D&D — Dialogues 1: Turning the Tides

I’m going to start a little mini-series in the D&D section of this blog called “Dialogues”, where I tell stories of the adventures I’ve been a part of, either as a DM or a player. Some will be funny, some, like this one, won’t, but overall they will be centered around the idea of “interesting things that happened”.

 

This particular story happened in the most recent session of my campaign, of which there are only three party members (and one DMPC, who is mostly a sidekick). The party consists of a ranger, a sorcerer, and sort of a homebrew fighter-based tank. (The DMPC is a Strength-based ranger.)

They find themselves on the slopes of a mountain, walking a path often referred to as “The Trials”. They’ve heard from the village below that each person faces different tribulations, so it’s impossible to know what to expect. These trials can be faced together, but in order to reach the summit, each person in the group must have faced their own Trial.

So as they walk past an old gate into a wide clearing of snow, they find the air growing warmer and the ground getting coarser. The blizzard around them turns into a sandstorm, and they realize they are now in a desert. The ranger, who used to be a court bard for a desert people, immediately grows suspicious. They see a large structure in the distance, and he smirks.

Ranger: Can I roll to see if I recognize this place?
DM: Make a history check. *The ranger rolls a 19*. Yup, this looks an awful lot like the palace and the desert you spent a lot of time in, hundreds of years ago, in much the same state it was in when you departed.
Ranger: I knew it.

They approach cautiously. Ascending the steps of the palace, they see row upon row of guards. Over two dozen. They all stand firm, but as the party passes them as they walk down the main aisle, each row nods to the ranger and bows.

They walk into the throne room, the doors of which are wide open. At the throne the ranger sees his old king, who greets the party as if the ranger has returned from a long journey. There’s no hostility whatsoever, but while the king is talking, he notices the staff the sorcerer is carrying.

They found this staff a few sessions prior hidden inside an underground temple, behind a locked room that nobody was allowed to enter. They’ve yet to decipher what the staff is or what it can do, but this is the first time anyone has seemed to take particular notice of it.

As soon as the king sees it, he pauses. He points to the sorcerer. “That staff,” he notes.

“What do you know of it?” the sorcerer asks.

“It’s mine,” he replies. And at that, he stands and passes a hand over his face. His visage falls away like scraps of paper being shed. In it’s place, a masked and robbed figure stands before them. He whispers something to a guard, who starts walking towards the door, past the party.

The fighter tackles him, and the fight begins. The guards turn on them, and they are already surrounded.

The masked figure targets the sorcerer, teleporting closer to him and casting spells.

The party falls back, taking out a few guards as they back up towards the door.

But soon, more guards start flooding in from the way they had come. The figure flies past them, blocking their escape, and casts Lightning Bolt down a line, hitting three of them. The sorcerer and the DMPC fall unconscious, and the ranger is hurting bad.

The ranger casts Ensnaring Strike on the figure, who fails his save, and, not having any Strength, spends his next three turns trying (and failing) to break free.

The fighter uses his next turn feeding healing potions to both of their downed party members, and he uses an Action Surge to do so. All the while, more guards keep flooding in.

Despite the restrained figure, they are very clearly losing this fight. All around the palace, however, there were doors that implied a means of escape.

The sorcerer casts Fog Cloud in the doorway, and a huge part of the room becomes enshrouded in fog.

Soon, the ranger, the sorcerer, and the DMPC are out of the fog cloud, waiting for the fighter to join them so they can make their escape. But he’s inside the cloud fighting five or more guards at once. With obscured vision giving them disadvantage on their attacks, and their target having 18 AC, he’s a veritable wall, and their feeble attacks just glance off his armor.

Soon, the Ensnaring Strike effect ends, and the masked man flies through the fog cloud in search of his staff.

As soon as he leaves the fog cover, the DMPC lands a Critical and deals insane amount of damage. He’s seeing stars, and the rest of the party let loose as well.

With no support from the guards, and him being outnumbered 3-1 with few spell slots left, he casts Greater Invisibility and vanishes.

As soon as the masked figure disappears, no additional guards join the fray. They dispatch the rest and, while now severely lacking in potions, they managed to win, and thus passed the first part of the Trial.

