Settings: Ionian Feywild, Faerun, D&D in general
As you bed down in the lush planes of the Feywild, a rustling nearby gives you pause. A hand goes to your sword hilt as your eyes trace the horizon. The red, long grasses point and shift in gentle breeze, and you scan the stalks for movement. You see none, and that's the problem.
There, flanked by the grass, you see a pointed leather hat, the silhouette of a hunched, twisted creature. You hesitate, thinking it a nymph or fairy, but then you hear it. The harsh, raspy sound of a rusted blade being dragged through the grass. It sends a shiver up your spine and a tight, cold knot settles in your stomach as a pair of red eyes stare back at you from the darkness. A chuckle drips from between yellowed teeth stained with blood as its name reaches your mind and you draw your sword.
A face wild with bloodlust rushes at you from the brush as dozens of other hats rise from the grass around you...
Blood Lust Muffins
Don't let this giggling little murder Santa fool you, a Redcap is a nasty little bugger.
Literally born of bloodlust, these homicidal Fey form and gather wherever a sentient creature has spilled fresh blood. If they chance to appear, they often grow out of the ground as tiny bloodstained mushrooms trying to push their way out of the soil. If a ray of moonlight, magical or otherwise, shines upon the bloody mushroom cap, a creature claws its way out of the loose soil.
A twisted, sinewy, wizened gnome creature with wild eyes and a shock-white beard, the vision of a Redcap is unnerving to say the least. Wearing a blood-soaked red leader cap (originally the mushroom's top), patchwork leather shirt and pants, heavy steel boots (used for kicking, see below), and a vicious, heavy blade. Some sprout with sickles or scimitars, others with knives and pitchforks; the nastiest carry fine chef cutlery with a dreadful grin across yellowed teeth.
It is a sight to behold, and if you linger long enough that they notice you, best prepare to fight for your life.
Slaughter By Necessity
A Redcap's time on this plane is not long. In order to persist in its personal mission of murder, it must soak its hat in the blood of its victims. The hat will slowly soak up the blood, drying out over the course of three days. If the Redcap cannot wet the hat with more fresh blood by then, it ceases to be, and this fact drives its bloodlust forward with an intense need. Some explorers have ventured that the removal of the cap may also end a Redcap's lifespan, but tearing it from its head has proven very difficult and dangerous; none have succeeded thus far.
Some Redcaps enter existence with some knowledge of the murderous act that brought them to bear, and may seek the creature responsible as their first victim. It is unclear if they feel empathy for the murderer, or some measure of tracking link to them, but they tend to track them down either to satiate their cap or be led to more slaughter. Either way, perpetuating their own existence is rooted in killing, so they are their own vicious cycle.
Notes and Features
These danger boys are Small creatures, so around 25 feet of movement per round. Darkvision's a given, but their iron boots won't help their stealth. Not sure they care though.
Unnaturally strong, a Redcap boasts an impressive attack and Strength score (+6 / 18). And they're vicious little buggers, attacking at least 3 times each turn. I say it like that because a Redcap has a nasty attack tied to its movement. These little jerks can charge you and punt you over with a heavy iron kick from one of their boots.
Yeah, yeah, it's funny now. See how much you laugh when a swarm of them start curb stomping your Paladin into goo (3d10+4 bludgeoning damage ain't a joke).
Lucky for you, they're AC / HP outputs are pretty small (13-14 / 40 or so), and a decent Barbarian build should smash a few before things get too dicey. But don't underestimate them. When these bad boys grapple, they do it as Medium creatures, and being Small to begin with, they can pile on you. Remember, killing you cements their lifespan for another three days. I'd say they're pretty MOTIVATED.
Redcaps in Ionian Lore
On the neutral grounds of the Fey Court, many lords and ladies hold special stations. Some employ or barter their own personal bards, cooks, and butlers from the denizens of the Wylds, or from the ranks of foolish travelers that wander into their theaters. For if a creature does their job well, a Fey will often covet such skill, adopting it into their folds for future use and entertainment.
Most of the time, the subjects are unwilling participants in this display of power, and depending on the season, their servitude is short-lived, for The Accords must be maintained while the trade routes are open. But some...subjects...feel a calling to remain, and for these willing mortals, great positions of power await. This is a path to Knighthood under the Queens of the Air and Fire, or to swell the ranks of The Wild Hunt. And to others, another position awaits. Someone to tend the gardens and landscapes of the grand, opulent noble manors, and, when needed, cull the flock.
If the subtext is not yet clear, these "Gardeners" serve a dual purpose. As with so many facets of the Fey, there is always a darker side to the coin, and these otherwise calculating taskmasters are universally feared among the Courts. If ever you are invited to a Lady or Lord's home and find yourself alone with their Gardener, one is advised to exit the premises as soon as possible, leaving the way you came in. A noble should always greet you themselves to allow passage into their home; if they do not, another might deem you a threat. Remember, a Gardener's job is to keep the grounds safe and tidy. Little pests cannot be allowed to roam.
So when you invariably find yourself lost and alone in a vibrant, intoxicating floral maze of high thorns and broad bush, remember...we warned you. Your blood is their water, your flesh their fertilizer, so don't be surprised by the knife as it plunges deep with a twist, nor of the sprouting red mushrooms that bubble up around your corpse. For every garden needs tending, and new children need to eat...
And with that terrible thought...sleep well and I'll see you at the table.
The following is a sweet shooter.
Another draft of my own head, I wanted to make something that goes down quick and easy - like the liquid courage one downs before a tough job. We'll need two fruity liqueurs, some vodka, and a smidge of cola.
