Flavor vs Aesthetic
My focus is flavor first. I've never been one to faun over cool-looking drinks if they still taste like garbage, so aesthetic is always second to the mix.
But just as great cooks work to expand their expertise to include pristine plating, mixologists expand their craft to include interesting looking drinks that also happen to taste good. Unfortunately, in my experience, it seems that many bartenders have perfected the look well before taking the time to ensure that it tastes like anything other than spoiled orange juice. Just sayin'.
Where I tend to struggle is in what to add or subtract to create a pleasing visual without sacrificing the flavor. Because at the end of the day, the flavor is my guiding star. Who cares if it looks a little weird if it still goes down your throat and offers a pleasant drinking experience.
I decided to stretch outside my comfort zone and craft something that not only tastes lovely, but looks neat too. :)
Theme and Taste
I've been stuck on Rangers lately. Something about the earthy aesthetic; a natural warden and accomplished tracker.
So earth tones. Deep greens, umbral browns, golden or silver clasps.
Initial knowledge leads me straight to Midori, or melon liqueur. Vibrant color, fruity and powerful tones.
So let's use that as our Base. Next, what goes well with melon tones?
Since Midori's tone is powerful on its own, a simple answer is Vodka. It won't fight for flavor dominance, and it's your entry point to make this a truly alcoholic beverage. It's also clear, and therefore won't change the aesthetic of GREEN. So we'll hold onto that one.
The obvious answers are forms of sweet and sour tones to imbalance the deep MELON already happening. We find those in lemon and lime juices, and often the classic Whiskey Sour mix. However, TART is not where I'm going with this. But let's pluck from that the Whiskey and think on it.
Bourbon, Midori, and Sprite is a thing I know, but we're not quite there yet. And, for this one at least, I'm going to avoid the soda route.
If I go down the train of my most recent hits...I might come up short. Cinnamon Whiskey and Melon sounds like a terrible idea, but I've been surprised before...
And I stand surprised. A cinnamon melon is not only delicious, but pushes the color toward a golden green.
Other iterations of learning:
Honey Jack + Midori ... Not great, not bad. Not quite memorable. In fact, I'd wager that you could hide Honey Jack in a dose of Midori without losing any sweetness. So it works, but it doesn't. That's a pass for now.
Amaretto + Midori ... Creates a Shirley Temple. Seriously. That is the most cherry that ever cherry'd on Cherry Mountain in Cherrytown.
Bourbon + Midori ... Is surprising. And really it's a testament to the strength of the flavor found in Midori. In most other drinks, my Four Roses Small Batch bourbon WRECKS the palette. It overpowers everything if you're not careful, hence when I use it it's often 1/4 - 1/3 the strength of everything else around it. It's a multiplier of its own acidity, and yet, with Midori in the mix...it is mitigated. The harsh edge is at the onset, but isn't strong enough to matter. Huh.
Vanilla Vodka + Midori ... is a mountain of yuck. No thank you. Plus, no color change.
Rum + Midori ... ... ... It's too hot for this. It works. A little smokey, mostly melon. I need more ingredients.
The Quest Continues...
So by now I'm having a rough time, but for "good" reasons. Initial tests went BETTER than expected, meaning more things go with Midori than I thought, or are hidden with Midori in the mix, but I'm left with the same dilemma. Choice.
With so much to work with, and some choice points I didn't expect, I suppose this might be the best opportunity to explore Aesthetic.
I've got a few more points to hit (before I devote myself to 1000 pushups and a 10 mile run to work through this last round of "data mining").
Two ingredients is too little for the Aesthetic AND the Flavor. Both challenge and original focus have not achieved success. Oops. And by now I've consumed enough fermented melon to kill a horse.
But all is not lost! We've got...a lot of ambers to work with. I'm going to avoid the vodka for now. That's boring. Instead, we'll test out amounts.
Midori remains the Base, so we're thinking around 3 oz. Everything else is in comparison to this measurement, tones and notes augmented with their own chemistry. Amaretto is too much on its own, now that we know the CHERRY EFFECT. So instead, I'll parcel in a Whiskey bomb, and some bitters to even it out. And then, of course, I'll TRY IT.
3 oz Midori
2 oz Fireball (Cinnamon Whiskey)
1 oz 151 Rum
1 oz Jack Honey
1/2 oz Four Roses Bourbon
3-6 dashes Aromatic Bitters
The tones that waft from the rim of this glass unlock old memories. Times when I was a young, religious boy away at Christian camp. On the last day we'd always make our own bread; an assortment of simple seasoning and old traditional tent baking. Every year, it was delicious, and long after I left the faith, the memory of that bread that we made ourselves lingers in the joyous parts of my spirit. Fermenting yeast and pressed wood with dough.
This drink is no joke. Put it on ice and sip it slow.
After long weeks on the road hunting, tracking, and trapping, fighting off beast and brigand alike, this is a drink that a Ranger enjoys in the safety of their homely tavern. A warm bed and a safe blade at their side. Do not imbibe too much, dear traveler, though weary you are, for one too many and you may be slow to awaken and face the next day.
Do imbibe responsibly, dear trackers.
See you at the table.
“You remember the Deal we made, right? You would give me the power to be free of my oppressors, and in return, I would smite those who defied your calling. My Vow is still ironclad, and I hear your Commandments. Mother Night, Mother Night, by the call of your Moonlight. I am here to rectify the evil deeds of those that spread horrific Blight. I will become a monster in others’ Sight, and with your Grace the Shadows grant me Flight.”
That’s the back story of a character I’ve been role-playing in a game that started as a spontaneous pick-up game with a few players toward the start of Quarantine. So, I ask you, based on this text alone, which class am I playing? And no, it’s not a multiclass. It’s a single class build, using some Unearthed Arcana material, but even so I could build the same character without the UA.
I’ll give you another second. Ready?
Is it a Warlock? Maybe. After all, the text references a “Deal”, which is a common term used in warlock back stories involving Pacts.
Is it a Paladin? Maybe. Apparently this character made a capital-V Vow, a role-playing feature of Paladins included in every one of their subclasses.
Maybe it’s a Cleric? Commandments are a common characteristic of Pantheons in D&D worlds, which are highlighted in the latest official product, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Maybe it’s a different character entirely. Still curious?
The answer is…drum roll please…option number 3! This text describes a Cleric, an agent of the lesser deity Mother Night who calls upon the Domain of Twilight to grant flight while in darkness. Are the other options wrong? Certainly not. All of the other classes I mentioned fit the story I wanted to tell, and there were even some classes I didn’t mention that might have also fit the bill. Shadow sorcerer, Shadow monk, even maybe a Fighter that had a religious element to their story. The thing that made me choose Cleric though was its play style.
Recognizing Play Style
Each turn in combat, a player can choose how to use their action, movement, and possibly a bonus action. Here, play style refers to how each character class makes the most out of those options, and also what a character’s player needs to keep in mind to make the most of their class features and spells.
For example, a rogue player tries to make the most out of each attack every turn, because, unlike other martial classes, they don’t get an extra attack when they take the Attack action. However, if the right conditions are met, a rogue can sneak attack, and a single hit can deliver damage more efficiently than any other martial class (key word, efficiently). So, a rogue player pays attention to which enemies have a hostile creature next to them to know which creatures would take the most damage from their one attack. Then, they can use their bonus action to get out of dodge and reposition for their next turn.
A monk on the other hand can make a free unarmed strike as a bonus action, given that they’ve attacked with a monk weapon or unarmed strike already that turn. While a monk can reposition as its bonus action, there’s a ki cost that goes with it, so it usually is more efficient to double down on attacking the nearest creature. And, while a rogue only gets one attack that can deal a lot of damage to a single target, a monk has a lot of chances to hit, but the damage of each hit is much less by comparison.
This comparison is an example of a difference in play style. Both classes are regarded as mobile, Dexterity-based characters that can move easily around a grid and roll high on initiative. However, what each player needs to be effective, as well as what they prioritize, are going to be different. Rogues are team dependent; they need an ally willing to be within melee range of their target to be effective. Monks are great initiators; while they don’t need an ally to let off their flurry of attacks, each attack may also land a stunning strike, which by its namesake inflicts the Stunned condition on the target and potentially setting up the rogue’s sneak attack.
Which is the last little nugget of wisdom I’ll leave in this section: as valuable as it is to recognize play style, it’s even more valuable to recognize the play style of your fellow party members so you can all play off of each other.
