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.
4) Class Traits + Ability Distribution
Avengers act as Strikers - bringing divine punishment upon their enemies, but they're not tank-y in any way. My key abilities are Wisdom, Dexterity, and Intelligence, in that order, so my Deva racial bonuses are right ON POINT. Let's stat it out:
STR 11 (+0)
DEX 18 (+4) = 17 + 1 at Level 4.
CON 12 (+1)
INT 16 (+3) = 14 + 2
WIS 18 (+4) = 15 + 2 + 1 at Level 4.
CHA 10 (+0)
Armor is Cloth only, so I'm pleased that my Defense Bonuses are +1 to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.
Weapon Proficiencies: Simple and Martial Melee, and just Simple Ranged (so I guess I'm going up close and personal)
Now, that Armor proficiency feels a bit disappointing, but the Avenger gets a few little features to help out their "battle cleric" status:
1) ARMOR OF FAITH - as long as I'm not in heavy armor or using a shield, my deity rewards my courage in the face of certain doom with a +3 bonus to my AC.
2) AVENGER'S CENSURE - I choose one of two bonuses that tie directly to a creature that is the target of my Oath Of Enmity (what up, 5E Vengeance Paladin?), Pursuit or Retribution. I like the damage bump (3 from my Int) of Retribution, as well as the synergy in Power selection later (you'll see), so I'll go with that.
3) OATH OF ENMITY - select a chosen prey, and take the best of two attacks on them until the end of the Encounter as a Minor Action. Woof. Probability is now on my side.
4) CHANNEL DIVINITY - you start with two Channel Divinity powers (more if you take certain Feats): Abjure Undead (deal sick damage to one undead target and immobilize them) and Divine Guidance (let an ally roll twice for an attack). Both Encounter powers, so I've got 'em each fight.
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. Let's get to it.
At-Wills - my focus is on dealing decent damage and chasing down opponents so I can smite the crud out of them:
1) Bond of Pursuit - Weapon attack plus Wisdom Modifier damage, but the kicker is that I can chase down the target if he ends his turn away from me.
2) Bond of Retribution - decent damage and radiant damage tied to my Intelligence if an enemy other than my target smacks me. That'll learn 'em good. :)
Racial) Memory of a Thousand Lifetimes - didn't like that roll? Let's add 1d6 to it!
Class Feature [CF]) Oath of Enmity - roll two attacks and take the better result for the whole fight or when the thing dies. All that for a Minor Action.
CF) Channel Divinity: Abjure Undead - immobilize and wreck one undead creature.
CF) Channel Divinity: Divine Guidance - when an ally attacks your Enmity target, have them roll twice and take the better result. Yes please hit my quarry!
1st Level) Avenging Echo - Don't stand so close to me! Until the end of my next turn, enemies near me take 8 radiant damage (5 + 3 from my Int because of Censure of Retribution).
3rd Level) Halo Of Fire - same deal as Echo, but better weapon damage, and this time it's 8 fire damage.
1) Temple Of Light - Double weapon damage + Wisdom radiance AND it creates a zone of extra damage that follows the target. Creatures struck by me in such a zone take extra damage. I see this limiting a target's movement, as the spillover damage to their own allies is less than helpful.
Utility - Encounter
2nd Level) Resonant Escape - triggered by being hit, or missed, I get to teleport a few squares away. Cool.
1) Improved Armor Of Faith - an additional bonus to AC that increases at later levels (+1 for now)
2) Melee Training - effectively (if I pick Dexterity) turns my basic melee attacks into 5E finesse weapons, so I can use my Dexterity modifier to slice the junk out of enemies instead of Strength.
4) Melora's Tide - another Channel Divinity option that grants some regeneration to me or an ally until we're not half dead.
6) Gear and Overview
Basic Melee = Longsword; +9 to hit, 1d8+4 damage --- Longswords have +3 Proficiency, + Dexterity (4) + 1/2 Level (2)
Basic Ranged = Crossbow; +8 to hit, 1d8+4 damage --- Crossbows have +2 Proficiency + Dex (4) + 1/2 Level (2)
At-Will Powers: Bond Of Pursuit, Bond Of Retribution
Encounter Powers: Memory of a Thousand Lifetimes (Racial), Oath Of Enmity (CF), CD Abjure Undead (CF), CD Divine Guidance (CF), Avenging Echo, Halo Of Fire, Resonant Escape (Utility)
Daily Powers: Temple Of Light
HP: 33 (15 at level 1, +6 per level )
Healing Surges: 8 Surge Value: 8
AC: 20 --- (10+1/2 level +Dexterity Mod +Armor Of Faith 
Fortitude: 14 --- (Con Mod  + 12 + 1)
Reflex: 17 --- (Dex +4 + 12 + 1)
Will: 17 --- (Wis +4 + 12 + 1)
Trained Skills: Religion + Acrobatics, Heal, Perception
Time to kick some butt, Vered Felstaff. Let's rock.
See you at the table.
Everybody settle in and get cozy. We're about to share some deep stuff on gender, personal identity, sexual orientation, and personal expression. The following deep dive is an exploration of distinct characters I've played, others I've observed behind the screen, and a small look of the current state of D&D and how it affects and empowers us.
How Playing A Woman Made Me A Better Person (and many other things)
Gender-bending is a foregone conclusion when you are a Game Master. Unless you're running a completely male or female world (I mean...why?), the assumption follows that if you are playing as every character that is not another player-character, you will undoubtedly play a character that is the opposite sex that you are.
And we've all seen some cringe-worthy elements come out of this with newer DMs. A dude that plays all the ladies like lascivious harlots with high-pitched voices (because all women CLEARLY sound like THAT), or an awesome dudette playing all the men similarly but down two octaves. I get it, we're learning, and their range will (I hope) increase.
I'm happy to say I came from the middle when it came to voice. I was blessed with a love of the theater, and I adore trying out new voices, dialects, and accents. Some I've blended into regional accents for my fictional world, and that took some time! It's great to look back, and when I play ladies, they run the gamut of high to lower pitches. Most tend to sit in soft palette, and elevate slightly. But...it's not about the voice.
Characters are EMBODIED. A lot can change by a simple shift in posture and position. How a person moves, in face and body language, is even more important than how they sound. A shifty urchin looks shifty (regardless of gender), and a stoic knight is no less stoic with feminine features; both can also be seductive, or monstrous, or terrifying. Their actions and body language speak more than any masculine or feminine features would at their base. A lot of it ties more into the variables of communication, interest, and an alignment of style.
I'd be lying if I said gender DIDN'T play a role, but for me, I find it a little more complex.
