The archdevil looms above you, inspecting the burning blood that drips from his face. The same boiling red drips from your blade as a grin curls across your lips...but its booming bass shakes you to your core as it speaks to the air around you.
"Azolonia. This mortal has requested his demise. Kindly remove his head for me."
A shockwave of dread spirals up your spine as tendrils of black smoke and scents of sulfur spur into your peripheral. You whip around and stare into the red eyes of a statuesque form; alabaster skin and striking beauty, stylized black armor gleaming with the firelight surrounding you. A pair of gigantic black wings stretch and flex behind her as she draws an exquisite, vicious blade from a scabbard, a grin curling across her lips. Her voice is menacing silk. "Of course, my lord."
Inspiration and Lore
The Erinyes is a powerful, disciplined devil warrior that serves the pit fiend masters of the Nine Hells. They are dangerous, tactical, mobile, and vicious. Masters of martial combat, each is skilled with bow and sword alike, and many use magical ropes of entanglement to ensnare more powerful foes.
Erinyes, despite their gladiatorial or knight-like visage, are often mistaken in use and sight for Succubi or Incubi. And this could not be further from the truth. As one is a devil (the Erinyes) and the other a demon, both would actually be at war with one another.
Traits and Features in 5th Edition
Erinyes in Io
(The Furies as reference, then as possible avenues)
In Ionian lore, an Erinyes is already a powerful entity, but there are some who aspire to even greater power. An Erinyes, male or female, serves a devil master or a general oath to Asmodeus, but there is a grand order of Erinyes who command even more clout and respect among the greater and lesser devils. These are called the Furies. A cohort of nine sister generals, each serving the Archduke or Archduchess of each layer of the Nine Hells. These Erinyes have earned the title of Fury, and command legions of lesser and greater devils as grand warriors and tacticians in service of their masters. The more they please this master, the more power and abilities the archdevil passes onto the Fury. Meaning, the longer a Fury serves their master in good standing, the more power they may yet wield
Recently I was blessed to be able to spend my Thanksgiving week with my family in Maine. While there I caught up with my siblings, rekindled family bonds, sang a lot of songs, and drank whiskey.
Now, to be honest, I'm not a heavy drinker. In fact, no beer has ever sit well with me, pushing me to avoid the stuff altogether. Instead, mead and hard cider, like a good Strongbow, would be my choice if that's all I had available. Most wines make me cough (and why does my taste have to be "acquired" to enjoy something?), and if anything has added spices without masking, I'll likely be in pain all night. Due to my physiological oddities, many hard liquors mess me up royally, and the burn of a whiskey can get pretty overzealous toward my esophagus.
However, with my recent studies in amateur mixology, palette, and professional Drinking and Dragons offerings, I have become FASCINATED with the process of making liquors, mixing crazy-cool themed drinks, and understanding the subtle elements and hues inherent in a decent drink. It is an exploration of gastronomic chemistry, flare, creativity, visual aesthetic, and uncovering the mystery of a perfect buzz.
Embarking on this journey might be hazardous to my health if I'm not careful, but a true gentlemen must understand his liquor, and a true barkeep, no matter his preferences, must know how to handle his casks.
Welcome to my dreamland tavern, The Moonriver Bar, and to our first exploration of a gentleman's drink. In order to get a better feel for this world, I can think of no better place to tread than the industry standard: the three main Whiskeys - Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye.
But How Is Whiskey Made?
Whiskey is made from distilling a fermented grain mash. This mash is made out of malt barley and other grains of choice. The combinations of grains used is called a “mash bill.” Water and heat is added to the mixture, which creates sugar that eventually ferments into alcohol. All of these grand liquors are sugar-based. Keep that in mind.
This mix is ultimately distilled or selectively evaporated to separate the spirits from the mash, and is stored in wooden casks to be aged. All whiskeys come out clear. The brown and gold colors are born from the barrels they are aged in and for how long.
The type of whiskey changes depending on which grain is used, how it is distilled, what type of cask it is placed inside, and how long it is aged for. Subtle changes in any part of the process can have large impacts on the whiskey’s flavor, as you'll see below.
The golden pour of a simple scotch into a small glass adorned with a handful of ice cubes, nestled in the weathered and gentle hands of my father as he regards the shifting embers in the fireplace, is a touchstone image burned into my brainstem. I have many memories of the drink on his breath; subtle and distinguished, and no memory of him EVER having too much of a single thing. He'd never tarnish the whiskey with a distinct pairing; something beautiful in its simplicity. He boasts to have a heavy pour, but that's just cuz he likes the taste; it is the thing he drinks most, as far as my memory serves growing up, and judging by the stockpile in his basement, he'll drink it much more.
FLAVOR AND FEEL
Scotch is a surprising whiskey. Of the three on this list, it is one that really emphasizes the malt, which should mean something. Malting is a process of steeping quality barley and setting them to germinate, sometimes tossing into the air (huh!). Enzymes are then activated during mashing, turning the starch into sugar (there it is!), and then drying in a kiln stops the germinating process. There's a lot more going on here that I'll get into later, but what I'm going for is how does this stuff taste.
...It's bright. And somehow empty. And neither of those are bad things. It's often a bright gold, and though Scotch requires at least 3 years to mature, with most taking 8-12 years, and the essential oils from the malted barley keep the flavor particularly unique. There IS a bite to it, and a burn like whiskey, but I found it to be so much less of a kick in the face. It's smokey, and satisfying, yet still light enough to not kill my sensitive stomach.
My father will swear on straight Scotch and ice any day of the week, while my mother hits the classic Scotch and Soda (actually Scotch and seltzer) with ice. I propose a few other simple pairings.
Scotch and Ginger - Ginger Ale or Ginger Beer, both will net you a smoother and sweeter effervescent feeling. Plus, the added sugar will help mask some of the sharp burn going down.
Amaretto and Scotch - the simple hazelnut flavor and smooth, sweet flow of the Amaretto compliments the bright Scotch very well. Add in a little cranberry liqueur or just some straight cranberry juice and call it a day.
