“You remember the Deal we made, right? You would give me the power to be free of my oppressors, and in return, I would smite those who defied your calling. My Vow is still ironclad, and I hear your Commandments. Mother Night, Mother Night, by the call of your Moonlight. I am here to rectify the evil deeds of those that spread horrific Blight. I will become a monster in others’ Sight, and with your Grace the Shadows grant me Flight.”
That’s the back story of a character I’ve been role-playing in a game that started as a spontaneous pick-up game with a few players toward the start of Quarantine. So, I ask you, based on this text alone, which class am I playing? And no, it’s not a multiclass. It’s a single class build, using some Unearthed Arcana material, but even so I could build the same character without the UA.
I’ll give you another second. Ready?
Is it a Warlock? Maybe. After all, the text references a “Deal”, which is a common term used in warlock back stories involving Pacts.
Is it a Paladin? Maybe. Apparently this character made a capital-V Vow, a role-playing feature of Paladins included in every one of their subclasses.
Maybe it’s a Cleric? Commandments are a common characteristic of Pantheons in D&D worlds, which are highlighted in the latest official product, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Maybe it’s a different character entirely. Still curious?
The answer is…drum roll please…option number 3! This text describes a Cleric, an agent of the lesser deity Mother Night who calls upon the Domain of Twilight to grant flight while in darkness. Are the other options wrong? Certainly not. All of the other classes I mentioned fit the story I wanted to tell, and there were even some classes I didn’t mention that might have also fit the bill. Shadow sorcerer, Shadow monk, even maybe a Fighter that had a religious element to their story. The thing that made me choose Cleric though was its play style.
Recognizing Play Style
Each turn in combat, a player can choose how to use their action, movement, and possibly a bonus action. Here, play style refers to how each character class makes the most out of those options, and also what a character’s player needs to keep in mind to make the most of their class features and spells.
For example, a rogue player tries to make the most out of each attack every turn, because, unlike other martial classes, they don’t get an extra attack when they take the Attack action. However, if the right conditions are met, a rogue can sneak attack, and a single hit can deliver damage more efficiently than any other martial class (key word, efficiently). So, a rogue player pays attention to which enemies have a hostile creature next to them to know which creatures would take the most damage from their one attack. Then, they can use their bonus action to get out of dodge and reposition for their next turn.
A monk on the other hand can make a free unarmed strike as a bonus action, given that they’ve attacked with a monk weapon or unarmed strike already that turn. While a monk can reposition as its bonus action, there’s a ki cost that goes with it, so it usually is more efficient to double down on attacking the nearest creature. And, while a rogue only gets one attack that can deal a lot of damage to a single target, a monk has a lot of chances to hit, but the damage of each hit is much less by comparison.
This comparison is an example of a difference in play style. Both classes are regarded as mobile, Dexterity-based characters that can move easily around a grid and roll high on initiative. However, what each player needs to be effective, as well as what they prioritize, are going to be different. Rogues are team dependent; they need an ally willing to be within melee range of their target to be effective. Monks are great initiators; while they don’t need an ally to let off their flurry of attacks, each attack may also land a stunning strike, which by its namesake inflicts the Stunned condition on the target and potentially setting up the rogue’s sneak attack.
Which is the last little nugget of wisdom I’ll leave in this section: as valuable as it is to recognize play style, it’s even more valuable to recognize the play style of your fellow party members so you can all play off of each other.
Earlier, I wrote a blog post on the Four Roles you typically find in a D&D party. To recap, you’ve got:
-Tank: Someone who draws an enemy's attention and can take damage
-DPR: Someone who can efficiently and reliably deal damage
-Support: Someone who heals and empowers allies
-Control: Someone who compromises the decision-making power of opponents
When we talk about each class’s play style, we’re also talking about the category of role your decision falls under. Roles aren’t something that’s static to a character. Often, they’re a turn by turn decision you’re making for the party’s benefit.
A rogue sneak attacks an enemy: DPR decision.
Same rogue uses their action to administer a healing potion: Support decision.
Now some classes do this more efficiently than others, and have garnered a reputation of fulfilling certain roles well. But a class isn’t defined by its reputation or story, but by the concrete choices it gives its player to interact with the game state.
So Why Do We Care?
The question to end all questions. Let’s bring it back to the above example. Oftentimes, I hear DMs and fellow players give character-building advice through incomplete ideas. If we look at the character example I started this post with, I can already hear the voices of individuals I know that would say, “Well it has to be (insert opinion here)”. And the question I always ask is, “Does it have to be?”
While this may belabor a point I made earlier, one way to look at a class is by the concrete choices it grants you, not its prescribed lore. Do you want to have gained your powers through a Deal? Sounds like a Warlock to me! But maybe you don’t want to just cast eldritch blast again and again. Maybe your pact granted you supernatural auras and the ability to channel energy through your sword. With this perspective, paladin would probably be a better option.
The reason we care is because we want to tell the story we want to tell, and the mechanics we’re offered by our class are the expression of that story. We’re looking for the marriage of the story we want to tell with the mechanics that let us tell that story. Sometimes, that marriage is found in an unlikely place. You tell the story usually given to a warlock through the mechanics of a chain-smoking cleric recovering from trauma. Sometimes, the story of an aspiring entertainer is told through the mechanics of a warlock.
If you’re like me and love to help new players discover the wonder of D&D, I urge you to keep this mind. Listen to what they want their character to do, not the backstory of where their character came from. If they want to fight like a hardened warrior, guide them to a class that lets them be a hardened warrior. If they want to fight cleverly with a bow, offer them the classes that have a bow (and how to understand the differences between them).
Each Class's Schtick
Now, to conclude this little segment, I’ll just lay out what each class does most efficiently and one of their weaknesses. These are little blurbs, not all encompassing descriptions. We’re also posting further breakdowns of each of these classes on our YouTube channel (DM Shower Thoughts, go subscribe now), so if this kind of stuff tickles your fancy go check it out. Without further ado, here we go:
Barbarian – Great tank, melee DPR, and very survivable, not great at all ranges
Bard – Great single target support, Single target healing, most offensive spells are Wisdom saving throws (kind of limiting)
Cleric – Excellent ability to pivot from Support to Control to DPR, not the most efficient healers but they have healing options
Druid – Excellent healers and controllers, set up allies very well, not very good DPR
Fighter – Spammable, short rest abilities, easy to understand, can be outperformed by other classes in a similar specialty
Monk – Great movement and single target control, very independent, not as good DPR as you’d think
Paladin – Excellent passive support with auras, competitive damage with smites, not great at all ranges
Ranger – Oof, What are they good at? (Kidding), Competitive DPR, great support and control options, many iconic abilities are too situational
Rogue – The DPR class. Like the most consistent one. Great action economy, but it does need a team that acts like a team to work right
Sorcerer – Efficient and flexible action economy, limited by their spells known
Warlock – Eldritch Blast engines, lots of customization, even fewer spellcasting options than Sorcerer
Wizard – Lots of utility, support, control, and damage options. Squishier than French Fries left in the fridge
Artificer – The Support/Control master, maybe even more so than the Wizard. Extremely hard to manage and not for new players.
Well that’s my genius (?) breakdown of each class’s play style. Like I said, any mechanics of a class can be re-flavored to match the story in your head. The key thing is to understand how a class actually works in the context of 5e’s system, and then to tell the story of why it works that way. Play style and action economy can be abstract concepts to wrap your head around, but once you do, a whole new level to the D&D play experience reveals itself to you to enrich your games and your understanding of yourself and others. And after all, isn’t being our best self what we’re all about?
Study Hard, Play Hard
So my wife had to get her eyes dilated at the doctor today. No biggie, everything's fine, but it prompted her to experiment with her vision at a distance and threw on a random film on Netflix. What she picked is called Extraction. A film from 2015 starring Bruce Willis ("starring" is a little generous), Kellan Lutz (from Twilight), and Gina Carano (from so many films now).
And the experience was...irascible.
Context Is Key - What Is Extraction
Extraction is a film from 2015 (not to be confused with the superior Chris Hemsworth film from 2020 of the same name) about a spy (3 weeks from retirement of course) captured by a terrorist organization and how his son, Harry, teams up with an old flame from the CIA, Victoria, to find him. There's a little double cross, a few lazy car chases, some strange choices in cinematography, an entirely misaligned musical score, and a complete misuse in the majority of the cast. ...Especially Carano.
It's one thing to be a disappointing film. There are many that fulfill that category. But this one stuck with me in a deep way - a pain of missed opportunities and a wasted potential for, especially at this point, a well-established actress and powerful presence like Carano.
To understand where I'm going and how this all feeds into the GM's Corner, we need to take a look at a little film called Haywire.
MMA Champion and actress Gina Carano in 2011's Haywire.
Where Haywire (2011) Shines
Haywire is a low-budget action film with tight cinematography, great choreography that feels real, and a raw approach to an otherwise simple story. This is another film featuring trained agents in a military-type scenario and a female agent fighting against those that would entrap or frame her. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is confident, visceral, and wholly satisfying, but there's one scene in particular that illustrates my point the best.
Mallory (Carano) and another character (played by the ever-suave Michael Fassbender) are moving through a hotel acting all cute and newlywed-like as they head back to their room. It's kind of adorable, even. But once the door closes, it's all business. The facade falls, and they're agents on a mission.
Fassbender throws the first punch, knocking Mallory down. The fight is intense, devoid of music, with long takes pushed out so you can see every punch, kick, grapple, and throw in all its glory. You forget immediately that this is a man and woman. These are two highly trained combatants trying their best to incapacitate, and probably, kill each other. At no point in the fight is a punch pulled or mercy given - it is a no-holds-barred drag out display of pure fighting ability. It reveals two extremely important things. 1) Mallory isn't invincible, in this fight and many more to follow. She gets BEAT UP in this movie. 2) Mallory is always capable. She gets knocked down, but gets right back up and adapts to her opponents, terrain, and dozens of other active factors; you can see the turning of the tide over the course of each fight, and it's a turn of skill, not plot armor. She uses her surroundings to startling effect, demonstrating an intelligence in battle and survivability. This is not a character who will let you win just because the script deems it so.
Where Extraction Misses The Opportunity Completely
I can think of two distinct moments where both my wife and I shouted at the screen. The director has fundamentally missed the mark in every possible way when handling the character.
SCENE ONE - Carano isn't allowed to fight
Setup: Victoria takes Harry to an old female friend/contact and they go to a club to locate a perp. The perp is a sleaze in every meaning, so Victoria makes out with her friend to get his attention. Perp calls her over and she convinces him to head to a private room.
Women can show off whatever they like however they wish. Their body, their choice. I'm not complaining about that.
No. I'm complaining about what follows, and it fails on so many levels I got physically angry at my television.
Victoria gets taken back to the penthouse suite in close quarters with their perp, and two other guards. At this point, I expect things to go south, but I'm not worried about her. And I'm not worried because of two things. 1) She's a CIA operative with specialized hand-to-hand combat training. She's been an agent longer than our male protagonist (who isn't an agent yet, has just been training for it). I expect her to handle herself pretty well here, because she should know what she's doing. 2) She's Gina-freaking-Carano, and I've seen her take out a staggering number of people in a wide assortment of mediums. And I'm not trying to typecast here; she's playing someone who can fight - I'm looking forward to the fight.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a tip that there's an assassin on his tail. He corners the guy in a bathroom and Victoria's cover is immediately blown before she can get any info. Victoria starts getting beat on by three men, thrown around the room in shots where you can't see anything, and Harry confronts the assassin in a "martial arts" brawl. This is where the problems start piling up.