I think I played Vanora to feel sexy at a time in my life that I certainly didn't. As frame, many of my men were shy and awkward (like me), or far too exuberant and annoying (like a cartoon version of what not to be), and my women, though cool, had what I thought was lacking in personality. Now, Vanora was not flirtatious; she was confident. Not once did she hit on anyone in the game, but I knew she could rock it if it came up. She was sensual in her movements, almost animal-like (Aasimar Shifter, Pathfinder), and I wanted to experience an otherworldly perspective, separated yet powerful, and highly feminine. And the perspective was...neutral. In fact, it became a piece far more about characterization; the subtle aspects of a person - their flaws, ideals, and the deeper shifting layers of emotional sand. It was a lesson in HUMANITY most of all. As the campaign fizzled out, her lessons reformed in the creature known as Lorelai in Gray Owls, except ten-fold, and much more complex, dangerous, and alluring.
And I end up playing a lot of women in my games, and not to feel sexy. Actually, I'm very proud of the women of Io in every age. I find I play them like people, rather than women or men, which might sound silly to some of you, but I think that that's the best way for me. Instead of gender first, it's always character. There's no sexism in Io (at least not in any frame that is acceptable), so a good leader is a good leader, regardless of gender. A ruthless tyrant is still a tyrant, whether it a man, woman, or anything in between. Yet, my players have had little trouble identifying who I'm playing and when (there is a family of strong women that all sounded a little similar early on, but I've adapted), and usually grasp their gender quickly.
In a lot of ways, playing women helped me consider people as people. I didn't want to box myself into tired narrative cliches or tropes, so to break free I played a person who just happens to be female, male, or something else. Their gender is secondary to their personality. What a concept to consider, yet I do believe - as a clearly heterosexual man - that women hold certain extra powers over those that would be interested in them, and the same is true for any gender that interests another.
So of course this swings toward orientation, at least at first. Love is love in Io; you love whom or what you want (as long as you're not hurting anyone), so the societal pressures that surround one's orientations that we feel so viscerally today...don't exist here. And it doesn't define someone's prevalent or lack of partners. Let's take Cecil, a high-elf bard of the court in Gray Owls, who, despite being married to probably one of the most frighteningly-powerful women I've ever played, has to play the field of information, favors, and rapport in order to sway the odds in the favor of his family and his assets. Cecil is a listener, first and foremost, and can flip on a dime whether to be masculine or feminine and all levels between as the situation allows so he can make the other in the room feel the most comfortable...whether that's manipulative or not. But for me, it forces me to wait and pick my moves carefully, embracing whatever side I need to and being open to multiple possibilities; a perspective of a tactically sound mind who will wield physical and mental intimacy to position others is a thing of beauty.
Contrast this with Obidia Skurr, the Master Slate Duelist of Feathertongue, who is concretely gay yet classically masculine, and chooses partners rarely, if at all. He never uses his sexuality overtly as a tactic; it is a subtle piece of himself that he chooses to save for only his most vulnerable times. A private person; willing to help, but only willing to open himself up to those that truly matter, yet he is pursued for his mystery. (Not the mystery of his orientation, mind you, because that doesn't matter). Whereas Alejandro Esuarve, definitively pansexual, can't get anything in bed due to his aggressively abrasive and annoying personality. Neither is a commentary on either orientation, and such an orientation is secondary to who they are as people. Whom we choose to love is really only a small piece of who we completely are, and we can choose to wear that intimate choice on our sleeve or express it only in the quiet, special moments. Neither is hiding, and both are completely normal. And yet still I can play the strong and masculine Lyla Ironwood, who (at this point in the campaign) hasn't expressed any shred of sexuality or interest in anyone, and still get hit on by the party's Barbarian, even though he knows she can rip his heart out. People are interested in who they're interested in, and each of those is a layered person (which I dare say is MUCH more attractive). ;)
Too often, we find ourselves in camps of judgment, across picket lines of which fun is most "right." We view one side in a given context, and omit others, yet we forget key powerful facts of the human identity. A person using their sexuality as a weapon is empowering and a person wielding a great sword in a huge battle is also empowering. The existence of one does not belittle or negate the existence of the other. And you know the best thing? That can be the same person. True agency is having a say in how you portray yourself in every given moment; a badass soldier can be a sexy seductress, and a sexy seductress can be badass soldier, and people WANT TO BE BOTH at different times, and run the oscillation between many others. The ability to pivot to what is most appropriate given the situation is an adaptable skill that so many desire, yet have little practice in. Wouldn't it be great if we could feel strong AND sexy? They're not exclusive, people.
I guess my main point in exploring this deeply is that, similar to my post on Boundaries, I build and play characters from a state of ideal representation. I'd be silly if I didn't reference the cruel fact that we fight for empowerment and representation because of a long history where it was taken from us, and how cool would it be if the core aspects of ourselves could be expressed without the barriers we have to punch through today. If I want to look good, I will. My choice to be fabulous. My choice to fight. My choice to breathe. My choice to express myself however I see fit.
And I choose unhinged Druid Assassin who believes she's descended from a long line of Tabaxi, despite being human. :) That fun is not wrong, and I'll probably learn something from it, too.
When Players Pursue Identity Through Gender and Orientation
I expect it at every one of my tables now; especially the one-shots. One of the gals is going to play a guy, and I'm totally down. Maybe it's just to be different, gain a new perspective, or to practice their own identity. Yeah. Practice.
So much of what we do at each table involves communication, problem-solving, complex fantasy cooperative storytelling...and social interaction. I'd be an idiot if I said my characters were not related to me SOMEHOW, as each will undoubtedly represent or be manifested from an aspect of oneself. They may grow and change, but, actually, so are you (the player). Each character we play is intrinsically tied to a piece of us, and will affect us in ways we may not have planned for.
Which is why when I witness players step outside (or inside) their comfort zones with new characters or explorative decisions I internally squee with glee. You now get to experience, in a safe and imaginative space, actual feedback on character choices, orientations, responses, communication... And if you offend, or miscommunicate, or cause a mass genocide - it's okay, because this is a game, and you can try again. That's one rep. Take the feedback, apply where you can, and we'll continue to grow together.
And 5th Edition has done quite a lot for representation. Couple this with Io's world, and my players have a lot of opportunity to explore themselves (as theme and appropriate for each age group in campaign, of course) in the shoes of each character. Maybe you're a girl that's figuring out if you like girls...so you play a guy character and try flirting out. Or you play a girl character who is bisexual, or lesbian, or pan. Who knows? Maybe you're a guy that would like to see what happens if you play a girl; will your perspective change, your thoughts, your motivations? What if your character is asexual? What does that mean, how would I play that? What if I'm a boy, and I identify as a girl? How do I explore that?
How does the group react to your bend, or your orientation? Do they support you, reject you, or are just uncomfortable? Are they uncertain, and need to consider a few things for themselves?
Maybe they're actually decent people and accept you for who you are, and try to help wherever they can. :)
I'm happy to say that I have players that decided, through their experiences pursuing an orientation they were uncertain of, to come out to their family and fight for agency in their own life. They used their character to harness the warrior inside, and actually fight for what made them happy. That's the beauty of this game; it's an opportunity to find your Sword and Shield, and rise above the walls you built around yourself. It is a forge, and when building yourself, you can always start over. You can always rewrite your narrative; tell yourself a new story.
