The Push and Pull of Scrutiny
I have always been a reflective person. I did it constantly in school growing up (defining what it meant to be a decent person while struggling to find my own place), in college (learning to be a musician and a teacher in deluge of philosophy and pedagogy), and now, as a Game Master, I do it even more.
I am constantly worried about the state of my players; their happiness, fulfillment, meaning, investment, and overall comfort levels. And it's exhilarating, so I don't mind. But sometimes I get days like this - where I feel like I failed somehow; failed to reach someone, or made them feel bad when that wasn't the intention. And though teaching in a public school is a job that hones in on specific students; how they grow, change, question, etc. - THIS job of Game Mastering feels so much more...personal.
As Game Masters, we're really GUIDES above all else. As John and I have stated countless times in our podcast, we work through Consequences, not Punishments, and this mentality must persist through every facet of our narration and storytelling. We have to enable our players to reach their best selves. Often, on top of a full working knowledge of the world and the game mechanics at large, we have to know those awesome abilities that each character has and help them realize their best options (in a kind way) on and out of their turn. Be kind. Always. Support your players, don't punish them.
That has always been my mission - but I dare say that I am slipping to some degree. It comes from a place of improvement, but it could be I was pushing in the wrong direction. My allowance in custom materials and interpretations is something that is never going away, but as we continue to grow and I build our Mastering Certification, I know I've been trying to curb toward following the core rules most of the time. However, I have felt that I've made a few rulings that were not fair, and with me, I take each and every ruling I don't agree with like a punch in the face. I think on it often, and then try my darnedest to automate my solution so it never comes up again. :)
John Tanaka, one of our other Game Masters, does these cool live-streams each day over on our Facebook page, and in one of them he talked about a brilliant book called The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. I have consumed this book, and I've taken it up again, and I think it applies to all walks of life, but in our mission here at Game On - to become our best selves through gaming - it matches quite perfectly from a Game Master and Player perspective.
The internet can be a swarm of rule lawyers, and though the "enlightened" point of view is gaining a voice - that it's a game, people, relax - there are still those keen on stating that "your fun is wrong." To help deflect some of this scrutiny, I've rolled back some of my home-brews in favor of RAW (Rules As Written), and been much more up front (in speech and in writing) on the things that I have kept. But so much of what we do ISN'T viewed by others; it is only viewed and experienced by the other players at the table - it's more intimate, and contextual, so the more amorphous the concept, the more circumstantial the ruling, and those will invariably change moment to moment.
So, before I go on, let's take a look at those four points of understanding, as presented and paraphrased from Ruiz's book, with some personal reflection thrown in.
1) Be Impeccable With Your Word
Do not speak ill of others or gossip. Do not accept, internalize, or believe what others say about you, or your thoughts about yourself.
I think on this and I realize that this was one of the points in High School, and school in general, that I happily failed at. I don't archive, internalize, or hold onto ill will. There's just too much going on in my own head, which opens the door for the latter, which is to remember that "not all the stories we tell ourselves are true." We have to remember that our words have power, and can propel good or evil forward - personally or interpersonally.
When we fill the world with our own voice too often, we use up our own well of words. We need to be silent sometimes; both to observe, and to speak from a place of intelligence and kindness - never to betray ourselves by telling cruel stories.
2) Don't Take Anything Personally
Any reaction implies that you have accepted (agree in at least some small way) with what was said or done. Everything people say or do comes their own perception and paradigm of the world, and has nothing to do with you.
Taking things personally is what made me a better teacher in the beginning, but it came from seeking to avoid perceived pain, as opposed to augmenting my craft. Glad to say that the latter is now the common practice, but the former sneaks in at times when exhaustion creeps in (secret lesson: take care of yourself - exercise, eat right, meditate, you get the idea).
What really sucks is when we subconsciously hold onto perceived ill will. It is rare if I do it now as an adult, but when I do, it's deep, and reveals a clear weakness in my inability to let it go. I did this once in the last year, and though the experience propelled a lot of positive change and leveled up my business and game mastering and leadership - all good things - I was still holding onto the venom...only to discover through a third party that it was all a misunderstanding anyway. That was months of wasted energy - whereas I COULD have sought out a solution by simply talking to this individual (see #1). Perceived possible pain at the interaction held me back from a simple solution.
3) Don't Make Assumptions
Don't operate from a preconceived understanding of the world or your relationships. All assumptions are limitations and failures to communicate.
This ties directly into a mentality that perplexed individuals in High School. I had a mantra: Assume Nothing, Question Everything, Change Something. It meant that I tried not to make assumptions about people and situations, would clarify (a lot, so much to the point that others thought me a dullard) understanding for myself and those around me, and make constant adjustments to my behavior and routines to try to be a better person. Not sure if it worked, but thinking on it now, it still makes a lot of sense.
Not to say that you can't use intuition, and learning, to better equip yourself for certain situations, the key here is to KEEP LEARNING. No single entity knows everything, and all knowledge deserves deeper understanding. Don't take things at their face value; the details might open your mind in new and challenging ways - and that's a good thing.
4) Always Do Your Best
Make your efforts all about what you can best accomplish in your current situation, so that you're always satisfied and happy with yourself. Don't overwork, but don't work merely for a reward.
This is what I strive for each day, but the most important component of this description is "in your current situation." The things that you cannot control do not weigh upon your personal performance. Do what you can with what you have, and make THAT the best it can be. The rest will be learned over time and progress.
The Ultimate Call To Action
The close of the book is probably the best - and simplest - fire to light under one's soul. Ruiz calls you to be an entity that takes ultimate responsibility for your own suffering and level of happiness and fulfillment. I interpret this into three focused mindsets: The Warrior, The Magician, and The Mystic. Those three avatars are in a constant feedback loop at all times, no single one taking full control of us at any one time, and that balance of trinity is never more apparent than when I'm running a game session - and the sessions where I struggle is where I have forgotten these mindsets. (I'm paraphrasing and adapting here, so don't @ me, bro)
The Warrior - the warrior is in control of his own behavior. (see also: Bushido) A warrior IS NOT a berserker; we are not controlled by our emotions, instead we control ourselves, and how we spend our energy; we do not deplete it with fruitless things. We have a limit of our own each day; a well that is pulled from as we engage in tasks and with others. Some tasks drain us, while others replenish. I have never built up my own energy reservoir more than in the last year - discovering the things and people that create that positive Feedback Loop of energy that helps me replenish my reservoir, and allows me to pour my soul into the people and elements that need it most - like my fellow players and their enjoyment of the game and their stories. TL;DR - only spend your energy on the good stuff; that choice is something you're in complete control of.
The Magician - a magician is one who is tapped into her creative mind; she tells stories, paints pictures, and forms new and distant worlds at a whim. She spends energy in creating, brainstorming, and seeing what could be possible - often in charismatic ways, taking others along for the journey. The magician is called into being all those moments when we allow ourselves to imagine, to create, and to play using our open world as the canvas. TL;DR - you're never too old to imagine new things, or bring them into reality; that's how invention is born. Never stop imagining.
The Mystic - the mystic views the world through an augmented lens, always keen to continue growing and learning - never allowing herself to stagnate, or become stuck in the ways of others less enlightened. This view of the world is not popular, but it saves our energy for the causes that matter. The mystic shows itself any time we stop to listen before speaking, research before reacting, and decide to engage without betraying our own center. You no longer rule your behavior by what others may think about you - a trait foreign to so many in this age. How mystical. TL;DR - never stop learning, and don't be afraid of adjusting the lens through which you view the world.
Augment Your Games
Resolve interpersonal issues...personally, and kindly (#1 and 2). If it's a topic that would benefit the group as a whole, and it stems from an interpersonal moment, deal with the latter, then address the former. This avoids feelings of passive aggression, and doesn't place that player on the defensive in the company of the team.
