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.
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.
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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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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I was recently invited to sit in and play at a friend's long-running Pathfinder game. Everyone just made it to 14th level, without milestones, so they've been playing for awhile.
A well-established group who have spent enough time through some amazing adventures to achieve a high-level sense of play and a complete lack of resistance for the DM in charge. It's clear the group and their DM have a lot of love for the game, their story, and the individual players and characters.
They ran like a well-oiled machine, with clearly defined roles for the players to help each other out as well as a strong idea of their functionality in combat, AS WELL as a justified means to protect each other and trust each other's abilities and agency when stuff gets real. Remember what I said about that lack of resistance...we'll be swinging back to that.
So I'm coming into this after a long stint of running Pathfinder, then falling headfirst into becoming a professional GM for a company who has helped foster the creative, and soul-driving endeavor of offering unique opportunities for players and game masters to become their best selves through tabletop gaming experiences. I write this blog, publish fiction, make custom content, and record show after show of an online campaign and a kick-ass podcast. NONE OF THIS is to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate that, more often than not, I'm not the player at the table - I'm the one behind the screen managing this chaos.
Which means on those rare occasions where I'm offered an opportunity NOT to do that, I tend to take distinct care to create something functional, fitting, and, for the love of Sauron, to KNOW WHAT I'M DOING. I have a certain calm to my preparation nowadays, and in Pathfinder you've got to know (or at least have the reference ready) what your stuff does to keep things moving and ask the right questions to clarify. I had the honor of working with the DM beforehand, hashing out a backstory that fits inside the awesome steampunk 1840's Yukon Gold Rush with subtle magic elements and a weird freaking train, then set to work chaining feats and working the numbers to stay competitive with this established crew. Not everyone knew I'd be coming, so I didn't want to bog anything down, nor arrive with no concept of my character (NEVER ARRIVE without your character already done. I mean it. If you are familiar with the system, there is no excuse. Do your damn homework).
So, life runs a little later than intended and I roll in a bit late with food and drinks as penance, say my hellos and mark my place. I like to be compact; character sheet and all accompanying abilities/spells/etc on a clipboard, selected dice in my rolling box, pencils at the ready, and spare paper in the clipboard. I even came with a coaster for my caffeine, just in case! The session begins shortly, and the team as is has some planning to do, so while they converse in character directly next to me, I turn toward our DM and we work through some short interactions to set up my individual plan and then... I wait.
And I loved it. True, every now and then there might have been a quick interaction where I could investigate something, look around, listen (I was being smuggled in a coffin surrounded by a den of vampires, by the way), but until actual combat began - I needed to literally wait. It was splendid.
I got to watch these people work. The few I knew in the party came over to check on me, apologizing that it was "taking so long," but if it was, I didn't notice. It was an honor just to watch, adding to the scene with my silence, with subtle actions here and there. No one knew what I was; I didn't announce any of my character or my mechanics when I arrived - they weren't sure if I'd be friend, foe, or something more, only that I was playing...at some point. And no one asked; not out of ignorance, or dismissal, but out of respect. I'd like to believe that they, too, understood what I was reveling in.
I was enjoying the subtle power of Silence.
Space To Listen - Space To Exist
Actively listening to the players, the party, and the game master.
This is a skill, and often I feel we forget it. We replace it with a need to be heard constantly, eager to be listened to rather than to allow others a similar space. By literally shutting our mouths and opening our ears, we begin to engage with the world around us in new and dynamic ways. I was ENTHRALLED by the antics of this party, and though I think that was in no small part due to their own nature, I'd like to entertain that my own active listening helped just a tad in holding my attention. I was consistently fully engaged in everything that WASN'T my turn, and I was remarkably happy to, well, WAIT.
Space where I wasn't flapping my jaws also allowed my active brain to shut up for a second, and just exist for a time. Errant thoughts - like looking up a feat, making sure that random mechanic worked the way I thought it did, checking my numbers quickly - can still occur, and I can quietly take care of them without interrupting flow (what a concept), but for most of that preamble, I am 100% engaged with everyone's story that IS NOT MY OWN. I am excited and energized by their cool powers, interesting ideas, and role-playing. It gave me a moment to read the room, and to appreciate the beautiful world that the DM had made with these players - take note of the great care with which they've crafted this experience, and sit in awe of seeing it all work, like controlled chaos.
Space To Reveal - At The Opportune Moment
Wait for your mechanics to shine before they are revealed.
This one I have to be careful with, because rules are important. The GM needs to know that you are not taking advantage of something/cheating/fudging your numbers/etc; trust is important, so the GM needs to know what you are and what you can do, and you MUST make sure that everything you can do is well within the rules you are operating with.
IF you are fulfilling this already, here's a suggestion: try NOT telling everyone about what your character can do right away. Create nuance and mystery by NOT showing them your character sheet right away, so when you get an opportunity to show what you CAN do, the beat hits harder. Case in point:
Combat begins shortly after I hop out of a coffin and dust a vampire, catching the sniper rifle it was holding and loading it as a Free Action (hint, hint). We roll Initiative. The highest player is at 24...except me. I rolled a 33. 19+14. ...I will revel the look of awe at that table, just in a small way. Mechanically, it's all kosher. Dexterity is a 22 (+6). Inquisitor gives me my Wisdom modifier on top of Dex (another +5) for Initiative, Gunslinger Initiative +2 (HINT), and a trait at character creation that grants a +1 (6+5+2+1 = +14).
That's one small element, and a neat little moment. My turn rolls around, and I use Deadly Aim to take a full round of 4 shots (reloading for free), with a prayer of Judgment (attacks are now magical) with +16 damage on every hit, and +22 to hit most shots - to strike down a vampire that just got slammed by the barbarian in a surprise round for nearly 160 damage...which was heavily reduced by resistances...then he got my blessed bullets and took full damage.