My father's Scotch is only the second whiskey I've ever drank in an evening, and I was surprised by it's bright profile. Unlike Bourbon, which has a syrupy, burnt quality to it, the Scotch was somehow more hollow. Like I kept waiting for the big kick, and when I didn't get one, I was left taking another sip. Then another. I'd add some juice; another sip. Add some ice; another sip. I finally settled on mixing it with my new favorite rum, Oakheart, with a splash of seltzer and some ice.
Scotch makes me very curious. I want it on my shelf because each sip I take brings forth a new possibility in the grand weave of mixes and bases. There's a lot I can do to pair this with simple ingredients that will transform the experience into something truly special, and I am very excited to keep tweaking my personal recipe, until I can find what I would consider my "Asher"; something to sip on while I write and world-build. Plus, it's great to have around whenever my father, the epitome of a distinguished gentleman, wants to come visit my den.
FLAVOR AND FEEL
Bourbon is a whiskey derived from a majority corn mash. Traditional whiskeys tend toward a 70% corn, 15% rye, and 15% barley mash bill, and other styles will adjust those numbers around. It's also a "young" whiskey, requiring only 2 years of maturing to be considered a "straight whiskey."
I was chuckled at the first time I tried my Four Roses bourbon. I had only had Fireball (a lovely Cinnamon Whiskey) before, and it was already in one of my recipes. I go by smell first, just to get an idea, and the Cinnamon really spoke to me. Four Roses was equally as smooth, and unlike the scotch, had some body to it. Subtle undertones of burnt barrel, sweet tastes, and strong ember smoke. This is a man's drink.
So of course it made me hack on the floor. :)
If you're like me, I cannot recommend drinking straight bourbon, though many will do so happily. Instead, I offer these simple pairings.
Bourbon, Amaretto, and Coke - you're bound to see a fair amount of my staple drink in pairings with Bourbon. Bourbon burns, so the carbonation and hazelnut smoothes it out. Still guaranteed to make ME cough, this should smooth it out for the rest of you.
Bourbon and Sherry Wine - garnish with an orange slice and a drop of bitters. Have fun.
Apple Cider, Bourbon, and Sprite - try it out. Might be more refreshing than you think.
Though my first experience drinking this stuff straight sent me into a fit of coughing, its darker palette is intriguing to explore. Four Roses Small Batch is my stand-by for bourbon, and for good reason. There's a great depth of flavor, and when I mix it with Ginger hues it only brings it out more. I mix with it a lot more than I thought I would, which also makes knowledge of it inherently lucrative. ;)
FLAVOR AND FEEL
In case you haven't guessed, Rye Whiskey is made from majority rye (at least 51%, but doesn't go much higher than that), with the remainder in corn and barley. This shift in the mash bill makes for a spicy taste, so a lot more bite for me, and a drier finish. And, unlike bourbon, that doesn't seem to do much the longer it ages, rye becomes more subtle while still maintaining its signature bite-you-in-the-face.
Since spice is the main defining feature in a rye whiskey, might I suggest these simple pairings.
"Ward" - Orange Juice with a splash of Grenadine, and a few oz of rye. Yum.
Rye and Ginger Ale - commonly called a Highball. Who knew.
Rye, Pineapple, and Cranberry - Rye and two juices. Fruity sugar to augment the dry spice. Good stuff.
Now I admit to be the least experienced with Rye out of not only these three, but also most of my shelf. This fact is, however, changing. And rye, so far, feels closest to the parallel of the Fireball without the cinnamon spike, so I jump at the chance to substitute it into some of those fiery recipes to observe what changes.
Now, an epilogue of note.
I am not a certified bartender (yet), I just play one at your table, and though I know more than the average owlbear, anything I have expressed here today is represented by my own opinion, research, and experience. My suggested pairings are merely suggestions. Try them and adjust them as you like. Just as my palette tends to run more sweet than sour, others may love or hate the pairings I've given. But every drink I try and every sip I take is a chance for learning.
If YOU decide to try any of my simple pairings, I'd love to know what your experience is! Any input allows me to better my craft, and better your experience at my drunk table.
Be merry at the Moonriver, and sleep well.
See you next time.
Help me stay awake so I can keep serving you drinks.
Clicks and clacks echo along the pale cobblestone as tendrils of lazy fog curl toward you. This moonlit night sends chills through your heart, and up your spine. Determined to get home, you pull your coat closer and quicken your pace.
Then, you see it. A slumped form, stepping out from a back alley. It is a man. Pale of skin, and dry of breath. But then he straightens, cold breath exhaling from his lips. A scraping of steel draws your eyes to the jagged dagger in his hand.
He begins walking toward you and you wonder if that blade is for you. But then his eyes meet yours, and though another chill slices into your bones, you know he is not here for you. The two of you pass in the night. Tonight, you are not what this creature seeks.
Revenants are created when a mortal soul claws its way back from the edge of the afterlife, seeking vengeance for its cruel and undeserving demise. The soul could be righteous or malevolent, courageous or cowardly, or any striation between. No matter what their true nature, they have been bound to seeking revenge, and cannot rest until that vengeance is completed.
A Revenant soul reclaims their mortal body, and rises from the grave much like a zombie. However, instead of the dead eyes of a corpse, the eyes of a Revenant command intelligence and resolve, often flashing or burning within the presence of their quarry. And their quarry always recognizes the Revenant for the reaper it is, no matter what body it may inhabit at the time. If a Revenant is killed...the soul finds its way back to another corpse, rising again from the dead in a new body, seeking its quarry endlessly.
It is known among monster hunters that a Revenant's quest is not forever. The soulbound only have a single year to exact vengeance upon their adversary, after which point the soul is ripped back to the afterlife and its current body turns to dust. And yes, I said "current body." During that year, a Revenant does not require food, air, drink, or sleep and if their body is killed...they find a new one.
If their adversary dies within the year, whether by the Revenant's hand or another's, the soul may finally pass on to the afterlife fulfilled. If not, well, whatever rips it back can decide what to do with them. Some pass on, while others linger as ghosts or wraiths, forever tormented by their unfulfilled destiny.
And these things are intelligent, often retaining the abilities and memories they possessed when they were alive. Now, these skills and powers may feel distant - like a lost dream - at first, but with training, a Revenant can utilize all of its previous assets to seek out its adversary, including seeking powerful allies to help it fulfill its hunt.