Made a mistake? Own it (#1). Most recent example for me: I got it in my head that order of operations mattered in 5E (some editions and other games rule that it does, but the elegance of 5E does away with that)... It doesn't. Hunter's Mark? As long as it's still your turn, you can cast it before or AFTER your attack, and still gain its benefit (just roll a D6 for the extra damage). Don't know why I got stuck on it so bad - I was wrong. :)
Support Your Player Abilities With Kind Reminders or Suggestions (#1, 2, 3 and 4): I would do this often with my newer players, but as time has rolled on, I haven't been as consistently helpful. I've been a little stuck in my own head lately, hence revisiting this awesome book, so I admit to dropping the ball a few times. Even with veteran players, if it's once a week, especially nearing the end of a long day, they might forget stuff. ANYBODY can forget their abilities; it's a lot to manage. It isn't our job to make them feel bad about that - it's our job to help them be their best selves, even if doing so wrecks my monster/encounter/spell/NPC/Legendary Action/Supernatural Ability. Group game, buddies.
Take a step back (#1, 2, and 3): It can be easy to get stuck in the trap of misreading a player's resting face as being bored, them in character to them actually being angry, and a high or low emotion moment coloring our actual perception. If we're ever unsure, though, we can always communicate (#1, and #3) interpersonally, and hopefully learn from such a communication. As these games are as much building trust and empathy as they are creating fun encounters and challenges, kind communication can only make the whole experience better.
Adapt and move on (2, 3, and 4): Maintaining momentum in a game is very important, so I try to have either a resource open or I've studied the rules enough to have them memorized to be able to respond to a player quickly and easily. But it's impossible to know everything, so having that resource nearby is key. If a ruling comes up in play and it isn't 100% clear from the RAW (rules-as-written), make a ruling then and there, and move on. You never want your game to halt for a discussion on the "intended ruling" of a rule. Then, also, see if you can err on the side of the player, not the DM, to put the power in their court instead. Players aren't inherently combative; it's a product of feeling screwed over by bad DMs, so give them a little more sway and see what they do with it. You can always have a discussion AFTER THE SESSION IS OVER.
Be KIND to one another. Always. No creature on this planet starts off cruel - these things are learned. If you revel in making players feel bad for forgetting their abilities, punishing players for out-of-the-box concepts, railing against GMs who are learning, or rules-lawyering people to tears...please UNLEARN this mentality. Kindness builds trust and empathy; two key components to any successful campaign. It tells players that you've got their backs at the table, even if the villain of the story is out to get them. That's the GAME, not the players and the GM; separating the two helps build immersion, and releases the tension of an involved story, without spilling over into the real world.
It's a powerful relationship - don't break it by being intentionally mean.
I'm sure there's a lot more I could connect here, but I think that KINDNESS is the main theme here. Your words have power. Not all the stories you tell yourself are true. Never stop learning. Always do your best. The rest...ain't worth the energy. :)
See you at the table.
This past Saturday was a late one.
Starting just a little after 7:00pm, the Gray Owls embarked on their fourth chapter in the world of Io-Firma, continuing to explore and augment their experiences in the terraced city of Stormwrack. They took care of business, had meaningful conversations, powerful investigations, and deep exploration. It was 1:00am before they even engaged in a fight. As such, at the close of the session, it was 3:20am.
Not the longest session I've ever run here. That honor still belongs to the early Knight Owls of Season 1 for 21+ (session close at 5:25am, woof). And the length is not the point of this post, but it helps grant perspective when considering what it takes to have a session like that: one that doesn't serve a Three Act Structure, like most Knight Owls sessions.
Gray Owls is special in its construction. The world is dangerous, deadly, and difficult; the players know this going in. They are also allowed to play any kind of character that could fit in this world - they don't have to be heroes. In most cases, they're not. They're just people trying to find their way through, one small step at a time. Some struggle with inner demons, others with outer ones, and all with trust and companionship. That last element is the most organic of any team in any campaign I've ever run. They don't trust each other - they have no reason to - which makes the moments where they stick up for one another, or disagree, or insult, or instigate all the more potent and invested. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is supremely important to any successful campaign.
These characters aren't the heroes, but they are the protagonists of this story, and this story is a constantly evolving weave of each of their individual stories as they crash, clash, and move together. Saturday was a weave, then a minor explosion, as the intentions of one member spilled over and against the intentions of others. Such a clash of ideals, views, and actions was dangerous, but compelling in magnificent ways. The impact was raw, and difficult to swallow, but the group fell together, finding some semblance of a truce before ending the evening.
Without caring about one's character or the characters of others, this clash might have dissolved a party. This is a good group of players who understand the difference between this fantasy world and our own, and are completely content with everyone's secrets, agendas, and plans, even when they go against the majority. Such player investment in everyone's secrets - not in knowing them, but in their existence - demonstrates an excited level of trust between players; yes, their secrets might become extremely dangerous, detrimental, or downright terrifying to the group as a whole, but everyone loves the fact that they exist.
Secrets are what makes this world tick, and everyone is invested in seeing them slowly revealed through action (or inaction), and only when the times are right. Although, after this last clash, that time might be sooner than we think...
It fills me with joy that knows no end when not only players show an interest in how my world works, but when they add to its lore with their own stories, and work to find their own niche inside the atmosphere; find a way to make their character "fit" inside the world. In such a setting where secrets can get you killed, having players not only embrace this idea and respect it, but also add upon it, then ACT upon these elements, makes the world believable. It breathes life into the dynamics of this city, legitimizing everything about it. Its life, its people, its economics, its classicism, its magic, its business, and its law.
This is a two-way buy-in for the world at large, and investment in the world is only undermined when players create and pursue characters that would not fit inside the scope of world and clash with the expectations of it...but this is not a game breaker (more on that below). ;)
When you care about the story, either your own or others, you sometimes begin to covet that story, becoming frightened of what might happen if you push too far, wander too long, or say too much. True, there are consequences to dumb actions, but one should not be afraid to experiment with their characters. Take them down difficult paths, make difficult decisions, and see how the dice roll.
There's also a lot to be said about stacking the odds in your favor. Strategy goes a long way in supporting the wild card in the group, and allowing space to experiment. All that being said, remember: not all experiments work, and most have consequences.
Growth and Relationships
Remember how I said that characters that are built outside of the frame of the story can undermine it if they're not careful. While that can be true, it only remains true if the player-character in question does not grow. If they remain in a position where they refuse the world, its possible relationships, connections, and forces, then they will either die or be left behind. However, if they enter the world like a fish out of water and LEARN and grow and change to adapt the world to their arc, then they embark on a compelling and dynamic journey. It's okay to start out of the box, as long as you allow your character to EVOLVE and change as they are exposed to more of the world.
Relationships are the true core of any tabletop experience. Between players, between characters, between enemies, and allies. In Gray Owls especially, this is felt in big ways when it comes to companionship, family, acceptance, and loneliness. They make distinct discoveries that drive their paths in new and interesting ways: the realization that they are not alone, or perhaps they always were, or that the thing they're fighting for is something they already have, or that vengeance has consumed them, or that they have more brothers and sisters in this fight than they thought. It is the connections that we build between characters that binds us to this world, no matter how tumultuous, difficult, or mercurial they can be.
And that is a true investment in this world and the next. Always be aware of the relationships you cultivate, the ones you keep, for all leave an impression.
See you at the table.
Key Traits Through Character: Barbarian
For the longest time, I would vacillate between two distinct character builds: full martial powerhouse or full controller caster. The times that I would move between the two were great learning experiences, but I would rarely find my stride. Only recently have I had the opportunities to flex my character building muscles and engage in some great role-playing outside of that comfort zone (in no small part due to my team of GMs being in charge of their own groups that I can take part in).
But in the beginning, back in the beginnings of Pathfinder and before the debacle that was 4th Edition (still a decent system, just poorly received - more on that later), I would cut my teeth on playing Grignor, my half-orc barbarian.