It’s worth noting that I had set up this combat as a “flee or die” scenario. With endless guards and a powerful magic user well beyond their level, there was no way they should have been able to win. But with a well-timed Ensnaring Strike and a well-placed Fog Cloud with armor-man inside, they took a hold of their assets and pulled victory out of the jaws of death.

Life — The Three ‘Me’s

I measure a lot of my success based on the progress I’ve tracked for myself, and how much further I am from my goal. I have endpoints for three distinct things I want to achieve in life, and those endpoints are actually people. Figures whom I admire for very distinct and different reasons, but all who have become something that I want to match (or surpass) in the coming decades. Now, I’ve talked about all of these people before, so I’ll include links to previous posts where I talk about each more singularly.

The first person is probably the most obvious and the most distant goal, and that is Brandon Sanderson. Now, obviously he has achieved things in the sci-fi and fantasy world that is extremely impressive. Having such a name for himself and working on multiple highly anticipated book series is nothing to sneeze at, but the reason he’s one of my endpoints is that he has such a knack for worldbuilding and putting giant concepts into edible chunks. I doubt he’ll ever be as famous as J.K. Rowling because his world is so expansive, but success isn’t necessarily measured by a paycheck. I’m the furthest away from achieving anything he did because he’s so far out of my league professionally, but his ability to constantly write new and diverse worlds never ceases to amaze me. Brandon Sanderson is therefore my aspired “Professional” identity.

My aspired “Hobby” identity is Matt Mercer. Him being an endpoint represents everything I want to achieve in my free time. Not only is he an amazing dungeon master for D&D, but he is also an incredible voice actor. His status as one of my endpoints is a little more ephemeral, because I also attribute this to my career as an improvisational actor and teacher. I don’t really care about doing anything with my abilities as a voice actor, improv actor, or dungeon master, but these are all nonetheless a part of my life, and I want to be able to be awesome at each in my own right. In this sense, I don’t think I can ever achieve this endpoint by virtue of the fact that he does those things as a professional and not as a hobbyist, but they are aspirations of mine all the same.

Lastly, and this may or may not be the most accessible goal, is my “Social” identity, whom I attribute to Sean “Day9” Plott. He is a streamer that plays games like HearthstoneDota 2, and made his name for himself by talking about Starcraft. The reason he’s on this list is because I think his most admirable quality is his personality. When you’re watching him play, (and I think this is pretty rare for streamers), the focus of the content is not on the game, but on him and his reactions to it. He’s built a community with the people that watch his stream, and is very engaging with his viewers. Not only that, but he also loves to tell stories and give advice. Day9 is an extremely charismatic person, watching him would be enjoyable even if I had absolutely no interest in the game he was playing in. While I have no intentions to have any sort of ‘online personality’ (outside perhaps this blog), I want people to have that sentiment towards me, as well. I want to draw in people based on my social character, not my accomplishments or anything like that. This endpoint is the hardest to gauge because, while all it takes is a change in character, that’s by no means easy. In fact, it’s pretty contradictory to the way I’ve lived my life up until recently. I’m taking steps, but it’s difficult to say how far the path leads, and I doubt I’m on the most direct one there.

I think a lot of people might interpret this information and incorrectly conclude that I’m not happy with where I am. On the contrary, I think I’m doing okay. But I think it’s healthy for us as people to have goals, both short term and long term. And it’s okay to have goals you will probably never achieve, because you’ll still get somewhere by trying. I would be lying if I said I expected to actually accomplish any of these endpoints (except maybe one). But that’s not really the point. All of these are markers to help me find the path I want to take, and while I might not get where I’m going, I’ll probably be content with wherever I end up.

D&D — Different Kinds of Players

So, just as there are many different settings for campaigns to be set in, there are also extremely diverse styles that players (and dungeon masters) adopt, often based on their own personalities. This is the number one reason why having a conversation about what the campaign will be about and what everybody wants to get out of it before you start playing is very important. If the dungeon master expects their players to be very serious and in character the entire time without stating those expectations, the campaign isn’t going to go very well.

