Hey peeps. I'm not perfect. No player or game master is. But I've had better days, and whenever life kicks me in the head, I tend to go through a cycle of reflection, beat myself up a little (I'm not as harsh as I used to be), then take a look at a few things that I can change to make everything flow just a little better.
Warrior mindset, ya'll. Let's break it down.
A State of Flow
A State of Flow represents a "lack of resistance" from the player and the game master during a session of play. It is achieved when each player is fully invested and focused on the session, and the GM never feels like they're fighting the players. This doesn't mean that the players take a backseat, quite the opposite actually. The players have a strong sense of how their characters operate and what they would do, thus flowing along with the GM, and their constant adjustments to the players, without causing hiccups; whether they be stretching the rules, misinterpretations, not paying attention to descriptions, being unclear on their actions in combat - there are many, many ways to interrupt the State of Flow. However, EVERY game will have these hiccups. What we as players, GMs, and the group as a whole need to do is try to minimize our recovery time to return to that lack of resistance. This way, EVERYONE benefits from cohesive play. Here are some ideas to help achieve that, coded to GMs - Players - or Both.
Setup and Breathe - Both
Everyone is allowed a bad day. It happens. Maybe you're running late - you got hung up at work, you're stuck in traffic, something came up. Maybe you were just in an argument, and it's weighing on you still. Maybe your head's just not in the game yet.
We've all felt this, no matter the cause. However, with 2 hours of play, I want to get into my play-time as soon as possible without carrying external baggage into my little escape from the outside world. I achieve this by entering and setting up, before engaging with the rest of the story, closing my eyes, and taking a few breaths. I let my emotions flow and take the time to reset, effectively opening my mind and body to the game. When I open my eyes, I can imagine that I am in a new state; whatever happened before does not matter NOW. Now, I am focused on telling a group story with my party.
This works for both groups, and in many moments of life. As teachers, many of us need to switch gears from class to class. We cannot allow the upsets or flow of one class to color our teaching of another; each one must be treated like new. So such is each game session; I do not want to bring in other elements from my life into this game - I want to be focused and intent on playing, so I can get the most out of my experience.
It might be strange at first, but I have led some deep breathing exercises or STOPPED A SESSION and made everyone take a deep breath, when I felt the flow becoming an absolute train wreck. I encourage every player and GM to take the time to set themselves up (get their character sheet, dice, organization, everything), close their eyes, and take a deep breath or two before entering the fantasy world. It may be a few extra moments, but it saves a million headaches down the road, and you will get faster at it. So take a breath, and let's go.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Distraction - Both
This one flows directly from above, but it's more personalized. I KNOW that if I have my character sheet on my computer, I am bound to engage in other things (email, correspondence, marketing, BLOGGING), or at least feel the pull to do so during a gaming session. It's the way my mind works; which is why playing in a session is so healthy for me, as it reminds me to slow down and pay attention, instead of just powering through checklists of tasks. Similarly, I try to keep my phone at bay. Sometimes I do need it nearby, but it's flipped over, and it's ALWAYS on silent. I will never, ever pull up a meme on my phone to show to ANYONE during play, because I know if I let myself do that, that I will fall down a slippery slope of distraction.
That's ME. Now, others can be completely engaged and focused while using their phones. However, if you ever find yourself getting distracted, YOU NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT. If you feel yourself being pulled into your phone instead of the game, and it's causing hiccups in your flow and the flow of others, you need to recognize this and put it away. Some people can have their computers out and they know that they'll still be engaged, so I'm not saying "NO ELECTRONICS AT THE TABLE." We live in 2018; I get it. We've got great tools - we're also all individuals with brains and meta-cognition and the ability to introspect. If you are causing hiccups in your own state of flow or the flow of others due to your own external distractions, take ownership of this fact, and make a change. This helps build trust, empathy, and accountability into the group.
Streamline Dice Checks - GMs
Sometimes GMs try too hard to engage party members individually during a group task. This burns time, and can split attention unintentionally. I am guilty of this on a few occasions, and I am working to recognize it earlier than the night after, but it helps to put a few things into perspective.
GMs should assume that we have limited time at all times - this doesn't mean that we need to RUSH anything, but it does mean that precision and efficiency go a long way.
Don't require rolls for simple tasks, just move through it narratively.
If the group is engaging in a group task, have everyone roll at the same time, and announce the DC and what happens down the line to each player.
(Sometimes) Pre-roll opposed rolls if you're really strapped, so they act as general DCs instead of live rolls. I don't do this often, as it can kill that "live play" feeling for me, but using a general DC based on a creature's attributes can still speed things up.
A roll should only be used for a task where the outcome is unclear.
Strip Away The Gravitas - GMs
I like to describe things with accurate language, but still fantasy-oriented, like a good book. Sometimes, however, elements can literally get lost in translation, and players miss details. In this way, precision and transparency are more important than flowery language. You want to ensure that the visual of the players is the same visual you had in your head, thus everyone is moving together through this collective theater of the mind. If everyone has mostly the same picture in mind, you have a much lower chance of running into inconsistencies with character decisions (like someone assuming that a wall was a door, but the character would have known this, it was the player who was confused because the description was not clear to them) based on preconceived notions on the layout of the room.
This works for mechanics as well. You can be general, but your terms should match those in the book. In combat, for example, it is imperative to note what a creature is doing in established terms so players know exactly what they can and cannot act on. "The bandit uses his Cunning Action to Disengage from the group, then uses his Action to attack with his crossbow" INSTEAD OF "The bandit moves away from you, then shoots you with his bow" - "Do I get an Attack of Opportunity?" - "No, he Disengaged." - "Then how can he attack me?" - "He has Cunning Action, so he can Disengage as a Bonus Action." - "Oh, okay."
Or in the case of Legendary Actions and Spells and Counterspell: "He spends a Legendary Action to use his Disrupt Life Feature (features are not spells, and therefore cannot be counter-spelled)" versus "He uses a Legendary Action to CAST A SPELL (CAN be counter-spelled)." Neither of these spoil anything about the enemy; no one learns anything "secret" about them, and I don't fall into the assumption of trying to "trick" or "trap" my players by omitting elements that they could have acted on. The worst arguments (and wasted time) I've seen in play have often stemmed from that lack of clarity: "Well, if it's a spell, I cast Counterspell." "It's a Legendary Action...so it isn't a spell per se." "Well, is it a Feature or does it say he casts a spell?" You get the idea. The players don't have to know WHAT spell is being cast (a check might reveal it, or not, up to you), but they NEED to know that the entity is casting a spell, because they've got tools to counteract that; if you ignore those tools, you've robbed them of agency, and mucked up the process.
Finally, try to separate cinematic flavor text from mechanical changes. I fall victim to this, too, and it can be frustrating when you're trying to describe a battle cinematically. You might go into a cool description of a particular blow to a creature...and the players will interpret it as a mechanical change. "He's driven to his knees by your strike, the armor visibly denting from the raw force of your impact" - "Oh, so his AC went down!" - "No, it just hurt him a lot." - "But you said his armor dented!" - "But it doesn't affect his AC" - "Well, he must be prone, then; you said he went down!" - "...sigh." Whereas if I describe: "The force of your blow is so strong it knocks the feet out from under him (I move his piece to make him Prone). He falls flat on his back and now prone, the wind momentarily knocked out of him." I added a mechanical clarification to my description, using established terms, and no one clarifies or fights me. Sometimes in the former, I will have to clarify by saying instead "He is MOMENTARILY driven to his knees." See what I mean?