The Sidearm Recipe
1/2 oz Raspberry Liqueur
1/2 oz Vanilla Vodka
1/2 oz Peachtree Schnapps
1 oz Coca-Cola
...Makes about 2 shots or one shooter.
Mix it up, pour it out, and suck it down. If too fruity, swap out the Vanilla Vodka for a measure of standard or Black Vodka.
Good job, kid, now go punch that Orc in the face! You'll be fine.
Easy going this week.
Shoot straight and responsibly.
World-building. It’s a term that you’ll hear in a variety of contexts including literature, cinema, television series, video games, and our usual focus, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of Dungeon Masters became Dungeon Masters because of the creative control they have over their own world, and a lot of players come to Dungeons and Dragons to relax into an immersive experience that combines the intricacies of careful craftsmanship and the thrill of spontaneous play. It’s a space that not only allows us to momentarily escape the troubles of our real lives, but also empowers us to confront those same troubles in a practiced and graceful way. That being said, if mishandled, worldbuilding can also be confusing, exclusionary, and at its worst prohibitive to a player’s enjoyment of a D&D experience.
Now I will be the last person to downplay the value of worldbuilding when crafting an immersive experience, but the prep work alone doesn’t contribute to immersion. Immersion is all about the delivery of intricate information you as the Dungeon Master have spent time carefully crafting, and when mishandled this can have a variety of less than ideal outcomes. Reserve too much information and it's easier for the players to resist immersing themselves in your vision. Ramble too much where the players don’t have the chance to make choices and interact, and they get bored. So what’s the solution?
In my experience, it all comes down to frequent and honest communication. Some players will be more interested in the world than others. Some players will have extremely detailed backgrounds while others are fine creating characters they learn about as they go. So let’s create a space where everyone wins, including you, the world-builder.
Let Your Players Create Too
Now I will admit, my world building is nothing exceptional. I have little interest and skill in crafting highly specific settings with complex layers of intrigue and novel ideas that keep my players guessing. Most of my interesting world-building concepts are rearranged ideas from other sources (but then again, isn’t all art?). So this is a little tip that has gone a long way for me.
My players often create locations, home towns, and points of interest in their back stories that become focal points for a campaign. For example, in my latest game, I had a player create a town next to a forest of fairies. Boom. In the game. This is probably the most direct way that a player can be included in the world-building process, and it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your boundaries for creating your world. If that player mentions something about the world’s overall economy, or another major component you’ve thought through, ask what they’re really trying to convey, and then ask if you can edit or include additional details that further integrates their setting more closely with the overall world you’re creating. You’re creating something together, just like the story you’ll spontaneously tell later on at the table.
Organizing A Reference Document
Now, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many sudden shifts for many different people. In terms of D&D, this led to a shift of at-the-table play to online play, which led to my greatest discovery: Google Drive. And this in turn led to the greatest world-building tool I’ve ever had: the Google Doc. What this tool allows for is you, the Dungeon Master, to detail a world’s common knowledge to your heart’s content, as well as include homebrew rules and systems, with your players’ understanding that you can edit and expand on information you present.
With the shift from tabletop to online gaming, one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself and my gaming preferences is how much I love storytelling in gaming, and how my focus on mechanical understanding was to deliver the story I wanted to tell on my terms, without the DM telling me my idea didn’t fit what the book said. So when I sit down to DM games in my latest world, I view my players as storytelling contributors that write for their own characters, and I want them to have every tool imaginable.
So, I started with a Setting Reference Document (not to be confused with 5e’s SRD, which is a whole different can of worms). The Setting Reference Doc includes a gazetteer (in the fashion of Eberron: Rising from the Last War or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount) with brief descriptions of the major regions that any character would reasonably know about. For an analogue to our real world, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that England has a Queen and Japan had warriors in its history named samurai. By elaborating on a few key iconic details from each region of the world, it gives each player a sense of what the overall world is like, as well as decide where their character hails from.
Once they make that decision, it’s time for a one-on-one conversation with each player. While every player knows the information in the living document about each region, I give each individual player more specific information about their home region, that they are free to share with other players (or not). This is how you create complex systems of character information without making it feel as if the DM is gating information from everyone. Each player has a little more information in one area than the others, and it allows them to express unique perspectives on different situations as the party dynamics mature and develop.
The key concept here is conversation. It’s not about hiding things from your players. It's about giving them the proper tools to allow themselves to immerse themselves into your world and ask better questions to drive the story. This happens by communicating what you want, and listening to how they communicate what they want. And it's not going to be perfect each time, but the more you respect the angle they’re taking with their character, and rewarding that with exclusive details about your world, the more trust they’ll have in you to take them through an immersive and rich experience.
Nuts and Bolts Tip: If you’re planning on using a Google Doc to communicate your world-building, expectations, or other homebrew systems, make sure you’re the only one who can edit it and the players you invite to view it are commenters. You don’t want one of your players to accidentally delete all of your hard work.
Now, I’ve played in plenty of games where I’ve really thought through the world building process. However, in the heat of the game, not every player is going to pick up on every little detail you describe, and some may not even interpret the same detail the same way. By having your world-building details written down and accessible to your players, your players can clarify details with each other. If they remember a location but don’t remember its name, they can look it up. If they hear the name of something, and they know if they’ve heard it before, they can look it up. And if your players discover secrets about the world they’re characters may not have known before, you as the DM can always update the document to contain the most detailed information all players would reasonably have access to.
There’s a certain beauty in being able to say “look it up in the doc” or “you can find it in the doc”. And just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a punishment, or a “gotcha!” It just empowers your players to create compelling characters using details you’ve provided them so that they can respect the work you’ve put in while creating unique characters that allow them to express themselves. Everyone wins.
