I was recently invited to sit in and play at a friend's long-running Pathfinder game. Everyone just made it to 14th level, without milestones, so they've been playing for awhile.
A well-established group who have spent enough time through some amazing adventures to achieve a high-level sense of play and a complete lack of resistance for the DM in charge. It's clear the group and their DM have a lot of love for the game, their story, and the individual players and characters.
They ran like a well-oiled machine, with clearly defined roles for the players to help each other out as well as a strong idea of their functionality in combat, AS WELL as a justified means to protect each other and trust each other's abilities and agency when stuff gets real. Remember what I said about that lack of resistance...we'll be swinging back to that.
So I'm coming into this after a long stint of running Pathfinder, then falling headfirst into becoming a professional GM for a company who has helped foster the creative, and soul-driving endeavor of offering unique opportunities for players and game masters to become their best selves through tabletop gaming experiences. I write this blog, publish fiction, make custom content, and record show after show of an online campaign and a kick-ass podcast. NONE OF THIS is to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate that, more often than not, I'm not the player at the table - I'm the one behind the screen managing this chaos.
Which means on those rare occasions where I'm offered an opportunity NOT to do that, I tend to take distinct care to create something functional, fitting, and, for the love of Sauron, to KNOW WHAT I'M DOING. I have a certain calm to my preparation nowadays, and in Pathfinder you've got to know (or at least have the reference ready) what your stuff does to keep things moving and ask the right questions to clarify. I had the honor of working with the DM beforehand, hashing out a backstory that fits inside the awesome steampunk 1840's Yukon Gold Rush with subtle magic elements and a weird freaking train, then set to work chaining feats and working the numbers to stay competitive with this established crew. Not everyone knew I'd be coming, so I didn't want to bog anything down, nor arrive with no concept of my character (NEVER ARRIVE without your character already done. I mean it. If you are familiar with the system, there is no excuse. Do your damn homework).
So, life runs a little later than intended and I roll in a bit late with food and drinks as penance, say my hellos and mark my place. I like to be compact; character sheet and all accompanying abilities/spells/etc on a clipboard, selected dice in my rolling box, pencils at the ready, and spare paper in the clipboard. I even came with a coaster for my caffeine, just in case! The session begins shortly, and the team as is has some planning to do, so while they converse in character directly next to me, I turn toward our DM and we work through some short interactions to set up my individual plan and then... I wait.
And I loved it. True, every now and then there might have been a quick interaction where I could investigate something, look around, listen (I was being smuggled in a coffin surrounded by a den of vampires, by the way), but until actual combat began - I needed to literally wait. It was splendid.
I got to watch these people work. The few I knew in the party came over to check on me, apologizing that it was "taking so long," but if it was, I didn't notice. It was an honor just to watch, adding to the scene with my silence, with subtle actions here and there. No one knew what I was; I didn't announce any of my character or my mechanics when I arrived - they weren't sure if I'd be friend, foe, or something more, only that I was playing...at some point. And no one asked; not out of ignorance, or dismissal, but out of respect. I'd like to believe that they, too, understood what I was reveling in.
I was enjoying the subtle power of Silence.
Space To Listen - Space To Exist
Actively listening to the players, the party, and the game master.
This is a skill, and often I feel we forget it. We replace it with a need to be heard constantly, eager to be listened to rather than to allow others a similar space. By literally shutting our mouths and opening our ears, we begin to engage with the world around us in new and dynamic ways. I was ENTHRALLED by the antics of this party, and though I think that was in no small part due to their own nature, I'd like to entertain that my own active listening helped just a tad in holding my attention. I was consistently fully engaged in everything that WASN'T my turn, and I was remarkably happy to, well, WAIT.
Space where I wasn't flapping my jaws also allowed my active brain to shut up for a second, and just exist for a time. Errant thoughts - like looking up a feat, making sure that random mechanic worked the way I thought it did, checking my numbers quickly - can still occur, and I can quietly take care of them without interrupting flow (what a concept), but for most of that preamble, I am 100% engaged with everyone's story that IS NOT MY OWN. I am excited and energized by their cool powers, interesting ideas, and role-playing. It gave me a moment to read the room, and to appreciate the beautiful world that the DM had made with these players - take note of the great care with which they've crafted this experience, and sit in awe of seeing it all work, like controlled chaos.