Monster hunters are also aware of the enhanced immunities and resistances it possesses which keep it in divine pursuit. One of the few creatures to possess resistance to psychic damage, you'll also have some difficulty with necrotic damage. Don't even try to poison or charm this thing, and assume it can't be stunned or exhausted. In fact, many of the techniques one might use to slow down any of us breathing humanoids just won't stick with a Revenant. Kill them, they rejuvenate somewhere else. Hurt them, they regenerate anyway.
Oh yeah. And they're really strong for a dead guy. Like all of their physical power were being channeled from their literal soul. Wouldn't want to get in the way of this thing and their divine justice.
The smart zombie in the legacy of Dungeons and Dragons is often fulfilled by the Wight, an intelligent and powerful undead with the capacity to command a small contingent of weaker skeletons and zombies. The Revenant, though also an undead creature and intelligent, is a different beast entirely.
It represents one trapped in a cycle of vengeance, desperately trying to punish those that wronged them in their former life. And, they're not even evil. At worst, they are only neutral, constantly walking the line between justice and chaos, and most of the time they're the good guys, cursed to right the wrong of their death. An anti-hero with a ticking clock.
This archetype finds its way into all sort of genres; the wanderer in the old west, a bitten hero in a zombie apocalypse, a terminal warrior princess with visions of her death. Someone who knows full well that the end of their quest is the end of them, but fights anyway. The terminal, destined entity. And I am pleased to say that what was once just a "hard zombie" has flourished into an entity with a massive potential for personal history, lore, and exploration.
And these creatures offer great opportunities for depth of world-building and cosmology when one entertains the idea of what gods and devils might vie for such a soul. Is it the Raven Queen that has brought you back for such a singular purpose, or Pelor with a divine mission before you can pass on to Elysium; is it a Great Old One in need of a temporary champion, or an Archdevil with a contract? The circumstances with which a Revenant is made can have startling implications as to the intentions of the greater beings in the world and their relationship to the Revenant, and, if a party surrounds them, to the party as well.
Revenants in Io
There are dark machinations that resonate and ripple across the ages of Io, and in this machina innocent people can find themselves crushed within the gears. These undeserving souls might find dreadful purpose in this false resurrection, and revel in their unkillable nature. However, every rebirth is a gift granted by an extra-planar entity, god, devil, or something else. And, like so many elements of the Weave in Ionian lore, there is a cost to such gifts...
The concept of an undead hero, neutral or not, exists in my world without a doubt. Revenants are certainly not common, but they aren't unheard of. Always seeking that greater depth of immersion and storytelling, those that do reveal themselves are never grunts or shambling corpses. They are aware, and might have already taken steps to hide the fact that they may be slowly decomposing (herbs, liquor, formaldehyde). Some have actively injected themselves with healing potions, syrupy elixirs of vitality, or taken to consuming infernal blood to cease the flow of rigor mortis. And all are well aware of the passage of time - and how long remains before they turn to dust. They may seek help from our heroes, allies to defeat their nemesis, or perhaps they've been down this road before, and have given in to their damnation.
My players have met two Revenants before, but I don't it was ever revealed to them (in secret or otherwise), and they will definitely show up again. Can a player-character be a Revenant? Anything's possible. There's too much espionage and assassination in my world for an Archfey to not take advantage of a poor, unfortunate soul every now and then. However, that is something that will be explored and revealed during play, not before. No one goes in thinking they're going to become a zombie Clint Eastwood...
See you at the table.
Man. I'm tired. What I wouldn't due for some CAFFEINE. ;)
Some baddies you find just hold a special place in your heart. Maybe you often fall back on them because they're so versatile, or you save them for that key moment when they'll be most effective. Could they be a striking nemesis, a freak chance encounter, or a surprising subversion of expectation?
I use a lot of monsters, and I make a lot of my own (that's another post altogether), but none so far have had such an "OH CRAP" moment from my players in recent games as the Remorhaz.
The Remorhaz is a traditionally arctic monstrosity. A predator preying on elk, polar bears, and other creatures that wander into their territory. They burrow deep into snow or ice, lying in wait for the faint vibrations of creatures moving above them. While hidden, it can raise or lower its body temperature, keeping the snow or ice around it from melting, or allowing it to glide through the cold tunnel.
A Remorhaz nest is quite a find, especially if you are a frost giant, as the young Remorhaz can be trained from hatching to obey commands and guard your citadels. Some might even become mounts for other creatures. Be careful if training these beasties, though; they are adept at swallowing their victims...
Their Place In Ionian Lore
The Remorhaz has become recently fascinating to me, and not just because of their mechanical capabilities. Residing in the grand north of the world, somewhere beyond the Wynnrik Region, the Remorhazes and their ilk would have been one of the first batches of creatures to encounter menacing Brood as they fled the collapsing Shadowfell at the turn of the 6th Age. This means that the once dormant, territorial creatures, fought, failed, and were corrupted by the impending swarm of shadow monsters. What came out of such a clash was an even more formidable foe.
What Makes Them Scary
1) They Can Swallow You (and then Burrow)
I have a few players it seems with a penchant for getting eaten, and with an ability like Swallow, this number continues to rise.
On their turn, a Remorhaz makes a Bite attack against a creature it is grappling (snake-like body, go figure). If the attack hits, you're looking at 6d10+7 piercing damage PLUS 2d6 fire damage, AND the creature is swallowed. While swallowed, they are considered blinded and restrained, and will suffer 6d6 acid damage at the start of each of Remorhaz's turns.
Now, that's pretty awful. However, your allies can deal damage to this thing while you're in its gullet. Deal enough damage in a single turn and the thing has to make DC 15 Constitution Save or regurgitate you. ...HOWEVER, if this thing swallowed you BEFORE it moved, it can now burrow 20 feet down (movement speed). Without a player with Sentinel, you're in BIG trouble if they can't hit it hard enough with attacks of opportunity.
If you're still conscious, you might be able to get yourself out. Restrained only brings your speed to 0, gives others advantage on attacking you, and your attacks and Dex Saves have disadvantage. You can engage in trying to hack your way out (which at higher levels is completely kosher), cast a spell, and so on. But if the odds aren't in your favor, your body might be SOL.
