World-building. It’s a term that you’ll hear in a variety of contexts including literature, cinema, television series, video games, and our usual focus, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of Dungeon Masters became Dungeon Masters because of the creative control they have over their own world, and a lot of players come to Dungeons and Dragons to relax into an immersive experience that combines the intricacies of careful craftsmanship and the thrill of spontaneous play. It’s a space that not only allows us to momentarily escape the troubles of our real lives, but also empowers us to confront those same troubles in a practiced and graceful way. That being said, if mishandled, worldbuilding can also be confusing, exclusionary, and at its worst prohibitive to a player’s enjoyment of a D&D experience.
Now I will be the last person to downplay the value of worldbuilding when crafting an immersive experience, but the prep work alone doesn’t contribute to immersion. Immersion is all about the delivery of intricate information you as the Dungeon Master have spent time carefully crafting, and when mishandled this can have a variety of less than ideal outcomes. Reserve too much information and it's easier for the players to resist immersing themselves in your vision. Ramble too much where the players don’t have the chance to make choices and interact, and they get bored. So what’s the solution?
In my experience, it all comes down to frequent and honest communication. Some players will be more interested in the world than others. Some players will have extremely detailed backgrounds while others are fine creating characters they learn about as they go. So let’s create a space where everyone wins, including you, the world-builder.
Let Your Players Create Too
Now I will admit, my world building is nothing exceptional. I have little interest and skill in crafting highly specific settings with complex layers of intrigue and novel ideas that keep my players guessing. Most of my interesting world-building concepts are rearranged ideas from other sources (but then again, isn’t all art?). So this is a little tip that has gone a long way for me.
My players often create locations, home towns, and points of interest in their back stories that become focal points for a campaign. For example, in my latest game, I had a player create a town next to a forest of fairies. Boom. In the game. This is probably the most direct way that a player can be included in the world-building process, and it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your boundaries for creating your world. If that player mentions something about the world’s overall economy, or another major component you’ve thought through, ask what they’re really trying to convey, and then ask if you can edit or include additional details that further integrates their setting more closely with the overall world you’re creating. You’re creating something together, just like the story you’ll spontaneously tell later on at the table.
Organizing A Reference Document
Now, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many sudden shifts for many different people. In terms of D&D, this led to a shift of at-the-table play to online play, which led to my greatest discovery: Google Drive. And this in turn led to the greatest world-building tool I’ve ever had: the Google Doc. What this tool allows for is you, the Dungeon Master, to detail a world’s common knowledge to your heart’s content, as well as include homebrew rules and systems, with your players’ understanding that you can edit and expand on information you present.
With the shift from tabletop to online gaming, one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself and my gaming preferences is how much I love storytelling in gaming, and how my focus on mechanical understanding was to deliver the story I wanted to tell on my terms, without the DM telling me my idea didn’t fit what the book said. So when I sit down to DM games in my latest world, I view my players as storytelling contributors that write for their own characters, and I want them to have every tool imaginable.
So, I started with a Setting Reference Document (not to be confused with 5e’s SRD, which is a whole different can of worms). The Setting Reference Doc includes a gazetteer (in the fashion of Eberron: Rising from the Last War or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount) with brief descriptions of the major regions that any character would reasonably know about. For an analogue to our real world, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that England has a Queen and Japan had warriors in its history named samurai. By elaborating on a few key iconic details from each region of the world, it gives each player a sense of what the overall world is like, as well as decide where their character hails from.
Once they make that decision, it’s time for a one-on-one conversation with each player. While every player knows the information in the living document about each region, I give each individual player more specific information about their home region, that they are free to share with other players (or not). This is how you create complex systems of character information without making it feel as if the DM is gating information from everyone. Each player has a little more information in one area than the others, and it allows them to express unique perspectives on different situations as the party dynamics mature and develop.
The key concept here is conversation. It’s not about hiding things from your players. It's about giving them the proper tools to allow themselves to immerse themselves into your world and ask better questions to drive the story. This happens by communicating what you want, and listening to how they communicate what they want. And it's not going to be perfect each time, but the more you respect the angle they’re taking with their character, and rewarding that with exclusive details about your world, the more trust they’ll have in you to take them through an immersive and rich experience.
Nuts and Bolts Tip: If you’re planning on using a Google Doc to communicate your world-building, expectations, or other homebrew systems, make sure you’re the only one who can edit it and the players you invite to view it are commenters. You don’t want one of your players to accidentally delete all of your hard work.
Now, I’ve played in plenty of games where I’ve really thought through the world building process. However, in the heat of the game, not every player is going to pick up on every little detail you describe, and some may not even interpret the same detail the same way. By having your world-building details written down and accessible to your players, your players can clarify details with each other. If they remember a location but don’t remember its name, they can look it up. If they hear the name of something, and they know if they’ve heard it before, they can look it up. And if your players discover secrets about the world they’re characters may not have known before, you as the DM can always update the document to contain the most detailed information all players would reasonably have access to.
There’s a certain beauty in being able to say “look it up in the doc” or “you can find it in the doc”. And just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a punishment, or a “gotcha!” It just empowers your players to create compelling characters using details you’ve provided them so that they can respect the work you’ve put in while creating unique characters that allow them to express themselves. Everyone wins.
As a DM, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve seen a DM forget details, and then try to scramble to pretend that they didn’t. And this situation only gets messier if none of it is written down. It gets even messier if a player wrote it down, and the DM tries to cover their butt by saying they misinterpreted or wrote it down wrong, creating tension with that player.
If anything, not only does a living document organize your thoughts and creations into a useful tool, it also keeps everyone at the table accountable. If a player tries to say they didn’t understand something you’ve made abundantly clear, other players are empowered to help you adjudicate. If you’ve made a mistake, other players have something you’ve written to keep you on track. I’ve found ever since implementing a living document detailing my world, my players have felt that I’ve been more accountable in delivering a quality experience, which has actually led to more trust in my judgment. Fear of accountability is a symptom of doubt in ability. The DM that fears accountability or being called out for a misruling they’ve laid the precedent for is one that tends to be more interested in maintaining an unbalanced power dynamic than one that’s interested in crafting the most quality experience for everyone, including themselves.