Space To Reveal - At The Opportune Moment
Wait for your mechanics to shine before they are revealed.
This one I have to be careful with, because rules are important. The GM needs to know that you are not taking advantage of something/cheating/fudging your numbers/etc; trust is important, so the GM needs to know what you are and what you can do, and you MUST make sure that everything you can do is well within the rules you are operating with.
IF you are fulfilling this already, here's a suggestion: try NOT telling everyone about what your character can do right away. Create nuance and mystery by NOT showing them your character sheet right away, so when you get an opportunity to show what you CAN do, the beat hits harder. Case in point:
Combat begins shortly after I hop out of a coffin and dust a vampire, catching the sniper rifle it was holding and loading it as a Free Action (hint, hint). We roll Initiative. The highest player is at 24...except me. I rolled a 33. 19+14. ...I will revel the look of awe at that table, just in a small way. Mechanically, it's all kosher. Dexterity is a 22 (+6). Inquisitor gives me my Wisdom modifier on top of Dex (another +5) for Initiative, Gunslinger Initiative +2 (HINT), and a trait at character creation that grants a +1 (6+5+2+1 = +14).
That's one small element, and a neat little moment. My turn rolls around, and I use Deadly Aim to take a full round of 4 shots (reloading for free), with a prayer of Judgment (attacks are now magical) with +16 damage on every hit, and +22 to hit most shots - to strike down a vampire that just got slammed by the barbarian in a surprise round for nearly 160 damage...which was heavily reduced by resistances...then he got my blessed bullets and took full damage.
Yeah. I'm a holy Gunslinger Inquisitor with a southern drawl and fantasy-themed bible verses. Take into account that I still work all of my mechanics in my own voice, that's a fun reveal in the first round of combat, and it helped establish my own schtick early on. Plus, EVERYONE at the table is now experiencing this character at the same time as their own characters - I didn't talk up his personality or his voice or his abilities beforehand. Add on that I spent some Grit (special skill points that create cool trick shots and targeting) to alter the battlefield and provide utility to the group, and it's pretty cool.
The best part? They haven't seen everything I can do yet. And they won't, unless the opportunity presents itself. There's no reason for me to brag about the cool things I can do. It's so much more fun to use them when the time is right.
There's a big difference between telling everyone all the cool spells you can do, and SHOWING everyone the awesome spells you can do at the best time. The impact of the latter is so much greater, and it creates something beautiful and refined from a cooperative story experience. Try it out, I dare you.
Giving Way - To Think, To Breathe, To Be
While I was in Bermuda, my friend Jesse and I went wandering. We witnessed a curious thing: they have a specific sign on the roads. A familiar white, upside-down triangle with a red border and black lettering. What we would immediately recognize as a Yield sign, instead read the words: "Give Way." Together, we were pleased to see this. Jesse was pleased because it changed the language to allow people to think of someone other than themselves while driving, but bringing the fact home, my podcast partner in crime, John, swung it a bit further. When you Give Way to someone, you're not actually giving up anything. Instead, you are "Gifting" space for another.
When we practice silence, we gift space to another to fill, or we can choose to not fill such space. Quiet moments do not HAVE to be filled with noise, or speech, or music. I like to think sometimes that in gifting my silence to another, I might have given them a sense of peace and quiet in a world inundated by distraction and stimulus; so loud and uncaring that we feel we must speak constantly lest we be drowned out by the void. But you don't have to. I give you space. Try filling it with BREATH instead of words; you'll be surprised what you discover.
You ever feel like you're the only one speaking? Try stopping for a moment and assessing the room. Spotlight is important, sure, but high-level play comes from everyone's willingness to share that spotlight. Being aware of our personal time, our character's spotlight, how much time that uses, how our role-play may miscommunicate because we're bored, and thousands of other miscommunications because we don't feel like becoming engaged in the stories of others. A party that hasn't already experienced a lot of adventuring together (like, years of it) can feel pretty delicate.
