This one gets a little heavy, folks. It's related, I promise.
I was an angry kid. I would often explode in fits of rage and screaming. Stomping, snapping, throwing, breaking.
I broke so many toys, threw so many books, and screamed so many foul things. And after being scolded on my "public decency," I made sure to have these episodes in private.
As I grew older, they would evolve with me. Manifesting in new bursts of energy laced with malice, I would retreat into silence and fear, punishing myself over and over. Because, you must understand, I never lashed out at others. Save for the few moments I stomped and screamed when I was young - and when I saw the people around me and how scared and confused they were - I learned that this was NOT how a young man acts in public. So I was quiet, respectful, and kept to myself.
My anger made people uncomfortable. So I buried it. And as I grew older, I found different ways to bury it. My anger was burned as fuel; I wrote the best music when filled with rage; I spoke the best when I was fired up at myself; I performed the best with a fire in my belly.
But anger taxes you. It robs you of your grace, your energy; it can sap your reason and patience, and can blind you from what matters most.
I didn't care. I could be better. Of course I could be better. I could practice harder, learn more, stay up later, work harder, sleep less, disappear from the world for awhile while I work. No, you can't rest. There's no time to rest. How dare you sleep, you lazy sack! You've wasted your whole damn life so far and you're still so lazy to think there's time to lay down? Be better, damn you!
My inner dialogue was a lot more...colorful. It would manifest in surges of practicing, as if that would make up for a semester of poor habits and low motivation. Stints of good habits, only to be broken in a week. That voice that says I WILL CHANGE that grows quieter each day. Anger, and the energy it grants you, is finite.
And then I embraced the martial arts. I began to realize the most powerful tool we all possess. The secret isn't to push through, but to stop. And breathe.
It is our breath that binds our soul, our ki, to our bodies. Patience lets you focus, and breath allows your body (and your mind) to be patient.
Even when I was studying the martial arts every week, I still used anger to fuel my learning. I had already "wasted" 10 years learning different systems, while my friends were already testing for black belt. I was BEHIND. How dare I become behind; people looked up to me, and I let them down!
And when I finally achieved black belt - somewhere in a haze of adrenaline and anxiety - I felt empty. Not like an empty cup, eager for more knowledge, but like an old car...barely limping into the trade shop. I returned to class for a time, here and there, but I felt such a weight of guilt. Like I didn't earn it. I rushed it. I wasn't ready. Not by my standards; to me, I didn't EARN my belt.
And with every class in my new "position," as you come to realize that you, actually, know nothing - and when your goal for half your life has been to make it to black belt, and you DO, only to feel as if it were handed to you - that weight becomes heavier and heavier. So I responded the best way I knew how.
I got angry. And then, I got very, very sad.
I stopped coming to class, I stopped helping in our events, I stopped coming to kick-boxing. And then I stopped training altogether. It felt like a lie to me.
As of the date of writing this, I still haven't returned to the dojo. Something about it fills me with shame.
In fact, I feel a lot of shame for so many things. Like tonight, when I came home feeling like a bad storyteller. Like a bad player; a bad DM; and a slob who isn't able to get his life together.
And normally, feelings like this would crush me. Pound me into the ground until I cry myself to sleep and face the day exhausted, then repeat the process until I make myself sick with depression and call out for a day to recover. These feelings would do this. But they aren't. Not tonight. Because tonight I remembered something.
I remembered my breath. I felt it flow through me like water. And the more I waited, the more I recognized what it meant.
I am a brass player. I know the power of air. I was...I AM a martial artist. I know what breath does to my body, to my muscles, to my mind. My players have seen me use it before running a game, or when I need to focus despite being exhausted. It is equal parts the simplest and most complex element we have in our arsenal of control.
Yes. It is 3:47am and I'm not asleep, but for the first time in so many months, years even, I have stopped...to breathe. To stare at my wall and let my eyes drift over the collected business cards of acquaintances and allies, to pick apart their names and logos to form new ones, and set them aside for later worlds. To quietly, and deftly, take care of the house; gently purge accumulated books and instruments I've never needed or used, but kept to make me feel better; to recycle, tear, and burn away notes I've studied into oblivion. To covet and save the things that matter, and not only vow to use them, but organize them in a way that demands I do so.
My breath reminds me that that cruel voice inside is LYING.
I am not a failure.
I have nothing to be ashamed of.
I am a work in progress, and I get better every damn day. Sometimes we fall down, but it doesn't matter how many times we do. What matters, my dear friends, is taking a deep breath and getting back up again.
