Buff DM #8 - Muscular Maintenance
Working out consistently is hard for many of us, especially given our current climate and the pressures of the times.
At the time of writing this, for example, I am currently on vacation.
Not the most relaxing vacation, mind you, but vacation?
We (my wife's family, my wife, and I) have sequestered ourselves in a not-so-suave cabin on a definitive not-resort in the far reaches of tourist trap of Lake George, New York. We wear our masks everywhere we go, brought our own food to cook in our own kitchen, and keep our distance from EVERYONE. And since I don't trust the populace of good 'ole Lake George as far as I can shot-put them (which is certainly not six feet), and, from what I can observe, wearing a mask feels more like a means to get service and not actually to protect anyone, every opportunity to AVOID OTHER PEOPLE has been followed.
Lots of hiking.
Which is wonderful, actually.
Really. If I could stat out myself like a character in my own game (a great topic for Future Adam), I would give myself proficiency in Pugmire's skill of Traverse. I am filled with purpose and energy crossing streams, hiking up stones, running trails. As long as I have food, water, and a place to pee, I would wander the woods for hours.
Which brings me to my first point.
Keep Moving (and get a pedometer)
I have a daily step goal. Yes, I've become one of THOSE people. But a tracking number feels very motivating. It's proof that you ARE actually moving around, and with the flood of information surround some of us, having a running tally that I don't have to track myself feels wonderful.
I don't need a FitBit, or any other overpriced wristband. I have a free pedometer on my phone. Easy enough to setup and no further trouble required. I track my weight-training and steps, and set my goals, knowing that the "calories" they're tracking might not be accurate, nor do I care.
Making sure to move about each hour or so around your house will net you 4-6,000 steps over the course of the day. That's pretty good. An hour walk with a few hills nets me 8-9,000 steps. Not bad.
My daily goal is currently 13,000 steps a day. Some nurses crush that easy in a work day, and I was crushing it back when school was open. But NOW, with online events and distance learning, we struggle to move out of our offices and away from our desks. So a walk, for me, is the most efficient, and the most effective.
Why walks are great!
1) 8-9,000 steps in 1 hour. Lovely! Want it faster? Split up your walk with some jogging and get that heartrate up!
2) We are inundated with media and activism. I try to write something every day. I try to paint *almost* every day. Most evenings I'm running games, and most afternoons I'm teaching lessons. There's a lot going on. But strapping on my mask and walking outside allows me space away from all of that, if even for just a short time. It's time think, time to plan, time to talk to myself; I get to work it all out, and I come back with more structured ideas, new fiction in mind, another drink idea... Space lets us process the world, so we are more equipped to handle it when we return.
3) Vitamin D is good for you!
4) Fresh air is good for you!
5) A change of scenery is really really good for you!
Couple that walk with a few bouts of pacing around "inefficiently putting laundry away" and finding excuses to get up and vacuum, dance in the kitchen, do all of my chores at once, and otherwise be awesome at taking care of the house, and I'll reach my goal easy. And it's okay if it's *not quite* 100% accurate. I know it isn't, so the ballpark still counts!
The trick is to have something that casually holds you accountable. My pedometer isn't going to scold me for not reaching my goal, so the motivator isn't avoidance-based. It's just a tracker; the rest is up to me.
You still have to want it.
If you're one of those people that struggles with getting moving because it doesn't "feel" like you're accomplishing anything, a pedometer is EXACTLY what you need, but start small with your goals. If you're mostly sedentary right now, then your daily goal is 4,000 steps. That's you moving around your house. Do that for a week. Then it's 5000 for a week. Then 6K. Then 7. You get the idea. Start small, and you'll make it. Consistency breeds habit, and habit is your training. ...That also works both ways.
If you have made a habit of giving up when it gets hard... THAT'S your training. And you'll need to train yourself out of it before you can take the necessary steps forward.
Pushups Are King (embrace bodyweight)
Not JUST Push-ups, mind you, but they're a HUGE component in your fitness, vacation or not. In fact, they're one of FOUR key exercises that you need to hone in on to ensure that you always have a gym at your disposal. And by "gym" I mean...at least a 6x6 floor, and something to hang off of.
The Big Four are: Push-ups | Squats | Pull-ups | Sit-ups
Now, each of these have their own variations and branches heading off everywhere (more topics for another post), so let's keep this one simple.
Push-ups: anything that puts you in a plank position (knees are also allowed) where you lower your body down to the floor, touching your chest there, and "pushing" yourself back up to the next starting position.
Squats: standing and lowering yourself (as if you're about to sit...awkwardly) and pushing back up with your legs and glutes.
Pull-ups: anything that has you holding yourself at a hanging position (activating your grip, arms, and back most of all, but also a bunch of other things), and "pulling" yourself up and lowering yourself back down to the next starting position.
Sit-ups: anything that engages the abdominal muscles. Leg Lifts, Crunches, Obliques, Planks, Mountain Climbers...doesn't have a to be a Sit-Up!
I make these my primary focus, especially while on vacation. Sometimes I'll split it up by day, other times I'll have a running track ("do 1000 push-ups this week"), and maybe, if there's a fitness center, I'll make sure to incorporate them into my weight plan too. This time around, it looked more like this:
Monday: 100 Pushups, 100 Abs
Tuesday: 100 Squats, 100 Pullups (ouch)
Wednesday: Rest, walk extra 4K
Thursday: 100 Squats, 200 Abs
Friday: 200 Pushups, 50 Pullups, 100 Abs
Saturday: Rest, walk/run extra 8K
Sunday: (back home) Weight training - back and arms + 50 Pullups
With all the hiking, too, I should be fiiiiiine.
And you can adjust your plans as you see fit. Maybe your tracks are weekly, like I often do while I'm at home. Maybe your plan is just for three days a week. Or two. Or five. Whatever your slice, MAKE ONE AND HOLD YOURSELF TO IT. Your body, and your gut, will thank you. ...eventually.
Of course, I'm writing this while my wife and father-in-law make a list of all the best ice cream joints nearby...
I will be fine.
Get it, nerds.
Tone Shifts and Taking Time
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.
This shall be a rare post.
Normally this is a gaming blog, but occasionally I've got life stuff to talk about and this has been on my mind in these uncertain times. So here goes something.
Yes. I am so far away from the stock moguls of this universe and the next. I am not a broker, I'm barely a trader, and I am certainly not an entity that possesses the enormous capital required to swell my own ranks in a successful portfolio on the grand stage.
...Which, I think, makes me more qualified to talk about this.
I'm not rich. Far from it.
Meaning, if you're reading this, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. :)
Jumping into stocks and bonds and putting money away, especially in TINY increments - just scrimping and saving literal change at a time - is hard. You'll try to educate yourself here and there, and though you might pick up a few hints and tricks, a lot of the advice I read first involved investing numbers that there was no way I could achieve in the time frame they suggested.
It still boggles my mind to think that people would just have $10K to throw around, like it was no big deal. Maybe, some day, I could get to that point...but I'm in the wrong career and I'd have to be REALLY lucky.
But my focus here isn't to get rich, it's to have something left over, and that's going to be very important moving forward.
I don't want to devote 90% of my day to stocks...I actually have fun things to do. This needs to be easy, and I want it to work better than a savings account with terrible interest.
What I Use and Why
I've always had a good "math brain." I like crunching numbers, budgeting, and messing around with theoretical quantities. It's helped me in game design, in money management, and now, it serves me in assessing the level of Control vs Peace Of Mind that I want when I put money away for the future.
I utilize (currently) four "assets", in addition to a savings account. I say currently, because I'm testing one out for a year. If I don't like it, I get to withdraw and re-invest into one of the remaining three. I didn't start things this way. I added each new pursuit as I discovered the shortcomings of my previous pursuits, and experienced the truth of some of their main draws, and then clarified their real power. ... That was super vague. Let's get into it.