As a DM, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve seen a DM forget details, and then try to scramble to pretend that they didn’t. And this situation only gets messier if none of it is written down. It gets even messier if a player wrote it down, and the DM tries to cover their butt by saying they misinterpreted or wrote it down wrong, creating tension with that player.
If anything, not only does a living document organize your thoughts and creations into a useful tool, it also keeps everyone at the table accountable. If a player tries to say they didn’t understand something you’ve made abundantly clear, other players are empowered to help you adjudicate. If you’ve made a mistake, other players have something you’ve written to keep you on track. I’ve found ever since implementing a living document detailing my world, my players have felt that I’ve been more accountable in delivering a quality experience, which has actually led to more trust in my judgment. Fear of accountability is a symptom of doubt in ability. The DM that fears accountability or being called out for a misruling they’ve laid the precedent for is one that tends to be more interested in maintaining an unbalanced power dynamic than one that’s interested in crafting the most quality experience for everyone, including themselves.
And ultimately, this is our goal. When your players are included in your thought process, imagination, and creativity, they become more interested in the little things that make your world yours. And that leads to their investment and ultimately their immersion. It’s okay to hold onto some secrets about your world for your players to discover. In fact, it’s encouraged. However, it's a whole other thing to get them to care about the secrets your world holds that they can discover. And the best way I’ve found to get players to care about your world is to make them a part of it, from its design to its play at the table.
When you present your document, I recommend running it as part of a session zero. Explain your expectations, variant game mechanics and why they’re more appropriate to the style of game you’re going for, then dive into the nitty gritty. Where are the players going to go? What races can they play, and do they conform or differ from the traditions set by the PHB? What are the problems in each region, and how could they fit into a character’s story?
A great tool to ignite a player’s imagination while character building is the ten question exercise I posed in the previous Study Hall post. If you can ground the players in the world, while also having a consistent resource for information you freely give, and give them exclusive information based on the choices they make at character creation, you present far more investment into your world, and they begin to actually care about it. That’s what increases immersion. And that’s what makes D&D so magical.
Study Hard, Play Hard
My wife and I love Star Trek.
We have for a long time, in our separate lives, and it was strangely a new discovery for the both of us as we were surfing the Netflix and Prime catalogues seeking to scratch that interstellar itch.
She began expositing on the 2009 reboot, which we were searching for, but unwilling to pay for at the time, and I chimed in on my love for Star Trek: Generations, despite how "meh" it's aged over the years. My favorite of the TNG run was always First Contact (#8 in the classic run, and #2 with the TNG crew), but I was quite pleased with the 2009 reboot.
And so...we seem to be working through a bunch of Star Trek films, rewatching old loves of cinema, and poking fun at them through a modern lens. Some stack up better than others, standing the test of time through snappy writing, strong dialogue, and some kick-ass music. In fact, that's something the 2009 Star Trek had going for it, more so than many other films that came out at the same time.
It felt like something familiar and nostalgic, despite its shiny lens-flaring new model. This effect, for those of us listening intently, was no accident. Composer Michael Giacchinno sculpted the entire soundtrack as a rising action and resolution into the original TV series theme by Alexander Courage. And the theme is heard all over the place! If one isn't careful, one might assume it's being beaten over your head, but it never feels that way. Giacchino skillfully explores the musical theme in various styles to fit the action and setting; sometimes its reverent chordal structures, other times bombastic horns and strings, sometimes just a haunting choir. It is masterfully done.
And this immersive element, coupled with great cinematography, wonderful sound design, strong characters, and excellent story beats...makes you happily overlook the moments in the story where the YouTube-critic in us all would nit-pick the hell out of it. Yes, why wasn't Vulcan already evacuating? Yeah, how the heck does Earth not have ships or planetary defenses engaging Nero? Why do the Romulans look so weird?
Still. I'm down to watch it again, and I've listened to its musical score hundreds of times.
Which got me thinking.
Film was, for many, the natural evolution of the theater. And the theater was our first great lesson in IMMERSION.
Imagine, for a moment, entering a theater with a stage that protrudes into the audience. You settle into your seats and talk amongst yourselves, perusing the program that has just been handed to you. On its front, in brilliant stylized lettering, you find the words, "The Phantom Of The Opera". Scanning the cast, you find familiar names, and new ones; some leads, some barely mentioned - perhaps you skip to the back and read up on a few. Somewhere under the stage, in a pit below, an errant violin tunes its strings, poised to play; you listen a moment longer before turning back to the program in your lap. Beyond the title, you are presented with an act structure, and, if it's a musical, the song order and who sings it. You are given the entire story's structure, framing, and resolution in a tight little package at the onset - yet there's still such an electricity in the air. This is a LIVE performance.
The lights dim, and two actors take the stage as the curtain slowly rises, revealing a destroyed and dilapidated set. A fallen chandelier rests in the center of the stage, rubble and ruin surrounding it. The two actors, well-dressed businessmen, discuss an upcoming auction and of the terrible accident that ended this theater's life. The two actors leave as the room grows darker, all eyes on the chandelier. A chill wind rolls across the stage, distant thunder booming somewhere outside. And then, you hear it.
Wind swirls around the rubble, the rocks and stone moving and shifting back into place. Lanterns and torchlight flicker to life surrounding the stage, a brilliance returning to the space. And then, the chandelier...RISES, as light flows across its crystalline visage. The stage turns back in time, drawing you in to the time before, transporting you to this story. The music, the visuals, the sounds, the smells, everything draws you to this singular moment.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what they call an Overture.
The Death Of The Overture
An Overture is not unheard of in film. In fact, under the synonym "Opening Titles", was utilized by a multitude of film, especially those in the 90s. It was a clear and effective way to draw in your audience.