We get to see Harry go brawling in a bathroom with an assassin (reminiscent of the superior bathroom brawl featuring Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill from Mission Impossible: Fallout), complete with cracking glass, burst pipes, and drenched fists...juxtaposed with Victoria getting choked and kicked on the floor. In fact, there are long takes of this testosterone-filled fight and then short takes of the female lead getting beat on. No disarming techniques, no creative grapples, no takedowns, no showcase of ANY of Carano's talents. NONE of the things I've come to expect and enjoy with seeing her on screen - she actually looks bored while being beat up.
The tide doesn't turn for her until Harry, the non-operative male protagonist, stops a punch and joins the fight. She had to be rescued by him, and that pisses me right off.
Why is it that female agents always seem to get into these difficult scuffles and need to be rescued, and the males just have to brawl it out? (I have always hated this trope)
And female violence, in many mediums, tends to have an air of femininity to it - in a bad way. Like instead of treating the female combatant as a threat, the violence toward them is pivoted to accentuate their gender somehow. Like they're treated as a "silly girl" and toyed with first, before being a target to be eliminated. They're thrown around, the face is avoided, they're choked and held down; they're somehow a woman first, threat second. Meanwhile, the men get to engage in big physical fights and be the capable combatant.
Even the way it's shot is strange. Harry gets wide angle shots that showcase his physicality, while Victoria gets close shots of her face, her body, and her dress. Do you see the difference yet?
The brawl continues to the dance floor with an awkward cut, and they approach the thugs side by side. Harry gets to punch some more, and FINALLY Victoria kicks someone (but she's fighting in a dress that doesn't allow a lot of movement - a fact that the CHARACTER directly opposed in dialogue, but was shut down), then gets grabbed from behind at gunpoint.
Now about this fool with the gun. He doesn't keep it on her; no, he waves the thing around like an idiot. I'm not a MMA fighter, but I do practice martial arts enough to see specific beats where a disarm can happen, and AGAIN, I was waiting for Carano - who is way more skilled than I will ever be (and a combat-trained agent would be) - to take one of those beats and wreck this fool. She never does. And it looks like she wants to.
In fact, Carano looks really uncomfortable in most of these scenes. Like, somehow, this state is very "unnatural" for her (he writes, knowingly staring into the Void). She stands there like a petrified flower in a cocktail dress - scared and confused. She is then dragged off and into a car, where she proceeds to do very little to change her circumstances other than alert Harry how to follow them (still smart, just not "physically capable").
Why am I mad?
Harry's not an agent. He's a man. Victoria IS an agent. She is a woman. Harry is free to play hero, Victoria is dragged off like a damsel, and NOT ONCE tries to fix that problem with her combat skills. Critic says: But she was stuffed in a car, Adamus, what is she supposed to do? Answer: the male protagonist was also stuffed into a car with four armed guards earlier in the film...and he fought his way out. Why can't she - the trained and tested operative with two guards? Their frame and role in the story is defined by their gender, not their skill set. How refreshing would it have been if not only had Victoria held her own (a fact that runs in line with her skill set), and Harry brawled his way through, but his lack of training gets him caught? OR both get to shine with both of their styles, but the INTELLIGENT villain outsmarts them by undermining their flaws, instead of victory being a contrivance?
There's a better story here, and Carano can tell it. Instead, she's sidelined for Lutz to shine, if for no other reason than "he's the main character." Hollywood. Stop writing people as bad at the job they're supposed to be good at just so the main character can be better. Write them all as good at their job, and elevate the stakes to match them. That's how you make memorable stories (another deep breath).
Scene Two - Why is Victoria even here?
After getting punched once in the car and therefore knocked out (with no bruise to tarnish her face), Victoria is strung up with ONE hand tied to a pipe. One. And she's standing on the ground with both feet. In a large, empty room (prime real estate for a good ole' fashioned fight scene).
Carano is a built individual; her physical prowess is poised for display. I have seen her hoist herself up EASILY with one arm; the lady has body control, excellent strength and power, and a keen understanding of leverage and choke holds. So I'm still holding on to hope that I'm going to see something cool.
She is unconscious for the majority of the last Act. When she does come to, she's alone in the room, and it cuts back to Lutz being stupid. By now I expect it to cut back to her breaking free, but no, she just hangs out some more. When a guard arrives, she instead uses her feminine wiles to "seduce" him to come closer to her (why does this EVER work in film?), and THEN does a decent take-down and breaks free (which she could have done before, and already have re-entered the story). I AM glad she got herself out, no rescuing here...however, as a director, this dude did NOT understand what Carano is capable of. She can do so much more than what she was directed to do.
And when she DOES fight someone...it's a nameless thug (not the jerk that knocked her out - no, that guy fights a different thug; great, a brawl between two people we don't know or care about). This "fight" is done in badly lit shots, with weird cuts, and strange close-ups, so you never get to SEE her fight. She can fight. Let her fight!
What This Has To Do With Tabletop RPGs
Surely, my rant can continue for many pages more, but I assure you I had a point, and it is rooted in this idea:
If you want to play a damsel - a fainting flower who danes to be rescued and won like a prize - go for it.
If you want to play a warrior - someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat and who revels in the ring - go for it.
If you're a dude and you want to play a gal, have at it.
If you're a lady and you want to play the meanest boy in town, more power to you.
If you want to play a gender-fluid wood elf sharpshooter, be my guest.
And, as your Director...I mean, GM...I will NEVER adjust your role in the game based on your GENDER. Women can be warriors, men can be damsels, and heroes (and villains) come in all shapes and sizes.
And it is my job to give you opportunities to shine and show off. If you have cultivated your character to be a serious, half-orc grappler, then I will make sure that you have opportunities to GRAPPLE. I WANT you to show off. I WANT you to succeed in your concept.
That doesn't mean you auto-win a scenario, but if you've built someone who should naturally be good at this skill, then I'm going to cultivate scenarios that allow you to show yourself to be good at your skill. I need to give you the wide angle shots, pass you the patience to show (don't tell), and watch you turn the tide as a warrior who reassesses her situation and adapts to new data.
Because that's what fighting is.
And if you built a sharpshooter, then I better damn well make sure you have some opportunities to shoot stuff. If you built a fainting noble, then by golly I'll make sure you have opportunities to react in kind! Whatever your slice of fun, whatever your build, whatever your core concept, it is a GM's duty to provide you with a time and possibility to BE that thing.
This isn't to say there won't be moments of challenge, nor will I spell it out for you in meticulous detail what is possible, but all of this ties discretely into our REST model.
I will Respect your character concept as it aligns with the setting, and I will Respect your Gender in whatever form it takes. I will practice Empathy in your vision as you embark on this journey. I will seek to provide Satisfying encounters where you can shine and show off. And I will build Trust through these encounters, even as they change and evolve.
You are all Gina Carano.
I will let you fight.
See you at the table.
It is no secret that my family lives on board games.
Though we'd settle down into a Mario Kart tournament back in the Super Nintendo days of yore, we aren't really into the craze of video games, at least not as a family. When we sit down to play, it's with physical pieces and verbal interplay. We chide and vamp, sing and spell, and all around have a pleasant time.
This love of games is infectious. Whether we mean to or not, it is often the "rite of passage" for new friends and family to come and play; like a litmus test to see if you can have fun with new people without being a tool. We use it to pass the time between meals, as a jumpstart between conversations (and, in recent years, a transition AWAY from uncomfortable topics - like hitting a reset button), and sometimes, even, as an intellectual "dessert" after a satisfying meal. Every household in the branches of my side of the family has made board gaming a consistent go-to in their world, and we have yet to see any hint of slowing down.
I am a professional Game Master for crying out loud; my brothers and I DESIGN board games (not as a living, but both my brother and I have entered the play-testing stage) and my eldest brother REVIEWS them on a podcast called the Dicetower (good stuff, check them out HERE). Then, we each have families. My eldest brother has taught his two boys dozens of games and my sister and other brother have kept the passion alive. PLAY is in our blood, and we happily share it with whomever is willing to join the table.
But there are other benefits, too.
Coming from a teaching background, I would be remiss not to mention the many facets of our human experience that consistent play augments and cultivates. Reading, writing, math, transfer, learning styles - it's all there, and you're practicing from play, which is awesome. If you read this blog or listen to my podcast regularly, you may already be aware of the immense impact a game like Dungeons and Dragons can have on a person, socially and physically, and a game like that doesn't have a concrete "end."
A board game does. Most "box games" have a winner, too, so there's scoring involved. Even when the game is cooperative, there's still a measure of competition; me vs them, us vs the board, us vs one, you get the idea. And yet, with a strong etiquette at the table...no one has to feel bad about any of those setups. Sure, there are game types I don't enjoy, and we're all allowed that boundary, but even IF I had to play a game I didn't like, I could AT LEAST be certain that I wouldn't be treated unfairly. And that is because - at least among my family - we teach our people gaming etiquette. Our own personal expectations at the table, cultivated over many years of playing together.
I've been thinking deeply on what I've seen, and I thought I'd write them down and share them with you.
Commandments For Tabletop Etiquette
FOLLOW THE RULES
Some of you might say, "well, duh" here, but you'd be surprised how many people - young, old, new, veteran - try to cheat during play. Now, sometimes you forget the rules, and that's FINE. But after we've taught you the rule four times, and are now watching you like a hawk about it, maybe commit the extra brain power to remember it the fifth time. And, presentation of intention helps a bunch here. I've been in plenty of games where someone has struggled with the volume of rules, or keeping their move options in their heads, or getting stuck on one particular detail. It's one thing to consistently forget but work through it and another to attempt to hide it. One is forgetful - the other is cheating. And asking QUESTIONS go a long way here. It's always okay to clarify your understanding; it saves those headaches later. AND, if you voice that you're struggling with something, WE WILL HELP YOU. We're not shaming your struggle; we just want everyone at the table to value the rules so we're all on an even playing field.
Anecdotal Rant Incoming: I was playing a game with the family of a friend - Ticket to Ride, one of my favorites - when a sudden schism occurred. In the game, on your turn, you can only take one Action. You have three options on what Action to take: draw two cards OR claim a single route OR pick more routes. This restriction is one of the binding mechanics of the game; it is the same across every iteration. Upon sitting down to play this game with this family, who have expressed that it is their favorite game too, we did not feel the need to review how to play the game.
So we're playing for about a half hour or so; I've been picking my one action each turn, carefully planning and watching round to round, waiting for my time to claim a route and - the person next to me proceeds to draw two cards, then immediately start claiming routes one after another. Confused, I - perhaps too forcefully - exclaimed "What are you doing?" and everyone else looked at me like I was crazy.
"This is the way you play the game." They said.
"...You can only take one action each turn. You've already drawn, your turn is over. That was your one action." I returned, laughing a bit. I expected to be backed up - we've all played this before, right?
They looked around, confused. "This is the way we learned to play." They said.
"Well I learned to play following the rules; the fact that you can do only one thing at a time is a huge part of the game. You have to decide what's most important every turn."
"That's not what the rules say!"
Then, turning to the exact spot in the rule book, I read them the literal rules.
