I recently procured a curious cornucopia of conifer liqueurs. The brand is called Wild Moon, and they seem to specialize in slices of liqueur that you'd more likely find on the forest or garden floor. To test them out, I picked up their Birch and Lavender liqueurs, and if I'm impressed, I'll go back and snag their Cucumber liqueur (yeah, you heard me).
All this nature talk got me thinking on flavors and fey, and today I wanted to share with you a drafting test. My target out of the gate is to find a happy pairing for the Birch liqueur, which has a woody hint of licorice in its palette, but beyond that the end result's concept is only half-formed, so I'm open to new possibilities.
...Means we have a few taste tests to run through.
Test #1 - A Simple Honey
Test Recipe - since I'm just testing new flavors, I'll go small doses in equal parts.
1 oz Irish Mist Honey Whiskey
1 oz Wild Moon Birch liqueur
4 dashes Angostura Bitters
+ Burn comes at the back of the sip
+ Licorice of the Birch gives way to the honey quick
+ Smooth, but dark
First Notes: This does what I wanted it to do. It's smooth and tasty without an intense burn. And I like the warmth at the end. The Birch and the Irish Whiskey meld WELL. On its own, this is a fine shot, but I still feel like something's missing.
Test #2 - Mead Need
Everything from #1 and:
1 oz Dry Mead
+ The licorice is OBLITERATED by the honey wine
+ Less sharp, but I'm not a fan
+ So much honey now...
Second Notes: This works if my goal was to make a honey drink. Slap some seltzer on this floozy and enjoy your weakness. Not the direction I wanted; it needs to heighten the Birch, not CRUSH it.
Test #3 - A Fruity Addition
Everything from #1 and:
1 oz Peachtree Schnapps
+ Welcome to PEACH country
+ I'm serious...
Third Notes: any semblance of another identity just got smashed by the overpowering FRUIT that is Peachtree. I should have known better; that's not a subtle flavor - that is a power-hungry princess that will happily murder her delicate prized puppy if it gives her the throne. No thank you.
Test #4 - A Hint Of Fire
Test Recipe - steering hard away from other fruity flavors, and unwilling to risk the Lavender, instead I aim to lean into a hint of cinnamon. The subtle bite and burn from Test #1 still lingers in my process, and I want to see if I can coax it out from dark edges of the forest.
1/2 oz Birch Liqueur
1/2 oz Irish Mist Honey
1/2 oz Fireball
3 Dashes Angostura Bitters
+ A solid shot
+ The Fireball heightens the tiny bite of the Birch
+ The honey whiskey pairs with the cinnamon
+ "Backburn" well intact
+ Lovely warmth
Fourth Notes: Not overpowering, and that was the goal. The Birch should be the star here, and finally it is. The licorice hint pairs well with the bite of honey whiskey, and the cinnamon ties them both together. The bitters seal the deal.
Feel free to order this one at the Moonriver anytime.
Imbibe responsibly, and beware the deals of the Fey.
As anyone who has had any kind of Dungeons and Dragons conversation with me knows, I’m highly opinionated about the various dimensions of D&D, including mechanics, class design, and how a DM’s adjudication impacts everyone’s enjoyment at the table. In Fifth Edition’s context, the game values that have the greatest impact on the system are the six Ability Scores that quantify the general traits of every creature in the system (and honestly, more objects than you’d think). It’s also one of the most frustrating aspects of the game to teach, because often new players mistake their personal understanding of each score’s label with their mechanical function in Fifth Edition’s game system, and as a result the roleplaying/narrative implications that come about as a result. For today’s Study Hall, we’re going to look at the mechanics of each Ability Score and how your choice in how they’re distributed can broaden your narrative possibilities rather than limit them. So to begin, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that...
Not all Ability Scores are Created Equal
Unless your DM implements a host of homebrew to rebalance Fifth Edition’s system, not all Ability Scores carry an equal amount of mechanical weight. In fact, there’s a clear distinction between which scores are more powerful and which ones are less. In general (unless you’re utilizing a class that prioritizes them), Strength and Intelligence will generally be used less often than Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. It’s always good to have one party member with high Charisma, but even then the prior “Big Three” (as I call them) will be called on more often in all three pillars of play, whereas Charisma really only affects social interaction and combat (if you’re playing a Charisma caster).
As an example, let’s compare the number of instances where Strength and Dexterity will be called for:
Strength can factor into your character’s melee attack rolls, damage rolls, some thrown weapon attacks, Athletics checks (usually called for in Exploration) and the static value, Carrying Capacity.
Dexterity can factor into your character’s Armor Class, Initiative, Dexterity saves (the most common saving throw), Stealth (one of the most common ability checks), Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Attack and Damage rolls with some melee and most ranged weapons.
One last element to consider is that most Strength weapons characters have limited ranged options, while Dexterity weapons characters are equally effective in melee and at range. In fact, these differences are so drastic that one of the first characters I DM’d for, a Sorcerer with a -1 Dex, was almost unplayable because a single missed Dexterity save or an attack roll aimed at him would virtually exclude him from further participating in combat.
Now I’m not saying you can’t have fun with a character that has a -1 to one of these “Big Three” Ability Scores, but I am saying that understanding the statistical weight they carry will positively impact your relationship with 5e. You’ll know what you’re signing up for.
Some Thoughts on the Tomato Analogy
So how do we go about teaching the six Ability Scores? One way many Dungeon Masters do this is through the famous Tomato Analogy. It goes as follows:
Strength is being able to crush a tomato.
Dexterity is being able to dodge a tomato.
Constitution is being able to eat a bad tomato.
Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.
Charisma is being able to sell a tomato-based fruit salad.
Seems simple enough, right? However, I tend to actively avoid using this tool when I’m teaching the system. First, I like teaching a mechanics-first approach, meaning that a new player at my table is discouraged from looking at the narrative text in a section without taking the mechanical text into consideration, because ultimately, the narrative can be changed to accommodate what you want while the mechanics generally have to stay the same for the game to function well. In addition, I find that players that only focus on the story text can often misinterpret the text’s intentions, and there tends to be more time spent explaining why the mechanical text carries more weight in the Dungeon Master’s adjudication rather than the story reasoning. The Tomato Analogy is a perfect example of this failing.
While the analogy certainly isn’t inaccurate, it can be misleading. For example, it fails to convey the point I made in the previous section: not all Ability Scores are created equal. Unless you’re running a specific class or build, Dexterity and Constitution have far more functional pay off than Strength or Intelligence, and even with a Strength character, often having a +2 Dex and the highest Con will almost always lean in to your character being more generally effective.
Another issue with this analogy is that it doesn’t encompass the magnitude of how each Ability Score functions in the system. With a cursory glance, one might assume that Strength is an offensive stat, Dexterity and Constitution are defensive, and Charisma is used mostly for buying and selling items. It doesn’t give the impression that Dexterity is an overall more useful offensive and defensive stat than Strength, and that Wisdom saves are used to guard your mind more often than Intelligence saves.