And ultimately, this is our goal. When your players are included in your thought process, imagination, and creativity, they become more interested in the little things that make your world yours. And that leads to their investment and ultimately their immersion. It’s okay to hold onto some secrets about your world for your players to discover. In fact, it’s encouraged. However, it's a whole other thing to get them to care about the secrets your world holds that they can discover. And the best way I’ve found to get players to care about your world is to make them a part of it, from its design to its play at the table.
When you present your document, I recommend running it as part of a session zero. Explain your expectations, variant game mechanics and why they’re more appropriate to the style of game you’re going for, then dive into the nitty gritty. Where are the players going to go? What races can they play, and do they conform or differ from the traditions set by the PHB? What are the problems in each region, and how could they fit into a character’s story?
A great tool to ignite a player’s imagination while character building is the ten question exercise I posed in the previous Study Hall post. If you can ground the players in the world, while also having a consistent resource for information you freely give, and give them exclusive information based on the choices they make at character creation, you present far more investment into your world, and they begin to actually care about it. That’s what increases immersion. And that’s what makes D&D so magical.
Study Hard, Play Hard
Wait, when did this become an EDUCATIONAL blog!?
Blasphemy, I know, but hear me out for a moment. When spending time with my extended family, I'm often the one called upon to entertain or regale them with a new game to play that they've never heard of. Unlike my side of the family, though, this other side doesn't necessarily share the same intuitive enthusiasm for tabletop play and focus. However, my niece and father in law are both very curious, and will always try something new with fervor and flexibility, even if it isn't their norm.
So each night of our socially distant "vacation", I have taught them a game. Nothing too crazy - no Power Grid or Defenders of the Realm territory; this is NOT the population to play-test my RPG-in-a-box (the last test, though awesome, ran 4 hours straight). No, I'm giving them games that are completed in 15-30 minutes tops. Games with simple rules that are easy to pick up, but challenging to master. And in playing and teaching these games, I noticed something revealing.
I've played these games before, but not extensively. The rules and mechanics are few, but structuring and planning your moves takes forethought, organization...and MATH. Yeah, you heard me. Organizational, quick recall, multiplication, probability, and risk assessment.
I am not a genius [though I've never been tested ;) ]. I have struggled with so many facets of my life that others excel at in common practice. And yet, I was executing key functions of my play in record time (apparently). Chunking numbers and weighing moves with precision and poise, ready to help my fellows immediately if asked, because I could SEE all of their options laid out. And to think on this more deeply, it is simply that I have had more PRACTICE utilizing these skills than they have.
I've always had a good "math brain." Numbers and probability blended with mechanics and organization; this is why business and budgeting come so easily. And when I play these games with others who have also a history of tabletop gaming, I find that they, too, have obtained a general skill-set in "quick" math and organization, and I venture that this is because they practiced like I did.
We practiced through play.
So let me share with you three simple games that are quick on the draw and you can be certain are also helping you and your kid master some math facts (DON'T TELL THEM).
Chunking and Pairing - Quixx
Quixx is a game you learn in minutes.
On your turn you roll six dice (2 white, then one each of Blue, Yellow, Green, and Red); then you make one or two choices based on what you rolled. You make these decisions in order.
1) You add the two White dice together, and decide to use that number or not (and other players can do this).
2) You pair ONE White die with one of the colored dice and add those together (only the active player does this).
You decide to use one or both of the numbers you've "chunked" and cross them off - white is any color you want (#1), color is the color that white is paired with (#2).
The thing to remember in Quixx is that each row is accessed from left to right in sequence. This means that if you cross out your Red 4, the game actually tells you to put a line through 2 and 3 on your sheet. That's because you no longer have access to them, even if you roll a "2" or "3" later. And you HAVE to cross off SOMETHING, whether it be the White, the Color Pair, OR, if neither of those are desired or possible, a Penalty Box (the game ends after four of those are crossed off).
As you cross off more colors, your end score is multiplying, so more crosses in any color is a good idea. However, after you have at least FIVE crosses in a color, if you roll (or someone else rolls with White on their turn) the furthest number to the right, you can cross off THAT number and the Lock symbol next to it, and LOCK that color. This removes it from the game, and nets you two more crosses for your total. When two colors are Locked, the game ends.
With that impetus, the game becomes a balance between holding out for those low or high numbers, trying to avoid penalty boxes, and trying to end the game faster by Locking two colors.
Building Skills: every turn you're rolling dice, chunking quick addition, and comparing those values to desired outcomes. Us D&D folks do this all the time when we roll our favorite greatsword or fireball, so our eyes are used to putting together the numbers into easier sets to add, but the additional value comparison and choice of strategy adds a new layer to that judgement. Simple, yet complex. Anyone playing will get A LOT of practice in quick number crunching and value assignment.
Probability and Risk Management - Category 5 / 6 Nimmt
The game known as 6 Nimmt was a joy to play in my household growing up. Introduced to us by my eldest brother, the deceptive German game involves placing numbers in rows by the closest ascending value, filling slots in each row. If your number WOULD HAVE filled the sixth slot in a row, you must collect the five previous cards and add them to your score pile. Your "sixth" card then becomes the first in the new row.
This is a game like golf. Points are bad. Each card has upon it a certain number of oxen, each worth a point. Cards have anywhere from one to seven points, and with how the game is played, some rows can add up VERY QUICKLY. But it's not all terrible.
The game uses a deck of 104 cards and can be played with anywhere from 2 - 10 players. Each player starts with a hand of 10 cards each and selects in secret each round what card they'll play. After 10 rounds, everyone's hands are empty and we total up how much each of us took. This keeps rounds moving, but how many people are actually playing MATTERS in terms of probability.
See, with 2 players, you deal 10 to each player, then set out 4 cards to begin each of the four rows. That's only 24 cards out of 104 that are in play. You don't draw cards during the round, so what you have is what you have. Now why does that matter?
We each select a card every round and place it face down in front of us. When each of us has selected a card, we flip them at the same time. After that, the outcome to the round is mostly automated. The lowest number is placed first - it goes in ascending order within the closest distance to a number. If we use the above example, where the right-most number in each row is what we are comparing against, and with three players, we had the following numbers: 54, 16, 87.