"Well, this is how WE play the game!"
"...Then I would have loved to know that at the beginning of play. If I had known you were playing this way, I would have played my turns VERY DIFFERENTLY."
We finished the game "my way", with the actual rules, and it was a tense experience. I didn't mean to make everyone super uncomfortable and I'm not against making House Rules in any respect (I do it too!), but you need to let people know that you've made the change before you begin. If you don't do this, you've essentially handed one player at the table a DIFFERENT set of rules than the rest of you - I was effectively playing at a huge disadvantage because I didn't know the "family secret." And after calling them out on 1) not following the rules I thought they knew, and 2) not warning me that they play the game differently in their house...my name has been cursed to high heaven to this day over the Great Ticket To Ride Incident of '09.
I have sobered a bit, but I think my response was so visceral because I grew up in a household where you followed the rules to the game. We understood that the designers made it that way for a reason, and, at the very least, we should try it a few times their way before we ponder alternatives. AND, IF we made any changes after that point, we would always remind the table of the change before we started playing. We understood the difference; we could tell you what was House Rule and what was RAW every game at every table. It ensures that none of us are operating with a stacked deck.
COMMIT TO THE GAME
If you've come to the table to play, commit some brain power to that play. I was teaching a game recently to someone and we were getting into a good swing of fun. Then I noticed that their choices didn't seem to follow much of a strategy given the game's setup; they seemed random. I asked curiously, "What's your strategy right now, friend? Looks interesting!"
They perked up wide-eyed. "Oh! I know it doesn't make sense. I just don't care."
1) Ouch. 2) The baseline here was just that they wanted to play with me, but had no further desire or impetus to formulate their own strategy to achieve something here. Like every turn was pure luck.
Now, some game ARE pure luck, but even games with a high luck element have choice points and strategy.
Consider this another facet of the Social Contract: I'm at this table - I'm going to bring my A Game, because I expect everyone else to do the same. I've committed brain power and time and energy to this, I expect you to do the same. That's how the fun gets done.
HELP WITH HONESTY
There are no players I despise more than the ones who will only help you if it helps them. Instead, offer guidance and advice even if...no, especially if it can hurt your position. We were all beginners at one time and we know how that felt. A beginner in anything is not one to be shamed; in fact, they should be elevated. The best veteran players at the table are the ones that offer guidance with honesty; who build clear trust and rapport at the table. Don't EVER maneuver a new player into a position that helps you just because "they don't know any better." That's cruel, and it makes the other person feel used.
So, if you're going to help and the other person welcomes it, help them make the best move they can, even if it hurts you.
And NEVER play FOR them; explain a strategy, answer their questions honestly, and let THEM make the decision. Because it isn't your turn, it's theirs.
RESPECT THE MATERIALS
When I was teaching board games more consistently, I was quickly APPALLED by the utter abuse my cards, pieces, and materials underwent at the hands of kids who should know better. I got into the habit of having a class or two without games at the start of a unit just to go over how to, ya' know, NOT put my dice in your mouth; NOT stuff garbage into the game box; NOT pull apart the miniature tokens (and break them); NOT rip up the cards you don't like... The list goes on and on about what I witnessed in short order, but instead of going over every instance, it all falls under the same umbrella commandment: Respect the materials. Do not break the game just because you want to fidget (not against fidgeting, mind you, but you can fidget without breaking stuff).
Some board games are $60+. A torn card, a broken miniature, and a smashed die can be massively expensive to replace AND you've broken that trust of play. If you break that trust, then you won't be allowed back at the table. At least not for a long while; until you can prove that you are trustworthy.
I'll repeat that for those in the back: If I let you play my game and use my stuff and it comes back broken...YOU DON'T GET TO PLAY WITH ME AGAIN. Why? Because you broke my trust. Borrow a pencil and it comes back snapped in half? No more pencils for you. Borrowed a pen and it comes back chewed on? No more pens for you. Borrowed a die and it was never returned? No more dice for you.
Respect the materials because you are borrowing them and building trust by doing so. Breaking that trust will always have consequences.
No one likes a bragger. We're glad you're doing well, but do not make others feel bad if they are struggling. Instead, be their cheerleader. Offer Honest Help, celebrate their victories, and build up the table. Even you still come out on top, no one else has to be stepped on to get there.
Kids are...kids. And people...are people.
A person's age, development, and social skill play a huge role in establishing where they are in their personal etiquette at the table. Though I see these "commandments" at play most actively with young kids and teenagers, there have been many instances where adults fail to follow them. Should those individuals be summarily condemned for tearing my cards? I'd argue no. However, case by case there need to be consequences...and reparations.
If they broke someone's trust, they need to work to get it back. If they spoiled a game by bragging and putting everyone down, then they need to practice building others up. If they cheated knowingly and threw a fit at the table over it, they need to cultivate honest play and begin to recognize the value in personal integrity.
All of these are essential skills to have in all aspects of life, and knowledge of them reveals a great universal truth.
If you play well, you live well.
See you at the table.
PS: These were the most recent lessons I've seen from my family, but I'm sure I could think of a few more. What are some at your tables?
Although Adamus, Ian, and I are usually talking about tabletop games in DM Shower Thoughts, the RPG genre is much bigger than that. From Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft, RPGs have taken a lot of different forms and their genre-defining elements are used in a variety of spaces. Heck, even just the element of collecting quantifiable experience points is something that can be found when training for corporate jobs unrelated to gaming.
Because of how many RPGs handle these various elements, the perception of various tropes can creep into our understanding of specific systems. Sure, in many RPG videogames (like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), having a dedicated healer to cast Life and Cure spells is fundamental to the party’s composition. The same can’t be said for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because the proportion of Hit Points that can be regained per action is much lower. This is a really small example that makes a huge impact on gameplay.
Let’s dive into this for just a moment before getting to the meat and potatoes of this topic. In many JRPGs, many boss monsters can one-hit KO party members, leaving them in a state of incapacitation. It’s therefore the healer’s job to cast a spell to bring them back up, sometimes even fully restoring their health as they do so. There isn’t a similar ability in 5e. Even a 1st level Cure Wounds spell only heals 1d8 + spellcasting modifier hit points, meaning on average (with optimized standard array ability scores) the possibility for hit points regained ranges from 4 to 12. Most videogame RPGs don’t offer that range of possibility, and is one of the fundamental differences between tabletop games and videogames.
As such, although there are plenty of similarities between these two mediums and their expression of the genre, there are some differences to recognize. The most glaring difference is the need to pivot roles in 5e. Just because you built a healer doesn’t mean there aren’t times to shift into a control role, and if you built your character to deal damage but the enemy is immune to all of your attacks, then you may find yourself fulfilling support. It’s just how the dice roll sometimes.
However, after all is said and done, a choice you make as a D&D player in combat really can be broadly categorized as belonging to one of four roles (and there is overlap). Those roles are DPR (Damage per Round), Tank, Support, and Control. And, although you can optimize your character to best perform in one of these roles, there will be times where the best decision is to instead fulfill another role your character isn’t designed for (which we’ll touch on later).
Know Your Role
Now, the reason there’s value in categorizing these roles is to clarify the decisions you're making as well as identify gaps in the party’s performance. Oftentimes, I find that when a party underperforms in combat, it means that somehow the flow of these four roles has been disrupted, either because a party member has been incapacitated or the best person for the role is not fulfilling it (which usually stems from someone unwilling to pivot into a role their character is not built for). That being said, the best combats I’ve participated in have had a combination of understanding with these four roles, as well as having characters built to fulfill them. To understand how to identify characters built for them, here are some characteristics:
+ Damage Per Round Maximizes the amount of damage they inflict on a single target. Also values a higher attack roll bonus and rare / changing damage types.
+ Tank Draws attention and potential damage away from other party members. Values a high Armor Class, Hit Point maximum, damage resistance, and damage reduction.
+ Support Strengthens and heals allies. Usually a spellcaster, although there are some non-casting features that fulfill this role (like a Mastermind Rogue’s Master of Tactics feature).
+ Control Weakens enemies and influences their behavior. Area of effect spells, like fireball tend to fall in this category because not only can it wipe out many smaller enemies earlier in the fight, “smart” enemies will avoid certain positional patterns to avoid falling into an area that encourages its use.
And, like I said, there will be some overlap. For example, the druid’s entangle spell creates an area of difficult terrain which can hamper an enemy’s movement (which falls under Control). However, if an enemy gets restrained by the spell, the druid's allies have Advantage on attack rolls against them (Support).
Certain classes will also fulfill these roles more obviously than others. A Barbarian’s high hit points and resistance-granting Rage ability make it a great Tank, and a Rogue’s sneak attack make it great for DPR. I've also found that players get frustrated when a character class doesn’t perform well in a role the player expects it to (like when a Cleric isn't the best Healer option).
Now let’s dive a little deeper into the roles and find character classes that fit them.
Damage Per Round
This is a short-hand term Adamus and I use with each other to describe when a player is trying to deal the most amount of damage that they can. It comes from the MMO term DPS (Damage per Second), but because 5e is played in rounds instead of real-time, you get Damage Per Round.
Now, this can also be the hardest role to categorize because it’s by far the broadest. Most characters can deal some kind of damage to an enemy, and there will be times where it’s more efficient to just attack the darn thing instead of create a cockamamie scheme that probably won’t work. However, there are some statistics to consider when optimizing a character for DPR.
First is the attack roll bonus. It doesn’t matter how much damage you can do if you can’t hit the target’s AC. Usually, this is as easy as investing in the ability score that governs your attack rolls. This same ability score will usually also help you lean into your secondary role, but we'll talk more about that later.
Second is selecting features that contribute to the amount of damage you can deal. For Fighting Styles, this is usually Dueling or Great Weapon Fighter. For Warlocks, it’s the Agonizing Blast invocation. For Rogues, it’s just investing in more rogue levels to progress your Sneak Attack.
The third factor is damage type. You either want a damage type that’s rarely resisted to or two damage types you can switch between. For example, eldritch blast is such an effective cantrip because almost nothing in 5e resists force damage (unless you homebrew something), and its damage die is also pretty high. Another example might be picking up Elemental Adept as a caster, meaning that if you love your fire spells, you can ignore resistance a creature may have to fire damage. In baseline 5e, as a weapons class, most creatures aren’t resistant to magical bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, so if you can find a magic weapon you’re usually good for the rest of the campaign (unless your DM homebrews something to make you ineffective).
And that’s pretty much it for DPR. Like I said earlier, most classes have some kind of DPR option, but that doesn’t mean every class is optimized for DPR. It’s great that a Bard can Vicious Mockery (Psychic is one of those damage types that’s rarely resisted to). However, the 1d4 damage is pitiful, even at low levels, and pales in comparison to a Divine Smite or Sneak Attack. That doesn’t mean the Bard shouldn’t try to deal damage; it just means that they aren’t the “DPR” character of the party.
Tanks are much easier to build to. Invest in Constitution to get higher hit points, find some armor or features that grant you damage resistance, and do what you need to in order to invest in Armor Class. I’m a sucker for Unarmored Defense. It’s easy to maintain, can often be stronger than Plate Mail, and it can’t be destroyed by rust monsters.