Though, the latter example is also a Player thing. If the GM does not announce a mechanical change, don't argue that there is one, but ask a clarifying question - this way, the GM isn't put on the defensive, and they have an opportunity to make adjustments where needed; this is smoother, and thus faster.
Prep Your Turn - Players
It bothers me to no end when a player casts a spell on their turn...then stares at me as if I have memorized every single spell in the book (I do memorize many of them just out of osmosis, but there are hundreds of spells) and know exactly what their spell means, their save DC, and what I am supposed to roll. It's YOUR turn - look up your spell, know what it does, know the save and your DC...prior to your turn.
Now, the battlefield changes during play, and that can affect people's plans, especially casters, so when it settles on their turn, they may have to scramble. I understand that, and it totally happens, but you as a player are responsible for understanding the capabilities of your character. The hiccups, actually, occur when someone casts a spell...and then sits there, as if they have forgotten the other elements required in casting a spell; some spells are spell attacks (where the character rolls), others are saves (where the enemy rolls), some have varied effects, conditions, contingencies. If you're not sure, have the spell description nearby; the idea here is to be organized, so that you take responsibility for what your character can do.
For EVERYONE, try to have an idea of your Movement, Action, and possible Bonus Action before your turn. Just like board game etiquette, you are expected to think about your turn PRIOR to your turn occurring. Things can change during play, and that can affect your turn, but if you're watching the battle unfold and thinking actively about your turn, you've already made adjustments as you go, so the interruption of flow should be small anyway. And when you take your turn, declare what you're using and how: "I spend my 50 feet of movement to run around the back of the beholder, and I spend my Action to attack twice, and then my Bonus Action to use Flurry of Blows and attack two more times (rolls dice, concludes actions). I'm done." My turn is over.
The trouble we run into is present in three ways. First, we're only waiting until our turn to even approach thinking about what to do. All that time between was us being distracted and departing from the scene. So, when our turn arrives, we're playing catch-up. Sometimes we need to pee - I get it, everybody does it - but when we come back, you make it a priority to catch back up before it's your turn. If you return and it IS your turn, then the pressure's on and you need to make some quick decisions.
Speaking of speed, the second way we interrupt flow is when players forget HOW the mechanics work and the steps needed to execute certain actions. For example: Attack and Damage. An Attack requires a D20 roll, then adding Proficiency Bonus and Ability Score Modifier to that roll (this should be ONE number next to the weapon on their character sheet for simplicity), and announcing the total. THEN, if you hit, taking the appropriate damage dice, rolling those, adding on the appropriate modifier and any extras (again, marked clearly on their sheet for ease of calculation and speed) and announcing THAT total. We get bogged down when that checklist is unclear or we skip steps.
The third way...is detailed in its own section below.
Respect The Scene / Wait Your Turn / 6 Second Rule - PLAYERS
BE EVERYONE'S BIGGEST FAN. If it isn't your turn, plan your turn (so you're ready), but celebrate the achievements and actions of your allies - this keeps you engaged in the scene, no matter what it is. This also makes your fellow players feel FANTASTIC. Now, this requires some caution - remember that when it isn't your turn, it isn't YOUR turn. Try not to, in your celebration of others, begin to add your own character into other player's turns. It's one thing to cheer on a player using an awesome ability and another to horn in on that use of ability; Ken uses Deflect Missiles - we all cheer and high-five him / Ken uses Deflect Missiles and Colton mimics him doing so, rolling an unprompted Performance check out of his turn trying to distract the Duergar chieftain. The former celebrates without taking the attention away from Ken, while the latter pulls the attention away from the active player. There's a difference.
The key point here being that you need to Wait Your Turn; plan it out, sure, pay attention, celebrate, but WAIT for your time to shine. This also means that you should be aware of your side conversations. If you're engaged in everyone's turn, those side conversations will be minimal to none, and that's great. I hate the feeling that comes up when I'm playing, it's my turn, and everybody's chatting about something else - but I'm quiet and engaged in their turns, how come they can't show me the same respect? And though that may not be people's intentions, it can come off that way; we want to avoid that perceived double-standard of respect. And though it might feel like you're waiting a while the first time, I guarantee that it makes everything flow faster. You'll be back to your turn before you know it.
When out of battle, and this one can be tricky to achieve without some patience, it is important to respect the scene that is transpiring. It may be an interaction between the barkeep and one other character, or a courtier and two characters, or most of the group talking down a hill giant while another investigates his house. Just because the rest of the party isn't there doesn't mean they should carry on their own conversations. Think of it like a theater production. No scene will transpire at the SAME MOMENT as another scene on the stage. Timeline wise, they might be happening at the same time, but we will SEE them at different times. What this looks like literally is the party watching and waiting and listening to an interaction until it comes to a close, and then taking an opportunity to engage in their own scene(s). Scenes where the whole party is engaged with the same things tend to flow pretty well, but the same principle can be used. If it doesn't involve you - watch and listen. If it does involve you - engage. If the former, and you want it to involve you - watch and listen for a moment that you might be able to enter the scene.
I know, it's a lot more waiting and listening, but if we've done everything else on this page, this one should be pretty easy by now. No person wants to feel drowned out by others, and everyone wants to shine, so respecting each other's scenes allows characters to shine without feeling like they're fighting to be heard, AND we get the added benefit of building up trust and empathy across the group.
Finally, don't try to cram a million things into your turn. Movement, Action, Bonus Action. 6 seconds, dude. The more you adhere to that main mechanic, the faster the rounds go, and no one can perceive that you're getting more bang for your buck during your turn as opposed to others. It also makes you more efficient if you assume that you only have those three (often two) things to worry about.
In conclusion, both GMs and players can do a lot to make our sessions flow better, but the greatest take away here isn't speed so much as taking a breath and staying present in the game. We all get hang-ups, and our brains can be more distracted than ever, but I have to remind myself: Slow is smooth, smooth is Fast. Slow down and take a moment; watch and listen to your fellow players; let them shine, so you can shine; get organized and let go of the day; take responsibility for your own engagement. And we'll all be better for it.
See you at the table.
PS: Remember, talking is free...unless it's a monologue.
...Please stop monologuing...
The Push and Pull of Scrutiny
I have always been a reflective person. I did it constantly in school growing up (defining what it meant to be a decent person while struggling to find my own place), in college (learning to be a musician and a teacher in deluge of philosophy and pedagogy), and now, as a Game Master, I do it even more.
I am constantly worried about the state of my players; their happiness, fulfillment, meaning, investment, and overall comfort levels. And it's exhilarating, so I don't mind. But sometimes I get days like this - where I feel like I failed somehow; failed to reach someone, or made them feel bad when that wasn't the intention. And though teaching in a public school is a job that hones in on specific students; how they grow, change, question, etc. - THIS job of Game Mastering feels so much more...personal.
As Game Masters, we're really GUIDES above all else. As John and I have stated countless times in our podcast, we work through Consequences, not Punishments, and this mentality must persist through every facet of our narration and storytelling. We have to enable our players to reach their best selves. Often, on top of a full working knowledge of the world and the game mechanics at large, we have to know those awesome abilities that each character has and help them realize their best options (in a kind way) on and out of their turn. Be kind. Always. Support your players, don't punish them.