16 is placed first, settling in right next to the 14. It is the closest row number in ascending order. After that, 54 is placed...next to the 50, but not the 60, as 60 is higher than 54. The 87...is placed next to the 60. But wait! 87 is closer to 100 than it is to 60! But the numbers must be in ascending order. 100 to 87 would be a DEscending order. Say there were more cards in those rows, and the row ending in 50 was one of them. The fifth card in the row is 50, 54 would be its sixth card - but each row can only have 5 cards, so the 50 row is collected by the player who played the 54, and their 54 starts the new row. That stack of 5 cards? Well congratulations! Add those to your score pile and get ready for the next round!
But what if someone plays a card that's lower than all of the right-most numbers? Well, my dear adventurers, that person (if they go first), will have a choice. If your number is lower than everything, you choose the row you want (some are better than others), taking the lesser of two evils, and your card becomes the new row (regardless if the old row had 1 or 3 or 5 or any number cards). Pay attention, though; as the row you take may mess up another's plans in probability...
The reason this game changes so dramatically with the number of players is clear when you think about probability. the game runs 10 players at max with 10 cards each (that's 100 cards), then 4 cards to get things started. That means...EVERY number from 1-104 is now in play. Now your decisions have a lot more variables to consider, many of them in the form of OTHER PEOPLE and their own strategies. With less people, you can gauge different risk with less ranges of cards in play each round.
It's a fascinating, fast game, with a deep strategic backbone, and a rule set of a few sentences.
Building skills: risk management, probability, judgement, counting, and chunking.
Sometime in the span of 10 years ago, 6 Nimmt went out of print, but its mechanics and rights were bought and reprinted in the form of Category 5. Same game, but with hurricanes instead of bulls. *shrug*
Investment, Multiplication, and Risk Management - Lost Cities
In Lost Cities, you take the form of an archaeologist or mining explorer, seeking treasure and profit from five possible sites, and competing with only one other person.
Another game involving ascending order, you place numbers in sequential order to accumulate points (profit) in the sites you want to invest in. You can't always get all the numbers you want, though, and will have to make choices carefully on when to place that 9 when you're still holding out for the 8. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
On your turn, you Play A Card - investing in a dig, or "discarding" a color onto the divider that splits the board in two equal sides - then Draw A Card [either from the ever-diminishing deck OR from the top of a discard pile from the divider]. "One man's trash" and all that.
INVESTING IN A DIG
You invest in a dig by placing a card on your side of the divide in front of the color you desire. The number and color should match. From here, on subsequent turns, you try to place as many cards as you can in the dig to make a profit, but it ain't easy. There are two main factors in your way: 1) Ascending Sequence and 2) ...Costs.
Ascending Sequence means that the numbers you place must be in ascending order. You put down a 3 one turn, then a 4 next turn, then a 6 after that (and draw a 5!)...you cannot place that 5. It's too late. Each color only has 2-10 to work with in this regard.
Costs refer to the upfront cost of your dig. It comes up in end-game scoring, but you NEED to keep it in mind up front. ANY DIG you start automatically incurs a -20 point penalty. Things cost things. Tough. HOWEVER, the full range of numbers at your disposal can usually bump you over 20 points if you're paying attention. For example, I start digging in Red and over many turns put down 3-5-6-8-9-10. Add all those up and you've got 41... Subtract 20 for costs, and my score ends up being 21 for that dig. Factor in that you'll probably invest in 2 or 3 digs per game and that can add up...or 2 go really well and 1 BOMBS.
But there's a third factor that can work for you or against you: PARTNERS. Represented by a little card of gentlemen shaking hands, you can have up to 3 partners (probably investors, but you get the idea) in your dig's stack, but they must be played at the beginning of the sequence. One card takes your end score (after the -20) and multiplies it by 2. 2 cards = x3. 3 cards = x4. Sounds pretty great, right? Except this can backfire. If you don't turn a profit, your partners don't either, and those multipliers count with negative points too.
So I've got two partners up front, then my 21 in total from above. 21 x 3 = 63 points. Huzzah! But my other dig has three partners up front and I only managed to get a measly 3 and 9 on it. 12 - 20 = -8... x 4 = -32. All told, I'm actually back to 41, but that was an ouch, and if you're not careful with your spread, things can get real tough for you when the piper comes to collect his debts.
Building Skills: My wife and I LOVE this game. There are many strategies to win and it's a great way to cultivate patience, risk management, and portfolio business. Plus, with the game ending once the deck is depleted, using that "discard" option is a leet hacker play to prolong the game so you can get that last...10...down!
“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.
Help grow our YouTube Channel, DM Shower Thoughts, by stopping by every Sunday at 9am for a new video!
So my wife had to get her eyes dilated at the doctor today. No biggie, everything's fine, but it prompted her to experiment with her vision at a distance and threw on a random film on Netflix. What she picked is called Extraction. A film from 2015 starring Bruce Willis ("starring" is a little generous), Kellan Lutz (from Twilight), and Gina Carano (from so many films now).
And the experience was...irascible.
Context Is Key - What Is Extraction
Extraction is a film from 2015 (not to be confused with the superior Chris Hemsworth film from 2020 of the same name) about a spy (3 weeks from retirement of course) captured by a terrorist organization and how his son, Harry, teams up with an old flame from the CIA, Victoria, to find him. There's a little double cross, a few lazy car chases, some strange choices in cinematography, an entirely misaligned musical score, and a complete misuse in the majority of the cast. ...Especially Carano.
It's one thing to be a disappointing film. There are many that fulfill that category. But this one stuck with me in a deep way - a pain of missed opportunities and a wasted potential for, especially at this point, a well-established actress and powerful presence like Carano.
To understand where I'm going and how this all feeds into the GM's Corner, we need to take a look at a little film called Haywire.
MMA Champion and actress Gina Carano in 2011's Haywire.
Where Haywire (2011) Shines
Haywire is a low-budget action film with tight cinematography, great choreography that feels real, and a raw approach to an otherwise simple story. This is another film featuring trained agents in a military-type scenario and a female agent fighting against those that would entrap or frame her. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is confident, visceral, and wholly satisfying, but there's one scene in particular that illustrates my point the best.