Yeah. I'm a holy Gunslinger Inquisitor with a southern drawl and fantasy-themed bible verses. Take into account that I still work all of my mechanics in my own voice, that's a fun reveal in the first round of combat, and it helped establish my own schtick early on. Plus, EVERYONE at the table is now experiencing this character at the same time as their own characters - I didn't talk up his personality or his voice or his abilities beforehand. Add on that I spent some Grit (special skill points that create cool trick shots and targeting) to alter the battlefield and provide utility to the group, and it's pretty cool.
The best part? They haven't seen everything I can do yet. And they won't, unless the opportunity presents itself. There's no reason for me to brag about the cool things I can do. It's so much more fun to use them when the time is right.
There's a big difference between telling everyone all the cool spells you can do, and SHOWING everyone the awesome spells you can do at the best time. The impact of the latter is so much greater, and it creates something beautiful and refined from a cooperative story experience. Try it out, I dare you.
Giving Way - To Think, To Breathe, To Be
While I was in Bermuda, my friend Jesse and I went wandering. We witnessed a curious thing: they have a specific sign on the roads. A familiar white, upside-down triangle with a red border and black lettering. What we would immediately recognize as a Yield sign, instead read the words: "Give Way." Together, we were pleased to see this. Jesse was pleased because it changed the language to allow people to think of someone other than themselves while driving, but bringing the fact home, my podcast partner in crime, John, swung it a bit further. When you Give Way to someone, you're not actually giving up anything. Instead, you are "Gifting" space for another.
When we practice silence, we gift space to another to fill, or we can choose to not fill such space. Quiet moments do not HAVE to be filled with noise, or speech, or music. I like to think sometimes that in gifting my silence to another, I might have given them a sense of peace and quiet in a world inundated by distraction and stimulus; so loud and uncaring that we feel we must speak constantly lest we be drowned out by the void. But you don't have to. I give you space. Try filling it with BREATH instead of words; you'll be surprised what you discover.
You ever feel like you're the only one speaking? Try stopping for a moment and assessing the room. Spotlight is important, sure, but high-level play comes from everyone's willingness to share that spotlight. Being aware of our personal time, our character's spotlight, how much time that uses, how our role-play may miscommunicate because we're bored, and thousands of other miscommunications because we don't feel like becoming engaged in the stories of others. A party that hasn't already experienced a lot of adventuring together (like, years of it) can feel pretty delicate.
Our silence, coupled with active listening, can help communicate an absolute respect for a person's story, but this is a two-way road. Kind and patient people can use up that empathy on a person that fails to notice their own spotlight hogging over and over again. Try this little thought experiment: on a group chat, if the majority of the last 10 minutes of posts is you...STOP. Give someone else some space to speak. At a table, if the last 45 minutes have been your character's scene, try to find a way to wrap it up. Once in a while is fine - but all the time is obnoxious. That's tabletop 101, gents.
The Well-Oiled Machine
This group flows.
Not one moment came up where the DM had to hush the players, or argue a point, or fight to get something across. Everyone at the table was absolutely engaged with the stories of each other, mine included (thanks, guys and gals). We got up, wandered the room, had in-character conversations throughout the house, all within the world, and the DM was aware of all of it. It is abundantly clear the level of play that this group enjoys; they adore the world that has been constructed for them, and it is a joy to play within it. They respect each other's time with immaculate care and fun, and we were happy to play until the wee hours of the morning (I barely noticed).
Now, part of this is a product of the extensive amount of work that each of them has put into their character's mechanics, and for the fact that they've got a literal human encyclopedia at the ready in the form of the host (thanks, buddy), but those are the roles they've established over years of play, and they are clearly dedicated to this cooperative campfire story. Even if I didn't have years of experience in Pathfinder, as long as I didn't behave like an obnoxious jerk, I'm certain I still would have had a blast with these people.
If I ever get invited back, it would still be my honor to wait quietly for my turn. ;)
See you at the table.
I am very sore today.
My back is cracking bark; my legs shaking steel; my chest whines as I stretch, and my arms feel heavy. Sleep calls, and rest beckons. But I must persist. I must exist.
And this pain is beautiful. I cannot wait to feel it again - knowing that I just pushed my body as far as it could go, and I'm still standing. I will rest, grow, and heal, ready to do it all over again.
Every time I do one of these entries, I like to come at it from a reflective state. A LOT has changed in my life plan and routine, and I want to share the lessons learned from the journey so far.
Intermittent Fasting (IMF)
Intermittent Fasting (IMF, for short) is a process of extending your fast to force your body into burning its stubborn fat stores. Very basic understanding being that the longer you are fasting, the more fat your body can burn as food, as long as you are staying active - thus telling your body to KEEP all that muscle tissue, and get rid of the excess.
I did this for the whole of 3 months. I would stop eating by 7 or 8pm, and start eating around 2:00pm the next day (18-19 hour fast). Days 1-4 almost drove me nuts, but day 5, my body acclimated. I got used to, and okay with, the feelings of hunger driving at my stomach - which was, for me, a heavy fear. I hate feeling hungry. Through this, I actually enjoyed the feeling, at least in the beginning.
Here's the kicker, though: this didn't work for me. I didn't lose weight, and all I ended up being was MORE TIRED, and less inclined to exercise on an empty stomach. What I DID learn, however, was that I didn't NEED a lot of food in the morning.
Nowadays, I have a muscle milk yogurt smoothie in the morning (under 200 calories)...and don't have solid food until about 1:00. With a strict regimen of water and exercise throughout the day, I started feeling my best again.