Earlier, I wrote a blog post on the Four Roles you typically find in a D&D party. To recap, you’ve got:
-Tank: Someone who draws an enemy's attention and can take damage
-DPR: Someone who can efficiently and reliably deal damage
-Support: Someone who heals and empowers allies
-Control: Someone who compromises the decision-making power of opponents
When we talk about each class’s play style, we’re also talking about the category of role your decision falls under. Roles aren’t something that’s static to a character. Often, they’re a turn by turn decision you’re making for the party’s benefit.
A rogue sneak attacks an enemy: DPR decision.
Same rogue uses their action to administer a healing potion: Support decision.
Now some classes do this more efficiently than others, and have garnered a reputation of fulfilling certain roles well. But a class isn’t defined by its reputation or story, but by the concrete choices it gives its player to interact with the game state.
So Why Do We Care?
The question to end all questions. Let’s bring it back to the above example. Oftentimes, I hear DMs and fellow players give character-building advice through incomplete ideas. If we look at the character example I started this post with, I can already hear the voices of individuals I know that would say, “Well it has to be (insert opinion here)”. And the question I always ask is, “Does it have to be?”
While this may belabor a point I made earlier, one way to look at a class is by the concrete choices it grants you, not its prescribed lore. Do you want to have gained your powers through a Deal? Sounds like a Warlock to me! But maybe you don’t want to just cast eldritch blast again and again. Maybe your pact granted you supernatural auras and the ability to channel energy through your sword. With this perspective, paladin would probably be a better option.
The reason we care is because we want to tell the story we want to tell, and the mechanics we’re offered by our class are the expression of that story. We’re looking for the marriage of the story we want to tell with the mechanics that let us tell that story. Sometimes, that marriage is found in an unlikely place. You tell the story usually given to a warlock through the mechanics of a chain-smoking cleric recovering from trauma. Sometimes, the story of an aspiring entertainer is told through the mechanics of a warlock.
If you’re like me and love to help new players discover the wonder of D&D, I urge you to keep this mind. Listen to what they want their character to do, not the backstory of where their character came from. If they want to fight like a hardened warrior, guide them to a class that lets them be a hardened warrior. If they want to fight cleverly with a bow, offer them the classes that have a bow (and how to understand the differences between them).
Each Class's Schtick
Now, to conclude this little segment, I’ll just lay out what each class does most efficiently and one of their weaknesses. These are little blurbs, not all encompassing descriptions. We’re also posting further breakdowns of each of these classes on our YouTube channel (DM Shower Thoughts, go subscribe now), so if this kind of stuff tickles your fancy go check it out. Without further ado, here we go:
Barbarian – Great tank, melee DPR, and very survivable, not great at all ranges
Bard – Great single target support, Single target healing, most offensive spells are Wisdom saving throws (kind of limiting)
Cleric – Excellent ability to pivot from Support to Control to DPR, not the most efficient healers but they have healing options
Druid – Excellent healers and controllers, set up allies very well, not very good DPR
Fighter – Spammable, short rest abilities, easy to understand, can be outperformed by other classes in a similar specialty
Monk – Great movement and single target control, very independent, not as good DPR as you’d think
Paladin – Excellent passive support with auras, competitive damage with smites, not great at all ranges
Ranger – Oof, What are they good at? (Kidding), Competitive DPR, great support and control options, many iconic abilities are too situational
Rogue – The DPR class. Like the most consistent one. Great action economy, but it does need a team that acts like a team to work right
Sorcerer – Efficient and flexible action economy, limited by their spells known
Warlock – Eldritch Blast engines, lots of customization, even fewer spellcasting options than Sorcerer
Wizard – Lots of utility, support, control, and damage options. Squishier than French Fries left in the fridge
Artificer – The Support/Control master, maybe even more so than the Wizard. Extremely hard to manage and not for new players.
Well that’s my genius (?) breakdown of each class’s play style. Like I said, any mechanics of a class can be re-flavored to match the story in your head. The key thing is to understand how a class actually works in the context of 5e’s system, and then to tell the story of why it works that way. Play style and action economy can be abstract concepts to wrap your head around, but once you do, a whole new level to the D&D play experience reveals itself to you to enrich your games and your understanding of yourself and others. And after all, isn’t being our best self what we’re all about?
Study Hard, Play Hard
A Modern Viking
The Ironwrath came into being when I picked up a bottle of Semi-Sweet Honeymaker Mead. I had just finished watching the Norwegian Netflix series Ragnarok (not bad, maybe check it out), and possibilities were percolating. Then another Drinking and Dragons came into my purview and I set to work crafting something new.
I wanted the base of the Ironwrath to feel like a "modern viking." So, of course, MEAD is key here. Beyond that, I can give way to a few sensibilities of today to finish it off, but the middle mix is the trick. I remember lying on the floor imagining this. A Kraken rising from the depths to crash into an ancient vessel of warriors. Their battle rages for eons, frozen in time and space somehow, until they smash into the present.
The first iteration blended literal Kraken spiced rum with the Mead, a thematic choice that made the alcohol taste rotten. Perhaps an earthy approach, then? No, the Oakheart made it worse. Like fermented seaweed. Ouch.
But keeping with boat feel, a simple Captain did well to accent the mead without demolishing it, and now I have a beautiful amber base to add to.
Now, this is where experimentation began. Originally, by smell, I had picked out a Blackberry Brandy to add in. ...This was wholly UNPLEASANT, and abandoned immediately. Wild Cherry Brandy had a similar outcome. And standard Brandy did not mesh well. Okay. No Brandy for the viking warrior.
Still needed something, though, so I settled on my modern spin. Root Beer Liqueur. Root Beer blends well with a lot of things I've been trying lately, and it's a no brainer with Captain Morgan.
That did the trick well, but I was still craving that little Kraken spice. So I traded a few ounces for a "splash" with the squid, and there it was. Sweet and smooth at the onset, then warm, and a kick at the end. When my players tried it, they said it had "layers" to its taste. Awesome-sauce.
3 oz Dry or Semi-Sweet Mead
2 oz Captain Morgan (Spiced Rum)
2 oz Root Beer Liqueur
A splash of Kraken Spiced Rum
Mead is becoming easier to find, and that serves me well, but I really wish I could locate something more interesting than Dry, Semi-Sweet, or freaking Blueberry at more local stores. There are so many fantastic meads and makes out there, and I encourage anyone who struggles with the "heavy" feeling of beer or suffers from lack of sufficient organs to handle even cider, to try mead. Who knows... Maybe you'll unlock your inner viking.
See you at the table.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all been a Beginner at some point in our lives, and hopefully even as we navigate adulthood we’ll never lose the joyous curiosity that comes with the Beginner’s Mind. Whether it’s Benjamin Hoff describing the childlike wonder of the Uncarved Block in The Tao of Pooh or coming to Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, being a beginner is both a wondrous and terrifying place.
In terms of D&D, oftentimes a beginner’s expectations are colored by either the common (often reductive) portrayals of TTRPGs in mainstream media or assume the game functions in a way it doesn’t based on their experiences with RPG video games. This means a Dungeon Master has a monumental responsibility in guiding new players to discover the most out of their experience. After all, as a Dungeon Master, you may be the individual that’s responsible for how someone views tabletop role-playing as a whole, and a bad experience can sour someone’s taste for years or possibly their whole life. And while that may sound a little dramatic, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. So my question is, what are they going to walk away with? Are they going to bask in the sheer creative possibility this space provides? Are they going to discover something new about themselves through the characters they portray? Are they going to go on and become a Dungeon Master in their own right, and be empowered to tell their own stories when all is said and done? How are you going to introduce them to this grand, sometimes overwhelming new world?
Now as with all responsibilities, you will make mistakes. That’s what this game is all about: how we deal with both failure and success. After all, it’s what the d20 represents. The best laid plans could fail and the most cockamamie of schemes can succeed. How you handle these mistakes and your tolerance to forgive others will set the standard for how others are expected to behave, and also set the mood for the new player you’ve invited to your table.
Before we proceed, I do have a small disclosure. If you’re a new DM, be kind to yourself. Like I said, you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. If it’s not in your rulings, it’ll be with handling the passionate personalities you’re bound to attract playing this kind of game. If you’re a new player, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most people are playing to tell a great story (which doesn’t necessarily mean structured or coherent), and forgetting how bonus actions work or forgetting that random racial feature that grants you advantage on saving throws against poison isn’t going to make or break a game. Come to this experience with respect and empathy, and you’ll create a culture of trust where everyone can have fun.