Mallory (Carano) and another character (played by the ever-suave Michael Fassbender) are moving through a hotel acting all cute and newlywed-like as they head back to their room. It's kind of adorable, even. But once the door closes, it's all business. The facade falls, and they're agents on a mission.
Fassbender throws the first punch, knocking Mallory down. The fight is intense, devoid of music, with long takes pushed out so you can see every punch, kick, grapple, and throw in all its glory. You forget immediately that this is a man and woman. These are two highly trained combatants trying their best to incapacitate, and probably, kill each other. At no point in the fight is a punch pulled or mercy given - it is a no-holds-barred drag out display of pure fighting ability. It reveals two extremely important things. 1) Mallory isn't invincible, in this fight and many more to follow. She gets BEAT UP in this movie. 2) Mallory is always capable. She gets knocked down, but gets right back up and adapts to her opponents, terrain, and dozens of other active factors; you can see the turning of the tide over the course of each fight, and it's a turn of skill, not plot armor. She uses her surroundings to startling effect, demonstrating an intelligence in battle and survivability. This is not a character who will let you win just because the script deems it so.
Where Extraction Misses The Opportunity Completely
I can think of two distinct moments where both my wife and I shouted at the screen. The director has fundamentally missed the mark in every possible way when handling the character.
SCENE ONE - Carano isn't allowed to fight
Setup: Victoria takes Harry to an old female friend/contact and they go to a club to locate a perp. The perp is a sleaze in every meaning, so Victoria makes out with her friend to get his attention. Perp calls her over and she convinces him to head to a private room.
Women can show off whatever they like however they wish. Their body, their choice. I'm not complaining about that.
No. I'm complaining about what follows, and it fails on so many levels I got physically angry at my television.
Victoria gets taken back to the penthouse suite in close quarters with their perp, and two other guards. At this point, I expect things to go south, but I'm not worried about her. And I'm not worried because of two things. 1) She's a CIA operative with specialized hand-to-hand combat training. She's been an agent longer than our male protagonist (who isn't an agent yet, has just been training for it). I expect her to handle herself pretty well here, because she should know what she's doing. 2) She's Gina-freaking-Carano, and I've seen her take out a staggering number of people in a wide assortment of mediums. And I'm not trying to typecast here; she's playing someone who can fight - I'm looking forward to the fight.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a tip that there's an assassin on his tail. He corners the guy in a bathroom and Victoria's cover is immediately blown before she can get any info. Victoria starts getting beat on by three men, thrown around the room in shots where you can't see anything, and Harry confronts the assassin in a "martial arts" brawl. This is where the problems start piling up.
We get to see Harry go brawling in a bathroom with an assassin (reminiscent of the superior bathroom brawl featuring Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill from Mission Impossible: Fallout), complete with cracking glass, burst pipes, and drenched fists...juxtaposed with Victoria getting choked and kicked on the floor. In fact, there are long takes of this testosterone-filled fight and then short takes of the female lead getting beat on. No disarming techniques, no creative grapples, no takedowns, no showcase of ANY of Carano's talents. NONE of the things I've come to expect and enjoy with seeing her on screen - she actually looks bored while being beat up.
The tide doesn't turn for her until Harry, the non-operative male protagonist, stops a punch and joins the fight. She had to be rescued by him, and that pisses me right off.
Why is it that female agents always seem to get into these difficult scuffles and need to be rescued, and the males just have to brawl it out? (I have always hated this trope)
And female violence, in many mediums, tends to have an air of femininity to it - in a bad way. Like instead of treating the female combatant as a threat, the violence toward them is pivoted to accentuate their gender somehow. Like they're treated as a "silly girl" and toyed with first, before being a target to be eliminated. They're thrown around, the face is avoided, they're choked and held down; they're somehow a woman first, threat second. Meanwhile, the men get to engage in big physical fights and be the capable combatant.
Even the way it's shot is strange. Harry gets wide angle shots that showcase his physicality, while Victoria gets close shots of her face, her body, and her dress. Do you see the difference yet?
The brawl continues to the dance floor with an awkward cut, and they approach the thugs side by side. Harry gets to punch some more, and FINALLY Victoria kicks someone (but she's fighting in a dress that doesn't allow a lot of movement - a fact that the CHARACTER directly opposed in dialogue, but was shut down), then gets grabbed from behind at gunpoint.
Now about this fool with the gun. He doesn't keep it on her; no, he waves the thing around like an idiot. I'm not a MMA fighter, but I do practice martial arts enough to see specific beats where a disarm can happen, and AGAIN, I was waiting for Carano - who is way more skilled than I will ever be (and a combat-trained agent would be) - to take one of those beats and wreck this fool. She never does. And it looks like she wants to.
In fact, Carano looks really uncomfortable in most of these scenes. Like, somehow, this state is very "unnatural" for her (he writes, knowingly staring into the Void). She stands there like a petrified flower in a cocktail dress - scared and confused. She is then dragged off and into a car, where she proceeds to do very little to change her circumstances other than alert Harry how to follow them (still smart, just not "physically capable").
Why am I mad?
Harry's not an agent. He's a man. Victoria IS an agent. She is a woman. Harry is free to play hero, Victoria is dragged off like a damsel, and NOT ONCE tries to fix that problem with her combat skills. Critic says: But she was stuffed in a car, Adamus, what is she supposed to do? Answer: the male protagonist was also stuffed into a car with four armed guards earlier in the film...and he fought his way out. Why can't she - the trained and tested operative with two guards? Their frame and role in the story is defined by their gender, not their skill set. How refreshing would it have been if not only had Victoria held her own (a fact that runs in line with her skill set), and Harry brawled his way through, but his lack of training gets him caught? OR both get to shine with both of their styles, but the INTELLIGENT villain outsmarts them by undermining their flaws, instead of victory being a contrivance?
There's a better story here, and Carano can tell it. Instead, she's sidelined for Lutz to shine, if for no other reason than "he's the main character." Hollywood. Stop writing people as bad at the job they're supposed to be good at just so the main character can be better. Write them all as good at their job, and elevate the stakes to match them. That's how you make memorable stories (another deep breath).