I like Acorns.com. At the time I joined up, it was my first and only foray into stocks and bonds, and it's all automated. This has certain benefits, with some revealing detriments that are only bad if you're like me and you want more "control." The main idea here is "as long as you have at least $5, you can start investing," and that mission remains true beginning to end. The minimum deposit is $5; you can automate this or not from a funding source, and there are one-time deposit options.
1) Set deposit with a funding source; as long as that source is healthy, then you're consistently putting money away in general stocks.
2) You select 1 of 5 options for a portfolio, based on your level of risk and your time frame. Got a while and not a lot to deposit each time? Go Conservative. It'll grow.
3) Adjusting your deposits, portfolio, and other details is super easy and clear. The UI makes you feel sunny and confident.
4) Low subscription fee of $1-3. As long as you're putting in at least $5 a month, even if they take $3, you're still coming out with more in the account. The arguments against this product about diminishing returns have little weight, because you have to deposit at least $5 (that's the minimum), so you'll always come out with more, and most folks will set it at $10-25 per month to start themselves off, so that gap gets bigger fast. And you're paying for the convenience, with a minuscule fee.
5) There's an Acorns Later option for building up retirement (which is lovely).
1) Round-Ups, the main advertising draw, are, in my experience and execution, a complete joke. But not a deal breaker (in fact, a lot of these robo-traders have this feature; I go into detail about my qualms with it below in a separate section).
2) You don't choose what stocks you're investing in. You want to invest in Amazon specifically? Not going to happen. But maybe that's okay for you.
My main draw: Acorns.com is a "set it and forget it" investment tool. You're not meant to watch this account like a hawk each day; check it once a week maybe - make adjustments when you want. Be sure to set your budget clearly, and if you have extra cash to put away, you have a one-time investment option. I don't recommend the Round-Up option, but again, that was never my draw in the first place.
If Acorns is the set it and forget it, Robinhood is the hawk. Now, originally, I was thinking about using E-Trade, but I'm just not a fan. They're too big and I don't trust them. Robinhood's mobile option is lovely, and it's intuitive and easy to set things up. Their website is amazing. I enjoy how easy it is to organize my portfolio almost like a professional, whether I want to look at things by price, gain, loss, etc.
The interface is also quite transparent. You know precisely how many shares are in what and where, how much they're worth, how much of your portfolio they make up, and your total return or loss over the lifespan of owning the share.
1) FRACTIONAL SHARES - this is HUGE. Most people I would wager simply don't have the capital needed to invest in many of the big companies (like Amazon or Apple). Fractional Shares are, well, fractions. You can choose to put a $1 into Apple, giving you a fraction of a share. Slowly work up to owning half a share, or whatever you like. It lowers the barrier of entry for new investors, and was my big selling point for this asset. It also allows you, if you're like me, to better budget or "wipe" your buying power if you have a few bucks left over that would normally just sit there (put that extra in your target stock and keep building toward the next complete share).
2) Full control over what I'm investing in and how much (exactly what I wanted when I jumped into this).
3) Easy to get started. Transparent and clear.
4) Just for joining, they award you a free share in a random stock, so you have something to work with right away. This stock can be anywhere from $1 - $500. It's a free gamble, and it feels neat to get something (even if you decide to sell it later!).
1) You have full control, so you have to take full responsibility. You might be thinking, "well, duh," but this is where personal research and education will start to show its value. You need to look up the stocks you want to invest in... thankfully, a quick search on terms will take care of most - but YOU have to do it. And if you're wrong, you might end up losing some money. I don't know if this is a "true" con and not more of a reality check.
2) Transfers to get buying power are fast at first, during a grace period, but if you want your cash right away you'll have to sign up for Robinhood Gold, which has a monthly fee. Annoying, considering they give you a taste right away without telling you it's temporary...but it's still a small fee.
My main draw: I truly appreciate knowing exactly where every cent is going. I have supreme control over what goes where, and when. Want to invest in Disney? You can! That's what I wanted all along! ...may not have been the best choice, but at least I had the choice! And it feels SO GREAT to do your research, act on it, and then reap your rewards (even if those rewards are lessons for next time). I'm just grateful for the opportunity to jump in and try.
There's a lot of learning involved in this, and by giving myself a (VERY) limited monthly budget, I know I've always got some buying power available to me - ESPECIALLY with Fractional Shares - and appreciate having access to all of the resources I would need to know what the heck I'm doing. Real success needs experience, but I'm gaining that, and it's a lot of fun to cultivate my portfolio on MY TERMS.
Stash Investments I put here because I can best describe it as the "bridge" between Acorns and Robinhood.
Where Acorns has little say, and Robinhood has all the say, Stash splits down the middle.
Yes, you can invest in individual companies OR in cultivated "mixes" from the program's robo-advisor. They get cool catchy names and nice Dividend spreads, they're (mostly) informative about which companies or funds are included in the mix, and they're pretty up front about what you're getting without having to use a lot of jargon. This approach, I think, has a benefit and a small detriment.
It's beneficial because it feels more accessible. Language and terms are simplified so you get enough information so you can make a decision, but you have to dig to know everything going in. It requires a level of trust in the company that they know what they're doing with each mix. BUT, if you don't trust that, you can always invest in individual companies anyway, they just don't recommend it as readily. Stash is intended for complete beginners.
1) Mixes feel safe without feeling flat. You have a lot of say in what kinds of companies you buy stock in, and, just like Robinhood, if you don't like it, you can sell the mix and get some cash to invest elsewhere.
2) You set up your portfolio of mixes, companies, whatever as a monthly schedule with deposits of varying set amounts into each stock or stock pool. This is a more specific "Set It and Forget It." It can be exciting to check it out and see where you want to make any adjustments, or leave it alone and let it grow. Like an "upgraded Acorns."
3) Though it's not explicit, Stash also uses fractional shares, hence why the Mixes work. Better for your budget plan.
1) Customer Support... I ran into an issue with scheduled deposits into my Cash Flow. The interface for scheduling this isn't as transparent as it needs to be. It's better to clarify and be redundant than be vague when you're dealing with someone's money. I get it; english can be hard sometimes. So I contacted customer support. And then I contacted them again. And again. And again. ...To this day, 6 months later, no one has responded to my question. I ended up solving the problem myself, and once I was more careful with the interface, everything was hunky dorey. ...But seriously? No one? It boggles my mind. ---Now, they have a pretty extensive FAQ section, but nothing surrounding my issue AT ALL, so when I reached out to a person and got NOTHING, I nearly withdrew everything on the spot. I hope it's gotten better, but I don't know.
2) In case you haven't guessed, this is the one on trial. Trust goes a long way in this gig, and that initial experience of being ignored with my problem did not help. They've got another 6 months; we'll see. There's a lot of potential in the rest of the service, so I'm being optimistic.
My main draw: Though the initial reception was lukewarm, Stash has grown on me. I like knowing where my money is going, but I don't have to shift it around or watch it like a hawk. It takes less spell slots to maintain this portfolio, and I like that I could draft a few companies and mixes, and then walk away and trust that I'm putting away a set amount every month that will work for me.
A Word On Dividends (Imma drop some math on you)
The term Dividend is what drew me to the Stock Market in the first place.
In very simple terms, a Dividend is a payout from a company to an investor; you get a certain percentage yield per share that you own, which is cash. It's income for owning the stock. Yields are represented by a value, often with a decimal, but it translates directly to a percentage. So, if you see something with a "0.8", it is literally "0.8%", not 80%. That also means, for that specific example, that a single share of $10 will yield $0.08. I know, that's not a lot, but that's PER SHARE. So if you have 100 shares, your yield becomes $8. 1000 shares, $80. 10K? $800.