Our silence, coupled with active listening, can help communicate an absolute respect for a person's story, but this is a two-way road. Kind and patient people can use up that empathy on a person that fails to notice their own spotlight hogging over and over again. Try this little thought experiment: on a group chat, if the majority of the last 10 minutes of posts is you...STOP. Give someone else some space to speak. At a table, if the last 45 minutes have been your character's scene, try to find a way to wrap it up. Once in a while is fine - but all the time is obnoxious. That's tabletop 101, gents.
The Well-Oiled Machine
This group flows.
Not one moment came up where the DM had to hush the players, or argue a point, or fight to get something across. Everyone at the table was absolutely engaged with the stories of each other, mine included (thanks, guys and gals). We got up, wandered the room, had in-character conversations throughout the house, all within the world, and the DM was aware of all of it. It is abundantly clear the level of play that this group enjoys; they adore the world that has been constructed for them, and it is a joy to play within it. They respect each other's time with immaculate care and fun, and we were happy to play until the wee hours of the morning (I barely noticed).
Now, part of this is a product of the extensive amount of work that each of them has put into their character's mechanics, and for the fact that they've got a literal human encyclopedia at the ready in the form of the host (thanks, buddy), but those are the roles they've established over years of play, and they are clearly dedicated to this cooperative campfire story. Even if I didn't have years of experience in Pathfinder, as long as I didn't behave like an obnoxious jerk, I'm certain I still would have had a blast with these people.
If I ever get invited back, it would still be my honor to wait quietly for my turn. ;)
See you at the table.
A lot of this fall has been spent tightening up the awesome games and campaigns we offer here at Questers' Way - Game On!, the supplemental fiction and world building, and the our online presence. With this growth comes reflection, and a greater sense of CLARITY. I've been curbing my two big loves - Knight Owls and Gray Owls - to be more transparent with what players can expect moving forward, and to better clarify the format that is expected for each, because, as anyone who's played in both can attest, THEY ARE CERTAINLY NOT THE SAME. So let's get into it.
Knight Owls - Episodic Hack & Slash Role-Playing (12+)
Knight Owls has had a long and sometimes confusing run through its personal identity. The first session had 11 adventurers for crying out loud, and ran 3 hours over (ending at the ripe old time of 3 a.m.). Since then, we've curbed most Knights into ending around 1:30 a.m. with a few exceptions (like the season 2 two-part finale).
Knight Owls has gone through a lot of growing pains, too. It, along with many of our other late-night offerings, had to have a price adjustment, and a small group of the players were demanding a higher level of customization, online extra play, and lore depth. An overcomplicated Time Passes system, a failed private Facebook group, and many, many blogs of past adventures later...it just got too much. For me, and for many of our players. Many of us don't want to have extra homework just to play our silly D&D game, and why should we?
The ultimate realization came with the advent of the Gray Owls project. This starkly different game approach provided a much-needed contrast to the much lighter Knight Owls, and I began thinking seriously about what type of adventure Knight Owls always was meant to be at its heart, assessing the mistakes I'd made in the past, and how best to move forward.
So. Let us begin.
Season 3 _______________
Knight Owls moving forward is intended as an episodic Hack and Slash campaign intended to run an ever-changing roster of adventures from levels 2-10, or 10-20, depending on the track being played. Each session is an Episode, with implied time passing between each, and, not unlike Justice League: Unlimited, the possibility of a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT roster each Episode. The Knight Owls are considered a pretty large organization, just like our aforementioned "league," and would support a revolving door of possible builds and players. Plus, no matter what, each episode features characters of the same level, so no power imbalance.
Our focus is also much clearer. If we place weight upon each Pillar of Play (3 being highest focus, 1 being the lowest focus), then Knight Owls reads as: COMBAT - 3, SOCIAL - 2, EXPLORATION - 1. Mechanics, strategy, and combat are the primary focus, with social encounters to provide a break to the tension, and a slice of world building that gets wrapped at the end of the Episode. New players to the system are always welcome.
