When you play Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons long enough (especially from the DM side of the screen), you’ll start to notice some patterns in the game’s design. The most powerful magic items always bestow no more than a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls. You almost never see the upper limit of a player’s ability score go above 20, and even from monsters they cap at an absolute ceiling of 30. No matter how many numbers you try to stack, there’s a limit to how high you’ll get your attack bonus to hit and how many hit points your character can build to. So why limit these numbers? What’s the difference between the bounded accuracy model of 5e and the treadmill model of Pathfinder? Which one is preferable, and what is the upside and downside of each?
First, let’s dive into the term “Bounded Accuracy”. Like I stated earlier, no matter how savvy you are character building, your bonus to hit can only be so high. In 5e, the upper limit to a reasonable player’s bonus to hit is fairly standard, and the upper limit to a creature’s armor class also tends to be set. Heck, even Tiamat, a literal god in Faerun, has an Armor Class of 25, meaning that anything with a higher AC has a higher AC than a god. What this does is give even lower level creatures a reasonable chance to hit a much higher level creature, even if that chance lowers with a wider power gap. It means with favorable luck (and tactics), even a lower level party can potentially defeat a much greater enemy.
Let’s compare this to the “treadmill effect” of similar d20 systems. For example, in Pathfinder, certain creatures can have ACs in the upwards of 40s, and the system rewards mathematically minded players to combine as many features as possible to create a statistically superior character with the right choices. What this ends up meaning is that a low enough level character has virtually no chance to hit a creature with a wide enough power gap. A goblin just plain won’t hit a player of a high enough level with a high enough AC. And while Pathfinder has a bevvy of conditional modifiers a clever player can take advantage of in order to close that statistical gap with careful planning, ultimately the odds are still stacked against the lower level combatant.
So let’s look at the pros of a treadmill model first. It rewards players with an exhaustive understanding of the rules (given that your table is playing by the rules-as-written, which most Pathfinder games I’ve heard tend to do) and by making optimized characters. Of course, the cons are that the encounters that a Game Master can use are bounded in scope. At one point, if the minions of one tier are no longer valid threats, they have to use minions of an appropriate tier. The minions have to keep up with the players, which may feel forced or may not make sense in the context of the world.
The pros of a Bounded Accuracy model like D&D are that the numbers tend to be simpler. Rather than having players focus on mechanical advantages they can leverage to statistical superiority, a bounded accuracy model brings the focus of play to description and effects, and although numbers are relevant, oftentimes it's the qualities and conditions of the pieces in play that make D&D combat engaging. A goblin has the possibility of hitting a 20th level player character in 5e, meaning they can still present a threat in high numbers or if they get to attack with advantage. The con of course, is that players that use quantities to measure their character’s power may not be rewarded for optimizing their character. After all, especially when using standard arrays, there are only so many “optimized” builds you can create in 5e’s system.
In his series Happy Fun Hour, Mike Mearls once said that “the more small choices you give players when making a character, the more small schisms in power you’re creating”. To find evidence of this, look no further than 5e’s Feat system in comparison to Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, feats are small bonuses to your character you get every other level (at least from what I can remember, I have a very obvious bias here). In 5e, Feats are larger packages of benefits you get every fourth level, meaning that 5e characters usually only get five opportunities to customize their characters in this way. These larger choices mean that the schisms in power are also less in number, and more importantly, more obvious. I’ve had plenty of conversations with Pathfinder enthusiasts that to make some character concepts work, there is a specific chain of feats needed. While some may argue it exists in 5e, the need is far smaller.
So Why Do We Care?
Great question. I mean, like I say in most of these, it’s the question to end all questions.
My answer is that understanding the design process behind a game system allows the adjudicator of that system (in this case the Dungeon Master) to deliver an experience with greater skill and information. If a DM understands that only the most powerful creatures of a realm have an AC of 25, it gives them a reference on how strong a creature they create is in relation to the party in a more meaningful way. If a DM wants to create custom content, including magic items, subclasses, or custom features, they know how to balance that content in relation to the system.
As silly as it sounds, creating a +4 magic weapon in 5e actually breaks the system, whether you agree with it or not. It breaks the upper limit of the Bounded Accuracy model the system is intentionally designed with, and if you try to fix this break with stronger monsters, then you risk changing to the treadmill model of Pathfinder, and the focus of the game changes.
Bounded Accuracy exists so that players will actually think less about the game’s math and more about the game’s story. 5e’s mechanics are intentionally simple and flexible to allow DMs to deliver custom, satisfying experiences to their players. The mechanics are a tool, not the experience, and by understanding the design process, it empowers a DM to create their own custom content to deepen their world without breaking the system that’s been so elegantly crafted for them.
That isn’t to say you should never mess with rules or purposely break your own system to deliver a specific experience: it just means if you break the rules, you’re doing so intentionally with knowledge of some of the consequences of doing so. I’ve played with +4 and +5 weapons before, and it leads to disastrous power gaps that invalidate the stories of other party members. (Now putting such abilities on some kind of charge mechanic…)
So that’s all I have to say on Bounded Accuracy for now. Hopefully this gives y’all something to chew on, especially for the creative DMs out there.
Study Hard, Play Hard
“You remember the Deal we made, right? You would give me the power to be free of my oppressors, and in return, I would smite those who defied your calling. My Vow is still ironclad, and I hear your Commandments. Mother Night, Mother Night, by the call of your Moonlight. I am here to rectify the evil deeds of those that spread horrific Blight. I will become a monster in others’ Sight, and with your Grace the Shadows grant me Flight.”
That’s the back story of a character I’ve been role-playing in a game that started as a spontaneous pick-up game with a few players toward the start of Quarantine. So, I ask you, based on this text alone, which class am I playing? And no, it’s not a multiclass. It’s a single class build, using some Unearthed Arcana material, but even so I could build the same character without the UA.
I’ll give you another second. Ready?
Is it a Warlock? Maybe. After all, the text references a “Deal”, which is a common term used in warlock back stories involving Pacts.
Is it a Paladin? Maybe. Apparently this character made a capital-V Vow, a role-playing feature of Paladins included in every one of their subclasses.
Maybe it’s a Cleric? Commandments are a common characteristic of Pantheons in D&D worlds, which are highlighted in the latest official product, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Maybe it’s a different character entirely. Still curious?
The answer is…drum roll please…option number 3! This text describes a Cleric, an agent of the lesser deity Mother Night who calls upon the Domain of Twilight to grant flight while in darkness. Are the other options wrong? Certainly not. All of the other classes I mentioned fit the story I wanted to tell, and there were even some classes I didn’t mention that might have also fit the bill. Shadow sorcerer, Shadow monk, even maybe a Fighter that had a religious element to their story. The thing that made me choose Cleric though was its play style.
Recognizing Play Style
Each turn in combat, a player can choose how to use their action, movement, and possibly a bonus action. Here, play style refers to how each character class makes the most out of those options, and also what a character’s player needs to keep in mind to make the most of their class features and spells.
For example, a rogue player tries to make the most out of each attack every turn, because, unlike other martial classes, they don’t get an extra attack when they take the Attack action. However, if the right conditions are met, a rogue can sneak attack, and a single hit can deliver damage more efficiently than any other martial class (key word, efficiently). So, a rogue player pays attention to which enemies have a hostile creature next to them to know which creatures would take the most damage from their one attack. Then, they can use their bonus action to get out of dodge and reposition for their next turn.
A monk on the other hand can make a free unarmed strike as a bonus action, given that they’ve attacked with a monk weapon or unarmed strike already that turn. While a monk can reposition as its bonus action, there’s a ki cost that goes with it, so it usually is more efficient to double down on attacking the nearest creature. And, while a rogue only gets one attack that can deal a lot of damage to a single target, a monk has a lot of chances to hit, but the damage of each hit is much less by comparison.
This comparison is an example of a difference in play style. Both classes are regarded as mobile, Dexterity-based characters that can move easily around a grid and roll high on initiative. However, what each player needs to be effective, as well as what they prioritize, are going to be different. Rogues are team dependent; they need an ally willing to be within melee range of their target to be effective. Monks are great initiators; while they don’t need an ally to let off their flurry of attacks, each attack may also land a stunning strike, which by its namesake inflicts the Stunned condition on the target and potentially setting up the rogue’s sneak attack.