Some dividend yields look REALLY HIGH. Like 75% kind of high. So for even a $1 share, you'd get $0.75. Start multiplying, and this starts getting intense. 100 shares becomes $75, 10,000 becomes $7500. But it's not that simple. These are common among REITs, which are Real Estate stocks. They have high volatility, and IF they pay out, it's real nice, but it's never a guarantee. So, from experience, let me drop some knowledge.
Dividends come in many levels, but a safe yield is considered around 2-4%, sometimes 5%. I know that sounds boring, especially with the above example, but if you're going toward consistent dividends like me (because I want this to be passive money that is working FOR me), then sticking to about 3-5% will help get you there. The reason is that companies don't HAVE to pay out Dividends. If they don't pay their investors too often, though, they're in deep trouble and risk losing their capital all together. But the payout happens if the company decides they can afford to do it - and 80% is a lot harder to justify consistently than 5%. That's why Hasbro (HAS) is fantastic, by the way. They've stayed at a consistent 4.5%, even through the pandemic, and have a long history of paying consistent dividends to their backers. I highly recommend them, even if only for a fraction of a share.
Now, even after all of my research and lessons on this topic... I still have shares in certain companies with high yields. I have redistributed and restructured my portfolio to have more shares in that 3-5% range for stability, but I admit there's something very exciting about seeing that high percentage. The real reason, though, that I've kept a few of these...is trust. Despite those alarming high yields, there have been a few companies that have consistently paid me those high dividends - much to my surprise. There are still others that keep cancelling, despite having comparatively lower yields and higher profit (businesses are weird).
But if a company is paying out their Dividends to me, even if it's just a couple cents to start, it begins to build "trust fund" for me. I keep a personal log of the companies that follow through with their promises - and I'll share my current top 5 and why I like em so much!
1) Hasbro (HAS) - approx. $75 /share, at 4.5% Dividend (payout quarterly)
2) Washington Prime Group (WPG) - approx. $1 /share, at roughly 50% Dividend Yield (payout quarterly)
3) Coca-Cola (KO) - approx. $50 /share, at 3.5% Dividend (payout quarterly)
4) Alpine Global (AWP) - approx. $5 /share, at 10% Dividend (payout MONTHLY so far)
5) Tie between two similars: Western Assets (WEA + HIO) $13 + $5 /share, at 5.5% + 8% Dividend (payout Monthly so far)
And when, realistically, you're only supposed to focus on 30 stocks max...I went a little overboard with 65. Oooooooops.
I've scaled back! I promise!
The best option here is the least complicated. They're bonds. Plain and simple.
Worthy is a bond and loan service that supports small businesses, so you feel good about yourself. Plus, each bond is liquid (so you can just withdraw it whenever you want), but last three years before they close it and open up a new stack. Each stack earns 5% DAILY INTEREST. I'm not joking. It's so freaking baller.
Why do I think that's so amazing? Because I'VE EXPERIENCED TERRIBLE INTEREST IN SAVINGS ACCOUNTS. It's tragic.
So this way I can set an easy monthly schedule, and watch the interest roll in. It's compounded interest, too, so every cent you earn from interest counts toward the total amount, so that number gets bigger, which gets more interest, which then gets bigger... You get the idea. I hope. :)
1) Simple and clean. Buy bonds. Get great interest.
2) Withdraw whenever you want, even if the 3 years aren't up.
3) Safe and secure.
1?) The cash you put in takes 4-6 days to clear usually. I don't think this is a big problem, because it's definitively a security measure.
My Main Draw: out of these 4 assets, Worthy is my favorite. It's simple and straightforward with the most consistent returns. And it kicks the crud out of most standard savings accounts. Easy choice.
A Word About "Round-Ups"
The primary marketing strategy with 3/4 of these companies is using a "round-up" mechanic to augment your investments. How they say it works is that you link a card to your account and it tracks your purchases, "rounding" them up to the nearest dollar. The difference from the rounding is then set aside into a separate pool. Once that pool reaches $5, it is automatically deposited into your account.
Now, upon originally seeing this as a main draw, especially considering the frequency at which each company pushes this agenda, I tried it out. The way I imagined it would work would be the following scenario:
I purchase a coffee for $1.62 on my credit card.
My card is actually charged $2.00, and that $0.38 is put into a separate pool.
I make other purchases here and there, and my card is charged the "rounded up" amounts, siphoning the difference into the pool.
I did this for a little while, excited and totally cool with the idea that I would be seeing "whole values" on my credit expenditures and that my balance would have had some incremental gain. Upon checking both of these things... Neither was true.
In reality, this is actually what happens.
I purchase a coffee for $1.62 on my credit card.
My card is actually charged $1.62, and that $0.38 is just a number, put on a list in my account.
I make other purchases here and there, and more arbitrary "differences" are put on that list.
I then must sign in to my account and go through that list, checking box after box of these "differences" until I crest at least $5. That amount of money is then withdrawn not from my credit card, but from my funding source. To which, I ask, why didn't I just deposit an extra $5 as a One-Time deposit?
The Round-Up system uses the rounded differences as arbitrary values to collect in a list that you must then pick and choose which ones to "use" to add up to $5. Like a game. A really dumb, boring game that adds extra work to something I could more easily automate using the features I already have.
Hmm. Maybe others enjoy it, but it seemed so pointless once I experienced it. So, though they'll recommend that you sync a card every time you login, in my experience it's worthless. The way it is presented and worded gives the impression that the extra deposit comes from your credit card...but it doesn't. You're just collecting numbers so can do a "bonus" deposit...which you can do anyway, and do better by setting a budget and a schedule. Duh.
So. As with most little upstarts, there's a great referral perk program. If any of these seem valuable to you, I highly recommend jumping in through a referral. It's a nice bonus for the one giving and the new recruit.
Acorns gives an extra $5 when you sign up. You get 5, I get 5 if you click here.
Robinhood gives free stock to me and you - here ya go, friend!
Stash gives each of us $20 to invest in stuff, if you're down.
Worthy gives each of us a free bond (they're $10 bonds).
Thank you for jumping on to my weird life math lesson.
Puppies and kitties with swords and sorcery are next (Mau!)
See you at the table.
Moonriver #3 - Three Simple Mixes
It's been a tough ride while in quarantine.
I've moved my side professions exclusively online, my main profession followed (hello distance learning model), and there is a difficult lack of separation between work and home. With everything so close, and no overt way to escape effectively, little things become big things and minor difficulties weigh heavy on our psyche.
This week was a rough one for me, and even rougher for my lady. It marked one of the few times she came in and asked me to mix her a drink.
Now, we're not alcoholic people. In fact, with our combined digestive problems, our liquor consumption is a delicate beast rarely visited, so the majority of my academic study of palette and liquor is for the consumption led by OTHER PEOPLE and THEIR taste buds.
WE consume things with a simpler approach - less ingredients means less chance for contamination, and when we find a mix we like and can trust, we stick with it. Disaronno and Coca-Cola is a great example; it's trustworthy and feels good, and won't hurt us. Beer? Disease. Most ciders? Pain incarnate. The whole majority of wine? Just...why bother?
But if I can expand our palette just a bit with a few simple ingredients from my cabinet, then we're in business for something special, and just because we have restrictions doesn't mean we can't help take the edge off during those rare moments where it could really help. So what follows is a trio of simple mixes that we have used to help with the hard weeks (consumed responsibly, of course) of the past, present, and future.
Easy does it.
This one's a simple shot. Smooth and hidden.
1/2 ounce Fireball Whisky
1 ounce Root Beer liqueur
Personally I go a little less Fireball, a little more Root Beer, but sometimes I swing toward equal parts, or rebalance the complete other direction. Due to my sensitivity around anything spicy, anytime I try this shot it's chased immediately by a full glass of water (keeps me from coughing, and keeps the burn down). This way I don't sacrifice the warmth in my bones for the doom of my esophagus. :)
This one and the next are adapted margarita mixes (a favorite of my lady), and thus will use Tequila as their bases. I recommend Gold Tequila, rather than Silver, if you have a choice. If not, don't worry about it.