With all that being said, viable options for tanking are much fewer than DPR. Barbarians are excellent tanks because of their Rage ability, and their Unarmored Defense keeps their AC competitive. Most of their subclasses also have ways to get more bang for your buck when you Rage, sometimes dealing damage and sometimes increasing the amount of resistances you have. Paladins are also excellent tanks because of their heavy armor proficiency, and because at 6th level their Aura of Protection grants them bonuses to their Saving Throws. Either way, both classes get great durability for relatively little action-investment.
Now, some critics of the term “tanking” in 5e compare the function of tanks to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, where such characters have abilities that program bigger threats to target them, relieving pressure from a less durable ally. There are some abilities like this in 5e, but because enemies are controlled by a human (the DM) rather than programming, the DM can always choose to target a less survivable ally.
This doesn’t mean that building a tank doesn’t have value. In D&D, tanking refers to a character’s survivability, and I’ve seen some ridiculous stunts in my time with 5e. I’ve seen a Barbarian swim through lava, a Barbarian/Rogue multi-class shrug off 100+ points of damage because of stacking resistance with evasion, and a well built sorlock take a meteor swarm to the face and maintain concentration (that was my Sorlock). Accounting for RAW and math, these things can happen, and even if you can keep one ally up by the end of the fight, they can run around and use healing potions to keep incapacitated allies alive.
This is also why oftentimes the best support characters also invest in their survivability. A Druid’s Wild Shape is a great tanking feature, and many Clerics have a heavy armor proficiency that lets them avoid damage and heal their allies. Healing does no good if the healer is down, so many forward thinking players build their healers accordingly.
Speaking of Support, I’m of the belief that this is the most difficult role to play effectively in combat, and is why many players avoid it. It can be a thankless job, and your impact on the party isn’t always immediately felt. A well timed bless spell can be the difference between an attack hitting and missing, and that attack finishing a dangerous enemy or giving them another turn to use legendary actions and wipe the team. There are also many overlaps with Control, so we’ll work to clarify which is which.
Support is defined as “buffing” your allies and healing. A “buff” is any spell that makes them better at their job, or strengthens them in any way. For example, the bless spell allows those it targets to add a d4 to attack rolls and saving throws, making them slightly more accurate and more survivable. If we look back at the entangle example earlier, if a character can restrain an enemy, it allows attacks against that enemy to have advantage, meaning that rogues get Sneak Attack and everyone is more likely to get a critical hit.
Healing is a much more nuanced topic. Healing and damage are not created equal in 5e, and it’s always more efficient to prevent damage than to try and heal damage taken. Let’s go back to our example of cure wounds. For a 1st level spell slot, cure wounds heals between 4 and 12 hit points with an average 1st level character. With a 1st level spell slot using inflict wounds (the same resource expended), the spell deals 3d10 damage on a hit, with a yield of between 3 and 30 damage. The ceilings aren’t even comparable.
What makes healing so difficult is the required sense of timing on the player’s part. An ill-timed healing word or cure wounds could have no effect at all, especially if the enemy is a real bruiser. Say you see an ally get hit for 15 points of damage. You cast healing word as a bonus action, healing 5 points of that damage. Then the next round they get hit for another 15 points, and get knocked unconscious. That healing word you casted was wasted.
That being said, let’s look at a counterexample. You see an ally get hit with 15 points of damage and fall unconscious. They make a death saving throw, and unfortunately roll a Natural 1, meaning they have two failures. By casting your healing word at range, the failures are negated, and the ally needs to get knocked to 0 before being in danger again. You probably just saved that character’s life.
Like tanking, there are few characters that can dedicate themselves to Support, although there are plenty of smaller features that allow an ally to support as a secondary role. Bards, Clerics, and Druids have a plethora of buffing and healing spells, with the Bard’s defining class feature (Bardic Inspiration) being one of the most efficient buffs especially at low levels. However, the aforementioned Master of Tactics feature from Mastermind Rogue and Aura of Protection from Paladin also are great support features.
Control characters look at combat differently than the other three. Rather than seeing exchanges as dealing and healing damage, control players view combat as a series of choices and possible outcomes, and work to remove choices from their opponent. While Support is about strengthening allies and allowing them to be better versions of themselves, Control is about hampering the effectiveness of their enemies.
Is there a major bruiser in the enemy team that’s being a pain? Hold Monster can remove them from the fight. Is the real threat the group of goblins shooting at us from that ledge? Fireball can take them all down at once. Control is about figuring out the enemy’s strengths and using that strength against them. Like Support, what makes Control difficult is that it’s a mindset more than a set of obvious mechanics.
Some classes are easier to use control strategies than others. The Wizard’s sheer amount of spell access allows it to be an excellent controller, because it can cast the right spell for the right situation. The Druid spell list is similar, in which many of its best support spells also hamper the enemy’s effectiveness (again, just look at entangle).
However, that doesn’t mean that to be a Control character, you need area of effect abilities or spellcasting to play this role. If you’re playing a Tank, and you manage to distract an enemy from hurting your less survivable allies, you’re influencing their behavior and removed a choice, leaving their effectiveness up to the luck of the dice. That’s a Control role even though it’s outside of the game’s mechanics.
Oftentimes, when I design my set-piece encounters, I try to have my enemies not only have a mechanical weakness (like a low stat or some kind of damage vulnerability), but also some kind of personality flaw the party can take advantage of through role-playing. Sometimes that flaw is aggravated through taunting, empathy, or targeting one of their possessions. However, it’s a way to allow any player to assume the control role if they’re clever enough to figure it out.
Primary and Secondary Roles
Now, after identifying the four roles, the hidden fifth role is that of pivoting. Fifth Edition has classically rewarded characters that are built to specialization rather than versatility. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for adapting to circumstance.
Let’s say you build a powerful melee weapons character, but you end up in a combat where there’s a ravine or pool of lava separating you and your target. You may have to play a different role in that combat than you’d like to.
To prevent circumstances where you’re only viable option is “I take the Dodge action” and don’t participate, I usually advise my players to think through a Primary and a Secondary role their character can play as. This can be as simple as “I have a melee character but I keep a crossbow on me” to “I play support but I can pivot to control as the need arises”. This also doesn’t mean to devalue the specialization this edition rewards.
Let’s look at a character I built, Kurama, as an example. Kurama, a higher level Druid, was built in order to cast healing spirit and thorn whip. However, in a well constructed party like Knight Owls, healing spirit isn’t always the most appropriate. Oftentimes, healing is covered by other characters. This means that if enough other people are willing to play Support, I’m freed to pivot to Control in order to maximize our party’s effectiveness. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hit a big bad with contagion, or pull an enemy with thorn whip so the paladin can smite it. Also, there have been times I’ve been known to deal damage. It’s laughable that I've finished multiple big bads with a 1st level ice knife just because everyone else did such a good job of covering us that I as the Druid was left to just damage deal. These things happen, and the memories made are cherished.
Hopefully you’ve found some value from this perspective of play, and if you choose a less optimized style of play, you’re doing so intentionally. That’s the whole point of this: clarify your decisions so when you make it, you do so with intention.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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So Gray Owls Team 2 (dubbed Team Bug) recently had their Chapter 18 session...and it was a little weird.
First, some build up.
For those uninitiated, Gray Owls is a dark fantasy electric-punk D&D campaign that I've been running professionally for about 3 years now. It is a game of secrets, shadows, and danger. The magical weave is broken, and magic is wild again. Throughout all the intrigue, however, there is always the looming threat in the North. Hordes of swarming beasts from the shattered Shadowfell (yep, obliterated) called The Brood. After 14 Chapters of huge groups parties and split goals, it became apparent to run two smaller groups instead. A group to fight "the bugs," (Team Bug, the main subject of this post) and another to rebuild the Worldtree, and deal with threats within the city (Team Tree).
Chapter 15, the first mission on their own, was some of the best D&D I've run, and it was dark, gritty monster action. And in a campaign where the majority of threats have been the machinations of other people (monsters in different ways), this was a welcome change of pace. Chapters 16 and 17 had some huge story thread reveals and plot hole filling, permanently adjusting the trajectory of this group. The focus shifted from "killing the bugs", to reaping vengeance upon the "grand orchestrator" behind it all, probably preventing future cataclysm and saving more lives.
But Chapter 18 felt...halted. In the grand scheme of things, we didn't DO a lot. There was a fair amount of little reveals, setups, unexpected twists (but minor on the action), and then they met a guy. Now, I really, really dislike looking at sessions like this, because it skips over any sense of depth while you're in the moment and tends to discount the little things that can really add up. HOWEVER, what it did reveal was a lack of momentum. You can have sessions where not a lot happened, but there was enough momentum/release/satisfaction that it FELT like you accomplished a lot...because you did!
Social development is still development, and combat and exploration still play a role. In truth, though, it doesn't matter which pillar you're in; each can be momentous and satisfying in its own way, which, in turn, also means that each can lose momentum. This was a curious case of achieving a set out goal...and then not knowing what to do next. Now, I try to get homework from players about what they're planning for next time so I can better align to their story, but I admit to missing that beat this time around. And, upon really thinking about it, I used to ask this question with the players in this team before, and would get minimal response or direction...so I stopped. When, in actuality, this was the BEST time to bring it up. We're approaching the end game, and though that final set piece is ready to go, GETTING THERE isn't. I THOUGHT that we were aware of more of our available resources, that we had built up momentum and expectations, but in reality...I'm exhausted. I'm overwhelmed with trying to build a satisfying experience, barely sleeping, trying to balance my life and my liberties and my activism and my creativity, all while believing in my soul that I'm just letting everyone down.
This seeming lack of direction, my exhaustion with running games, a missing player, and then, to top it all off, new perceptions from long-time players about the tone of the campaign and its direction...threw me right off. Even though folks report to having a good time, I was not pleased with myself. I've run better sessions, and I was sub-par to my own standards, pushing a combat when I felt I was losing them - even though it wasn't quite appropriate. But there's so much more to consider here beyond beating myself up.
Taking A Step Further Back
The perceptions of one or two players won't paint the whole truth, and can change game to game.
Many of us are creatures of generalization, a failing in our culture. Some players with this chip could have 19 sessions of great interplay, storytelling, and voiced extensive satisfaction...then have a difficult time at session 20, and color their entire perception of the game. They'll boast that they never enjoyed themselves, it was ALWAYS terrible, they never get the spotlight. ...Then return for session 21, see how 20 fit into it all, and now 21 - and the entire campaign, of course - is brilliant again and they're satisfied.
Some players view their story instant by instant, while others see it as an evolving thread. The former gets the most they can out of each session, while the latter views the full campaign with a patient lens. Every player can enter either state over the course of a campaign, sometimes instant to instant if they're introspective enough. Neither is good or bad, they're just paradigms, and often we don't see the external influences in our play - a bad week, a rough night, something that was said that's affecting us in big ways. We'd like to say we keep our playing separated, but humans are complicated, and sometimes the lines blur.
And I can be my own worst enemy. This post alone has taken some time, and while writing these words I have just reinstated my meditation regimen with a dose of primal therapy, and I feel a lot better than when I started this draft a week ago. My point is that time plays a factor here, and those that have freed themselves to think and change benefit from its existence. I needed time to process an experience with clarity and patience so I would stop beating myself up about it. It's alright to take a moment. It's alright to step back. And it's definitely alright to consider the other sides, even if you end up keeping your original belief.
In moving through this and moving forward, there was a lot to unpack.