It's 3:52am and I am literally crying while I finish this post, as I have called my demons out for their kahnastrixa, and if you know that reference you are one of my favorite people in the universe.
So tonight when I face them, and every day moving forward, I'm rolling weighted dice. My inner monk is calling. Breath yields radiance. And my soul is ready to shine.
Yeah. That's right. I just ended this with obscure 5th Edition D&D references. Fight me. ;)
Remember to breathe.
I'll see you at the table.
Usually when I talk about tabletop gaming, I explore the intellectual and social elements of it. We level up our creativity, our rapport, collaboration, and teamwork. Not often do we get to talk about the physical side of things.
"Physical side?" you say, a quizzical expression leeching onto your face.
Why yes, young grasshopper! Our physical fitness is most important, and is often overlooked when one prepares for a gaming experience...
But really, it shouldn't. A sound body augments the mind, which helps us play better, faster, kinder, and more creatively. So why don't we exercise more?
Well, for many at least, the excuse is time management...and that's a can of worms we won't get into quite yet.
Instead let me share with you something quite quick. You might even say it is hasted.
HIIT workouts...did I just misspell something?
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training.
Short workouts, usually done in circuits of a few exercises for a number of rounds. 15-20 minutes of work, tops.
Now most people know I'm a push-up fiend, but the rest of my body needs help too, so first thing in the morning on Saturdays I rock this workout. Takes me a little over 15 minutes and keeps me fired up all day. Anybody can make time for that, and it helps kick the brain into high gear while burning calories before breakfast.
Workout A - 5 Exercises, 4 Rounds
10 Staggered Pushups
10 Leg Lifts
10 Raised I Pushups
10 Close Ski Squats
--15-30 second rest between rounds
Okay, so what's what? Squats are squats. Ski Squats are squats with feet close together, like you're skiing and about to hit slaloms. Leg Lifts are on your back, lifting your straight legs up and engaging your lower abs. Staggered Pushups alternate between one hand high, the other low; next round you switch. My Raised levels correlate directly to a step; Raised I is literally me putting my feet on the first step of a staircase and putting my hands on the floor at the incline, then pushup from there.
Hit (ha) this one for 4 rounds and you're good. If that was easy, then tack on Workout B below too.
Workout B - 5 Exercises, 6 Rounds
10 Raised II Pushups
10 Diamond or Inward Pushups
20 Scissors or Spreads
10 Burpees w/Neutral Pullup
--15 Second rest between rounds
Raised II is the second step on a staircase. Crunches are...crunches. Diamond pushups make a Diamond with your hands and kill your triceps - if you can't touch them together yet, just as close as you can and turn your palms inward at an angle. Scissors are achieved by lying on your back with your legs straight and elevated some inches off the floor - then you "kick" them up and down. Spreads are this, except you spread your legs in and out, all while keeping them elevated.
See? Who said gamers can't work out!?
Now get working so you can do at least A FEW of the things your character can do!
We've all been there.
The dragon just bellowed its war cry and lifted into the air after our initial surprise attack (where we must have done, what, over a hundred points of damage!?) We scatter, trying to spread out and away from its impending breath...only to be hit anyway by one its frustrating Legendary Actions. Plans now cast aside in favor of stopping the cleric from being melted, I rush over and force feed them a healing potion...only to be stepped on by the dragon on its actual turn, and it proceeds to crit me to death.
Now at zero hit points and bleeding out, the blasted ancient creature decides to get one more strike in on my broken body, and there goes a death save. With the dragon on top of me, my allies only really have one more player turn to get to me before this ancient and intelligent being decides to step on me again with their now replenished Legendary Actions. "But I'm down!" I say, desperate to hold onto this character just a little longer. The DM shrugs, with a slight grin, and I try to hang onto hope.
The healing word comes in the nick of time and I'm conscious again...only to be rended in half by the green dragon. Curse words follow...but I'm cool with it.
Should I be? Or was that DM being a jerk?
The Separation of GM and Character
Behind the screen, the GM or DM is responsible for every creature the party interacts with, whether that be through combat, exploration, social situations, or a mixture of these. A good GM will do their best to embody the voice, the physicality, and mental acuity of each creature; the latter here informs their tactics best in combat. And combat, from the enemy's perspective, is NOT fun for them. They are in a life or death scenario; they aren't just going to lay down and die, just as you wouldn't.
Now, smarter creatures utilize better tactics. Creatures in better control of themselves won't be goaded into a trap. Creatures of average intelligence can tell when things aren't going well, and might try to run. This is why beasts get hunted; they often don't know when to flee or fight, and those that do, often live to another day.