2) Fire AND Cold Damage Immunities
Let's shut down that Fireball and Cone of Cold immediately, shall we?
3) Their Bodies Are Superheated (Melee beware!)
Every time a creature touches the Remorhaz or hits it with a Melee attack while within 5 feet of it takes 3d6 fire damage. Every hit. Not every turn, or every round. EVERY. HIT.
This one is nasty. True, average damage here is only 10 fire, but it can add up quick. Imagine your Monk suffering 40 damage just for smacking the creature with their Flurry of Blows; sure, the thing can't take Reactions now, but the martial artist is melting. It forces you to pay attention to a creature's mobility, economy, and range - so YAY for tactics!
4) Ionian Augmentations (6th Age)
After their brush with the Brood, the resulting surge of necrosis and corruption moved through the species, garnering them two new curious features.
First is an immunity to Necrotic damage.
Second, a plethora of pulsing, bulbous tumors and sacks that litter their bodies. Every time the Remorhaz suffers damage (except Psychic damage), one of the boiling tumors bursts (GROSS). Every creature within 5 feet of the creature immediately suffers 2d6 Acid damage. Oops.
It makes the 5-foot radius around them extra volatile, and just like before, no saving throw. This, coupled with the Heated Body feature, can really mess with the melee attackers and how they synergize with ranged support.
Keep your healers healthy, you're gonna' need it.
Also, I've been painting two of them! Trying to follow the picture in the book for once. So far his color test is looking really nice. Can't wait to tighten up everything, smooth the fades, and finish him up.
Stay safe and don't get swallowed.
See you at the table.
So my buddy Shelley showed up to an event without a character. She warned me first, like a good player, maybe about 6 hours ahead of time. Lords bless my DnD Beyond subscription and knowledge of the game, because I made this character in 30 minutes flat and brought it to the game for her to play...and it was AMAZING.
The Core Concept
Normally she plays casters, so I asked if she wanted something familiar, or something new. She picked the latter, citing that a non-caster would be welcome. Knowing her, and her trust in me, I decided to give her something with enough technical choices to engage her caster experience, without worrying about spells, and had enough oomph to keep her on the front lines (when normally she doesn't put herself there), and finally some quirk to make things a little silly.
She's mentioned wanting to one day try a Kobold, so now's a great time to try it out.
To keep her AC high, I've awarded her a Ring Of Protection and some Bracers Of Defense. We rolled a decent array so I'll put a high stat in Dexterity and round out her Wisdom, and our Unarmored Defense will take care of the rest.
Race, Stats, and Features
So we started with an 18, 16, 14, 13, 12, and a 6. We'll put that 6 in Charisma because that's hilarious, and the 14 in Strength. 18 and 16 in Dexterity and Wisdom respectively, and we'll fill out the 12 and 13 in Constitution and Intelligence.
Kobolds are one of the few races in 5E that suffer an attribute penalty. -2 Strength and +2 Dexterity brings our Strength modifier to a lovely little +1 and our Dexterity already maxed out at 20 for a +5. To keep this little spitfire moving, I grant the Mobile Feat (+10 feet of movement!, among other things) at Level 4, and then we'll up her Wisdom to 18 (so her AC goes up too).
Add on her Grovel, Cower, and Beg feature, Darkvision, and Pack Tactics, this is rapidly becoming Team Advantage! Slap a pair of sunglasses on that sucker, and Sunlight Sensitivity is no problemo.
Race: Kobold Class: Monk 8, Way of the Open Hand
HP: 64 AC: 22 Speed: 55 Initiative: +5
STR 12 (+1) DEX 20 (+5) CON 12 (+1) INT 13 (+1) WIS 18 (+4) CHA 6 (-2)
Saves: STR +5, DEX +9
Gear: BAGPIPES (used hilariously as a sled, and played every time she fells an enemy),
Bracers of Defense*, Ring of Protection*, Ring of Mind Shielding* (just because)
In practice, Aki is bloody hilarious. When paired with our spry halfling barbarian, the small brigade is a force to be reckoned with, felling just about every big foe I can throw at them. In character interactions, Aki is adorable, ravenous, and entirely loud at the worst times. Mechanically, she has lots to work with using her Ki Points, but it's always the same list, and Open Hand gives her plenty of options to pivot to what needs to be shut down each round - whether it be Reactions, pushing them away, knocking them down - plenty of choice points.
As it stands, Aki is currently level 12 in our Knight Owls Season 3 campaign.
I'd say the character was a hit.
See you at the table.
Okay. Rant time.
I've been doing this gig for a while now. I've devoted hundreds of hours to cultivating my craft of storytelling, rulings, incorporation, and character growth. I've written thousands of words on my campaigns, I've written music for them, I paint my own materials and build my own sets. I reflect daily on how to be a better storyteller and a better teacher on every side of the table. I'm not perfect, no DM is, but I think I'm doing pretty damn good.
Every encounter I've run, even if difficult, has multiple ways to win. I never railroad, and I'm always open to creative solutions. Even a suicide mission has a way out (though it may be a bit dishonorable, still a way out).
Players who have played with me for years...are still questioning my intentions. Like I haven't been making this my LITERAL JOB for LITERALLY YEARS or anything. And I'm not talking like questioning my rulings, no; that's welcomed, we can discuss that stuff. I don't want my players to be scared of bringing up elements for discussion. What I'm talking about can be summed up into two main requests.
Wait and See
If I have continually given you scenarios where there are multiple ways to solve them, do not assume that THIS scenario is somehow a railroad. I have NEVER navigated a party to a no-win scenario. Enemies have been tough, but even those that feel "unfair"...have a puzzle. There are ways around and through everything I set up. Always. That's how I've always done it; it leaves room for the players to kick ass in unexpected ways, and that's great.
If the fight hasn't begun, and you haven't seen the literal character sheets I'm working from, how can you make ANY sweeping conclusions about how it's going to go...unless you're assuming that I'm trying to kill the party, which, if you have ever read this blog or listened to anything I do, you know would be ludicrous. Challenge? Yes. Kill unfairly? NEVER.
Also, until the conclusion of the plot arc...maybe don't pass judgement on it. You might think you're the smartest cookie in the box, but that doesn't mean you're right. And just because you're presented something "unfair," doesn't mean it's impossible. Take a deep breath and figure it out - that's part of what makes this game work.