That has always been my mission - but I dare say that I am slipping to some degree. It comes from a place of improvement, but it could be I was pushing in the wrong direction. My allowance in custom materials and interpretations is something that is never going away, but as we continue to grow and I build our Mastering Certification, I know I've been trying to curb toward following the core rules most of the time. However, I have felt that I've made a few rulings that were not fair, and with me, I take each and every ruling I don't agree with like a punch in the face. I think on it often, and then try my darnedest to automate my solution so it never comes up again. :)
John Tanaka, one of our other Game Masters, does these cool live-streams each day over on our Facebook page, and in one of them he talked about a brilliant book called The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. I have consumed this book, and I've taken it up again, and I think it applies to all walks of life, but in our mission here at Game On - to become our best selves through gaming - it matches quite perfectly from a Game Master and Player perspective.
The internet can be a swarm of rule lawyers, and though the "enlightened" point of view is gaining a voice - that it's a game, people, relax - there are still those keen on stating that "your fun is wrong." To help deflect some of this scrutiny, I've rolled back some of my home-brews in favor of RAW (Rules As Written), and been much more up front (in speech and in writing) on the things that I have kept. But so much of what we do ISN'T viewed by others; it is only viewed and experienced by the other players at the table - it's more intimate, and contextual, so the more amorphous the concept, the more circumstantial the ruling, and those will invariably change moment to moment.
So, before I go on, let's take a look at those four points of understanding, as presented and paraphrased from Ruiz's book, with some personal reflection thrown in.
1) Be Impeccable With Your Word
Do not speak ill of others or gossip. Do not accept, internalize, or believe what others say about you, or your thoughts about yourself.
I think on this and I realize that this was one of the points in High School, and school in general, that I happily failed at. I don't archive, internalize, or hold onto ill will. There's just too much going on in my own head, which opens the door for the latter, which is to remember that "not all the stories we tell ourselves are true." We have to remember that our words have power, and can propel good or evil forward - personally or interpersonally.
When we fill the world with our own voice too often, we use up our own well of words. We need to be silent sometimes; both to observe, and to speak from a place of intelligence and kindness - never to betray ourselves by telling cruel stories.
2) Don't Take Anything Personally
Any reaction implies that you have accepted (agree in at least some small way) with what was said or done. Everything people say or do comes their own perception and paradigm of the world, and has nothing to do with you.
Taking things personally is what made me a better teacher in the beginning, but it came from seeking to avoid perceived pain, as opposed to augmenting my craft. Glad to say that the latter is now the common practice, but the former sneaks in at times when exhaustion creeps in (secret lesson: take care of yourself - exercise, eat right, meditate, you get the idea).
What really sucks is when we subconsciously hold onto perceived ill will. It is rare if I do it now as an adult, but when I do, it's deep, and reveals a clear weakness in my inability to let it go. I did this once in the last year, and though the experience propelled a lot of positive change and leveled up my business and game mastering and leadership - all good things - I was still holding onto the venom...only to discover through a third party that it was all a misunderstanding anyway. That was months of wasted energy - whereas I COULD have sought out a solution by simply talking to this individual (see #1). Perceived possible pain at the interaction held me back from a simple solution.
3) Don't Make Assumptions
Don't operate from a preconceived understanding of the world or your relationships. All assumptions are limitations and failures to communicate.
This ties directly into a mentality that perplexed individuals in High School. I had a mantra: Assume Nothing, Question Everything, Change Something. It meant that I tried not to make assumptions about people and situations, would clarify (a lot, so much to the point that others thought me a dullard) understanding for myself and those around me, and make constant adjustments to my behavior and routines to try to be a better person. Not sure if it worked, but thinking on it now, it still makes a lot of sense.
Not to say that you can't use intuition, and learning, to better equip yourself for certain situations, the key here is to KEEP LEARNING. No single entity knows everything, and all knowledge deserves deeper understanding. Don't take things at their face value; the details might open your mind in new and challenging ways - and that's a good thing.
4) Always Do Your Best
Make your efforts all about what you can best accomplish in your current situation, so that you're always satisfied and happy with yourself. Don't overwork, but don't work merely for a reward.
This is what I strive for each day, but the most important component of this description is "in your current situation." The things that you cannot control do not weigh upon your personal performance. Do what you can with what you have, and make THAT the best it can be. The rest will be learned over time and progress.
The Ultimate Call To Action
The close of the book is probably the best - and simplest - fire to light under one's soul. Ruiz calls you to be an entity that takes ultimate responsibility for your own suffering and level of happiness and fulfillment. I interpret this into three focused mindsets: The Warrior, The Magician, and The Mystic. Those three avatars are in a constant feedback loop at all times, no single one taking full control of us at any one time, and that balance of trinity is never more apparent than when I'm running a game session - and the sessions where I struggle is where I have forgotten these mindsets. (I'm paraphrasing and adapting here, so don't @ me, bro)
The Warrior - the warrior is in control of his own behavior. (see also: Bushido) A warrior IS NOT a berserker; we are not controlled by our emotions, instead we control ourselves, and how we spend our energy; we do not deplete it with fruitless things. We have a limit of our own each day; a well that is pulled from as we engage in tasks and with others. Some tasks drain us, while others replenish. I have never built up my own energy reservoir more than in the last year - discovering the things and people that create that positive Feedback Loop of energy that helps me replenish my reservoir, and allows me to pour my soul into the people and elements that need it most - like my fellow players and their enjoyment of the game and their stories. TL;DR - only spend your energy on the good stuff; that choice is something you're in complete control of.
The Magician - a magician is one who is tapped into her creative mind; she tells stories, paints pictures, and forms new and distant worlds at a whim. She spends energy in creating, brainstorming, and seeing what could be possible - often in charismatic ways, taking others along for the journey. The magician is called into being all those moments when we allow ourselves to imagine, to create, and to play using our open world as the canvas. TL;DR - you're never too old to imagine new things, or bring them into reality; that's how invention is born. Never stop imagining.
The Mystic - the mystic views the world through an augmented lens, always keen to continue growing and learning - never allowing herself to stagnate, or become stuck in the ways of others less enlightened. This view of the world is not popular, but it saves our energy for the causes that matter. The mystic shows itself any time we stop to listen before speaking, research before reacting, and decide to engage without betraying our own center. You no longer rule your behavior by what others may think about you - a trait foreign to so many in this age. How mystical. TL;DR - never stop learning, and don't be afraid of adjusting the lens through which you view the world.
Augment Your Games
Resolve interpersonal issues...personally, and kindly (#1 and 2). If it's a topic that would benefit the group as a whole, and it stems from an interpersonal moment, deal with the latter, then address the former. This avoids feelings of passive aggression, and doesn't place that player on the defensive in the company of the team.
Made a mistake? Own it (#1). Most recent example for me: I got it in my head that order of operations mattered in 5E (some editions and other games rule that it does, but the elegance of 5E does away with that)... It doesn't. Hunter's Mark? As long as it's still your turn, you can cast it before or AFTER your attack, and still gain its benefit (just roll a D6 for the extra damage). Don't know why I got stuck on it so bad - I was wrong. :)
Support Your Player Abilities With Kind Reminders or Suggestions (#1, 2, 3 and 4): I would do this often with my newer players, but as time has rolled on, I haven't been as consistently helpful. I've been a little stuck in my own head lately, hence revisiting this awesome book, so I admit to dropping the ball a few times. Even with veteran players, if it's once a week, especially nearing the end of a long day, they might forget stuff. ANYBODY can forget their abilities; it's a lot to manage. It isn't our job to make them feel bad about that - it's our job to help them be their best selves, even if doing so wrecks my monster/encounter/spell/NPC/Legendary Action/Supernatural Ability. Group game, buddies.