Scene Two - Why is Victoria even here?
After getting punched once in the car and therefore knocked out (with no bruise to tarnish her face), Victoria is strung up with ONE hand tied to a pipe. One. And she's standing on the ground with both feet. In a large, empty room (prime real estate for a good ole' fashioned fight scene).
Carano is a built individual; her physical prowess is poised for display. I have seen her hoist herself up EASILY with one arm; the lady has body control, excellent strength and power, and a keen understanding of leverage and choke holds. So I'm still holding on to hope that I'm going to see something cool.
She is unconscious for the majority of the last Act. When she does come to, she's alone in the room, and it cuts back to Lutz being stupid. By now I expect it to cut back to her breaking free, but no, she just hangs out some more. When a guard arrives, she instead uses her feminine wiles to "seduce" him to come closer to her (why does this EVER work in film?), and THEN does a decent take-down and breaks free (which she could have done before, and already have re-entered the story). I AM glad she got herself out, no rescuing here...however, as a director, this dude did NOT understand what Carano is capable of. She can do so much more than what she was directed to do.
And when she DOES fight someone...it's a nameless thug (not the jerk that knocked her out - no, that guy fights a different thug; great, a brawl between two people we don't know or care about). This "fight" is done in badly lit shots, with weird cuts, and strange close-ups, so you never get to SEE her fight. She can fight. Let her fight!
What This Has To Do With Tabletop RPGs
Surely, my rant can continue for many pages more, but I assure you I had a point, and it is rooted in this idea:
If you want to play a damsel - a fainting flower who danes to be rescued and won like a prize - go for it.
If you want to play a warrior - someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat and who revels in the ring - go for it.
If you're a dude and you want to play a gal, have at it.
If you're a lady and you want to play the meanest boy in town, more power to you.
If you want to play a gender-fluid wood elf sharpshooter, be my guest.
And, as your Director...I mean, GM...I will NEVER adjust your role in the game based on your GENDER. Women can be warriors, men can be damsels, and heroes (and villains) come in all shapes and sizes.
And it is my job to give you opportunities to shine and show off. If you have cultivated your character to be a serious, half-orc grappler, then I will make sure that you have opportunities to GRAPPLE. I WANT you to show off. I WANT you to succeed in your concept.
That doesn't mean you auto-win a scenario, but if you've built someone who should naturally be good at this skill, then I'm going to cultivate scenarios that allow you to show yourself to be good at your skill. I need to give you the wide angle shots, pass you the patience to show (don't tell), and watch you turn the tide as a warrior who reassesses her situation and adapts to new data.
Because that's what fighting is.
And if you built a sharpshooter, then I better damn well make sure you have some opportunities to shoot stuff. If you built a fainting noble, then by golly I'll make sure you have opportunities to react in kind! Whatever your slice of fun, whatever your build, whatever your core concept, it is a GM's duty to provide you with a time and possibility to BE that thing.
This isn't to say there won't be moments of challenge, nor will I spell it out for you in meticulous detail what is possible, but all of this ties discretely into our REST model.
I will Respect your character concept as it aligns with the setting, and I will Respect your Gender in whatever form it takes. I will practice Empathy in your vision as you embark on this journey. I will seek to provide Satisfying encounters where you can shine and show off. And I will build Trust through these encounters, even as they change and evolve.
You are all Gina Carano.
I will let you fight.
See you at the table.
It is no secret that my family lives on board games.
Though we'd settle down into a Mario Kart tournament back in the Super Nintendo days of yore, we aren't really into the craze of video games, at least not as a family. When we sit down to play, it's with physical pieces and verbal interplay. We chide and vamp, sing and spell, and all around have a pleasant time.
This love of games is infectious. Whether we mean to or not, it is often the "rite of passage" for new friends and family to come and play; like a litmus test to see if you can have fun with new people without being a tool. We use it to pass the time between meals, as a jumpstart between conversations (and, in recent years, a transition AWAY from uncomfortable topics - like hitting a reset button), and sometimes, even, as an intellectual "dessert" after a satisfying meal. Every household in the branches of my side of the family has made board gaming a consistent go-to in their world, and we have yet to see any hint of slowing down.
I am a professional Game Master for crying out loud; my brothers and I DESIGN board games (not as a living, but both my brother and I have entered the play-testing stage) and my eldest brother REVIEWS them on a podcast called the Dicetower (good stuff, check them out HERE). Then, we each have families. My eldest brother has taught his two boys dozens of games and my sister and other brother have kept the passion alive. PLAY is in our blood, and we happily share it with whomever is willing to join the table.
But there are other benefits, too.
Coming from a teaching background, I would be remiss not to mention the many facets of our human experience that consistent play augments and cultivates. Reading, writing, math, transfer, learning styles - it's all there, and you're practicing from play, which is awesome. If you read this blog or listen to my podcast regularly, you may already be aware of the immense impact a game like Dungeons and Dragons can have on a person, socially and physically, and a game like that doesn't have a concrete "end."
A board game does. Most "box games" have a winner, too, so there's scoring involved. Even when the game is cooperative, there's still a measure of competition; me vs them, us vs the board, us vs one, you get the idea. And yet, with a strong etiquette at the table...no one has to feel bad about any of those setups. Sure, there are game types I don't enjoy, and we're all allowed that boundary, but even IF I had to play a game I didn't like, I could AT LEAST be certain that I wouldn't be treated unfairly. And that is because - at least among my family - we teach our people gaming etiquette. Our own personal expectations at the table, cultivated over many years of playing together.
I've been thinking deeply on what I've seen, and I thought I'd write them down and share them with you.