1.5 Oz Tequila
3/4 Oz. Blue Curacao
2 Oz. Pineapple Juice
(mix up, and pour into a glass)
Fill the rest with Ginger Ale
It's a neat little drink, smoothed out by the Ginger. No Ginger Ale? Sprite will do, but you'll change the palette a little.
Yes, yes, I know it looks like a Tequila Sunrise, and it basically is with a slight twist.
1.5 Oz. Tequila
1 Oz. Triple Sec
1.5-3 Oz. Orange Juice
1/2 Oz. Sour Mix
1 Oz. Grenadine
So this is the most complicated in the sense that it has five ingredients, then Crushed Ice that you pour this over, but that ice and the extra Orange Juice is precisely what you'll need to spread this palette out to something you can sip by the pool, or on the porch, or chug in the kitchen. ;)
And as tasty as these are, alcoholism is a thing. Please be responsible whenever you consume alcoholic beverages.
I am not a bartender, just a modern Bard, and my experiences and studies are the information I draw on.
These are strange, difficult times for many people and there's a big difference between taking the edge off and turning things into dangerous habits.
Be kind to yourself and others, and remember to extend a little compassion to your soul.
I'll see you at the table soon.
A Superhero For Your Future Self
The following is a reflection on our current state of affairs, world, and life goals. It might offer insight into my personal pursuits, reminders in this strange time, and advice from my own paradigm.
I exist currently in the between-times. A limbo of sorts; preparing more distance learning materials for my students while maintaining an online presence, but attempting to use my time wisely so as not to stagnate in my skills, goals, and creative pursuits.
Normally this would mean more writing, composing, and painting, and maybe some extra time to work out and maybe meditate. Good things, right? And yet, I am sometimes hollow.
The lack of connection, despite video chats. Lack of traditional business, even with the digital tools at our fingertips. It's only Day 4, and I'm losing my temper with people over little things. Something snapped.
I threw my mouse across the room.
It's wireless, and I've replaced the batteries several times to no difference in quality. It jumps and jitters around, unable suddenly to do its job. So. I threw it out the office door and watched it bounce on the tile in our living room, the cover dislodging at the first impact, a battery singing into the air to ricochet off the ceiling, and the body skittering to a stop by our back door.
I don't break things usually. All things considered, I'm a pretty chill dude. However, as I believe with most "chill" people, we all have our things. The little pieces of our world that just bother us; we might be aware of them, we might be working on them (as I do), but they're still there. We cannot deny their existence nor their weight upon us, and though we may be better equipped to handle them at times than others, they are ever-present and looming.
For me, it is a perceived lack of production.
If I am not producing a blog, a podcast, a paint job, a song... I feel like garbage. And with our current climate, I am blessed with sudden and isolated time. And yet, I felt trapped, unfocused, and frustrated, despite my long list of tasks I could complete. So I broke something. Interrupted the thought cycle and released some energy. Then marched my stupid face down to the basement and did a workout.
Ninety minutes later, soaked in sweat and tears, I was a new man.
Motivated, sore as hell, and ready to go. Like I'd been asleep to the world until this moment. And, you know, that's completely fair. Quite a bit changes each day lately, and A LOT of people's lives have been upended by our current events; there are numerous questions in the air, ever-evolving information, and a need to take things one day at a time. My wife told me that I had been in a state of "mourning." Mourning the past paradigm, mourning the current state of our lives, and quite literally moving through those stages of grief.
We've come now, ladies and gentlemen, to Acceptance. Now we can move forward.
Here are some things to remember, from my own perspectives, as we wade through this strange time.
Take A Breath
Practice: Patience and Perseverance
This is not permanent. It sucks, in plentiful ways. Many are still working, many not, and still many more existing in the grays between - unable to reach out for basic human contact and still required to exist. It calls into question every fiber of our humanity, and yet we must persist.
It is only Day 4 of this, and people are already panicking. We have lived through worse as a human race; being a scared little welp helps no one. Read, learn, and do what is right for the community to stay safe. Be kind to your young ones; they're scared and those less equipped aren't helping their hope. BE THEIR HOPE. We're going to be okay. Take it one day at a time and practice.
Practice: Self Care and Fitness
Some news outlets have thrown up their hands in disgust, exclaiming "What's the big deal? Just hunker down and watch some more TV!"
...That's terrible advice. Yes, at a COMPLETE LOSS of things to do, I guess TV is a thing. Maybe I just have "too many" hobbies, but TV is literally the last thing on my mind. I could record a song, catch up on my Japanese, write a goddamn book, READ a book, paint a portrait, finish my IT cert, clean the basement, put together a bookshelf (done!), EXPRESS MYSELF...in millions of ways that aren't the soul-crushing deluge of Facebook posts of fear and turmoil.
And I can finally exercise on a functional schedule. Which, for me, is 5 days a week. I achieved that for about 2 weeks back when QWay was open and I felt like a freaking superhero.
Be a freaking superhero. ...Because you definitely are (you just have to believe it too).
Unplug and Reconnect
Practice: Self-Talk, Focus, and Meditation
I rebooted my daily meditation. I had lost track of it in the madness. I had lost track of my nerves, my energy, and my center. My center. I'm going to need that.
I don't need to be constantly online. Given our quarantined state, any modicum of human connection will be essential, but not to the point of obsession. There is a line. And if you approach that line, put it down, take a deep breath, and do something else.
My favorite is grounding myself. I lie flat on the floor and feel my whole body get heavy; reconnect to the earth beneath me. Ground my spirit and my soul and remind me that I am okay. I am alive. I am powerful. And if I feel the pull that I am powerless, I HAVE THE POWER to change that feeling within myself. I can control myself in a space of chaos; I am the gatekeeper to my own mind. Never a victim of my surroundings unless I choose to be.
Turn off the news and listen to music. Turn off YouTube and read a book. Turn off the TV and play a board game. Just because we CAN be online all the time doesn't mean we should.
Take some intimate time with yourself and tend to your personal garden. Remember, you're the one that has to live in it. Pull up those weeds - without getting angry that they're there - add some fresh soil, water, maybe do some trimming, and perhaps you'll be inspired to change up a few things, or revisit that old tree that you used to love that lies gnarled and forgotten in the back of your grove. That one with the swing; old scraps of parchment and paintbrushes tucked away in its roots. Maybe that old love needs some attention too.
...Yes this metaphor has multiple layers. Like a parfait.
Be Kind To Future Adam
Practice: Hope and Practicality
The future is not yet written, and we can learn from the past, even our most recent. Plan and prepare, but do not obsess. Be proactive, but hopeful. Don't leave the important stuff to chance, but if that's done already, believe that this, too, will pass. And you know your future self quite well; we know the stress of a lack of time. Which promise do I sacrifice to maintain the current lie of my past? And what excuses are the proper weight to this scale of forgiveness for my future self? A justification for a lack of plan and follow-through is a weakness so many people have, and it will be a great tide to overcome in the coming weeks.
Pursue a better tomorrow by leaving today in a better place than when you began. Be kind to your future self by taking care of the pressing matters now, even though you're tired. Plan accordingly so your future self can keep his word. Portion out those cookies now so future you can enjoy them too in a few days. And not because we're in dire straits, but because we're fighting for a better place for our future selves to live.
We don't know what tomorrow will bring, so give your future self a fighting chance.
Give your world a fighting chance.
I'll see you at the table, digital or otherwise.
Be safe. Be kind. Don't forget to love yourself.