AND we've already established that CRs are mostly BS so...what's your problem?
Try. See what happens. You might surprise yourself.
Maybe give me the benefit of the doubt...because that's what I've always done for my players (maybe even to a fault).
Trust Me (I don't have to tell you my secrets so you can feel better)
Wait, didn't that guy get away?
Was he on the ship?
You don't know.
Can you just tell us?
So I can stop worrying about it!
...Then definitely no.
But he literally killed me last time!
And we threw him in lava! How did he survive?
Yes, isn't that interesting. There is indeed a reason.
Really? Is it because he's impossible to kill?
...No. There's a reason, though.
Yeah? What is it! Tell me or I'll keep complaining and insulting your style of DMing, checking to see if you intended to paint our entire existence as a no-win scenario because you suck, and questioning your every move!
...Commence minimal spoilers to appease whining...
Now, the above scenario applies to only a few conversations that have prompted this post, but dare I put forth a radical idea: NOT KNOWING THE OUTCOME OF SOMETHING CAN BE EXCITING. Not everything gets wrapped up in a neat little bow; loose ends are a part of storytelling, and that tense uncertainty is a GOOD THING in a narrative, especially a cooperative one.
Do you REALLY need to know that you DEFINITELY killed that guy and he's never coming back? Or could you be excited if he ever returned? Could you rejoice in discovering IN PLAY why he seems immortal? Solve the mystery, damn it.
I have players that jump at the chance to figure this stuff out...and a tiny percentage of others that seem annoyed if they don't know everything - like they were somehow entitled to. And if they didn't know, then it "just wasn't fair."
Grow up. Put on your big kid pants and deal with the fact that you may not know everything. Mystery is a part of storytelling, hell it's a part of LIFE, and I don't feel like giving up my mysteries or loose ends because you're whining for them.
If you're not sure you're going to win because your level is too low, or your perceived enemies have too many hit points, or he has too many spell slots, or he's resistant to my damage type, or his AC is too high (saving throws might suck, ya' know), or no one took healing spirit.
Figure. It. Out. These are challenges, not impossibilities. If you've learned anything from me, it should be that I'm not a jerk GM. I kill my darlings, I'm happy when you win, I just want you to have a good time and feel satisfied.
Not all problems will be solved by mechanics and probability alone. This is a game that promotes creative problem solving. So do some problem solving! Don't throw up your hands and say "I can't because my character blah blah blah blah - I've heard enough.
I'll help you if you get stuck, but I ain't doing it for you, and I'm pretty sure that's how people like it.
Enough with this baloney sandwich.
I'll see you at the table.
I feel like ever since an adult grasped the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manual, there has been drinking and D&D. At every game, peeps bring snacks and beverages and dice and supplies, and as we age up, those snacks and beverages often upgrade from chips and soda to wings and mead (I know, many of you expected beer, but I can't drink that junk). The addition of alcohol to a gaming setting can have a number of interesting effects, from breaking down walls to accelerating belligerent behavior to increasing fun flow to failing to follow anything during their turn but hyperfocused on playing everyone else's character... There are a few things I keep in mind whenever we introduce this type of energy into our tabletop setting.
1) This is a Social Gathering
No, seriously. For my players, this is a social thing. They're coming to play, enjoy themselves, enjoy the cooperative company of others. Also, these are always adults over the age of 21. Adult language can be used, mature themes explored, but most of all, they can make their own decisions when it comes to the level of drunk they're pursuing. And it takes experience to get the balance right.
I recall a specific game, our first 21+ game, where a good friend of mine showed up without eating much that day, then proceeded to pound down 4 drinks, fell asleep halfway through the session, woke up enough to get the killing blow (dude), then we hung out with him until he was good enough to drive (no matter how long that would take). We talked through all the poor decisions that led to that debacle, made sure he was safe going home, and the next time, he learned about EATING FOOD DURING THE DAY. Yeesh.
We've since grown up collectively, and even in that experience, the community of the party rallied around that player to help him stay safe, and made absolutely sure that he was alright during and after play had concluded. Why? Because we're adults too, we understand, and we're not jerk-faces. :)
There's going to be an ebb and flow to the evening, depending on how much people have consumed and by what rate, and everyone's tolerance is different. It will flow organically, just like any other social gathering. And everyone can choose the rate at which they partake (or don't partake).
2) Adding Energy To A System
Speaking of not partaking, I don't drink when I DM. It's tempting as hell at a 21+ event, but this is my job, and I'm never breaking that rule. Even if it's for a casual home group, I don't feel comfortable crossing that line. And it's because I need to be the steady in the room. Even-tempered, steady keel, arbiter of the rules and mainstay of the session. I am the constant, and that keeps the fantasy rolling. It also ensures that I don't miss as many details, so I can stay consistent.
My partner in crime, John Tanaka, said it best: "Alcohol adds energy to a system." Now, often the type of energy is dependent upon how each player responds to alcohol. Some will become louder, others more silly, and others more mellow; plus a full oscillation between as levels of buzz rise and fall. Mitigating this is actually much easier than you think, though.
First, meet your players with patience. It's okay if you have to repeat yourself or explain something differently (just as with any table), even if you feel you're doing it a lot. Some people get faster when they drink, others slower, and all in different ways. Just try to meet them where they are first, and guide them up to the level of understanding you need them at; don't demand that they leap to you - remember, drunk people don't move so well - take their hand and guide them up your well-labeled steps to the Landing Of Understanding.
Second, try your best to end on time. Alcohol's end result is BEDTIME, and the further you push beyond the agreed-upon end, the harder the time your players will have. And it's okay if the end time is 2am, if everyone knew going in...just don't go to 4am instead. A pre-determined end helps those adults plan accordingly, and if we push beyond that, people start shutting down. If you end a little ahead of schedule and everyone's satisfied? BONUS GLUTEN-FREE BROWNIE POINTS WITH CHOCOLATE CHIPS.