Commandments For Tabletop Etiquette
FOLLOW THE RULES
Some of you might say, "well, duh" here, but you'd be surprised how many people - young, old, new, veteran - try to cheat during play. Now, sometimes you forget the rules, and that's FINE. But after we've taught you the rule four times, and are now watching you like a hawk about it, maybe commit the extra brain power to remember it the fifth time. And, presentation of intention helps a bunch here. I've been in plenty of games where someone has struggled with the volume of rules, or keeping their move options in their heads, or getting stuck on one particular detail. It's one thing to consistently forget but work through it and another to attempt to hide it. One is forgetful - the other is cheating. And asking QUESTIONS go a long way here. It's always okay to clarify your understanding; it saves those headaches later. AND, if you voice that you're struggling with something, WE WILL HELP YOU. We're not shaming your struggle; we just want everyone at the table to value the rules so we're all on an even playing field.
Anecdotal Rant Incoming: I was playing a game with the family of a friend - Ticket to Ride, one of my favorites - when a sudden schism occurred. In the game, on your turn, you can only take one Action. You have three options on what Action to take: draw two cards OR claim a single route OR pick more routes. This restriction is one of the binding mechanics of the game; it is the same across every iteration. Upon sitting down to play this game with this family, who have expressed that it is their favorite game too, we did not feel the need to review how to play the game.
So we're playing for about a half hour or so; I've been picking my one action each turn, carefully planning and watching round to round, waiting for my time to claim a route and - the person next to me proceeds to draw two cards, then immediately start claiming routes one after another. Confused, I - perhaps too forcefully - exclaimed "What are you doing?" and everyone else looked at me like I was crazy.
"This is the way you play the game." They said.
"...You can only take one action each turn. You've already drawn, your turn is over. That was your one action." I returned, laughing a bit. I expected to be backed up - we've all played this before, right?
They looked around, confused. "This is the way we learned to play." They said.
"Well I learned to play following the rules; the fact that you can do only one thing at a time is a huge part of the game. You have to decide what's most important every turn."
"That's not what the rules say!"
Then, turning to the exact spot in the rule book, I read them the literal rules.
"Well, this is how WE play the game!"
"...Then I would have loved to know that at the beginning of play. If I had known you were playing this way, I would have played my turns VERY DIFFERENTLY."
We finished the game "my way", with the actual rules, and it was a tense experience. I didn't mean to make everyone super uncomfortable and I'm not against making House Rules in any respect (I do it too!), but you need to let people know that you've made the change before you begin. If you don't do this, you've essentially handed one player at the table a DIFFERENT set of rules than the rest of you - I was effectively playing at a huge disadvantage because I didn't know the "family secret." And after calling them out on 1) not following the rules I thought they knew, and 2) not warning me that they play the game differently in their house...my name has been cursed to high heaven to this day over the Great Ticket To Ride Incident of '09.
I have sobered a bit, but I think my response was so visceral because I grew up in a household where you followed the rules to the game. We understood that the designers made it that way for a reason, and, at the very least, we should try it a few times their way before we ponder alternatives. AND, IF we made any changes after that point, we would always remind the table of the change before we started playing. We understood the difference; we could tell you what was House Rule and what was RAW every game at every table. It ensures that none of us are operating with a stacked deck.
COMMIT TO THE GAME
If you've come to the table to play, commit some brain power to that play. I was teaching a game recently to someone and we were getting into a good swing of fun. Then I noticed that their choices didn't seem to follow much of a strategy given the game's setup; they seemed random. I asked curiously, "What's your strategy right now, friend? Looks interesting!"
They perked up wide-eyed. "Oh! I know it doesn't make sense. I just don't care."
1) Ouch. 2) The baseline here was just that they wanted to play with me, but had no further desire or impetus to formulate their own strategy to achieve something here. Like every turn was pure luck.
Now, some game ARE pure luck, but even games with a high luck element have choice points and strategy.
Consider this another facet of the Social Contract: I'm at this table - I'm going to bring my A Game, because I expect everyone else to do the same. I've committed brain power and time and energy to this, I expect you to do the same. That's how the fun gets done.
HELP WITH HONESTY
There are no players I despise more than the ones who will only help you if it helps them. Instead, offer guidance and advice even if...no, especially if it can hurt your position. We were all beginners at one time and we know how that felt. A beginner in anything is not one to be shamed; in fact, they should be elevated. The best veteran players at the table are the ones that offer guidance with honesty; who build clear trust and rapport at the table. Don't EVER maneuver a new player into a position that helps you just because "they don't know any better." That's cruel, and it makes the other person feel used.
So, if you're going to help and the other person welcomes it, help them make the best move they can, even if it hurts you.
And NEVER play FOR them; explain a strategy, answer their questions honestly, and let THEM make the decision. Because it isn't your turn, it's theirs.
RESPECT THE MATERIALS
When I was teaching board games more consistently, I was quickly APPALLED by the utter abuse my cards, pieces, and materials underwent at the hands of kids who should know better. I got into the habit of having a class or two without games at the start of a unit just to go over how to, ya' know, NOT put my dice in your mouth; NOT stuff garbage into the game box; NOT pull apart the miniature tokens (and break them); NOT rip up the cards you don't like... The list goes on and on about what I witnessed in short order, but instead of going over every instance, it all falls under the same umbrella commandment: Respect the materials. Do not break the game just because you want to fidget (not against fidgeting, mind you, but you can fidget without breaking stuff).
Some board games are $60+. A torn card, a broken miniature, and a smashed die can be massively expensive to replace AND you've broken that trust of play. If you break that trust, then you won't be allowed back at the table. At least not for a long while; until you can prove that you are trustworthy.
I'll repeat that for those in the back: If I let you play my game and use my stuff and it comes back broken...YOU DON'T GET TO PLAY WITH ME AGAIN. Why? Because you broke my trust. Borrow a pencil and it comes back snapped in half? No more pencils for you. Borrowed a pen and it comes back chewed on? No more pens for you. Borrowed a die and it was never returned? No more dice for you.
Respect the materials because you are borrowing them and building trust by doing so. Breaking that trust will always have consequences.
No one likes a bragger. We're glad you're doing well, but do not make others feel bad if they are struggling. Instead, be their cheerleader. Offer Honest Help, celebrate their victories, and build up the table. Even you still come out on top, no one else has to be stepped on to get there.
Kids are...kids. And people...are people.
A person's age, development, and social skill play a huge role in establishing where they are in their personal etiquette at the table. Though I see these "commandments" at play most actively with young kids and teenagers, there have been many instances where adults fail to follow them. Should those individuals be summarily condemned for tearing my cards? I'd argue no. However, case by case there need to be consequences...and reparations.