We're Building Toward Something
...not just tying up loose ends.
Everyone is moving simultaneously. These aren't video game NPCs. These are faction leaders, detectives, bounty hunters...all with their own goals and schemes. If the players are moving, they're moving too.
The lack of information plays a role, too. The players don't know everything, nor should they, but they need to know enough to act. And what they know and choose to act on can be completely different. The players decide through their questions and actions what is important to focus on. This doesn't mean the other content stops moving, it just doesn't need to be broadcast.
There was a point in each team where the focus shifted away from reacting to dangers and proactively, as a group, making their own plans. A new surge of purpose; utilizing resources, information gathered, and connections they've built up to make much more informed decisions. That change in agency fundamentally changes the course of a campaign, and can act as a release of tension - the point when the characters rise above or past the restrictions of lower class or lower levels. They clarified what they needed to fight for.
This was Chapter 12 for the Gray Owls. After 11 chapters of keeping secrets and distrusting one another, we had a whole 8-hour session of satisfying role-playing and putting everything on the table, identifying a target - a clear villain to crush - and coming together as a team. Discussing with many of my players, this became the theoretical beginning of Phase II in the grand story. Which shifts the tone naturally. But there may be other factors that push the lens in unexpected ways.
We all remember the first "Iron Man," but it can be hard to look at that film now without the grand timeline of the remaining MCU. And I'm no Marvel storyteller, but many DMs try to interweave and setup hooks with satisfying payoffs, only possible after their players experience the initial setup. What I'm getting at here is that the story is not over. Each session, or Chapter in this case, is a singular event - yes - but it is ALSO one piece of a much larger thread. The same way that our Chapters 3 and 8 - on their own, arguably two of my weakest sessions - only gained traction and value when sewn into the fabrics of Chapters 4 and 9, and beyond. And unlike a film, with pre-written dialogue and directions, the players and DM heavily influence the trajectory of this story.
We must also consider the immediacy of this timeline. Gray Owls functions differently than my broader audience Knight Owls. The latter takes place over a year of time, with episodes often weeks apart in game time, while the former...picks up immediately where they left off, give or take a few hours. Meeting monthly makes the timeline feel a little wonky, (something I address below in the last section) but it's valuable to recognize that all of these crazy events are taking place over the course of a month so far. Meaning, the impressions of certain organizations, big players in the mix, sweeping counter moves by factions seizing power...are all very quick and decisive. This isn't normal. Before was normal, we are now in the Aftermath. Which also means, undoubtedly, there will be a response to this chaos to help restore order...because that's how governments work.
The information of their actions and consequences may paint a curious picture when compared to the expanded lens of the DM, too. I might see dark machinations brewing, but if the player lens doesn't look for it, it doesn't exist. Lately I've been practicing being more liberal in dripping content to players during sessions, predominantly through the Whisper Function on Roll20 - both as an engagement and as a reward for their perceptions. These additional records aid the players in piecing together the cloaks and daggers, but there's much more that can be done.
Owning The Change
As I reflect on Gray Owls, there's a lot to commend. The world built, the course of the players and their characters, the freeing of deep roleplaying, and the overall tone - dark and dangerous. But something happened along the way, and I'd be remised if I didn't reflect on these observations and think critically on how they may have manifested. The following comments or questions have come from players as they have observed the campaign as a whole.
"Is magic broken or not?"
This one irks me a bit. Yes. It has been demonstrated as such; many spells do not behave as intended, some in cataclysmic ways - this fact has never changed. This discourages magic usage, AND, depending on your socio-economic class, can get you taken by the Vertigo Caste (the world's secret police). This was demonstrated in Chapter 1.
HOWEVER, and this is where trajectory and party composition plays a role, some players haven't seen much of those consequences. In Chapter 2, the party traded two characters out (one would return later, and the cast would continue to rotate, complicating matters and perspectives) for two characters from the noble houses that rule the city. As established and discussed in Session 0, the rich have access to magic in ways the rest of the city doesn't, and we got to witness the immensely wide gap between the noble houses and the lower terraces of Stormwrack. For the urchins and wanted of the group, this was a safe haven for the first time in their lives, and would become a huge motivator in maintaining that sanction and safety. In fact, an entire session was devoted to changing their "ownership" from one member of the house to another, so that they could stay for a few more days. This "headquarters", though, was not my original intention. Gray Owls was supposed to feel grittier - scraping by on the will of their wits and cut of their blade (reinforcement for campaign 2). But this became a main focus from the party. Something sought after enough that it shifted the campaign's focus. ...But that doesn't mean that magic isn't still a problem for everyone else.
In fact, on numerous occasions, the party has witnessed the consequences of casting magic in the open, even if the players failed to take note of it. Characters they've interacted with are now missing. In fact, people continue to disappear every day. Just because the players are in their high towers, safe from that scrutiny, doesn't mean it isn't still happening. But again, the player lens is the view of the campaign. I can TELL them it's happening, or I can SHOW them.
Lesson For Self: More Show, Less Tell.
Next to ponder - how to show if they aren't looking. ;)
"Just how bad is the Brood anyway?"
In the first campaign of Gray Owls, dubbed Book 1, there has been the looming threat of The Brood in the North. With all the cloak and dagger politics of the main city, we only hear about these devastating creatures through trickling news reels and shreds of propaganda here and there. It is known among most people that these "bug-like" creatures move in accordance with a Queen, and are very difficult to kill - for this reason, the city produces through one of its noble houses an elite line of nigh-immortal warrior shapeshifters called Broodhunters. These hunters come from the Ironwood Family, one of the ruling families of the high court and people with little tolerance for the BS found among other nobles - it wins them respect from the people.
The Brood were intended to be mysterious. In fact, there was a chance early campaign that we would never have encountered them. But then a player made a character from the North - so now there's a vendetta arc - and in maintaining that noble protection, they aligned themselves with the Ironwoods almost without question. Soon, more and more decisions became influenced by that looming threat, until the invariable beginning of Phase III with the party splitting up core objectives. One stays in the city, and the other heads North to fight the Brood.
What we discover, though, is two-fold.
1) The Brood is coordinated, making moves as strike points, not occupations. They aren't behaving like a swarm suddenly. Someone is controlling them. Most recently revealed: one of the three airship captains of the city is calling them somehow, becoming the Orchestrator of not only that player-character's tribe nearly getting wiped out, but responsible for hundreds if not thousands of other deaths.
2) The other creatures of the North have been corrupted by the Brood's presence. Though not under the same control, a rising "infection" in the North continues to spread from even the shadows of a Brood.
This second fact - by the way - has only been hinted at. It was something I forgot about until I consolidated my notes and went back to the cave for deep prep. That affliction might have further cemented the danger of the Brood, even if they're being manipulated. That's an oops for me.
"Choices used to have tragic consequences."
I would argue that they still do. I have been trying to strike a better balance between appropriate danger to power level, erring on the side of danger *most* of the time. However, Team Bug's players try to be monster slaying heroes - which isn't really what the campaign was built for initially - and I DO want to give them some measure of that success. And harder choices are coming...we're just in a low point. This is also where we have to consider player lens and DM lens - I know what's coming and how certain choices have sent ripples in terrible, delicious directions. The players won't see that immediately - nor should they. Yet, I can still think on and plan for ways to show this still to be true. To show glimpses of it through the player POV.
The other variable to consider is the other Team in the city. A common sentiment among the players - happily, by the way - is that although they are high level, they don't always feel as powerful as their character sheet says. This was a consistent tone. You might know some cool spells and have great hit points, but you may still lack the resources of your enemy. Your level and features can be potentially powerful, but you also need to gather information and plan your attack. Play smarter, not harder.
Somewhere along the way, that vulnerability left Team Bug. The moment they left the intimacy of the city, something shifted in the dynamic. They stopped being in danger, and started becoming superheroes. And, to them, their choices stopped mattering. In a way, they lost their sense of mortality. I will seek to get it back.
"The structure of the session has changed."
I agree. And that's on me. The mission doesn't seem clear anymore, despite everything put in place. Chapter to Chapter, session to session, I've had a much harder time keeping everything straight, even with my notes sitting under my nose. The pressure of it all became too much, and I started making missteps in preparation and presentation. This is where I see the most introspective growth and planning moving forward. I am thankful for the observations surrounding this point in particular, and welcome the focus it brings to the table.
And these observations shouldn't be taken as a twisting of the knife.
I'm pretty damn good at what I do, which means anything voiced at this point is actually minor in the long haul, AND if I can pivot and correct THOSE, how much more elevated will all of this be? But in exploring this path, I "unearthed" something painful. If you'll entertain me the tangent, I'd like to share a perspective with you.
Abundance Over Scarcity
It isn't something I talk about much, but my greatest fear is theft. I've had credit card numbers stolen, bank accounts hacked, and my car broken into. I make sure to be as safe as possible when web browsing and using my information. And still it's happened. Multiple times. It's almost like a running joke now.
Every time it happened it was smaller, but it didn't hurt any less. And when you try to live your life honestly and do right by others, it hurts so much to know that to someone else...you're just a credit card number. The kind of person that thinks that way...I have very extreme responses to. They hurt me in deep, personal ways that I can only begin to describe and it would be silly of me not to acknowledge that I still seek vengeance and justice over those wrongs, only to be told that the "crime is too small to pursue." That if I ever met one of these garbage humans that robbed me of my livelihood and thought it was no big deal...I want to hurt them. I want them to understand the pain that they put me through and how they invaded my life; shattered my sense of self security. I know that's a visceral reaction. And I know it pales in comparison to the events and perspectives of today, but it does not invalidate how wrong this act was, and how unsatisfying that lack of justice was. My pain didn't matter. That invasion of my soul wasn't valid. And that erosion of humanity wasn't important enough to seek retribution.
Last Christmas was the first year where something like that hadn't happened, and it was a bittersweet feeling. Like somehow that curse had finally skipped me, at least temporarily, but it has been such a stain that now it just looms. Forever in the background. So that in my moments of weakness, when I am in a state less than my best, I can have challenging "knee-jerk" reactions to certain stimuli - like other GMs finding success where I struggled. It is rooted in fear, and stoked by envy.
I am not a perfect human.
And though I do a decent job of mitigating those defense mechanisms before they come out in real life, they are still there and I still deal with them. It is getting better, and I've thought more and more about why. There are really two ways I can approach a few recent events. Through Scarcity and Fear - a belief that we are all competing in our various lanes, threads, and niches for the same acclamation and clientele, there only being room for one at the top of this pedestal. OR. Through Abundance and Community - recognition that we all benefit from the accomplishments and accolades of each other in our individual and shared threads, and that their successes augment our own. There is plenty of room for all of us to lead, follow, create, and thrive.
For some real life examples:
Seeing a fellow GM record sessions and rewrite them as stories, and receive wonderful accolades for that.
Scarcity: Well, I did that with the Knight Owls archive and people complained about "required reading"! How come when he does it, it's the best thing ever?
Abundance: I have my style and he has his. We're both growing and learning from each other's journeys. Everyone has a different presentation, and maybe I can learn something from his success to help breathe new life into my own Adventure Archive. Good for him, and both still have value.
Opening up the GM's Corner to include other perspectives.
Scarcity: It's my blog and I want my content to be featured! What if they become more popular than me? What if they produce more than me when I get really busy?