Grignor was a product of some great physical rolls at character creation, so, as a balance, the DM and I agreed that he would be a little...off. Speaking in a third-person-faux-russian accent most of the time, Grignor's average intelligence was undermined constantly by his impulsive nature and low wisdom, often getting the party into some zany antics...then, by sheer force of character and overwhelming power, pulling the party back through.
It was the latter instances that taught me the most about the power the barbarian could possess. The main mechanic of such a class, in many systems, is their Rage Feature. Flying into a Rage grants the barbarian particular bonuses that give them the fighting edge in combat and often increase their survivability. In a party of mostly casters and a custom rogue sub-type, the party would buff the heck out of Grignor and he would charge whatever the enemy was with the utmost confidence. Dragons, land sharks, mind flayers, beholders, and a 100-foot tall flesh tornado...we would stand victorious through teamwork, and quite a lot of insane force of will and confidence.
So here, in the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, joining together with 2000 others as we sing along to Bad Wolves' cover of the Cranberries's Zombie; like one angry, tumultuous, sonic wave of force and rage - I am sent back to those days, and wonder what I learned so profoundly through playing that character, and how it has changed me to this day.
Here, let me share some life lessons learned from playing a Barbarian.
1) Anger Can Be A Tool
I was a frustrated kid. Though my standard disposition is pretty pleasant, and I was by no means one to wail against the system, but I was definitely weird. I was prone to overthinking things, then responding in often angry or violent ways. These were acts of frustration directed at my own inability to express myself; they weren't sudden - they built up over time, and they were always a product of directing that anger inward, toward self-improvement. But when you're a weird kid anyway, and kids can be cruel, sometimes you lash out.
These outbursts didn't help in making or keeping friends, so I worked out something.
My anger could be a tool. That powerful energy surging through me could be focused on a task - yard work, writing, exercising, composing - something that took my whole focus, and I could perform furiously without incurring penalty. Later, through meditation and the martial arts, I would continue to control and send this energy into work or words or mental clarity (after a little "primal scream therapy," that is).
My anger was not "wrong," it just needed to be funneled into something useful. As a barbarian, your Rage is only used effectively in combat, and is done beautifully. The rest of the time, you can be an otherwise intelligent, if not dopey (in my case) adventurer in high-flying shenanigans.
But WHEN you get angry - and let's face it, there's a lot to be angry at - take a deep breath and focus that surge of energy on something useful. Any berserker knows that if you don't pick your targets, you're a danger to yourself, your party, and your enemies all at once - and nobody wants that. Wield it like the great axe it is, and change something that needs it, instead of destroying what's closest.
2) Physical Prowess and Confidence Can Power You Through
I was never an athlete, but my physicality has always been very important to me. I never like feeling physically weak, and once I learned how to do a proper push-up, no one was going to stop me, but momentum was difficult. I would often shift between months of intense work outs, and months of inactivity and excuses.
During the former, I was often alert, focused, and confident - even on the days that I wasn't prepared for things. Keeping a consistent workout schedule, even with hang-ups, shortening workouts, and a lack of results (more on that when we talk about the Monk) - kept my confidence flowing. I knew how much I could lift, how many miles I could run, and my overall fitness level at all times. I knew I could make my way through most of what was being thrown at me because I knew my limits, and where I could push.
In play, the barbarian can back up their tough talk because they're built to be tanks. They can, like Grignor, power themselves and their party through tough situations if by nothing but a primal force of will and the confidence that they won't go down without one hell of a fight.
3) Emotion Is The Breath Of Life
In lives of tact and social preparedness, moments of raw emotion are often avoided.
Unfortunately, I feel, such moments - no matter how intense - reveal our humanity in one of its greatest forms. We are emotional beings. We feel, we change, we influence, we inspire, and we create - through the expression of those raw emotions. Some of my best work was produced from deep sadness, introspection, or unbridled anger. When we feel these extremes and let them flow as energy, we become capable of great things and great change.
Barbarians wield their high emotions as fuel for their Rage, often citing distinct background traits or triggers, and all are tied to their inner-most feelings. It is this level of feeling that can put people off, or set them aflame, but it is an important aspect that further illustrates the depth to which the barbarian cares.
We are complex beings, not one-trick ponies, and our loves and hates run much deeper than we think. Do not fear them - let them flow, then reflect on what they might mean.
Swing low, sweet greatsword.
I'll see you at the table.
Today marks Day 8 of beta testing the first tier of my fitness program, and I'd like to share with you some of the benefits I've taken away so far. Get ready for some fit talk.
The first thing I do every morning is take 5-15 minutes to myself and meditate.
Meditation is equally one of the most foreign yet essential things for a modern human existence. It was used since antiquity to foster a stronger link between mind, body, and soul, and helps to focus and fortify our spirit to tackle whatever challenges are going thrown at us each day.
I recently recommended meditation to a good friend of mine, and, as she puts it, she's "only been able to relax her face so far," (which is huge, btw) but it makes a massive difference to her day and she feels it when she doesn't do it. The more consistently she practices the skill, the more effective it is, and the more effective she is throughout her day.
There's a funny thing about meditation. Everyone has their own image of what it looks like and what it's supposed to do, and how fast that should work. Thing is, each of us is a unique organism. We all have different stresses, habits (good and bad), education, paradigms - yet each of us can benefit from mindfulness, and relaxing our bodies, and fortifying our souls. So many people can benefit from meditation, but they give up before they really reap the big benefits, and often the reasoning is: "I'm not good at it" or "I'm not doing it correctly, so why try?"
If you feel like that, here are some questions to consider:
1) Are you in a space that is comfortable, quiet, and free of our digital distractors? - Yes
Then you're meditating. We have a saying here in the center: Disconnect to Connect. We use it to remind ourselves to put our devices away when we're in a class, or in the cafe, or in a game session; to free ourselves from that pull and open the door to connect with the people physically with us. What we're doing here is allowing our mind to reconnect with our bodies by creating space for this to occur.
2) Are you focusing on your breathing? - Yes
Then you are meditating. Our brain can be a stupid, blind, chittering monkey recently stung by a hornet - but we interrupt its strange path with breath. Breath is essential for every facet of your being; by focusing on it - even if you're only successful in bursts of a few seconds - you interrupt your panic pattern and bring what is most pressing forward. If everything is small details, imagine it flowing out of you, to rest instead next to you, to be sorted later. Not now - you're breathing.
If you are following those two practices, you ARE meditating. Everyone starts in different places, but everyone can benefit from taking just a few minutes each morning to focus their spirit and relax their body. Do not get discouraged; never compare your "skill" to another - we're all different, and there is no point in getting down on yourself because you're not doing it like him, or her, or them. Meditation is a muscle, and it needs to be trained. Best thing about it? You can train it every day and the workout's real short. :)
Here's what I do:
Working Title - Flowing Circuit
I sit on my couch so my feet can rest on the floor (as opposed to cross-legged). I allow my back and my neck (most of all) to rest against the pillows of my comfy couch. *Now, this usually prompts my cat to come over, but I won't shoo her away; she just wants to sit with me.*
1) Start with three long and slow breaths, in and out through my mouth, careful to use my diaphragm to open up my lungs from the resting state of sleep.
2) Eyes closed, I breathe slowly through my nose.
3) I reach out with my mind and try "feel" the tip of my nose. (I know, I know, stay with me) It's going to tingle a little, especially the first time, but find it. Now, I imagine a bead of energy, like a warm mote of light, at the tip. It enters my skin, and I begin to follow its spreading path as it courses slowly through my face, stopping to observe all the intricate pieces along the way.
4) If I get stuck, or a random thought sneaks in...the mote pauses, warming the spaces it has already touched. I focus on my breathing, and let the thought flow to its conclusion, and breathe it away.
5) I continue this process; moving the energy across my eyes, my forehead, my mouth - all the muscles of the face - then up my scalp, down the base of my skull, to flow down the cord of my spine while spreading like wings along my back. I feel and appreciate every muscle fiber; some need more attention than others, and that's fine. I'm not going to ruminate on the why; just flow.