My diet changed dramatically, as well. Less carbs, more veggies, more protein (and fish, yay!), and more (yes, more) water. Soda doesn't taste right anymore, so it's out completely. Juices I haven't touched since my gall bladder ran away. Ice cream is a rare occasion, and most meals I skip dessert altogether. My tummy is very happy...and as of this morning, I can see my abs.
Let me repeat. For the first time in nearly 25 years. I have abs.
Lift Test - Machines On The Boat
My home gym is not very extensive. I have a bench, a curling barbell, a straight barbell, and a set of dumbbells from 25-40 lbs. Add in a dip station, pull-up bar, and a punching bag, and that's it. The majority of my weight training is free weights and (no spotter) chest presses with control over weight - my toughest workout days are majority bodyweight; tons of pushup variations, squat variations, and many grips of pullups. Kickboxing once or twice a week, and running twice a week...and I'm doing well for myself.
Recently, my wife and I found ourselves back on a cruise ship. The Anthem of the Seas - a "high-tech" vessel with a robotic bar, wave pool, bumper cars, and a teens-only extravaganza deck. They also have a Vitality Fitness Area, with rows upon rows of dumbbells all the way up 80 lbs, and a plethora of machines for any manner of exercise.
Our first night on the boat...I took 2 hours to myself and lifted as much as I could on every one of these machines. It's a powerful thing to be able to report the following:
Chest Press: 170
Leg Press: 350
Shoulder Press: 160
Tricep Pulldown: 65
Lat Pulldown: 150
Bicep Pulldown: 110
...and then many others that I failed to record. It was also great to happily curl 55 lb dumbbells.
I'd never have space for such things, but it's a great ego boost to know that it's working. ;)
MSM (Meditate, Stretch, Move)
This remains from the last big Buff DM post, and I'm still doing it. Starting my day with 5-10 minutes of meditation, then stretching, and making sure that I move. I need to spend more time on my feet than on my seat. :)
Taming The Beast Inside
I am not someone that suffers from anxiety, at least not overtly. But some may think I do based on the state of my fingernails. Since the age of 6, I have been biting my nails. I've been fighting it since that age as well, and every victory is short-lived as the habit "finds a way." Long story short, the habit has found its way into nearly every facet of my life. It sucks.
I'm not a nervous dude. I just have a lot of energy, and a lot of my passive thoughts are centered on productivity, creative thought, composition, and story-telling, not-to-mention a fair amount of energy dedicated to HOLDING ONTO those cool ideas...which makes me fidget.
This need to move manifested itself early on in my psyche as The Beast. A creature I would try to lock away and keep caged even as it infected the land around it. The best practice was to let it out, acknowledge its existence, then work to slowly purge it from my life - location by location. But he's a tricky fella.
…until the boat.
Throughout the 7-day cruise, I didn't touch my nails once. I watched them grow for the first time since my childhood. They look great. Still. It's a struggle back on land and surrounded by my usual stressors, but I'm fortified with a lot more this time. A huge part of that Beast died on that boat. And he ain't coming back.
Hey. Hey you. Yeah, you on the chest press. How many squats have you done? No, seriously, HOW MANY SQUATS HAVE YOU DONE!?
...That's what I thought.
I've always loved pushups. I love upper body work in general. It makes me feel strong, which undoubtedly adds to my desire to do it. You know what doesn't make me feel strong (at least not right away)? LEG DAY. Squats, leg presses, lunges, split squats...all those circuits and super sets. Ugh. It HURTS.
But here's what it's doing. It is ensuring that we don't get chicken legs holding up our gorilla torso. It ensures my third goal in this hot mess: SYMMETRY. It is more important to look proportionate and feel good, than to bench triple my bodyweight. Bench-pressing a car is all well and good, but I need to be able to run and fight and squat that car, too. Plus, a symmetrical body is exponentially more attractive to EVERYONE. Nobody wants to gawk at 10-inch biceps only to be disappointed by toothpick legs. And the better I look, the better I feel, the better I can do my job.
So. NEVER SKIP LEG DAY. EVER. Or trunk work. Or butt work. Every inch of us is beautiful, and should be treated just as well as our favorite parts.
In Closing - The FORGE Beckons
I am the strongest I have ever been, and I hope to be able to say that each time I do an entry here, but I want ALL OF YOU to feel as awesome as I do now. So, I've been talking it up here and there, but filming has finally begun, and with the advent of a fitness center under our control (wink, wink), it's time to build up The Forge: Level Up Fitness for the Athletic Nerd. Bodyweight exercises with Milestone progression, actual attributes for yourself as a D&D character, and a boss fight every tier. Let's get to work, nerds.
See you at the table. And maybe the gym.
I have only just returned from a 7-day respite in a far away land. A land where the drinks flow readily, the food is exquisite, and the magic is there as long as you are looking for it. What is this long-forgotten civilization of artisanal glass-blowing and dwarven rations? It goes by a name only whispered in dark corners and seedy taverns.
And what, pray tell, did I accomplish while in this dark city state; a secluded island of rich history, crowded busses, and a vibrant night life all wrapped up in the thin coating of tourism and mini golf?
Nothing. I did nothing. And it was the greatest Nothing I could have hoped for.
It was in this nothing that, for the first time in nearly three years, I was truly "away." My mind could rest, and it could wander. It could take note of my now practiced ability to easily make conversation, to make new people feel at home, and rejoice in new connections forged through such friendliness and courtesy. I got to meet many new people, some of which will remain friends beyond this experience, and all of which are accomplished nerds (including a pair of leather workers and armorers). I was immersed in a culture of ease, where tastes could be explored, conversations organic, and sheer existence celebrated.