There are also a lot of soft skills I can’t teach through text like this. They come through experience and learning from the mistakes you will make along the way. The kind of actionable advice I can give has to do with creating an environment that reduces resistance to learning what D&D is all about. Through my experience, I’ve found that the easiest way to introduce a new player to D&D is what we’ve coined the Rule of Three: have a three hour one-shot session with characters built to 3rd level that touches on all three pillars of play.
Now I’ve introduced a lot of new players to D&D, and as I write this, I’m reflecting on every time I’ve DM’d a game with a new player, and whether or not their experience would have been enhanced by this simple setup. I’ve thankfully never had a game where I’ve turned off someone from TTRPGs (at least to my knowledge), but I do wonder how a new player’s experience could have been deepened if I approached it with these three conditions.
One more time, if a list is easier to visually process, here are the three parameters:
1. Plan for a three hour one-shot session
2. Have everyone build or play 3rd level characters
3. Include all three pillars of play
A Three Hour One-Shot
The bane of most regular D&D games is scheduling. The more people in the party, the more powerful the scheduling demon becomes and the more likely the game will stagnate and end. This is also why I’ve included this suggestion first. If a new player can’t commit to at least a three hour session, then the likelihood they’ll experience any meaningful play is reduced. That being said, I’ve also experienced games that go WAY too long. A six or seven hour session can be brutal to players (depending on their personality), and asking everyone to block out that amount of time can be prohibitive to some individuals based on their life schedule.
So if you’re a DM, plan for a three hour one-shot. Even if your usual group is in the middle of a long running campaign, it’s okay to take a break with a one shot to introduce a new player (especially if they’re friends with your usual play group). Three hours includes enough time to experience the three pillars of play (one pillar per hour) and for the party to have meaningful interactions with itself or the world.
As this is a one-shot, I would plan for the session to resolve itself before its conclusion. Plan a rough beginning, middle, and end, with wiggle room for if things go awry. After all, that’s what D&D is all about.
A 3rd-Level Character
Level 3 has a certain magic to it in 5e’s design (pun intended). Every character class is guaranteed to have a subclass feature by that level, every character has enough hit points to reduce the chances of a one hit KO, and spellcasters have enough spell slots to play with lower level spells and feel the power their class has to offer. Every character class also gets most of their distinctive features by 3rd level, and most have access to their full action economy. It’s a great place to learn and play without the fear of instant death on a wrong choice.
When it comes to creating a new player’s first character, I would sit down and build the character with them. This way, you know what to expect from their character’s features and how you might adjudicate them, rather than being blindsided by a rule you’ve forgotten and potentially taking time away from their first three hour session.
In terms of ability scores, I’m partial to using an ability score array (especially for a new player), and having that boundary with every player participating in the one shot. This way, the new player won’t feel over or underpowered based on sheer luck at character creation. Everyone starts with the same array, evening the playing field.
When it comes to picking race, class, and background, let the new player make the final choice, but remember that you’re there to clarify what those choices are without overwhelming them. Do they want to play an effective archer? Fighter, Ranger, or Rogue can all work. Do they want to be a nature lover that casts healing magic? Druid may be an obvious choice, but there is Nature Cleric if they want it. Do they want to be tough and sturdy? They may be leaning toward a dwarf or half orc for the race, which are different but share sturdiness as their common trait. In any of these cases, a 3rd level character will tap into the power of those choices and get a feel for the unique character they’ve made.
During this stage, I tend to offer choices found in the Player’s Handbook. While the supplementary material in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and so on is fun and interesting, it can be overwhelming to a new player just trying to build a dude that swings an axe. That being said, oftentimes I’ll have excited players that will do their homework and come to me asking about specific material they’re interested in playing.
“I’ve always wanted to play a khajit from Skyrim, and I think a tabaxi monk would be cool!”
Sure! For cases like this, the only other boundary I have is that we’ll stick to official material for this session. No homebrew or Unearthed Arcana allowed, because they may not give a representative experience of play.
The final great point about using 3rd level characters is that each class’s definitive action economy is present. 3rd level Rogues can attack as an action, and then disengage as a Bonus Action. A 3rd level Cleric can cast healing word before using their action to cast sacred flame (but not bless). A 3rd level Barbarian needs to remember to bonus action rage BEFORE going in for their reckless attack. Although they don’t yet have the best or most efficient features a class may offer, a new player will still understand the distinction between the classes much more clearly than with 1st level characters.
Three Pillars Of Play
Dungeons and Dragons is designed to take players through three different kinds of scenarios dubbed by WoTC as the “Three Pillars of Play”. These are Social Interaction, Exploration, and Combat, and gameplay becomes more structured as we move in that order. In order to have a holistic experience with 5e, a new player should experience all three of these pillars in one way or another.
The easiest should be Social Interaction. Whether haggling with a merchant or intimidating a goblin scout, social interaction tends to be less structured than the other two pillars. Sometimes mechanics come into play, such as through Charisma checks or conditions like charmed or frightened, but often times how a social interaction resolves is up to a player’s approach. Dialogue and role-play are the heart of this game for a lot of individuals, and it’s not unusual for a new player to gravitate toward the “talk our way out of this” approach rather than the “stab it until it dies” approach.
The middle ground of structure is Exploration. Now recently I’ve become acquainted with an up-and-coming YouTube channel called Dungeon Coach (you should seriously check him out and subscribe, he’s got some quality content). He described Exploration perfectly, which is as “encounters and puzzles”. Sometimes, this means discovering a new section or quality of an environment. Sometimes this means solving a riddle or putting clues together. There are many players who are enamored with the world building of D&D, and you may find that you have a new player that wants to explore every nook and cranny of the environment you’ve put them in. This curiosity can be well rewarded with new knowledge about the world, their current predicament, or through additional options they take advantage of in combat.
Combat is by far the most structured pillar of play, and time in the game world comes to a screeching halt when the DM cries “Roll for Initiative!” Combat in D&D is handled in rounds and turns, and on each turn each participant in the combat has only a few options they can choose before the next participant’s turn. Teaching a new player what they can and can’t do on their turn can be difficult, especially if you have a veteran group that tries to generate momentum in a fight’s flow.
One suggestion I’ve seen is having a small card describing what a creature can do with its action. It’s also likely that the player will have bonus actions available, which you can give them friendly reminders on (especially if you helped them build their character). I’ve even heard of DM’s giving players check boxes to remind them of when they’ve used certain parts of their turn, like Movement, an Action, Bonus Action, and maybe even a Reaction. You’ll find each player processes the structure of combat differently. Some need visuals, description, or something tactile they can manipulate (like a mini). No matter how they process information, just remember to be patient. They’re a beginner, and how you treat them as such will define your relationship as Player and DM for many games to come.
So now the game is over! The world has been explored, NPCs have been spoken with, and combat has resolved. The 3rd level characters have completed their adventure together, and everyone is packing up to leave.
Following up is just as important to the D&D experience as the set up, and the closer you can do it to the conclusion of the session the better. I’ve always found more specific questions to be more insightful as a DM. For example, asking which part they liked the best, or what their favorite moment was (as opposed to “Was it good?”). I’ll even go so far as to ask which class feature they liked the best, especially if they were a spellcaster that used several different options.
Asking questions like this will reveal a lot about who they are as a person and a player, and it will help clarify which style of game may suit them best. Sometimes, you may not even be the best DM for the job, but if you have a trusting enough network you can recommend someone who is. There have been plenty of times I get a hardcore role-player in one of my games whose looking for a structured epic narrative and I recommend them to Adamus, as my games tend to be on the sillier side (with some notable exceptions).
Sometimes you’ll have a player give a suggestion. My recommendation here is to be the gatekeeper to your own mind. Sometimes, their advice is well meaning but irrelevant. Sometimes their advice can make everyone’s experience more efficient and enjoyable. Some advice I got that I didn’t take was to make every natural 1 more of a disaster, for comedy. I didn’t like how it made me feel being on the receiving end as a player, so I don’t implement that as a DM even if my players are looking for it. If they want it so bad, they can describe something awful when they do roll a natural 1.
If you do take anything away from this theory crafting, what I would ultimately say is to pay attention to how the environment from play impacts your group’s experience. For a new player, these are the environmental conditions I’ve found to creating a fulfilling first session.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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Working out consistently is hard for many of us, especially given our current climate and the pressures of the times.
At the time of writing this, for example, I am currently on vacation.
Not the most relaxing vacation, mind you, but vacation?