Which is the last little nugget of wisdom I’ll leave in this section: as valuable as it is to recognize play style, it’s even more valuable to recognize the play style of your fellow party members so you can all play off of each other.
Earlier, I wrote a blog post on the Four Roles you typically find in a D&D party. To recap, you’ve got:
-Tank: Someone who draws an enemy's attention and can take damage
-DPR: Someone who can efficiently and reliably deal damage
-Support: Someone who heals and empowers allies
-Control: Someone who compromises the decision-making power of opponents
When we talk about each class’s play style, we’re also talking about the category of role your decision falls under. Roles aren’t something that’s static to a character. Often, they’re a turn by turn decision you’re making for the party’s benefit.
A rogue sneak attacks an enemy: DPR decision.
Same rogue uses their action to administer a healing potion: Support decision.
Now some classes do this more efficiently than others, and have garnered a reputation of fulfilling certain roles well. But a class isn’t defined by its reputation or story, but by the concrete choices it gives its player to interact with the game state.
So Why Do We Care?
The question to end all questions. Let’s bring it back to the above example. Oftentimes, I hear DMs and fellow players give character-building advice through incomplete ideas. If we look at the character example I started this post with, I can already hear the voices of individuals I know that would say, “Well it has to be (insert opinion here)”. And the question I always ask is, “Does it have to be?”
While this may belabor a point I made earlier, one way to look at a class is by the concrete choices it grants you, not its prescribed lore. Do you want to have gained your powers through a Deal? Sounds like a Warlock to me! But maybe you don’t want to just cast eldritch blast again and again. Maybe your pact granted you supernatural auras and the ability to channel energy through your sword. With this perspective, paladin would probably be a better option.
The reason we care is because we want to tell the story we want to tell, and the mechanics we’re offered by our class are the expression of that story. We’re looking for the marriage of the story we want to tell with the mechanics that let us tell that story. Sometimes, that marriage is found in an unlikely place. You tell the story usually given to a warlock through the mechanics of a chain-smoking cleric recovering from trauma. Sometimes, the story of an aspiring entertainer is told through the mechanics of a warlock.
If you’re like me and love to help new players discover the wonder of D&D, I urge you to keep this mind. Listen to what they want their character to do, not the backstory of where their character came from. If they want to fight like a hardened warrior, guide them to a class that lets them be a hardened warrior. If they want to fight cleverly with a bow, offer them the classes that have a bow (and how to understand the differences between them).
Each Class's Schtick
Now, to conclude this little segment, I’ll just lay out what each class does most efficiently and one of their weaknesses. These are little blurbs, not all encompassing descriptions. We’re also posting further breakdowns of each of these classes on our YouTube channel (DM Shower Thoughts, go subscribe now), so if this kind of stuff tickles your fancy go check it out. Without further ado, here we go:
Barbarian – Great tank, melee DPR, and very survivable, not great at all ranges
Bard – Great single target support, Single target healing, most offensive spells are Wisdom saving throws (kind of limiting)
Cleric – Excellent ability to pivot from Support to Control to DPR, not the most efficient healers but they have healing options
Druid – Excellent healers and controllers, set up allies very well, not very good DPR
Fighter – Spammable, short rest abilities, easy to understand, can be outperformed by other classes in a similar specialty
Monk – Great movement and single target control, very independent, not as good DPR as you’d think
Paladin – Excellent passive support with auras, competitive damage with smites, not great at all ranges
Ranger – Oof, What are they good at? (Kidding), Competitive DPR, great support and control options, many iconic abilities are too situational
Rogue – The DPR class. Like the most consistent one. Great action economy, but it does need a team that acts like a team to work right
Sorcerer – Efficient and flexible action economy, limited by their spells known
Warlock – Eldritch Blast engines, lots of customization, even fewer spellcasting options than Sorcerer
Wizard – Lots of utility, support, control, and damage options. Squishier than French Fries left in the fridge
Artificer – The Support/Control master, maybe even more so than the Wizard. Extremely hard to manage and not for new players.
Well that’s my genius (?) breakdown of each class’s play style. Like I said, any mechanics of a class can be re-flavored to match the story in your head. The key thing is to understand how a class actually works in the context of 5e’s system, and then to tell the story of why it works that way. Play style and action economy can be abstract concepts to wrap your head around, but once you do, a whole new level to the D&D play experience reveals itself to you to enrich your games and your understanding of yourself and others. And after all, isn’t being our best self what we’re all about?
Study Hard, Play Hard
We’ve all been there. We’ve all been a Beginner at some point in our lives, and hopefully even as we navigate adulthood we’ll never lose the joyous curiosity that comes with the Beginner’s Mind. Whether it’s Benjamin Hoff describing the childlike wonder of the Uncarved Block in The Tao of Pooh or coming to Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, being a beginner is both a wondrous and terrifying place.
In terms of D&D, oftentimes a beginner’s expectations are colored by either the common (often reductive) portrayals of TTRPGs in mainstream media or assume the game functions in a way it doesn’t based on their experiences with RPG video games. This means a Dungeon Master has a monumental responsibility in guiding new players to discover the most out of their experience. After all, as a Dungeon Master, you may be the individual that’s responsible for how someone views tabletop role-playing as a whole, and a bad experience can sour someone’s taste for years or possibly their whole life. And while that may sound a little dramatic, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. So my question is, what are they going to walk away with? Are they going to bask in the sheer creative possibility this space provides? Are they going to discover something new about themselves through the characters they portray? Are they going to go on and become a Dungeon Master in their own right, and be empowered to tell their own stories when all is said and done? How are you going to introduce them to this grand, sometimes overwhelming new world?
Now as with all responsibilities, you will make mistakes. That’s what this game is all about: how we deal with both failure and success. After all, it’s what the d20 represents. The best laid plans could fail and the most cockamamie of schemes can succeed. How you handle these mistakes and your tolerance to forgive others will set the standard for how others are expected to behave, and also set the mood for the new player you’ve invited to your table.
Before we proceed, I do have a small disclosure. If you’re a new DM, be kind to yourself. Like I said, you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. If it’s not in your rulings, it’ll be with handling the passionate personalities you’re bound to attract playing this kind of game. If you’re a new player, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most people are playing to tell a great story (which doesn’t necessarily mean structured or coherent), and forgetting how bonus actions work or forgetting that random racial feature that grants you advantage on saving throws against poison isn’t going to make or break a game. Come to this experience with respect and empathy, and you’ll create a culture of trust where everyone can have fun.
There are also a lot of soft skills I can’t teach through text like this. They come through experience and learning from the mistakes you will make along the way. The kind of actionable advice I can give has to do with creating an environment that reduces resistance to learning what D&D is all about. Through my experience, I’ve found that the easiest way to introduce a new player to D&D is what we’ve coined the Rule of Three: have a three hour one-shot session with characters built to 3rd level that touches on all three pillars of play.
Now I’ve introduced a lot of new players to D&D, and as I write this, I’m reflecting on every time I’ve DM’d a game with a new player, and whether or not their experience would have been enhanced by this simple setup. I’ve thankfully never had a game where I’ve turned off someone from TTRPGs (at least to my knowledge), but I do wonder how a new player’s experience could have been deepened if I approached it with these three conditions.
One more time, if a list is easier to visually process, here are the three parameters:
1. Plan for a three hour one-shot session
2. Have everyone build or play 3rd level characters
3. Include all three pillars of play
A Three Hour One-Shot
The bane of most regular D&D games is scheduling. The more people in the party, the more powerful the scheduling demon becomes and the more likely the game will stagnate and end. This is also why I’ve included this suggestion first. If a new player can’t commit to at least a three hour session, then the likelihood they’ll experience any meaningful play is reduced. That being said, I’ve also experienced games that go WAY too long. A six or seven hour session can be brutal to players (depending on their personality), and asking everyone to block out that amount of time can be prohibitive to some individuals based on their life schedule.