Speaking of Wisdom, while we can argue back and forth on our personal definitions of Wisdom, its game functionality in Fifth Edition is very specific. In Dungeons and Dragons, as it says in 5e’s SRD, “Wisdom reflects how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition”. In game terms, Wisdom is usually used for Perception and Insight checks, which inform players about their environment and clues about the characters occupying it. What I would find more useful as part of this analogy would be that “Wisdom is knowing how your guests feel about the tomatoes in their salad” or “Wisdom is seeing where best to plant tomatoes in your garden”. Wisdom checks usually boil down to sensory input in one form or another. Tangentially, it's why I hate when DMs use Perception checks for general features of an environment and Investigation for finding something specific. Intelligence is a Score that resolves character knowledge and reasoning skills, not sensory input, but I digress. Hey, I told you I was opinionated, right?
So What DO They Mean?
I mean, that’s the title of this piece, right? “What Ability Scores Mean”. And, to give context to this section, we’re really asking how their mechanics can inform our roleplaying. From my perspective, Ability Scores are a way to quantify general traits in relation to an average person. Ability Scores also provide the base modifier to a package of different abilities. To not get too nitty gritty (and to give my version of the Tomato analogy), the way I sum up the six ability scores is as follows:
Strength represents your character’s fitness and power
Dexterity represents your character’s quickness and coordination
Constitution represents your character’s endurance and physical tolerance
Intelligence represents your character’s education and reasoning skills
Wisdom represents your character’s awareness and discipline
Charisma represents your character’s expressiveness and personal magnetism
So even if you have different ways you think about these traits (like you may see overlap in the definitions of Constitution and Strength, for instance), Fifth Edition’s system interprets very narrow definitions of these traits.
For example, wouldn’t a character with a high level of fitness also have high endurance? Maybe, maybe not. For instance, there’s very different training that goes into sprinting versus marathon running, and you can see it in the two runners’ bodies. I’ve also met plenty of individuals with fantastic Strength that have intolerances to certain ingredients (which is where Constitution may be called for instead). While storywise we can argue that the two are related (and Strength characters almost always benefit from a high Constitution), they are not mutually inclusive.
So what does it mean to have a high value in one of these Ability Scores? Well, it means that either due to natural talent, training, or both (or some other reason), your character has a greater likelihood to succeed in challenges related to that trait. This doesn’t mean they should or will automatically succeed, and in fact sometimes a character may choose to fail a certain roll based on the situation. For example, let’s take a look at a high Charisma character, maybe a Bard or Warlock. While that character is more likely to succeed on Charisma checks, the player behind the character may want to play the character as honest-to-a-fault. By the game’s system, they have a natural bonus to Deception checks because of their Ability Score, although the player can voluntarily fail such rolls or choose not to partake in them. In this way, failure can be just as if not more character defining than success.
The opposite can also be true. Just because your character has a low Intelligence score doesn’t mean that they’re an idiot. If you were to distill the meaning or motivation behind all Intelligence checks, they would either be to recall information (usually the character’s education), or a test of their reasoning skills. A -1 modifier doesn’t necessarily mean that character can’t make logical decisions. It might just mean they lacked the educational resources an average person in the world has access to, and as a result won’t be familiar with that information as easily. Now of course this can be explained by a character’s lack of interest in such topics, and I’ve seen plenty of Barbarians take a penalty to Intelligence in a standard array and roleplayed as brutish thugs. I’m just saying that isn’t the only narrative explanation for such a thing.
Now, if you build characters with a standard array like I do, then characters you create will have built in strengths and flaws. For example, my favorite character to bring up for instances like this is my character Solomon, whose two greatest Ability Scores are Dexterity and Wisdom and whose lowest score is Charisma. Solomon was built with story in mind. He’s a genetically engineered monster hunter (I know, very derivative) with dampened emotions, keeping him from emotionally connecting with others but still aware of how they feel. In the game’s system, this is reflected by the penalty that factors into his Charisma checks, while his Expertise in Insight also allows him to read others very effectively. He’s a joy to play because his flaw is as much as what defines him as well as his uncanny awareness and swift decisive fighting style.
When it comes to distributing Ability Scores for your character, I’d start with thinking what Ability Score can they do without. Where are they designed to run into trouble, and where are they going to shine? While the dice may roll as they may, it doesn’t mean you can’t design your character’s story with these specific moments in mind. For me, the moments where Solomon shines are when he gives an in-depth analysis of a creature, or can call out an NPC for lying just by taking a look at them and feeling their heartbeat. His character is also defined by his struggles, such as his inability to persuade others emotionally or deceive others.
Ability Scores are at the heart of this game’s math for a reason. They are quantitative values that beg players to ask bigger questions when the dice are rolled and when results are added up. If my character failed, was this just because of luck or were they designed this way? How does this failure manifest, and what is the reason for their success? What moments do I want my character to be remembered for?
While I can go on with advice on how to build characters, I’d rather you play with this first. Build characters with high and low Wisdom, and ask yourself to play them differently. When they succeed, how do you celebrate that success? When they fail, is that part of their personality and how do they take it? Do they even realize they failed?
And as always, I’d love your perspectives on the matter. After all, collaboration is what makes this game so special in my heart.
Study Hard, Play Hard
These black hounds of dark fur and roiling smoke hunt in packs in the deep alcoves of the Shadowfell. Led by an alpha, a hungry pack will descend upon nearby prey with ferocity and savagery. The alpha howls to strike the target with fear, while the pack flanks, then pounces. Efficient killers, the gloom only enhances their coordinated strikes.
The Best Boi
Shadow Mastiffs are summoned into service as watchdogs, temple sentinels, and bodyguards. Religious sects and cults of the Shadowfell will call them into being as sentries to their dark work. This ritual of binding is known to only the most dedicated to the forbidden arts, but is not exclusive to evil individuals; it is just the most common practice.
These punishers of heresy and apostate can see into the ethereal world, and such extraplanar senses make them invaluable allies to whomever employs their service.
By The Numbers
Shadow Mastiffs are stealthy and perceptive, but they won't be making any knowledge or persuasion checks. With decent hit points and a low AC, expect these suckers in packs. Favoring the shadows, they gain resistance to physical damage while in dim light or darkness, and, of course, are packing darkvision, PLUS the ability to see into the ethereal plane (suck it, ghosts!). Like many of its lupine brothers, this thing listens and sniffs well, but its real trick is the invisibility it earns when in the shadows. Be fearful of the pack of mastiff in a dark room.
But not all Mastiffs are created equal, and every pack needs a leader. A Shadow Mastiff Alpha is beefier in hit points and intelligence, possessing a howl ability that frightens their prey. Though Alphas are heard of, their statistics vary and wane depending on the region you're in. They are generally tougher, but a targeted attack can fell one in a round or two, especially if you can trap them in direct sunlight.