Everybody settle in and get cozy. We're about to share some deep stuff on gender, personal identity, sexual orientation, and personal expression. The following deep dive is an exploration of distinct characters I've played, others I've observed behind the screen, and a small look of the current state of D&D and how it affects and empowers us.
How Playing A Woman Made Me A Better Person (and many other things)
Gender-bending is a foregone conclusion when you are a Game Master. Unless you're running a completely male or female world (I mean...why?), the assumption follows that if you are playing as every character that is not another player-character, you will undoubtedly play a character that is the opposite sex that you are.
And we've all seen some cringe-worthy elements come out of this with newer DMs. A dude that plays all the ladies like lascivious harlots with high-pitched voices (because all women CLEARLY sound like THAT), or an awesome dudette playing all the men similarly but down two octaves. I get it, we're learning, and their range will (I hope) increase.
I'm happy to say I came from the middle when it came to voice. I was blessed with a love of the theater, and I adore trying out new voices, dialects, and accents. Some I've blended into regional accents for my fictional world, and that took some time! It's great to look back, and when I play ladies, they run the gamut of high to lower pitches. Most tend to sit in soft palette, and elevate slightly. But...it's not about the voice.
Characters are EMBODIED. A lot can change by a simple shift in posture and position. How a person moves, in face and body language, is even more important than how they sound. A shifty urchin looks shifty (regardless of gender), and a stoic knight is no less stoic with feminine features; both can also be seductive, or monstrous, or terrifying. Their actions and body language speak more than any masculine or feminine features would at their base. A lot of it ties more into the variables of communication, interest, and an alignment of style.
I'd be lying if I said gender DIDN'T play a role, but for me, I find it a little more complex.
I think I played Vanora to feel sexy at a time in my life that I certainly didn't. As frame, many of my men were shy and awkward (like me), or far too exuberant and annoying (like a cartoon version of what not to be), and my women, though cool, had what I thought was lacking in personality. Now, Vanora was not flirtatious; she was confident. Not once did she hit on anyone in the game, but I knew she could rock it if it came up. She was sensual in her movements, almost animal-like (Aasimar Shifter, Pathfinder), and I wanted to experience an otherworldly perspective, separated yet powerful, and highly feminine. And the perspective was...neutral. In fact, it became a piece far more about characterization; the subtle aspects of a person - their flaws, ideals, and the deeper shifting layers of emotional sand. It was a lesson in HUMANITY most of all. As the campaign fizzled out, her lessons reformed in the creature known as Lorelai in Gray Owls, except ten-fold, and much more complex, dangerous, and alluring.
And I end up playing a lot of women in my games, and not to feel sexy. Actually, I'm very proud of the women of Io in every age. I find I play them like people, rather than women or men, which might sound silly to some of you, but I think that that's the best way for me. Instead of gender first, it's always character. There's no sexism in Io (at least not in any frame that is acceptable), so a good leader is a good leader, regardless of gender. A ruthless tyrant is still a tyrant, whether it a man, woman, or anything in between. Yet, my players have had little trouble identifying who I'm playing and when (there is a family of strong women that all sounded a little similar early on, but I've adapted), and usually grasp their gender quickly.
In a lot of ways, playing women helped me consider people as people. I didn't want to box myself into tired narrative cliches or tropes, so to break free I played a person who just happens to be female, male, or something else. Their gender is secondary to their personality. What a concept to consider, yet I do believe - as a clearly heterosexual man - that women hold certain extra powers over those that would be interested in them, and the same is true for any gender that interests another.
So of course this swings toward orientation, at least at first. Love is love in Io; you love whom or what you want (as long as you're not hurting anyone), so the societal pressures that surround one's orientations that we feel so viscerally today...don't exist here. And it doesn't define someone's prevalent or lack of partners. Let's take Cecil, a high-elf bard of the court in Gray Owls, who, despite being married to probably one of the most frighteningly-powerful women I've ever played, has to play the field of information, favors, and rapport in order to sway the odds in the favor of his family and his assets. Cecil is a listener, first and foremost, and can flip on a dime whether to be masculine or feminine and all levels between as the situation allows so he can make the other in the room feel the most comfortable...whether that's manipulative or not. But for me, it forces me to wait and pick my moves carefully, embracing whatever side I need to and being open to multiple possibilities; a perspective of a tactically sound mind who will wield physical and mental intimacy to position others is a thing of beauty.
Contrast this with Obidia Skurr, the Master Slate Duelist of Feathertongue, who is concretely gay yet classically masculine, and chooses partners rarely, if at all. He never uses his sexuality overtly as a tactic; it is a subtle piece of himself that he chooses to save for only his most vulnerable times. A private person; willing to help, but only willing to open himself up to those that truly matter, yet he is pursued for his mystery. (Not the mystery of his orientation, mind you, because that doesn't matter). Whereas Alejandro Esuarve, definitively pansexual, can't get anything in bed due to his aggressively abrasive and annoying personality. Neither is a commentary on either orientation, and such an orientation is secondary to who they are as people. Whom we choose to love is really only a small piece of who we completely are, and we can choose to wear that intimate choice on our sleeve or express it only in the quiet, special moments. Neither is hiding, and both are completely normal. And yet still I can play the strong and masculine Lyla Ironwood, who (at this point in the campaign) hasn't expressed any shred of sexuality or interest in anyone, and still get hit on by the party's Barbarian, even though he knows she can rip his heart out. People are interested in who they're interested in, and each of those is a layered person (which I dare say is MUCH more attractive). ;)
Too often, we find ourselves in camps of judgment, across picket lines of which fun is most "right." We view one side in a given context, and omit others, yet we forget key powerful facts of the human identity. A person using their sexuality as a weapon is empowering and a person wielding a great sword in a huge battle is also empowering. The existence of one does not belittle or negate the existence of the other. And you know the best thing? That can be the same person. True agency is having a say in how you portray yourself in every given moment; a badass soldier can be a sexy seductress, and a sexy seductress can be badass soldier, and people WANT TO BE BOTH at different times, and run the oscillation between many others. The ability to pivot to what is most appropriate given the situation is an adaptable skill that so many desire, yet have little practice in. Wouldn't it be great if we could feel strong AND sexy? They're not exclusive, people.
I guess my main point in exploring this deeply is that, similar to my post on Boundaries, I build and play characters from a state of ideal representation. I'd be silly if I didn't reference the cruel fact that we fight for empowerment and representation because of a long history where it was taken from us, and how cool would it be if the core aspects of ourselves could be expressed without the barriers we have to punch through today. If I want to look good, I will. My choice to be fabulous. My choice to fight. My choice to breathe. My choice to express myself however I see fit.
And I choose unhinged Druid Assassin who believes she's descended from a long line of Tabaxi, despite being human. :) That fun is not wrong, and I'll probably learn something from it, too.
When Players Pursue Identity Through Gender and Orientation
I expect it at every one of my tables now; especially the one-shots. One of the gals is going to play a guy, and I'm totally down. Maybe it's just to be different, gain a new perspective, or to practice their own identity. Yeah. Practice.
So much of what we do at each table involves communication, problem-solving, complex fantasy cooperative storytelling...and social interaction. I'd be an idiot if I said my characters were not related to me SOMEHOW, as each will undoubtedly represent or be manifested from an aspect of oneself. They may grow and change, but, actually, so are you (the player). Each character we play is intrinsically tied to a piece of us, and will affect us in ways we may not have planned for.
Which is why when I witness players step outside (or inside) their comfort zones with new characters or explorative decisions I internally squee with glee. You now get to experience, in a safe and imaginative space, actual feedback on character choices, orientations, responses, communication... And if you offend, or miscommunicate, or cause a mass genocide - it's okay, because this is a game, and you can try again. That's one rep. Take the feedback, apply where you can, and we'll continue to grow together.