And what we're seeing, more and more, is how little it actually matters at the table what sort of orientation, gender, or identity you wish to pursue. Those aspects of yourself (as long as they don't hurt others, and respect each other's boundaries) will be accepted at my table, and many others. However, those aspects are only tiny pieces of a much greater YOU.
What becomes possible when we expunge the social gender norms present today in what separates the expectations of a boy or a girl or the spectrum between, and embrace only the commonality of character and the sliding gradient of alignment point to point; decision to decision? Then, we are only measured by our actions, not solely by our gender, and we are but people drifting together. Sometimes we have a heading, others not, and either way, the journey is our own as we grow and learn and love together.
Forever pride. Forever human.
See you at the table.
We've all been there.
The group's been together over a year now and things just don't seem right. Johnny's SO ANNOYING - he's late, he's loud, and he repeats himself all the time! Adam doesn't let the DM speak - no one knows what's going on, and Alex is *still* on his phone looking up cat videos. We've fought beholders together, yet we're still not...blending.
When a scenario like this presents itself, it's important to take a step back and recognize one big circumstance and answer a question: is it something about today, or has this been a trend? If the former, take a deep breath. Let go of the things that linger, and urge the group to join you in this; you'll all be better for it, and it might help alleviate a few things on people's minds. Everyone's allowed an off-day.
If the latter, still take a deep breath, but there might be reason to explore the various facets that can affect a group's alignment (not mechanical alignment, mind you).
This one's up front because it's the most persistent, and holds up a realistic truth: not all people get along. But it's the WHY that's important, and a personality misalignment is often expressed in MANY ways. It's complicated, which is why it is difficult to explore, but once a player becomes self-aware and cognizant of their own personality or incongruence with others, changes begin to manifest.
Awareness goes a long way, and a growth mindset will aid you. It could be as little as the way you say hello, or your brand of particular-ness. Reflection is important in all walks of life - use it.
But there are a few more specific elements that one can consider in the group and in life that may augment your perspective at the table.
Assuming Intent (especially negative)
We reference The Four Agreements quite a lot in the Podcast and in this blog, but SERIOUSLY dudes, it's because it keeps coming up. Inferences are important - they take facts and observable factors, coupled with experience, and help you navigate your world efficiently. However, assumptions about people, their intentions, and intended effects in interpersonal situations...cause pain and misunderstanding.
I've had conversations with people where it seems we come to a mutual understanding...only to have them rewrite their own narrative and assume wide-reaching intent, returning angry and confused. I try my best to be Impeccable With My Word - make sure that I am clear and up front - only to have others assume something very different. Assumptions like this at the table only sew misunderstanding and discord. Take people at their word, and if you must assume, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Pace, "The Plot", and Obsession With YOUR Story
When you are playing, you are furthering "The Plot." That is all.
That plot can be role-play heavy, group discussion, combat-driven, a big blender mix of everything... Whatever you decide to engage in at the table...is the Plot of this GROUP STORY. It cannot, and will not, ever be all about you.
The speed, or pace, of this story is decided on by the players. The DM is the guide, but not the impending sword-of-damacles wall pushing you in a direction. I've got hooks and floating elements for ya'll, but if you spend 3 hours shopping and everyone's having a good time, then that's the episode, and that's great too. From a player's perspective, placing emphasis on "your story" over everyone else's invalidates the group story, and in case you haven't noticed, this is a GROUP GAME. Now, some players may have more spotlight at certain times than others, and that's totally cool, but that doesn't mean that before that spotlight wasn't also "the plot."
If you must be in the spotlight, share it; invite others to come along (they can always refuse). If your character is already doing something, avoid jumping into another person's activity. This is a shared experience...share it.
Flow and Resistance + Contributions and Withdrawals
Sessions that just plain CLICK are my ultimate goal as a DM. Everybody's rolling, everybody's all in, the rapport is awesome, and everything just...flows. Achieving Flow is described as reaching a supreme "lack of resistance" with the players. Tiny rulings, circumstances, voices, characterization, pace, style...it all works and everyone has invested in each element in play, creating a worthwhile flow.
Resistance is felt when players clash over rulings, there's a misalignment of play style, roles, and any moment where things grind to a halt. Sometimes resistance is necessary to clarify rulings and understanding, but there is a particular balance inherent in such clarification, which demands that you ask yourself a very important question: Does it matter? Sometimes we focus too much on micro; take a step back and see if, in the macro, does it matter if the word you use is points or slots? No? Then use what you need and remove your ego from the situation. If it DOES matter, then talk through it, and if your overruled...get over it. You can address it again outside of the game.
The other half of this has to do with contributing to the experience of the group or withdrawing from it. This is most often felt when we joke around in the middle of play - which is awesome, by the way. BUT, a quick quip in the middle of a scene contributes to group play, but pulling up a youtube video to show everyone in the middle of a scene withdraws from it. These two sides of the same coin show respect for everyone's play and disrespect for everyone's play. It's a balancing act, and one that will have missteps of course, but must be a skill that is cultivated. If you find a player, or players, are withdrawing from the game (or pulling others to withdraw), it is worth a conversation. Remember, it isn't the jokes, it's the longer, tangental withdrawal, especially if other players are bothered by it. If that's the type of game you agreed to, alright then, but if NOT, check yourself.
Ultimately, if it goes against the social contract... Don't do it. I'll say it again, this is a group game.
Antagonists In The Party and None Of Us Are Perfect
If players are escalating each other, and failing to take responsibility for such actions, instead citing the other as the problem... Congratulations, you're kindergartners. I'm so proud. Take responsibility for your own actions; if you're perpetually late, fix that. If you seem to clash with another player, discern why (don't just let it sit there, this is an opportunity to grow), and ACT on it. If you always cite others as the problem, and evidence suggests the contrary, then you might be playing victim - own that and grow up.
This might seem like some tough love right now, but a role-playing group is a vulnerable thing. Playing with others can be hard, and this setting is especially beautiful in how accepting it can be. I am so honored to have cultivated a community that legitimately cares about its members and their wellbeing, mental health included, and am horrified when I hear of the awful experiences people have come from. And yet, none of us are perfect. We are all seeking our best selves through play with others, and because we all come from different places, there are bound to be some clashes. These moments, as difficult as they might be, are opportunities to grow, pivot, and reflect. And the community will be there to help you.
However, if you find yourself UNWILLING to grow or adapt to smooth things over, if it rallies against your own concept of yourself and "you've tried everything," then maybe this isn't the group for you. Sometimes taking space IS the best course of action; removing yourself from the situation gives context and perspective where none were present before.
Luckily, we DO exist in a space where there is always another group to try. :). We'll wait for you.
