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.
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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.
With the advent of offering a mentorship program for aspiring Game Masters, I have taken two under my wing recently. They have contrasting skills and styles, and it is an absolute honor to share tables with them as we all continue to grow and become better communicators, storytellers, and world-builders. One of them, Ian, took it upon himself to jot down his reflections here and there during the process, and with his permission, every now and then I'll share them with you all. We'll call this segment topic: Notes From The Apprentice. Enjoy!
Originally Transcribed on 4/7/2020
Hello, everyone! My name is Ian Ohlsson, and I am the current test-pilot for the Dungeon Master Apprenticeship Program created by Adamus Drake Productions. A short background on me: I am currently a college student, studying as a Biology major and pursuing a degree that will lead me to a fulfilling job in the medical field. I have experience in creative writing and storytelling, and I am absolutely infatuated with this wonderful game of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as all of the creativity it inspires in the people around me. I am looking forward to getting to know each other further over the course of these Entries, where I will share with you the lessons I’ve learned about how to become a skillful DM from my mentor, Adamus Drake.
Today, I would like to discuss something that I was forced to acknowledge early on: when I get excited about a particular topic, especially during conversations with friends, it can be easy for me to turn off my inner filter and barrage my comrades with a stream of consciousness. As you can imagine, this lack of control over my speech can be a detrimental factor as a DM, where I am guiding my Players through a world of floating plot hooks and narrative descriptions. And so, the first lesson I learned on my journey to becoming a great Dungeon Master was the lesson of clarity; the ability to say more with less, and having confidence that the information I’ve provided is sufficient. It is important, my friends, to place value in the words you choose. In a more scientific context, we increase the quality of our words in place of quantity.
Now, this might sound restrictive to the creative flow that is crucial for being a DM, and counterintuitive considering how many 2000-word papers many of us have written during our youth. But in fact, it instills a sense of freedom in the speaker - no more will you find yourself compelled to defend your statements, or accidentally reveal secret narrative points, or fill the air with just sound for its own sake. With clarity comes the confidence to trust in your skills as an aspiring DM. Once you take this step, the wonderful world of this game will open up to you, and you will be able to harness the inspiration it fills you with.
Thank you very much for reading, and I hope this Entry has helped you on your own path. I am looking forward to continuing these posts weekly, and discussing more about how we can become our best selves through gaming.
Good luck on your journeys,
The Core Concept (I love Kobolds)
Kobolds are cute. Always have been.
There's something pitiful in their representation, and they can feel like fodder if you're not careful, but I'd argue there's a depth to them we often don't get the chance to explore. They can be industrious, courageous, intelligent, even empathetic - their presentation suffers from always requiring a draconic master or a simplistic society or some other measure that keeps them downtrodden and low.
That's why in Io, though there ARE the "traditional" Kobold clans, there are still many others that break from that tradition and embrace their heroic natures. Whether it be the courage to fight, or the courage to study, there is a wide spectrum to the nature of accomplishment a race could achieve after a millennia of working with whatever they had to spare. That's something we may not realize; there are Kobold inventors, fliers, alchemists, bombers...these little guys build stuff. They dedicate themselves to industry...but their resources are often sub-par. Imagine what a Kobold could accomplish with access to the resources of a Dwarven forge, or an Elven library, or a Human leatherworker. Their weakness of station has little to do with their personal intellect and a lot to do with their environmental experience.
So with the understanding that a Kobold with proper resources would dedicate herself to the study of a craft, even if the methods may go awry or be haphazard in nature, would this not create a powerful master in this study? Skilled in unorthodox mixtures, brilliant workarounds, and a keen observation of new possibilities, a Kobold's need to survive opens the door to innovation.
This is where you track with me to the obvious Kobold Artificer...and I keep walking. For this study is a discipline of the mind, body, and soul, and for that to ring true, the more appropriate answer is the Monk.
Martial Discipline Carries Over
Any martial artist that's dedicated enough energy and time to their art can tell you: this isn't about fighting, it's about learning. In fact, a lot of the martial disciplines teach oneself, yes, how to move well, how to defend yourself, but moreso how to cultivate one's understanding of the world that surrounds them by learning how to learn for themselves. A disciplined martial artist isn't simply learning how to kick or punch or block, but how to navigate their world with intelligence and wisdom with the confidence that is only derived from a dedicated practice in self-improvement. Once you know how to learn, and you have cultivated your discipline to support the hard work needed, the world opens to you.
This is why swordsman drew calligraphy, archers played music, generals wrote poetry, and monks...learned to cook.
The Actual Build
DUNGEON COACH'S APPROACH
I'm not rolling stats the same way this time. Instead, I'd like to take a page from Dungeon Coach's book (linked HERE), and try an alternative roll. See, sometimes I get really lucky in my spread, and sometimes I stink hardcore, but Point-Buy doesn't thrill me and to me, Standard Array is boring. I still enjoy rolling quite a bit, even if the outcome is less than optimal.
So "DC" proposed something a bit different. First, we roll FIVE stats using our standard 4d6, drop the lowest, sort of fare. I'll do that now...
6 (oh gods why...)
OUCH. Now, my DM in charge *might* take a look at this trend and say "Nope. Start over." BUT NO SIR! WE'RE TRYING SOMETHING DIFFERENT TODAY.
