplement, not a substitute.
With that out of the way, we have another interesting thought experiment with Question 9. How does your character see their story ending? This can be an easy one to dismiss by saying “They don’t think about that”, but if forced to come up with an answer, what would you say? It’s another hard question, but again allows for a safe space exercise to really map out your character’s arc. And just like any of these questions, the answer can change over time.
And then Question 10…is just more standard stuff. Build an adventurer, someone who can at least have a coworker relationship with the party if not an invested friendship.
Really, the meat and potatoes of these questions are 7, 8, and 9, and how they can inform the answers for earlier questions. I can’t tell you the number of times having conversations that a player would give me a regret and I would reply “Does that inform your goal?” or “That sounds like someone that hindered you along the way”. These questions aren’t disconnected from each other.
Now just to give an example of how these questions fit together, let’s go back to talk about our Last Airbender, Aang, and how we might answer these questions for him:
1). Aang comes from the Southern Air Temple, and his family is unknown.
2). Aang grew up with the Air Nomads, meaning he lives outside of the economic hierarchy of most communities. Technically, this also means he’s impoverished.
3). Aang was trained by Monk Gyatso, who taught him everything he knows about Airbending (abilities of which would be reflected in his character class). Later, he learns to communicate with his past life, Avatar Roku, in order to learn what it means to be the Avatar (again, reflected in his character class).
4). Aang is helped by the waterbender that discovered him, Katara, and her brother Sokka. He is often hindered by his rival, the Firebending Prince Zuko (we’re talking just season 1, so no spoilers).
5). Aang is technically the center of a loose religion dedicated to the Avatar, of which he’s a Messiah figure tasked to rebalance the world. He detests the War, and has vowed to defeat Fire Lord Ozai to end it.
6). Aang’s current goal (season 1) is to travel to the North Pole and learn waterbending, after which he’ll learn earth and fire so he’ll be properly trained when taking on Ozai.
7). Aang regrets leaving the Southern Air Temple, believing he could’ve helped fight off the Fire Nation invaders if he had stayed behind.
8). One of the reasons Aang is such a dynamic character is because of how he lies to himself. One of the best lies is “I’m just a simple monk” before entertaining a flock of young girls.
9). Aang isn’t sure how his story will end, but as he progresses through Season 1, he can at least see the end of his current arc: becoming a master waterbender.
10). Aang joined the party when Katara discovered him in the iceberg.
Now to drive this point home further, Avatar was awarded the Peabody award for excellent character development. Part of this is that Aang’s rival, Prince Zuko, can answer these questions as well (if not better) than the protagonist himself.
1). Fire Prince Zuko is the son of Fire Lord Ozai of the Fire Nation.
2). He was born into nobility and is accustomed to underlings following his orders.
3). He’s still being taught firebending and philosophy by his Uncle Iroh, who is his greatest ally on the hunt for the Avatar.
4). His father permanently scarred his face after publically forcing him into a duel after “dishonoring” him, and his current efforts are often hindered by the interference of the Fire Nation’s Commander Zhao.
5). Zuko believes the Fire Nation will win the war, and although he believes the Avatar is still alive, he rejects any worship of him.
6). Zuko’s current goal is to defeat the Avatar and regain his lost honor following the duel with his father, Fire Lord Ozai.
7). Zuko regrets having spoken up at a war meeting, where he criticized the heartless tactics of a high ranking Fire Lord officer. His father interpreted this as dishonoring his family, and the Fire Lord punished him in a highly publicized duel where Zuko was scarred.
8). The lie Zuko tells himself is that if he defeats the Avatar, his father will finally love him.
9). Zuko sees his story ending by defeating Aang in combat and returning home with honor, where he’ll inherit the throne of the Fire Lord.
10). Zuko met the party after seeing a column of light caused by Aang’s reawakening from the Iceberg.
Now you tell me. Which character sounds more compelling? I’ve done this exercise myself with the character’s I’m currently playing, and it’s revealed a lot about them and my preferences in character creation. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself too as you answer them for your characters.
I’m excited to hear your thoughts about this. If you found this blog through Facebook, make sure to comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Study Hard, Play Hard,
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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