See you at the table.
PS: keeping this blog and site running takes time, energy, and funding. Consider helping out by visiting my Patreon, The DM's Den, found HERE, for extra benefits, rewards, and products. Have an awesome day.
Thursday D&D is now my oldest campaign. Running since my inception into the Questers' Way model, they've been fighting cultists, talking to dragons, crushing beholders, and squaring off against Ancient Ones riding gargantuan titans for nearly 3 years now. And last Thursday marked the close of the final arc of the story.
We'll have one last dungeon crawl at level 20, 5 years later, as our epilogue next week. After that, 150 years pass into the fourth age of Io, and we start anew at Level 2. It's been quite a journey, and they're not the easiest group to run ;), but the lessons are real with this crew and I've changed a lot since we started.
Here's what I picked up.
When I started the Thursday game, I was coming off a blend of 10 years running and teaching Pathfinder, and though I fell in love quickly with 5E, I had made some assumptions regarding its player options.
The system is deceptively simple and highly accessible, but I had listened to the cry-babies online declaring it "D&D Basic," and decided to create specific Prestige Classes based around lore and player discovery. It created a very special and unique option inside my custom world, where "secret" classes actually existed that could augment player builds, and could only upgrade through experimentation, player exploration, and discovery into the deep layers of the world's history. I still think it was a great decision. It adds a lot of rewards for players that invest of themselves in the history and machinations of this fantasy you've spent so much time on.
But after two years of deep-diving mechanics, game mastering, game design, player-master interaction, social development, and the study of flow... I realize I made a boo-boo. Not a mistake in flavor, nor in reward, but in mechanics.
It's a little thing, and the more you do the more you realize that "it's the little things" that matter most. In this case, my Prestige Class of the Aegis - a powerhouse of a Cleric that wields the souls of the dead to unleash fury upon her enemies - and the final form of a Ranger with a Legacy Bow - a weapon that levels up with you; semi-sentient and created by a god - created an issue with Action Economy and TMRPA (Too Much Rolling Per Action), respectively.
The Aegis's main mechanic involves gaining Furies - souls of dead warriors unwilling to pass on - and spending them like Ki Points to unleash powerful attacks, augment healing spells, and create more options. Unfortunately, as long as you have Furies to burn, there's no limit to their use, and at high level in any class, you're already managing so much... It eats up time easy when you're able to summon an Action Surge every turn AND cast AND fight. On the other side of the table, the crazy-bow-now-living-winged-armor attached to the Ranger added an extra attack, but the main time suck is derived from two main extra elements in play: the bow requires a Con save when it hits or the target takes extra necrotic damage. It's also got a crazy bonus (with a high level character with max Dex), so hitting is often, mean more rolls for me. On top of this, IF she rolls a natural 20 on the bow, she rolls Constitution damage on the target, on top of everything else. Moving forward, leveled up weapons will deal static numbers, instead of rolling more... And in terms of time, it always feels more effective in flow and execution to have a power spike (the awesome power of rolling 8d6 for a Fireball) than many small spikes of damage, so if I can eliminate the parceled rolls where I can, everyone still feels effective, but turns take less time.
In the fourth age, Io-Shar, though it is a more industrial time period of naval exploration (after the world flooded), home-brew materials are much tighter and more balanced; action economy manipulations have higher costs, and there's less compounded rolling. The bonuses are also much more subtle; there isn't a need to add a whole new system to track when it could be as simple as a palette swap in damage type. New age, new prestige classes and custom feats open up (hello, Knife Expert), but this play test has heavily informed what special elements are extended to the player. A little goes a long way - there is an elegance in that design, and it keeps the playing field even across the table.
I look forward to the interesting things I can give them this time around. :)
Self Actualization / Player Agency
NPC's can be tricky business.
Introduce them as careful lore drops, powerful relationships, killer resources...but never have them solve a problem for the players. Good gods. Holy cows on toast with mayonnaise. Don't do it.
NPC ex machina is not the way to go if it comes out of nowhere.
Well-established order of guards and officers? Sure thing. Sudden mass teleport wizard is sudden. If it feels like a puzzle to the players and they're enjoying solving it, don't help them with an NPC. Hints are fine, solutions can hurt the party.
...Unless they're utterly lost and confused. Help them along, but don't do it for them. EVER. If you do, you run the risk of insulting them and equally "playing without them." And that's just rude. ;)
Clear Intention Of Background
Some players want their background conflicts resolved in the grand arc of the story, while others use their backgrounds predominantly to inform their play style from session 1 and need it no longer.
Now, this group in particular was one where I didn't get that feel easy from most of them. With a high mix reactive players with a few proactive ones, some offering extensive background information while others offered a few sentences explained away, the hindsight of the matter is obvious but the player execution and my observations were misunderstood often. When you give a hook that to you is obvious, but the player misses completely, and therefore doesn't pursue it, one might assume that the view of their background fits into the former category.
Compounding confusion, still, are those that feed very little into the overall narrative, but then wonder when "their story" will be featured, but say nothing - instead assuming they were forgotten. Please talk to your DM; I won't be offended - it's much worse if you don't approach the issue until the end of the campaign and I wonder why NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. :)
Like many GMs out there, I'm not a *dick*, but I can't read minds. There are so many stories of a player misinterpreting a DM's intention, or of the GM making an assumption about a scenario that ended up being incorrect, or seeming to ignore obvious intentions. In the same vein of: "if I knew it was a problem, I would have fixed it right away," though we can intuit quite a bit the longer we're at the table, our human nature begs us to err. We miss things, we get caught up in the narrative, and we lose sight of players. I am imperfect, as are we all, so open communication helps everyone. Also, GMs, CHECK IN WITH YOUR PLAYERS MORE. I picked this up as a requirement when I started Gray Owls and OH MY GOODNESS is it an essential element at every table. I don't know how it took me that long to put in my workflow OMG.
Moving forward, with each new campaign, I've started to put together a few questions for character creation; some fulfill the essential detail of world building, while others touch on player intentions - what do they want to get out of this experience?
1. Where was your character born? Describe it as best you can; do you reflect on this place positively or negatively? Would you ever want to return? Why? Do you have a family there? How did they treat you? Were there any important people in your life growing up? Why did you leave?
2. What is your character's goal in life; what do you seek? When did you "grow up" and start taking care of yourself?
3. What emotion best describes your character? What emotion do you bring out in others?
4. How do you carry yourself? What are your means/dress/attitude as you move through life? What do find valuable?
5. What is your comfort zone? What is your greatest fear? Personal tastes, quirks, and opinions?
6. Player: What kind of story do you see your character fitting into? What role do you see them filling?
7. Player: Please weigh (3 being most important to you, 1 being least important) the Three Pillars - Combat/Social/Exploration
8. Player: How do you interpret your play style? What are your pet peeves? What do you respond well to?
9. Player: How do you want your character to die? (this is more important than you think; it strikes at the heart of our own values - your story could end abruptly, and if it did, how would they meet that end do you think?)