Shadow Mastiffs in the Ionian Shadowfell
Through an overabundance of summoning rituals and long life, Shadow Mastiffs are less an extraplanar ally and more a living, growing breed in the Planes of Shadow. Once the complex ritual is complete, a Shadow Mastiff can persist through eons, evolving and adapting to its surroundings, forever in its prime of youth and virility. Old Mastiffs become Alphas, adopting unique properties based on their experiences. A Mastiff roiled in pack fighting may develop a hardened hide, or teeth and claws that rend with added ferocity. Some adopt the abilities of a Blink Dog dominated into their pack, or copies the stalking stealth of a Displacer Beast they felled. These extra properties can be random, but no less frightening and dangerous. How they multiply is still a mystery, as these pups are created genderless, but some scholars surmise that when certain conditions are met, a Mastiff will drift toward the gender of the matriarch, and summon her own progeny. If the Mastiff remains this way, no one knows, or much cares.
As for me, I'm down for a shadow puppy.
1.5 oz Vodka
1 oz Kahlua (coffee liqueur)
1 oz Irish Cream
Pour this sucker over ice and enjoy.
See also: pour this over ICE CREAM and go to town. :). You're welcome.
This layered shot is said to have originated in the 1970s and beyond that there are some conflicting ideas as to who created it officially. I'd go into it, but I don't really care.
THE RECIPE (poured in the following over)
1) 1/2 oz Kahlua (coffee liqueur)
2) 1/2 oz Bailey's Irish Cream (Irish Cream liqueur)
3) 1/2 oz Grand Marnier (orange liqueur)
As the standard shot is a total of 1/5 oz, you layer this and drink it down like soldier. Get rekt.
If you've been paying attention, both of these recipes follow my latest personal theming discovery of Irish Cream liqueur, and finding a stronger delivery method than just pouring it over ice and adding a little almond milk and chocolate liqueur (which is still the bee's knees, so try it). The Mudslide is a drink with ice, enjoyed over time. The B-52 is a shot, pure and simple.
This week was a rough one, my friends.
In fact, it's been a rough couple of weeks. And I'm certainly not the only one.
Our presidential race is one of life or death, where our moral conscience hangs in the balance.
My nation is still full of selfish idiots that have prolonged a pandemic to the point of insanity.
My profession has been lauded as heroism then immediately thrown to the wolves to be torn asunder, and burned at the stakes of sacrifice.
And at the first sign of trouble, no matter the climate, it is ALWAYS the teacher's fault.
Student didn't turn in the work? My fault. Student called me names? I must have upset him. Student hates my guts because they got a bad grade? I didn't try hard enough to reach them and I should just, ya know, LIE about their grade so they feel better.
And when we see positive COVID cases in schools, they'll blame our protocols and our distancing, and NOT ONCE look at their stupid barbecue without masks or distance. Yeah, definitely OUR fault. Has NOTHING to do with your downplaying of a deadly contagion and refusing simple safety procedures like washing your hands and, I don't know, not coughing on people!
And I think I finally landed on the reason I stepped away from teaching for a year to pursue game mastering professionally...and why I ultimately returned, but we'll get there.
A Life Outside The Music
Anyone who knows me understands that I went to college with many interests, yet achieved quite a lot in academia. After deciding NOT to create my own major in Screenwriting & Film Music (still, that would have been very cool), I settled on Music Education. At the time, I figured I could teach during the day, and, like a superhero, pursue my other creative endeavors (Composing, comics, drawing, video editing) until they really started making some moolah. ...Hang on to that idea, it is the crux of this entry.
Long story short, the music education degree was a powerhouse of training. Hundreds of hours locked in practice rooms perfecting a tuba recital (and it was still crap), studying pedagogy of all the "great" music teachers only to make my own adaptive curriculum every year because the setting is outdated in each book (seriously, you can have the greatest lesson plan, but if you don't learn some classroom management, you're screwed), and then breezing through the simple papers in the School Of Education after the hell of the School Of Fine Arts. Seriously, we had to cut our teeth on endless rehearsals, intense training in every instrument, quarterly playing tests, building our own instruments, memorizing every sound bite of music history, sing and play everything with a near-perfect pitch, listen to a symphony and transcribe EACH INDIVIDUAL PART, and fully analyze the theoretical merits of the Futurist Movement... ALL BEFORE entering the School Of Education with all the other majors. By then, any paper they threw at us was NOTHING. Barely a blip on our radar. For all my struggling, sleepless nights, bad breakups, and insane rehearsals only to scrounge barely a 2.5 GPA, I rocked the last two years in the School Of Ed with a 4.0 easy and I slept great.
And I'm no genius. I just work hard.
By the end of that 6 year journey, I'm holding two Bachelors Degrees and an Initial Certification, and a whole bunch of workable knowledge for composing. One album and one year later subbing for everyone I could find, I decided I still didn't know enough and returned to the punishment for another two years and got my Masters Of Music Education Technology, and then spent the next 8 years paying off THAT debt (woohoo).
I was working throughout my Masters Program, and I continued to hop around districts for a couple years there, a couple years here, and picking up extra subbing gigs to supplement my income. Not once have I ever held a full-time position over the last 10 years of teaching music, which should you tell you a few things about the market of a Board Of Education and how little so many value the arts (not something they tell you when you're throwing thousands of dollars at a college program). Slowly, I was able to expand and cultivate my positions from 4 jobs to 3, then 2, and kept 2 jobs for some time.
Then, I interviewed to teach D&D. And that exploded. As you've already read about.
And as that began to expand, it helped open the door in my soul to all the things I had sealed away in order to make ends meet. In becoming a professional game master, all of my educational training came to fruition, AND I was given not only the opportunity but the follow-through of my smaller professional pursuits. I started writing music again. Writing short fiction. Designing comics. We started a podcast. I breathed new life into my YouTube channel.
With each new step, I was reforging and rekindling all the things just outside of traditional teaching that made me...happy. And now, here's a business model that not only makes me my own boss, but celebrates and networks all of my other pursuits. In a profession that often threatens to define you, I was encouraged to be MORE than a music teacher.
And for a time, it was beautiful.
Living Is Expensive
To deny that money is the driving force behind the majority of our decisions is to tempt the universe to kick the crap out of you and argue that it shouldn't matter.
My car needs repairs, electricity just tripled its delivery fee, house ownership sometimes feels like a trap, insurance is worthless - cuz you're paying anyway - and I'm convinced my car payment is cursed. Somewhere in there we need to eat, and the rest needs to be saved so as to escape the crushing reality that I'm only working to live and living only to work. I must be doing SOMETHING more than simply perpetuating.
And yet, when I was there, I felt fulfilled - needed - powerful - important - satisfied. And, with every paycheck, felt more and more helpless. Debt was rising. Selling everything I could for a quick buck. Offering extra services, some only half-formed, just to keep the lights on. All the while trying to desperately to hold onto that fire in my belly - the same inspiration I'd walk out of a team meeting with, ready to take on the world.