Take a step back (#1, 2, and 3): It can be easy to get stuck in the trap of misreading a player's resting face as being bored, them in character to them actually being angry, and a high or low emotion moment coloring our actual perception. If we're ever unsure, though, we can always communicate (#1, and #3) interpersonally, and hopefully learn from such a communication. As these games are as much building trust and empathy as they are creating fun encounters and challenges, kind communication can only make the whole experience better.
Adapt and move on (2, 3, and 4): Maintaining momentum in a game is very important, so I try to have either a resource open or I've studied the rules enough to have them memorized to be able to respond to a player quickly and easily. But it's impossible to know everything, so having that resource nearby is key. If a ruling comes up in play and it isn't 100% clear from the RAW (rules-as-written), make a ruling then and there, and move on. You never want your game to halt for a discussion on the "intended ruling" of a rule. Then, also, see if you can err on the side of the player, not the DM, to put the power in their court instead. Players aren't inherently combative; it's a product of feeling screwed over by bad DMs, so give them a little more sway and see what they do with it. You can always have a discussion AFTER THE SESSION IS OVER.
Be KIND to one another. Always. No creature on this planet starts off cruel - these things are learned. If you revel in making players feel bad for forgetting their abilities, punishing players for out-of-the-box concepts, railing against GMs who are learning, or rules-lawyering people to tears...please UNLEARN this mentality. Kindness builds trust and empathy; two key components to any successful campaign. It tells players that you've got their backs at the table, even if the villain of the story is out to get them. That's the GAME, not the players and the GM; separating the two helps build immersion, and releases the tension of an involved story, without spilling over into the real world.
It's a powerful relationship - don't break it by being intentionally mean.
I'm sure there's a lot more I could connect here, but I think that KINDNESS is the main theme here. Your words have power. Not all the stories you tell yourself are true. Never stop learning. Always do your best. The rest...ain't worth the energy. :)
See you at the table.
This past Saturday was a late one.
Starting just a little after 7:00pm, the Gray Owls embarked on their fourth chapter in the world of Io-Firma, continuing to explore and augment their experiences in the terraced city of Stormwrack. They took care of business, had meaningful conversations, powerful investigations, and deep exploration. It was 1:00am before they even engaged in a fight. As such, at the close of the session, it was 3:20am.
Not the longest session I've ever run here. That honor still belongs to the early Knight Owls of Season 1 for 21+ (session close at 5:25am, woof). And the length is not the point of this post, but it helps grant perspective when considering what it takes to have a session like that: one that doesn't serve a Three Act Structure, like most Knight Owls sessions.
Gray Owls is special in its construction. The world is dangerous, deadly, and difficult; the players know this going in. They are also allowed to play any kind of character that could fit in this world - they don't have to be heroes. In most cases, they're not. They're just people trying to find their way through, one small step at a time. Some struggle with inner demons, others with outer ones, and all with trust and companionship. That last element is the most organic of any team in any campaign I've ever run. They don't trust each other - they have no reason to - which makes the moments where they stick up for one another, or disagree, or insult, or instigate all the more potent and invested. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is supremely important to any successful campaign.
These characters aren't the heroes, but they are the protagonists of this story, and this story is a constantly evolving weave of each of their individual stories as they crash, clash, and move together. Saturday was a weave, then a minor explosion, as the intentions of one member spilled over and against the intentions of others. Such a clash of ideals, views, and actions was dangerous, but compelling in magnificent ways. The impact was raw, and difficult to swallow, but the group fell together, finding some semblance of a truce before ending the evening.
Without caring about one's character or the characters of others, this clash might have dissolved a party. This is a good group of players who understand the difference between this fantasy world and our own, and are completely content with everyone's secrets, agendas, and plans, even when they go against the majority. Such player investment in everyone's secrets - not in knowing them, but in their existence - demonstrates an excited level of trust between players; yes, their secrets might become extremely dangerous, detrimental, or downright terrifying to the group as a whole, but everyone loves the fact that they exist.
Secrets are what makes this world tick, and everyone is invested in seeing them slowly revealed through action (or inaction), and only when the times are right. Although, after this last clash, that time might be sooner than we think...
It fills me with joy that knows no end when not only players show an interest in how my world works, but when they add to its lore with their own stories, and work to find their own niche inside the atmosphere; find a way to make their character "fit" inside the world. In such a setting where secrets can get you killed, having players not only embrace this idea and respect it, but also add upon it, then ACT upon these elements, makes the world believable. It breathes life into the dynamics of this city, legitimizing everything about it. Its life, its people, its economics, its classicism, its magic, its business, and its law.
This is a two-way buy-in for the world at large, and investment in the world is only undermined when players create and pursue characters that would not fit inside the scope of world and clash with the expectations of it...but this is not a game breaker (more on that below). ;)
When you care about the story, either your own or others, you sometimes begin to covet that story, becoming frightened of what might happen if you push too far, wander too long, or say too much. True, there are consequences to dumb actions, but one should not be afraid to experiment with their characters. Take them down difficult paths, make difficult decisions, and see how the dice roll.
There's also a lot to be said about stacking the odds in your favor. Strategy goes a long way in supporting the wild card in the group, and allowing space to experiment. All that being said, remember: not all experiments work, and most have consequences.
Growth and Relationships
Remember how I said that characters that are built outside of the frame of the story can undermine it if they're not careful. While that can be true, it only remains true if the player-character in question does not grow. If they remain in a position where they refuse the world, its possible relationships, connections, and forces, then they will either die or be left behind. However, if they enter the world like a fish out of water and LEARN and grow and change to adapt the world to their arc, then they embark on a compelling and dynamic journey. It's okay to start out of the box, as long as you allow your character to EVOLVE and change as they are exposed to more of the world.
Relationships are the true core of any tabletop experience. Between players, between characters, between enemies, and allies. In Gray Owls especially, this is felt in big ways when it comes to companionship, family, acceptance, and loneliness. They make distinct discoveries that drive their paths in new and interesting ways: the realization that they are not alone, or perhaps they always were, or that the thing they're fighting for is something they already have, or that vengeance has consumed them, or that they have more brothers and sisters in this fight than they thought. It is the connections that we build between characters that binds us to this world, no matter how tumultuous, difficult, or mercurial they can be.
And that is a true investment in this world and the next. Always be aware of the relationships you cultivate, the ones you keep, for all leave an impression.
See you at the table.
Key Traits Through Character: Barbarian
For the longest time, I would vacillate between two distinct character builds: full martial powerhouse or full controller caster. The times that I would move between the two were great learning experiences, but I would rarely find my stride. Only recently have I had the opportunities to flex my character building muscles and engage in some great role-playing outside of that comfort zone (in no small part due to my team of GMs being in charge of their own groups that I can take part in).
But in the beginning, back in the beginnings of Pathfinder and before the debacle that was 4th Edition (still a decent system, just poorly received - more on that later), I would cut my teeth on playing Grignor, my half-orc barbarian.
Grignor was a product of some great physical rolls at character creation, so, as a balance, the DM and I agreed that he would be a little...off. Speaking in a third-person-faux-russian accent most of the time, Grignor's average intelligence was undermined constantly by his impulsive nature and low wisdom, often getting the party into some zany antics...then, by sheer force of character and overwhelming power, pulling the party back through.
It was the latter instances that taught me the most about the power the barbarian could possess. The main mechanic of such a class, in many systems, is their Rage Feature. Flying into a Rage grants the barbarian particular bonuses that give them the fighting edge in combat and often increase their survivability. In a party of mostly casters and a custom rogue sub-type, the party would buff the heck out of Grignor and he would charge whatever the enemy was with the utmost confidence. Dragons, land sharks, mind flayers, beholders, and a 100-foot tall flesh tornado...we would stand victorious through teamwork, and quite a lot of insane force of will and confidence.