10. Player: Do you want your background details to be referenced or hooked into the story? You can always change your mind - just let me know.
Now, especially number 10 I can see a few of my fellow GMs hemming and hawing over. "You mean we have to bend over backwards to make this character's weird backstory fit into OUR GRAND NARRATIVE??? How dare they assume they'd be so important - they should be happy just to be playing!" ...Hmm.
This is a group game, and it's really important that everyone understands the type of experience they're getting into. Clear expectations are a good thing; Trust and Empathy are two main factors to building a great table of play. Now, do I have to make that character's stuff the most important element all the time? No. Absolutely not. But I can give them sprinkles of content more directly spun into the story. It won't happen all the time, and sometimes it might not even come up, but IF I KNOW going into this that there is a clear desire to wrap up a specific story thread, I can find more ORGANIC ways to weave and tie these disparate threads together. It might even be a limiter of location; hints of the conflict in the north (echoes of another character's story), but we don't need to go there now. It's just a sprinkle.
Everyone's connected to something. Everyone's from somewhere. We don't know everything going in; the mystery is the fun part, and some players want their mystery. Others don't care for it; I need to know which one you are.
Players Learn Too, And Comfort Tells Stories
And when they do, their real play styles come out. It's amazing what comfort will do for the table, and how much it reveals what a comfortable player actually WANTS to play, and if that concept doesn't jive with how their current class works, there will undoubtedly be a desire to play something different.
The more this group learned about how the game works, the more effective they became, but also the more some of them drifted toward other builds, concepts, and ideas. This type of momentum is helpful to notice; in a way, it reveals a player's true nature. Like the first campaign was our test run. The next one is where we're going to really shine; players and DM alike. We take what we learned about the game, ourselves, our styles, and how to advocate for the experience we want...and finally, just PLAY.
See you at the table.
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Recently I had the honor to play in a new event type we're offering at the center: Modular Madness.
Now, witty title aside, the event structure is certainly no One-Shot scenario (though we did have a character death in the first combat - curse those Nat 20's), and not as grand long-form as a Knight Owls or Gray Owls. What it is is a set of 4-6 sessions planned over roughly 4-6 months. We meet and play for approximately six hours each sitting with 2-3 breaks between the action. We do this to experience and play through an actual module inside the given game system.
This time around? We're playing Dragon Heist.
Run by John, with a strict party of 6 adventurers at maximum, and no clue of each other's complete intentions, we muddled our way through chapter 1 of the adventure at our first session about a week ago. IT WAS A BLAST AND A HALF, and I've done some thinking on the experience.
I play a Yuan-Ti Wizard named Soren Finranda. He's a little creepy, keeps to himself, but is generous and cunning when he needs to be. Now, I've played wizards before, but I wanted to take a specific approach when it came to Soren.
This Yuan-Ti is not strong, nor is he dextrous in any way. My Constitution gives me +1 HP per level, and with 6+1 HP at first level...yeah, I have 7 hit points walking into this. With no armor and barely a dagger to my name, I have no business being a damage dealer. And, dare I say, until higher levels, nor does ANY WIZARD, and here's why.
Soren's spells are not built for dealing damage. Sure, the Yuan-Ti race feature gives him Poison Spray, and he grabbed Toll The Dead like a boss, but the rest is rounded out with Mold Earth and Minor Illusion. Yes, I skipped Prestidigitation this time. All of his level 1 spells? Grease, Shield, Sleep, Silent Image, Unseen Servant, Magic Missile.
Soren's whole schtick is to wait and plan, and in a system where I often play Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Monk, Sorlock...this was old school D&D. There's a rite of passage that follows the low-level wizard; the knowledge that all it takes is one errant arrow and a failed saving throw versus halitosis and BAM you're dead. You have to be careful, smart, and save your VERY limited spell slots for the most opportune moment.
And Arcane Recovery... Well, Arcane Recovery at level 1 allows you to "recover" one level 1 spell slot (1/2 of the two you have at the get-go) during a Short Rest. Over the course of chapter 1, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, so no long rests, meaning all I've got is one Arcane Recovery to recover ONE SPELL SLOT. Make 'em count, gents.
So I did.
Grease the troll so my melee buddy has advantage, and keep my distance. Arcane Recovery. Sleep the ambushing archers because they're close together and I rolled high on the 5d8 Hit Point pool (I'll at least drop one of them). One slot down. Summon Silent Image to confuse the heck out of a major foe and SKIP that combat altogether. By now, I'm tapped out. Just cantrips to go on. Use Minor Illusion to cover the mishaps of my allies and divert attention - fail a stealth check and nearly die from one arrow to the chest - then Poison Spray for max damage because why not?
I had to be quiet, careful, and cunning. Especially with average damage working out the way it does, and with a module setting with a high emphasis on laws, stealth, and cloak and dagger, my job is better served as a controller, not a blaster.
The Most Expansive Spell List
The wizard spell list is extensive. The biggest one in the game. And though there are some spells that we'll never get (lookin' at you, Eldritch Blast), what we do get can alter time and space. It's hard to argue with a well-placed Fireball, but I beg you to consider the less obvious options. Options like Charm Person - which can end a combat if you're on point, later following the Dominate Person and Dominate Monster train; Detect Magic and Identify keep you knowledgable of the arcana that surrounds you (not to mention spell traps around your allies); Disguise Self; Feather Fall has saved many lives in MANY campaigns; Flaming Sphere coupled with Pyrotechnics (flaming marble madness in a smoke cloud of chaos); Suggestion, to really drive a point home.
And most of those I just listed are lower leveled spells, so you'll have more opportunities to use them. An expanded spell list offers you options, and each spell has a reason to exist; I urge you to collect as many spells as you can into your spell book and entertain the option of each - play through the mental landscape of its use, usefulness, and level of control on the social, exploration, or combat fields. The rest is up to how patient you are with your tactics and how creative you can be with its use (but always have a backup plan ready in case it goes sideways).
You have the resources to be smart, and a wizard is a great class to practice playing smart.
The first time I played in 5th Edition I chose a wizard, and picked as many damage-oriented evocations as possible. Through playing, however, I began to understand more of the game's mechanics; not only my own, but how other players and enemies navigated all the pillars of play...and how magic can infiltrate, manipulate, augment, and dilute these mechanics.
And after 2 and a half years of teaching the game, talking the game, designing the game, plus over 10 years in other systems... I get it. My knowledge of how the game works, action economy, and how each spell functions makes me finally work like a wizard. Knowledge is power.
I understand how powerful prone is, so Grease is obvious. Silent Image is confusing and powerful to less inquisitive creatures, so of course I have it. As AC continues to rise, and I don't want to be seen as a combatant, then spells like Toll The Dead and Poison Spray, that require saves, are very advantageous early on...and will continue to be as I try to be secretive. On top of this, as my options continue to increase (the most expansive list in the game), I can continually adjust my focus each long rest, making me extremely flexible day to day.