So, I think something that is more easily perceptible to people is that everybody plays the game differently. Keep in mind that while I am about to present to you a list of all the different types of players, there actually is no real “list”. I separate people into three categories, and the way I do it is very broad. It’s my own list based on personal experience of player personality and interest, which is often a very complex thing. I could diversify it into a list of six or seven types of players, but I’m going to err on the side of simplicity here and make it easy to understand.

The most common sort of player in my experience is the “Casual Fun” player. They are there just to have fun, and a lot of the time they come from a video game background. Many of these players don’t have much experience roleplaying and are therefore uncomfortable with the idea. They just want to get the quest and complete it. (This isn’t to say that everything has to be combat. These players can certainly be interested in fantasy politics and the world itself. They just aren’t interested in becoming a character and probably don’t care about having an engaging backstory.)

Another common archetype is often referred to as the “Murder-hobo”, but I equate this sort of player in the same vein as a “mid-maxer”. Often, these sorts of people actually are averse to in-game politics. They just want to kill monsters so they can level up, find loot, and kill stronger monsters. They play intelligently, usually using the best tactics they can to handle the situation. This also makes them notoriously bad meta-gamers, meaning they will often operate with information their character would not have, or telling other players to make their characters do things based on what they cannot know. For example, they might remind players of abilities or items they have when their character isn’t there to tell them. This isn’t usually a big deal, but it is a pet peeve of mine as a DM. Characters and players are two different things! The players are allowed to know (almost) everything, but they should also be trusted to do things that align with the information their character would realistically have.

My archetype, and somebody that makes the DM’s job easy, is the “actor”. This person plays Dungeon & Dragons as a means of becoming somebody other than themselves. They may use a different voice when they are roleplaying, and they love making a backstory for their character. They interact with the NPCs, often engaging in conversations for drama’s sake. No combat, very few dice rolls. They love talking and negotiating with the characters in the world. Most notably, these players make a conscious effort to do the things based on their character’s personality and the information they have. Now, I realize the way that I’m saying this sort of sounds like “This is the kind of player you should be, because it’s the best”, but that’s not what I’m saying.

Every sort of player has their pros and cons. I prefer players that are Actors because as both a DM and a player, I love character interactions the most, but that’s far from the only enjoyment D&D can provide. Like everyone else, Actors can be annoying to play with. They make terrible plays (Grog from Critical Role once haggled backwards because his character is an idiot. The player knew what he was doing, and it was a memorable moment because of it!) They can make other people uncomfortable by roleplaying when the rest of the party doesn’t want to. Their characters can just be jerks. It might make for an engaging story, where the Actor in the party is evil and works against everyone else’s goals, but it’s also pretty likely that the other players won’t enjoy it because they may feel like he’s an actual enemy rather than an obstacle. Actors can also be unpredictable and do things the DM doesn’t expect, veering the campaign off in a sudden detour.

Every player is different. But no type of player is inherently better than another. If everyone at a DM’s table is a Murder Hobo type of player, then making a combat-focused campaign is easy. Usually, though, you’ll get a mix of interests. What’s important to remember is that different types of players don’t necessarily conflict with one another. It’s the dungeon master’s job to fulfill everyone’s desires in the campaign, but everybody needs to know what they’re in for in order to accomplish this. If you only have on Actor in the group, great. Make them the voice of the party because they like being in character. Give the Murder Hobo a crazy cool weapon because they will love you. Casual Fun players might have certain interests, but one thing that new DM’s often get confused about is that they can be very comfortable sitting in the background as something of a spectator, never engaging in roleplay or being super active in fights. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t enjoying it. Talk to your players (or your DM) about the way they like to play, and accommodations can be made to fit any combination of player archetypes!

 

Life — August Update Pt. 2: What’s New

Last week I discussed the changes I was making to my blog schedule, which are all already in place. So this week, I’ll just talk about everything else I usually put in an monthly update post.

Monthly Update Topic Order: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things. (Though I’ll skip the blog part, since I already went over that last week.)

My writing plans are fairly straightforward for the time being. My fiction output is purely focused on the Spear Gate novel I’ve been working on these past few months, and I don’t plan on that changing anytime soon. Of course, I’ve historically gotten bored with long term projects that get too long, and this one is nearing that point, but I’ve gotten no warning signs yet. It seems the tactic of “Only plan as far ahead as the next chapter” is keeping me pretty interested in the story so far, so let’s hope that doesn’t change.