But the hits kept coming, We'd rally, then fall. Over and over again, until the business closed.
And I needed a job.
A Return To Security
So with a ton of experience still, and only a year away from the public sector, still teaching mind you, I set to work finding a new and old place to reside. My previous school offered me my old job back due to a sudden opening, and that meant we'd at least return to more of the same (.25 teaching assignment, woof). And then I nailed another placement at a different school (.5 assignment, better), and the two were happy to play nice with my schedule. With the latter's reassurance that full-time was coming, I would later trim down to one school...in the middle of a pandemic.
This Is Not Normal Time (Yet It Is All-Consuming)
This is where we are. Still.
I have returned to the school. Doing one main job professionally, while trying to maintain those side gigs (that used to be full gigs) to keep my sanity. And, all things considered, it's going very well.
My responsibilities expanded (not yet full-time, but it helps) and I'm there everyday. The kids are pretty darn cool and for the first time in 10 years, I'm able to teach music the way I've always wanted to. We're connecting, we're rocking, we're doing our best. It also doesn't hurt that I can pay the bills without worry; it's still tight, but I'm no longer desperate.
And yet, I am struggling. Immensely so.
For a time, I could not surmise nor articulate WHY I was struggling so much. I wish I could say this was some point of clarity; rolling a Natural 20 while I Insight Check myself, but the closer parallel would be a training montage of failure. Complete with 80s Synthwave and bad acting.
Gone are the days of me actively "closing my loops." I'll make my usual checklists of the past, but by the time the school day ends and I return home, I have NOTHING left to tackle these tasks. And many of these actions would make me REALLY HAPPY AND SATISFIED. Yet, I have little spell slots to dedicate to them. In fact, for a few days this week, I chose to go to bed early instead of writing this blog. That's NEVER happened before.
Am I just getting old?
Drying up and embracing boredom?
I still have surges of motivation and creativity...but they are fleeting. I can only hold on to that happy motivation for minutes or even seconds at a time, then I'm exhausted.
I have to keep telling myself that this isn't "normal time," so I shouldn't give myself normal expectations. And this is important to recognize. Do not be cruel to yourself over elements you cannot control, and be open to the changes and silver linings present in our current climate.
But there's a big difference in the tolerance and forgiveness of bad behavior, and the cultivation of poor habits. Forgive yourself, sure, but if you take no steps forward toward a goal, instead opting to always "be kind to yourself," you're only building a new habit of laziness. There's resting and recharge, and then there's using this plight as an excuse to avoid personal growth.
My personal fitness has taken a hit, and that SHOULD NOT BE OKAY. Not anymore. Why? Because I WANT to be healthy, COVID or not. Adapt your plan, sure, but don't toss it out the window just because the world's on fire. At least not every day. Be flexible, sure, but get creative on how you can still accomplish your tasks and crush your goals. Forgive yourself, sure, but try again the next day, and the next, and the next until you've got it down.
I have so many posts planned for Lore Drop, yet each is just a string of sentences and then my brain turns to jelly. I had planned out another ten fictions for Gray Owls, yet here we are at the end of the campaign. I have multitudes of podcast and video content to finish, and two commissions to write, and more painting to do...they've all taken far too long to be professional in normal time. This isn't normal time, and yet I expect myself to produce as if it were, and this doesn't change the fact that they MUST get done.
So when does your forgiveness give way to laziness? When does our lack of communication breed dishonesty? When does our tolerance allow hate to grow unchecked?
This isn't normal time. No, it is grow time.
We learn the most when in disequilibrium. So no matter what table you sit around, or what metaphor you cling to, remember that this time isn't a moment to wallow. This is your time to rebuild, to work on yourself, and decide who you will be on the other end.
I, for one, will strive to be better, with full knowledge that I won't look the same as before.
Welcome to the new you. Bring them to the table.
Irish Cream is the bomb-diggity.
Blame my sheltered alcoholic journey, but never have I ever encountered something so darn delicious in such a neat package. And to learn that it's excellent all on its own! And experience it first hand? While experimenting? Oh joyous evening!
For those unaware, Irish Cream is a liqueur of cream, cocoa, and Irish Whiskey. It is often enjoyed on its own over ice, or employed to augment your ice cream, coffee, hot chocolate, and various other sweet tooth things. However, it spirals far beyond this use; put it in some cola and be amazed. A little amaretto added in? Amazing!
The Mindflayer, via Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies (The Tavern)
This time around we put the lens back on a great YouTube channel led by a great DM. Most of his recipes I enjoy (though they can get pretty sweet), but this one I was concerned about. It just didn't look...right. Let's take a look.
"Eyeball" Recipe (meaning no exact measurements)
1 part Triple Sec
1 part Irish Cream
Splash of Grenadine
Splash of Black Sambuca
Directions: you pour about half a shot of Triple Sec, then carefully float Irish Cream on top to fill the rest. Splash of Grenadine, and a drop or two of Black Sambuca.
Drink it down shortly after - don't wait too long (I explain why below)
It might remind you of the classic Brain Hemorrhage shot, which is usually Peach Schnapps and Irish Cream, with a few drops of Grenadine (again, I'll explain).
I have a problem with this drink, and its fault lies in its chemistry. When the Grenadine hits the Irish Cream, there's a congealing reaction. Sure, it looks cool, but that brain-like blob is becoming a stringy solid. The longer you wait to drink it (and it ain't long), the more your gag reflex is going to register that something is wrong. Maybe I'm just odd, but I don't feel like chewing my shots.
How I'd fix it? ...Just don't use the Grenadine. You lose the "bloody" visual, but the Grenadine doesn't seem necessary in the first place - it sinks to the bottom and gets stuck there - and its flavor doesn't match the rest of the suite. My first go was interesting enough, but my second without the pomegranate syrup was infinitely better.
When you have something like the Brain Hemorrhage Shot, this "stringy" effect is intentional; it's not meant to feel right. And I think this variation on a theme has the same intention.
...I just don't like it.
The Dennisen (Den Variation)
In one of my Lore Drop posts, we wrote about an Illithid Corsair named Dennisen Thuul. A Mindflayer of sophistication and tactics, and, despite his nature to consume brain matter, an otherwise strict gentleman. Sure, Mindflayers are scary, but how interesting would it be to blend that terror with a measure of cool and calm? How do you make a drink unsettling but still...intoxicating?
Well, let's stick with Irish Cream for one.
Though we've already explored my distaste for the entire brand of mixology that pursues curdling creamy liqueurs on purpose, there are plenty of lovely pairings for Irish Cream. Ice cream, coffee, cocoa...these are delicious and obvious.
Coming from that vein, we'll find Frangelico (Hazelnut liqueur), Kahlua (coffee liqueur), and sometimes Grand Marnier (orange liqueur) as excellent pairings, though not always together. Vodka and Frangelico pops up here and there.
And then I found the Tequila.