I think this clarifying approach will help support players new and old in providing an awesome experience with transparent expectations.
Knight Owls Season 3 picks up on February 2nd at Level 2, 25 years after the events of the Season 2 Finale.
Hope I see you at the table. :)
Gray Owls - Character-Driven Narrative Play (21+)
Gray Owls was born from my personal desire to provide a more mature, intimate, and character/narrative driven experience for my veteran players. Just being considered for play requires DM approval by me in the first place, and there are some important player and setting expectations that were discussed and presented at the onset that I'd like to detail here so there's no confusion:
1) This is not a happy place. The setting is very dark, dangerous, and the conflict is not always clear; the monsters that lurk in the darkness may just be other people, and that makes it much more terrifying.
2) This setting is built for players who already possess a strong understanding of the mechanics of the game. That way, we can get the game out of the way and play in a deep story together; embracing a communal flow.
3) Sessions are called Chapters, and seasons are called Books. Each Chapter takes place more or less immediately following the previous Chapter, with a party that is (mostly) consistent session to session. Shopping, and other developments, are done IN SESSION as role-playing opportunities. So if you want to do something, it is your responsibility to make sure it happens when you come and play. Play is automatically more intimate and character focused, without a lot of downtime opportunities.
4) Obnoxious characters will have a very difficult time in this setting. There are many powerful entities in the world; magic is nearly illegal in some areas; laws are very strict; secret organizations and cloak and dagger plots abound. You have to be smart to survive.
5) Of the Three Pillars Of Play... SOCIAL/EXPLORATION = 3, COMBAT = 2. No Pillar is at 1, as Combat is an ever-looming possibility, and often serves as a powerful cap to the immense amount of character development each session.
All these being said, I don't think any of us playing realized how much Social and Exploration were going to be featured, but it seems exactly what the group wanted and needed. Slowing it down, allowing deep character development, dense and personal lore, and lots of possible story avenues. Bring a character, not a cartoon, and you'll get a lot out of this.
A Note on the Snap-Shots (Gray Owls Blog)
I've said it once, twice, a thousand times at this point. I learned my lesson from Knight Owls - I WILL NEVER REQUIRE ANY EXTERNAL BLOG FOR PLAY. Read the Snap-Shots if you want some extra immersion. Or don't. That's entirely up to you.
The Snap-Shots are parallel, tiny stories. They DO NOT involve the party; they are not summaries or recaps of their exploits. All they are are a means to build the world and augment my writing for a setting I love dearly. It helps me flesh out characters, introduce elements into the world, and HAVE FUN. Reading it is NEVER going to be a requirement of play.
Miss a session? Get the recap at the start of the next session you attend. Don't know what's going on? Ask in character. You wouldn't know anyway, so just ask. Asking questions in character upgrades play anyway - it provides opportunities to react authentically to events you weren't present for (that's a good thing). Feel out of the loop? Fix it through interaction, observation, and interpretation in play.
One Shot Wonders - Play Something New (12+)
Our one-shot game is ON POINT moving forward. Plenty of concentrated D&D games on the horizon, as well as an adapted Werewolf one-shot, Tales From The Loop, Tiny Dungeon, Deadlands, Savage Worlds, Exalted, Star Wars Saga Edition, and Fate Core. Keep your eyes peeled - there's always something to play.
Modular Madness - Multi-Session Mini Campaigns
And now we're tackling full modules over 4-6 six hour sessions of dedicated development and play.
It is assumed that each module set has a consistent party of players, so multiple sessions are expected when you sign up. Not as concentrated as any One-Shot, and not nearly as huge as a Knight Owls season, but your character's development is just as epic. And let's face it, there's something really cool about developing a character over time.
First up? Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (already FULL!). SOCIAL/EXPLORATION = 3, COMBAT = 1
That's my piece, everybody. Hope it clears up any confusion.
See you at the table.
So I just had a shouting match with my GPS while it struggled to find me in a construction-ridden city...and it was a profoundly cathartic and motivating experience. Venom and vitriol exploding from my face strung together with punctuated, palpable, and percussive expletives really gets the blood pumping and the mind moving. Heh.