I haven't been on a cruise in some time, and now that I am home, it is safe to say that was the best one yet. It wasn't the ship, or the food (though it was amazing), or the staff (they're pretty cool people), but it was company we kept - the people we met, the conversations we built, and the strong connections we made, that would define this experience.
And, of course, this got me thinking during the 3-hour drive home from Jersey - on the importance and significance that rest serves in a D&D campaign, and in life, and I think I broke it down into four main elements.
Recharge - The Obvious One
In game, you take a Short or Long Rest. Short Rests regain some abilities here and there dependent on your class features, and allow you to spend Hit Dice to shrug off damage a little easier than spending spells or potions. Long Rests heal you completely (in most systems), and you regain your spells and options, like a nice reset.
In life, we use rest to help our bodies and minds recharge. It exponentially increases our capacity to love, forgive, care, and share our energy with others. A human without sleep doesn't last long when it comes to empathy, communication, or any measure of joy. Without rest, we cease to function as people. So, take time to rest, if for nothing else than to refuel and rejuvenate your spirit to tackle tomorrow.
We need alternative views to grow as people, and these require time to process for each person that remains open to them. You ever get so wrapped up in a problem that you feel like you're going crazy, only to take a moment - a deep breath, even - and discover the solution the next moment? Yeah. That. Take a moment, give yourself a break, and come at it from a new angle. Everyone is healthier for it.
In game terms, this works precisely the same way. Combat, puzzles, and social challenges can be augmented and creatively solved the more angles you can work, and the more ideas you are open to. Considering the ideas and perspectives of others, while allowing yourself time to process said avenues, expands your imagination and problem-solving. So do it. Please.
Exploration - Wandering Is A Form Of Rest
Not all those who wander are lost, and this is most true when we allow ourselves space to roam. Too often in life, we become stuck in our path, locked into our chosen lane. Rest allows us to wander outside of that lane, open ourselves to new experiences - often outside of our comfort zones. This is a good thing. It keeps us flexible and moving toward a global literacy. Try things that are scary to you, try the road less traveled, and give space to new thoughts and ideas. Let them evolve and change, and open the door to revisit them to see what new facets of your being have now surfaced.
In a game, this is best represented by "side quests." Whether it be for a rare item, a shred of character background, or as a natural consequence to a poor decision...the best side quests are often more fulfilling than the main story. They could last a few days in game, a few months, or represent a brand-new arc of the story. Often, we learn much more in our wanderings and can grow tremendously just by venturing off the beaten path, so that once we return, we are forever changed; stronger, faster, more skilled than ever before, making our return that much more triumphant. Not that the main quest is somehow diminished, and, in fact, it only strengthens our desire to return to it at the close of our wandering. It bolsters our resolve, and equips us to move forward. Which reminds me...
Preparation - Pointing Forward
Often referred to as "downtime activities," extended stints of rest offer up opportunities to build elements, infrastructure, resources, and education for the challenging road ahead. In game terms, this is when players accomplish feats of extended research, business connections, stronghold building, magic item construction, SHOPPING, and, ahem, personal side quests. It helps to provide the players with not only a chance to breathe, but a means to point forward toward their personal and group goals, with the opportunity to prepare appropriately.
In life, rest - TRUE REST - allows our minds and bodies the valuable time to be "away" from it all. Then, we can return slowly, reintegrating the elements of our lives that we actually miss...and begin to build the tools necessary to augment and expand upon what we ACTUALLY want out of our lives, while leaving the excess behind. For me, it was a hard look at where I am and where I want to be; recognizing the elements of my life that I no longer need or want, and the elements I want more of; creating a clearer work/life balance separation for my own peace of mind and to help fight fatigue; FINALLY building a business model that not only supports the pursuit of my dreams, but keeps me sane on the way.
We need this facet of rest the most, yet so little of us have the opportunity to experience it. Even if we LOVE our jobs (and I do), we all need to get away for a bit to recognize all that we can do - all that can become possible - when given the time to prepare. And in case you're wondering, THERE IS NO LIMIT.
I'll see you at the table. I'm off to build a castle in the sky.
Those of you within our closer circles have already seen, or heard of, the exploits of my Pathfinder character, Bigby. His story has been driven into the hearts and minds of all he graces with his crotchety presence, and many have been saved (or horribly killed) by his hand. And though playing Bigby was A LOT of fun, there were pitfalls in my approach to him, at least mechanically speaking... So let's take a look.
I wanted to make an old, grizzled, crotchety fighter well into his 60's...that can still swing an axe and battle monsters that would make his ancestors shake in their armor. He's a little forgetful, but he means well, and he gets frustrated when things get too complicated. Not one for political moves or cloak and dagger, Bigby deals with his problems directly and decisively, and holds little stomach for cowards. His backstory is pretty tragic in connection to his many sons and estranged wife, his entire destiny tasked to wreak vengeance upon the warlords, gangs, and circumstances that took each of his sons from him. And this doesn't do much to help his own mental state, as sometimes he sees the ghosts of his sons following him through life, but also guiding. He doesn't feel guilt for their deaths, almost at peace with the idea that they cannot rest until he fulfills vengeance for each, and they grant him the fortitude to soldier on.
That's some heavy and sad stuff... So I tried to make him the buffest of buff old men.
Tearing Into The Mechanics - My First Optimization
I've gone in depth a bit HERE, when I gush about my love of Pathfinder and its numbers, and give a little heads up as to the plan of Bigby's build. BUT, it's worth noting that ANYONE can build this character. There's no homebrew here; everything he has is within published, canonical materials inside the Pathfinder D20 system.