We (my wife's family, my wife, and I) have sequestered ourselves in a not-so-suave cabin on a definitive not-resort in the far reaches of tourist trap of Lake George, New York. We wear our masks everywhere we go, brought our own food to cook in our own kitchen, and keep our distance from EVERYONE. And since I don't trust the populace of good 'ole Lake George as far as I can shot-put them (which is certainly not six feet), and, from what I can observe, wearing a mask feels more like a means to get service and not actually to protect anyone, every opportunity to AVOID OTHER PEOPLE has been followed.
Lots of hiking.
Which is wonderful, actually.
Really. If I could stat out myself like a character in my own game (a great topic for Future Adam), I would give myself proficiency in Pugmire's skill of Traverse. I am filled with purpose and energy crossing streams, hiking up stones, running trails. As long as I have food, water, and a place to pee, I would wander the woods for hours.
Which brings me to my first point.
Keep Moving (and get a pedometer)
I have a daily step goal. Yes, I've become one of THOSE people. But a tracking number feels very motivating. It's proof that you ARE actually moving around, and with the flood of information surround some of us, having a running tally that I don't have to track myself feels wonderful.
I don't need a FitBit, or any other overpriced wristband. I have a free pedometer on my phone. Easy enough to setup and no further trouble required. I track my weight-training and steps, and set my goals, knowing that the "calories" they're tracking might not be accurate, nor do I care.
Making sure to move about each hour or so around your house will net you 4-6,000 steps over the course of the day. That's pretty good. An hour walk with a few hills nets me 8-9,000 steps. Not bad.
My daily goal is currently 13,000 steps a day. Some nurses crush that easy in a work day, and I was crushing it back when school was open. But NOW, with online events and distance learning, we struggle to move out of our offices and away from our desks. So a walk, for me, is the most efficient, and the most effective.
Why walks are great!
1) 8-9,000 steps in 1 hour. Lovely! Want it faster? Split up your walk with some jogging and get that heartrate up!
2) We are inundated with media and activism. I try to write something every day. I try to paint *almost* every day. Most evenings I'm running games, and most afternoons I'm teaching lessons. There's a lot going on. But strapping on my mask and walking outside allows me space away from all of that, if even for just a short time. It's time think, time to plan, time to talk to myself; I get to work it all out, and I come back with more structured ideas, new fiction in mind, another drink idea... Space lets us process the world, so we are more equipped to handle it when we return.
3) Vitamin D is good for you!
4) Fresh air is good for you!
5) A change of scenery is really really good for you!
Couple that walk with a few bouts of pacing around "inefficiently putting laundry away" and finding excuses to get up and vacuum, dance in the kitchen, do all of my chores at once, and otherwise be awesome at taking care of the house, and I'll reach my goal easy. And it's okay if it's *not quite* 100% accurate. I know it isn't, so the ballpark still counts!
The trick is to have something that casually holds you accountable. My pedometer isn't going to scold me for not reaching my goal, so the motivator isn't avoidance-based. It's just a tracker; the rest is up to me.
You still have to want it.
If you're one of those people that struggles with getting moving because it doesn't "feel" like you're accomplishing anything, a pedometer is EXACTLY what you need, but start small with your goals. If you're mostly sedentary right now, then your daily goal is 4,000 steps. That's you moving around your house. Do that for a week. Then it's 5000 for a week. Then 6K. Then 7. You get the idea. Start small, and you'll make it. Consistency breeds habit, and habit is your training. ...That also works both ways.
If you have made a habit of giving up when it gets hard... THAT'S your training. And you'll need to train yourself out of it before you can take the necessary steps forward.
Pushups Are King (embrace bodyweight)
Not JUST Push-ups, mind you, but they're a HUGE component in your fitness, vacation or not. In fact, they're one of FOUR key exercises that you need to hone in on to ensure that you always have a gym at your disposal. And by "gym" I mean...at least a 6x6 floor, and something to hang off of.
The Big Four are: Push-ups | Squats | Pull-ups | Sit-ups
Now, each of these have their own variations and branches heading off everywhere (more topics for another post), so let's keep this one simple.
Push-ups: anything that puts you in a plank position (knees are also allowed) where you lower your body down to the floor, touching your chest there, and "pushing" yourself back up to the next starting position.
Squats: standing and lowering yourself (as if you're about to sit...awkwardly) and pushing back up with your legs and glutes.
Pull-ups: anything that has you holding yourself at a hanging position (activating your grip, arms, and back most of all, but also a bunch of other things), and "pulling" yourself up and lowering yourself back down to the next starting position.
Sit-ups: anything that engages the abdominal muscles. Leg Lifts, Crunches, Obliques, Planks, Mountain Climbers...doesn't have a to be a Sit-Up!
I make these my primary focus, especially while on vacation. Sometimes I'll split it up by day, other times I'll have a running track ("do 1000 push-ups this week"), and maybe, if there's a fitness center, I'll make sure to incorporate them into my weight plan too. This time around, it looked more like this:
Monday: 100 Pushups, 100 Abs
Tuesday: 100 Squats, 100 Pullups (ouch)
Wednesday: Rest, walk extra 4K
Thursday: 100 Squats, 200 Abs
Friday: 200 Pushups, 50 Pullups, 100 Abs
Saturday: Rest, walk/run extra 8K
Sunday: (back home) Weight training - back and arms + 50 Pullups
With all the hiking, too, I should be fiiiiiine.
And you can adjust your plans as you see fit. Maybe your tracks are weekly, like I often do while I'm at home. Maybe your plan is just for three days a week. Or two. Or five. Whatever your slice, MAKE ONE AND HOLD YOURSELF TO IT. Your body, and your gut, will thank you. ...eventually.
Of course, I'm writing this while my wife and father-in-law make a list of all the best ice cream joints nearby...
I will be fine.
Get it, nerds.
I recently had another opportunity to draft some more drinks for my fellow players, and what began as an exploration of whiskey pairings turned into something truly special. A drink I find myself returning to just as often as I would to my token Grandfather drink (a hit among my players, and something that they're now testing with ice cream? - I'll have to follow up on that one).
The concept is simple. Each "gear" is a whiskey, and the blend may not be what you expect. This was originally crafted and tested by my palette, which struggles with bourbon, so the measurements aren't equal. Good thing, too, because not every whiskey's flavor is created equal. If one flavor is equally as powerful at 1 oz as another at 3 oz, we have to adjust volume appropriately, so the sum is a smoother kick.
Let's get into it!
5 oz Fireball (Cinnamon Whiskey)
2 oz Drambuie (Scotch Liqueur)
3 oz Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey
1 oz Four Roses Bourbon Whiskey
2-4 dashes Aromatic Bitters
Top with Ginger Ale OR Coca-Cola
*Makes 2-4 Shooters, depending on soda pour
Especially considering the delicate nature of my tummy and my limited exposure to certain alcohols, this began as a purely academic exercise in flavor and mixology. Even this early on, I could not have predicted the level of self-discovery in this pursuit. Finding a use for Gin, a love of Whiskey and Bitters, keenly paying attention to the smells and tastes of liquor and actively imagining their pairings...this is a skill. And I feel like I was meant for it. :)
Not like I'm amazing at it. I'm just ENJOYING THE HECK OUT OF IT. And, hey, it's exciting to discover things about yourself!
As for the drink, the Cinnamon and Scotch elevate each other, while the Bourbon darkens that pairing, and the Jack Honey is the bridge between them. The Bitters bind the mix, and the sugars of the soda brighten it for simpler stomachs. Personally, the Coca-Cola wins over the Ginger Ale.
Pick your poison. Enjoy your discoveries. And please, drink responsibly.
See you at the table.
So my wife had to get her eyes dilated at the doctor today. No biggie, everything's fine, but it prompted her to experiment with her vision at a distance and threw on a random film on Netflix. What she picked is called Extraction. A film from 2015 starring Bruce Willis ("starring" is a little generous), Kellan Lutz (from Twilight), and Gina Carano (from so many films now).
And the experience was...irascible.
Context Is Key - What Is Extraction
Extraction is a film from 2015 (not to be confused with the superior Chris Hemsworth film from 2020 of the same name) about a spy (3 weeks from retirement of course) captured by a terrorist organization and how his son, Harry, teams up with an old flame from the CIA, Victoria, to find him. There's a little double cross, a few lazy car chases, some strange choices in cinematography, an entirely misaligned musical score, and a complete misuse in the majority of the cast. ...Especially Carano.