So here, in the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, joining together with 2000 others as we sing along to Bad Wolves' cover of the Cranberries's Zombie; like one angry, tumultuous, sonic wave of force and rage - I am sent back to those days, and wonder what I learned so profoundly through playing that character, and how it has changed me to this day.
Here, let me share some life lessons learned from playing a Barbarian.
1) Anger Can Be A Tool
I was a frustrated kid. Though my standard disposition is pretty pleasant, and I was by no means one to wail against the system, but I was definitely weird. I was prone to overthinking things, then responding in often angry or violent ways. These were acts of frustration directed at my own inability to express myself; they weren't sudden - they built up over time, and they were always a product of directing that anger inward, toward self-improvement. But when you're a weird kid anyway, and kids can be cruel, sometimes you lash out.
These outbursts didn't help in making or keeping friends, so I worked out something.
My anger could be a tool. That powerful energy surging through me could be focused on a task - yard work, writing, exercising, composing - something that took my whole focus, and I could perform furiously without incurring penalty. Later, through meditation and the martial arts, I would continue to control and send this energy into work or words or mental clarity (after a little "primal scream therapy," that is).
My anger was not "wrong," it just needed to be funneled into something useful. As a barbarian, your Rage is only used effectively in combat, and is done beautifully. The rest of the time, you can be an otherwise intelligent, if not dopey (in my case) adventurer in high-flying shenanigans.
But WHEN you get angry - and let's face it, there's a lot to be angry at - take a deep breath and focus that surge of energy on something useful. Any berserker knows that if you don't pick your targets, you're a danger to yourself, your party, and your enemies all at once - and nobody wants that. Wield it like the great axe it is, and change something that needs it, instead of destroying what's closest.
2) Physical Prowess and Confidence Can Power You Through
I was never an athlete, but my physicality has always been very important to me. I never like feeling physically weak, and once I learned how to do a proper push-up, no one was going to stop me, but momentum was difficult. I would often shift between months of intense work outs, and months of inactivity and excuses.
During the former, I was often alert, focused, and confident - even on the days that I wasn't prepared for things. Keeping a consistent workout schedule, even with hang-ups, shortening workouts, and a lack of results (more on that when we talk about the Monk) - kept my confidence flowing. I knew how much I could lift, how many miles I could run, and my overall fitness level at all times. I knew I could make my way through most of what was being thrown at me because I knew my limits, and where I could push.
In play, the barbarian can back up their tough talk because they're built to be tanks. They can, like Grignor, power themselves and their party through tough situations if by nothing but a primal force of will and the confidence that they won't go down without one hell of a fight.
3) Emotion Is The Breath Of Life
In lives of tact and social preparedness, moments of raw emotion are often avoided.
Unfortunately, I feel, such moments - no matter how intense - reveal our humanity in one of its greatest forms. We are emotional beings. We feel, we change, we influence, we inspire, and we create - through the expression of those raw emotions. Some of my best work was produced from deep sadness, introspection, or unbridled anger. When we feel these extremes and let them flow as energy, we become capable of great things and great change.
Barbarians wield their high emotions as fuel for their Rage, often citing distinct background traits or triggers, and all are tied to their inner-most feelings. It is this level of feeling that can put people off, or set them aflame, but it is an important aspect that further illustrates the depth to which the barbarian cares.
We are complex beings, not one-trick ponies, and our loves and hates run much deeper than we think. Do not fear them - let them flow, then reflect on what they might mean.
Swing low, sweet greatsword.
I'll see you at the table.
We've all been there.
The dragon just bellowed its war cry and lifted into the air after our initial surprise attack (where we must have done, what, over a hundred points of damage!?) We scatter, trying to spread out and away from its impending breath...only to be hit anyway by one its frustrating Legendary Actions. Plans now cast aside in favor of stopping the cleric from being melted, I rush over and force feed them a healing potion...only to be stepped on by the dragon on its actual turn, and it proceeds to crit me to death.
Now at zero hit points and bleeding out, the blasted ancient creature decides to get one more strike in on my broken body, and there goes a death save. With the dragon on top of me, my allies only really have one more player turn to get to me before this ancient and intelligent being decides to step on me again with their now replenished Legendary Actions. "But I'm down!" I say, desperate to hold onto this character just a little longer. The DM shrugs, with a slight grin, and I try to hang onto hope.
The healing word comes in the nick of time and I'm conscious again...only to be rended in half by the green dragon. Curse words follow...but I'm cool with it.
Should I be? Or was that DM being a jerk?
The Separation of GM and Character
Behind the screen, the GM or DM is responsible for every creature the party interacts with, whether that be through combat, exploration, social situations, or a mixture of these. A good GM will do their best to embody the voice, the physicality, and mental acuity of each creature; the latter here informs their tactics best in combat. And combat, from the enemy's perspective, is NOT fun for them. They are in a life or death scenario; they aren't just going to lay down and die, just as you wouldn't.
Now, smarter creatures utilize better tactics. Creatures in better control of themselves won't be goaded into a trap. Creatures of average intelligence can tell when things aren't going well, and might try to run. This is why beasts get hunted; they often don't know when to flee or fight, and those that do, often live to another day.
Why do I bring all this up? Because none of these creatures are me.
I have to personify them; get inside their head, judge their level of tactics, their emotions, their level of courage, and many, many other factors in order to represent them properly. Every good DM needs to do this, and nasty creatures are nasty; evil creatures are evil; they don't care that you're the hero of this story - they want to eat your face, or your heart, or your soul. And that should be a dangerous encounter.
Now, if the creature behaves outside of their type or their intelligence, then maybe the DM is being a jerk, but I argue that is rarely the case, unless it's becoming a habit. Remember, asinine creatures can make intelligent decisions. I, for example, will use an Intelligence check to see if the creature notices a possible tactic (they often fail, as is their way), but at least it's possible.
Conversely, the same is true. Intelligent enemies can make poor decisions due to a number of factors. Perhaps they are emotionally compromised - like when they see a character murder one of their wyrm children; maybe they are filled with vengeance toward the Ranger/Rogue that just sneak attacked them for 57 HP, so they ignore the high possibility of their own demise in favor of attacking the one who has hurt them so deeply; or maybe their life is already forfeit, and they serve a greater purpose.
It came up in the first year of play on Thursday D&D (Group B). They were fighting a set of Legionnaires, led by a nasty Cleric of Air and Darkness. She was pretty cool; she had an adapted mace of sundering and a shield that could swallow spells, then reflect them back to enemies at twice the strength. She was also full of pride in her own abilities, having already had much success in laying waste to previous adventuring parties. It was this pride that killed her. She waited literally 6 seconds too long to make her escape...and the party wrecked her.
Now, note that I say that "she waited too long," not me. It was the character's pride and perception (literally a failed Wisdom save) that got her killed. I, the DM, saw the tide turning, but SHE did not. Me, Adamus, is NOT the character of Lady Vesheen of the Legion of the Rage. And that separation has to be true with every enemy they fight, every character they interact with, and every creature they meet.
If an intelligent, spell-casting dragon is sitting on top of you, and they are well aware of the impact of your character's efforts (because they SAW YOU and your allies, and are feeling the wounds that you have made), you can bet your poor butt that that dragon's gonna' make sure you stay down. That fits in with an older creature; it didn't survive this long by allowing its enemies time to get up.