If they broke someone's trust, they need to work to get it back. If they spoiled a game by bragging and putting everyone down, then they need to practice building others up. If they cheated knowingly and threw a fit at the table over it, they need to cultivate honest play and begin to recognize the value in personal integrity.
All of these are essential skills to have in all aspects of life, and knowledge of them reveals a great universal truth.
If you play well, you live well.
See you at the table.
PS: These were the most recent lessons I've seen from my family, but I'm sure I could think of a few more. What are some at your tables?
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.
So I’ll be very open that I’m not used to the whole blogging thing. This is usually Adamus’s territory, but given that I’ve lost my voice at the time of this writing (and I have SUCH opinions on things), I figured I’d try reaching out in a new way.
For this inaugural blog post, I figured I’d talk about my philosophy on building characters. See, I build characters to exact opposite of most people. A lot of players read a character class's description, decide which story they like, then build. I instead cherry pick which features and traits will satisfy the experience I want to have from a game mechanics perspective, crafting the character's story with the function of the game's rules in mind. Sometimes this can be accomplished in a single character class's leveling progression, but more often than not this method requires multi-classing. But first, let's dissect my methods, and why I believe the best Dungeons & Dragons storytelling follows the intimate understanding of game mechanics rather than preceding it.
The Marriage Of Story And Mechanics
Now most people recognize that Dungeons and Dragons is less of a game and more of a storytelling vehicle that shapes the narrative through game mechanics (the agreed upon rules of how player choices affect and change the values of the game state). Often, the characteristic that attracts people to Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games is the limitless possibility of what can happen at the table. Through a unique alchemy of imagination, creativity, strategy, and luck, we sit down together to form memories and experiences that stick with us through our lives. As is our mission at DM Shower Thoughts, we’re playing together to discover our best selves through gaming and having tremendous fun along the way.
However, despite the storytelling possibilities, game mechanics are still constitute the foundation that keep Dungeons and Dragons anchored as a game rather than as a free form storytelling workshop. Without the structure of rules and mechanics, the louder voices outshout the shyer, and new players may not know how they can and can't contribute. Game mechanics help with these problems in two ways. First, the game often has players take turns, so everyone gets a say in the action. Second, the game has discrete options players can rely on if they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possible choices. D&D’s mechanics offer reliable options, while still being flexible enough to reward creativity. As for story, D&D (and other TTRPGs) grant us the space to tell the stories of ourselves we secretly want to tell. And while it may be part power fantasy, it’s also our yearning to discover who we really are when our society’s rules and norms aren’t limiting us and we’re given autonomy in an imaginary space. This is also where things can get dicey (pun intended). Unlike other board games, like Monopoly and Risk where a player’s choices are finite and objective, a Dungeon Master is the ultimate referee of the rules as well as the primary narrator. The objective is fundamentally different (telling a story versus defeating other players through strategy and luck), and the mechanics of the game can be changed to fulfill the storytelling tone that the players want.
Unfortunately, sometimes you get the opposite effect. You see, with each rules entry of the Player’s Handbook, there is also a story or lore explanation to that rule’s inclusion. For example, a Barbarian’s Rage is noted as being innate primal fury and a Cleric’s magic is said to be the product of a Deity.
However, instead of flavor text being a creative ignition of imagination and wonder, a close-minded DM or player can read story text as the only possible explanations for a rule’s inclusion. Even worse, and probably more common, a RAW (rules as written) DM limits the mechanics of a class to compromise its storytelling potential. Because of this, if a player only selects a class based on that class’s story, they may actually discount another leveling option that would tell that story better.
Example 1: The Fighter
Oftentimes, a newer player coming to Dungeons and Dragons has the perception that the game is unnecessarily complicated and the rules are overwhelming and difficult to master. To many RPG veterans that have played a variety of rules systems and editions of D&D, the opinion is often the opposite, and they believe that 5th edition is too simple. I’ve found the truth to be somewhere in the middle.
To compensate for a new player’s fear of causing some kind of detriment to a well-established play group’s flow, often a DM will suggest the Fighter class to a new player. The suggestion is usually well intentioned. Because a Fighter is a fairly survivable class with limited rules to remember, a new player can learn about different dice, weapons, and 5th edition’s action economy without having to memorize spells and situational effects. However, most fighter players resign themselves to saying “I roll to attack”, and every once in a while “I use an action surge and attack again”, rather than feeling engaged with the dynamic interactions in the game’s story.
To me, this is where the problem arises. The Fighter story in 5th edition is intentionally generic to allow the player to create the character’s story. Is your fighter a brave knight in chainmail looking to uphold justice for the weak? Are they a grizzled monster slayer that believes playing fair is a poor strategic move? Are they a bandit, a master archer, a gladiator or something else entirely? All of these examples are fighters, and although their stories are wildly different, their mechanics tend to be similar.
This problem is compounded with a lack of competitive performance from the Fighter’s features. From my experience both playing a Fighter and DMing for others playing Fighters, I’ve found that through class features alone, Fighters are usually outclassed by other characters that are built to the same role. Did you build a fighter to be a bruiser that can take some punishment? The party barbarian can deal and take more damage. Do you want a clever archer with unmatched accuracy? A well-built rogue can do more damage with the same weapon, and a well built ranger can match that accuracy while also casting healing spirit on the side. Looking to be a clever controller that uses tactics and maneuvers to outthink the enemy? Just try and compete with a dedicated Druid or Wizard.
And because clever player-DM teams can re-flavor story elements to any mechanics, the same story can be told through multiple classes, but the impact on the game state is only determined by mechanics. So without magic items to compensate, a fighter really doesn’t get their own story. If you build a fighter, you’re probably looking to tell the story of a character that’s good at fighting, and when someone else always fights better than you, you tend to ask yourself if your character matters.
Example 2: The Warlock
Let’s now look at a class with the opposite problem – the Warlock. The Warlock story is one as old as mythology, where a mortal seeking power (either maliciously or due to some need) strikes a bargain with some higher power in order to fulfill their goal. Most warlock players I’ve met have gone for the Faustian myth, where the character’s patron is operating against the interest of the player character. After all, if they had the player’s back, they might as well be a cleric.