I'm a fan of Gold Tequila, I'm finding, and though when this pops up in research, there are no other additions, so (when you're not following my brain path) try equal parts Irish Cream and Gold Tequila, then pour over ice.
I'm thinking that will be the "weird" that I'm craving. The rest should work well in tandem.
Does Frangelico go well with Tequila? Yes! That's the base for a "Nutty Tequila."
Grand Marnier definitely pairs well (because that's how Margaritas work).
Kahlua and Tequila? That's the "Brave Bull".
BUT. If I learned anything from mixing 5 rums together only to produce the blandest rubbing alcohol I've ever experienced...things that go well in pairs could be catastrophic in trios and quads. So we'll build it slowly.
2 oz Irish Cream + 1 oz Frangelico = is beautiful. No question. And it matches; OF COURSE these flavor palettes go well together.
2 oz Irish Cream + 1 oz Frangelico + 1 oz Kahlua = something still quite lovely. So far, we're still par for the course though. We're using creamy, nutty flavors built for each other. Next, we start to turn things sideways.
2 oz Irish Cream + 1 oz Frangelico + 1 oz Kahlua + 1/2 oz Grand Marnier = ...this is where the differences begin to show. A slight tang, like an orange dipped in chocolate ice cream. Just a tad strange, with a pleasant middle, and a whiskey finish. Stop here if you want the First Mate Version.
2 oz Irish Cream + 1 oz each of Frangelico and Kahlua + 1/2 oz each of Grand Marnier and Gold Tequila.
...My gods. The drink has fundamentally CHANGED.
Tequila in general is a powerful flavor, and I tested it with only the Irish Cream before trying this out, and the result was an assault of tequila. All mixed here, though, you NEED the Grand Marnier. All paired with the cocoa whiskey base, it smooths the weird sharpness of the tequila. I wanted unsettling, but good, and I think I got the right amount of weird.
If it's too weird for you, just don't add the tequila. No foul, First Mate.
Imbibe responsibly, and don't lose your brain.
One question I often come across in various Dungeons and Dragons conversations is “How do I balance my combat encounters?” It’s far from a bad question, but reading through the various responses, it seems that it only scratches the surface of its intent. Based on the answers, there seems to be this assumption that a “balanced” encounter somehow guarantees a “fun” encounter, that if an enemy’s statistics are perfectly calculated, the party will be engaged and energized. Now I’m not at all saying that game balance is irrelevant to this topic, but oftentimes it's treated as if it's the only component worth talking about. So, if game balance is only one piece of the puzzle, what are other tools we can use to build combat encounters that reward players for their engagement?
Tool #1: Game Balance and Setting Values
Game Balance is a term that gets thrown around a lot in DMing circles, but do we know what it actually means? To keep myself accountable, I went to the most reliable information source I had: Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines game balance as a “part of game design (that) can be described as a mathematical-algorithmic model of a game’s numbers, game mechanics, and relations between those. Therefore, game balancing consists in adjusting those to create the intended experiences, usually positive ones.” And although we can debate the legitimacy of Wikipedia as a reputable source, I do agree with this definition.
The key takeaway from this is that the reason we’re adjusting game statistics is to create an “intended experience”. The game system’s numbers are set so that they give players a certain feeling when they discover them. To do this effectively with a creature stat block you tend to run in combat, you have to consider your player characters’ statistics when setting them. The only real meaning to quantities in Dungeons and Dragons is to compare them to each other. It doesn’t matter if a player character has a Strength of 20 or 40, as long as it’s in proportion to what that character should feel like compared to a commoner. If a player character has a Strength of 40, and a commoner has a Strength of 35, your player character won’t feel as exceptional.
So let’s take a look at some values we can set for our creatures, and the impact they have on the experience we intend to deliver.
Armor Class and Attack Bonus
Armor Class (AC) determines how often your creature gets hit, and will largely inform your players if Attack Rolls or Saving Throws are more reliable to use. Do note that Martial Classes rely on Attack Rolls to hit, so if you create a creature with a virtually prohibitive AC, you may invalidate the efforts of at least half of the available character classes in the game. This is fine for presenting a creature the party isn’t intended to fight, but it can be soul-crushing when the party fighter feels completely ineffective because they are excluded from participating in the fight due to statistics.
When I set a creature’s AC, I first look at my players’ average Attack Bonus. For example, in my latest game, my players were all 5th level, meaning they have a proficiency bonus of +3. If they didn’t intentionally misbuild their characters, their primary stat is probably a +3 or +4, meaning that they have an average attack bonus of +6 or +7. Therefore, if I have a creature with an AC of 17, they’ll have to roll at least a 10 or 11 on the d20 to hit, meaning they have a 50-55% chance to hit my creature. If I increase the AC any higher, that chance decreases even more. I find that when players have a 40% chance or lower to hit a creature, they’ll feel as if they’re not meant to hit it. Although we can justify the reasoning why a creature may have an AC of 18 or 19, is that reasoning more important than giving your players the excitement of hitting and dealing damage?
Of course, as with anything in TTRPGs, there are exceptions. One factor I consider when designing the environment of the encounter is how easy it is for my players to get advantage on their attack rolls. Advantage accounts for an average of an additional +5 to their attack rolls, meaning characters with a set attack bonus of +6 or +7 are now functionally rolling with a +11 or +12, and they have a greater chance to land a critical hit. If I set up an encounter where it's easy to flank, or I know one of my players brought a Druid or Mastermind Rogue that has features or spells that grant their allies advantage, I have to rethink my math. Maybe an AC of 19 or 20, especially if I’m overt about the strategic clues my players can leverage to make the most out of each of their attacks. To reiterate, this is a mechanical approach in order to deliver an intended experience that is justified with description and story afterward.
One last piece of feedback I’ve taken to heart (in terms of Armor Class) was from one of my long time players and friends. “It always feels better to have a creature with a lower AC and more Hit Points because then at least I feel like I’m doing something.”
Now the flip side to Armor Class is the Attack Bonus, the modifier that’s added to an attack roll to determine if you hit a creature’s Armor Class. Just like I calculate my creature’s AC based off of my player’s attack bonuses, I also take their AC into account when designing my creature’s attack bonus. For example, if I know one my players have an AC of 14, a +8 attack bonus means my creature has to roll a 6 or higher on the d20 to hit. Add on multiple attacks, and they are hitting far more often than they miss.
Now that same +8 to hit the tanky fighter with an 18 AC? The creature has to roll a 10 or higher, meaning they have a 55% hit rate against that character. But is that the feeling I want my fighter to have? Do I want the party fighter to get hit more than half of the time? My answer, as always, is that it depends. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the party is fighting a single, tough monster like a troll or otyugh, then maybe the fighter takes some hits for the sake of the party. If the party is fighting a bandit captain and his goons, maybe I want the party fighter to feel a little unhittable and get excited by the fact that the goons aren’t able to make it past their masterful defense. After all, if they built their character with a high armor class, don’t we want to reward them with an encounter where they feel like they have a high armor class?