And 5th Edition has done quite a lot for representation. Couple this with Io's world, and my players have a lot of opportunity to explore themselves (as theme and appropriate for each age group in campaign, of course) in the shoes of each character. Maybe you're a girl that's figuring out if you like girls...so you play a guy character and try flirting out. Or you play a girl character who is bisexual, or lesbian, or pan. Who knows? Maybe you're a guy that would like to see what happens if you play a girl; will your perspective change, your thoughts, your motivations? What if your character is asexual? What does that mean, how would I play that? What if I'm a boy, and I identify as a girl? How do I explore that?
How does the group react to your bend, or your orientation? Do they support you, reject you, or are just uncomfortable? Are they uncertain, and need to consider a few things for themselves?
Maybe they're actually decent people and accept you for who you are, and try to help wherever they can. :)
I'm happy to say that I have players that decided, through their experiences pursuing an orientation they were uncertain of, to come out to their family and fight for agency in their own life. They used their character to harness the warrior inside, and actually fight for what made them happy. That's the beauty of this game; it's an opportunity to find your Sword and Shield, and rise above the walls you built around yourself. It is a forge, and when building yourself, you can always start over. You can always rewrite your narrative; tell yourself a new story.
And what we're seeing, more and more, is how little it actually matters at the table what sort of orientation, gender, or identity you wish to pursue. Those aspects of yourself (as long as they don't hurt others, and respect each other's boundaries) will be accepted at my table, and many others. However, those aspects are only tiny pieces of a much greater YOU.
What becomes possible when we expunge the social gender norms present today in what separates the expectations of a boy or a girl or the spectrum between, and embrace only the commonality of character and the sliding gradient of alignment point to point; decision to decision? Then, we are only measured by our actions, not solely by our gender, and we are but people drifting together. Sometimes we have a heading, others not, and either way, the journey is our own as we grow and learn and love together.
Forever pride. Forever human.
See you at the table.
When The Group Doesn't Jive
We've all been there.
The group's been together over a year now and things just don't seem right. Johnny's SO ANNOYING - he's late, he's loud, and he repeats himself all the time! Adam doesn't let the DM speak - no one knows what's going on, and Alex is *still* on his phone looking up cat videos. We've fought beholders together, yet we're still not...blending.
When a scenario like this presents itself, it's important to take a step back and recognize one big circumstance and answer a question: is it something about today, or has this been a trend? If the former, take a deep breath. Let go of the things that linger, and urge the group to join you in this; you'll all be better for it, and it might help alleviate a few things on people's minds. Everyone's allowed an off-day.
If the latter, still take a deep breath, but there might be reason to explore the various facets that can affect a group's alignment (not mechanical alignment, mind you).
This one's up front because it's the most persistent, and holds up a realistic truth: not all people get along. But it's the WHY that's important, and a personality misalignment is often expressed in MANY ways. It's complicated, which is why it is difficult to explore, but once a player becomes self-aware and cognizant of their own personality or incongruence with others, changes begin to manifest.
Awareness goes a long way, and a growth mindset will aid you. It could be as little as the way you say hello, or your brand of particular-ness. Reflection is important in all walks of life - use it.
But there are a few more specific elements that one can consider in the group and in life that may augment your perspective at the table.
Assuming Intent (especially negative)
We reference The Four Agreements quite a lot in the Podcast and in this blog, but SERIOUSLY dudes, it's because it keeps coming up. Inferences are important - they take facts and observable factors, coupled with experience, and help you navigate your world efficiently. However, assumptions about people, their intentions, and intended effects in interpersonal situations...cause pain and misunderstanding.
I've had conversations with people where it seems we come to a mutual understanding...only to have them rewrite their own narrative and assume wide-reaching intent, returning angry and confused. I try my best to be Impeccable With My Word - make sure that I am clear and up front - only to have others assume something very different. Assumptions like this at the table only sew misunderstanding and discord. Take people at their word, and if you must assume, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Pace, "The Plot", and Obsession With YOUR Story
When you are playing, you are furthering "The Plot." That is all.
That plot can be role-play heavy, group discussion, combat-driven, a big blender mix of everything... Whatever you decide to engage in at the table...is the Plot of this GROUP STORY. It cannot, and will not, ever be all about you.
The speed, or pace, of this story is decided on by the players. The DM is the guide, but not the impending sword-of-damacles wall pushing you in a direction. I've got hooks and floating elements for ya'll, but if you spend 3 hours shopping and everyone's having a good time, then that's the episode, and that's great too. From a player's perspective, placing emphasis on "your story" over everyone else's invalidates the group story, and in case you haven't noticed, this is a GROUP GAME. Now, some players may have more spotlight at certain times than others, and that's totally cool, but that doesn't mean that before that spotlight wasn't also "the plot."
If you must be in the spotlight, share it; invite others to come along (they can always refuse). If your character is already doing something, avoid jumping into another person's activity. This is a shared experience...share it.
Flow and Resistance + Contributions and Withdrawals
Sessions that just plain CLICK are my ultimate goal as a DM. Everybody's rolling, everybody's all in, the rapport is awesome, and everything just...flows. Achieving Flow is described as reaching a supreme "lack of resistance" with the players. Tiny rulings, circumstances, voices, characterization, pace, style...it all works and everyone has invested in each element in play, creating a worthwhile flow.
Resistance is felt when players clash over rulings, there's a misalignment of play style, roles, and any moment where things grind to a halt. Sometimes resistance is necessary to clarify rulings and understanding, but there is a particular balance inherent in such clarification, which demands that you ask yourself a very important question: Does it matter? Sometimes we focus too much on micro; take a step back and see if, in the macro, does it matter if the word you use is points or slots? No? Then use what you need and remove your ego from the situation. If it DOES matter, then talk through it, and if your overruled...get over it. You can address it again outside of the game.
The other half of this has to do with contributing to the experience of the group or withdrawing from it. This is most often felt when we joke around in the middle of play - which is awesome, by the way. BUT, a quick quip in the middle of a scene contributes to group play, but pulling up a youtube video to show everyone in the middle of a scene withdraws from it. These two sides of the same coin show respect for everyone's play and disrespect for everyone's play. It's a balancing act, and one that will have missteps of course, but must be a skill that is cultivated. If you find a player, or players, are withdrawing from the game (or pulling others to withdraw), it is worth a conversation. Remember, it isn't the jokes, it's the longer, tangental withdrawal, especially if other players are bothered by it. If that's the type of game you agreed to, alright then, but if NOT, check yourself.
Ultimately, if it goes against the social contract... Don't do it. I'll say it again, this is a group game.
Antagonists In The Party and None Of Us Are Perfect
If players are escalating each other, and failing to take responsibility for such actions, instead citing the other as the problem... Congratulations, you're kindergartners. I'm so proud. Take responsibility for your own actions; if you're perpetually late, fix that. If you seem to clash with another player, discern why (don't just let it sit there, this is an opportunity to grow), and ACT on it. If you always cite others as the problem, and evidence suggests the contrary, then you might be playing victim - own that and grow up.
This might seem like some tough love right now, but a role-playing group is a vulnerable thing. Playing with others can be hard, and this setting is especially beautiful in how accepting it can be. I am so honored to have cultivated a community that legitimately cares about its members and their wellbeing, mental health included, and am horrified when I hear of the awful experiences people have come from. And yet, none of us are perfect. We are all seeking our best selves through play with others, and because we all come from different places, there are bound to be some clashes. These moments, as difficult as they might be, are opportunities to grow, pivot, and reflect. And the community will be there to help you.
However, if you find yourself UNWILLING to grow or adapt to smooth things over, if it rallies against your own concept of yourself and "you've tried everything," then maybe this isn't the group for you. Sometimes taking space IS the best course of action; removing yourself from the situation gives context and perspective where none were present before.