Abundance: It is still my blog, and it's always been our mission to continue to grow through other perspectives. A rising tide lifts all ships. And how beautiful would it be if for every voice we raise up, another player comes to love this game and the value it can add to their lives. This is a yes/and, and it can only make the site and its mission stronger.
Receiving kind, constructive feedback for your cool campaign.
Scarcity: I ruined the game for them and I don't know how to recover...
Abundance: Every session we run is a rep. Instead think on how you can pivot to make the next one better, because there will be a next one. Also, taking space to recharge is not giving up; you haven't failed anyone, you're just growing.
And I still feel those pangs of protective guards rising up around the things I built or pioneered in my little circles, but part of our development as human beings is to become awake to those elements, and open yourself to the hard work of self-improvement. It is one thing to acknowledge our lack of skill in an area and do nothing about it - or at worse, look for collective affirmation in our ineptitude - and to pursue consistent growth. ESPECIALLY in our current social and economic climate, a Growth Mindset will be the key skill every human must cultivate entering the new age.
A partially finished map of the Ionian Shadowfell, Illcrest Region - Adamus Drake
Taking July To Revisit Phase III, and Prepare The Next Campaign
I'm taking my space for the month of July on running big games. I've been running games almost non-stop for 3 years now. I need some time to get my head right, and, to take a page from one of my fellow GMs, to "go back in the cave." I want to do my deep prep in these worlds I've built, instead of feeling like I MUST keep going or everything will fall apart.
And when I return, we'll have the best close to a campaign yet and a fine start to the next.
To aid in this, I want to produce a few items. These will help EVERYONE in immersion, memory, agency, and direction. They'll also help me tremendously in my development as a GM as I upgrade my consistency, world-building, and custom content (I keep pretty good books for myself, but I need to expand what my players have access to).
And in case it wasn't clear, this is for every campaign moving forward. That's the goal, and I need time to go deep.
A GLOSSARY OF PLACES, PEOPLE, AND TERMS
It keeps coming up in conversation. A glossary helps more than a summary. The players need to know who's who between and during play, and an active document that has this available to everyone at every session is a "no duh" to me for a cloak and dagger campaign. I have one for myself every session, it's just wicked messy. It's actually painful that it's taken me this long to compile what I have. Time to clean it all up, and get back to basics. I can add and subtract things from the "living document" as players discover things - which is also neat - and that way there's no worry of revealing secrets too early. This has the added bonus of never requiring notes; there are still players that do that and love it, and still will, but in this case redundancy is fine. And! If I misspoke or messed up a term, I can fix that in the running doc. It ensures that everyone has the same access to information, and removes our initial resistance to immersion.
CHAPTERS AS STORIES or CHAPTERS AS RECAP
This one I'm on the fence about, because our shift to Roll20 changed how we consumed and ran the campaign for both groups. Some form of recap, either as fiction or summary, is definitely needed, but I need to experiment with what is going to be A) Efficient and B) Creatively freeing. Before quarantine mode, I recorded the audio of my various games for study and internal consistency, and when I did that I would AT LEAST try to recap Knight Owls sessions here and there. However, the process was insane. I'd have to comb through meticulously 6-9 hours of audio every time, and it just wasn't conducive to a consistent workflow. If I follow it like a fiction, it might be freeing enough to provide a more energizing experience for myself, my readers, and my players, both current and future.
I have gone all-in on a map-making software subscription and am designing professional maps for ALL of my campaigns. It's a blast. Again, how nice would it be if you actually knew WHERE you were beyond a few sketches.
For a time there, I was producing 1-3 short stories a month. Then it became 0-1. Then 1 every two months. I had originally planned for 60 entries by Chapter 19, and I'm sitting at 30 at the moment.
Writing the fiction grounds the world in my own head. Remember how I mentioned that the NPCs are always moving? That's the fiction sometimes. Other times, it's just lore; stories and news written by other creatures in the setting. It allows me to shift focus momentarily elsewhere as an act of immersion, and it's fun for me! So I'm going to go have some fun, and help set the stage for a climactic close for those reading along with the snippets. :)
And looking at some of these, I can already see some other GMs shaking their head going "why didn't you have these at the start?" And to that I meet you with:
Scarcity: ...Mean things to tell myself about missed opportunities...
Abundance: Players have consistently returned to my table for the last five years for a good reason. I am good at what I do. And now I'll be even better.
See you at the table.
Get ready to rock.
PS: Feywild and Shadowfell campaigns will continue through July, but on a more limited schedule.
So I’ll be very open that I’m not used to the whole blogging thing. This is usually Adamus’s territory, but given that I’ve lost my voice at the time of this writing (and I have SUCH opinions on things), I figured I’d try reaching out in a new way.
For this inaugural blog post, I figured I’d talk about my philosophy on building characters. See, I build characters to exact opposite of most people. A lot of players read a character class's description, decide which story they like, then build. I instead cherry pick which features and traits will satisfy the experience I want to have from a game mechanics perspective, crafting the character's story with the function of the game's rules in mind. Sometimes this can be accomplished in a single character class's leveling progression, but more often than not this method requires multi-classing. But first, let's dissect my methods, and why I believe the best Dungeons & Dragons storytelling follows the intimate understanding of game mechanics rather than preceding it.
The Marriage Of Story And Mechanics
Now most people recognize that Dungeons and Dragons is less of a game and more of a storytelling vehicle that shapes the narrative through game mechanics (the agreed upon rules of how player choices affect and change the values of the game state). Often, the characteristic that attracts people to Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games is the limitless possibility of what can happen at the table. Through a unique alchemy of imagination, creativity, strategy, and luck, we sit down together to form memories and experiences that stick with us through our lives. As is our mission at DM Shower Thoughts, we’re playing together to discover our best selves through gaming and having tremendous fun along the way.
However, despite the storytelling possibilities, game mechanics are still constitute the foundation that keep Dungeons and Dragons anchored as a game rather than as a free form storytelling workshop. Without the structure of rules and mechanics, the louder voices outshout the shyer, and new players may not know how they can and can't contribute. Game mechanics help with these problems in two ways. First, the game often has players take turns, so everyone gets a say in the action. Second, the game has discrete options players can rely on if they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possible choices. D&D’s mechanics offer reliable options, while still being flexible enough to reward creativity. As for story, D&D (and other TTRPGs) grant us the space to tell the stories of ourselves we secretly want to tell. And while it may be part power fantasy, it’s also our yearning to discover who we really are when our society’s rules and norms aren’t limiting us and we’re given autonomy in an imaginary space. This is also where things can get dicey (pun intended). Unlike other board games, like Monopoly and Risk where a player’s choices are finite and objective, a Dungeon Master is the ultimate referee of the rules as well as the primary narrator. The objective is fundamentally different (telling a story versus defeating other players through strategy and luck), and the mechanics of the game can be changed to fulfill the storytelling tone that the players want.
Unfortunately, sometimes you get the opposite effect. You see, with each rules entry of the Player’s Handbook, there is also a story or lore explanation to that rule’s inclusion. For example, a Barbarian’s Rage is noted as being innate primal fury and a Cleric’s magic is said to be the product of a Deity.
However, instead of flavor text being a creative ignition of imagination and wonder, a close-minded DM or player can read story text as the only possible explanations for a rule’s inclusion. Even worse, and probably more common, a RAW (rules as written) DM limits the mechanics of a class to compromise its storytelling potential. Because of this, if a player only selects a class based on that class’s story, they may actually discount another leveling option that would tell that story better.
Example 1: The Fighter
Oftentimes, a newer player coming to Dungeons and Dragons has the perception that the game is unnecessarily complicated and the rules are overwhelming and difficult to master. To many RPG veterans that have played a variety of rules systems and editions of D&D, the opinion is often the opposite, and they believe that 5th edition is too simple. I’ve found the truth to be somewhere in the middle.
To compensate for a new player’s fear of causing some kind of detriment to a well-established play group’s flow, often a DM will suggest the Fighter class to a new player. The suggestion is usually well intentioned. Because a Fighter is a fairly survivable class with limited rules to remember, a new player can learn about different dice, weapons, and 5th edition’s action economy without having to memorize spells and situational effects. However, most fighter players resign themselves to saying “I roll to attack”, and every once in a while “I use an action surge and attack again”, rather than feeling engaged with the dynamic interactions in the game’s story.
To me, this is where the problem arises. The Fighter story in 5th edition is intentionally generic to allow the player to create the character’s story. Is your fighter a brave knight in chainmail looking to uphold justice for the weak? Are they a grizzled monster slayer that believes playing fair is a poor strategic move? Are they a bandit, a master archer, a gladiator or something else entirely? All of these examples are fighters, and although their stories are wildly different, their mechanics tend to be similar.
This problem is compounded with a lack of competitive performance from the Fighter’s features. From my experience both playing a Fighter and DMing for others playing Fighters, I’ve found that through class features alone, Fighters are usually outclassed by other characters that are built to the same role. Did you build a fighter to be a bruiser that can take some punishment? The party barbarian can deal and take more damage. Do you want a clever archer with unmatched accuracy? A well-built rogue can do more damage with the same weapon, and a well built ranger can match that accuracy while also casting healing spirit on the side. Looking to be a clever controller that uses tactics and maneuvers to outthink the enemy? Just try and compete with a dedicated Druid or Wizard.
And because clever player-DM teams can re-flavor story elements to any mechanics, the same story can be told through multiple classes, but the impact on the game state is only determined by mechanics. So without magic items to compensate, a fighter really doesn’t get their own story. If you build a fighter, you’re probably looking to tell the story of a character that’s good at fighting, and when someone else always fights better than you, you tend to ask yourself if your character matters.
Example 2: The Warlock
Let’s now look at a class with the opposite problem – the Warlock. The Warlock story is one as old as mythology, where a mortal seeking power (either maliciously or due to some need) strikes a bargain with some higher power in order to fulfill their goal. Most warlock players I’ve met have gone for the Faustian myth, where the character’s patron is operating against the interest of the player character. After all, if they had the player’s back, they might as well be a cleric.
Now the Faustian deal is an interesting angle to explore, especially for a deep dive into a character’s psychology and back story. However, like the fighter, the warlock can be a frustrating class to play because of its mechanics. Unlike other spellcasters in 5th edition, Warlocks usually only have two spell slots per fight, which severely limits their options in combat. Sure they have the most powerful cantrip in the game (eldritch blast) which can be enhanced through invocations, but the warlock isn’t given as many turn by turn options as other casters (like druid and wizard).
Now I’ve been a warlock player, and I’ve felt this conflict personally. I’ve loved playing through the dynamic relationship between Player Character and Patron, but the game’s mechanics were always lacking. So, why can’t I, say for instance, play a Druid but have the story of the warlock? For some DMs, the answer is “because the book says that Warlocks are the pact ones. It’s the warlock story.”
To which, I retort, “Why can’t my Pact manifest as druid powers?”
And as one would expect by now, I often let my players create characters like that. However, to many readers, the story of a game rule and its mechanics are married. My suggestion is to divorce them. Once you can see how mechanics resolve in play, the story description returns to being energetic ignition rather than the boundaries of what this rule HAS to be, and that’s where a lot of fun can happen.
How I Build Characters
Like I said in the introduction, I build characters by thinking through the mechanical experience I want to have with them. This includes thinking through their action economy (what my choices will look like turn by turn) as well as how I want to design their strengths and flaws into their mechanics.