So, CORE CONCEPT - Grizzled FIGHTER, adept at close combat, hard to hit, hard to kill; literal tank of the party.
Gotcha. So, in order to fully benefit from all the things the system has to offer when it comes to combat, I have to be a Fighter. The Fighter class has persisted in D&D and all of its variants as an industry standard. Often viewed as a "simple" or straight-forward class, the Fighter is considered a master of martial combat, proficient in just about everything (except Exotic Weapons, in this case), and wearing any armor they can get under the sun. This can make them unbound when it comes to equipment, but also equipment dependent in order to keep up with casters and other variants.
The main benefit of the Fighter in PATHFINDER however is their ability to Feat Chain.
I once did a video on this exact concept, but looking at it from a negative managerial point of view when comparing how Pathfinder handles Feats as opposed to 5th Edition D&D. Upon revisiting Pathfinder in the last year and a half, I've come to appreciate the huge amount of thought and mechanical considerations of the extensive Feat list in the game. It really makes it so incredible things are possible mechanically.
Fighters can "feat chain" because of a blend of two main mechanics. As Feats are essential to making a functional character, EVERY character (regardless of class or multiclassing) gains a Feat every odd total level (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th...you get the idea). A FIGHTER gains a Bonus Feat at level 1 in the class, then every EVEN level in the class (so 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th...you got it). Therefore, if you're following here, as long as you stay straight Fighter and do not multiclass, you are effectively gaining one Feat EVERY LEVEL, and TWO Feats at level 1 (when most others get one). Add in the fact that a Human gains an ADDITIONAL bonus feat at level 1...and we've got it made early and often.
Let's RECAP. Bigby, at level 1, is a Human Fighter, so he starts the game with 3 Feats of his choice (it should be noted that the bonus feats from the Fighter must be classified as Combat Feats [there are different categories], but there's no reason for us NOT to take a Combat Feat when considering our plan here).
Level 1 Choices
Concept Path - Human Fighter, 3 Feats to start, good golly
How do I want to fight? Well, armor is awesome, and I want to get the best bang for my buck with any gear I'm using, and hit hard and often. Great offense with great defense? Of course. Sword and Board.
This choice immediately puts me at a combat disadvantage without Feats. If I want to slice and bash, I am now engaging in Two-Weapon Fighting, and in so doing suffer HUGE penalties to my attack rolls (a whopping -6 on your primary attack and -10 on your off-hand attack). These penalties drop a little if the off-hand is a light weapon, but I don't want that (it's my shield. Not gonna' happen). Penalties like this make sense, though. Any schmuck can pick up two weapons and swing them around, but they're not TRAINED in it, so they won't be as consistently effective. This is how Pathfinder uses numbers to represent this lack of training.
Which means, I need to lower that initial penalty. Feat #1 is easily Two-Weapon Fighting, which drops my initial fighting penalty to an even -4 for my primary and -4 for my off-hand. With a great starting Strength score of 20 and modifier of +5 to add to my attack rolls, I'm doing okay so far (+5 modifier to both attacks, after math = +1/+1).
Now we add in the fact that every class benefits from a mechanic called the Base Attack Bonus (or BAB) - a general numerical bonus to each of your attack rolls (not unlike the general Proficiency Bonus from 5th edition). In a martial class, your BAB often matches your class level, but for more varied classes, it progresses a little slower. Bigby is a Fighter, so his BAB equals his Fighter level easy, adding another +1 to each attack in his two-weapon fighting (+2/+2).
So, Feat #2? Improved Shield Bash. Normally, if one were to bash with their shield, they would lose the bonus to AC (Armor Class) that the shield provides in the round following the turn that they bashed; justification being that you're too busy crushing a dude's nose with the shield to use it to defend against oncoming attacks. Improved Shield Bash allows me to bash...and keep my AC bonus. Also, less thinking for me.
Feat #3 - Double Slice. This feat allows me to add my Strength modifier to the damage roll with my off-hand (where normally I would not be allowed to...so yeah, less floating numbers for me. Nice and streamlined.)
RECAP: Attack twice each round with a +2 to each attack, keep my AC bonus when I do so, and add my strength modifier (+5!) to both attacks. With a d10 for his Hit Points, and high Con score (17, so +3 HP), Bigby's pretty beefy so far.
Fast-Forward to Level 6
Bigby's seen some things, and taken only a few hits along the way. Most of the damage dealt to the party has been dealt to others, because at this point, between Armor Training, a rare set of Warplate, and a Ring of Protection, his AC is 27. That means that most thugs have to pray to hit him with a Natural 20. To top it all off, his hit points are easily triple the other party members (a gaggle of casters, a druid, and a rogue). He's grabbed a good many Feats along the way, each adding to either his attack/damage with a shield, or his AC with a shield. Quick breakdown:
Level 2 - Fighter Bonus Feat: Shield Focus = +1 AC while wielding a shield
Level 3: Two-Weapon Defense = +1 AC while wielding two weapons (shields included in Close Weapons category)
Level 4 - Fighter BF: Missile Shield = longbow or crossbow bolt hits me? Nah, I block it with my shield once per round.
Level 5: Weapon Focus - Shield = +1 Attack roll with Shield
Level 6 - Fighter BF: Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (second off-hand attack, so two shield bashes)**
**It should also be noted that when Fighters (and many other classes) reach Level 6, they can attack twice with their primary hand during a round whenever they take a Full-Attack Action (forfeit all but 5 feet of your movement to attack a lot). The way Bigby functions at this point allows him to wade into the fight, stand mostly still, and wail on enemies (attacking 4 times every round), confident in the idea that they will rarely hit him with their attacks...and if they do, he can take it.