Luckily, we DO exist in a space where there is always another group to try. :). We'll wait for you.
See you at the table.
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I knew this day would come. It's the close of week 7 and I can feel it. I've hit all my muscle groups, with extra days allowed to hit arms a second time and *finally* get a bodyweight-only workout...and I feel awesome. But I've noticed a few things.
1) My weekly pushup count plummeted
Clearly a product of placing weight training (and for good reason) at the forefront of my exercise regimen, as opposed to the other way around. Now that I'm hauling weights four times a week with Kickboxing and karate spliced in and a full bodyweight day on Sundays...woof, buddy.
I checked my numbers yesterday. I went from averaging 750 pushups a week to 340. I'm tired, yo.
But here's the kicker. This is EXACTLY what I need. Think about it.
IF I can achieve the level of consistency I am right now:
Mondays - Chest and Triceps
Tuesdays - Back and Biceps
Wednesdays - Legs and Shoulders
Thursdays - REST 1
Fridays - Bodyweight or Rest 2
Saturdays - Kickboxing, Karate, and Arms
Sundays - Bodyweight or Rest 2
...AND get my pushup count back up to 750 a week, I'll be goram unstoppable. Here's to the hill I'm climbing.
2) I don't care for ice cream, or dessert, much anymore...
I mean, I still have them, but they're once in a LONG WHILE. Ice cream? Once every two months, if that. I know I've said this before, but cake just doesn't do it for me anymore. Sometimes pie, or a cookie, but these are cravings, not habits, and they need to be the RIGHT KIND of quality to make it worth it.
It's like my wife and gluten. She can't eat it, but she isn't allergic. It's an intolerance; and I remember in the beginning of making the appropriate changes to our lifestyle - those little moments when cravings struck - but if we're going to go through the discomfort, it has to be worth it. High quality food that includes gluten might be worth a bite or two, but that's it; just to satisfy the craving. ;)
And even then, when I've found the "great" slab of sucrose...all I want is a little. Not a whole slice; not a whole pie. Just enough to satisfy, and that little bit...tastes AMAZING. It's funny, the longer you go without something, the better it tastes once you have it again (as long as it wasn't junk to begin with). And really, isn't that...better?
It's the same reasoning I have difficulty with the idea of building up a "tolerance" to certain drinks. If the reason is to get buzzed...then wouldn't you want that to happen sooner and more efficiently than longer and less? I know that's an entirely separate debate, but I appreciate that because of my other health issues, one drink is all I'll ever need, so I need to make sure it tastes good, too. If I'm going to have something special, I need to make it SPECIAL.
This entire experience has helped me treasure the foods and treats I took for granted, and has reminded me how to separate my needs and wants, while still enjoying my life.
3) Eating right...isn't that hard.
Chicken. Broccoli. Rice.
With me, sometimes rice is too much, so I double up on protein and vegetable, with some healthy fats.
This is what I have most days of the week, and I'm sure peeps would poo-poo that. "What's the point in living" you say, "if you can't eat all the other good stuff?"
Yes, food is a social thing, it is a pleasurable thing; the culinary arts are an essential part of our core humanity. ...But that doesn't mean I should gorge myself on pastries in lieu of a decent steak and vegetables. You can still eat flavorful, filling, and amazing food without hurting yourself. Breaking it down to the basics above keeps things cheap for me (budget's been tight lately, go figure) 5 days of the week. The other 2 days? I eat what I want. And what I want, though with a little more cheese, a little more grease, still includes Protein, Vegetable, and Carb. Does it mean that I can't have that milkshake if I really, really want it? Nope. ...But I might be paying for it later (especially without a Gall Bladder) during my next workout.
This whole process makes me acutely aware of my own dietary consequences, and sooner or later in this, a choice has to be made. Do I want to get better, or not? Do I want to lose weight/get stronger, or not? Yes? Then changes start happening.
Listen to experience. Don't go cold turkey on this stuff. We are creatures of habit. One day per week - eat clean. Dedicate yourself to that one day. Then make it two. Then three. Then five. Keep it there for a bit, and watch your sabotage cravings melt away. Trust me, the first little bit's gonna' be tough, but you got this.
And then, after weeks of hard work, and that little craving sneaks in...try a little bite. See if it still tastes good. If it does, take one more bite. Then put it away. Save it for your next rest day. Make it SPECIAL.
Eating is a part of our joyful lives, but be aware of how much of something you're putting in your body. Moderation is key, so whatever you eat, just make sure it's worth it.
See you at the table.
Embrace The Suck - Buff DM #4
I'm having trouble walking at the moment. My whole body hurts. I am currently lying on my back, pondering all the ways in which I have destroyed myself. A beautiful boulder rests upon every fiber of my being, like some stone slab cut perfectly Looney-Tunes style into the shape of my prone body. I am sore, bruised, and broken.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Motivation is something so many of us struggle with, and so many give up just when we start to reap the benefits. A lot people think it comes down to convenience, but I think it more specifically defined to a lack of resistance. We bring it up a lot in this blog and our podcast as a State of Flow in gaming, but flow can be achieved and maintained in all facets of our lives. The key here is building in that lack of resistance.
We recently opened a gym in addition to other things we offer through my business at large, not just my Game On! stuff, and the impact is palpable. I can now schedule my workout days around my work at the center, and already I can feel the shift in what has become possible for my training, my health, and my mental focus. But with those gains, I can already feel the familiar pull away from it all.
We all get it sometimes. The nagging, lazy bit of ourselves that manifests when we start making the most progress toward leaving it behind. It is the tiny voice that tells us we'll never get there, the one that complains in the middle of your chest press, that hammers your legs with doubt, and that seeps pride into your skin so you avoid safety in favor of stubbornness.
This is not something that is given to you after a week of work. Hell, you won't get it after a month, or maybe even a year. Great progress will be made in this time, but it is not the result. We will be shrouded in tiny victories; threads of hope bound together each day to form an unbreakable cord of resolve and perseverance.
Everything that I am and could be has been a product of my own choices. I am not the victim of my own circumstance and I prove this every day that I rise from sleep and seek the greatest version of myself, and it is with this knowledge that I take hold of the tethers of my own destiny...and pull. And I do this with the full knowledge that I am tearing down what I once was - the habits formed, the mistakes made, the lessons unlearned, and all the ugly bits. This will be painful, and I accept this pain, for I will rise from it, building as I go. I will sift through my own rubble, deciding what to keep and what burns.
This is going to suck. And here are some practical ways - mechanical habits, devoid of motivation, but full of functionality - that I'm going to do it.
Rest Times and Rest Days
Only key in on one rest day, never two in a row. That's mine anyway.
This past week looked like this:
Monday - Gym after work - Chest and Legs
Tuesday - Rest Day 1
Wednesday - Gym before work - Back and Arms
Thursday - Rest Day 2
Friday - Home workout - Bodyweight Blitz
Saturday - Kickboxing, Karate, then Gym - Arms and Shoulders
Sunday - Home workout - Bodyweight and Cardio
This sort of works, but I'd like my Rest Days to be Thursdays and Sundays, instead opting for Tuesday as another "gym rat" day. I think I'll get a better spread, and I'm working out consistently at 5x a week while avoiding a two-day rest period where I can fall into a slump. DISCIPLINE is key here to build the better habit.
But DURING workouts, I find my biggest time suck is in resting. My home gym workouts would take far too long due in no small part to the amount of time I was carelessly resting between sets. In the gym, the focus is different. I have taken the time out of my day to go to a space that is not my home to use equipment that isn't mine in order to build my best self. There's an onus there. Other people are here to do the same thing, so I'm not going to waste my time or theirs; the pressure's on.