The first, and probably most iconic, overture that springs to mind...is Superman.
And who better to usher in the 1978 classic than the immortal John Williams. The guy is a masterclass in the Overture.
But what is the musical purpose of an Overture?
Well, in a stage production, it would fall into one of two categories: A Medley - showing off segments of all of the musical cues and leitmotifs you're about to experience in broader forms; or an Opening Number - a lead-in to the first big showstopping number. In film...that still happens. Star Wars is a great example of the "Opening Number" - we get the iconic theme, the text crawl, and we're into the opening scene and off running. Here, though, we are instead treated to a Medley of sorts; an extended version of the hero's theme with elements intertwined that highlight other cues in the film.
Two others fall into this framework. One, more like Superman, with a reverence and patience to its Overture, and the other with a sharp cue that pulls us directly into the opening scene, and both have beautifully stood the test of time in my memory. Let me share them with you.
Listening to these again, even after all this time, is truly an arresting experience. It quiets me. Reminds me of the sheer power and beauty of the aesthetic. Just shut up and LISTEN to that. Put your damn phone down, and listen; be drawn into this world.
And this wasn't a rare thing. I'm not that old, and yet I've watched this trend evolve, change, and steadily die. Films nowadays hold little reverence for their music, despite soundtracks being lauded. Musicians are given little time to construct a great score, and I wonder sometimes what it must be like in this modern age of speed and satisfaction to know that your audience can't seem to give you the time of day for the next few minutes so you can flex something beautiful.
And yet, we still crave it. I wonder if this immersive novelty is one of many reasons that has ensnared me with the art of cooperative storytelling. Why so many of my campaigns have evolved to support and explore deep social, emotional encounters as opposed to fast action. How so many crave the rich lore that surrounds them and beg for just another moment inside their imaginary world.
The Overture At The Table
We as gamers and masters draw each other into our collective imaginations; it is no small part of what makes this powerful hobby so rewarding. To join together in collective reverence and immersion, all in pursuit of creating a more satisfying and rewarding experience, is one of the greatest feats a table can achieve.
But that respect for each other, and your game master, is paramount.
We can set up a practiced intro crawl, different voices to set the mood, cool music to set the tone, but we need the PLAYERS to come along for the journey. And if you are a player that struggles with this; if you find yourself bored or distracted, itching for that phone or that desktop or that next round of Fall Guys...I challenge you to slow down.
I challenge you:
Walk into that theater. Sit down. Allow yourself to be drawn slowly into something magical. And when that first cue hits, ride it all the way down the rabbit hole. You might be surprised what you'll find when you allow yourself to really feel something special.
Now pick up your sword and your favorite Drink Me. The musicians are tuning their instruments...the show's about to start.
See you at the table.
PS: One more for the road. ;)
One of the first games I ever ran professionally had a stalwart knight with a belabored backstory full of twists, turns, and dead siblings. His name was Denimus Umbra, oldest brother to the main not-villain of the first arc, Warrick Umbra (whom he thought was dead; actually nearly assassinated by the head of the church of Tiamat, along with his two younger brothers...who Warrick saved by summoning hounds to hold their spirits to the material plane) ...He wasn't in the right campaign.
Let's drink to his memory!
The Classic Daiquiri
Even before all your frozen daiquiri variations found their marks, the Daiquiri was a creature of elegance. Another simple cocktail of minimal ingredients, best served cold.
It is a vehicle for light rum, simple syrup, and a little lime. Simple and to the point.
2 oz light rum
1 oz Lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
Serve chilled or not, whatever works.
Denimus was a Paladin in the Third Age of Ionian Lore. He served his station with heroism and virtue. ...Which means, we have some nasty smite damage to work into this simple cocktail.
The simple answer is to roll in some dark Rum; probably Kraken. Instead of Lime, how about some Lemon? Grenadine (simple syrup with pomegranate) will fill that role. And then we need something else; a tiny radiant punch at the end.
2 oz Kraken spiced rum
1 oz Cherry Liqueur
1 oz Lemon Juice
3/4 oz Grenadine
---Makes 4 shots total
This is where the metaphor gives way in favor of convenient alliteration. This will not remind you of a valiant knight charging into battle. Instead, this goes down smooth and sweet, SMITING you after the hit with a nice buzz. As I'm discovering, I make things that are tasty and strong, so be careful how many spell slot shots you dole out with this one.
I miss my childhood.
Not just the ample time, easy access to food, friends, and conversation, or the constant knowledge that I was (luckily) loved and cared for. No, these feelings don't even come close to that overwhelming, nostalgic, feeling evoked through play.
I was always a gamer, and our family would play early and often. Board games, you know, are a huge facet of my family's life, but for my brothers and I, the most powerful past time was playing video games together.
Gathered around the dull glow of our old monitor in a dark basement, our eyes transfixed by the image of an intergalactic bounty hunter absolutely wrecking a literal brain with teeth and legs, we watch in awe as our eldest brother, Eric, plays through the climax of Super Metroid. After months of saved games, each of us trying to push a little farther than the other, eager to show and share our techniques and discovered secrets, happily competing for the lead in story acquisition - we were here: Eric was on the final boss. And though we would play on our own, we enjoyed watching each other play, entranced by seeing them retread our steps or find new ways to progress. It was this friendly competition for story and progress that served as the most formative years of my life. It is why I akin playing a video game to reading a good book; you're living the story in front of you.
And in today's world, you can easily look up countless videos of the gameplay we experienced and re-live a modicum of our excitement, but at that time, in the 90s... That was ours. No Twitch stream; no YouTube commentary; no blog post afterward. Just the memory.