Beware intelligent enemies, and beware old enemies. There's a reason that 20th-level wizard is still around, and it ain't pretty.
I try very hard to give each character a voice and personality that is not my own, to further solidify the separation. This way, my players know when I break character to address them out of game, and when they're talking to that mean ol' dragon and need to be on their guard. Sometimes, I can even apologize for the actions of the creature...but I justify them from its perspective. Yes, it sucks that the Beholder disintegrated you, but it recognized you as the healer, and it was tired of its prey healing. ;)
And when those connections are made by the creature - key observations and mindless primal reactions alike - I try to embody this connection with my voice, my tone, and my description of the creature's movements. This way I can communicate to them that THE ENEMY took notice, not me, the DM. If the enemy did not take notice, then I don't act like they did. This seems to help my players maneuver around the creature they are facing, in combat or role-playing, based on how they behave, and they never seem to take it personally if things go bad.
Motivations, Consequences, and Vengeance
All characters are motivated by something, and often in combat, that thing is SURVIVAL. They want to survive. And, most likely, they will utilize whatever they can to ensure that survival, or the survival of others.
When players make decisions, there are consequences. Some of these decisions are dangerous, others silly, and still others fantastic, but all have consequences, and all are natural consequences.
If you chop off the head of the first guard you meet in a new city...then the entire contingent of 40 guards are now descending upon you (because you killed a guard) to arrest and, if you resist, kill you...This consequence is rooted within the rules and LAWS of the world. This is not the DM acting out of vengeance - it is a natural consequence to the character's action.
Also, if the characters got quite lucky and super creative and absolutely wrecked the mob boss halfway through the campaign (as opposed to the final battle at its close)...and instead, his mid-bosses have begun an in-fighting extravaganza in order to seize power. This is an awesome natural consequence to a great fight, and opens the doors to a more complex arc.
However, if your character is being annoying and the DM has had it with your Baloney Sandwich, and a literal mindflayer lich riding a beholder bursts out of the ground... This is vengeance.
Consequences are a product of the initial action, and are thus related. A vengeful action is unrelated.
Vengeance GMs go after your character for no discernible reason, or use unfair tactics and justify it with "because I'm the DM."
Consequence GMs go after your character because you shot the wizard with an arrow and they recognize you as a threat.
There. Is. A. Difference.
Don't be a Vengeance DM. You're ruining it for the rest of us. :)
See you at the table.
GM's Note: The following tips are also life tips (as any tabletop tip inherently is) in the best sense. A lot of what I learned about being a decent human being was explored in a tabletop setting with family and friends; whether that be D&D, or Uno, Monopoly, or King of Tokyo. Interacting with our fellow humans is enlightening and awesome; here are some ways to help gain perspective, understanding, empathy, and respect - and maybe some storytelling tips, too!
1) Respect The Gestures Of Your Allies
I'll use a specific example for this one.
Say you're a new party member; everyone else is pretty established, they've got more loot than you (and they know it), and they've been playing longer. You waltz into a shop, and want to buy an awesome custom weapon, but you're super short on gold. You're the new dude, the party doesn't want you to feel left out, so the rich fighter in the group chips in the 2000 gold needed to help you buy your awesome weapon...
Maybe don't try to sell that awesome weapon the very next chance you get.
There's a couple reasons for this.
1) It makes the people who chipped in feel cheated - like you used them somehow. Gold, like real money, can take some work to accumulate, and not unlike a child whining for a toy that they never play with, the people who helped you realize that maybe you didn't need the thing in the first place.
2) It chips away at their sympathy for your plight. If they stick up for you and you abuse it/expect it no matter what, sooner or later, like the boy who cried wolf, when you REALLY need help, you may not get it.
What it really comes down to is the awareness and empathy of others' time and energy; it's a perspective thing. Put yourself in their shoes. They risked their (character's) lives fighting a dangerous crime lord to earn that money, they made the generous choice to help you buy a thing so you can feel more useful, and then the very next chance you get, you try to sell that thing. It can feel like a slap in the face; like their generosity had no value.
Acknowledge and respect your allies' decisions to help you out by utilizing the tool, weapon, armor, info, or action that they helped you acquire. Or, if you realize "I don't actually need this," acknowledge your mistaken impulse and maybe find a way to "pay back" that ally. Not unlike a parent who helps a grown adult out of a financial bind, when that adult realizes they're in better shape than they thought, and HAS A CONVERSATION with their parent, and creates a plan to pay back their generosity.
It builds accountability. Trust me.
2) Maintain Nuance (explain how, not why)
It goes a long way to describe what your character does WITHOUT explaining why they did it. This practice opens up some cool role-playing elements:
1) If what you did is interpreted as "strange" by your fellow characters, they can talk to you in-character about it...and you can respond in-character. This provides dynamic opportunities to act and role-play - without breaking that character to launch into your full backstory as the player. Keep yourself a wonder; it supports good storytelling.
2) It keeps interactions from repeating themselves. If you explain the WHY of your actions every time you do them, especially for repeated actions, then you might actually come off as annoying your fellow players; because they've heard it already a thousand times. Patient individuals will continue to entertain this behavior, but it doesn't mean that that patience might not be running thin. If you know you've said it before, they get it. Avoid becoming a broken record.
3) A sense of mystery is a powerful thing. Seek moments like THIS:
Eric: Urren takes a twill from his pack and sets out a few vials, some strips of parchment, ink, and a small porcelain doll, and tries to look busy while you guys talk.
INSTEAD OF THIS:
Eric: Urren takes a twill from his pack, because he's got one of those with all his herbs for making potions and medicine. He unrolls it, taking out some vials, that he can use to make you guys potions later, or some other stuff that you'd like, because he's proficient in his Herbalism Kit. I take out some parchment, some ink, and a little porcelain doll that I had when I was a kid and it's really important to me because someone from my backstory gave it to me and I hope I can see them again, soon. They were taken by a roving band of barbarians, and I need to travel to the Forgotten City to find any clues of his whereabouts. Oh, and also I want to look like I'm busy, can I make a Deception check?
Both instances have the same visual component for the theater of the mind, but the latter reveals (in my honest opinion) WAY TOO MUCH for such a simple action. Just painting the picture, in its own simplicity, creates character nuance. If we go with the former, it opens the door for another character to join Urren and ask him about the doll. Then Urren (in character) could give small details about it, feel nervous and put it away, launch into its life story, or stare blankly at this person, refusing to say anything. This interaction provides character hints; where everyone is slowly discovering elements of Urren - without being expressly told by the player. It creates questions in the other characters; why did me asking about the doll strike such a nerve? Why won't he talk about it? Is it a painful memory? Why the parchment? Is he writing a letter? Is he writing anything? What's in the vials? ...And all of these questions are explored through the theater of the characters - the character wonders these things, the character attempts to understand their ally through character interaction. It makes for intriguing stories of complex characters; characters that grow and evolve through the theater of the mind.
In strict simple terms, when the game starts, have a little less PLAYER, and a lot more CHARACTER. Be an actor, without explaining why you're acting.
3) Keep Your Spells A Secret...until you use them
Casters are awesome, and D&D helps do a great job of making magic mysterious and powerful. Similar to #2, you might be excited about sharing a new spell that you just learned and all the ways that it's awesome...but don't. Not yet.
You can talk to the DM about it, you can gush about it to your buddies at the bar, but during the session...DON'T TELL ANYONE.