As a case study, let’s look at Solomon Blackedge, the character I portray in both Cloudsinger and Adamus’s custom world of Gray Owls. The story of Solomon was inspired by that of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from the book and videogame series of the same name (now also on Netflix). Although I didn’t want to BE Geralt, I was interested in portraying a character like him along with some of his abilities and style. This included:
Now, no single class in 5e can encompass all of these traits. One can argue, “Go Eldritch Knight! They get access to lots of equipment and magic!”
Having tried to go that route (and see my complaints about Fighter up above), it also didn’t serve my character’s story the way it theoretically should have. First, I had proficiency in Nature and Survival (ability to track and know about monsters). Second, being a Fighter meant I should be able to fight. Third, dampened emotions make him speak his mind and make him hard to get along with. I at least got used to the third one, which was in my control as a role-player.
Again, the problem I ran into was performance. I rarely succeeded on my skills of choice (Nature and Survival) due to dice luck, meaning that my Witcher character couldn’t actually succeed at the things he was designed to. Second, he almost never hit during a fight, and even when he did, because of nonmagical damage resistant enemies, he never did damage. Third, an eldritch knight is far more committed to casting than I actually wanted, and included many magical abilities I didn’t want my character to have.
So how do I reconcile this? Well, Solomon’s current build in Gray Owls is 12 levels of Scout Rogue, 3 levels of Open Hand Monk, and 2 levels of War Wizard. How does this play? Incredibly well. Same story premise, very different mechanical performance.
Unlike the Eldritch Knight, Solomon almost always succeeds on Nature and Survival checks because of the Scout’s expertise in those skills. Not that I’m afraid of failure or having flaws, but always failing is just as boring as always succeeding. Not only that, but he has skills he’s designed to fail at, like persuasion and athletics. Combine that with the Rogue’s reliable talent, and now he truly is a seasoned expert as his chosen craft. Objective #1 complete.
How about fighting? Well, even though Solomon isn’t a criminal (he’s a monster slayer), the rogue’s features fit his fighting style well. Once you discard the rogue’s story as that of an outlaw and see it as that of a dexterous warrior, sneak attack and cunning action produce an engaging tactical experience in combat. Solomon isn’t meant to get hit and tough it out. He’s meant to hit a crucial target for maximum effectiveness and deftly reposition so he’s harder to pin down. As for Armor Class? That’s where Monk comes in. Monk or Rogue alone wouldn’t really perform as well, but together, with a little bit of a Monk’s unarmored defense and a Rogue’s sneak attack, he’s a force to be reckoned with. And now, the story of Solomon being a deadly fighter with the story of being an expert tracker is now fulfilled.
But what about the magic? Well, Eldritch Knight has way too much magic. And what’s the function of this magic anyways? For me playing as Geralt in the Witcher games and seeing how he fights in the Netflix show, it comes down to minor magic gusts and quick shield spells. That, and Arcane Deflection is one heck of a feature, especially since its “balance point” is that you can only cast a cantrip on the next turn after you use it. No problem; I’m not going to be casting many cantrips when I sneak attack like a Fireball.
So as clunky as the build looks on paper, and how it borrows from class features with classes that may not have to do with each other, together the dissonant pieces form a cohesive custom story I want to tell. It’s not to say there also aren’t clever stories I can tell with single classes, but it does mean if I want them to perform a certain way I have to be open to multi-classing.
Dungeons and Dragons as a storytelling vehicle is unique in that the rules offer excellent creative leverage to tell powerful, long lasting stories. However, the problem arises when we build our characters using suggestions and absolutes. I came to my character building method because of my disappointment that my first character didn’t perform the way he was designed. And if any of you readers take anything away from this, it’s that how mechanics resolve dictate the story, and if you want to tell a specific story, you need to know which mechanics are going to allow you to tell that story in the context of the game’s system. So every time I hear someone say that “Optimizing takes away from role playing”, all I can think of is the storytelling limitations that frame puts on the collective experience at the table.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s taught me to offer my players choices as they build, to remind them that they don’t have to build to their preconceived notions unless they want to. Want to build a support nature caster? You can do that through druid, but have you considered nature cleric or archfey warlock? Druid probably works best, but know those options are out there.
Hopefully this has had some value, if anything else than to clarify why you build characters the way you do. That way, when you do it, you’re doing so out of choice rather than habit.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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See you soon, and remember to Game Responsibly.
The Core Concept (I love Kobolds)
Kobolds are cute. Always have been.
There's something pitiful in their representation, and they can feel like fodder if you're not careful, but I'd argue there's a depth to them we often don't get the chance to explore. They can be industrious, courageous, intelligent, even empathetic - their presentation suffers from always requiring a draconic master or a simplistic society or some other measure that keeps them downtrodden and low.
That's why in Io, though there ARE the "traditional" Kobold clans, there are still many others that break from that tradition and embrace their heroic natures. Whether it be the courage to fight, or the courage to study, there is a wide spectrum to the nature of accomplishment a race could achieve after a millennia of working with whatever they had to spare. That's something we may not realize; there are Kobold inventors, fliers, alchemists, bombers...these little guys build stuff. They dedicate themselves to industry...but their resources are often sub-par. Imagine what a Kobold could accomplish with access to the resources of a Dwarven forge, or an Elven library, or a Human leatherworker. Their weakness of station has little to do with their personal intellect and a lot to do with their environmental experience.
So with the understanding that a Kobold with proper resources would dedicate herself to the study of a craft, even if the methods may go awry or be haphazard in nature, would this not create a powerful master in this study? Skilled in unorthodox mixtures, brilliant workarounds, and a keen observation of new possibilities, a Kobold's need to survive opens the door to innovation.
This is where you track with me to the obvious Kobold Artificer...and I keep walking. For this study is a discipline of the mind, body, and soul, and for that to ring true, the more appropriate answer is the Monk.
Martial Discipline Carries Over
Any martial artist that's dedicated enough energy and time to their art can tell you: this isn't about fighting, it's about learning. In fact, a lot of the martial disciplines teach oneself, yes, how to move well, how to defend yourself, but moreso how to cultivate one's understanding of the world that surrounds them by learning how to learn for themselves. A disciplined martial artist isn't simply learning how to kick or punch or block, but how to navigate their world with intelligence and wisdom with the confidence that is only derived from a dedicated practice in self-improvement. Once you know how to learn, and you have cultivated your discipline to support the hard work needed, the world opens to you.
This is why swordsman drew calligraphy, archers played music, generals wrote poetry, and monks...learned to cook.
The Actual Build
DUNGEON COACH'S APPROACH
I'm not rolling stats the same way this time. Instead, I'd like to take a page from Dungeon Coach's book (linked HERE), and try an alternative roll. See, sometimes I get really lucky in my spread, and sometimes I stink hardcore, but Point-Buy doesn't thrill me and to me, Standard Array is boring. I still enjoy rolling quite a bit, even if the outcome is less than optimal.
So "DC" proposed something a bit different. First, we roll FIVE stats using our standard 4d6, drop the lowest, sort of fare. I'll do that now...
6 (oh gods why...)
OUCH. Now, my DM in charge *might* take a look at this trend and say "Nope. Start over." BUT NO SIR! WE'RE TRYING SOMETHING DIFFERENT TODAY.
Because DC's idea involves one more step. I add up all of these (shudder) numbers and I get...56. I then take a magic number that DC has discovered is the total of your numbers whenever you use the Standard Array - 72. I subtract the two, and I get my sixth stat: another 16.
The philosophy here is that for all the possible suckage one could roll out, you'd be guaranteed at least one decent stat out of everything, and conversely if you rolled remarkably well, you're guaranteed one stat as your main flaw - something we openly embrace around here. It's no fun playing characters that are just good at EVERYTHING.
RACIAL MODIFIERS AND WHERE THE STATS GO
Kobolds get some nice little bonuses, but their penalties are nasty in Volo's Guide, with a +2 Dexterity bonus but a -2 Strength penalty. Lump onto that some lovely SUNLIGHT SENSITIVITY and you've got a LOVELY little Package of Argh. But Pack Tactics is nice for the "group up" mentality and, though I hate the name, "Grovel, Cower, and Beg" will be great for setting up my (hopefully) Rogue and Barbarian allies.
Keesh is intended to be quirky, smart, observant, and adorably weird. The latter might convince you to put that already low 6 into my Charisma BUT NO I say! No, no. ADORABLY weird. Nah, I'm going to lean into that Strength penalty like WHOA. Monks need Dex and Wisdom, so let's save our 16 and (now) 18 for that madness. We're level 7 for his little adventure, so I'll need to pick a Feat or max out my Dex, but I'm getting ahead of myself. All told, my Attributes are as follows:
STR - 4 (!)
DEX - 18
CON - 10
INT - 13
WIS - 16
CHA - 12
But who needs Strength when I'm FAST and cute! He said, unknowing of the horrors his friend DM will unleash upon him for his birthday. Lawl.
By Level 7 I've got most of the things that make Monk great: Evasion, my fists overcome resistances, stunning strike, DEFLECT MISSILES, Ki, and Unarmored Defense. Next, I have a Feat to consider, and in a game that supports most raw numbers better than flavor, my first experience with 5E monk in a full campaign avoided Feats in favor of maxing out that beautiful Dex score. However, Mobile has served me well in the past (but Drunken Technique will open that door nicely) and Lucky or Alert are always super helpful. This time around, I'm favoring story over numbers, and I like the idea that this little Kobold can be favored by decent luck when things go awry; another testament to his survivability. Tonight I choose Lucky, and call it a day. Meaning, I shall shape up as such:
Class: Monk - 7 (Way Of The Drunken Master)
STR - 4 (-3)
DEX - 18 (+4)
CON - 10
INT - 13 (+1)
WIS - 16 (+3)
CHA - 12 (+1)
I'm going to use stale potatoes as projectiles, jerky as nunchucks, and spices as emotional currency. Keesh seeks to improve everyday cuisine by unlocking your senses, enhancing your flavor palette, and pairing everything with chocolate - because you can't go wrong with chocolate. Ever.
I'll let ya'll know how he plays at the table.
See you there.
So my buddy Shelley showed up to an event without a character. She warned me first, like a good player, maybe about 6 hours ahead of time. Lords bless my DnD Beyond subscription and knowledge of the game, because I made this character in 30 minutes flat and brought it to the game for her to play...and it was AMAZING.
The Core Concept
Normally she plays casters, so I asked if she wanted something familiar, or something new. She picked the latter, citing that a non-caster would be welcome. Knowing her, and her trust in me, I decided to give her something with enough technical choices to engage her caster experience, without worrying about spells, and had enough oomph to keep her on the front lines (when normally she doesn't put herself there), and finally some quirk to make things a little silly.
She's mentioned wanting to one day try a Kobold, so now's a great time to try it out.
To keep her AC high, I've awarded her a Ring Of Protection and some Bracers Of Defense. We rolled a decent array so I'll put a high stat in Dexterity and round out her Wisdom, and our Unarmored Defense will take care of the rest.
Race, Stats, and Features
So we started with an 18, 16, 14, 13, 12, and a 6. We'll put that 6 in Charisma because that's hilarious, and the 14 in Strength. 18 and 16 in Dexterity and Wisdom respectively, and we'll fill out the 12 and 13 in Constitution and Intelligence.