So if you’re a DM, plan for a three hour one-shot. Even if your usual group is in the middle of a long running campaign, it’s okay to take a break with a one shot to introduce a new player (especially if they’re friends with your usual play group). Three hours includes enough time to experience the three pillars of play (one pillar per hour) and for the party to have meaningful interactions with itself or the world.
As this is a one-shot, I would plan for the session to resolve itself before its conclusion. Plan a rough beginning, middle, and end, with wiggle room for if things go awry. After all, that’s what D&D is all about.
A 3rd-Level Character
Level 3 has a certain magic to it in 5e’s design (pun intended). Every character class is guaranteed to have a subclass feature by that level, every character has enough hit points to reduce the chances of a one hit KO, and spellcasters have enough spell slots to play with lower level spells and feel the power their class has to offer. Every character class also gets most of their distinctive features by 3rd level, and most have access to their full action economy. It’s a great place to learn and play without the fear of instant death on a wrong choice.
When it comes to creating a new player’s first character, I would sit down and build the character with them. This way, you know what to expect from their character’s features and how you might adjudicate them, rather than being blindsided by a rule you’ve forgotten and potentially taking time away from their first three hour session.
In terms of ability scores, I’m partial to using an ability score array (especially for a new player), and having that boundary with every player participating in the one shot. This way, the new player won’t feel over or underpowered based on sheer luck at character creation. Everyone starts with the same array, evening the playing field.
When it comes to picking race, class, and background, let the new player make the final choice, but remember that you’re there to clarify what those choices are without overwhelming them. Do they want to play an effective archer? Fighter, Ranger, or Rogue can all work. Do they want to be a nature lover that casts healing magic? Druid may be an obvious choice, but there is Nature Cleric if they want it. Do they want to be tough and sturdy? They may be leaning toward a dwarf or half orc for the race, which are different but share sturdiness as their common trait. In any of these cases, a 3rd level character will tap into the power of those choices and get a feel for the unique character they’ve made.
During this stage, I tend to offer choices found in the Player’s Handbook. While the supplementary material in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and so on is fun and interesting, it can be overwhelming to a new player just trying to build a dude that swings an axe. That being said, oftentimes I’ll have excited players that will do their homework and come to me asking about specific material they’re interested in playing.
“I’ve always wanted to play a khajit from Skyrim, and I think a tabaxi monk would be cool!”
Sure! For cases like this, the only other boundary I have is that we’ll stick to official material for this session. No homebrew or Unearthed Arcana allowed, because they may not give a representative experience of play.
The final great point about using 3rd level characters is that each class’s definitive action economy is present. 3rd level Rogues can attack as an action, and then disengage as a Bonus Action. A 3rd level Cleric can cast healing word before using their action to cast sacred flame (but not bless). A 3rd level Barbarian needs to remember to bonus action rage BEFORE going in for their reckless attack. Although they don’t yet have the best or most efficient features a class may offer, a new player will still understand the distinction between the classes much more clearly than with 1st level characters.
Three Pillars Of Play
Dungeons and Dragons is designed to take players through three different kinds of scenarios dubbed by WoTC as the “Three Pillars of Play”. These are Social Interaction, Exploration, and Combat, and gameplay becomes more structured as we move in that order. In order to have a holistic experience with 5e, a new player should experience all three of these pillars in one way or another.
The easiest should be Social Interaction. Whether haggling with a merchant or intimidating a goblin scout, social interaction tends to be less structured than the other two pillars. Sometimes mechanics come into play, such as through Charisma checks or conditions like charmed or frightened, but often times how a social interaction resolves is up to a player’s approach. Dialogue and role-play are the heart of this game for a lot of individuals, and it’s not unusual for a new player to gravitate toward the “talk our way out of this” approach rather than the “stab it until it dies” approach.
The middle ground of structure is Exploration. Now recently I’ve become acquainted with an up-and-coming YouTube channel called Dungeon Coach (you should seriously check him out and subscribe, he’s got some quality content). He described Exploration perfectly, which is as “encounters and puzzles”. Sometimes, this means discovering a new section or quality of an environment. Sometimes this means solving a riddle or putting clues together. There are many players who are enamored with the world building of D&D, and you may find that you have a new player that wants to explore every nook and cranny of the environment you’ve put them in. This curiosity can be well rewarded with new knowledge about the world, their current predicament, or through additional options they take advantage of in combat.
Combat is by far the most structured pillar of play, and time in the game world comes to a screeching halt when the DM cries “Roll for Initiative!” Combat in D&D is handled in rounds and turns, and on each turn each participant in the combat has only a few options they can choose before the next participant’s turn. Teaching a new player what they can and can’t do on their turn can be difficult, especially if you have a veteran group that tries to generate momentum in a fight’s flow.
One suggestion I’ve seen is having a small card describing what a creature can do with its action. It’s also likely that the player will have bonus actions available, which you can give them friendly reminders on (especially if you helped them build their character). I’ve even heard of DM’s giving players check boxes to remind them of when they’ve used certain parts of their turn, like Movement, an Action, Bonus Action, and maybe even a Reaction. You’ll find each player processes the structure of combat differently. Some need visuals, description, or something tactile they can manipulate (like a mini). No matter how they process information, just remember to be patient. They’re a beginner, and how you treat them as such will define your relationship as Player and DM for many games to come.
So now the game is over! The world has been explored, NPCs have been spoken with, and combat has resolved. The 3rd level characters have completed their adventure together, and everyone is packing up to leave.
Following up is just as important to the D&D experience as the set up, and the closer you can do it to the conclusion of the session the better. I’ve always found more specific questions to be more insightful as a DM. For example, asking which part they liked the best, or what their favorite moment was (as opposed to “Was it good?”). I’ll even go so far as to ask which class feature they liked the best, especially if they were a spellcaster that used several different options.
Asking questions like this will reveal a lot about who they are as a person and a player, and it will help clarify which style of game may suit them best. Sometimes, you may not even be the best DM for the job, but if you have a trusting enough network you can recommend someone who is. There have been plenty of times I get a hardcore role-player in one of my games whose looking for a structured epic narrative and I recommend them to Adamus, as my games tend to be on the sillier side (with some notable exceptions).
Sometimes you’ll have a player give a suggestion. My recommendation here is to be the gatekeeper to your own mind. Sometimes, their advice is well meaning but irrelevant. Sometimes their advice can make everyone’s experience more efficient and enjoyable. Some advice I got that I didn’t take was to make every natural 1 more of a disaster, for comedy. I didn’t like how it made me feel being on the receiving end as a player, so I don’t implement that as a DM even if my players are looking for it. If they want it so bad, they can describe something awful when they do roll a natural 1.
If you do take anything away from this theory crafting, what I would ultimately say is to pay attention to how the environment from play impacts your group’s experience. For a new player, these are the environmental conditions I’ve found to creating a fulfilling first session.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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So my wife had to get her eyes dilated at the doctor today. No biggie, everything's fine, but it prompted her to experiment with her vision at a distance and threw on a random film on Netflix. What she picked is called Extraction. A film from 2015 starring Bruce Willis ("starring" is a little generous), Kellan Lutz (from Twilight), and Gina Carano (from so many films now).
And the experience was...irascible.
Context Is Key - What Is Extraction
Extraction is a film from 2015 (not to be confused with the superior Chris Hemsworth film from 2020 of the same name) about a spy (3 weeks from retirement of course) captured by a terrorist organization and how his son, Harry, teams up with an old flame from the CIA, Victoria, to find him. There's a little double cross, a few lazy car chases, some strange choices in cinematography, an entirely misaligned musical score, and a complete misuse in the majority of the cast. ...Especially Carano.
It's one thing to be a disappointing film. There are many that fulfill that category. But this one stuck with me in a deep way - a pain of missed opportunities and a wasted potential for, especially at this point, a well-established actress and powerful presence like Carano.
To understand where I'm going and how this all feeds into the GM's Corner, we need to take a look at a little film called Haywire.
MMA Champion and actress Gina Carano in 2011's Haywire.
Where Haywire (2011) Shines
Haywire is a low-budget action film with tight cinematography, great choreography that feels real, and a raw approach to an otherwise simple story. This is another film featuring trained agents in a military-type scenario and a female agent fighting against those that would entrap or frame her. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is confident, visceral, and wholly satisfying, but there's one scene in particular that illustrates my point the best.