It's one thing to be a disappointing film. There are many that fulfill that category. But this one stuck with me in a deep way - a pain of missed opportunities and a wasted potential for, especially at this point, a well-established actress and powerful presence like Carano.
To understand where I'm going and how this all feeds into the GM's Corner, we need to take a look at a little film called Haywire.
MMA Champion and actress Gina Carano in 2011's Haywire.
Where Haywire (2011) Shines
Haywire is a low-budget action film with tight cinematography, great choreography that feels real, and a raw approach to an otherwise simple story. This is another film featuring trained agents in a military-type scenario and a female agent fighting against those that would entrap or frame her. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is confident, visceral, and wholly satisfying, but there's one scene in particular that illustrates my point the best.
Mallory (Carano) and another character (played by the ever-suave Michael Fassbender) are moving through a hotel acting all cute and newlywed-like as they head back to their room. It's kind of adorable, even. But once the door closes, it's all business. The facade falls, and they're agents on a mission.
Fassbender throws the first punch, knocking Mallory down. The fight is intense, devoid of music, with long takes pushed out so you can see every punch, kick, grapple, and throw in all its glory. You forget immediately that this is a man and woman. These are two highly trained combatants trying their best to incapacitate, and probably, kill each other. At no point in the fight is a punch pulled or mercy given - it is a no-holds-barred drag out display of pure fighting ability. It reveals two extremely important things. 1) Mallory isn't invincible, in this fight and many more to follow. She gets BEAT UP in this movie. 2) Mallory is always capable. She gets knocked down, but gets right back up and adapts to her opponents, terrain, and dozens of other active factors; you can see the turning of the tide over the course of each fight, and it's a turn of skill, not plot armor. She uses her surroundings to startling effect, demonstrating an intelligence in battle and survivability. This is not a character who will let you win just because the script deems it so.
Where Extraction Misses The Opportunity Completely
I can think of two distinct moments where both my wife and I shouted at the screen. The director has fundamentally missed the mark in every possible way when handling the character.
SCENE ONE - Carano isn't allowed to fight
Setup: Victoria takes Harry to an old female friend/contact and they go to a club to locate a perp. The perp is a sleaze in every meaning, so Victoria makes out with her friend to get his attention. Perp calls her over and she convinces him to head to a private room.
Women can show off whatever they like however they wish. Their body, their choice. I'm not complaining about that.
No. I'm complaining about what follows, and it fails on so many levels I got physically angry at my television.
Victoria gets taken back to the penthouse suite in close quarters with their perp, and two other guards. At this point, I expect things to go south, but I'm not worried about her. And I'm not worried because of two things. 1) She's a CIA operative with specialized hand-to-hand combat training. She's been an agent longer than our male protagonist (who isn't an agent yet, has just been training for it). I expect her to handle herself pretty well here, because she should know what she's doing. 2) She's Gina-freaking-Carano, and I've seen her take out a staggering number of people in a wide assortment of mediums. And I'm not trying to typecast here; she's playing someone who can fight - I'm looking forward to the fight.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a tip that there's an assassin on his tail. He corners the guy in a bathroom and Victoria's cover is immediately blown before she can get any info. Victoria starts getting beat on by three men, thrown around the room in shots where you can't see anything, and Harry confronts the assassin in a "martial arts" brawl. This is where the problems start piling up.
We get to see Harry go brawling in a bathroom with an assassin (reminiscent of the superior bathroom brawl featuring Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill from Mission Impossible: Fallout), complete with cracking glass, burst pipes, and drenched fists...juxtaposed with Victoria getting choked and kicked on the floor. In fact, there are long takes of this testosterone-filled fight and then short takes of the female lead getting beat on. No disarming techniques, no creative grapples, no takedowns, no showcase of ANY of Carano's talents. NONE of the things I've come to expect and enjoy with seeing her on screen - she actually looks bored while being beat up.
The tide doesn't turn for her until Harry, the non-operative male protagonist, stops a punch and joins the fight. She had to be rescued by him, and that pisses me right off.
Why is it that female agents always seem to get into these difficult scuffles and need to be rescued, and the males just have to brawl it out? (I have always hated this trope)
And female violence, in many mediums, tends to have an air of femininity to it - in a bad way. Like instead of treating the female combatant as a threat, the violence toward them is pivoted to accentuate their gender somehow. Like they're treated as a "silly girl" and toyed with first, before being a target to be eliminated. They're thrown around, the face is avoided, they're choked and held down; they're somehow a woman first, threat second. Meanwhile, the men get to engage in big physical fights and be the capable combatant.
Even the way it's shot is strange. Harry gets wide angle shots that showcase his physicality, while Victoria gets close shots of her face, her body, and her dress. Do you see the difference yet?
The brawl continues to the dance floor with an awkward cut, and they approach the thugs side by side. Harry gets to punch some more, and FINALLY Victoria kicks someone (but she's fighting in a dress that doesn't allow a lot of movement - a fact that the CHARACTER directly opposed in dialogue, but was shut down), then gets grabbed from behind at gunpoint.
Now about this fool with the gun. He doesn't keep it on her; no, he waves the thing around like an idiot. I'm not a MMA fighter, but I do practice martial arts enough to see specific beats where a disarm can happen, and AGAIN, I was waiting for Carano - who is way more skilled than I will ever be (and a combat-trained agent would be) - to take one of those beats and wreck this fool. She never does. And it looks like she wants to.
In fact, Carano looks really uncomfortable in most of these scenes. Like, somehow, this state is very "unnatural" for her (he writes, knowingly staring into the Void). She stands there like a petrified flower in a cocktail dress - scared and confused. She is then dragged off and into a car, where she proceeds to do very little to change her circumstances other than alert Harry how to follow them (still smart, just not "physically capable").
Why am I mad?
Harry's not an agent. He's a man. Victoria IS an agent. She is a woman. Harry is free to play hero, Victoria is dragged off like a damsel, and NOT ONCE tries to fix that problem with her combat skills. Critic says: But she was stuffed in a car, Adamus, what is she supposed to do? Answer: the male protagonist was also stuffed into a car with four armed guards earlier in the film...and he fought his way out. Why can't she - the trained and tested operative with two guards? Their frame and role in the story is defined by their gender, not their skill set. How refreshing would it have been if not only had Victoria held her own (a fact that runs in line with her skill set), and Harry brawled his way through, but his lack of training gets him caught? OR both get to shine with both of their styles, but the INTELLIGENT villain outsmarts them by undermining their flaws, instead of victory being a contrivance?
There's a better story here, and Carano can tell it. Instead, she's sidelined for Lutz to shine, if for no other reason than "he's the main character." Hollywood. Stop writing people as bad at the job they're supposed to be good at just so the main character can be better. Write them all as good at their job, and elevate the stakes to match them. That's how you make memorable stories (another deep breath).
Scene Two - Why is Victoria even here?
After getting punched once in the car and therefore knocked out (with no bruise to tarnish her face), Victoria is strung up with ONE hand tied to a pipe. One. And she's standing on the ground with both feet. In a large, empty room (prime real estate for a good ole' fashioned fight scene).
Carano is a built individual; her physical prowess is poised for display. I have seen her hoist herself up EASILY with one arm; the lady has body control, excellent strength and power, and a keen understanding of leverage and choke holds. So I'm still holding on to hope that I'm going to see something cool.
She is unconscious for the majority of the last Act. When she does come to, she's alone in the room, and it cuts back to Lutz being stupid. By now I expect it to cut back to her breaking free, but no, she just hangs out some more. When a guard arrives, she instead uses her feminine wiles to "seduce" him to come closer to her (why does this EVER work in film?), and THEN does a decent take-down and breaks free (which she could have done before, and already have re-entered the story). I AM glad she got herself out, no rescuing here...however, as a director, this dude did NOT understand what Carano is capable of. She can do so much more than what she was directed to do.
And when she DOES fight someone...it's a nameless thug (not the jerk that knocked her out - no, that guy fights a different thug; great, a brawl between two people we don't know or care about). This "fight" is done in badly lit shots, with weird cuts, and strange close-ups, so you never get to SEE her fight. She can fight. Let her fight!
What This Has To Do With Tabletop RPGs
Surely, my rant can continue for many pages more, but I assure you I had a point, and it is rooted in this idea:
If you want to play a damsel - a fainting flower who danes to be rescued and won like a prize - go for it.
If you want to play a warrior - someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat and who revels in the ring - go for it.
If you're a dude and you want to play a gal, have at it.