Returning to the wizard allows me superstar moments. Time to wait, watch, and listen...then throw out a clutch spell that's going to change the landscape of the encounter. I have the power to alter time and space; you can bet your butt I'm going to wield that power with Intelligence to maximize its effectiveness, no matter what.
Knowledge is power.
See you at the table.
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I was recently invited to sit in and play at a friend's long-running Pathfinder game. Everyone just made it to 14th level, without milestones, so they've been playing for awhile.
A well-established group who have spent enough time through some amazing adventures to achieve a high-level sense of play and a complete lack of resistance for the DM in charge. It's clear the group and their DM have a lot of love for the game, their story, and the individual players and characters.
They ran like a well-oiled machine, with clearly defined roles for the players to help each other out as well as a strong idea of their functionality in combat, AS WELL as a justified means to protect each other and trust each other's abilities and agency when stuff gets real. Remember what I said about that lack of resistance...we'll be swinging back to that.
So I'm coming into this after a long stint of running Pathfinder, then falling headfirst into becoming a professional GM for a company who has helped foster the creative, and soul-driving endeavor of offering unique opportunities for players and game masters to become their best selves through tabletop gaming experiences. I write this blog, publish fiction, make custom content, and record show after show of an online campaign and a kick-ass podcast. NONE OF THIS is to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate that, more often than not, I'm not the player at the table - I'm the one behind the screen managing this chaos.
Which means on those rare occasions where I'm offered an opportunity NOT to do that, I tend to take distinct care to create something functional, fitting, and, for the love of Sauron, to KNOW WHAT I'M DOING. I have a certain calm to my preparation nowadays, and in Pathfinder you've got to know (or at least have the reference ready) what your stuff does to keep things moving and ask the right questions to clarify. I had the honor of working with the DM beforehand, hashing out a backstory that fits inside the awesome steampunk 1840's Yukon Gold Rush with subtle magic elements and a weird freaking train, then set to work chaining feats and working the numbers to stay competitive with this established crew. Not everyone knew I'd be coming, so I didn't want to bog anything down, nor arrive with no concept of my character (NEVER ARRIVE without your character already done. I mean it. If you are familiar with the system, there is no excuse. Do your damn homework).
So, life runs a little later than intended and I roll in a bit late with food and drinks as penance, say my hellos and mark my place. I like to be compact; character sheet and all accompanying abilities/spells/etc on a clipboard, selected dice in my rolling box, pencils at the ready, and spare paper in the clipboard. I even came with a coaster for my caffeine, just in case! The session begins shortly, and the team as is has some planning to do, so while they converse in character directly next to me, I turn toward our DM and we work through some short interactions to set up my individual plan and then... I wait.
And I loved it. True, every now and then there might have been a quick interaction where I could investigate something, look around, listen (I was being smuggled in a coffin surrounded by a den of vampires, by the way), but until actual combat began - I needed to literally wait. It was splendid.
I got to watch these people work. The few I knew in the party came over to check on me, apologizing that it was "taking so long," but if it was, I didn't notice. It was an honor just to watch, adding to the scene with my silence, with subtle actions here and there. No one knew what I was; I didn't announce any of my character or my mechanics when I arrived - they weren't sure if I'd be friend, foe, or something more, only that I was playing...at some point. And no one asked; not out of ignorance, or dismissal, but out of respect. I'd like to believe that they, too, understood what I was reveling in.
I was enjoying the subtle power of Silence.
Space To Listen - Space To Exist
Actively listening to the players, the party, and the game master.
This is a skill, and often I feel we forget it. We replace it with a need to be heard constantly, eager to be listened to rather than to allow others a similar space. By literally shutting our mouths and opening our ears, we begin to engage with the world around us in new and dynamic ways. I was ENTHRALLED by the antics of this party, and though I think that was in no small part due to their own nature, I'd like to entertain that my own active listening helped just a tad in holding my attention. I was consistently fully engaged in everything that WASN'T my turn, and I was remarkably happy to, well, WAIT.
Space where I wasn't flapping my jaws also allowed my active brain to shut up for a second, and just exist for a time. Errant thoughts - like looking up a feat, making sure that random mechanic worked the way I thought it did, checking my numbers quickly - can still occur, and I can quietly take care of them without interrupting flow (what a concept), but for most of that preamble, I am 100% engaged with everyone's story that IS NOT MY OWN. I am excited and energized by their cool powers, interesting ideas, and role-playing. It gave me a moment to read the room, and to appreciate the beautiful world that the DM had made with these players - take note of the great care with which they've crafted this experience, and sit in awe of seeing it all work, like controlled chaos.
Space To Reveal - At The Opportune Moment
Wait for your mechanics to shine before they are revealed.
This one I have to be careful with, because rules are important. The GM needs to know that you are not taking advantage of something/cheating/fudging your numbers/etc; trust is important, so the GM needs to know what you are and what you can do, and you MUST make sure that everything you can do is well within the rules you are operating with.
IF you are fulfilling this already, here's a suggestion: try NOT telling everyone about what your character can do right away. Create nuance and mystery by NOT showing them your character sheet right away, so when you get an opportunity to show what you CAN do, the beat hits harder. Case in point:
Combat begins shortly after I hop out of a coffin and dust a vampire, catching the sniper rifle it was holding and loading it as a Free Action (hint, hint). We roll Initiative. The highest player is at 24...except me. I rolled a 33. 19+14. ...I will revel the look of awe at that table, just in a small way. Mechanically, it's all kosher. Dexterity is a 22 (+6). Inquisitor gives me my Wisdom modifier on top of Dex (another +5) for Initiative, Gunslinger Initiative +2 (HINT), and a trait at character creation that grants a +1 (6+5+2+1 = +14).
That's one small element, and a neat little moment. My turn rolls around, and I use Deadly Aim to take a full round of 4 shots (reloading for free), with a prayer of Judgment (attacks are now magical) with +16 damage on every hit, and +22 to hit most shots - to strike down a vampire that just got slammed by the barbarian in a surprise round for nearly 160 damage...which was heavily reduced by resistances...then he got my blessed bullets and took full damage.
Yeah. I'm a holy Gunslinger Inquisitor with a southern drawl and fantasy-themed bible verses. Take into account that I still work all of my mechanics in my own voice, that's a fun reveal in the first round of combat, and it helped establish my own schtick early on. Plus, EVERYONE at the table is now experiencing this character at the same time as their own characters - I didn't talk up his personality or his voice or his abilities beforehand. Add on that I spent some Grit (special skill points that create cool trick shots and targeting) to alter the battlefield and provide utility to the group, and it's pretty cool.