Mallory (Carano) and another character (played by the ever-suave Michael Fassbender) are moving through a hotel acting all cute and newlywed-like as they head back to their room. It's kind of adorable, even. But once the door closes, it's all business. The facade falls, and they're agents on a mission.
Fassbender throws the first punch, knocking Mallory down. The fight is intense, devoid of music, with long takes pushed out so you can see every punch, kick, grapple, and throw in all its glory. You forget immediately that this is a man and woman. These are two highly trained combatants trying their best to incapacitate, and probably, kill each other. At no point in the fight is a punch pulled or mercy given - it is a no-holds-barred drag out display of pure fighting ability. It reveals two extremely important things. 1) Mallory isn't invincible, in this fight and many more to follow. She gets BEAT UP in this movie. 2) Mallory is always capable. She gets knocked down, but gets right back up and adapts to her opponents, terrain, and dozens of other active factors; you can see the turning of the tide over the course of each fight, and it's a turn of skill, not plot armor. She uses her surroundings to startling effect, demonstrating an intelligence in battle and survivability. This is not a character who will let you win just because the script deems it so.
Where Extraction Misses The Opportunity Completely
I can think of two distinct moments where both my wife and I shouted at the screen. The director has fundamentally missed the mark in every possible way when handling the character.
SCENE ONE - Carano isn't allowed to fight
Setup: Victoria takes Harry to an old female friend/contact and they go to a club to locate a perp. The perp is a sleaze in every meaning, so Victoria makes out with her friend to get his attention. Perp calls her over and she convinces him to head to a private room.
Women can show off whatever they like however they wish. Their body, their choice. I'm not complaining about that.
No. I'm complaining about what follows, and it fails on so many levels I got physically angry at my television.
Victoria gets taken back to the penthouse suite in close quarters with their perp, and two other guards. At this point, I expect things to go south, but I'm not worried about her. And I'm not worried because of two things. 1) She's a CIA operative with specialized hand-to-hand combat training. She's been an agent longer than our male protagonist (who isn't an agent yet, has just been training for it). I expect her to handle herself pretty well here, because she should know what she's doing. 2) She's Gina-freaking-Carano, and I've seen her take out a staggering number of people in a wide assortment of mediums. And I'm not trying to typecast here; she's playing someone who can fight - I'm looking forward to the fight.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a tip that there's an assassin on his tail. He corners the guy in a bathroom and Victoria's cover is immediately blown before she can get any info. Victoria starts getting beat on by three men, thrown around the room in shots where you can't see anything, and Harry confronts the assassin in a "martial arts" brawl. This is where the problems start piling up.
We get to see Harry go brawling in a bathroom with an assassin (reminiscent of the superior bathroom brawl featuring Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill from Mission Impossible: Fallout), complete with cracking glass, burst pipes, and drenched fists...juxtaposed with Victoria getting choked and kicked on the floor. In fact, there are long takes of this testosterone-filled fight and then short takes of the female lead getting beat on. No disarming techniques, no creative grapples, no takedowns, no showcase of ANY of Carano's talents. NONE of the things I've come to expect and enjoy with seeing her on screen - she actually looks bored while being beat up.
The tide doesn't turn for her until Harry, the non-operative male protagonist, stops a punch and joins the fight. She had to be rescued by him, and that pisses me right off.
Why is it that female agents always seem to get into these difficult scuffles and need to be rescued, and the males just have to brawl it out? (I have always hated this trope)
And female violence, in many mediums, tends to have an air of femininity to it - in a bad way. Like instead of treating the female combatant as a threat, the violence toward them is pivoted to accentuate their gender somehow. Like they're treated as a "silly girl" and toyed with first, before being a target to be eliminated. They're thrown around, the face is avoided, they're choked and held down; they're somehow a woman first, threat second. Meanwhile, the men get to engage in big physical fights and be the capable combatant.
Even the way it's shot is strange. Harry gets wide angle shots that showcase his physicality, while Victoria gets close shots of her face, her body, and her dress. Do you see the difference yet?
The brawl continues to the dance floor with an awkward cut, and they approach the thugs side by side. Harry gets to punch some more, and FINALLY Victoria kicks someone (but she's fighting in a dress that doesn't allow a lot of movement - a fact that the CHARACTER directly opposed in dialogue, but was shut down), then gets grabbed from behind at gunpoint.
Now about this fool with the gun. He doesn't keep it on her; no, he waves the thing around like an idiot. I'm not a MMA fighter, but I do practice martial arts enough to see specific beats where a disarm can happen, and AGAIN, I was waiting for Carano - who is way more skilled than I will ever be (and a combat-trained agent would be) - to take one of those beats and wreck this fool. She never does. And it looks like she wants to.
In fact, Carano looks really uncomfortable in most of these scenes. Like, somehow, this state is very "unnatural" for her (he writes, knowingly staring into the Void). She stands there like a petrified flower in a cocktail dress - scared and confused. She is then dragged off and into a car, where she proceeds to do very little to change her circumstances other than alert Harry how to follow them (still smart, just not "physically capable").
Why am I mad?
Harry's not an agent. He's a man. Victoria IS an agent. She is a woman. Harry is free to play hero, Victoria is dragged off like a damsel, and NOT ONCE tries to fix that problem with her combat skills. Critic says: But she was stuffed in a car, Adamus, what is she supposed to do? Answer: the male protagonist was also stuffed into a car with four armed guards earlier in the film...and he fought his way out. Why can't she - the trained and tested operative with two guards? Their frame and role in the story is defined by their gender, not their skill set. How refreshing would it have been if not only had Victoria held her own (a fact that runs in line with her skill set), and Harry brawled his way through, but his lack of training gets him caught? OR both get to shine with both of their styles, but the INTELLIGENT villain outsmarts them by undermining their flaws, instead of victory being a contrivance?
There's a better story here, and Carano can tell it. Instead, she's sidelined for Lutz to shine, if for no other reason than "he's the main character." Hollywood. Stop writing people as bad at the job they're supposed to be good at just so the main character can be better. Write them all as good at their job, and elevate the stakes to match them. That's how you make memorable stories (another deep breath).
Scene Two - Why is Victoria even here?
After getting punched once in the car and therefore knocked out (with no bruise to tarnish her face), Victoria is strung up with ONE hand tied to a pipe. One. And she's standing on the ground with both feet. In a large, empty room (prime real estate for a good ole' fashioned fight scene).
Carano is a built individual; her physical prowess is poised for display. I have seen her hoist herself up EASILY with one arm; the lady has body control, excellent strength and power, and a keen understanding of leverage and choke holds. So I'm still holding on to hope that I'm going to see something cool.
She is unconscious for the majority of the last Act. When she does come to, she's alone in the room, and it cuts back to Lutz being stupid. By now I expect it to cut back to her breaking free, but no, she just hangs out some more. When a guard arrives, she instead uses her feminine wiles to "seduce" him to come closer to her (why does this EVER work in film?), and THEN does a decent take-down and breaks free (which she could have done before, and already have re-entered the story). I AM glad she got herself out, no rescuing here...however, as a director, this dude did NOT understand what Carano is capable of. She can do so much more than what she was directed to do.
And when she DOES fight someone...it's a nameless thug (not the jerk that knocked her out - no, that guy fights a different thug; great, a brawl between two people we don't know or care about). This "fight" is done in badly lit shots, with weird cuts, and strange close-ups, so you never get to SEE her fight. She can fight. Let her fight!
What This Has To Do With Tabletop RPGs
Surely, my rant can continue for many pages more, but I assure you I had a point, and it is rooted in this idea:
If you want to play a damsel - a fainting flower who danes to be rescued and won like a prize - go for it.
If you want to play a warrior - someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat and who revels in the ring - go for it.
If you're a dude and you want to play a gal, have at it.
If you're a lady and you want to play the meanest boy in town, more power to you.
If you want to play a gender-fluid wood elf sharpshooter, be my guest.
And, as your Director...I mean, GM...I will NEVER adjust your role in the game based on your GENDER. Women can be warriors, men can be damsels, and heroes (and villains) come in all shapes and sizes.