6) When you reach the base of your spine and have spilled down your chest, you might feel a slowly spreading surge down your arms and legs; most of us have better circulation (due to use) to those areas, so energy flows faster. Also, you'll be accessing your third and fourth chakras. Heart and Solar Plexus - Heart's got Compassion, Love, Empathy; Solar Plexus has Power, Will, Energy, Emotion. The wealth of our energy, life force, ki, whatever; I just know that I've always had a lot of it. Once your mote accesses this pool, let it flow through your entire body. Revisit all the wonderful locales of your body and flood it with that warm, calming light.
7) When you're feeling good, or your timer goes off, take those three long and slow breaths again as you open your eyes, bringing yourself out of the map.
Steps 1-4 are good for most people. They either won't have time, or patience, or some other factor will step in, before they can go further. But this is a muscle; and it can always get stronger. There is no plateau. Just like in the martial arts, there is always another layer. Consistency is where we reap the greatest benefit.
IF YOU SKIP MEDITATION IN THE MORNING - you can always do it later. I pick the morning because it's going to help the rest of my day, guaranteed, so I better start my day with it. If you miss it, and those panic feelings begin to creep in and you feel out of whack, try this:
Take in one short, one long intake of breath through your nose, then exhale slowly out your mouth. Try to take in more air each time, and slow the exhale each time. Do this 3-5 times; if you can, close your eyes.
Why? Pattern interrupt with a kinesthetic change (short-long breath, then exhale) to make your brain focus on something else. Then move forward with a fresher perspective. :)
Why I Meditate: It provides power for my day. My mind can jumble and I hate feeling behind; taking a moment, instead of falling down the rabbit hole, is essential for staying on track. But by doing it FIRST, I have stimulated my own Willpower to continue the trend throughout the day. I'll be guaranteed to be more even, calm, pleasant, rooted, present, and in control of my universe. Booyah.
Instructor Mary and Master Jenny have often said that stretching is even better than a fresh cup of coffee in the morning. Now, let's not focus on my stretching levels next to the martial arts masters, but the point still stands. ;)
Naturally flowing from the body mapping mental relaxation and energy acquisition of meditation, it's time to stretch. Take 5-10 minutes and do whatever you can.
I end up on my back first, elongating my spine and realigning my shoulders so they don't round forward. I stretch my lower back and rotate my toes. Flip over - Child Pose, Cobra, Cat-To-Cow for ab control, Dragon Stretch, seated toe touch, then toe touch alternating legs. On my feet - all my dojo stretches; Heaven and Earth, slow splits, Butterfly. Find a wall - rotator cuff stretch, forearm stretch. GENTLE neck pull - it will feel SO GOOD.
Why I Stretch: I need to be able to move when I need to. I like burst energy, I've always had a lot of it, but I'm not going to hurt myself when I need to fly into action. This is preventative mostly, with added benefit of augmenting that meditation thing I just did. :)
Go for a walk. Go for a run. Do what I've been doing lately - walk your neighborhood with bursts of sprints for longer and longer periods of time. Bike rides are great. Move with a friend. But get up and get moving!
For a lot of people, this is when they'd work out, and for many that's fine. I ask to wait on your workout time just a tad more. This "move" is really to cement the previous two things you've done for yourself already. You've reconnected your mind, body, and soul while preparing your physicality for the day - go outside. Feel the planet. Even if it's cold out. New Englanders, I understand, there are exceptions; but even if it's raining, get outside. It's just water - jackets exist. Unlike the silly college kids that scream at the sky when they prance around in pajamas in a downpour...you know jackets exist. And I love walking in the rain; it's cathartic to feel the water flow over me - even in the cold. A brisk wind reminds you of the fireplace that waits for you; a vicious downpour sends you to huddle under a canopy with a good friend; moving alone brings joy to moving together.
...You do know jackets exist, right?
What does this have to do with gaming?
Stronger mind, stronger body, balanced soul = better gamer. ;)
See you at the table,
This one gets a little heavy, folks. It's related, I promise.
I was an angry kid. I would often explode in fits of rage and screaming. Stomping, snapping, throwing, breaking.
I broke so many toys, threw so many books, and screamed so many foul things. And after being scolded on my "public decency," I made sure to have these episodes in private.
As I grew older, they would evolve with me. Manifesting in new bursts of energy laced with malice, I would retreat into silence and fear, punishing myself over and over. Because, you must understand, I never lashed out at others. Save for the few moments I stomped and screamed when I was young - and when I saw the people around me and how scared and confused they were - I learned that this was NOT how a young man acts in public. So I was quiet, respectful, and kept to myself.
My anger made people uncomfortable. So I buried it. And as I grew older, I found different ways to bury it. My anger was burned as fuel; I wrote the best music when filled with rage; I spoke the best when I was fired up at myself; I performed the best with a fire in my belly.
But anger taxes you. It robs you of your grace, your energy; it can sap your reason and patience, and can blind you from what matters most.
I didn't care. I could be better. Of course I could be better. I could practice harder, learn more, stay up later, work harder, sleep less, disappear from the world for awhile while I work. No, you can't rest. There's no time to rest. How dare you sleep, you lazy sack! You've wasted your whole damn life so far and you're still so lazy to think there's time to lay down? Be better, damn you!
My inner dialogue was a lot more...colorful. It would manifest in surges of practicing, as if that would make up for a semester of poor habits and low motivation. Stints of good habits, only to be broken in a week. That voice that says I WILL CHANGE that grows quieter each day. Anger, and the energy it grants you, is finite.
And then I embraced the martial arts. I began to realize the most powerful tool we all possess. The secret isn't to push through, but to stop. And breathe.
It is our breath that binds our soul, our ki, to our bodies. Patience lets you focus, and breath allows your body (and your mind) to be patient.
Even when I was studying the martial arts every week, I still used anger to fuel my learning. I had already "wasted" 10 years learning different systems, while my friends were already testing for black belt. I was BEHIND. How dare I become behind; people looked up to me, and I let them down!
And when I finally achieved black belt - somewhere in a haze of adrenaline and anxiety - I felt empty. Not like an empty cup, eager for more knowledge, but like an old car...barely limping into the trade shop. I returned to class for a time, here and there, but I felt such a weight of guilt. Like I didn't earn it. I rushed it. I wasn't ready. Not by my standards; to me, I didn't EARN my belt.
And with every class in my new "position," as you come to realize that you, actually, know nothing - and when your goal for half your life has been to make it to black belt, and you DO, only to feel as if it were handed to you - that weight becomes heavier and heavier. So I responded the best way I knew how.
I got angry. And then, I got very, very sad.
I stopped coming to class, I stopped helping in our events, I stopped coming to kick-boxing. And then I stopped training altogether. It felt like a lie to me.
As of the date of writing this, I still haven't returned to the dojo. Something about it fills me with shame.
In fact, I feel a lot of shame for so many things. Like tonight, when I came home feeling like a bad storyteller. Like a bad player; a bad DM; and a slob who isn't able to get his life together.
And normally, feelings like this would crush me. Pound me into the ground until I cry myself to sleep and face the day exhausted, then repeat the process until I make myself sick with depression and call out for a day to recover. These feelings would do this. But they aren't. Not tonight. Because tonight I remembered something.
I remembered my breath. I felt it flow through me like water. And the more I waited, the more I recognized what it meant.
I am a brass player. I know the power of air. I was...I AM a martial artist. I know what breath does to my body, to my muscles, to my mind. My players have seen me use it before running a game, or when I need to focus despite being exhausted. It is equal parts the simplest and most complex element we have in our arsenal of control.