So to summarize this one quickly, first I look at the party’s average AC. The number of attacks matters here. Two attacks with a +8 modifier is a different game than one attack with +9. Remember, if a creature gets two attacks, both with +8, it's almost like they’re rolling with advantage (so really it's like one attack with a +13) with the difference being that if they roll high on both attacks, the damage is essentially doubled. In Fifth Edition’s simple math, a one point change in Attack Bonus or Armor Class can lead to a huge gap in probability, and adding or subtracting attacks or actions will quickly widen that gap further.
HP and Damage Output
Hit points are a measurement of progress in a fight, and I actually find that the average hit points presented in the Monster Manual cause combat to get over with a little too quickly. However, maxing out a creature’s potential hit points is a great way to create tension in a combat encounter. Remember that game statistics are used for reference. If your 5th level Barbarian has sixty something hit points, and the thing their fighting has 240, how will your Barbarian feel in comparison?
Also remember that you as the DM are at liberty to change a creature’s hit points on the fly (a contentious opinion, but my opinion nonetheless). For example, I remember a one shot I participated in where we were introducing a brand new player to Dungeons and Dragons. We were all 4th level, and were fighting a young green dragon as an end boss. The new player, a Paladin, had used a potion of flying, which the DM described as giving him two luminescent angel wings. On his next turn, just as the dragon’s breath weapon knocked out my druid (the healer) and the sorcerer (our primary damage dealer up until that point), the paladin catapulted toward the dragon, hit with a Natural 20, used Divine Smite, and slayed the beast. After the game, the DM admitted to me in a private message that really, the dragon would have had 1 hit point left, but what made for a better story? The paladin (again, played by a NEW player) charging forward with heavenly wings and smiting with the wrath of Celestia? Or the ranger shooting another mundane arrow. When there’s an epic moment that can generate a memorable finish to a fight, why does the last hit point matter?
My final piece of advice on hit points is to include more resistances and vulnerabilities to your creatures. I took this from Zee Bashew’s Making Enemies in 5e Witchery (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhjkPv4qo5w&t=46s), and it’s only made my combats more exciting since. One of our goals in crafting exciting encounters is to reward players with engagement, meaning they’re paying attention to story clues that can help them strategize in combat. I can’t count the number of times a DM has given a lengthy and vivid description of their monster, and when I went to act on that description to give me an edge in combat, they’re response is “Well, that was for flavor. There are no mechanics to take advantage of”. To me, they might have well have said “Thank you for listening to my lengthy description. It doesn’t actually matter if you did or not. I’m just using it to justify a bunch of custom mechanics to make your life more difficult”. And I’m not picking on one person. I’ve played with a lot of different DMs, and this has come up time and time again.
Rather, wouldn’t it reward engagement if it did matter? For example, if I said, “The aboleth’s skin glistens with a slimy coat of mucus as it cranes its body over the party”, and a player said, “Slimy? If I use a cold spell, will it restrict its movement?”, I may double movement penalties caused by a ray of frost, or give it disadvantage on a Constitution save against cone of cold. If my players are engaged with my descriptions, shouldn’t I reward them for that (even if I didn’t think of it during prep)? Even better, I may have cold damage deal double to this aboleth because of their logic. By offering different creatures with different vulnerabilities, it encourages players to try different spells and damage types in order to discover what works best against each kind of enemy. And, even though they’re dealing double damage, the creature’s hit points are maxed anyways so the rhythm of the fight isn’t really disrupted.
Resistances also give the players new information. If you present a creature with a resistance (that makes sense given its lore), then players may find that their go-to damage choice isn’t working, and encourages players to prepare two or more options of damage types to switch between. This way, a player doesn’t go through multiple combats relying on a single choice, then feeling as if an encounter was designed against them because their only prepared option doesn’t work. One thing to note on vulnerabilities and resistances: I almost never use them for physical damage (bludgeoning, piercing, slashing). If a creature is resistant in this way, it's to non-magical attacks. Most martial characters are built with a single weapon specialty in mind, and often only have one weapon damage type as their only option. When a DM enforces carry weight and variant encumbrance (like I do), it also complicates matters. Fifth Edition rewards casting characters much more than martial characters as is, so reducing the complications of feeling successful as a martial character improves the health of the party’s relationships.
As for damage output, I find that many times the default monster actions tend to do a great job at conveying how hard a creature can hit. If anything, I may increase or decrease the damage die by one size (like making a 2d6 attack 2d8), but I find that the number of attacks or actions is a much more relevant value to adjust rather than the damage it hits for. Like I said before, two attacks with a +8 attack bonus can be much more deadly than one attack with a +9, and understanding how much damage a creature is likely to output has to do with its action economy (more on that later).
Saving Throw Bonuses and Spell Save DC
It makes sense that each creature would have natural defenses against certain kinds of attacks, and that they should have greater saving throw bonuses to match. Like with vulnerabilities and resistances, the key to creating an exciting encounter is to give the enemy creature a discoverable weakness the players can leverage into their strategy. Also, as said before, those high and low saving throws should be based on context clues you include in your description, encouraging your players to remain engaged with the details you give them. A spindly creature with spider-like movements may have a high Dexterity save, but hitting them with a Wisdom saving spell may have a higher chance to succeed. A calculating enemy wizard may have studied how to protect their mind, but requiring them to succeed Dexterity saves may be more difficult for them.
Now each creature in Fifth Edition has a Saving Throw bonus to each of its main six abilities. However, three of them are more common than the rest, and these are the ones that matter in terms of game balance: Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. When designing an encounter I usually have one of these saves be higher and one be lower, or keep all of them at relatively neutral values. Like how we set AC in relation to the party’s average Attack Bonus, taking their Spell Save DC into account. A +7 bonus to a Saving Throw might not sound like much, but if a player’s Spell Save DC is only 13, then it’s more likely than not your creature will succeed its save, and the player may not feel that spell is effective.
One counter example I’ve heard is that “old monsters are old for a reason”, and that they would have developed natural defenses to these common kinds of attacks. The logic does track. An ancient dragon is ancient because it figured out how to withstand Dexterity saves, is tough enough to handle a Constitution save, and may be wily enough to avoid a Wisdom save. However, if a creature has no weakness, it's just as boring as an encounter where everything always works.
This is where I like to employ conditional weaknesses. For example, let’s say the party is fighting an ancient red dragon. The dragon has decent saves across the board, and its immunity to fire damage and resistance to cold (at least, my dragon) is proving to be a challenge. However, when the dragon tries to fly, one of my players (who played Pokémon) decides to try to hit it with a call lightning spell. While the dragon isn’t vulnerable to lightning damage, it does have disadvantage on saving throws against lightning while it’s flying. By creating a condition that reveals the creature’s weakness, it encourages the party to strategize to solve the puzzle of the combat.