And it is my job to give you opportunities to shine and show off. If you have cultivated your character to be a serious, half-orc grappler, then I will make sure that you have opportunities to GRAPPLE. I WANT you to show off. I WANT you to succeed in your concept.
That doesn't mean you auto-win a scenario, but if you've built someone who should naturally be good at this skill, then I'm going to cultivate scenarios that allow you to show yourself to be good at your skill. I need to give you the wide angle shots, pass you the patience to show (don't tell), and watch you turn the tide as a warrior who reassesses her situation and adapts to new data.
Because that's what fighting is.
And if you built a sharpshooter, then I better damn well make sure you have some opportunities to shoot stuff. If you built a fainting noble, then by golly I'll make sure you have opportunities to react in kind! Whatever your slice of fun, whatever your build, whatever your core concept, it is a GM's duty to provide you with a time and possibility to BE that thing.
This isn't to say there won't be moments of challenge, nor will I spell it out for you in meticulous detail what is possible, but all of this ties discretely into our REST model.
I will Respect your character concept as it aligns with the setting, and I will Respect your Gender in whatever form it takes. I will practice Empathy in your vision as you embark on this journey. I will seek to provide Satisfying encounters where you can shine and show off. And I will build Trust through these encounters, even as they change and evolve.
You are all Gina Carano.
I will let you fight.
See you at the table.
So Gray Owls Team 2 (dubbed Team Bug) recently had their Chapter 18 session...and it was a little weird.
First, some build up.
For those uninitiated, Gray Owls is a dark fantasy electric-punk D&D campaign that I've been running professionally for about 3 years now. It is a game of secrets, shadows, and danger. The magical weave is broken, and magic is wild again. Throughout all the intrigue, however, there is always the looming threat in the North. Hordes of swarming beasts from the shattered Shadowfell (yep, obliterated) called The Brood. After 14 Chapters of huge groups parties and split goals, it became apparent to run two smaller groups instead. A group to fight "the bugs," (Team Bug, the main subject of this post) and another to rebuild the Worldtree, and deal with threats within the city (Team Tree).
Chapter 15, the first mission on their own, was some of the best D&D I've run, and it was dark, gritty monster action. And in a campaign where the majority of threats have been the machinations of other people (monsters in different ways), this was a welcome change of pace. Chapters 16 and 17 had some huge story thread reveals and plot hole filling, permanently adjusting the trajectory of this group. The focus shifted from "killing the bugs", to reaping vengeance upon the "grand orchestrator" behind it all, probably preventing future cataclysm and saving more lives.
But Chapter 18 felt...halted. In the grand scheme of things, we didn't DO a lot. There was a fair amount of little reveals, setups, unexpected twists (but minor on the action), and then they met a guy. Now, I really, really dislike looking at sessions like this, because it skips over any sense of depth while you're in the moment and tends to discount the little things that can really add up. HOWEVER, what it did reveal was a lack of momentum. You can have sessions where not a lot happened, but there was enough momentum/release/satisfaction that it FELT like you accomplished a lot...because you did!
Social development is still development, and combat and exploration still play a role. In truth, though, it doesn't matter which pillar you're in; each can be momentous and satisfying in its own way, which, in turn, also means that each can lose momentum. This was a curious case of achieving a set out goal...and then not knowing what to do next. Now, I try to get homework from players about what they're planning for next time so I can better align to their story, but I admit to missing that beat this time around. And, upon really thinking about it, I used to ask this question with the players in this team before, and would get minimal response or direction...so I stopped. When, in actuality, this was the BEST time to bring it up. We're approaching the end game, and though that final set piece is ready to go, GETTING THERE isn't. I THOUGHT that we were aware of more of our available resources, that we had built up momentum and expectations, but in reality...I'm exhausted. I'm overwhelmed with trying to build a satisfying experience, barely sleeping, trying to balance my life and my liberties and my activism and my creativity, all while believing in my soul that I'm just letting everyone down.
This seeming lack of direction, my exhaustion with running games, a missing player, and then, to top it all off, new perceptions from long-time players about the tone of the campaign and its direction...threw me right off. Even though folks report to having a good time, I was not pleased with myself. I've run better sessions, and I was sub-par to my own standards, pushing a combat when I felt I was losing them - even though it wasn't quite appropriate. But there's so much more to consider here beyond beating myself up.
Taking A Step Further Back
The perceptions of one or two players won't paint the whole truth, and can change game to game.
Many of us are creatures of generalization, a failing in our culture. Some players with this chip could have 19 sessions of great interplay, storytelling, and voiced extensive satisfaction...then have a difficult time at session 20, and color their entire perception of the game. They'll boast that they never enjoyed themselves, it was ALWAYS terrible, they never get the spotlight. ...Then return for session 21, see how 20 fit into it all, and now 21 - and the entire campaign, of course - is brilliant again and they're satisfied.
Some players view their story instant by instant, while others see it as an evolving thread. The former gets the most they can out of each session, while the latter views the full campaign with a patient lens. Every player can enter either state over the course of a campaign, sometimes instant to instant if they're introspective enough. Neither is good or bad, they're just paradigms, and often we don't see the external influences in our play - a bad week, a rough night, something that was said that's affecting us in big ways. We'd like to say we keep our playing separated, but humans are complicated, and sometimes the lines blur.
And I can be my own worst enemy. This post alone has taken some time, and while writing these words I have just reinstated my meditation regimen with a dose of primal therapy, and I feel a lot better than when I started this draft a week ago. My point is that time plays a factor here, and those that have freed themselves to think and change benefit from its existence. I needed time to process an experience with clarity and patience so I would stop beating myself up about it. It's alright to take a moment. It's alright to step back. And it's definitely alright to consider the other sides, even if you end up keeping your original belief.
In moving through this and moving forward, there was a lot to unpack.
We're Building Toward Something
...not just tying up loose ends.
Everyone is moving simultaneously. These aren't video game NPCs. These are faction leaders, detectives, bounty hunters...all with their own goals and schemes. If the players are moving, they're moving too.
The lack of information plays a role, too. The players don't know everything, nor should they, but they need to know enough to act. And what they know and choose to act on can be completely different. The players decide through their questions and actions what is important to focus on. This doesn't mean the other content stops moving, it just doesn't need to be broadcast.
There was a point in each team where the focus shifted away from reacting to dangers and proactively, as a group, making their own plans. A new surge of purpose; utilizing resources, information gathered, and connections they've built up to make much more informed decisions. That change in agency fundamentally changes the course of a campaign, and can act as a release of tension - the point when the characters rise above or past the restrictions of lower class or lower levels. They clarified what they needed to fight for.
This was Chapter 12 for the Gray Owls. After 11 chapters of keeping secrets and distrusting one another, we had a whole 8-hour session of satisfying role-playing and putting everything on the table, identifying a target - a clear villain to crush - and coming together as a team. Discussing with many of my players, this became the theoretical beginning of Phase II in the grand story. Which shifts the tone naturally. But there may be other factors that push the lens in unexpected ways.
We all remember the first "Iron Man," but it can be hard to look at that film now without the grand timeline of the remaining MCU. And I'm no Marvel storyteller, but many DMs try to interweave and setup hooks with satisfying payoffs, only possible after their players experience the initial setup. What I'm getting at here is that the story is not over. Each session, or Chapter in this case, is a singular event - yes - but it is ALSO one piece of a much larger thread. The same way that our Chapters 3 and 8 - on their own, arguably two of my weakest sessions - only gained traction and value when sewn into the fabrics of Chapters 4 and 9, and beyond. And unlike a film, with pre-written dialogue and directions, the players and DM heavily influence the trajectory of this story.
We must also consider the immediacy of this timeline. Gray Owls functions differently than my broader audience Knight Owls. The latter takes place over a year of time, with episodes often weeks apart in game time, while the former...picks up immediately where they left off, give or take a few hours. Meeting monthly makes the timeline feel a little wonky, (something I address below in the last section) but it's valuable to recognize that all of these crazy events are taking place over the course of a month so far. Meaning, the impressions of certain organizations, big players in the mix, sweeping counter moves by factions seizing power...are all very quick and decisive. This isn't normal. Before was normal, we are now in the Aftermath. Which also means, undoubtedly, there will be a response to this chaos to help restore order...because that's how governments work.