Yes. It is 3:47am and I'm not asleep, but for the first time in so many months, years even, I have stopped...to breathe. To stare at my wall and let my eyes drift over the collected business cards of acquaintances and allies, to pick apart their names and logos to form new ones, and set them aside for later worlds. To quietly, and deftly, take care of the house; gently purge accumulated books and instruments I've never needed or used, but kept to make me feel better; to recycle, tear, and burn away notes I've studied into oblivion. To covet and save the things that matter, and not only vow to use them, but organize them in a way that demands I do so.
My breath reminds me that that cruel voice inside is LYING.
I am not a failure.
I have nothing to be ashamed of.
I am a work in progress, and I get better every damn day. Sometimes we fall down, but it doesn't matter how many times we do. What matters, my dear friends, is taking a deep breath and getting back up again.
It's 3:52am and I am literally crying while I finish this post, as I have called my demons out for their kahnastrixa, and if you know that reference you are one of my favorite people in the universe.
So tonight when I face them, and every day moving forward, I'm rolling weighted dice. My inner monk is calling. Breath yields radiance. And my soul is ready to shine.
Yeah. That's right. I just ended this with obscure 5th Edition D&D references. Fight me. ;)
Remember to breathe.
I'll see you at the table.
Usually when I talk about tabletop gaming, I explore the intellectual and social elements of it. We level up our creativity, our rapport, collaboration, and teamwork. Not often do we get to talk about the physical side of things.
"Physical side?" you say, a quizzical expression leeching onto your face.
Why yes, young grasshopper! Our physical fitness is most important, and is often overlooked when one prepares for a gaming experience...
But really, it shouldn't. A sound body augments the mind, which helps us play better, faster, kinder, and more creatively. So why don't we exercise more?
Well, for many at least, the excuse is time management...and that's a can of worms we won't get into quite yet.
Instead let me share with you something quite quick. You might even say it is hasted.
HIIT workouts...did I just misspell something?
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training.
Short workouts, usually done in circuits of a few exercises for a number of rounds. 15-20 minutes of work, tops.
Now most people know I'm a push-up fiend, but the rest of my body needs help too, so first thing in the morning on Saturdays I rock this workout. Takes me a little over 15 minutes and keeps me fired up all day. Anybody can make time for that, and it helps kick the brain into high gear while burning calories before breakfast.
Workout A - 5 Exercises, 4 Rounds
10 Staggered Pushups
10 Leg Lifts
10 Raised I Pushups
10 Close Ski Squats
--15-30 second rest between rounds
Okay, so what's what? Squats are squats. Ski Squats are squats with feet close together, like you're skiing and about to hit slaloms. Leg Lifts are on your back, lifting your straight legs up and engaging your lower abs. Staggered Pushups alternate between one hand high, the other low; next round you switch. My Raised levels correlate directly to a step; Raised I is literally me putting my feet on the first step of a staircase and putting my hands on the floor at the incline, then pushup from there.
Hit (ha) this one for 4 rounds and you're good. If that was easy, then tack on Workout B below too.
Workout B - 5 Exercises, 6 Rounds
10 Raised II Pushups
10 Diamond or Inward Pushups
20 Scissors or Spreads
10 Burpees w/Neutral Pullup
--15 Second rest between rounds
Raised II is the second step on a staircase. Crunches are...crunches. Diamond pushups make a Diamond with your hands and kill your triceps - if you can't touch them together yet, just as close as you can and turn your palms inward at an angle. Scissors are achieved by lying on your back with your legs straight and elevated some inches off the floor - then you "kick" them up and down. Spreads are this, except you spread your legs in and out, all while keeping them elevated.
See? Who said gamers can't work out!?
Now get working so you can do at least A FEW of the things your character can do!
GM's Note: The following tips are also life tips (as any tabletop tip inherently is) in the best sense. A lot of what I learned about being a decent human being was explored in a tabletop setting with family and friends; whether that be D&D, or Uno, Monopoly, or King of Tokyo. Interacting with our fellow humans is enlightening and awesome; here are some ways to help gain perspective, understanding, empathy, and respect - and maybe some storytelling tips, too!
1) Respect The Gestures Of Your Allies
I'll use a specific example for this one.
Say you're a new party member; everyone else is pretty established, they've got more loot than you (and they know it), and they've been playing longer. You waltz into a shop, and want to buy an awesome custom weapon, but you're super short on gold. You're the new dude, the party doesn't want you to feel left out, so the rich fighter in the group chips in the 2000 gold needed to help you buy your awesome weapon...
Maybe don't try to sell that awesome weapon the very next chance you get.
There's a couple reasons for this.
1) It makes the people who chipped in feel cheated - like you used them somehow. Gold, like real money, can take some work to accumulate, and not unlike a child whining for a toy that they never play with, the people who helped you realize that maybe you didn't need the thing in the first place.
2) It chips away at their sympathy for your plight. If they stick up for you and you abuse it/expect it no matter what, sooner or later, like the boy who cried wolf, when you REALLY need help, you may not get it.
What it really comes down to is the awareness and empathy of others' time and energy; it's a perspective thing. Put yourself in their shoes. They risked their (character's) lives fighting a dangerous crime lord to earn that money, they made the generous choice to help you buy a thing so you can feel more useful, and then the very next chance you get, you try to sell that thing. It can feel like a slap in the face; like their generosity had no value.
Acknowledge and respect your allies' decisions to help you out by utilizing the tool, weapon, armor, info, or action that they helped you acquire. Or, if you realize "I don't actually need this," acknowledge your mistaken impulse and maybe find a way to "pay back" that ally. Not unlike a parent who helps a grown adult out of a financial bind, when that adult realizes they're in better shape than they thought, and HAS A CONVERSATION with their parent, and creates a plan to pay back their generosity.
It builds accountability. Trust me.
2) Maintain Nuance (explain how, not why)
It goes a long way to describe what your character does WITHOUT explaining why they did it. This practice opens up some cool role-playing elements:
1) If what you did is interpreted as "strange" by your fellow characters, they can talk to you in-character about it...and you can respond in-character. This provides dynamic opportunities to act and role-play - without breaking that character to launch into your full backstory as the player. Keep yourself a wonder; it supports good storytelling.
2) It keeps interactions from repeating themselves. If you explain the WHY of your actions every time you do them, especially for repeated actions, then you might actually come off as annoying your fellow players; because they've heard it already a thousand times. Patient individuals will continue to entertain this behavior, but it doesn't mean that that patience might not be running thin. If you know you've said it before, they get it. Avoid becoming a broken record.
3) A sense of mystery is a powerful thing. Seek moments like THIS:
Eric: Urren takes a twill from his pack and sets out a few vials, some strips of parchment, ink, and a small porcelain doll, and tries to look busy while you guys talk.
INSTEAD OF THIS:
Eric: Urren takes a twill from his pack, because he's got one of those with all his herbs for making potions and medicine. He unrolls it, taking out some vials, that he can use to make you guys potions later, or some other stuff that you'd like, because he's proficient in his Herbalism Kit. I take out some parchment, some ink, and a little porcelain doll that I had when I was a kid and it's really important to me because someone from my backstory gave it to me and I hope I can see them again, soon. They were taken by a roving band of barbarians, and I need to travel to the Forgotten City to find any clues of his whereabouts. Oh, and also I want to look like I'm busy, can I make a Deception check?
Both instances have the same visual component for the theater of the mind, but the latter reveals (in my honest opinion) WAY TOO MUCH for such a simple action. Just painting the picture, in its own simplicity, creates character nuance. If we go with the former, it opens the door for another character to join Urren and ask him about the doll. Then Urren (in character) could give small details about it, feel nervous and put it away, launch into its life story, or stare blankly at this person, refusing to say anything. This interaction provides character hints; where everyone is slowly discovering elements of Urren - without being expressly told by the player. It creates questions in the other characters; why did me asking about the doll strike such a nerve? Why won't he talk about it? Is it a painful memory? Why the parchment? Is he writing a letter? Is he writing anything? What's in the vials? ...And all of these questions are explored through the theater of the characters - the character wonders these things, the character attempts to understand their ally through character interaction. It makes for intriguing stories of complex characters; characters that grow and evolve through the theater of the mind.