If you're a lady and you want to play the meanest boy in town, more power to you.
If you want to play a gender-fluid wood elf sharpshooter, be my guest.
And, as your Director...I mean, GM...I will NEVER adjust your role in the game based on your GENDER. Women can be warriors, men can be damsels, and heroes (and villains) come in all shapes and sizes.
And it is my job to give you opportunities to shine and show off. If you have cultivated your character to be a serious, half-orc grappler, then I will make sure that you have opportunities to GRAPPLE. I WANT you to show off. I WANT you to succeed in your concept.
That doesn't mean you auto-win a scenario, but if you've built someone who should naturally be good at this skill, then I'm going to cultivate scenarios that allow you to show yourself to be good at your skill. I need to give you the wide angle shots, pass you the patience to show (don't tell), and watch you turn the tide as a warrior who reassesses her situation and adapts to new data.
Because that's what fighting is.
And if you built a sharpshooter, then I better damn well make sure you have some opportunities to shoot stuff. If you built a fainting noble, then by golly I'll make sure you have opportunities to react in kind! Whatever your slice of fun, whatever your build, whatever your core concept, it is a GM's duty to provide you with a time and possibility to BE that thing.
This isn't to say there won't be moments of challenge, nor will I spell it out for you in meticulous detail what is possible, but all of this ties discretely into our REST model.
I will Respect your character concept as it aligns with the setting, and I will Respect your Gender in whatever form it takes. I will practice Empathy in your vision as you embark on this journey. I will seek to provide Satisfying encounters where you can shine and show off. And I will build Trust through these encounters, even as they change and evolve.
You are all Gina Carano.
I will let you fight.
See you at the table.
It is no secret that my family lives on board games.
Though we'd settle down into a Mario Kart tournament back in the Super Nintendo days of yore, we aren't really into the craze of video games, at least not as a family. When we sit down to play, it's with physical pieces and verbal interplay. We chide and vamp, sing and spell, and all around have a pleasant time.
This love of games is infectious. Whether we mean to or not, it is often the "rite of passage" for new friends and family to come and play; like a litmus test to see if you can have fun with new people without being a tool. We use it to pass the time between meals, as a jumpstart between conversations (and, in recent years, a transition AWAY from uncomfortable topics - like hitting a reset button), and sometimes, even, as an intellectual "dessert" after a satisfying meal. Every household in the branches of my side of the family has made board gaming a consistent go-to in their world, and we have yet to see any hint of slowing down.
I am a professional Game Master for crying out loud; my brothers and I DESIGN board games (not as a living, but both my brother and I have entered the play-testing stage) and my eldest brother REVIEWS them on a podcast called the Dicetower (good stuff, check them out HERE). Then, we each have families. My eldest brother has taught his two boys dozens of games and my sister and other brother have kept the passion alive. PLAY is in our blood, and we happily share it with whomever is willing to join the table.
But there are other benefits, too.
Coming from a teaching background, I would be remiss not to mention the many facets of our human experience that consistent play augments and cultivates. Reading, writing, math, transfer, learning styles - it's all there, and you're practicing from play, which is awesome. If you read this blog or listen to my podcast regularly, you may already be aware of the immense impact a game like Dungeons and Dragons can have on a person, socially and physically, and a game like that doesn't have a concrete "end."
A board game does. Most "box games" have a winner, too, so there's scoring involved. Even when the game is cooperative, there's still a measure of competition; me vs them, us vs the board, us vs one, you get the idea. And yet, with a strong etiquette at the table...no one has to feel bad about any of those setups. Sure, there are game types I don't enjoy, and we're all allowed that boundary, but even IF I had to play a game I didn't like, I could AT LEAST be certain that I wouldn't be treated unfairly. And that is because - at least among my family - we teach our people gaming etiquette. Our own personal expectations at the table, cultivated over many years of playing together.
I've been thinking deeply on what I've seen, and I thought I'd write them down and share them with you.
Commandments For Tabletop Etiquette
FOLLOW THE RULES
Some of you might say, "well, duh" here, but you'd be surprised how many people - young, old, new, veteran - try to cheat during play. Now, sometimes you forget the rules, and that's FINE. But after we've taught you the rule four times, and are now watching you like a hawk about it, maybe commit the extra brain power to remember it the fifth time. And, presentation of intention helps a bunch here. I've been in plenty of games where someone has struggled with the volume of rules, or keeping their move options in their heads, or getting stuck on one particular detail. It's one thing to consistently forget but work through it and another to attempt to hide it. One is forgetful - the other is cheating. And asking QUESTIONS go a long way here. It's always okay to clarify your understanding; it saves those headaches later. AND, if you voice that you're struggling with something, WE WILL HELP YOU. We're not shaming your struggle; we just want everyone at the table to value the rules so we're all on an even playing field.
Anecdotal Rant Incoming: I was playing a game with the family of a friend - Ticket to Ride, one of my favorites - when a sudden schism occurred. In the game, on your turn, you can only take one Action. You have three options on what Action to take: draw two cards OR claim a single route OR pick more routes. This restriction is one of the binding mechanics of the game; it is the same across every iteration. Upon sitting down to play this game with this family, who have expressed that it is their favorite game too, we did not feel the need to review how to play the game.
So we're playing for about a half hour or so; I've been picking my one action each turn, carefully planning and watching round to round, waiting for my time to claim a route and - the person next to me proceeds to draw two cards, then immediately start claiming routes one after another. Confused, I - perhaps too forcefully - exclaimed "What are you doing?" and everyone else looked at me like I was crazy.
"This is the way you play the game." They said.
"...You can only take one action each turn. You've already drawn, your turn is over. That was your one action." I returned, laughing a bit. I expected to be backed up - we've all played this before, right?
They looked around, confused. "This is the way we learned to play." They said.
"Well I learned to play following the rules; the fact that you can do only one thing at a time is a huge part of the game. You have to decide what's most important every turn."
"That's not what the rules say!"
Then, turning to the exact spot in the rule book, I read them the literal rules.
"Well, this is how WE play the game!"
"...Then I would have loved to know that at the beginning of play. If I had known you were playing this way, I would have played my turns VERY DIFFERENTLY."
We finished the game "my way", with the actual rules, and it was a tense experience. I didn't mean to make everyone super uncomfortable and I'm not against making House Rules in any respect (I do it too!), but you need to let people know that you've made the change before you begin. If you don't do this, you've essentially handed one player at the table a DIFFERENT set of rules than the rest of you - I was effectively playing at a huge disadvantage because I didn't know the "family secret." And after calling them out on 1) not following the rules I thought they knew, and 2) not warning me that they play the game differently in their house...my name has been cursed to high heaven to this day over the Great Ticket To Ride Incident of '09.
I have sobered a bit, but I think my response was so visceral because I grew up in a household where you followed the rules to the game. We understood that the designers made it that way for a reason, and, at the very least, we should try it a few times their way before we ponder alternatives. AND, IF we made any changes after that point, we would always remind the table of the change before we started playing. We understood the difference; we could tell you what was House Rule and what was RAW every game at every table. It ensures that none of us are operating with a stacked deck.
COMMIT TO THE GAME
If you've come to the table to play, commit some brain power to that play. I was teaching a game recently to someone and we were getting into a good swing of fun. Then I noticed that their choices didn't seem to follow much of a strategy given the game's setup; they seemed random. I asked curiously, "What's your strategy right now, friend? Looks interesting!"
They perked up wide-eyed. "Oh! I know it doesn't make sense. I just don't care."
1) Ouch. 2) The baseline here was just that they wanted to play with me, but had no further desire or impetus to formulate their own strategy to achieve something here. Like every turn was pure luck.
Now, some game ARE pure luck, but even games with a high luck element have choice points and strategy.
Consider this another facet of the Social Contract: I'm at this table - I'm going to bring my A Game, because I expect everyone else to do the same. I've committed brain power and time and energy to this, I expect you to do the same. That's how the fun gets done.
HELP WITH HONESTY
There are no players I despise more than the ones who will only help you if it helps them. Instead, offer guidance and advice even if...no, especially if it can hurt your position. We were all beginners at one time and we know how that felt. A beginner in anything is not one to be shamed; in fact, they should be elevated. The best veteran players at the table are the ones that offer guidance with honesty; who build clear trust and rapport at the table. Don't EVER maneuver a new player into a position that helps you just because "they don't know any better." That's cruel, and it makes the other person feel used.
So, if you're going to help and the other person welcomes it, help them make the best move they can, even if it hurts you.