The last piece of this puzzle is legendary resistances, a mechanic I despise because it’s never been used to create excitement. Because legendary resistances are only used after the DM knows that the monster’s saving throw has failed, they retroactively rewrite a player’s success by design, which can leave a player feeling that their choice was meaningless. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t use legendary resistances at all, but the form they take is definitely adjusted from the by-the-book approach.
And like each of these sections, the flip side of calculating my creature’s Saving Throw bonuses is their Spell Save DC (or just DCs for whatever nasty effect they may have up their sleeves). However, unless the creature’s main abilities will revolve around the Spell Save DC rather than Attack Rolls, I’ll try to keep the Spell Save DC a little lower (usually between 13 and 15). The reason for this is that I usually tinker with my monsters’ action economy to balance out certain effects against the party, meaning they can spam Saving Throw features that inflict conditions that can really hamper the party. Because party members are more likely to have to make these saves, to me it creates a better flow to have them succeed slightly more than they fail. If that Save DC is too high, my players can be overwhelmed easily. Like I said before though, if the party is facing off against a dedicated caster whose whole schtick is using Saving Throw spells, then the Spell Save DC will be a little higher (probably a 17 or 18), although I usually design some kind of other flaw into their Stat Block that the party can take advantage of.
In summary of this tool, keep your players’ stats in mind while setting or adjusting the stats for the creatures you want to run. If you don’t know your players’ stats, build a quick character at their level and see what stats you’d generate. It’ll give you a pretty good idea of what numbers to work with to create an exciting experience. Just remember, little changes make a big difference, and even a one point change can be the difference between an exciting battle, a frustrating one, or worse yet a boring one.
Tool #2: Action Economy
One resource that fundamentally changed the way I look at running enemy creatures was Matt Coleville’s Action Oriented Monsters video (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_zl8WWaSyI&t=1282s), which posits that giving monsters a full action economy can change the dynamic between player characters and their foes. Most creatures don’t get a bonus action or reaction in the same way that PCs with Class Levels get. If you break down a standard action economy, a single big creature gets one turn for every four turns that an enemy party gets, which means the player character party gets to hit four times as many times as the one big monster. While this might be balanced by just giving the one big monster higher stats, like we determined earlier, four times as many actions is a very different economy then two bigger attacks.
Now there is a little bit of divergence I’ve taken from Coleville’s approach. Coleville grants his monsters extra actions that coincide with the same language as the players. Oftentimes, I ignore this mechanical language to bring my players’ attention to the action at hand, both in description and in function. Rather than have my creatures choose between casting a spell or attacking twice, I let them do both. Why? I’m the DM, I say so, and it creates more exciting encounters. Not only do my solo monsters deal damage, they usually have an additional condition-inflicting effect that can change the circumstances of the encounter. It’s one thing to know that the giant we’re fighting deals a nasty amount of damage. It’s another when they can swing twice, then use a third action to attempt to knock another creature prone with a Dexterity save. This may change the party’s strategy and position, and the team may have to pivot rolls to best deal with this threat.
Of course, another simple solution is to just add more pieces to the board you control. While I think this may ultimately slow down play (as the DM has to now remember the actions and features of more than one creature), it can work to divide the party’s attention between multiple threats and give them more targeting choices than just the one big monster.
My favorite approach lies somewhere in the middle. Have one big monster with usually two attacks and some kind of spell/condition effect, then give them a bunch of minions to annoy the party. The more variables you add to the encounter, the more chances your players have to utilize situational spells and create memorable moments.
Tool #3: Changing Circumstances
This is a term I’ve used a bit throughout this post, but it does ring true. When we talk about dynamic combat, we’re literally talking about combat that changes and progresses. Oftentimes, high level encounters amount to facing enemies with a bevy of defenses and immunities, which encourages players to choose reliable damage dealing options because there’s virtually no chance for success.
Remember how I mentioned I hate Legendary Resistances? Well this final tool is what’s turned my combat encounters from predictable, stale damage slogs into dynamic and engaging puzzles. Circumstances change as the battles progress. By including puzzle pieces like damage vulnerabilities and resistances, players at my table know that by trying different options, there is new information to discover. Newly discovered information is a change to the battle’s structure. I’m also not above changing those static values we mentioned earlier due to logical happenstance. For example, if I present a stone golem with a high AC, but a caster uses an acid spell (a damage type that’s often ignored because of its lower damage output), then often I reason that the acid erodes the golem’s tough armor, and maybe even lowers its AC, making it easier for the martial characters to hit. And those legendary resistances? Each time my players deplete a creature’s hit points past certain thresholds, my legendary monsters lose their legendary resistances accordingly. Legendary resistances prevent legendary monsters from being defeated instantly due to a bad roll against a feeblemind or eyebite spell, but having those spells never work is just as boring. So by relegating those spells toward the end of the fight, it encourages my players to save their best spells for when the legendary monster is tired and hurt, and as such can’t use legendary resistances even if they haven’t used one all fight. I distinctly remember the collective cheer at the table when my player’s lowered by ancient dragon’s hit points below 25% maximum, and I told them it meant that there were no more legendary resistances left. It’s a celebratory moment that opens the possibilities to more dramatic endings to epic set piece encounters.
My last point for this section is that you can let your players know their choice mattered through mechanical change. For example, if your players are interested in having their social interaction mid-combat affect the enemy’s behavior, have your enemy choose their targets differently. If your player has a clever description or idea, introducing game elements that can get in the way of it succeeding discourages your player from pursuing such ideas in the future. Whether a certain line of thinking excites you or not, remember that how you rule situations mechanically determines the storytelling potential you allow for at your table. And there is nothing wrong with saying “No”.
There were a few tools within tools I mentioned here, and all of this may be overwhelming to take in at first. Do note that while this is a fairly comprehensive list of the factors I take into account when designing my encounters, this was by no means learned overnight. It was years of running encounter after encounter, including small changes over time that lead to this. Hopefully you’ve found something useful in these notes, and you might even find yourself coming back to them to slowly integrate different elements. The overarching theme is to pay attention to what energizes your players. I’ve run encounters of simple goblins with no real strategy and had my players have a blast, and I’ve run more complex encounters with players feeling like it wasn’t fair. Use what works for you and leave the rest. This is just what’s worked for me, and as I learn more, I’ll be sure to share that with you as well.
Study Hard, Play Hard
There's a favorite red drink among bartenders that holds a less-flattering terminology that I probably can't repeat on this blog (about drinking, no less), so let's just refer to it as a Red-Headed...Lady, cuz what she does with her body is entirely HER choice.
It is a sweet and fruity drink that is wholly deceptive. It's meant to knock you on your butt before you know what hit you...or why you just pounded down three of them over a tasty hour or so. Oops.
The Red-Headed Lady - Classic Version
For this you need Jaegermeister, Peach Schnapps, and some Cranberry Juice. Ratio goes 1-1-2.
For the laymen:
1 oz. Jaegermeister
1 oz Peach Schnapps
2 oz Cranberry Juice
Shake in a mixer with ice and pour into a few shots or a shooter glass.