No Business Being That Good
I'm going to talk to you about Donkey Kong Country.
A game released on the Super Nintendo in 1994 by Rare Entertainment, "DKC" was a side-scrolling platform game that was one of the first home console games to feature pre-rendered graphics, achieved through the compression of 3D models into sprites. The game is a reboot to the classic Donkey Kong franchise, and expands upon a simple story with new characters, over 40 levels, a main villain, and a whole family of Kongs.
You play the game with Donkey Kong and his much faster nephew, Diddy Kong. You tend to run around each level with both characters, one not controlled by the player following behind like a shaded ghost. When you take damage (or when you voluntarily hit a button), you switch between characters, the former being them getting knocked off the screen and the latter of them switching positions. With the two characters, and two controllers, you could actually play cooperatively or race each other.
Now when I say that there was an expanded plot... King K. Rool stole all of Kong's bananas. You have to get them back. Go.
Not a lot of deep thinking here. That's still more complex than "DK stole a princess and must now be defeated by a stout Italian plumber."
Where DKC shines is where many games of its time shine; its mechanics, execution, and music.
To this day, DKC stands the test of time in its mechanical flow. Moves are millisecond responsive (and they have to be, the game can be downright hard), puzzles are ingenious, it's FUN to play, the environments are slick and interesting, and the game's lessons are intrinsic and consistent. I really miss that last one the most; a good game of this era TEACHES you how to play...through playing. No random text boxes here.
It has no business being this good. Before we go any further, give this a listen:
I can see it. Every button press, the background, the beautiful graphics, and every feeling woven into exploring this new landscape, finding secrets and short-cuts, and trying my best not be eaten by a shark. Though we were Nintendo Power kids, I wasn't one to use maps or guides in the first play through - I think I wanted to experience the game without bias.
Which is so hard to achieve nowadays. Reviews are abound, and games cost a lot, and there's a NAUTICAL TON of them that are poorly made, so we don't want to waste our money. I get it.
I miss the blind trust, in a way. The belief that the game was worth investing in, so I was willing to find value in the struggle. Too often I think people get angry before they even give something a chance. It was my young belief that there was always a diamond hidden somewhere; I just have to find it.
The Second Go Made Me Cry
The first video game soundtrack I ever purchased was Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest. All puns aside, the game was great, but I had the soundtrack long before I even played the game. Heck, I never owned the game; I rented it three times, and not once beat it.
But playing it marked the only other time I paused the game to legit listen to the music. The first time I did this was while playing The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past to listen to the Dark World Theme, cuz I'm a monster and I needed to study to something.
THIS time around, though, it was different. And it was this track.
Maybe I was just feeling a lot that day, maybe I was just that locked in, who knows, but that level's music was ARRESTING. I paused the game and closed my eyes and listened to it four times through at least. When I opened my eyes, I felt better...and found myself crying. Quietly, simply, crying.
Now this isn't some groundbreaking piece of superior storytelling. I'm not emotionally connected to the characters on the screen, I'm not synergizing with their personal plight of retrieving bananas from a crocodile in a pirate hat, and I'm not just so invested in their personal quest that I was OVERWHELMED with feeling. The game is silly - that's not the point here.
So why THIS, why then, would I feel something so powerful?
A Connection To My Brothers
Especially to my eldest brother, Eric, who shares many of my side interests.
I think back on a specific memory; a turning point in my life.
As a family, we had a tradition. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas, we would go to the movies, as often there was some big film we all wanted to see. One year it was Batman, another year The Lion King (still one of my favorites). This year it was Apollo 13 (gifted music by the late James Horner). It was an excellent film, I remember, but then the credits rolled.
When credits roll, often that's when the audience evacuates. The story's over, why stay? I began gathering my things, following my parents and siblings out the door to fight for the restroom and be on our way. Then I looked around for Eric and didn't see him. I overheard my mother say something to the effect of, "he wants to stay and watch the credits." Intrigued, and still hero-worshipping my older brother, I ducked back inside to sit next to him and watch the credits too! And when I did, I heard this:
If you want to experience wonder, awe, beauty, and love in a piece of music, there it was. I urge you to listen to this piece in a dark room, quietly. Let it wash over you. Become open to the experience, and let the rest of the world melt away for a moment.
I miss this reverence. I miss composers that had the balls to write something only for those of us that are going to stick around.
There's no mid-credit sequence. No post-credit stinger. Just names scrolling and this masterpiece playing. I felt it in my soul, and it changed me forever.
After that time, I would consume the instrumental scores and soundtracks of every film that graced my eyes. I would listen intently to the instrumentation, electronic and symphonic, and study well the intentions of the composer to convey emotion, tension, characterization; the subtle moments between major and minor iterations, unresolved cadences, and the hidden layers of a film found in its music.
Sitting in that dark, empty room, in complete silence next to my brother...just listening...was the catalyst for the trajectory of my life. It awakened something in me. And moving forward, that extra layer of listening, has impacted how I enjoy stories and how I tell them.
It is why I write music for my campaigns. Why I spend countless hours mixing down a 25-minute medley of battle music. Why I put on sounds as people enter the "room" to invoke a certain mood or emotion.
To many, I'm sure it's just some background sounds, and to me, it matters.
Bringing It Back Around Slowly
Music moves me. It always has.
And, to be perfectly honest, in recent years and recent games and recent films, it has failed to do so. Soundtracks aren't what they used to be; they're lazier, boring, and chock-full of idiot pop music that doesn't fit. And now I sound like a crotchety old fart (get off my I-V-VI-IV lawn!).
But tell me you haven't noticed.