The information of their actions and consequences may paint a curious picture when compared to the expanded lens of the DM, too. I might see dark machinations brewing, but if the player lens doesn't look for it, it doesn't exist. Lately I've been practicing being more liberal in dripping content to players during sessions, predominantly through the Whisper Function on Roll20 - both as an engagement and as a reward for their perceptions. These additional records aid the players in piecing together the cloaks and daggers, but there's much more that can be done.
Owning The Change
As I reflect on Gray Owls, there's a lot to commend. The world built, the course of the players and their characters, the freeing of deep roleplaying, and the overall tone - dark and dangerous. But something happened along the way, and I'd be remised if I didn't reflect on these observations and think critically on how they may have manifested. The following comments or questions have come from players as they have observed the campaign as a whole.
"Is magic broken or not?"
This one irks me a bit. Yes. It has been demonstrated as such; many spells do not behave as intended, some in cataclysmic ways - this fact has never changed. This discourages magic usage, AND, depending on your socio-economic class, can get you taken by the Vertigo Caste (the world's secret police). This was demonstrated in Chapter 1.
HOWEVER, and this is where trajectory and party composition plays a role, some players haven't seen much of those consequences. In Chapter 2, the party traded two characters out (one would return later, and the cast would continue to rotate, complicating matters and perspectives) for two characters from the noble houses that rule the city. As established and discussed in Session 0, the rich have access to magic in ways the rest of the city doesn't, and we got to witness the immensely wide gap between the noble houses and the lower terraces of Stormwrack. For the urchins and wanted of the group, this was a safe haven for the first time in their lives, and would become a huge motivator in maintaining that sanction and safety. In fact, an entire session was devoted to changing their "ownership" from one member of the house to another, so that they could stay for a few more days. This "headquarters", though, was not my original intention. Gray Owls was supposed to feel grittier - scraping by on the will of their wits and cut of their blade (reinforcement for campaign 2). But this became a main focus from the party. Something sought after enough that it shifted the campaign's focus. ...But that doesn't mean that magic isn't still a problem for everyone else.
In fact, on numerous occasions, the party has witnessed the consequences of casting magic in the open, even if the players failed to take note of it. Characters they've interacted with are now missing. In fact, people continue to disappear every day. Just because the players are in their high towers, safe from that scrutiny, doesn't mean it isn't still happening. But again, the player lens is the view of the campaign. I can TELL them it's happening, or I can SHOW them.
Lesson For Self: More Show, Less Tell.
Next to ponder - how to show if they aren't looking. ;)
"Just how bad is the Brood anyway?"
In the first campaign of Gray Owls, dubbed Book 1, there has been the looming threat of The Brood in the North. With all the cloak and dagger politics of the main city, we only hear about these devastating creatures through trickling news reels and shreds of propaganda here and there. It is known among most people that these "bug-like" creatures move in accordance with a Queen, and are very difficult to kill - for this reason, the city produces through one of its noble houses an elite line of nigh-immortal warrior shapeshifters called Broodhunters. These hunters come from the Ironwood Family, one of the ruling families of the high court and people with little tolerance for the BS found among other nobles - it wins them respect from the people.
The Brood were intended to be mysterious. In fact, there was a chance early campaign that we would never have encountered them. But then a player made a character from the North - so now there's a vendetta arc - and in maintaining that noble protection, they aligned themselves with the Ironwoods almost without question. Soon, more and more decisions became influenced by that looming threat, until the invariable beginning of Phase III with the party splitting up core objectives. One stays in the city, and the other heads North to fight the Brood.
What we discover, though, is two-fold.
1) The Brood is coordinated, making moves as strike points, not occupations. They aren't behaving like a swarm suddenly. Someone is controlling them. Most recently revealed: one of the three airship captains of the city is calling them somehow, becoming the Orchestrator of not only that player-character's tribe nearly getting wiped out, but responsible for hundreds if not thousands of other deaths.
2) The other creatures of the North have been corrupted by the Brood's presence. Though not under the same control, a rising "infection" in the North continues to spread from even the shadows of a Brood.
This second fact - by the way - has only been hinted at. It was something I forgot about until I consolidated my notes and went back to the cave for deep prep. That affliction might have further cemented the danger of the Brood, even if they're being manipulated. That's an oops for me.
"Choices used to have tragic consequences."
I would argue that they still do. I have been trying to strike a better balance between appropriate danger to power level, erring on the side of danger *most* of the time. However, Team Bug's players try to be monster slaying heroes - which isn't really what the campaign was built for initially - and I DO want to give them some measure of that success. And harder choices are coming...we're just in a low point. This is also where we have to consider player lens and DM lens - I know what's coming and how certain choices have sent ripples in terrible, delicious directions. The players won't see that immediately - nor should they. Yet, I can still think on and plan for ways to show this still to be true. To show glimpses of it through the player POV.
The other variable to consider is the other Team in the city. A common sentiment among the players - happily, by the way - is that although they are high level, they don't always feel as powerful as their character sheet says. This was a consistent tone. You might know some cool spells and have great hit points, but you may still lack the resources of your enemy. Your level and features can be potentially powerful, but you also need to gather information and plan your attack. Play smarter, not harder.
Somewhere along the way, that vulnerability left Team Bug. The moment they left the intimacy of the city, something shifted in the dynamic. They stopped being in danger, and started becoming superheroes. And, to them, their choices stopped mattering. In a way, they lost their sense of mortality. I will seek to get it back.
"The structure of the session has changed."
I agree. And that's on me. The mission doesn't seem clear anymore, despite everything put in place. Chapter to Chapter, session to session, I've had a much harder time keeping everything straight, even with my notes sitting under my nose. The pressure of it all became too much, and I started making missteps in preparation and presentation. This is where I see the most introspective growth and planning moving forward. I am thankful for the observations surrounding this point in particular, and welcome the focus it brings to the table.
And these observations shouldn't be taken as a twisting of the knife.
I'm pretty damn good at what I do, which means anything voiced at this point is actually minor in the long haul, AND if I can pivot and correct THOSE, how much more elevated will all of this be? But in exploring this path, I "unearthed" something painful. If you'll entertain me the tangent, I'd like to share a perspective with you.
Abundance Over Scarcity
It isn't something I talk about much, but my greatest fear is theft. I've had credit card numbers stolen, bank accounts hacked, and my car broken into. I make sure to be as safe as possible when web browsing and using my information. And still it's happened. Multiple times. It's almost like a running joke now.
Every time it happened it was smaller, but it didn't hurt any less. And when you try to live your life honestly and do right by others, it hurts so much to know that to someone else...you're just a credit card number. The kind of person that thinks that way...I have very extreme responses to. They hurt me in deep, personal ways that I can only begin to describe and it would be silly of me not to acknowledge that I still seek vengeance and justice over those wrongs, only to be told that the "crime is too small to pursue." That if I ever met one of these garbage humans that robbed me of my livelihood and thought it was no big deal...I want to hurt them. I want them to understand the pain that they put me through and how they invaded my life; shattered my sense of self security. I know that's a visceral reaction. And I know it pales in comparison to the events and perspectives of today, but it does not invalidate how wrong this act was, and how unsatisfying that lack of justice was. My pain didn't matter. That invasion of my soul wasn't valid. And that erosion of humanity wasn't important enough to seek retribution.
Last Christmas was the first year where something like that hadn't happened, and it was a bittersweet feeling. Like somehow that curse had finally skipped me, at least temporarily, but it has been such a stain that now it just looms. Forever in the background. So that in my moments of weakness, when I am in a state less than my best, I can have challenging "knee-jerk" reactions to certain stimuli - like other GMs finding success where I struggled. It is rooted in fear, and stoked by envy.
I am not a perfect human.
And though I do a decent job of mitigating those defense mechanisms before they come out in real life, they are still there and I still deal with them. It is getting better, and I've thought more and more about why. There are really two ways I can approach a few recent events. Through Scarcity and Fear - a belief that we are all competing in our various lanes, threads, and niches for the same acclamation and clientele, there only being room for one at the top of this pedestal. OR. Through Abundance and Community - recognition that we all benefit from the accomplishments and accolades of each other in our individual and shared threads, and that their successes augment our own. There is plenty of room for all of us to lead, follow, create, and thrive.