Why do I bring all this up? Because none of these creatures are me.
I have to personify them; get inside their head, judge their level of tactics, their emotions, their level of courage, and many, many other factors in order to represent them properly. Every good DM needs to do this, and nasty creatures are nasty; evil creatures are evil; they don't care that you're the hero of this story - they want to eat your face, or your heart, or your soul. And that should be a dangerous encounter.
Now, if the creature behaves outside of their type or their intelligence, then maybe the DM is being a jerk, but I argue that is rarely the case, unless it's becoming a habit. Remember, asinine creatures can make intelligent decisions. I, for example, will use an Intelligence check to see if the creature notices a possible tactic (they often fail, as is their way), but at least it's possible.
Conversely, the same is true. Intelligent enemies can make poor decisions due to a number of factors. Perhaps they are emotionally compromised - like when they see a character murder one of their wyrm children; maybe they are filled with vengeance toward the Ranger/Rogue that just sneak attacked them for 57 HP, so they ignore the high possibility of their own demise in favor of attacking the one who has hurt them so deeply; or maybe their life is already forfeit, and they serve a greater purpose.
It came up in the first year of play on Thursday D&D (Group B). They were fighting a set of Legionnaires, led by a nasty Cleric of Air and Darkness. She was pretty cool; she had an adapted mace of sundering and a shield that could swallow spells, then reflect them back to enemies at twice the strength. She was also full of pride in her own abilities, having already had much success in laying waste to previous adventuring parties. It was this pride that killed her. She waited literally 6 seconds too long to make her escape...and the party wrecked her.
Now, note that I say that "she waited too long," not me. It was the character's pride and perception (literally a failed Wisdom save) that got her killed. I, the DM, saw the tide turning, but SHE did not. Me, Adamus, is NOT the character of Lady Vesheen of the Legion of the Rage. And that separation has to be true with every enemy they fight, every character they interact with, and every creature they meet.
If an intelligent, spell-casting dragon is sitting on top of you, and they are well aware of the impact of your character's efforts (because they SAW YOU and your allies, and are feeling the wounds that you have made), you can bet your poor butt that that dragon's gonna' make sure you stay down. That fits in with an older creature; it didn't survive this long by allowing its enemies time to get up.
Beware intelligent enemies, and beware old enemies. There's a reason that 20th-level wizard is still around, and it ain't pretty.
I try very hard to give each character a voice and personality that is not my own, to further solidify the separation. This way, my players know when I break character to address them out of game, and when they're talking to that mean ol' dragon and need to be on their guard. Sometimes, I can even apologize for the actions of the creature...but I justify them from its perspective. Yes, it sucks that the Beholder disintegrated you, but it recognized you as the healer, and it was tired of its prey healing. ;)
And when those connections are made by the creature - key observations and mindless primal reactions alike - I try to embody this connection with my voice, my tone, and my description of the creature's movements. This way I can communicate to them that THE ENEMY took notice, not me, the DM. If the enemy did not take notice, then I don't act like they did. This seems to help my players maneuver around the creature they are facing, in combat or role-playing, based on how they behave, and they never seem to take it personally if things go bad.
Motivations, Consequences, and Vengeance
All characters are motivated by something, and often in combat, that thing is SURVIVAL. They want to survive. And, most likely, they will utilize whatever they can to ensure that survival, or the survival of others.
When players make decisions, there are consequences. Some of these decisions are dangerous, others silly, and still others fantastic, but all have consequences, and all are natural consequences.
If you chop off the head of the first guard you meet in a new city...then the entire contingent of 40 guards are now descending upon you (because you killed a guard) to arrest and, if you resist, kill you...This consequence is rooted within the rules and LAWS of the world. This is not the DM acting out of vengeance - it is a natural consequence to the character's action.
Also, if the characters got quite lucky and super creative and absolutely wrecked the mob boss halfway through the campaign (as opposed to the final battle at its close)...and instead, his mid-bosses have begun an in-fighting extravaganza in order to seize power. This is an awesome natural consequence to a great fight, and opens the doors to a more complex arc.
However, if your character is being annoying and the DM has had it with your Baloney Sandwich, and a literal mindflayer lich riding a beholder bursts out of the ground... This is vengeance.
Consequences are a product of the initial action, and are thus related. A vengeful action is unrelated.
Vengeance GMs go after your character for no discernible reason, or use unfair tactics and justify it with "because I'm the DM."
Consequence GMs go after your character because you shot the wizard with an arrow and they recognize you as a threat.
There. Is. A. Difference.
Don't be a Vengeance DM. You're ruining it for the rest of us. :)
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.