Everyone and their grandma can sing you the Avengers theme, but no other music is memorable enough to mention. I only took notice of Thor because of Ragnarok (and the awesome tones of Mark Mothersbaugh), and I can barely think on Captain America's theme, Captain Marvel's forgettable, Black Panther's boss (WAKANDA FOREVER), and the rest feel...distant. Yet I can sing for you note for note the entire score of 2009's Star Trek (a subject for next time).
It is strange to finally reach a point in my life where I can non-ironically say that they don't make them like they used to, and yet there's more to this than I can put into words at the moment. For now, the easy observation is that I miss the wonder that music played in my films and my games. As it is my lens, there might have been a plethora more that I missed, and many more today that can be argued...but for all this I cannot shake the striking disappointment I have in entertainment.
Disney is a money-grubbing conglomerate that will butcher its own musical backbone for a quick buck.
Composers take less and less risks each year.
The time of the fanfare, opening titles, and end credits as tracks is a rarity, rather than a staple.
And yet, the 8-bit and 80s synth wave markets are booming in certain niches. Because the rest of us still clinging to that child fishing for a diamond are eager for something special.
Never stop digging. More to say next time (maybe it'll have a point).
See you at the table.
A Gimlet is something I never would have found had I not dedicated some measure of my being to the study of mixology and freelance bartending. If you've been reading me for a while, you probably have some idea why.
There are some ingredients that I can use easily across many facets of my repertoire, and this is because I understand them more intimately through personal experience, experimentation, and requests. So that's Rum, Whiskey, Vodka, and Tequila.
I've had one request for Gin. That's it. (and, if that taste-tester is any indication, I did REALLY WELL with it)
The Classic Gimlet
So the Gimlet, wink wink, uses Gin as its Core. If that doesn't float for you, Vodka can also take that place. After that, we just sweeten the pot with Simple Syrup and Lime. Try this out:
2 oz Gin (or Vodka)
3/4 oz Simple Syrup
3/4 oz Lime juice
Serve over ice and enjoy.
Now, there are some snobs out there who will INSIST on the idea that this is emphatically NOT a Gimlet, and for those people...fine. Omit the Lime and Simple Syrup for 1.5 oz of Rose's Lime Cordial (chalk full of high fructose corn syrup).
Both are pretty yummy, and I'm going to break it anyway, so pick your poison; I don't really care.
A Dwarven Gimlet?
Dwarves love Ale and Whiskey, and this will be neither, though some tones will be represented. The lime and the gin complement one another splendidly, so the additions are minute and serve only to slightly darken the effect.
2 oz Gin
3/4 oz Triple Sec
3/4 oz Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Lime juice
1/2 oz Drambuie
3-5 dashes of Aromatic Bitters
A splash of Lime Tonic Water
Pour this sucker over ice and enjoy.
When you play Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons long enough (especially from the DM side of the screen), you’ll start to notice some patterns in the game’s design. The most powerful magic items always bestow no more than a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls. You almost never see the upper limit of a player’s ability score go above 20, and even from monsters they cap at an absolute ceiling of 30. No matter how many numbers you try to stack, there’s a limit to how high you’ll get your attack bonus to hit and how many hit points your character can build to. So why limit these numbers? What’s the difference between the bounded accuracy model of 5e and the treadmill model of Pathfinder? Which one is preferable, and what is the upside and downside of each?
First, let’s dive into the term “Bounded Accuracy”. Like I stated earlier, no matter how savvy you are character building, your bonus to hit can only be so high. In 5e, the upper limit to a reasonable player’s bonus to hit is fairly standard, and the upper limit to a creature’s armor class also tends to be set. Heck, even Tiamat, a literal god in Faerun, has an Armor Class of 25, meaning that anything with a higher AC has a higher AC than a god. What this does is give even lower level creatures a reasonable chance to hit a much higher level creature, even if that chance lowers with a wider power gap. It means with favorable luck (and tactics), even a lower level party can potentially defeat a much greater enemy.
Let’s compare this to the “treadmill effect” of similar d20 systems. For example, in Pathfinder, certain creatures can have ACs in the upwards of 40s, and the system rewards mathematically minded players to combine as many features as possible to create a statistically superior character with the right choices. What this ends up meaning is that a low enough level character has virtually no chance to hit a creature with a wide enough power gap. A goblin just plain won’t hit a player of a high enough level with a high enough AC. And while Pathfinder has a bevvy of conditional modifiers a clever player can take advantage of in order to close that statistical gap with careful planning, ultimately the odds are still stacked against the lower level combatant.
So let’s look at the pros of a treadmill model first. It rewards players with an exhaustive understanding of the rules (given that your table is playing by the rules-as-written, which most Pathfinder games I’ve heard tend to do) and by making optimized characters. Of course, the cons are that the encounters that a Game Master can use are bounded in scope. At one point, if the minions of one tier are no longer valid threats, they have to use minions of an appropriate tier. The minions have to keep up with the players, which may feel forced or may not make sense in the context of the world.
The pros of a Bounded Accuracy model like D&D are that the numbers tend to be simpler. Rather than having players focus on mechanical advantages they can leverage to statistical superiority, a bounded accuracy model brings the focus of play to description and effects, and although numbers are relevant, oftentimes it's the qualities and conditions of the pieces in play that make D&D combat engaging. A goblin has the possibility of hitting a 20th level player character in 5e, meaning they can still present a threat in high numbers or if they get to attack with advantage. The con of course, is that players that use quantities to measure their character’s power may not be rewarded for optimizing their character. After all, especially when using standard arrays, there are only so many “optimized” builds you can create in 5e’s system.