For some real life examples:
Seeing a fellow GM record sessions and rewrite them as stories, and receive wonderful accolades for that.
Scarcity: Well, I did that with the Knight Owls archive and people complained about "required reading"! How come when he does it, it's the best thing ever?
Abundance: I have my style and he has his. We're both growing and learning from each other's journeys. Everyone has a different presentation, and maybe I can learn something from his success to help breathe new life into my own Adventure Archive. Good for him, and both still have value.
Opening up the GM's Corner to include other perspectives.
Scarcity: It's my blog and I want my content to be featured! What if they become more popular than me? What if they produce more than me when I get really busy?
Abundance: It is still my blog, and it's always been our mission to continue to grow through other perspectives. A rising tide lifts all ships. And how beautiful would it be if for every voice we raise up, another player comes to love this game and the value it can add to their lives. This is a yes/and, and it can only make the site and its mission stronger.
Receiving kind, constructive feedback for your cool campaign.
Scarcity: I ruined the game for them and I don't know how to recover...
Abundance: Every session we run is a rep. Instead think on how you can pivot to make the next one better, because there will be a next one. Also, taking space to recharge is not giving up; you haven't failed anyone, you're just growing.
And I still feel those pangs of protective guards rising up around the things I built or pioneered in my little circles, but part of our development as human beings is to become awake to those elements, and open yourself to the hard work of self-improvement. It is one thing to acknowledge our lack of skill in an area and do nothing about it - or at worse, look for collective affirmation in our ineptitude - and to pursue consistent growth. ESPECIALLY in our current social and economic climate, a Growth Mindset will be the key skill every human must cultivate entering the new age.
A partially finished map of the Ionian Shadowfell, Illcrest Region - Adamus Drake
Taking July To Revisit Phase III, and Prepare The Next Campaign
I'm taking my space for the month of July on running big games. I've been running games almost non-stop for 3 years now. I need some time to get my head right, and, to take a page from one of my fellow GMs, to "go back in the cave." I want to do my deep prep in these worlds I've built, instead of feeling like I MUST keep going or everything will fall apart.
And when I return, we'll have the best close to a campaign yet and a fine start to the next.
To aid in this, I want to produce a few items. These will help EVERYONE in immersion, memory, agency, and direction. They'll also help me tremendously in my development as a GM as I upgrade my consistency, world-building, and custom content (I keep pretty good books for myself, but I need to expand what my players have access to).
And in case it wasn't clear, this is for every campaign moving forward. That's the goal, and I need time to go deep.
A GLOSSARY OF PLACES, PEOPLE, AND TERMS
It keeps coming up in conversation. A glossary helps more than a summary. The players need to know who's who between and during play, and an active document that has this available to everyone at every session is a "no duh" to me for a cloak and dagger campaign. I have one for myself every session, it's just wicked messy. It's actually painful that it's taken me this long to compile what I have. Time to clean it all up, and get back to basics. I can add and subtract things from the "living document" as players discover things - which is also neat - and that way there's no worry of revealing secrets too early. This has the added bonus of never requiring notes; there are still players that do that and love it, and still will, but in this case redundancy is fine. And! If I misspoke or messed up a term, I can fix that in the running doc. It ensures that everyone has the same access to information, and removes our initial resistance to immersion.
CHAPTERS AS STORIES or CHAPTERS AS RECAP
This one I'm on the fence about, because our shift to Roll20 changed how we consumed and ran the campaign for both groups. Some form of recap, either as fiction or summary, is definitely needed, but I need to experiment with what is going to be A) Efficient and B) Creatively freeing. Before quarantine mode, I recorded the audio of my various games for study and internal consistency, and when I did that I would AT LEAST try to recap Knight Owls sessions here and there. However, the process was insane. I'd have to comb through meticulously 6-9 hours of audio every time, and it just wasn't conducive to a consistent workflow. If I follow it like a fiction, it might be freeing enough to provide a more energizing experience for myself, my readers, and my players, both current and future.
I have gone all-in on a map-making software subscription and am designing professional maps for ALL of my campaigns. It's a blast. Again, how nice would it be if you actually knew WHERE you were beyond a few sketches.
For a time there, I was producing 1-3 short stories a month. Then it became 0-1. Then 1 every two months. I had originally planned for 60 entries by Chapter 19, and I'm sitting at 30 at the moment.
Writing the fiction grounds the world in my own head. Remember how I mentioned that the NPCs are always moving? That's the fiction sometimes. Other times, it's just lore; stories and news written by other creatures in the setting. It allows me to shift focus momentarily elsewhere as an act of immersion, and it's fun for me! So I'm going to go have some fun, and help set the stage for a climactic close for those reading along with the snippets. :)
And looking at some of these, I can already see some other GMs shaking their head going "why didn't you have these at the start?" And to that I meet you with:
Scarcity: ...Mean things to tell myself about missed opportunities...
Abundance: Players have consistently returned to my table for the last five years for a good reason. I am good at what I do. And now I'll be even better.
See you at the table.
Get ready to rock.
PS: Feywild and Shadowfell campaigns will continue through July, but on a more limited schedule.
Foreword: Apprentice Ian has been hard at work developing a successful Curse of Strahd campaign...between two groups. Now, it would always work out that one group (meeting monthly) would take place before the other (meeting weekly), allowing the DM to take the lessons learned from the first group and apply them with great success with the second. This is the lesson of practice and learning from the feedback you receive through play to make satisfying encounters. His main struggle here is trying to re-apply the successful lessons from the second group to the first, so that both tables have satisfying sessions.
Originally Transcribed on 5/12/20
As a new DM, one of my greatest goals is to create an engaging and satisfying story for both myself and my Players to enjoy. In my eyes, the ultimate goal of a game like Dungeons & Dragons is to have fun with your friends. And so, when a social encounter I’ve set up falls a little flat, for either of us, it feels disappointing. Now, it’s important to take this with a grain of salt - even the most experienced DMs will go through this, and it’s not the end of the campaign just because your goblin merchant doesn’t quite harmonize with the Party. These things happen.
But it’s not what this entry is about.
I am in a fortunate position as a new DM: I am able to take what is essentially the same encounter, and present it to two groups, one after the other. Because of this, I am able to learn from any missteps I make, and enhance the things that went well. However, I want to take even the lessons I learn from the second chance, and apply them to the future scenarios I set up for the first group. And so, I have found myself asking a few questions.
What are the goals of my PCs, and of the Party in general? This is important to understand, because each session should feel as though the Party has in some way furthered their goals in the campaign. Whether this means defeating an ancient dragon, removing a political figure from power, or seeking revenge against a Big Bad Guy, the encounter must somehow relate to that goal.
What are the goals of my NPCs, and what knowledge do they hold? When I begin to plan my encounter, one of the top things in my mind is to create an interesting NPC with depth of character. This means that the character will have their own motives, which may not be aligned with the Party’s. The answer to this question which shapes the dynamic of the conversation, and determines whether the NPC can be considered antagonistic or protagonistic in the eyes of the Party.
Finally, how do I best reward the Party for their time invested in the encounter? This is honestly one of the things that concerns me most. An encounter that does not have a significant impact on the Party is meaningless, and a waste of time. The Party members are making an investment each time they interact with an NPC, so it’s important that they feel like it changed their perception of the world, helped them further their goals, or fleshed out the setting overall. For example, learning the location of a magical artifact, understanding the motives of a powerful enemy, or making a crucial ally who will provide safe harbor from the city guard.
These are not all of the questions one could ask when creating a rewarding and satisfying encounter, but they are effective at enhancing a DM’s creative faculties. They touch on key points that will bring your interactions to life - even when improvising the lines. I am confident that this lesson will prove invaluable in all of my campaigns, and I hope it will help you as well.
Good luck on your journeys.