In strict simple terms, when the game starts, have a little less PLAYER, and a lot more CHARACTER. Be an actor, without explaining why you're acting.
3) Keep Your Spells A Secret...until you use them
Casters are awesome, and D&D helps do a great job of making magic mysterious and powerful. Similar to #2, you might be excited about sharing a new spell that you just learned and all the ways that it's awesome...but don't. Not yet.
You can talk to the DM about it, you can gush about it to your buddies at the bar, but during the session...DON'T TELL ANYONE.
You want THIS to go down: "Hey guys, I just learned a new spell, and I gotta' tell ya', it's going to be AMAZING when it shows up!"
Now, the party doesn't know the context of this spell; they aren't also required to memorize everything you can do on top of their own stuff, they know you got something cool, but they can still be pleasantly surprised when you use it.
Magic is mysterious. Keep it that way.
4) Realize That It Is Rarely About Just You
I've said it before, I'll say it again.
This is a group game.
But here we're going to take this down a few avenues.
Character Development That Isn't You: Maybe you were the first arc in the story, so you got used to being the center of the attention, and now your initial conflict is over and it's someone else's turn. How do you manage that? Well, start by being present for the other characters in their own conflicts. They were there for you (or maybe they weren't, and that could be an interesting interaction when they bring up why you're being such a sour-puss), so you should be there for them. Find ways to watch their back, support them when they need to stand up for themselves, help them figure things out; sometimes just making sure they're not alone can go a long way in building that character trust.
...Some of the groups I've been in feel like comrades in a war; we had each other's backs, fought against insurmountable odds in a fictional world that was tangible to us, and because we trusted and supported each other, we succeeded. Those are friends I still have to this day.
Your Comfort Isn't The Only One That Counts: if you are making others uncomfortable to make yourself comfortable, you are wrong. If you are doing things that annoy the majority of the party, and they have communicated as such respectfully, yet you still do these things, you are wrong. Why are you wrong? Because this is a GROUP GAME. Comfort is one thing, but compromise and cooperation are skills, and thus are learned. In order to maintain any comfortable environment, compromises must be made, because everyone is different. What a concept.
I am honored to DM in a place where groups don't bully each other, so when discomfort comes up, it's usually that someone isn't socially aware of the fact that they are taking others' patience for granted, and a constructive conversation may be needed. ...AND THAT'S OKAY. No person can strive to be better at anything without first recognizing that something might be wrong. Which leads me to...
Character Conflict Is Not A Bad Thing: clashes between characters, or even players, don't have to be a detriment. So many people today are influenced by the idea that conflict is BAD. Disagreement and opposing ideas are BAD. This is wrong, and a great place to build better communication skills of ideas, ideals, ethics, plans, and decisions is in A FANTASY - where whatever you decide, does not have real life consequences. :) Plus, conflict - dynamic conflict that isn't petty - makes for good stories. If it's between players, the conflict isn't the goal, moving forward together after its resolution, is.
5) Don't Put Your Fellow Party Members In Boxes
We're all familiar with basic party roles. The Tank, the Blaster, Buff/Debuff, Healer...Sneaker?
I'm not talking about these. What I am talking about here is a bad habit I've been seeing, which is more complex than I think people realize. The habit is to define a character by their class, and openly say things like, "Well, Jim, you're a bard, so you act like this, and this, and this, and did you know you can do this, too?" or "Are you sure you want to act that way? Because you know, as a Druid, you're connected to the natural world and therefore it doesn't make sense for you to make that decision."
This is especially insulting to players that have been playing for a number of years; they understand their own mechanics, they've built their backstory, they actively role-play, they don't meta-game...yet you're telling how they should be playing.
The last example I overheard, and I'm certain it was too ridiculous to be serious, but it illustrates the feeling just the same.
Player 1: (Level 6 Bard) Hey, did you know you can cast spells?
Player 2: (Level 13 Wizard) ...Yes. I am aware.
Player 1: Well, as an Abjuration wizard, you should be picking only protection spells so you can get the most out of them. Here, let me tell you about every single spell you obviously don't know about...
As a DM, I don't tell players how they should play based on their class. They made their class choice for any number of reasons, but most of all, to play the way they wish to play. This way will undoubtedly evolve, but it's not MY character, so I have little say in how they're going to play it. And just because in fantasy literature, a certain sorcerer acts a certain way, does not mean that a player should act the same way just because they are a sorcerer.
Each character is unique within their own context. I have no business steering their play toward a specific outcome due to my own preconceived notions (coaching/teaching is one thing, railroading is another). Players/characters will surprise me by creating new avenues; new stories, and that's one of the most beautiful things about the game.
Whew. World-building and organization next time!
I'll see you at the table.
1. Arrive on Time
...So everyone can start together, and you don't miss out on stuff if we start without you. On-time arrival communicates mutual respect for all the other players gathered. Things come up, schedules get busy, emergencies happen - but communicate these things so the GM can plan accordingly.
2. Think about your turn before it happens/get organized
This is a life lesson. Get thyself organized; everything will take less time, you'll be less stressed, and EVERYONE will appreciate you more. ;)
If you're a monk with a million attacks...maybe roll your damage and attacks together. Then, if the attack hits, you already have your damage. If it doesn't, discard the rolls. Easy-peasy. Set your dice out that you're going to roll ahead of time. If you're hasted (ugh), maybe even write down your own order of operations to keep yourself focused on your tasks, then check them off one by one.
If you're a caster, READ YOUR SPELL. Know what it does, understand its range, casting time...all those frustrating details; but ESPECIALLY have ready the Save DC and WHAT exactly the DM is supposed to roll, if there even is a save. Bonus: casters who narrate what they do to cast the spell adds great depth to their character and the visual art of it all, plus demonstrates an understanding (maybe) of how the spell works, so try it out!
(In 5E) The Attack Action, even if you have Extra Attack, consumes your action, so unless you are Hasted, you cannot also cast a spell, or interact with an object, or grapple a foe, or do anything big after that. Your movement moves you across the board...that's it. A Bonus Action is specific - if you do not have a feature that would grant you a bonus action, assume that you do not have one to spend. An understanding of this speeds up play dramatically - and actually allows a lot more to be done each encounter, as more player turns will occur - this way no player feels that they need to CRAM their turn with stuff to do because they won't get another chance later.
As a DM, I've made a few house rules for player ease: 1) Potions take a Bonus Action to consume yourself, but an Action to give to others; this way, there's still a cost to healing, but it doesn't consume a full turn. 2) Sometimes, as context or creativity might allow, I have expanded the use of the Bonus Action - this is something I will try to do less of, as individuals have become confused by it/try to abuse it. 3) As per the rules, a Bonus Action spell does NOT allow another leveled spell as an action; me and my fellow DMs rule that one can cast a Bonus Action spell AND another spell of 2nd level or below (but the core rules state "cantrips only" for this).
There ARE class features/feats/items that mess with these basic rules, of course, but everyone is held to that initial standard. Knowledge of what rules you can bend, and what you can break, will speed up turn time and allow more opportunities for everyone. PLUS, it helps the DM avoid unnecessary rules lawyering/arguing/etc. that can drag down play.
3. Share the Spotlight
This is a group game. Don't hog the spotlight.
This requires some personal and social awareness. There can be a lot going on, but no one wants to feel forgotten. It gets harder with bigger parties, but if everyone stays aware of their own spotlight, no one should feel slighted.
It goes a long way, especially if you think that what you're about to do is going to take some time, to INVITE another party member, maybe one that isn't used to playing much yet, along for the ride. This makes them feel wanted (yay), gives them a joint opportunity to shine, AND forces the initial player to interact with their party in character. Maybe the whole group follows - sweet! I'd rather an ensemble with everyone taking part than a looooong solo with everyone else waiting.