In his series Happy Fun Hour, Mike Mearls once said that “the more small choices you give players when making a character, the more small schisms in power you’re creating”. To find evidence of this, look no further than 5e’s Feat system in comparison to Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, feats are small bonuses to your character you get every other level (at least from what I can remember, I have a very obvious bias here). In 5e, Feats are larger packages of benefits you get every fourth level, meaning that 5e characters usually only get five opportunities to customize their characters in this way. These larger choices mean that the schisms in power are also less in number, and more importantly, more obvious. I’ve had plenty of conversations with Pathfinder enthusiasts that to make some character concepts work, there is a specific chain of feats needed. While some may argue it exists in 5e, the need is far smaller.
So Why Do We Care?
Great question. I mean, like I say in most of these, it’s the question to end all questions.
My answer is that understanding the design process behind a game system allows the adjudicator of that system (in this case the Dungeon Master) to deliver an experience with greater skill and information. If a DM understands that only the most powerful creatures of a realm have an AC of 25, it gives them a reference on how strong a creature they create is in relation to the party in a more meaningful way. If a DM wants to create custom content, including magic items, subclasses, or custom features, they know how to balance that content in relation to the system.
As silly as it sounds, creating a +4 magic weapon in 5e actually breaks the system, whether you agree with it or not. It breaks the upper limit of the Bounded Accuracy model the system is intentionally designed with, and if you try to fix this break with stronger monsters, then you risk changing to the treadmill model of Pathfinder, and the focus of the game changes.
Bounded Accuracy exists so that players will actually think less about the game’s math and more about the game’s story. 5e’s mechanics are intentionally simple and flexible to allow DMs to deliver custom, satisfying experiences to their players. The mechanics are a tool, not the experience, and by understanding the design process, it empowers a DM to create their own custom content to deepen their world without breaking the system that’s been so elegantly crafted for them.
That isn’t to say you should never mess with rules or purposely break your own system to deliver a specific experience: it just means if you break the rules, you’re doing so intentionally with knowledge of some of the consequences of doing so. I’ve played with +4 and +5 weapons before, and it leads to disastrous power gaps that invalidate the stories of other party members. (Now putting such abilities on some kind of charge mechanic…)
So that’s all I have to say on Bounded Accuracy for now. Hopefully this gives y’all something to chew on, especially for the creative DMs out there.
Study Hard, Play Hard
Let's take a quick look at a lovely little game of sanity, horror, and the cosmos.
Call Of Cthulhu has had a long, satisfying run, and though the major mechanics have pulled away from the influences of 4th edition and Pathfinder (like COC D20) in favor of more nuanced D100 play, the theming and expectations have stayed consistent.
Let's get one thing out of the way immediately: this is not a game of HEROES.
In fact, so much of what we see in play and in its surrounding lore supports and reinforces the idea that each of us, though a cut above the average human and exceptional in some way, are just regular people. And with that, subject to mental breakdowns, psychic attack, possession, and a quick, gruesome death. We are squishy, delicate bags of flesh just doing their best against forces we have little knowledge of.
This is ELDRITCH HORROR. Dark shadows, tentacle beasts, unexplained occult, and the energy of grasping at the very edge of understanding - just enough to be able to act - in the face of very likely doom.
And anyone who plays this game, KNOWS THAT. They know they might get decapitated if they take a wrong turn and roll badly; they know that their character's life is inconsequential to the grand scheme of the universe, and they're here for it. This is a game of atmosphere, immersion, PROPS, and cosmic horror.
So, noting the fact that I am alone in my den while my wife is at work pondering about my singular not-hero in a cosmic horror dystopia without the help of a Keeper (the GM)...I still find the best way to begin understanding a system is to comb through and make yourself an adventurer! ...I mean...INVESTIGATOR!
This is not your daddy's D&D. Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition utilizes 8 "pools" of specific characteristics for your Investigator, plus a Luck attribute. Each one is generated *a little* differently, but each one will use some combination of rolling some D6's and multiplying by 5.
We'll take a look at each one while we generate it:
STRENGTH (STR) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 15 x 5 = 75
Strength is tied to one's athleticism and ability in hand-to-hand combat. Pretty straightforward.
CONSTITUTION (CON) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 12 x 5 = 60
Constitution is your health, vigor, and vitality. Your resilience to injury, poison, and attack.
SIZE (SIZ) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 9 + 6, 15 x 5 = 75
Size...worries me. It is supposed to represent height and weight as a single number, the higher it is, the bigger you are? Can...can creatures reduce that score? (Probably)
DEXTERITY (DEX) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 11 x 5 = 55
Dexterity is what you think it is. Agility, coordination, flexibility, and quickness.
APPEARANCE (APP) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 16 x 5 = 80
Appearance can be equated to one's "charisma" score, carrying with it both one's physical attractiveness and personality.
INTELLIGENCE (INT) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 6+6, 12 x 5 = 60
Think of Intelligence in this case as a combination of Int and Wisdom; investigative ability, remembering and sorting information, and solving puzzles.
POWER (POW) - 3d6 x 5
My roll: 16 x 5 = 80 (woot!)
Your Power score also creates your Sanity score (at least for now!), so I feel good. Power, unlike Strength, is your force of Will. It's your mental fortitude and presence; personal, intrinsic, even mystical, power.
EDUCATION (EDU) - 2d6+6 x 5
My roll: 10+6, 16 x 5 = 80 (yay, I think)
Education is your book knowledge and level of, well, education! Higher the score, the more educated you are.
LUCK (Luck) - 3d6 x 5 (though later in the text it says roll 3d6 x 5...weird)
My roll: 8 x 5 = 40 (oops!)