Foreword: Every person trying their hand at running a tabletop scenario runs into the realm of creative bursts, circumstantial rulings, and an overall desire to put spins on the game world. Though these moments are what breathe life into the table for me, they blossom from a strong understanding of the core rules first. I'll often tell my music students, "Walk with me now, so you can run later." Learn the rules, so you can bend and break them later at appropriate times, and it's amazing how freeing it can be to just...master the rules of the game first. Your players will also be stronger moving from table to table, and the more tables they can be equipped for, the better. :)
Originally Transcribed on 5/5/2020
Besides the official material printed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, there are veritable terabytes of information out there in the shape of online forums and posts discussing helpful tips to becoming an effective DM. Immersing oneself into the vast expanse of resources, tools and video-blogs can often be overwhelming, however, and so I find myself forced to turn away from the immense forest that is D&D and start with a single, tall oak tree: the Rules As Written.
Many people come into Dungeons & Dragons with a sense of inspiration and wonder, excited to be able to tell any story they want in this unique game. All campaigns have the goal of creating a satisfying story for both Players and DM. However, it can be easy to let this unbridled creativity get away from us during play. This is why it is important for new DM’s to mediate and regulate the mechanics of the story through the Rules as Written in order to bring out the best in their Players.
This is especially true for a table with new Players. I run a home campaign in the Tyranny of Dragons setting, and four of my five Players have no experience with D&D whatsoever. If I were to introduce special homebrew rules, such as drinking a Healing Potion as a bonus action, then I would be setting them up for confusion should they eventually crack open the Player’s Handbook to learn more. Or, if a Player has already done their homework before attending the session, the confusion could bog down gameplay and change the dynamic between Player and DM.
Generally speaking, one can look at the game of D&D as a blank canvas, and the Rules as Written as the pencil. When learning to paint, you must first learn to draw, and so you use the pencil to learn the essentials: lining, shading, perspective, and more. Once this has been mastered, you begin to introduce new elements to the game to increase satisfaction and fun. When starting out as a new DM, there are so many other lessons to learn - it’s unnecessary to worry about homebrew at this stage. But don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to discuss that in a later entry.
Good luck on your journeys.
It's been a tough ride while in quarantine.
I've moved my side professions exclusively online, my main profession followed (hello distance learning model), and there is a difficult lack of separation between work and home. With everything so close, and no overt way to escape effectively, little things become big things and minor difficulties weigh heavy on our psyche.
This week was a rough one for me, and even rougher for my lady. It marked one of the few times she came in and asked me to mix her a drink.
Now, we're not alcoholic people. In fact, with our combined digestive problems, our liquor consumption is a delicate beast rarely visited, so the majority of my academic study of palette and liquor is for the consumption led by OTHER PEOPLE and THEIR taste buds.
WE consume things with a simpler approach - less ingredients means less chance for contamination, and when we find a mix we like and can trust, we stick with it. Disaronno and Coca-Cola is a great example; it's trustworthy and feels good, and won't hurt us. Beer? Disease. Most ciders? Pain incarnate. The whole majority of wine? Just...why bother?
But if I can expand our palette just a bit with a few simple ingredients from my cabinet, then we're in business for something special, and just because we have restrictions doesn't mean we can't help take the edge off during those rare moments where it could really help. So what follows is a trio of simple mixes that we have used to help with the hard weeks (consumed responsibly, of course) of the past, present, and future.
Easy does it.
This one's a simple shot. Smooth and hidden.
1/2 ounce Fireball Whisky
1 ounce Root Beer liqueur
Personally I go a little less Fireball, a little more Root Beer, but sometimes I swing toward equal parts, or rebalance the complete other direction. Due to my sensitivity around anything spicy, anytime I try this shot it's chased immediately by a full glass of water (keeps me from coughing, and keeps the burn down). This way I don't sacrifice the warmth in my bones for the doom of my esophagus. :)
This one and the next are adapted margarita mixes (a favorite of my lady), and thus will use Tequila as their bases. I recommend Gold Tequila, rather than Silver, if you have a choice. If not, don't worry about it.
1.5 Oz Tequila
3/4 Oz. Blue Curacao
2 Oz. Pineapple Juice
(mix up, and pour into a glass)
Fill the rest with Ginger Ale
It's a neat little drink, smoothed out by the Ginger. No Ginger Ale? Sprite will do, but you'll change the palette a little.
Yes, yes, I know it looks like a Tequila Sunrise, and it basically is with a slight twist.
1.5 Oz. Tequila
1 Oz. Triple Sec
1.5-3 Oz. Orange Juice
1/2 Oz. Sour Mix
1 Oz. Grenadine
So this is the most complicated in the sense that it has five ingredients, then Crushed Ice that you pour this over, but that ice and the extra Orange Juice is precisely what you'll need to spread this palette out to something you can sip by the pool, or on the porch, or chug in the kitchen. ;)
And as tasty as these are, alcoholism is a thing. Please be responsible whenever you consume alcoholic beverages.
I am not a bartender, just a modern Bard, and my experiences and studies are the information I draw on.
These are strange, difficult times for many people and there's a big difference between taking the edge off and turning things into dangerous habits.
Be kind to yourself and others, and remember to extend a little compassion to your soul.
I'll see you at the table soon.
With the advent of offering a mentorship program for aspiring Game Masters, I have taken two under my wing recently. They have contrasting skills and styles, and it is an absolute honor to share tables with them as we all continue to grow and become better communicators, storytellers, and world-builders. One of them, Ian, took it upon himself to jot down his reflections here and there during the process, and with his permission, every now and then I'll share them with you all. We'll call this segment topic: Notes From The Apprentice. Enjoy!
Originally Transcribed on 4/7/2020
Hello, everyone! My name is Ian Ohlsson, and I am the current test-pilot for the Dungeon Master Apprenticeship Program created by Adamus Drake Productions. A short background on me: I am currently a college student, studying as a Biology major and pursuing a degree that will lead me to a fulfilling job in the medical field. I have experience in creative writing and storytelling, and I am absolutely infatuated with this wonderful game of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as all of the creativity it inspires in the people around me. I am looking forward to getting to know each other further over the course of these Entries, where I will share with you the lessons I’ve learned about how to become a skillful DM from my mentor, Adamus Drake.
Today, I would like to discuss something that I was forced to acknowledge early on: when I get excited about a particular topic, especially during conversations with friends, it can be easy for me to turn off my inner filter and barrage my comrades with a stream of consciousness. As you can imagine, this lack of control over my speech can be a detrimental factor as a DM, where I am guiding my Players through a world of floating plot hooks and narrative descriptions. And so, the first lesson I learned on my journey to becoming a great Dungeon Master was the lesson of clarity; the ability to say more with less, and having confidence that the information I’ve provided is sufficient. It is important, my friends, to place value in the words you choose. In a more scientific context, we increase the quality of our words in place of quantity.
Now, this might sound restrictive to the creative flow that is crucial for being a DM, and counterintuitive considering how many 2000-word papers many of us have written during our youth. But in fact, it instills a sense of freedom in the speaker - no more will you find yourself compelled to defend your statements, or accidentally reveal secret narrative points, or fill the air with just sound for its own sake. With clarity comes the confidence to trust in your skills as an aspiring DM. Once you take this step, the wonderful world of this game will open up to you, and you will be able to harness the inspiration it fills you with.
Thank you very much for reading, and I hope this Entry has helped you on your own path. I am looking forward to continuing these posts weekly, and discussing more about how we can become our best selves through gaming.
Good luck on your journeys,
Sometimes I'll have a character concept in mind and I will commence scouring the internet for something that fits said image, at least enough to be representative. Then, while searching for such an image, I'll stumble across something else entirely, and it sends my mind aflutter with ideas, backstories, voice, and an in-depth concept. It was in one of these particular moments that I stumbled across this particular image.
Alluring, I know. But also completely badass. And that's what got my mind running.
See, at the time, the players were visiting the sister city to Stormwrack (where they've spent nearly a year of play time - about 3 weeks in game time), called Feathertongue. Feathertongue is a high art, high class society. Low crime, pleasant areas, knowledge and art celebrated. It became a running joke in the city that platinum was like their gold here, and they weren't wrong.
So where does this woman fit in? How does one get to such a point where you're that comfortable, and also extremely capable and dangerous. I got to thinking what this person's story could be.
- Slates -
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