And NEVER play FOR them; explain a strategy, answer their questions honestly, and let THEM make the decision. Because it isn't your turn, it's theirs.
RESPECT THE MATERIALS
When I was teaching board games more consistently, I was quickly APPALLED by the utter abuse my cards, pieces, and materials underwent at the hands of kids who should know better. I got into the habit of having a class or two without games at the start of a unit just to go over how to, ya' know, NOT put my dice in your mouth; NOT stuff garbage into the game box; NOT pull apart the miniature tokens (and break them); NOT rip up the cards you don't like... The list goes on and on about what I witnessed in short order, but instead of going over every instance, it all falls under the same umbrella commandment: Respect the materials. Do not break the game just because you want to fidget (not against fidgeting, mind you, but you can fidget without breaking stuff).
Some board games are $60+. A torn card, a broken miniature, and a smashed die can be massively expensive to replace AND you've broken that trust of play. If you break that trust, then you won't be allowed back at the table. At least not for a long while; until you can prove that you are trustworthy.
I'll repeat that for those in the back: If I let you play my game and use my stuff and it comes back broken...YOU DON'T GET TO PLAY WITH ME AGAIN. Why? Because you broke my trust. Borrow a pencil and it comes back snapped in half? No more pencils for you. Borrowed a pen and it comes back chewed on? No more pens for you. Borrowed a die and it was never returned? No more dice for you.
Respect the materials because you are borrowing them and building trust by doing so. Breaking that trust will always have consequences.
No one likes a bragger. We're glad you're doing well, but do not make others feel bad if they are struggling. Instead, be their cheerleader. Offer Honest Help, celebrate their victories, and build up the table. Even you still come out on top, no one else has to be stepped on to get there.
Kids are...kids. And people...are people.
A person's age, development, and social skill play a huge role in establishing where they are in their personal etiquette at the table. Though I see these "commandments" at play most actively with young kids and teenagers, there have been many instances where adults fail to follow them. Should those individuals be summarily condemned for tearing my cards? I'd argue no. However, case by case there need to be consequences...and reparations.
If they broke someone's trust, they need to work to get it back. If they spoiled a game by bragging and putting everyone down, then they need to practice building others up. If they cheated knowingly and threw a fit at the table over it, they need to cultivate honest play and begin to recognize the value in personal integrity.
All of these are essential skills to have in all aspects of life, and knowledge of them reveals a great universal truth.
If you play well, you live well.
See you at the table.
PS: These were the most recent lessons I've seen from my family, but I'm sure I could think of a few more. What are some at your tables?
I used to hate gin. The smell, the taste...I just didn't know what to do with it.
But the more I learn, the more I can at least come to appreciate gin's palette. Maybe I was just blind to it before, but there's a secret citrus-y quality to the taste of gin, and at the behest of a certain client, I was inspired to *try* and pair it with something appropriate.
Apparently VERMOUTH goes well with Gin. Huh. Two of my hates. Go well together. Who knew?
...A lot of the bartending community, actually, I'm just biased against ingredients I rarely use, but AFTER this mix and the feedback it received, I may have just opened the door to venture into other pairings with my black cat of an alcohol.
Try this mix out for a refreshing adult summer drink, and if you're down to be little surprised by how beautiful things can pair. In retrospect, the pairing is obvious, and I'm happy to announce that after simply smelling the two in close proximity, my practice is paying off.
Again, this one ain't complicated.
3-4 oz Gin
2 oz Sweet Vermouth
2-4 dashes Aromatic Bitters
Stir and pour over some classy ice, then fill the glass with Ginger Beer or Ginger Ale.
A classy gentleman's drink of ginger. Enjoy.
See you at the table.
Although Adamus, Ian, and I are usually talking about tabletop games in DM Shower Thoughts, the RPG genre is much bigger than that. From Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft, RPGs have taken a lot of different forms and their genre-defining elements are used in a variety of spaces. Heck, even just the element of collecting quantifiable experience points is something that can be found when training for corporate jobs unrelated to gaming.
Because of how many RPGs handle these various elements, the perception of various tropes can creep into our understanding of specific systems. Sure, in many RPG videogames (like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), having a dedicated healer to cast Life and Cure spells is fundamental to the party’s composition. The same can’t be said for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because the proportion of Hit Points that can be regained per action is much lower. This is a really small example that makes a huge impact on gameplay.
Let’s dive into this for just a moment before getting to the meat and potatoes of this topic. In many JRPGs, many boss monsters can one-hit KO party members, leaving them in a state of incapacitation. It’s therefore the healer’s job to cast a spell to bring them back up, sometimes even fully restoring their health as they do so. There isn’t a similar ability in 5e. Even a 1st level Cure Wounds spell only heals 1d8 + spellcasting modifier hit points, meaning on average (with optimized standard array ability scores) the possibility for hit points regained ranges from 4 to 12. Most videogame RPGs don’t offer that range of possibility, and is one of the fundamental differences between tabletop games and videogames.
As such, although there are plenty of similarities between these two mediums and their expression of the genre, there are some differences to recognize. The most glaring difference is the need to pivot roles in 5e. Just because you built a healer doesn’t mean there aren’t times to shift into a control role, and if you built your character to deal damage but the enemy is immune to all of your attacks, then you may find yourself fulfilling support. It’s just how the dice roll sometimes.
However, after all is said and done, a choice you make as a D&D player in combat really can be broadly categorized as belonging to one of four roles (and there is overlap). Those roles are DPR (Damage per Round), Tank, Support, and Control. And, although you can optimize your character to best perform in one of these roles, there will be times where the best decision is to instead fulfill another role your character isn’t designed for (which we’ll touch on later).
Know Your Role
Now, the reason there’s value in categorizing these roles is to clarify the decisions you're making as well as identify gaps in the party’s performance. Oftentimes, I find that when a party underperforms in combat, it means that somehow the flow of these four roles has been disrupted, either because a party member has been incapacitated or the best person for the role is not fulfilling it (which usually stems from someone unwilling to pivot into a role their character is not built for). That being said, the best combats I’ve participated in have had a combination of understanding with these four roles, as well as having characters built to fulfill them. To understand how to identify characters built for them, here are some characteristics:
+ Damage Per Round Maximizes the amount of damage they inflict on a single target. Also values a higher attack roll bonus and rare / changing damage types.
+ Tank Draws attention and potential damage away from other party members. Values a high Armor Class, Hit Point maximum, damage resistance, and damage reduction.
+ Support Strengthens and heals allies. Usually a spellcaster, although there are some non-casting features that fulfill this role (like a Mastermind Rogue’s Master of Tactics feature).
+ Control Weakens enemies and influences their behavior. Area of effect spells, like fireball tend to fall in this category because not only can it wipe out many smaller enemies earlier in the fight, “smart” enemies will avoid certain positional patterns to avoid falling into an area that encourages its use.
And, like I said, there will be some overlap. For example, the druid’s entangle spell creates an area of difficult terrain which can hamper an enemy’s movement (which falls under Control). However, if an enemy gets restrained by the spell, the druid's allies have Advantage on attack rolls against them (Support).
Certain classes will also fulfill these roles more obviously than others. A Barbarian’s high hit points and resistance-granting Rage ability make it a great Tank, and a Rogue’s sneak attack make it great for DPR. I've also found that players get frustrated when a character class doesn’t perform well in a role the player expects it to (like when a Cleric isn't the best Healer option).
Now let’s dive a little deeper into the roles and find character classes that fit them.
Damage Per Round
This is a short-hand term Adamus and I use with each other to describe when a player is trying to deal the most amount of damage that they can. It comes from the MMO term DPS (Damage per Second), but because 5e is played in rounds instead of real-time, you get Damage Per Round.
Now, this can also be the hardest role to categorize because it’s by far the broadest. Most characters can deal some kind of damage to an enemy, and there will be times where it’s more efficient to just attack the darn thing instead of create a cockamamie scheme that probably won’t work. However, there are some statistics to consider when optimizing a character for DPR.
First is the attack roll bonus. It doesn’t matter how much damage you can do if you can’t hit the target’s AC. Usually, this is as easy as investing in the ability score that governs your attack rolls. This same ability score will usually also help you lean into your secondary role, but we'll talk more about that later.
Second is selecting features that contribute to the amount of damage you can deal. For Fighting Styles, this is usually Dueling or Great Weapon Fighter. For Warlocks, it’s the Agonizing Blast invocation. For Rogues, it’s just investing in more rogue levels to progress your Sneak Attack.