I've heard Ken, one of my mentors, say "Where focus goes, energy flows" and I think that, though anger can be draining, people like me - who can generate sometimes an excess of energy - need to burn that extra bit to help us focus. Like a laser beam from our mind's eye.
Words become clearer, wit becomes sharper, recall gets faster --- at least for ME.
BLIND RAGE, however, is NOT okay. It shuts us down - we're so angry, we can't even function. ...That's not I'm talking about. I just wanted to make sure we understand that THERE IS A DIFFERENCE, HERE.
Rage is different than anger, I believe. Rage is deeper. Rooted in our core emotions, it flies forward with power, focus, energy, and strength. This can motivate us to do great things - some good, some bad, but all terribly great. Learning to wield your rage toward the positive is the true skill, not stamping it out. Everyone has something - connected to the marrow inside their bones - that will bring our rage forth, so learning to handle it when it happens and use that energy to focus on something productive is one of the most effective superpowers we mere mortals can achieve.
And, believe it or not, we can practice it.
At The Table
The key class in 5th Edition that utilizes Rage is, of course, the Barbarian. In fact, since the Barbarian's inception way back in 1982 as a fighter sub-class, then officially introduced in 3rd Edition, the high-damage class has always utilized the concept of Rage as a feature to augment damage output, survivability, and show off a full range of extra powers and versatility.
In 5th Edition, Barbarians enter a Rage for a damage boost, a general damage resistance, and, depending on their archetype specialization (their Primal Path), gain access to more devastating powers that grow in intensity as they get stronger. Those mechanics are all varied and versatile, but the focus of this post is on the Rage itself.
Many people assume, and I understand why, that a Barbarian's Rage comes from them losing control and/or becoming angry. In past editions or variants (like Pathfinder), there were some builds or archetypes that would have you roll a 'control check' when you took damage or suffered a trauma in order to avoid going into a berserker rage - losing track of your allies and entering into a blind destructive wave. In its most recent iteration, Rage feels A LOT more flexible.
I urge you to consider the following: what if the Barbarian's Rage is instead connected to the deep, primal feelings that surround their innermost selves; like a well. They only tap into this energy when they need it, because they know of its great power. Rage, not anger, is utilized as a focus point - a taxing, intense hyper focus on whatever task is at hand (often, battle). They DON'T lose control - it is a CHOICE to enter a Rage. Meaning, their intense feeling is always present, just like all of us, and we can choose when and how to unleash it to do the most good or be the most effective. We know that unfocused energy is wasteful. We wouldn't enter a Rage, a finite resource of strong emotion, on a whim. And that scarcity is a strong lesson.
Have you ever watched a person who is angry all the time? I have. It taxes them. It drains them of their empathy - their ability to connect with others, though they desperately need it. They spend so long finding things to be angry about that they have no concept of life without being angry. Their bodies are exhausted, and their hearts full of judgement and blame, to the point that they can barely function as a fellow human.
Rage...can be a resource. It is not something you spend without thinking. You know it will drain you, but you save its power until the best time, and by controlling it, it only manifests the way you want it to. The same way that my father, a man of few words and one who appreciates silence and mindfulness, would choose how and when to wield his words to be the most effective in communicating whatever he needed to at the time. You'd never see his rage; it was a focus for him, and him alone. Others would call it Drive. A need to change things. He controls it - it doesn't control him. And that's the difference.
So when you play your Barbarian, you're not a loose cannon, nor do you have to be a wild card. Your Barbarian doesn't have to be the moron, or an angry mess. Their battle rage is their resource; their nuke; their last resort - because they know the devastating power it has, and they can CHOOSE to press that button and ride the lightning that now courses through their veins. I long to see the quiet, intelligent, and perceptive strategist barbarian. One who takes her time, and watches, and waits for the best moment to open that well and unleash hell in defense of her allies. And when the smoke clears, she takes a deep breath, and that energy subsides. Control, focus, choice. That's what Rage can be. Get practicing.
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.