Third, stay consistent. Like I said, I'm the anchor for the session. All my wayward ships need a lighthouse, right? If I waver too much, I can sacrifice the social contract that we all bought into the game at the start. I need to make sure that my conduct is consistent from the start of the session to its close, even if my players fluctuate. That gives them a clear expectation to look toward at every moment of the session; they can trust me to be empathetic, understanding, but firm, and consistent. :)
And that's all I can say for now. Adults can make their own decisions as to the level of buzz they want to ride, and that changes from individual to individual, night to night. The only things I can do is maintain my own control level, be consistent, and stay kind. My players will sort themselves out as long as I keep a good table with clear expectations. Speaking of which...
See you over there.
The worlds we provide as Game Masters are often built with our heart and soul, yet we struggle sometimes to believe in their value.
It will always fill me with great joy and humbling introspection when a player shows such immense interest in a setting I've made. They ask questions about the lore of the world, its history, its pantheon, and the multiple layers of the intrinsic nature of each society. It warms me to my core to have players that care so much about the world they're playing in that it can sometimes consume them; that while they're in my sessions, nothing else matters...
But remember, everyone.
This cool fantasy world experience called a tabletop role-playing game is a GAME.
This is a game. At the end of the day, when we've paid our bills, worked our hours, and sat down to join in on this crazy beautiful cooperative experience, we still need to recognize that it is "just a game."
Now, I try to run a pretty damn good game. There's a reason we have waitlists; people obviously find value in this format. And there can be a lot of meaning, too. I've had players, and myself, allow themselves to pursue and accomplish huge arcs in their own lives, using the game as a well of courage, or therapy, or escapism. Everybody comes to the table for something different, and that's part of what makes THIS kind of game so enlightened. People have opened themselves up to this grand storytelling experience and let it change them for the better, all while enjoying a group story.
But if you ever feel that you're going too deep, that these relationships, though meaningful, are becoming the only ones that matter. Remember: It is still "just a game."
The first goal to any tabletop experience is to HAVE FUN. If it isn't fun anymore, then it's time for a change.
And that change may just be a paradigm shift; shift the weight of the game on you. Take your space from its plot and characters. I know I don't care much about following the plot in Monday's campaign, because I'm playing to relax my mind - I don't want to think too much, and this is my way to have my own fun. It also helps me provide distance from this fantasy world if I need it that day; why? Because there's more to life than Dungeons and Dragons.
I know. Blasphemy.
But it's true. Strange coming from a guy that makes his living on it, and though I find colossal value in it and have seen great things come of it, there are still more elements to living. And everyone has things they're going through. Sometimes we bring it to the table, often we don't, and sometimes emotions kick us down in the middle of our cool game. That's all good, too. Because my table is a safe space and no person's burden is anyone else's to carry. You can come and play however you see fit - as long as it doesn't betray our social contract (Gray Owls is different than Knight Owls, btw). Don't be a creepy jerk face, and you're usually okay. Our boundaries change and clarify, and communication is key, and if ever that is getting too much... It's still just a game.
I want all of my players to feel safe, secure, and comfortable at whatever table they choose to come to, and no one has to carry anyone else's baggage. But if it sneaks its way in, I can help you show it the door, because my players are WARRIORS, and luggage is a stupid gremlin. You don't have to keep paying for it at checking every time you come play. We'll help you take it out back and shoot it.
That is all.
See you at the table.
This is the book that powered my vacation, and it's the third time I've read it.
It is a tough feat to stay on my shelf. Often, I consume a book, gain what I need from it and pass it along to another. That is, if I found worth in its pages. If not, I'll donate it somewhere, and promptly forget what was unnecessary within the words and passages that rambled past my eyes and my mind.
But THIS book. This one stuck with me. Enough to revisit several times, and once again as the subject of this blog.
As I believe it to be an absolute necessity for our development to read and absorb information, ideas, and philosophy; to challenge our morals, and help cultivate our humanity, I thought this to be an appropriate segment to pursue over here on the GM's Corner. Yeah. Once a month, I'll review a book I am reading. So here comes number one:
Budo, Mind and Body by Nicklaus Suino.
Budo, as a principle and a pursuit, is about so much more than learning how to fight. It is about seeking meaning in life. In our actions, our teachers, our lessons, our art. Whatever your training, the pursuit of Budo is a method to forge physical strength, technical strength, and strength of character. In the book, Suino breaks the discipline needed into three main focuses.
The martial arts ARE a physical beast. Suino emphasizes the power of repetition, but marks the danger of "going through the motions." It comes down to caring about skill, and learning each technique as an aspect of that skill, not as a list of "techniques that work" and "techniques that do not work." True skill is derived over time and diligent training, and if you care about getting better, you'll take great care every moment that you train. And train hard, young grasshopper. A body only becomes pure through pushing it to its limits. Practice until you can practice no more. Musicians, artists, writers, and fighters. Train until you can't. Then rest, and do it again.
This is how I would throw myself into music. In my undergrad and even during my Masters, I would have required testing every semester to prove to a panel of judges that I was improving enough to deem the continuation of my degree. That pressure coupled with the fact that I enjoyed getting better, made the experience all the more rewarding, despite how taxing it was on my sleep schedule and workload. After enough, I felt a sense of physical transcendence, but only briefly, as back then, my self-doubt game was strong as hell.
The pursuit of mental skill, however, is a different beast entirely. Suino speaks of mindfulness, self-control, but places the greatest emphasis on one's ability to change dependent upon the setting you are in. Frankly, that the rules of the dojo are not the same as that of an office building, or a frat house, or a home, and a failure to adapt is a failure in your martial skill. We practice the right way to build the appropriate habit for a multitude of situations; in the same vein, for me, to recognize that each problem has multiple solutions and every situation can be handled differently, but it must still be handled. And to find the most appropriate response to an invitation, violent or otherwise, one must be mindful.
We see this at the table all the time. A player who is not mindful of the table's climate and does/says something inappropriate...now players are uncomfortable. In character or out, one that responds always in violence will incur the wrath of the guards, or bounty hunters, or divine justice.
Many lines are drawn toward the correct observation of instruction, but also of your own body. Awareness of your surroundings. But most of all, a pursuit of No-Mind: that awesome state of being where our techniques just "come out" without any bidding or effort. You know how you do this? I bet you can figure it -- TRAINING. Becoming lost in your training. I remember those days. Locked in a practice room until 3am, completely absorbed in the pursuit of the perfect run. Playing till my lips cracked. That's the goal, and telling your body and mind to KEEP GOING is a mental discipline. And now...I just want to return to it.