4. Listen to the Game Master
If the Game Master is talking...listen. Your side conversation can wait, that random thing you want to say that you just thought of...can wait. This isn't me trying to squash anything; quite the opposite really. It's to set up a level of respect. If the GM listens to you as you describe something, then listen to her as she describes something.
Your GM works hard for you; they have a tough job, and they need to be given the space to help paint the picture in front of you without being interrupted. Some great emotional and effective moments can be hindered by a player making a joke in the middle. Don't spoil the fantasy of a detailed resurrection ritual just because you thought of a thing - save it for later.
Plus, this ensures that everyone comes along for the ride in the fantasy, at least for a little bit. Details are all shared; collective in the theater of the mind. It grants the DM space to craft a great picture. Seriously. Shush.
5. Rise to the Challenge
...and don't whine about its difficulty.
As player-characters get stronger, they will undoubtedly face off against more and more powerful entities. Wizards are SCARY at high levels, and some dragons are ALSO wizards, so... Mind Flayers are terrifying; there are some creatures that will just bring your hit points to 0 as an ability; Legendary Actions keep you humble; Intellect Devourers, though weak, can still decimate your party. ALSO, heists are hard. Planning is hard. Maybe you're not a sneaky person, maybe you're not a planner, maybe you just want to set everything on fire and call it a day.
We can use these moments in a fictional game to help ourselves become more complete people. Rise to the challenge to improve your planning, your execution, your self-control, your spell usage, your creativity - don't whine about it, TRY. Because anyone can roll a NATURAL 20. :)
Have an awesome day.
See you at the table.
Games are full of lessons.
Some found through annoying tutorial levels, where a perky sprite leads you through platforming and interrupts your thought patterns... While others are found through trial and error, or keen game design (Mega Man X for SNES or Shadow of the Colossus, for example). Most of these lessons are only for the function of PLAYING the game effectively, but with so many games, commonalities, tropes, and certain expectations transcend gaming platforms and cement in our minds our paradigm of the world.
I grew up playing games, digital and tabletop, but the latter I have always found to be the most rewarding. Tabletop games force us to PLAY WITH OTHERS, a powerful, and surprisingly rare, circumstance in today's digital world. Playing with others in an open-world system that supports out-of-the-box thinking has influenced the way I approach my life, my dreams, my work, and my interactions with my fellow humans. It's powerful stuff, and I'd like to share some of what I've picked up over the years with you.
Confused yet? Good. TL;DR - I'd like to present to you 10 Life Lessons I learned from tabletop gaming.
1. There is always more than one way to win.
When the adventurers approach, they see a lumbering troll, a chain running from its leg to a post in front of a moat and drawbridge. Fighting the troll doesn't have to be your first choice, though it may be the easiest (for most). Maybe the party has no fighter, only a druid, a wizard, and a rogue; the rogue might have a shot, especially if someone distracts this thing... But what if you couldn't fight, or didn't want to?
What if you spoke to the troll? Charmed it? Put it to sleep? Freed it from its chains? Sometimes an ally, even a magically-induced one, can be a lot more advantageous than another corpse. And a friendly troll might, with the help and pep of the adventuring party, rebel against their cruel masters and become an adorable friend to the group.
Point is, there is always another option; some options are more likely than others, but fortune favors the bold. :)
2. If you're going through hell, keep going. There's some sick loot at the end. Perseverance.
Life is not easy, and anyone who says so is lying. Music takes thousands of hours of practice, but the feeling of being "good" far outweighs that time. Getting fit takes hard work and discipline, but you'll live longer and feel better. Lesson? Anything worthwhile is going to take some struggle and perseverance to reach that sick reward at the end. Keep. Going. It's often the most difficult before the finish line.
3. Failure is your friend.
Learning from our mistakes is a huge part of living a full life; don't be afraid of rolling that natural "1." Own it instead and see what happens in your awesome narrative. Then, take note of what went wrong and why, so you can grow and learn from it in the future.
4. Cheating isn't fun (Godmode is boring)
Remember Starcraft? Remember the cheat, "poweroverwhelming"? Yeah... That felt good for maybe, what, a single game? And afterwards, you just sucked all the skill and fun out of the game. Good job. Now you feel awful, don't you?
So when you REALLY want to hit that guy and you're just not rolling well that night...what's to stop you from fudging the numbers and smacking the big bad and being the hero? Your integrity. And the moment you start down that path, the luck mechanic of the game and your own skill at maneuvering elements to your advantage, is gone. Ripped out by your immediate "need" to succeed. It kills the soul of the game; and it will rob you of the excitement of live play - because for you, victory is guaranteed, and where's the fun in that? PLUS, this one has the additional consequence of destroying your perceived integrity with your fellow players. THEY'RE not cheating, so how come you are?
5. Side Quests can have even greater rewards than the main plot.
Sometimes we can become so focused on the task at hand that we avoid the things that could be the most rewarding. An odd job, a night out with friends, finally giving in and going skating even though it makes you uncomfortable...these things can have hidden gems of awesome. Try new things, because you never know what you'll enjoy or not, and you just might find something really special while you're taking that tangental path.
6. You can't win if you don't act.
Inaction is the dream killer. Sitting around won't burn fat, staring at the screen won't write your paper, complaining about your life won't change it; take action, or you'll never go anywhere.
7. You don't have to face the world alone.
Whew. This one, for me, is rough. Mainly because I hate asking for help; I want to do it on my own, I don't anyone to do it for me. Here's the thing, though, no human can do everything on their own. AND, as I've learned very recently as an adult, we all need help sometimes, no matter how independent we try to be.
In an adventure, when you face a dragon, you don't do so alone. Your party - friends, allies, family - have your back. We might all experience the TPK together, if we're not smart, but our survival rate is much much higher if we all work together.
The tricky part here is sincerity. A sincere person is honest with themselves and tries to maintain a level of connection and respect with people, even if in just a small degree. They don't abuse a connection with someone, taking advantage of their help and banking on it. In a party structure, the hapless rogue shouldn't sneak off all the time with the assumption that the party will just always save him. We'll save him because he's saved us in the past; there's a bond there. A sincere person is genuinely thankful for help, even if it is difficult to ask for, and works tirelessly to strengthen the bond with those around them.
The point is, relationships take work. If you take them for granted, then help may not be there when you DO need it. So, take care of each other with kindness and sincerity, and you won't have to face the world alone.
8. Never be afraid of taking all the wrong paths until you find the right one.
Life is about learning. Go forth, and learn all the wrong ways to make an album. Sometime I'll find the right way, and I can learn quite a bit by traveling all the others.
9. Sometimes...you just have to let it go.
If you cannot change the outcome, and can do nothing at the moment to influence it, let the emotion move through you and let it go. It serves no one, especially yourself, to ruminate on matters that, in the long run, hold no sway to you. So why waste time and energy on them?
10. Stirring the water makes everything hard to see.
This last one is going to need some in-depth explanation.
There are very few things that bring me from "0-60" - elements that would push me into irrational anger. There have been only a few key moments in the last three years of teaching and DMing that has brought this out, and each one was during a specific exchange between DM and player, player and players, and student and student. Each instance, I feel, falls into this lesson, and showcases that wonderful (sarcasm) little idea of "stirring the pot."
Stirring the Pot refers to deliberately being irritating or provocative for the express goal of causing drama with a person or a group.
I do not think that in any of those instances people were/are intentionally "stirring the pot." However, there are people in this crazy world that we live in that don't seem to be aware of their own effect on others - or if they are, they do not seem to care. Their main goal isn't necessarily to irritate, it is to "win." This victory is found in getting the last word, getting their way, bending the rules to a certain point, breaking the rules (just this once, I promise!), blatantly betraying the party, being overly mischievous and tangental (irritating) because "that's just how my character would act," or otherwise being overtly offended if they are not the center of attention, and whining about it in overly dramatic ways.