Now the Faustian deal is an interesting angle to explore, especially for a deep dive into a character’s psychology and back story. However, like the fighter, the warlock can be a frustrating class to play because of its mechanics. Unlike other spellcasters in 5th edition, Warlocks usually only have two spell slots per fight, which severely limits their options in combat. Sure they have the most powerful cantrip in the game (eldritch blast) which can be enhanced through invocations, but the warlock isn’t given as many turn by turn options as other casters (like druid and wizard).
Now I’ve been a warlock player, and I’ve felt this conflict personally. I’ve loved playing through the dynamic relationship between Player Character and Patron, but the game’s mechanics were always lacking. So, why can’t I, say for instance, play a Druid but have the story of the warlock? For some DMs, the answer is “because the book says that Warlocks are the pact ones. It’s the warlock story.”
To which, I retort, “Why can’t my Pact manifest as druid powers?”
And as one would expect by now, I often let my players create characters like that. However, to many readers, the story of a game rule and its mechanics are married. My suggestion is to divorce them. Once you can see how mechanics resolve in play, the story description returns to being energetic ignition rather than the boundaries of what this rule HAS to be, and that’s where a lot of fun can happen.
How I Build Characters
Like I said in the introduction, I build characters by thinking through the mechanical experience I want to have with them. This includes thinking through their action economy (what my choices will look like turn by turn) as well as how I want to design their strengths and flaws into their mechanics.
As a case study, let’s look at Solomon Blackedge, the character I portray in both Cloudsinger and Adamus’s custom world of Gray Owls. The story of Solomon was inspired by that of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from the book and videogame series of the same name (now also on Netflix). Although I didn’t want to BE Geralt, I was interested in portraying a character like him along with some of his abilities and style. This included:
Now, no single class in 5e can encompass all of these traits. One can argue, “Go Eldritch Knight! They get access to lots of equipment and magic!”
Having tried to go that route (and see my complaints about Fighter up above), it also didn’t serve my character’s story the way it theoretically should have. First, I had proficiency in Nature and Survival (ability to track and know about monsters). Second, being a Fighter meant I should be able to fight. Third, dampened emotions make him speak his mind and make him hard to get along with. I at least got used to the third one, which was in my control as a role-player.
Again, the problem I ran into was performance. I rarely succeeded on my skills of choice (Nature and Survival) due to dice luck, meaning that my Witcher character couldn’t actually succeed at the things he was designed to. Second, he almost never hit during a fight, and even when he did, because of nonmagical damage resistant enemies, he never did damage. Third, an eldritch knight is far more committed to casting than I actually wanted, and included many magical abilities I didn’t want my character to have.
So how do I reconcile this? Well, Solomon’s current build in Gray Owls is 12 levels of Scout Rogue, 3 levels of Open Hand Monk, and 2 levels of War Wizard. How does this play? Incredibly well. Same story premise, very different mechanical performance.
Unlike the Eldritch Knight, Solomon almost always succeeds on Nature and Survival checks because of the Scout’s expertise in those skills. Not that I’m afraid of failure or having flaws, but always failing is just as boring as always succeeding. Not only that, but he has skills he’s designed to fail at, like persuasion and athletics. Combine that with the Rogue’s reliable talent, and now he truly is a seasoned expert as his chosen craft. Objective #1 complete.
How about fighting? Well, even though Solomon isn’t a criminal (he’s a monster slayer), the rogue’s features fit his fighting style well. Once you discard the rogue’s story as that of an outlaw and see it as that of a dexterous warrior, sneak attack and cunning action produce an engaging tactical experience in combat. Solomon isn’t meant to get hit and tough it out. He’s meant to hit a crucial target for maximum effectiveness and deftly reposition so he’s harder to pin down. As for Armor Class? That’s where Monk comes in. Monk or Rogue alone wouldn’t really perform as well, but together, with a little bit of a Monk’s unarmored defense and a Rogue’s sneak attack, he’s a force to be reckoned with. And now, the story of Solomon being a deadly fighter with the story of being an expert tracker is now fulfilled.
But what about the magic? Well, Eldritch Knight has way too much magic. And what’s the function of this magic anyways? For me playing as Geralt in the Witcher games and seeing how he fights in the Netflix show, it comes down to minor magic gusts and quick shield spells. That, and Arcane Deflection is one heck of a feature, especially since its “balance point” is that you can only cast a cantrip on the next turn after you use it. No problem; I’m not going to be casting many cantrips when I sneak attack like a Fireball.
So as clunky as the build looks on paper, and how it borrows from class features with classes that may not have to do with each other, together the dissonant pieces form a cohesive custom story I want to tell. It’s not to say there also aren’t clever stories I can tell with single classes, but it does mean if I want them to perform a certain way I have to be open to multi-classing.
Dungeons and Dragons as a storytelling vehicle is unique in that the rules offer excellent creative leverage to tell powerful, long lasting stories. However, the problem arises when we build our characters using suggestions and absolutes. I came to my character building method because of my disappointment that my first character didn’t perform the way he was designed. And if any of you readers take anything away from this, it’s that how mechanics resolve dictate the story, and if you want to tell a specific story, you need to know which mechanics are going to allow you to tell that story in the context of the game’s system. So every time I hear someone say that “Optimizing takes away from role playing”, all I can think of is the storytelling limitations that frame puts on the collective experience at the table.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s taught me to offer my players choices as they build, to remind them that they don’t have to build to their preconceived notions unless they want to. Want to build a support nature caster? You can do that through druid, but have you considered nature cleric or archfey warlock? Druid probably works best, but know those options are out there.
Hopefully this has had some value, if anything else than to clarify why you build characters the way you do. That way, when you do it, you’re doing so out of choice rather than habit.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
Enjoy this take from another corner? Smash that Like button and stay tuned for more every month.
Other perspectives help us grow as fellow gamers. :)
Also, if you want to help support the site in a different way, Subscribe to our YouTube Channel, DM Shower Thoughts.
See you soon, and remember to Game Responsibly.
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.
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