With all of this front-loaded force, battles began to feel pre-ordained. Bigby was an unstoppable truck, even with his weakened Will saves; if he were upended by a spell, his party would back him up, and he'd only grow more angry at the idea that someone attacked his mind. His vengeance would be devastating and decisive.
I started to fall into a trap. I had picked everything I had based all within the realm of the rules in the game. But other than a few mind-affecting spells, Bigby was unkillable at this moment, and I felt myself becoming BORED. I had made a super-adventurer, and we were just over halfway to double digits in character level. What sort of insanity would Bigby be capable of when he reaches level 10, or 13, when I literally run out of applicable feats for the build (Shield Master happens, and by then I'm attacking three times with my shield, and suffering no penalties for it).
My mentality began to pull toward ripping through enemies, and tearing down conflicts with violence, not diplomacy, because that's what I knew to be MOST EFFECTIVE. Maybe it didn't help that the rest of the party had low agency themselves, so the violent old man was driving the story. It got a little frustrating, but we used it as an opportunity to BE FRUSTRATED in character.
But I cannot deny the rush of power in each fight...I just wish things didn't die so easily. Saitama-syndrome aside, a powerful player represents a unique challenge to a DM. He can scale the difficulty to accommodate for a beefy PC, but often at the expense of the more squishy player-characters. One dangerous martial combatant puts the rest of the party at greater risk. It makes sense, but from a group play scenario, it can get a little complicated.
The DM has to make sure that the main threats target the optimized player so as not to paint the picture of punishing the party for a player who just followed the rules, but then that player could feel, well, TARGETED for just playing the game. What really has to occur is a delicate scaling of encounters that affect the party in more dynamic ways. Instead of a big bruiser just becoming a BIGGER BRUISER, use intricate spells and traps to offset a heavy martial character, and provide a counter-balance to the rest of the party. A well-prepared wizard is a dangerous foe, even against the mack truck that is Bigby's build.
Pathfinder especially supports insane play through its mechanical system. Crazy-high numbers at low levels is not unheard of, and the entire system expects optimization and multi-classing as a rule. Playing the game can be exhilarating, satisfying, and massively entertaining...but it IS a LOT to manage, from both a player perspective (in ANY class) and the DM's perspective.
With so much going on, you might think you'd never be bored, but when you're nearly unkillable... You might feel a greater pull toward the more insane levels of shenanigans and odd-ball problem-solving that puts the group at greater risk. They're great stories, win, lose, or draw - but the ensuing madness can become the norm.
So what do we do?
Well, building a trust-empathy relationship with the party and your DM is paramount to having a positive experience regardless, and we (here at Questers' Way) err on the side of rising to the occasion as opposed to diminishing a player's power level (there's an exception to this, when players abuse rules, but this isn't it). If you have a powerful party, well, then you have to grow as a Game Master, and find new tactics, strategy, spells, and other tools to offer greater challenges. It's a push and pull, and you never want to appear cheap (like a monster "suddenly" gaining extra resistances, abilities, etc.), so having a discussion with the group of players is totally welcome and encouraged to help the GM level the playing field.
In the end, we're just creating more epic stories, and one must remember that this is a collaborative experience, not a GM vs. players mentality. An optimized player is not an insult to the game, they're an opportunity to grow.
See you at the table.
Hey peeps. I'm not perfect. No player or game master is. But I've had better days, and whenever life kicks me in the head, I tend to go through a cycle of reflection, beat myself up a little (I'm not as harsh as I used to be), then take a look at a few things that I can change to make everything flow just a little better.
Warrior mindset, ya'll. Let's break it down.
A State of Flow
A State of Flow represents a "lack of resistance" from the player and the game master during a session of play. It is achieved when each player is fully invested and focused on the session, and the GM never feels like they're fighting the players. This doesn't mean that the players take a backseat, quite the opposite actually. The players have a strong sense of how their characters operate and what they would do, thus flowing along with the GM, and their constant adjustments to the players, without causing hiccups; whether they be stretching the rules, misinterpretations, not paying attention to descriptions, being unclear on their actions in combat - there are many, many ways to interrupt the State of Flow. However, EVERY game will have these hiccups. What we as players, GMs, and the group as a whole need to do is try to minimize our recovery time to return to that lack of resistance. This way, EVERYONE benefits from cohesive play. Here are some ideas to help achieve that, coded to GMs - Players - or Both.
Setup and Breathe - Both
Everyone is allowed a bad day. It happens. Maybe you're running late - you got hung up at work, you're stuck in traffic, something came up. Maybe you were just in an argument, and it's weighing on you still. Maybe your head's just not in the game yet.
We've all felt this, no matter the cause. However, with 2 hours of play, I want to get into my play-time as soon as possible without carrying external baggage into my little escape from the outside world. I achieve this by entering and setting up, before engaging with the rest of the story, closing my eyes, and taking a few breaths. I let my emotions flow and take the time to reset, effectively opening my mind and body to the game. When I open my eyes, I can imagine that I am in a new state; whatever happened before does not matter NOW. Now, I am focused on telling a group story with my party.
This works for both groups, and in many moments of life. As teachers, many of us need to switch gears from class to class. We cannot allow the upsets or flow of one class to color our teaching of another; each one must be treated like new. So such is each game session; I do not want to bring in other elements from my life into this game - I want to be focused and intent on playing, so I can get the most out of my experience.