Because DC's idea involves one more step. I add up all of these (shudder) numbers and I get...56. I then take a magic number that DC has discovered is the total of your numbers whenever you use the Standard Array - 72. I subtract the two, and I get my sixth stat: another 16.
The philosophy here is that for all the possible suckage one could roll out, you'd be guaranteed at least one decent stat out of everything, and conversely if you rolled remarkably well, you're guaranteed one stat as your main flaw - something we openly embrace around here. It's no fun playing characters that are just good at EVERYTHING.
RACIAL MODIFIERS AND WHERE THE STATS GO
Kobolds get some nice little bonuses, but their penalties are nasty in Volo's Guide, with a +2 Dexterity bonus but a -2 Strength penalty. Lump onto that some lovely SUNLIGHT SENSITIVITY and you've got a LOVELY little Package of Argh. But Pack Tactics is nice for the "group up" mentality and, though I hate the name, "Grovel, Cower, and Beg" will be great for setting up my (hopefully) Rogue and Barbarian allies.
Keesh is intended to be quirky, smart, observant, and adorably weird. The latter might convince you to put that already low 6 into my Charisma BUT NO I say! No, no. ADORABLY weird. Nah, I'm going to lean into that Strength penalty like WHOA. Monks need Dex and Wisdom, so let's save our 16 and (now) 18 for that madness. We're level 7 for his little adventure, so I'll need to pick a Feat or max out my Dex, but I'm getting ahead of myself. All told, my Attributes are as follows:
STR - 4 (!)
DEX - 18
CON - 10
INT - 13
WIS - 16
CHA - 12
But who needs Strength when I'm FAST and cute! He said, unknowing of the horrors his friend DM will unleash upon him for his birthday. Lawl.
By Level 7 I've got most of the things that make Monk great: Evasion, my fists overcome resistances, stunning strike, DEFLECT MISSILES, Ki, and Unarmored Defense. Next, I have a Feat to consider, and in a game that supports most raw numbers better than flavor, my first experience with 5E monk in a full campaign avoided Feats in favor of maxing out that beautiful Dex score. However, Mobile has served me well in the past (but Drunken Technique will open that door nicely) and Lucky or Alert are always super helpful. This time around, I'm favoring story over numbers, and I like the idea that this little Kobold can be favored by decent luck when things go awry; another testament to his survivability. Tonight I choose Lucky, and call it a day. Meaning, I shall shape up as such:
Class: Monk - 7 (Way Of The Drunken Master)
STR - 4 (-3)
DEX - 18 (+4)
CON - 10
INT - 13 (+1)
WIS - 16 (+3)
CHA - 12 (+1)
I'm going to use stale potatoes as projectiles, jerky as nunchucks, and spices as emotional currency. Keesh seeks to improve everyday cuisine by unlocking your senses, enhancing your flavor palette, and pairing everything with chocolate - because you can't go wrong with chocolate. Ever.
I'll let ya'll know how he plays at the table.
See you there.
The cave rolls ahead of you, endless and quiet. Only the drip of the damp nearby and the scrape of your boots. Then you see it; an enormous web. Far larger than it should be.
Instinctually, a shiver runs up your spine, the creepy-crawling feeling trickling down your arms and filling your psyche with ghastly images. Then the cleric drops the torch, and you are plunged into darkness. You curse in the quiet, trying to summon another light source...
Then you hear them. Chittering clicks and tiny echoes. The feeling of being watched... With a flash, another torch is lit, just in time to illuminate the path ahead. You see...nothing. No foes lie in wait. And yet, something is not right, as you hear a chorus of bow strings being pulled back. You dare to look up.
Spider legs. Elven torsos. Longbow and sword. You have only a moment before the first arrow enters your head...
Inspiration and Lore
Gary Gygax often had a thing for strange juxtapositions. Take the Owlbear, for example. A cute, cuddly bear with the face of a freaking owl. I mean...why? Other than the fact that it easily captures the hearts of every adventurer I play with, even as its powerful claws rend the onlookers in twain, its rhyme and reason are nestled in the grand plans of its creator.
However, some beasties follow a logical evolution. If elves, then what about dark elves? If these "Drow" exist, what do they worship and why? How can such worship be rewarded, or scorned? This is more the case of the tragic Drider.
In Faerun, the mystical canonical realm of Dungeons and Dragons's published materials and adventures, the Drider is a product of chaos and evil. Tied directly to those scorned by Lolth, the Spider Queen, a Drider is the result of a Drow insulting or betraying the deity. Driders are cursed reminders of the power of Lolth, and are equally feared and scorned by the Drow population.
Traits and Features in 5th Edition
A Drider is a terrible juxtaposition of a Drow warrior and a giant spider, where the upper half is a humanoid elf and the lower, well, is a freaking giant spider. Powerful and dangerous, driders are accomplished fighters that make use of their versatile movement and superior size. Walking on walls, trapping foes, and some even casting spells, a Drider is a deadly opponent against an unsuspecting party.
By the book, these entities enjoy only the standard boons of their elven nature, but have a pretty decent AC (19 on most). Innate Spellcasting is helpful, and with three attacks to spare, they can cut down a Player Character pretty quickly. In packs of 2 or more, with a Drow strike team on the ground, a tactical group of Drider can overwhelm a party from the safety of the ceiling and the distance of their longbows. Do not underestimate them; to do so might just be the TPK you're looking for.
Drider In Io
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.