Luck is used in the game to alternate the fickle hands of fate. Looks like I'm none too lucky.
What My Numbers Mean
Well above average strength, and approaching "one of the strongest people you've ever met."
Slightly above average healthy human.
Pretty tall and strongly built.
Average human. Sigh.
Exceedingly charming human.
Slightly above average human intellect.
Strong willed, driven, and possessing a high potential to sense and connect with the unseen and magical.
Master's degree held, and a Bachelor's to boot!
Unfortunately, we now make adjustments based on our Investigator's age. I'll keep mine around 35 to keep it simple. According to the chart, I need to make an Improvement Check on my Education, meaning I need to roll 1d100. If I roll higher than my current EDU score, I get to roll a D10 and add that to my EDU. My roll: 29. Guess I took a year off to get exceedingly handsome.
DAMAGE, BUILD, and HP
We add our STR and SIZ scores together first: 150
My Damage gets a +1d4 bonus, and my Build gets a +1.
If I add my CON and SIZ scores together (135), then divide by 10 and round down, I get my Hit Points!
...Remember what I said about being squishy?
There are a few other derived statistics, but let's keep going.
Now it's time to figure out my class! Yes! The best part...the best...
Right. This isn't going to work the same way, is it?
Not in the slightest! Let's go!
An Investigator's Occupation isn't their class, like in D&D. In fact, there's nothing of the sort. COC isn't a game about level progression or powerful features or capstone abilities. It's a dark, horror fantasy that is all about personal, terrifying storytelling.
The Occupation determines what Characteristics grant you Skill Points (for allocation), Credit Rating (more on that later), Suggested Contacts based on that Occupation, and the 8 skills that define the Occupation. There's an extensive list, and it's not even close to complete or comprehensive, because you're invited to MAKE YOUR OWN Occupation based on the time period you're operating in.
Because I don't know what I'm doing, I'll just pick a Diver.
Skill Points are your EDU x 2 + DEX x 2
My Skill Points: 110+160, so 270 (yay?)
Credit Rating: 9-30
Contacts: law enforcement, smugglers, coast guard
Skills: Diving, First Aid, Mechanical Repair, Pilot (boat), Science (Biology), Spot Hidden, Swim, and one specialty.
Allocating Skill Points
This is where I need to stop and ask some questions.
Do you only have access to skills tied to your Occupation, or can you take a skill not on your list?
--- You can take skills not connected to your Occupation. These are Personal Interest Skills and whose points are derived from your INT score x 2 (so 120 for me).
What is the benefit between Occupation skills and "untrained" skills? Can you even do a thing untrained?
--- Seems that I add the additional "percentages" to skills that have my Occupation? Unfortunately, it seems the RAW is particularly vague on this, despite it's apparent mechanical lynchpin importance! It clears up a few things by offering an anecdotal walkthrough, but why didn't they have that in the actual workflow of the rulebook?
For now, I'll place my points in what I know well, and allocate my personal ones in some sick brawling and knife fighting skills. As a diver, I'd assume I'd know how to at least defend myself against an eel or two, right?
Backstories and Equipment
Personal descriptions and backstories can be decided randomly by rolling on tables, or just used for inspiration. Here you decide your ideologies, people and locations significant to you, treasured possessions, traits, and any other backstory connections.
After that, your Credit Rating comes into play to give you an idea of overall wealth and lifestyle, also letting me equip a few things, but not much I need to go into here. I've got the important stuff, and after that it's up to my Credit Rating to explain away certain expenditures. Just like any other value in the game, it's something you roll for.
And That's Part One...
With my Investigator made, the next step is to deep dive and put the little sucker into practice. I am very much a kinesthetic learner, so experience goes a long way in amplifying a system and understanding it on my terms.
I'd apologize for the cliffhanger, but I don't actually care. ;)
The Moscow Mule is a simple alchemy. A little vodka, even less lime, and a whole bunch of ginger beer. It's simple, clean, fizzy, and satisfying.
How To Make A Moscow Mule
The ye olde classic doesn't need much at hand.
2 oz Vodka
1/2 oz Lime Juice
4-6 oz Ginger Beer, or just fill your glass to the top
Don't forget ice!
The Den's Spin on a classic
The true star of this drink is the Ginger Beer. It is the vehicle for every heavy-hitting alcohol in the main suite. In fact, switching out only that aspect and leaving the rest is where we get all of our usual variations on this drink.
The Moscow has Vodka
A Mexican Mule uses Tequila
The Kentucky Mule is Bourbon Whiskey
The Gin Gin is...Gin. With some mint and simple syrup.
Jamaican Mules use Rum.
A Glasgow Mule uses Scotch.
Irish Mules use Irish Whiskey.
After that, we start changing more of the fundamentals. We dash in some chocolate bitters, or some fruity vodkas, or maybe change up the soda. A REALLY simple variation would be to take the Mexican Mule and try it with Ginger Ale and GOLD Tequila. I call it the "Midas Touch."
But in the spirit of Moonriver, experimentation lends to experiential discovery, and though I may study this pretty deeply, I still find combinations that surprise me. So what hasn't been done yet by the mainstream?
Let's look at the fundamentals. You have:
A Core Liquor
A Sweet or Sour element
Ginger is the blanket that brings this all together, but what if I broke that first? Sprite doesn't get enough love in this house, so that's our new Soda component. Lime? How about Cherry instead? Now, the Core. I'm inclined toward a cinnamon whiskey just because I know it might tick people off.
2 oz Fireball
1 oz Cherry Liqueur
Fill with ice and Sprite
It's a Blood Moon Mule. Let's try it out...
I'm a Goram genius.
Drink responsibly and try not to howl too loudly.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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