The best part? They haven't seen everything I can do yet. And they won't, unless the opportunity presents itself. There's no reason for me to brag about the cool things I can do. It's so much more fun to use them when the time is right.
There's a big difference between telling everyone all the cool spells you can do, and SHOWING everyone the awesome spells you can do at the best time. The impact of the latter is so much greater, and it creates something beautiful and refined from a cooperative story experience. Try it out, I dare you.
Giving Way - To Think, To Breathe, To Be
While I was in Bermuda, my friend Jesse and I went wandering. We witnessed a curious thing: they have a specific sign on the roads. A familiar white, upside-down triangle with a red border and black lettering. What we would immediately recognize as a Yield sign, instead read the words: "Give Way." Together, we were pleased to see this. Jesse was pleased because it changed the language to allow people to think of someone other than themselves while driving, but bringing the fact home, my podcast partner in crime, John, swung it a bit further. When you Give Way to someone, you're not actually giving up anything. Instead, you are "Gifting" space for another.
When we practice silence, we gift space to another to fill, or we can choose to not fill such space. Quiet moments do not HAVE to be filled with noise, or speech, or music. I like to think sometimes that in gifting my silence to another, I might have given them a sense of peace and quiet in a world inundated by distraction and stimulus; so loud and uncaring that we feel we must speak constantly lest we be drowned out by the void. But you don't have to. I give you space. Try filling it with BREATH instead of words; you'll be surprised what you discover.
You ever feel like you're the only one speaking? Try stopping for a moment and assessing the room. Spotlight is important, sure, but high-level play comes from everyone's willingness to share that spotlight. Being aware of our personal time, our character's spotlight, how much time that uses, how our role-play may miscommunicate because we're bored, and thousands of other miscommunications because we don't feel like becoming engaged in the stories of others. A party that hasn't already experienced a lot of adventuring together (like, years of it) can feel pretty delicate.
Our silence, coupled with active listening, can help communicate an absolute respect for a person's story, but this is a two-way road. Kind and patient people can use up that empathy on a person that fails to notice their own spotlight hogging over and over again. Try this little thought experiment: on a group chat, if the majority of the last 10 minutes of posts is you...STOP. Give someone else some space to speak. At a table, if the last 45 minutes have been your character's scene, try to find a way to wrap it up. Once in a while is fine - but all the time is obnoxious. That's tabletop 101, gents.
The Well-Oiled Machine
This group flows.
Not one moment came up where the DM had to hush the players, or argue a point, or fight to get something across. Everyone at the table was absolutely engaged with the stories of each other, mine included (thanks, guys and gals). We got up, wandered the room, had in-character conversations throughout the house, all within the world, and the DM was aware of all of it. It is abundantly clear the level of play that this group enjoys; they adore the world that has been constructed for them, and it is a joy to play within it. They respect each other's time with immaculate care and fun, and we were happy to play until the wee hours of the morning (I barely noticed).
Now, part of this is a product of the extensive amount of work that each of them has put into their character's mechanics, and for the fact that they've got a literal human encyclopedia at the ready in the form of the host (thanks, buddy), but those are the roles they've established over years of play, and they are clearly dedicated to this cooperative campfire story. Even if I didn't have years of experience in Pathfinder, as long as I didn't behave like an obnoxious jerk, I'm certain I still would have had a blast with these people.
If I ever get invited back, it would still be my honor to wait quietly for my turn. ;)
See you at the table.
Those of you within our closer circles have already seen, or heard of, the exploits of my Pathfinder character, Bigby. His story has been driven into the hearts and minds of all he graces with his crotchety presence, and many have been saved (or horribly killed) by his hand. And though playing Bigby was A LOT of fun, there were pitfalls in my approach to him, at least mechanically speaking... So let's take a look.
I wanted to make an old, grizzled, crotchety fighter well into his 60's...that can still swing an axe and battle monsters that would make his ancestors shake in their armor. He's a little forgetful, but he means well, and he gets frustrated when things get too complicated. Not one for political moves or cloak and dagger, Bigby deals with his problems directly and decisively, and holds little stomach for cowards. His backstory is pretty tragic in connection to his many sons and estranged wife, his entire destiny tasked to wreak vengeance upon the warlords, gangs, and circumstances that took each of his sons from him. And this doesn't do much to help his own mental state, as sometimes he sees the ghosts of his sons following him through life, but also guiding. He doesn't feel guilt for their deaths, almost at peace with the idea that they cannot rest until he fulfills vengeance for each, and they grant him the fortitude to soldier on.
That's some heavy and sad stuff... So I tried to make him the buffest of buff old men.
Tearing Into The Mechanics - My First Optimization
I've gone in depth a bit HERE, when I gush about my love of Pathfinder and its numbers, and give a little heads up as to the plan of Bigby's build. BUT, it's worth noting that ANYONE can build this character. There's no homebrew here; everything he has is within published, canonical materials inside the Pathfinder D20 system.
So, CORE CONCEPT - Grizzled FIGHTER, adept at close combat, hard to hit, hard to kill; literal tank of the party.
Gotcha. So, in order to fully benefit from all the things the system has to offer when it comes to combat, I have to be a Fighter. The Fighter class has persisted in D&D and all of its variants as an industry standard. Often viewed as a "simple" or straight-forward class, the Fighter is considered a master of martial combat, proficient in just about everything (except Exotic Weapons, in this case), and wearing any armor they can get under the sun. This can make them unbound when it comes to equipment, but also equipment dependent in order to keep up with casters and other variants.
The main benefit of the Fighter in PATHFINDER however is their ability to Feat Chain.
I once did a video on this exact concept, but looking at it from a negative managerial point of view when comparing how Pathfinder handles Feats as opposed to 5th Edition D&D. Upon revisiting Pathfinder in the last year and a half, I've come to appreciate the huge amount of thought and mechanical considerations of the extensive Feat list in the game. It really makes it so incredible things are possible mechanically.
Fighters can "feat chain" because of a blend of two main mechanics. As Feats are essential to making a functional character, EVERY character (regardless of class or multiclassing) gains a Feat every odd total level (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th...you get the idea). A FIGHTER gains a Bonus Feat at level 1 in the class, then every EVEN level in the class (so 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th...you got it). Therefore, if you're following here, as long as you stay straight Fighter and do not multiclass, you are effectively gaining one Feat EVERY LEVEL, and TWO Feats at level 1 (when most others get one). Add in the fact that a Human gains an ADDITIONAL bonus feat at level 1...and we've got it made early and often.
Let's RECAP. Bigby, at level 1, is a Human Fighter, so he starts the game with 3 Feats of his choice (it should be noted that the bonus feats from the Fighter must be classified as Combat Feats [there are different categories], but there's no reason for us NOT to take a Combat Feat when considering our plan here).
Level 1 Choices
Concept Path - Human Fighter, 3 Feats to start, good golly
How do I want to fight? Well, armor is awesome, and I want to get the best bang for my buck with any gear I'm using, and hit hard and often. Great offense with great defense? Of course. Sword and Board.