You want THIS to go down: "Hey guys, I just learned a new spell, and I gotta' tell ya', it's going to be AMAZING when it shows up!"
Now, the party doesn't know the context of this spell; they aren't also required to memorize everything you can do on top of their own stuff, they know you got something cool, but they can still be pleasantly surprised when you use it.
Magic is mysterious. Keep it that way.
4) Realize That It Is Rarely About Just You
I've said it before, I'll say it again.
This is a group game.
But here we're going to take this down a few avenues.
Character Development That Isn't You: Maybe you were the first arc in the story, so you got used to being the center of the attention, and now your initial conflict is over and it's someone else's turn. How do you manage that? Well, start by being present for the other characters in their own conflicts. They were there for you (or maybe they weren't, and that could be an interesting interaction when they bring up why you're being such a sour-puss), so you should be there for them. Find ways to watch their back, support them when they need to stand up for themselves, help them figure things out; sometimes just making sure they're not alone can go a long way in building that character trust.
...Some of the groups I've been in feel like comrades in a war; we had each other's backs, fought against insurmountable odds in a fictional world that was tangible to us, and because we trusted and supported each other, we succeeded. Those are friends I still have to this day.
Your Comfort Isn't The Only One That Counts: if you are making others uncomfortable to make yourself comfortable, you are wrong. If you are doing things that annoy the majority of the party, and they have communicated as such respectfully, yet you still do these things, you are wrong. Why are you wrong? Because this is a GROUP GAME. Comfort is one thing, but compromise and cooperation are skills, and thus are learned. In order to maintain any comfortable environment, compromises must be made, because everyone is different. What a concept.
I am honored to DM in a place where groups don't bully each other, so when discomfort comes up, it's usually that someone isn't socially aware of the fact that they are taking others' patience for granted, and a constructive conversation may be needed. ...AND THAT'S OKAY. No person can strive to be better at anything without first recognizing that something might be wrong. Which leads me to...
Character Conflict Is Not A Bad Thing: clashes between characters, or even players, don't have to be a detriment. So many people today are influenced by the idea that conflict is BAD. Disagreement and opposing ideas are BAD. This is wrong, and a great place to build better communication skills of ideas, ideals, ethics, plans, and decisions is in A FANTASY - where whatever you decide, does not have real life consequences. :) Plus, conflict - dynamic conflict that isn't petty - makes for good stories. If it's between players, the conflict isn't the goal, moving forward together after its resolution, is.
5) Don't Put Your Fellow Party Members In Boxes
We're all familiar with basic party roles. The Tank, the Blaster, Buff/Debuff, Healer...Sneaker?
I'm not talking about these. What I am talking about here is a bad habit I've been seeing, which is more complex than I think people realize. The habit is to define a character by their class, and openly say things like, "Well, Jim, you're a bard, so you act like this, and this, and this, and did you know you can do this, too?" or "Are you sure you want to act that way? Because you know, as a Druid, you're connected to the natural world and therefore it doesn't make sense for you to make that decision."
This is especially insulting to players that have been playing for a number of years; they understand their own mechanics, they've built their backstory, they actively role-play, they don't meta-game...yet you're telling how they should be playing.
The last example I overheard, and I'm certain it was too ridiculous to be serious, but it illustrates the feeling just the same.
Player 1: (Level 6 Bard) Hey, did you know you can cast spells?
Player 2: (Level 13 Wizard) ...Yes. I am aware.
Player 1: Well, as an Abjuration wizard, you should be picking only protection spells so you can get the most out of them. Here, let me tell you about every single spell you obviously don't know about...
As a DM, I don't tell players how they should play based on their class. They made their class choice for any number of reasons, but most of all, to play the way they wish to play. This way will undoubtedly evolve, but it's not MY character, so I have little say in how they're going to play it. And just because in fantasy literature, a certain sorcerer acts a certain way, does not mean that a player should act the same way just because they are a sorcerer.
Each character is unique within their own context. I have no business steering their play toward a specific outcome due to my own preconceived notions (coaching/teaching is one thing, railroading is another). Players/characters will surprise me by creating new avenues; new stories, and that's one of the most beautiful things about the game.
Whew. World-building and organization next time!
I'll see you at the table.
1. Arrive on Time
...So everyone can start together, and you don't miss out on stuff if we start without you. On-time arrival communicates mutual respect for all the other players gathered. Things come up, schedules get busy, emergencies happen - but communicate these things so the GM can plan accordingly.
2. Think about your turn before it happens/get organized
This is a life lesson. Get thyself organized; everything will take less time, you'll be less stressed, and EVERYONE will appreciate you more. ;)
If you're a monk with a million attacks...maybe roll your damage and attacks together. Then, if the attack hits, you already have your damage. If it doesn't, discard the rolls. Easy-peasy. Set your dice out that you're going to roll ahead of time. If you're hasted (ugh), maybe even write down your own order of operations to keep yourself focused on your tasks, then check them off one by one.
If you're a caster, READ YOUR SPELL. Know what it does, understand its range, casting time...all those frustrating details; but ESPECIALLY have ready the Save DC and WHAT exactly the DM is supposed to roll, if there even is a save. Bonus: casters who narrate what they do to cast the spell adds great depth to their character and the visual art of it all, plus demonstrates an understanding (maybe) of how the spell works, so try it out!
(In 5E) The Attack Action, even if you have Extra Attack, consumes your action, so unless you are Hasted, you cannot also cast a spell, or interact with an object, or grapple a foe, or do anything big after that. Your movement moves you across the board...that's it. A Bonus Action is specific - if you do not have a feature that would grant you a bonus action, assume that you do not have one to spend. An understanding of this speeds up play dramatically - and actually allows a lot more to be done each encounter, as more player turns will occur - this way no player feels that they need to CRAM their turn with stuff to do because they won't get another chance later.
As a DM, I've made a few house rules for player ease: 1) Potions take a Bonus Action to consume yourself, but an Action to give to others; this way, there's still a cost to healing, but it doesn't consume a full turn. 2) Sometimes, as context or creativity might allow, I have expanded the use of the Bonus Action - this is something I will try to do less of, as individuals have become confused by it/try to abuse it. 3) As per the rules, a Bonus Action spell does NOT allow another leveled spell as an action; me and my fellow DMs rule that one can cast a Bonus Action spell AND another spell of 2nd level or below (but the core rules state "cantrips only" for this).
There ARE class features/feats/items that mess with these basic rules, of course, but everyone is held to that initial standard. Knowledge of what rules you can bend, and what you can break, will speed up turn time and allow more opportunities for everyone. PLUS, it helps the DM avoid unnecessary rules lawyering/arguing/etc. that can drag down play.
3. Share the Spotlight
This is a group game. Don't hog the spotlight.
This requires some personal and social awareness. There can be a lot going on, but no one wants to feel forgotten. It gets harder with bigger parties, but if everyone stays aware of their own spotlight, no one should feel slighted.
It goes a long way, especially if you think that what you're about to do is going to take some time, to INVITE another party member, maybe one that isn't used to playing much yet, along for the ride. This makes them feel wanted (yay), gives them a joint opportunity to shine, AND forces the initial player to interact with their party in character. Maybe the whole group follows - sweet! I'd rather an ensemble with everyone taking part than a looooong solo with everyone else waiting.
4. Listen to the Game Master
If the Game Master is talking...listen. Your side conversation can wait, that random thing you want to say that you just thought of...can wait. This isn't me trying to squash anything; quite the opposite really. It's to set up a level of respect. If the GM listens to you as you describe something, then listen to her as she describes something.