So, I give 20-30 seconds between sets - sometimes I even count out loud, especially if I pushed hard enough to shatter my own metacognition. It keeps me moving. Instead of workouts taking 3 hours, I've knocked them down to 90 minutes for the same benefit. Employing my next element, I've got 'em down to under that.
Supersets, "Triplesets," and Circuits
Sometimes I get bored. Sometimes I get distracted. Sometimes I have a lot of workouts to get through and I feel pressed for time. So I double them up.
Single, focused sets are good. Great, even, and certainly have their place. But I'm always one to use Supersets and Triplesets to keep me moving and motivated on those days I have difficulty focusing.
A Superset is when you take one exercise, perform one set of it, then immediately perform another set of another exercise without resting between. For me, this practice serves two functions: 1) It's more efficient, and 2) for muscle growth and dynamic fatigue, it's amazing. Instead of just extending an exercise, or performing another set on the same exercise, I'm still working but the muscle groups are different enough that the grouping of the previous exercise "rests" while another works. That aspect of rest isn't actually true, mind you, but the difference in movement is the point here. I do my 20-30 second rest after completing the second exercise.
And if a Superset is effective, then a Tripleset must be awesome, right? Well, yeah, but we can also call that a Circuit. A circuit is a set of 3 or more exercises performed one after the other, then resting. I use Circuits to keep me moving (efficiency) and to pump (reach hypertrophy) faster, while maintaining strength training. It also lets me check off more exercises in my book in bigger, more satisfying chunks. :)
One More Rep...
Yes, the name of this week's blog is Embrace The Suck. And I mean it. Embrace it.
Accept that this is going to be uncomfortable. Anything worth it will reach a point of discomfort. This is mine.
There will be days that I will crave the things I don't need. Days I don't want to work out. Days I want to lay in bed and avoid the challenges my life will bring. And those days will SUCK.
But those days won't stop me. Because I know they're coming (a few have happened already, and I've crushed them). I know the feeling of doing pushups and your body lazily prodding you with "you don't need to do any more, that's enough," and the feeling of pushing through that to get one more rep. I know the feeling of pushing to failure, even when one more rep feels like miles away, and you have to fight against your own doubt and pride and hunger just to push through.
But I will. And it's going to suck. This is going to hurt. This is going to challenge every fiber of me. But I will become stronger; I will become better. And it will be that one more rep that is the difference between raw willpower and falling off this wagon. And to the latter: I REFUSE.
BEAST MODE ENGAGED.
I'll see you at the gym.
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The Power Of Intelligence
Recently I had the honor to play in a new event type we're offering at the center: Modular Madness.
Now, witty title aside, the event structure is certainly no One-Shot scenario (though we did have a character death in the first combat - curse those Nat 20's), and not as grand long-form as a Knight Owls or Gray Owls. What it is is a set of 4-6 sessions planned over roughly 4-6 months. We meet and play for approximately six hours each sitting with 2-3 breaks between the action. We do this to experience and play through an actual module inside the given game system.
This time around? We're playing Dragon Heist.
Run by John, with a strict party of 6 adventurers at maximum, and no clue of each other's complete intentions, we muddled our way through chapter 1 of the adventure at our first session about a week ago. IT WAS A BLAST AND A HALF, and I've done some thinking on the experience.
I play a Yuan-Ti Wizard named Soren Finranda. He's a little creepy, keeps to himself, but is generous and cunning when he needs to be. Now, I've played wizards before, but I wanted to take a specific approach when it came to Soren.
This Yuan-Ti is not strong, nor is he dextrous in any way. My Constitution gives me +1 HP per level, and with 6+1 HP at first level...yeah, I have 7 hit points walking into this. With no armor and barely a dagger to my name, I have no business being a damage dealer. And, dare I say, until higher levels, nor does ANY WIZARD, and here's why.
Soren's spells are not built for dealing damage. Sure, the Yuan-Ti race feature gives him Poison Spray, and he grabbed Toll The Dead like a boss, but the rest is rounded out with Mold Earth and Minor Illusion. Yes, I skipped Prestidigitation this time. All of his level 1 spells? Grease, Shield, Sleep, Silent Image, Unseen Servant, Magic Missile.
Soren's whole schtick is to wait and plan, and in a system where I often play Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Monk, Sorlock...this was old school D&D. There's a rite of passage that follows the low-level wizard; the knowledge that all it takes is one errant arrow and a failed saving throw versus halitosis and BAM you're dead. You have to be careful, smart, and save your VERY limited spell slots for the most opportune moment.
And Arcane Recovery... Well, Arcane Recovery at level 1 allows you to "recover" one level 1 spell slot (1/2 of the two you have at the get-go) during a Short Rest. Over the course of chapter 1, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, so no long rests, meaning all I've got is one Arcane Recovery to recover ONE SPELL SLOT. Make 'em count, gents.
So I did.
Grease the troll so my melee buddy has advantage, and keep my distance. Arcane Recovery. Sleep the ambushing archers because they're close together and I rolled high on the 5d8 Hit Point pool (I'll at least drop one of them). One slot down. Summon Silent Image to confuse the heck out of a major foe and SKIP that combat altogether. By now, I'm tapped out. Just cantrips to go on. Use Minor Illusion to cover the mishaps of my allies and divert attention - fail a stealth check and nearly die from one arrow to the chest - then Poison Spray for max damage because why not?
I had to be quiet, careful, and cunning. Especially with average damage working out the way it does, and with a module setting with a high emphasis on laws, stealth, and cloak and dagger, my job is better served as a controller, not a blaster.
The Most Expansive Spell List
The wizard spell list is extensive. The biggest one in the game. And though there are some spells that we'll never get (lookin' at you, Eldritch Blast), what we do get can alter time and space. It's hard to argue with a well-placed Fireball, but I beg you to consider the less obvious options. Options like Charm Person - which can end a combat if you're on point, later following the Dominate Person and Dominate Monster train; Detect Magic and Identify keep you knowledgable of the arcana that surrounds you (not to mention spell traps around your allies); Disguise Self; Feather Fall has saved many lives in MANY campaigns; Flaming Sphere coupled with Pyrotechnics (flaming marble madness in a smoke cloud of chaos); Suggestion, to really drive a point home.
And most of those I just listed are lower leveled spells, so you'll have more opportunities to use them. An expanded spell list offers you options, and each spell has a reason to exist; I urge you to collect as many spells as you can into your spell book and entertain the option of each - play through the mental landscape of its use, usefulness, and level of control on the social, exploration, or combat fields. The rest is up to how patient you are with your tactics and how creative you can be with its use (but always have a backup plan ready in case it goes sideways).
You have the resources to be smart, and a wizard is a great class to practice playing smart.
The first time I played in 5th Edition I chose a wizard, and picked as many damage-oriented evocations as possible. Through playing, however, I began to understand more of the game's mechanics; not only my own, but how other players and enemies navigated all the pillars of play...and how magic can infiltrate, manipulate, augment, and dilute these mechanics.
And after 2 and a half years of teaching the game, talking the game, designing the game, plus over 10 years in other systems... I get it. My knowledge of how the game works, action economy, and how each spell functions makes me finally work like a wizard. Knowledge is power.
I understand how powerful prone is, so Grease is obvious. Silent Image is confusing and powerful to less inquisitive creatures, so of course I have it. As AC continues to rise, and I don't want to be seen as a combatant, then spells like Toll The Dead and Poison Spray, that require saves, are very advantageous early on...and will continue to be as I try to be secretive. On top of this, as my options continue to increase (the most expansive list in the game), I can continually adjust my focus each long rest, making me extremely flexible day to day.
Returning to the wizard allows me superstar moments. Time to wait, watch, and listen...then throw out a clutch spell that's going to change the landscape of the encounter. I have the power to alter time and space; you can bet your butt I'm going to wield that power with Intelligence to maximize its effectiveness, no matter what.
Knowledge is power.
See you at the table.
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Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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