It might be strange at first, but I have led some deep breathing exercises or STOPPED A SESSION and made everyone take a deep breath, when I felt the flow becoming an absolute train wreck. I encourage every player and GM to take the time to set themselves up (get their character sheet, dice, organization, everything), close their eyes, and take a deep breath or two before entering the fantasy world. It may be a few extra moments, but it saves a million headaches down the road, and you will get faster at it. So take a breath, and let's go.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Distraction - Both
This one flows directly from above, but it's more personalized. I KNOW that if I have my character sheet on my computer, I am bound to engage in other things (email, correspondence, marketing, BLOGGING), or at least feel the pull to do so during a gaming session. It's the way my mind works; which is why playing in a session is so healthy for me, as it reminds me to slow down and pay attention, instead of just powering through checklists of tasks. Similarly, I try to keep my phone at bay. Sometimes I do need it nearby, but it's flipped over, and it's ALWAYS on silent. I will never, ever pull up a meme on my phone to show to ANYONE during play, because I know if I let myself do that, that I will fall down a slippery slope of distraction.
That's ME. Now, others can be completely engaged and focused while using their phones. However, if you ever find yourself getting distracted, YOU NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT. If you feel yourself being pulled into your phone instead of the game, and it's causing hiccups in your flow and the flow of others, you need to recognize this and put it away. Some people can have their computers out and they know that they'll still be engaged, so I'm not saying "NO ELECTRONICS AT THE TABLE." We live in 2018; I get it. We've got great tools - we're also all individuals with brains and meta-cognition and the ability to introspect. If you are causing hiccups in your own state of flow or the flow of others due to your own external distractions, take ownership of this fact, and make a change. This helps build trust, empathy, and accountability into the group.
Streamline Dice Checks - GMs
Sometimes GMs try too hard to engage party members individually during a group task. This burns time, and can split attention unintentionally. I am guilty of this on a few occasions, and I am working to recognize it earlier than the night after, but it helps to put a few things into perspective.
GMs should assume that we have limited time at all times - this doesn't mean that we need to RUSH anything, but it does mean that precision and efficiency go a long way.
Don't require rolls for simple tasks, just move through it narratively.
If the group is engaging in a group task, have everyone roll at the same time, and announce the DC and what happens down the line to each player.
(Sometimes) Pre-roll opposed rolls if you're really strapped, so they act as general DCs instead of live rolls. I don't do this often, as it can kill that "live play" feeling for me, but using a general DC based on a creature's attributes can still speed things up.
A roll should only be used for a task where the outcome is unclear.
Strip Away The Gravitas - GMs
I like to describe things with accurate language, but still fantasy-oriented, like a good book. Sometimes, however, elements can literally get lost in translation, and players miss details. In this way, precision and transparency are more important than flowery language. You want to ensure that the visual of the players is the same visual you had in your head, thus everyone is moving together through this collective theater of the mind. If everyone has mostly the same picture in mind, you have a much lower chance of running into inconsistencies with character decisions (like someone assuming that a wall was a door, but the character would have known this, it was the player who was confused because the description was not clear to them) based on preconceived notions on the layout of the room.
This works for mechanics as well. You can be general, but your terms should match those in the book. In combat, for example, it is imperative to note what a creature is doing in established terms so players know exactly what they can and cannot act on. "The bandit uses his Cunning Action to Disengage from the group, then uses his Action to attack with his crossbow" INSTEAD OF "The bandit moves away from you, then shoots you with his bow" - "Do I get an Attack of Opportunity?" - "No, he Disengaged." - "Then how can he attack me?" - "He has Cunning Action, so he can Disengage as a Bonus Action." - "Oh, okay."
Or in the case of Legendary Actions and Spells and Counterspell: "He spends a Legendary Action to use his Disrupt Life Feature (features are not spells, and therefore cannot be counter-spelled)" versus "He uses a Legendary Action to CAST A SPELL (CAN be counter-spelled)." Neither of these spoil anything about the enemy; no one learns anything "secret" about them, and I don't fall into the assumption of trying to "trick" or "trap" my players by omitting elements that they could have acted on. The worst arguments (and wasted time) I've seen in play have often stemmed from that lack of clarity: "Well, if it's a spell, I cast Counterspell." "It's a Legendary Action...so it isn't a spell per se." "Well, is it a Feature or does it say he casts a spell?" You get the idea. The players don't have to know WHAT spell is being cast (a check might reveal it, or not, up to you), but they NEED to know that the entity is casting a spell, because they've got tools to counteract that; if you ignore those tools, you've robbed them of agency, and mucked up the process.
Finally, try to separate cinematic flavor text from mechanical changes. I fall victim to this, too, and it can be frustrating when you're trying to describe a battle cinematically. You might go into a cool description of a particular blow to a creature...and the players will interpret it as a mechanical change. "He's driven to his knees by your strike, the armor visibly denting from the raw force of your impact" - "Oh, so his AC went down!" - "No, it just hurt him a lot." - "But you said his armor dented!" - "But it doesn't affect his AC" - "Well, he must be prone, then; you said he went down!" - "...sigh." Whereas if I describe: "The force of your blow is so strong it knocks the feet out from under him (I move his piece to make him Prone). He falls flat on his back and now prone, the wind momentarily knocked out of him." I added a mechanical clarification to my description, using established terms, and no one clarifies or fights me. Sometimes in the former, I will have to clarify by saying instead "He is MOMENTARILY driven to his knees." See what I mean?
Though, the latter example is also a Player thing. If the GM does not announce a mechanical change, don't argue that there is one, but ask a clarifying question - this way, the GM isn't put on the defensive, and they have an opportunity to make adjustments where needed; this is smoother, and thus faster.
Prep Your Turn - Players
It bothers me to no end when a player casts a spell on their turn...then stares at me as if I have memorized every single spell in the book (I do memorize many of them just out of osmosis, but there are hundreds of spells) and know exactly what their spell means, their save DC, and what I am supposed to roll. It's YOUR turn - look up your spell, know what it does, know the save and your DC...prior to your turn.