Your GM works hard for you; they have a tough job, and they need to be given the space to help paint the picture in front of you without being interrupted. Some great emotional and effective moments can be hindered by a player making a joke in the middle. Don't spoil the fantasy of a detailed resurrection ritual just because you thought of a thing - save it for later.
Plus, this ensures that everyone comes along for the ride in the fantasy, at least for a little bit. Details are all shared; collective in the theater of the mind. It grants the DM space to craft a great picture. Seriously. Shush.
5. Rise to the Challenge
...and don't whine about its difficulty.
As player-characters get stronger, they will undoubtedly face off against more and more powerful entities. Wizards are SCARY at high levels, and some dragons are ALSO wizards, so... Mind Flayers are terrifying; there are some creatures that will just bring your hit points to 0 as an ability; Legendary Actions keep you humble; Intellect Devourers, though weak, can still decimate your party. ALSO, heists are hard. Planning is hard. Maybe you're not a sneaky person, maybe you're not a planner, maybe you just want to set everything on fire and call it a day.
We can use these moments in a fictional game to help ourselves become more complete people. Rise to the challenge to improve your planning, your execution, your self-control, your spell usage, your creativity - don't whine about it, TRY. Because anyone can roll a NATURAL 20. :)
Have an awesome day.
See you at the table.
A Little Info Up Front
With the new semester just around the corner, we've got more players interested than ever before, and a few spots here and there available for folks to come play with us.
However, many of the parties with openings have been adventuring with each other some time, a few nearly two years. They've built strong bonds with one another, some fighting literal gods together... So how does one join into that kind of dynamic? Well, in short, slowly. But here's some more detail!
1. Read the Room
I put this one first because it is the most important life skill I have ever picked up in my years of teaching, performing, and just plain existing among other people.
Each of us possesses an ability to "read the room;" to gauge how others react to our presence early on in an interaction, the things we say and how we say them, and feed ourselves information on how to react in a way that isn't obtrusive to the other. It arrives in the form of that feeling at the base of your neck when you realize "I said something wrong" or "That joke didn't hit the way I wanted it to." This amazing superpower is frustrating, because it relies on immediate hindsight, but one can also address it immediately in public and help assure the others that nothing ill was intended. "That sounded better in my own head, sorry" or "That joke didn't land well, did it?" The trick is listening and learning to how the room reacts to your speech, mannerisms, and characterization and make slight adjustments as you go to keep everybody in a good place.
Unfortunately, there are many role-players so obsessed up front with the idea of their character and how they feel they want to express themselves that they end up ignoring the remaining people in the room, and their level of comfort, which can quickly lead to even the best people feeling frustrated with the "new guy."
So, when joining an established adventuring party (or work group, study group, livestream, podcast, social brunch, or any new social group), try this: imagine your character (you) at their highest level of expression...then scale it back to half power. I don't say this to CRUSH YOUR CREATIVITY and single you out; I say this to allow space for the others to allow YOU to grow a part of THEIR party. Because let's face it, you're the "new guy." A strong adventuring group is a delicate thing; too many are broken by internal strife, misunderstanding, destruction of boundaries, and feelings of isolation - so allow yourself and the others in the room time to get to know you, instead of explaining your entire backstory the moment they meet you. ;)
2. Find Your Niche
Established parties have established skill sets for each member. When things get nasty (combat or not), everybody knows what their job is and how to support each other. You've got to find where you can fit. Often, with a group that's been together a while, there isn't necessarily a gaping hole for you to fill - they've gotten this far without you, you know. So you need to find how you can augment their current establishment; do things that others struggle with, bringing something new to the table.
3. Take Your Space, But Respect Theirs
They won't trust you right away. To let you in, I mean really let you in, is a huge rarity first thing. You're going to have to earn your place, and respect their distance. This means not being offended if they're unsure how to work with you in the beginning. A new person is ALWAYS jarring.
If they cross a line with you, let them know, so you can establish boundaries, BUT if you do this, you MUST respect theirs in turn. If it's not okay for someone to reach out and pat your head, maybe you shouldn't poke the Rogue with a mage hand the first time you meet him...
Again, this is interaction with an already established group. They've wrecked bandits together, bonded over the corpse of a spider lich, done tavern crawls, and survived many a bar fight. They're friends, in some cases, even considered family. Being new is difficult. Be patient. Respecting boundaries goes a long way toward building trust early (in fantasy and out).
And often, establishing that level of mutual player respect, will speed up that whole trust thing exponentially.
4. Slowly Blossom
It's easy to get excited, you're playing an awesome game with awesome people... But take a deep breath. Feed them your personal story in small snippets; if they ask for more, reveal only what is comfortable. You don't have to fish through your bag for your handwritten backstory and then slam poem it to all of us - you can keep it vague.
This also allows you to edit your character as you go. You don't have to feel pressured about all of the intricate details in your backstory making perfect sense right away; it's YOUR character, you can make changes to the things no one knows yet, and that is extremely powerful to your own agency. You choose what to reveal and when; mystery can go a long way in building a bond based on what you can DO first, rather than focusing on where you came from.
Much like #2, you can find stronger connections to the party by finding (and editing) how your story intertwines with their values, desires, and skeletons.
5. Challenge Yourself - Create Agency - Reflect
Maybe you've never played before, and this is your first experience with a tabletop RPG; maybe you played a long time ago and want to see how the new edition of the game functions; maybe you've come from eons of playing the best games in the universe and you want to see how we lowly mortals function; maybe you're coming from a bad experience and are just trying to find your place.
Breathe. Just take a deep breath. Then take another one, and remember that no entity in the universe begins perfect.
GMs have a difficult job. They need to balance conflict with success, and provide contextual hooks for the players to help drive a narrative without railroading them. In other words, give the players agency of choice while also telling a story.
If you take damage, heal. If you get cursed, find a cure. Random demon possession? Something to overcome - maybe even an awesome side quest toward redemption where you discover the mystery of your bloodline. Not sure what to do? Improvise! Still not sure what to do? Engage your AGENCY.
Make a goal, and pursue it. And share this goal with the GM so they can find better ways to support your personal development as a player and a character. And, as the group gets to know you, they'll understand your goal(s) as well; able to back you up, as you have backed them up I'm sure.
Conflicts that arise in the game's world are opportunities for you, and your character, to persevere and grow - not personal attacks for you to complain about. Challenges to overcome, and stepping stones toward that goal. Reflect on what these steps mean to your character, and to you, the player. Doing this puts everything else into perspective and helps remind us that not everything can go our way every time. Sometimes settings are not kind places, and we must rise to the challenge, rather than complain of our hand dealt.
In closing, you can learn a lot by scaling back at the onset. It keeps you from looking as if you're trying to derail or "steal" their thunder, while allowing you time to read the room, find your niche, take your space, and align a goal on your own.
A good party is a delicate thing, and people can be very protective of it. Please remember and respect that perspective if you're jumping into a group that's been together for awhile. If you grant them that respect at the beginning, you WILL grow into the group easily and quickly.
BUT...if you don't grant them that space, there can be hurdles to overcome later; boundaries that have already been crossed, messages already sent. Not impossible to overcome, of course, especially with good people, but it will take longer to find one's place.
Hopefully that didn't meander too much. Here at QW we always try to foster positive gaming experiences with a high measure of patience, understanding, and teaching; none of us are ever perfect, so benefit of the doubt is great. But at other social game scenarios, new players may not be given that breadth of allowance.
Looking forward to the new faces already at the door.
I'll see you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.