This choice immediately puts me at a combat disadvantage without Feats. If I want to slice and bash, I am now engaging in Two-Weapon Fighting, and in so doing suffer HUGE penalties to my attack rolls (a whopping -6 on your primary attack and -10 on your off-hand attack). These penalties drop a little if the off-hand is a light weapon, but I don't want that (it's my shield. Not gonna' happen). Penalties like this make sense, though. Any schmuck can pick up two weapons and swing them around, but they're not TRAINED in it, so they won't be as consistently effective. This is how Pathfinder uses numbers to represent this lack of training.
Which means, I need to lower that initial penalty. Feat #1 is easily Two-Weapon Fighting, which drops my initial fighting penalty to an even -4 for my primary and -4 for my off-hand. With a great starting Strength score of 20 and modifier of +5 to add to my attack rolls, I'm doing okay so far (+5 modifier to both attacks, after math = +1/+1).
Now we add in the fact that every class benefits from a mechanic called the Base Attack Bonus (or BAB) - a general numerical bonus to each of your attack rolls (not unlike the general Proficiency Bonus from 5th edition). In a martial class, your BAB often matches your class level, but for more varied classes, it progresses a little slower. Bigby is a Fighter, so his BAB equals his Fighter level easy, adding another +1 to each attack in his two-weapon fighting (+2/+2).
So, Feat #2? Improved Shield Bash. Normally, if one were to bash with their shield, they would lose the bonus to AC (Armor Class) that the shield provides in the round following the turn that they bashed; justification being that you're too busy crushing a dude's nose with the shield to use it to defend against oncoming attacks. Improved Shield Bash allows me to bash...and keep my AC bonus. Also, less thinking for me.
Feat #3 - Double Slice. This feat allows me to add my Strength modifier to the damage roll with my off-hand (where normally I would not be allowed to...so yeah, less floating numbers for me. Nice and streamlined.)
RECAP: Attack twice each round with a +2 to each attack, keep my AC bonus when I do so, and add my strength modifier (+5!) to both attacks. With a d10 for his Hit Points, and high Con score (17, so +3 HP), Bigby's pretty beefy so far.
Fast-Forward to Level 6
Bigby's seen some things, and taken only a few hits along the way. Most of the damage dealt to the party has been dealt to others, because at this point, between Armor Training, a rare set of Warplate, and a Ring of Protection, his AC is 27. That means that most thugs have to pray to hit him with a Natural 20. To top it all off, his hit points are easily triple the other party members (a gaggle of casters, a druid, and a rogue). He's grabbed a good many Feats along the way, each adding to either his attack/damage with a shield, or his AC with a shield. Quick breakdown:
Level 2 - Fighter Bonus Feat: Shield Focus = +1 AC while wielding a shield
Level 3: Two-Weapon Defense = +1 AC while wielding two weapons (shields included in Close Weapons category)
Level 4 - Fighter BF: Missile Shield = longbow or crossbow bolt hits me? Nah, I block it with my shield once per round.
Level 5: Weapon Focus - Shield = +1 Attack roll with Shield
Level 6 - Fighter BF: Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (second off-hand attack, so two shield bashes)**
**It should also be noted that when Fighters (and many other classes) reach Level 6, they can attack twice with their primary hand during a round whenever they take a Full-Attack Action (forfeit all but 5 feet of your movement to attack a lot). The way Bigby functions at this point allows him to wade into the fight, stand mostly still, and wail on enemies (attacking 4 times every round), confident in the idea that they will rarely hit him with their attacks...and if they do, he can take it.
With all of this front-loaded force, battles began to feel pre-ordained. Bigby was an unstoppable truck, even with his weakened Will saves; if he were upended by a spell, his party would back him up, and he'd only grow more angry at the idea that someone attacked his mind. His vengeance would be devastating and decisive.
I started to fall into a trap. I had picked everything I had based all within the realm of the rules in the game. But other than a few mind-affecting spells, Bigby was unkillable at this moment, and I felt myself becoming BORED. I had made a super-adventurer, and we were just over halfway to double digits in character level. What sort of insanity would Bigby be capable of when he reaches level 10, or 13, when I literally run out of applicable feats for the build (Shield Master happens, and by then I'm attacking three times with my shield, and suffering no penalties for it).
My mentality began to pull toward ripping through enemies, and tearing down conflicts with violence, not diplomacy, because that's what I knew to be MOST EFFECTIVE. Maybe it didn't help that the rest of the party had low agency themselves, so the violent old man was driving the story. It got a little frustrating, but we used it as an opportunity to BE FRUSTRATED in character.
But I cannot deny the rush of power in each fight...I just wish things didn't die so easily. Saitama-syndrome aside, a powerful player represents a unique challenge to a DM. He can scale the difficulty to accommodate for a beefy PC, but often at the expense of the more squishy player-characters. One dangerous martial combatant puts the rest of the party at greater risk. It makes sense, but from a group play scenario, it can get a little complicated.
The DM has to make sure that the main threats target the optimized player so as not to paint the picture of punishing the party for a player who just followed the rules, but then that player could feel, well, TARGETED for just playing the game. What really has to occur is a delicate scaling of encounters that affect the party in more dynamic ways. Instead of a big bruiser just becoming a BIGGER BRUISER, use intricate spells and traps to offset a heavy martial character, and provide a counter-balance to the rest of the party. A well-prepared wizard is a dangerous foe, even against the mack truck that is Bigby's build.
Pathfinder especially supports insane play through its mechanical system. Crazy-high numbers at low levels is not unheard of, and the entire system expects optimization and multi-classing as a rule. Playing the game can be exhilarating, satisfying, and massively entertaining...but it IS a LOT to manage, from both a player perspective (in ANY class) and the DM's perspective.
With so much going on, you might think you'd never be bored, but when you're nearly unkillable... You might feel a greater pull toward the more insane levels of shenanigans and odd-ball problem-solving that puts the group at greater risk. They're great stories, win, lose, or draw - but the ensuing madness can become the norm.
So what do we do?
Well, building a trust-empathy relationship with the party and your DM is paramount to having a positive experience regardless, and we (here at Questers' Way) err on the side of rising to the occasion as opposed to diminishing a player's power level (there's an exception to this, when players abuse rules, but this isn't it). If you have a powerful party, well, then you have to grow as a Game Master, and find new tactics, strategy, spells, and other tools to offer greater challenges. It's a push and pull, and you never want to appear cheap (like a monster "suddenly" gaining extra resistances, abilities, etc.), so having a discussion with the group of players is totally welcome and encouraged to help the GM level the playing field.
In the end, we're just creating more epic stories, and one must remember that this is a collaborative experience, not a GM vs. players mentality. An optimized player is not an insult to the game, they're an opportunity to grow.
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.