The third factor is damage type. You either want a damage type that’s rarely resisted to or two damage types you can switch between. For example, eldritch blast is such an effective cantrip because almost nothing in 5e resists force damage (unless you homebrew something), and its damage die is also pretty high. Another example might be picking up Elemental Adept as a caster, meaning that if you love your fire spells, you can ignore resistance a creature may have to fire damage. In baseline 5e, as a weapons class, most creatures aren’t resistant to magical bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, so if you can find a magic weapon you’re usually good for the rest of the campaign (unless your DM homebrews something to make you ineffective).
And that’s pretty much it for DPR. Like I said earlier, most classes have some kind of DPR option, but that doesn’t mean every class is optimized for DPR. It’s great that a Bard can Vicious Mockery (Psychic is one of those damage types that’s rarely resisted to). However, the 1d4 damage is pitiful, even at low levels, and pales in comparison to a Divine Smite or Sneak Attack. That doesn’t mean the Bard shouldn’t try to deal damage; it just means that they aren’t the “DPR” character of the party.
Tanks are much easier to build to. Invest in Constitution to get higher hit points, find some armor or features that grant you damage resistance, and do what you need to in order to invest in Armor Class. I’m a sucker for Unarmored Defense. It’s easy to maintain, can often be stronger than Plate Mail, and it can’t be destroyed by rust monsters.
With all that being said, viable options for tanking are much fewer than DPR. Barbarians are excellent tanks because of their Rage ability, and their Unarmored Defense keeps their AC competitive. Most of their subclasses also have ways to get more bang for your buck when you Rage, sometimes dealing damage and sometimes increasing the amount of resistances you have. Paladins are also excellent tanks because of their heavy armor proficiency, and because at 6th level their Aura of Protection grants them bonuses to their Saving Throws. Either way, both classes get great durability for relatively little action-investment.
Now, some critics of the term “tanking” in 5e compare the function of tanks to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, where such characters have abilities that program bigger threats to target them, relieving pressure from a less durable ally. There are some abilities like this in 5e, but because enemies are controlled by a human (the DM) rather than programming, the DM can always choose to target a less survivable ally.
This doesn’t mean that building a tank doesn’t have value. In D&D, tanking refers to a character’s survivability, and I’ve seen some ridiculous stunts in my time with 5e. I’ve seen a Barbarian swim through lava, a Barbarian/Rogue multi-class shrug off 100+ points of damage because of stacking resistance with evasion, and a well built sorlock take a meteor swarm to the face and maintain concentration (that was my Sorlock). Accounting for RAW and math, these things can happen, and even if you can keep one ally up by the end of the fight, they can run around and use healing potions to keep incapacitated allies alive.
This is also why oftentimes the best support characters also invest in their survivability. A Druid’s Wild Shape is a great tanking feature, and many Clerics have a heavy armor proficiency that lets them avoid damage and heal their allies. Healing does no good if the healer is down, so many forward thinking players build their healers accordingly.
Speaking of Support, I’m of the belief that this is the most difficult role to play effectively in combat, and is why many players avoid it. It can be a thankless job, and your impact on the party isn’t always immediately felt. A well timed bless spell can be the difference between an attack hitting and missing, and that attack finishing a dangerous enemy or giving them another turn to use legendary actions and wipe the team. There are also many overlaps with Control, so we’ll work to clarify which is which.
Support is defined as “buffing” your allies and healing. A “buff” is any spell that makes them better at their job, or strengthens them in any way. For example, the bless spell allows those it targets to add a d4 to attack rolls and saving throws, making them slightly more accurate and more survivable. If we look back at the entangle example earlier, if a character can restrain an enemy, it allows attacks against that enemy to have advantage, meaning that rogues get Sneak Attack and everyone is more likely to get a critical hit.
Healing is a much more nuanced topic. Healing and damage are not created equal in 5e, and it’s always more efficient to prevent damage than to try and heal damage taken. Let’s go back to our example of cure wounds. For a 1st level spell slot, cure wounds heals between 4 and 12 hit points with an average 1st level character. With a 1st level spell slot using inflict wounds (the same resource expended), the spell deals 3d10 damage on a hit, with a yield of between 3 and 30 damage. The ceilings aren’t even comparable.
What makes healing so difficult is the required sense of timing on the player’s part. An ill-timed healing word or cure wounds could have no effect at all, especially if the enemy is a real bruiser. Say you see an ally get hit for 15 points of damage. You cast healing word as a bonus action, healing 5 points of that damage. Then the next round they get hit for another 15 points, and get knocked unconscious. That healing word you casted was wasted.
That being said, let’s look at a counterexample. You see an ally get hit with 15 points of damage and fall unconscious. They make a death saving throw, and unfortunately roll a Natural 1, meaning they have two failures. By casting your healing word at range, the failures are negated, and the ally needs to get knocked to 0 before being in danger again. You probably just saved that character’s life.
Like tanking, there are few characters that can dedicate themselves to Support, although there are plenty of smaller features that allow an ally to support as a secondary role. Bards, Clerics, and Druids have a plethora of buffing and healing spells, with the Bard’s defining class feature (Bardic Inspiration) being one of the most efficient buffs especially at low levels. However, the aforementioned Master of Tactics feature from Mastermind Rogue and Aura of Protection from Paladin also are great support features.
Control characters look at combat differently than the other three. Rather than seeing exchanges as dealing and healing damage, control players view combat as a series of choices and possible outcomes, and work to remove choices from their opponent. While Support is about strengthening allies and allowing them to be better versions of themselves, Control is about hampering the effectiveness of their enemies.
Is there a major bruiser in the enemy team that’s being a pain? Hold Monster can remove them from the fight. Is the real threat the group of goblins shooting at us from that ledge? Fireball can take them all down at once. Control is about figuring out the enemy’s strengths and using that strength against them. Like Support, what makes Control difficult is that it’s a mindset more than a set of obvious mechanics.
Some classes are easier to use control strategies than others. The Wizard’s sheer amount of spell access allows it to be an excellent controller, because it can cast the right spell for the right situation. The Druid spell list is similar, in which many of its best support spells also hamper the enemy’s effectiveness (again, just look at entangle).
However, that doesn’t mean that to be a Control character, you need area of effect abilities or spellcasting to play this role. If you’re playing a Tank, and you manage to distract an enemy from hurting your less survivable allies, you’re influencing their behavior and removed a choice, leaving their effectiveness up to the luck of the dice. That’s a Control role even though it’s outside of the game’s mechanics.
Oftentimes, when I design my set-piece encounters, I try to have my enemies not only have a mechanical weakness (like a low stat or some kind of damage vulnerability), but also some kind of personality flaw the party can take advantage of through role-playing. Sometimes that flaw is aggravated through taunting, empathy, or targeting one of their possessions. However, it’s a way to allow any player to assume the control role if they’re clever enough to figure it out.
Primary and Secondary Roles
Now, after identifying the four roles, the hidden fifth role is that of pivoting. Fifth Edition has classically rewarded characters that are built to specialization rather than versatility. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for adapting to circumstance.
Let’s say you build a powerful melee weapons character, but you end up in a combat where there’s a ravine or pool of lava separating you and your target. You may have to play a different role in that combat than you’d like to.
To prevent circumstances where you’re only viable option is “I take the Dodge action” and don’t participate, I usually advise my players to think through a Primary and a Secondary role their character can play as. This can be as simple as “I have a melee character but I keep a crossbow on me” to “I play support but I can pivot to control as the need arises”. This also doesn’t mean to devalue the specialization this edition rewards.
Let’s look at a character I built, Kurama, as an example. Kurama, a higher level Druid, was built in order to cast healing spirit and thorn whip. However, in a well constructed party like Knight Owls, healing spirit isn’t always the most appropriate. Oftentimes, healing is covered by other characters. This means that if enough other people are willing to play Support, I’m freed to pivot to Control in order to maximize our party’s effectiveness. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hit a big bad with contagion, or pull an enemy with thorn whip so the paladin can smite it. Also, there have been times I’ve been known to deal damage. It’s laughable that I've finished multiple big bads with a 1st level ice knife just because everyone else did such a good job of covering us that I as the Druid was left to just damage deal. These things happen, and the memories made are cherished.
Hopefully you’ve found some value from this perspective of play, and if you choose a less optimized style of play, you’re doing so intentionally. That’s the whole point of this: clarify your decisions so when you make it, you do so with intention.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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