I bring this up specifically because I have experienced being stirred, stirring myself, and the growing up moment of stepping back from the "stirrage" and taking a deep breath. I will admit that it is easy to get sucked down the rabbit of argumentation. People are so easily offended for minor slights, misunderstandings, and preconceived notions that it's almost impossible not to offend SOMEONE.
If we are too busy getting the last word, too busy "winning" the argument, too busy lamenting the fact that it isn't our turn yet, so far down the rabbit hole of our own voices sniping back and forth that we forget what we were talking about or doing in the first place - then we cannot see that the solution has already been made, and, often, that the rest of the group (or the world) has already left us behind.
If we are too busy being "that guy," we fail to see the team's solution, and are often holding the team back. We fail to work together because we're too busy stirring everything up, just because we see the opportunity to do so. We also miss important details - the DM just described the room to us, but we were too busy making a snide remark, that now we're making nonexistent assumptions about that room or we're unnecessarily confused.
There is a maturity in taking a step back from that mentality, so that one can see what is actually happening within a greater context. One begins to listen the GM's ruling, recognize that further arguments are unnecessary, and moves onward with the rest of the group. The real "victory" is in removing oneself from the argument/tangent/thought cycle and stepping back.
In life, quite a lot of good can come from practicing empathy and understanding the time and place when stirring might be allowed. Let's be clear: mischief is awesome, but there's a time and place for it; great role-playing is awesome, but there's a balance to good RP and positive player to player interactions; bending the rules and breaking them with context is fine, but pushing for them after a ruling has been made and justified is irritating.
So many times that we unintentionally stir things up could be avoided if we just let the water settle for a moment, so we can see the truth at the bottom. If everyone in the group can see the gem at the bottom, we're so much more likely to move forward together and get it - saving time, energy, and ourselves.
Let the water settle.
I'll see you at the table.
A Little Info Up Front
With the new semester just around the corner, we've got more players interested than ever before, and a few spots here and there available for folks to come play with us.
However, many of the parties with openings have been adventuring with each other some time, a few nearly two years. They've built strong bonds with one another, some fighting literal gods together... So how does one join into that kind of dynamic? Well, in short, slowly. But here's some more detail!
1. Read the Room
I put this one first because it is the most important life skill I have ever picked up in my years of teaching, performing, and just plain existing among other people.
Each of us possesses an ability to "read the room;" to gauge how others react to our presence early on in an interaction, the things we say and how we say them, and feed ourselves information on how to react in a way that isn't obtrusive to the other. It arrives in the form of that feeling at the base of your neck when you realize "I said something wrong" or "That joke didn't hit the way I wanted it to." This amazing superpower is frustrating, because it relies on immediate hindsight, but one can also address it immediately in public and help assure the others that nothing ill was intended. "That sounded better in my own head, sorry" or "That joke didn't land well, did it?" The trick is listening and learning to how the room reacts to your speech, mannerisms, and characterization and make slight adjustments as you go to keep everybody in a good place.
Unfortunately, there are many role-players so obsessed up front with the idea of their character and how they feel they want to express themselves that they end up ignoring the remaining people in the room, and their level of comfort, which can quickly lead to even the best people feeling frustrated with the "new guy."
So, when joining an established adventuring party (or work group, study group, livestream, podcast, social brunch, or any new social group), try this: imagine your character (you) at their highest level of expression...then scale it back to half power. I don't say this to CRUSH YOUR CREATIVITY and single you out; I say this to allow space for the others to allow YOU to grow a part of THEIR party. Because let's face it, you're the "new guy." A strong adventuring group is a delicate thing; too many are broken by internal strife, misunderstanding, destruction of boundaries, and feelings of isolation - so allow yourself and the others in the room time to get to know you, instead of explaining your entire backstory the moment they meet you. ;)
2. Find Your Niche
Established parties have established skill sets for each member. When things get nasty (combat or not), everybody knows what their job is and how to support each other. You've got to find where you can fit. Often, with a group that's been together a while, there isn't necessarily a gaping hole for you to fill - they've gotten this far without you, you know. So you need to find how you can augment their current establishment; do things that others struggle with, bringing something new to the table.
3. Take Your Space, But Respect Theirs
They won't trust you right away. To let you in, I mean really let you in, is a huge rarity first thing. You're going to have to earn your place, and respect their distance. This means not being offended if they're unsure how to work with you in the beginning. A new person is ALWAYS jarring.
If they cross a line with you, let them know, so you can establish boundaries, BUT if you do this, you MUST respect theirs in turn. If it's not okay for someone to reach out and pat your head, maybe you shouldn't poke the Rogue with a mage hand the first time you meet him...
Again, this is interaction with an already established group. They've wrecked bandits together, bonded over the corpse of a spider lich, done tavern crawls, and survived many a bar fight. They're friends, in some cases, even considered family. Being new is difficult. Be patient. Respecting boundaries goes a long way toward building trust early (in fantasy and out).
And often, establishing that level of mutual player respect, will speed up that whole trust thing exponentially.
4. Slowly Blossom
It's easy to get excited, you're playing an awesome game with awesome people... But take a deep breath. Feed them your personal story in small snippets; if they ask for more, reveal only what is comfortable. You don't have to fish through your bag for your handwritten backstory and then slam poem it to all of us - you can keep it vague.
This also allows you to edit your character as you go. You don't have to feel pressured about all of the intricate details in your backstory making perfect sense right away; it's YOUR character, you can make changes to the things no one knows yet, and that is extremely powerful to your own agency. You choose what to reveal and when; mystery can go a long way in building a bond based on what you can DO first, rather than focusing on where you came from.
Much like #2, you can find stronger connections to the party by finding (and editing) how your story intertwines with their values, desires, and skeletons.
5. Challenge Yourself - Create Agency - Reflect
Maybe you've never played before, and this is your first experience with a tabletop RPG; maybe you played a long time ago and want to see how the new edition of the game functions; maybe you've come from eons of playing the best games in the universe and you want to see how we lowly mortals function; maybe you're coming from a bad experience and are just trying to find your place.
Breathe. Just take a deep breath. Then take another one, and remember that no entity in the universe begins perfect.
GMs have a difficult job. They need to balance conflict with success, and provide contextual hooks for the players to help drive a narrative without railroading them. In other words, give the players agency of choice while also telling a story.
If you take damage, heal. If you get cursed, find a cure. Random demon possession? Something to overcome - maybe even an awesome side quest toward redemption where you discover the mystery of your bloodline. Not sure what to do? Improvise! Still not sure what to do? Engage your AGENCY.
Make a goal, and pursue it. And share this goal with the GM so they can find better ways to support your personal development as a player and a character. And, as the group gets to know you, they'll understand your goal(s) as well; able to back you up, as you have backed them up I'm sure.
Conflicts that arise in the game's world are opportunities for you, and your character, to persevere and grow - not personal attacks for you to complain about. Challenges to overcome, and stepping stones toward that goal. Reflect on what these steps mean to your character, and to you, the player. Doing this puts everything else into perspective and helps remind us that not everything can go our way every time. Sometimes settings are not kind places, and we must rise to the challenge, rather than complain of our hand dealt.
In closing, you can learn a lot by scaling back at the onset. It keeps you from looking as if you're trying to derail or "steal" their thunder, while allowing you time to read the room, find your niche, take your space, and align a goal on your own.
A good party is a delicate thing, and people can be very protective of it. Please remember and respect that perspective if you're jumping into a group that's been together for awhile. If you grant them that respect at the beginning, you WILL grow into the group easily and quickly.
BUT...if you don't grant them that space, there can be hurdles to overcome later; boundaries that have already been crossed, messages already sent. Not impossible to overcome, of course, especially with good people, but it will take longer to find one's place.
Hopefully that didn't meander too much. Here at QW we always try to foster positive gaming experiences with a high measure of patience, understanding, and teaching; none of us are ever perfect, so benefit of the doubt is great. But at other social game scenarios, new players may not be given that breadth of allowance.
Looking forward to the new faces already at the door.
I'll see you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.