...And yet, though that be the classic recipe, that ain't how a lot of people enjoy this drink. Sure, order this at a bar in shot form, and you'll get a nice fruity Jaegerbomb with Cranberry, but let me share with you a few other variations.
Other Ways Of Enjoying Your Lady
VARIATION 1 - Jaegerlite
Maybe you're not a fan of the German licorice herbal liqueur and you'd like a bit less. In that case, we adjust the ratios a tad.
1/2 oz Jaegermeister
2 oz Peach Schnapps
3 oz Cranberry Juice
**This one's more of a drink than a shot, unless you're up for a few in a row.
VARIATION 2 - The Red Shirley
Splash of Jaegermeister
2 oz Peach Schnapps
3 oz Cranberry Juice
Fill with Sprite
**I am convinced that THIS concoction is what the bartender kept giving my fiancé at her bachelorette party. And, as she normally HATES Jaegermeister, this drink's minimal use of a key ingredient makes perfect sense.
VARIATION 3 - The Red Crown
1 oz Jaegermeister
1 oz Peach Schnapps
1 oz Crown Royal
1 oz Cranberry Vodka
VARIATION 4 - Red-Headed Cowgirl
1 oz Southern Comfort
1 oz Rye Whiskey
2 oz Raspberry Liqueur
Heck, there's even one that brings champagne to the mix. If you want to feel special, I guess you could add a splash of Coca-Cola to the original recipe and call yourself Lindsey Lohan.
Moonriver Take - The Incubus
It's deceptive and tasty. We have to both bind the flavors of the Jaeger with the Peach, then throw in a twist to both darken and smooth out the palette...without completely derivative. I choose dark, smooth, and a little spicy, just like one of my favorite monsters to run in a mature game.
VARIATION 5 - The Incubus
1 oz Jaegermeister
1 oz Peach Schnapps
2 oz Raspberry Liqueur
1 oz Aftershock (cinnamon liqueur)
1 oz Amaretto
Fill with Sprite
Sweet, seductive, with a little spice.
The End Of The World: Zombie Apocalypse
One day, a friend of mine showed up to my table with a gift. Twas this unassuming blood red book entitled: The End Of The World - Zombie Apocalypse. Intrigued by another installment from Fantasy Flight Games, I stuck it on my shelf to revisit when I could, and then my whole world got flipped upside down.
Now, nearly two years later, on this the October of the literal pandemic apocalypse, I thought it high time to dedicate a little energy and focus to this curious little system.
Today will serve as an overview - an introduction to the theming of the system and its tone. Then, we'll have a part 2 next week where we make some honest characters. Why "honest"? You'll understand in a moment.
How This Differs From D&D
Unlike many other fantasy tabletop experiences, games run in this series of scenarios place the players in PC roles far removed from the classical elven ranger. In fact, you don't play anything at all - the game character is literally yourself, or at least the fictionalized version of yourself portrayed as an avatar in the game world (honestly).
Yes, We're Still In Kansas...and there's blood everywhere.
This isn't a far off land or alternate plane of existence. The setting is your current location, city, town, neighborhood; the events of the game scenario unfold where you live and NPCs and characters are intended to be based on people and locations you know.
Short Scenarios and Survival
The goals and "missions" in this game are fast-paced, deadly, dangerous, and narrative-based. Combat exists, it's not hyper-detailed or super tactical, as going toe-to-toe with a zombie is probably a scenario that you yourself don't want to be in by any means. The scenarios we move through are difficult challenges on the path of survival; raiding a hospital for valuable medical supplies - finding a better bunker when the first is compromised - fighting starvation while you power through mastering hunting skills you've never had to use before.
Oh, and everything's done with D6's. :)
Tests and Checks
As with most alternative systems to D&D, there are always similar mechanics with synonymous terms. Checks become Tests in this case. Anytime you want to do something, the GM will decide if a Test is needed - and it's even dictated in the rules to save Tests for important or exciting moments only, when your success or failure matters to the outcome of the story.
This distinction is huge to put out front, as many tables often call for rolls too much for mundane or arbitrary tasks. As you're representing yourself, you may not need to roll for a task you already know how to do. But context is key here - there's a big difference between running for an athlete, and running down a street being chased by a horde of fast zombies, even for an athlete. The latter would probably have a Test involved, whereas the former would be unnecessary.
But instead of a DC, you're rolling with positive and negative dice, like stacking the odds in your favor or stacking them against you with complications. We'll take a look at some specific mechanical examples next time (10/10/20).
There are a decent number of "loose" mechanic / high narrative games out there on the market today. It can be difficult to separate oneself from the shadow of D&D if you incorporate similar mechanics, so many games launch themselves so far to the other end to provide space enough to grow in their own niche.
I've seen this work. Fate Core does this particularly well.
I've also seen this fail miserably.
But I am very intrigued. A zombie adventure with a bit more grit, and an honest look at character creation that is intentionally intimate and straightforward may be just the fire one needs to create a short, powerful story.
...We'll see you next time for some character creation.
Don't get bit.
The Dark and Stormy is often considered a variation on a Mule. A little alcohol and some ginger beer. However, for my first casual Drinking and Dragons, I was inspired by an excellent barkeep online who shared
The Classic Dark and Stormy
The Dark and Stormy is a classic for a reason. It's easy and it's yummy. Don't try so hard.
Take your desired glass.
Pour in 2 oz of dark rum
Then fill the rest with Ginger Beer
If you're feeling sassy, splash in a little lime juice and ice.
The Storm Giant - by Palm Of Vecna, via Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies
I wish I could take credit for this one.
There's an excellent channel on the YouTubes called Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. The creator ran a separate show for a brief time called "The Tavern" where he shares, mixes, and tastes drinks he's drafting. It's good content and you should check it out (click the name in the section title above). One of his cast members created this beauty.
STORM GIANT RECIPE
3 oz Kraken or Oakheart rum
1.5 oz Moonshine
1 can of Ginger Beer
Pour this simple mix into a large mug with ice and enjoy!
The Thunderstep (Den Draft)
The first time I mixed The Storm Giant, it absolutely required ice and a straw due to sheer volume. It was also bloody tasty, so I wanted to try my hand at something similar. I wanted it to be yummy and STRONG, without knowing it. So you enjoy it, then feel the thunder. Just like a certain spell I know. Warning: this is a One Drink Wonder. Make one and done.
4 oz Captain Morgan (spiced rum)
4 oz Root Beer liqueur
3 oz Moonshine
1 can of Dr. Pepper
Pour all into a large goblet or stein, add ice, sit back, and enjoy.
It makes a lot. It IS for a GIANT, after all.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Mondays: Patreon Mini
Tuesday: Lore Drop
Wednesday: Other Corners
Thursday: Moonriver Bar
Friday: Podcast goes up!
Saturday: GM's Corner
Sunday: REST DAY