Bushido roughly translates to "the way of the warrior," but it is so much more complex and powerful than most people realize. To follow Bushido is not to follow a way of fighting; instead, think of it like a way of living. The remainder of the book breaks down living in the Budo life and martial virtues of the warrior caste of Japan. This runs parallel to the little philosophy that I know on the Samurai way of life. Heck, I once spoke on it to a class of graduating 8th graders, trying to instill in them a sense of purpose and maybe, just maybe, the idea that you don't have to be a jerk to get your point across. ;).
But in all seriousness, to follow the path of the Samurai in principle...isn't easy. Let me talk about those virtues a bit.
Integrity - be honest in your dealings with others, and with yourself, and consider all points of view before placing judgement.
Respect - true warriors have no reason to be cruel, or to prove to others how strong they are, so they are always courteous to their enemies, even in battle.
Courage - hiding is not living, so live life fully. Often, courage is not the loud voice; it is the quiet whisper at the back of your spirit that utters "I will try again tomorrow."
Honor - the choices we make and how we make them are a reflection of who we really are.
Compassion - because the warrior is not as most people, they must use their powers for good. They help their fellow humans at every opportunity.
Sincerity - do what you say will do. Speaking and doing are the same action. This also means don't make promises if you're not sure you can keep them.
Loyalty - warriors are responsible for everything they say and do, and all the consequences connected. With this, they are strikingly loyal to those in their care.
Suino extends the analysis toward what it truly means to practice Budo, which is to pursue personal perfection. And this is NOT an easy task. For someone who struggles with physical anxieties and nervous habits, however, this is an especially attractive concept, and probably why I keep returning to the book's concepts as a foundation of my personal development. Every time I walk into the gym, pick up my tuba, compose a song, or stop myself from picking my nails, quotes from this book trickle in.
Though Suino focuses the core of the book upon specific martial arts training as his base, anyone with imagination can extend these lessons to every walk of life. And some of its chapter quotes now hang on my wall.
"The Way is in training." - Miyamoto Musashi
"Purity is something that cannot be attained except by piling effort upon effort." - Yamamoto Tsunetomo
"Perceiving what is right, and not doing it, argues lack of courage." - Confucius
I highly recommend this book to every martial artist, gamer, teacher, and musician I know. In fact, if you want your own copy, I've included a link below.
See you at the table.
A Little Background
Before I dive into this, I think you need to know a few things up front.
The new Lion King film is not a BAD film. In fact, it is technically inspired. It is jawdroppingly gorgeous, and amazing to look at. And for a film, it does fine. Just fine. It doesn't ruin my childhood, insult my soul, or cause me to fly into a car-flipping rage. It's FINE.
It could have been so much more, and there's A LOT holding it back, and quite a lot of that...quite frankly could have been fixed easily, especially given Disney's resources AND that they have a direct line to the source material (it's THEIRS).
So, a little background for where I'm coming from.
I LOVE the original Lion King film. It is my all-time favorite animated Disney film (Mulan and Hunchback make a close second). And it's so much more than just the amazing artistic animation; the musical score is inspired, beautiful, and endlessly fascinating (the extra music album produced, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, is also some amazing work); the themes of the film are tight, and there's not a scene I skip when I replay it (in the theatrical version, at least). Everything about it is polished, emotional, artistic, and meaningful. Every scene has a purpose, and it's all executed with precision.
This, on the other hand, has some pretty stand-out problems for me. Let's break them down.
Spoilers, I guess. ;)
1) The Musical Score
To understand how pissed I am about the score in this viewing, all you have to do is read what Zimmer had planned for this rendition.
"In revisiting the score for “The Lion King,” Zimmer realized the original themes and music were the “emotional spine of the story.” He brought back many who worked on the original film, including Lebo M, orchestrator Bruce Fowler, conductor Nick Glennie-Smith, arranger Mark Mancina, plus several singers from the choir including Carmen Twillie (who performed “Circle of Life” in the 1994 movie)."
Alright! So we've got many of the original players, plus the amazing iconic vocal renditions of Lebo M, and the original composer, Hans Zimmer, all in the mix. This is going to be epic!
And it could have been. Except for a few glaring problems:
1) Your Lead can't sing. Well, maybe he CAN, but his style and range is very different than what the arrangement of the song requires. The youth that plays Simba struggles with higher registers, and during I Just Can't Wait To Be King, in key moments of belting it out...the kid goes to FALSETTO. IN THE FINAL CUT OF THE FILM. His volume drops to nothing, and it is very, very obvious. Notes aren't held to any kind of length (so no breath support), and any riffing you've got is used to HIDE this fact (badly) instead of acting as an augmentation to the original. Nala, on the other hand, overpowers and outshines his ability immediately. They need to be equal, folks. These are your LEADS. And older Simba (Donald Glover)...is doing his best. An otherwise excellent artist and I think a great speaking choice for Simba, comes off a little strange in Hakuna Matata, where he riffs before it feels appropriate. If you can carry the song, riff away, but don't riff to hide the fact that you can't carry the song. And before you think me rude to recommend vocal coaching to a musical artist...every musical artist gets vocal coaching throughout their career. As one continues to augment and extend their craft, they train to do so. Disney, you've got billions of dollars...you couldn't afford a vocal coach worth their salt? Or maybe, they were directed to sing that way, and if so, I very much disagree with their decisions, especially when it came to child Simba. Can You Feel The Love Tonight? ...was very good (despite being during THE DAY), and refreshing to hear the leads sing the whole song together, but I think it's Glover's style, directed or not, that felt off somehow.
2) Seth Rogen cannot sing it seems. When he does, it's played for laughs, but it is no less painful to see and hear. It's tragic, too, because Rogen is otherwise WONDERFUL as Pumbaa, but with Timon belting out excellent tracks beside him, it's even more glaring. The animated Pumbaa can sing (stylized, but he hits the notes he has); this one should too.
3) Be Prepared...barely exists. What happened to a great villain song? Scar speaks over drums for a bit, they skip 2/3 of the song, and it's over. WTH?