Kobolds are one of the few races in 5E that suffer an attribute penalty. -2 Strength and +2 Dexterity brings our Strength modifier to a lovely little +1 and our Dexterity already maxed out at 20 for a +5. To keep this little spitfire moving, I grant the Mobile Feat (+10 feet of movement!, among other things) at Level 4, and then we'll up her Wisdom to 18 (so her AC goes up too).
Add on her Grovel, Cower, and Beg feature, Darkvision, and Pack Tactics, this is rapidly becoming Team Advantage! Slap a pair of sunglasses on that sucker, and Sunlight Sensitivity is no problemo.
Race: Kobold Class: Monk 8, Way of the Open Hand
HP: 64 AC: 22 Speed: 55 Initiative: +5
STR 12 (+1) DEX 20 (+5) CON 12 (+1) INT 13 (+1) WIS 18 (+4) CHA 6 (-2)
Saves: STR +5, DEX +9
Gear: BAGPIPES (used hilariously as a sled, and played every time she fells an enemy),
Bracers of Defense*, Ring of Protection*, Ring of Mind Shielding* (just because)
In practice, Aki is bloody hilarious. When paired with our spry halfling barbarian, the small brigade is a force to be reckoned with, felling just about every big foe I can throw at them. In character interactions, Aki is adorable, ravenous, and entirely loud at the worst times. Mechanically, she has lots to work with using her Ki Points, but it's always the same list, and Open Hand gives her plenty of options to pivot to what needs to be shut down each round - whether it be Reactions, pushing them away, knocking them down - plenty of choice points.
As it stands, Aki is currently level 12 in our Knight Owls Season 3 campaign.
I'd say the character was a hit.
See you at the table.
Okay. Rant time.
I've been doing this gig for a while now. I've devoted hundreds of hours to cultivating my craft of storytelling, rulings, incorporation, and character growth. I've written thousands of words on my campaigns, I've written music for them, I paint my own materials and build my own sets. I reflect daily on how to be a better storyteller and a better teacher on every side of the table. I'm not perfect, no DM is, but I think I'm doing pretty damn good.
Every encounter I've run, even if difficult, has multiple ways to win. I never railroad, and I'm always open to creative solutions. Even a suicide mission has a way out (though it may be a bit dishonorable, still a way out).
Players who have played with me for years...are still questioning my intentions. Like I haven't been making this my LITERAL JOB for LITERALLY YEARS or anything. And I'm not talking like questioning my rulings, no; that's welcomed, we can discuss that stuff. I don't want my players to be scared of bringing up elements for discussion. What I'm talking about can be summed up into two main requests.
Wait and See
If I have continually given you scenarios where there are multiple ways to solve them, do not assume that THIS scenario is somehow a railroad. I have NEVER navigated a party to a no-win scenario. Enemies have been tough, but even those that feel "unfair"...have a puzzle. There are ways around and through everything I set up. Always. That's how I've always done it; it leaves room for the players to kick ass in unexpected ways, and that's great.
If the fight hasn't begun, and you haven't seen the literal character sheets I'm working from, how can you make ANY sweeping conclusions about how it's going to go...unless you're assuming that I'm trying to kill the party, which, if you have ever read this blog or listened to anything I do, you know would be ludicrous. Challenge? Yes. Kill unfairly? NEVER.
Also, until the conclusion of the plot arc...maybe don't pass judgement on it. You might think you're the smartest cookie in the box, but that doesn't mean you're right. And just because you're presented something "unfair," doesn't mean it's impossible. Take a deep breath and figure it out - that's part of what makes this game work.
AND we've already established that CRs are mostly BS so...what's your problem?
Try. See what happens. You might surprise yourself.
Maybe give me the benefit of the doubt...because that's what I've always done for my players (maybe even to a fault).
Trust Me (I don't have to tell you my secrets so you can feel better)
Wait, didn't that guy get away?
Was he on the ship?
You don't know.
Can you just tell us?
So I can stop worrying about it!
...Then definitely no.
But he literally killed me last time!
And we threw him in lava! How did he survive?
Yes, isn't that interesting. There is indeed a reason.
Really? Is it because he's impossible to kill?
...No. There's a reason, though.
Yeah? What is it! Tell me or I'll keep complaining and insulting your style of DMing, checking to see if you intended to paint our entire existence as a no-win scenario because you suck, and questioning your every move!
...Commence minimal spoilers to appease whining...
Now, the above scenario applies to only a few conversations that have prompted this post, but dare I put forth a radical idea: NOT KNOWING THE OUTCOME OF SOMETHING CAN BE EXCITING. Not everything gets wrapped up in a neat little bow; loose ends are a part of storytelling, and that tense uncertainty is a GOOD THING in a narrative, especially a cooperative one.
Do you REALLY need to know that you DEFINITELY killed that guy and he's never coming back? Or could you be excited if he ever returned? Could you rejoice in discovering IN PLAY why he seems immortal? Solve the mystery, damn it.
I have players that jump at the chance to figure this stuff out...and a tiny percentage of others that seem annoyed if they don't know everything - like they were somehow entitled to. And if they didn't know, then it "just wasn't fair."
Grow up. Put on your big kid pants and deal with the fact that you may not know everything. Mystery is a part of storytelling, hell it's a part of LIFE, and I don't feel like giving up my mysteries or loose ends because you're whining for them.
If you're not sure you're going to win because your level is too low, or your perceived enemies have too many hit points, or he has too many spell slots, or he's resistant to my damage type, or his AC is too high (saving throws might suck, ya' know), or no one took healing spirit.
Figure. It. Out. These are challenges, not impossibilities. If you've learned anything from me, it should be that I'm not a jerk GM. I kill my darlings, I'm happy when you win, I just want you to have a good time and feel satisfied.
Not all problems will be solved by mechanics and probability alone. This is a game that promotes creative problem solving. So do some problem solving! Don't throw up your hands and say "I can't because my character blah blah blah blah - I've heard enough.
I'll help you if you get stuck, but I ain't doing it for you, and I'm pretty sure that's how people like it.
Enough with this baloney sandwich.
I'll see you at the table.
4) Class Traits and Abilities
Warlocks act as Strikers - bringing divine punishment upon their enemies, but they're not tank-y in any way. My key abilities are Charisma, Constitution, and Intelligence, in that order, so my Gnome racial bonuses are BOSS. Let's stat it out:
STR 11 (+0)
DEX 12 (+1)
CON 16 (+3) = 15 + 1 at Level 4.
INT 16 (+3) = 14 + 2
CHA 20 (+5) = 17 + 2 + 1 at Level 4.
Being Small, my speed is only 5 squares, but it helps to have some Low-Light Vision too.
Armor is Cloth and Leather only, but my Defense Bonuses are +1 to Reflex and +1 Will.
Weapon Proficiencies: Simple Melee, Simple Ranged
1) ELDRITCH BLAST - Your At-Will powers are intrinsically tied to your class choice by theme and pact, so Eldritch Blast is an automatic At-Will power. Your Eldritch Pact decides your other At-Will power...
2) ELDRITCH PACT - You get three choices: Fey, Infernal, Star. This selection decides your second At-Will power, as it is mechanically tied to the flavor of the pact. Star punishes movement toward you with Dire Radiance (Movement), Fey makes you Invisible with Eyebite (Buff), Infernal channels additional damage to a target when I take damage with Hellish Rebuke (Offense). Each one is still an initial attack roll, with the appropriate follow-up bonus. I'm going with Hellish Rebuke, because the language specifies that the target doesn't have to be the one that damages me; I could take damage from something else entirely, and still automatically deal 1d6+3 fire damage to my chosen target. That's nice. Also, I get Dark One's Blessing, which grants me temporary HP when a creature under my Warlock's Curse (see below), dies.
3) PRIME SHOT - As long as I'm the closest to my target (so no ally is closer than I), I get a +1 to all ranged attack rolls against that target. Nifty.
4) SHADOW WALK - As long as I travel at least 3 squares on my turn, I gain Concealment until the end of my next turn. Which is great, because I plan to keep my distance whenever possible.
5) WARLOCK'S CURSE - once per turn, as a Minor Action, I curse a dude. That dude is more vulnerable to my nasty attacks and takes extra damage (+1d6 for now). So there.
6) IMPLEMENTS - Warlocks make use of specific powerful wands or rods or pact daggers that add extra powers or bonuses to their spells. Cool beans.
5) Powers (Spells)
A Level 4 dude has 2 At-Will Powers, 2 Encounter Powers (not including other class features, or racial abilities), 1 Utility Power, and 1 Daily Power. Many of my powers are already pre-determined by my Infernal Pact choice, so let's just lay them out.
1) Eldritch Blast - you can choose your Charisma or Constitution to help out with this spell, but you can't change later. Charisma is my OBVIOUS CHOICE with a +5 modifier. With the added benefit of this spell counting as a basic ranged attack, allies that grant such opportunities open up a world of hurt against our enemies.
2) Hellish Rebuke - Constitution-based ranged attack vs. Reflex, so 1d6+3 fire damage if I hit. The added bonus is they take an extra 1d6+3 fire damage if I take ANY damage before the end of my next turn.
Racial) Fade Away - We've talked about this. Take damage, go invisible!
1st Level) Diabolic Grasp - Another Constitution-based power that hits nice for 2d8+3, and will move the target 4 freaking squares!
3rd Level) Fiery Bolt - 3d6+3 fire damage, and burst 1 with 1d6+3 fire damage, with another +3 for my Intelligence. Ouch.
1) Armor of Agathys - Gain some 13 Temporary Hit points and any enemy that starts its turn adjacent to me takes 1d6+3 Cold damage until the END OF THE ENCOUNTER.
Utility - Daily
2nd Level) Fiendish Resilience - Minor Action to give myself 8 temporary hit points. Meh. No choice in the matter.
1) Improved Initiative - the earlier I go, the better. +4.
2) Improved Dark One's Blessing - when a Cursed enemy drops to 0, I'll gain 7 temp HP instead of 4.
4) Magic Of The Mists - retain Fade Away when I attack. Booyah.
6) Gear and Overview
Basic Melee = Sickle; +4 to hit, 1d6 damage --- Sickles have +2 Proficiency, + Strength (0) + 1/2 Level (2)
Basic Ranged = Hand Crossbow; +5 to hit, 1d6+1 damage --- Hand Crossbows have +2 Proficiency + Dex (1) + 1/2 Level (2)*
**I don't plan on using this, as my Eldritch Blast counts as a Basic Ranged Attack. 1d10+5, with a +9 to hit is way better.**
Implement: Magic Tome = +1 Attack and Damage rolls, but on a Critical add 1d6 damage.
At-Will Powers: ELDRITCH BLAST, Hellish Rebuke
Encounter Powers: Fade Away [R], Diabolic Grasp, Fiery Bolt
Daily Powers: Armor of Agathys
HP: 30 (15 at level 1, +5 per level )
Healing Surges: 9 (6+3) Surge Value: 7
AC: 15 --- (10+1/2 level +Dexterity Mod +Leather Armor 
Fortitude: 15 --- (10+1/2 Level +Con Mod )
Reflex: 16 --- (Int +3 + 12 + 1)
Will: 18 --- (Cha +5 + 12 + 1)
Trained Skills: Arcana, Bluff, Intimidate, Streetwise
Gnome made. Let's blow some stuff up.
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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