Now, the battlefield changes during play, and that can affect people's plans, especially casters, so when it settles on their turn, they may have to scramble. I understand that, and it totally happens, but you as a player are responsible for understanding the capabilities of your character. The hiccups, actually, occur when someone casts a spell...and then sits there, as if they have forgotten the other elements required in casting a spell; some spells are spell attacks (where the character rolls), others are saves (where the enemy rolls), some have varied effects, conditions, contingencies. If you're not sure, have the spell description nearby; the idea here is to be organized, so that you take responsibility for what your character can do.
For EVERYONE, try to have an idea of your Movement, Action, and possible Bonus Action before your turn. Just like board game etiquette, you are expected to think about your turn PRIOR to your turn occurring. Things can change during play, and that can affect your turn, but if you're watching the battle unfold and thinking actively about your turn, you've already made adjustments as you go, so the interruption of flow should be small anyway. And when you take your turn, declare what you're using and how: "I spend my 50 feet of movement to run around the back of the beholder, and I spend my Action to attack twice, and then my Bonus Action to use Flurry of Blows and attack two more times (rolls dice, concludes actions). I'm done." My turn is over.
The trouble we run into is present in three ways. First, we're only waiting until our turn to even approach thinking about what to do. All that time between was us being distracted and departing from the scene. So, when our turn arrives, we're playing catch-up. Sometimes we need to pee - I get it, everybody does it - but when we come back, you make it a priority to catch back up before it's your turn. If you return and it IS your turn, then the pressure's on and you need to make some quick decisions.
Speaking of speed, the second way we interrupt flow is when players forget HOW the mechanics work and the steps needed to execute certain actions. For example: Attack and Damage. An Attack requires a D20 roll, then adding Proficiency Bonus and Ability Score Modifier to that roll (this should be ONE number next to the weapon on their character sheet for simplicity), and announcing the total. THEN, if you hit, taking the appropriate damage dice, rolling those, adding on the appropriate modifier and any extras (again, marked clearly on their sheet for ease of calculation and speed) and announcing THAT total. We get bogged down when that checklist is unclear or we skip steps.
The third way...is detailed in its own section below.
Respect The Scene / Wait Your Turn / 6 Second Rule - PLAYERS
BE EVERYONE'S BIGGEST FAN. If it isn't your turn, plan your turn (so you're ready), but celebrate the achievements and actions of your allies - this keeps you engaged in the scene, no matter what it is. This also makes your fellow players feel FANTASTIC. Now, this requires some caution - remember that when it isn't your turn, it isn't YOUR turn. Try not to, in your celebration of others, begin to add your own character into other player's turns. It's one thing to cheer on a player using an awesome ability and another to horn in on that use of ability; Ken uses Deflect Missiles - we all cheer and high-five him / Ken uses Deflect Missiles and Colton mimics him doing so, rolling an unprompted Performance check out of his turn trying to distract the Duergar chieftain. The former celebrates without taking the attention away from Ken, while the latter pulls the attention away from the active player. There's a difference.
The key point here being that you need to Wait Your Turn; plan it out, sure, pay attention, celebrate, but WAIT for your time to shine. This also means that you should be aware of your side conversations. If you're engaged in everyone's turn, those side conversations will be minimal to none, and that's great. I hate the feeling that comes up when I'm playing, it's my turn, and everybody's chatting about something else - but I'm quiet and engaged in their turns, how come they can't show me the same respect? And though that may not be people's intentions, it can come off that way; we want to avoid that perceived double-standard of respect. And though it might feel like you're waiting a while the first time, I guarantee that it makes everything flow faster. You'll be back to your turn before you know it.
When out of battle, and this one can be tricky to achieve without some patience, it is important to respect the scene that is transpiring. It may be an interaction between the barkeep and one other character, or a courtier and two characters, or most of the group talking down a hill giant while another investigates his house. Just because the rest of the party isn't there doesn't mean they should carry on their own conversations. Think of it like a theater production. No scene will transpire at the SAME MOMENT as another scene on the stage. Timeline wise, they might be happening at the same time, but we will SEE them at different times. What this looks like literally is the party watching and waiting and listening to an interaction until it comes to a close, and then taking an opportunity to engage in their own scene(s). Scenes where the whole party is engaged with the same things tend to flow pretty well, but the same principle can be used. If it doesn't involve you - watch and listen. If it does involve you - engage. If the former, and you want it to involve you - watch and listen for a moment that you might be able to enter the scene.
I know, it's a lot more waiting and listening, but if we've done everything else on this page, this one should be pretty easy by now. No person wants to feel drowned out by others, and everyone wants to shine, so respecting each other's scenes allows characters to shine without feeling like they're fighting to be heard, AND we get the added benefit of building up trust and empathy across the group.
Finally, don't try to cram a million things into your turn. Movement, Action, Bonus Action. 6 seconds, dude. The more you adhere to that main mechanic, the faster the rounds go, and no one can perceive that you're getting more bang for your buck during your turn as opposed to others. It also makes you more efficient if you assume that you only have those three (often two) things to worry about.
In conclusion, both GMs and players can do a lot to make our sessions flow better, but the greatest take away here isn't speed so much as taking a breath and staying present in the game. We all get hang-ups, and our brains can be more distracted than ever, but I have to remind myself: Slow is smooth, smooth is Fast. Slow down and take a moment; watch and listen to your fellow players; let them shine, so you can shine; get organized and let go of the day; take responsibility for your own engagement. And we'll all be better for it.
See you at the table.
PS: Remember, talking is free...unless it's a monologue.
...Please stop monologuing...
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.