4) The score cues are rushed - let me explain. All the beats are there: themes, swelling score, iconic instrumental sections along with new composed work...but it never takes its time. It never revels in the themes it creates. Remember, this is supposed to be the "emotional spine," yet it seems like it's barely there, despite there being tons of music in the film. Take the iconic Stampede scene for example: in the animated original, the rumbling grows slowly (just like this one), we get a freaking dolly zoom on Simba as strings rise and a dissonant choir looms at the edges of our eardrums, creating tension to the scene, then Simba starts running and we get rhythmic singers moving along, working their magic. New version? Forget that rise of tension, let's just slam the rhythmic theme right down on top of the little cub. Everyone knows this theme. We'll bank on the memory; we don't have to "build tension;" how silly!
And that's all over the place. Themes show up in places they were never there before, or aren't really appropriate/take away from the scene they're in, or show up too early - which sends the message of "rushing" through the songs and setpieces; don't mind us, just prancing through hitting our check boxes on our money list!
5) Oh Hai random Beyonce. Following one of my FAVORITE scenes in the film, Simba begins charging back to pride rock. Now, this is another iconic segment of travel with rousing rhythmic choirs, Zimmer's awesome score - it's short, but truly great, with lots of energy and momentum. In this new film, we get the beginning transient notes of this original theme, and I hear the splendid tones of Lebo M start to creep in...and I get excited. I studied the music of this whole film, and Lebo M is amazing, so I'm thinking, "Ooooo, maybe we'll get a cool Lebo M jam session over Zimmer's instrumental section and we'll get some cool layering, because, ya' know, it's okay to be new as long as you're honoring the orig-- Is that a freaking pop song!?" And sure enough, there's a random-ass pop song in my Lion King movie. They killed Be Prepared and gave Beyonce her own random-ass song (and boy is it jarring to hear - the styles aren't COMPLETELY misaligned, but it certainly doesn't feel good). Hey, I get it, she's playing adult Nala and she does really, really well...but her random song doesn't fit here. Put it in the credits, Disney. The hell?
6) If you're going to add music, add Shadowland. For those of you who have heard the aforementioned Rhythm Of The Pride Lands, there's an amazing track called "Lea Halalela (Holy Land)", which was later adapted to the Broadway musical under the title, Shadowland, and is sung by Nala. It is a showstopper of a song; it acts as a transition point for her, as she weighs finding help to save her people and abandoning them to the terrors of Scar, and she may not return - it's a valuable exploration. But naw, let's give Beyonce a new LP that has little bearing on the overarching story. Sounds great.
2) Rafiki is awesome. Yet his most important lesson isn't in the film.
"Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or...learn from it!"
Remember that? Yep. Not in the film. The lesson's not even there paraphrased. Never mind Rafiki. It's not like he's important or anything.
3) A Lack Of Emotion
Emotion. There is little of it.
I get it. They're lions. The animators worked REALLY FREAKING HARD to make these animals look real, and they TOTALLY DO OMG...but, when they talk and emote, it's very strange. It's hard to get the characters to actually express things. It all feels flat and hollow, and that's true with *some* of the voice acting too. Characters just rattle off lines like they're crossing off a grocery list - where's the love? Where's the care?
Simba, begging for his father to get up after the stampede...is delivered TOO FAST. C'mon Favreau, you've done movies before, this is a scene where you take your time. It's important. Duh. Even as an older Simba begs the clouds not to leave him again, it feels empty.
Favreau rushes through the scenes and beats from the original, but pads the stuff they changed or added, and that means the pace is all off, too. Everything feels rushed, and yet the movie is longer than the original. Big emotional beats carry little weight - Mufasa's death, Simba's lesson, Nala's leaving (very poignant in the Broadway show), Simba's ascension (like, seriously, you just flash cut to the end of the film mid-roar?) - not because they're poorly done (cinematography-wise), but because they don't take the time needed to FEEL. There's no class; no real understanding of what made the original so great, despite a seasoned director at the helm.
Characters have no personality. Facial expressions have been sacrificed in favor of "photo-realism." Impressive, yes, but tells little in terms of narrative. HUGE moments of the story (the stampede scene and all that transpires, one of the most iconic and traumatic and expertly crafted sequences in film and animation)...are bland and distant. And so much of the cast...sounds tired. Even James-Earl Jones; though he should be VERY familiar with these lines. What the hell?
Maybe I'll settle into it, and for kids today, it's serviceable...but when the 1994 version is STILL a better story and presentation with better music, better performances, and better messages, why "upgrade" to this soulless cinematic experience that lacks...heart?
This is clearly a cash-grab. Soulless, useless, and shameless.
4) So What Did I Like?
1) There's a lot more emphasis placed on Sarabi being a badass, and I love it. There's an implied "war" with the hyenas, which makes Shenzi a rival general, not Scar. As it stands, Shenzi is clearly the pack leader of the hyenas, not a flunkie to Scar, and the switch had a lot of potential. Maybe Shenzi and Sarabi get to have a show-down, as they would be appropriate opposites? Naw, Nala fights her. Glad she got to do more, though, the potential was wasted.
2) There's also a stated and implied love triangle where Scar holds Sarabi in high respect, but she chose Mufasa as a mate over him, which adds depth and complexity to the three's relationship, as well as weight and power to Sarabi's continued defiance after Mufasa is dead. There isn't a lot of exploration of this theme, but it's there I guess.
3) The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a lot of fun, and they added in the other "prey" animals as side characters hanging with Timon and Pumbaa, which was genuinely fun, and their interactions with Simba got some genuine chuckles out of me.
4) The musical additions - save Beyonce - are good. Lovely, even. More Lebo M please. That said, the music is somehow...muted throughout the film. The producers quote as the emotional spine. ...This film has NO SPINE.
5) The hyenas are wonderful, though emoting, again, is difficult. Ed being able to talk had a lot of potential, too, but that character isn't in the film much.
6) It is a technical marvel. ...and yet the CG is somehow lazy. Because it's a shot-for-shot remake of something that didn't need to be remade.
When a random kid walks out of the theater, shrugs her shoulders and says unprovoked that "It was rushed and I didn't connect with the characters," you have a problem, Disney.
You have the resources.
Do it right.
Back to games soon.
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.