As far as video games go, I haven’t been doing that a whole lot lately. My computer died a few weeks ago, and my laptop isn’t good enough to handle anything like that, so my gaming has been almost exclusive to Dragon Quest Heroes II, of which I already have over 70 hours of. It still doesn’t seem like much in comparison to how much time I’ve put into Dragon Quest VIII, so maybe the figure I told people (about ~300 hours) is a bit larger than I remember it being. But in any case, by this time next month I may or may not be back to my regular games. We’ll see.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and listening to media lately. I’m about three fifths of the way finished with Two Towers (and I hope to be done by August 14th), but mostly I’ve been listening to a good amount of Running the Game, a YouTube series on being a better dungeon master, and Critical Role, which I’ve already talked about a lot. It’s the D&D weekly stream of the adventures of Vox Machina. I’m still about seventy episodes (and therefore 200+ hours) behind, but maybe some day I’ll be caught up… I will say though, the original drive for watching Critical Role stemmed from me wanting to watch and indirectly experience more D&D. Now, because of some interesting story bits, I’m watching it for the narrative, because it’s actually getting very exciting. I just wish there was a faster way to get through it!

The fall semester hasn’t quite started yet, but my classes are all set up and taken care of. This time around I’m taking two theatre classes (which will be my first in years) and I’m overall taking more hours in one semester than I ever have before. This means that I will, once again, be busy (in some form) every single day of the week. I’m not excited about that, but it is what it is. I just hope I don’t hate all my classes. I’ll settle for only hating three of them.

In other news, the old leader of my writer’s group has moved away, leaving me in charge of the group. It doesn’t actually add much responsibility to my plate as far as what’s going on in the writer’s group, but I do treat it very seriously. If nothing else, it’s an acknowledgment of both my writing ability and my leadership skills that I was the one entrusted with it, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like having people listen to my direction.

And lastly, I’ve decided to make some small changes to my outward appearance. As a consequence to my closed off personality, I historically don’t make friends. But this school semester I plan on changing that and reinforcing what I call the “Charismatic Introvert™”. A lot of people that don’t know me very well are surprised to find out that I’m a very introverted person, probably because I’m not socially inept like the stereotypical introvert is. So I’m going to make a conscious effort to be more amiable and introduce myself to people, and hopefully I can find people I share things in common with.

That’s all for this month. I’m excited to see where I stand come September. It’s my favorite month (for more reasons than just “It’s my birth month”), but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

D&D — Different Campaign Settings

One thing that a lot of people fail to realize about Dungeons & Dragons is how malleable it really is. It goes far beyond “pick your race and class”. Lots of dungeon masters not only have a story for their group to experience, but they also have a veritable ‘genre’ that can be attributed to that game.

Now, the common term for what I’m referring to is the “campaign setting”, but it’s misleading. (That or I misunderstand what that term actually means, which is a possibility.) What I’m talking about is the gameplay focus for the game. What is the party doing session to session?

The type of D&D I grew up with is heavily focused on combat. In this setting, your character doesn’t matter. Every three hour session will probably have a combat, and the game is all about getting better loot, gaining experience, and fighting bigger monsters. This sort of campaign is, I dare say, the easiest to run.

But the thing is, everybody has a different ‘style’ of D&D they enjoy most. I know lots of people that only care about optimizing their combat and sitting down at a table to fight the monster of the day. While that’s all well and good, I care a lot more about story-telling.

The campaign that I run is far more story driven. After nearly a year, the party is almost Level 4. (For comparison, in the recent campaign I do not DM for, we hit Level 2 after the first real session.) I try to make it as realistic as possible, with ‘side quests’ sprouting every where. The party has a main objective, but its hundreds of miles away and will take a long time to get there. Do we rush there with as much haste as possible, or do we help these people that need it? As a side note, my particular campaign has a lot of mystery thrown in. Often, more questions are asked than answered, and there are several story threads that never reach their conclusion, because that’s not really how life works. There are certainly pros and cons to that, but I’ll get into that another time.

Another campaign setting I’m excited to run in the future is what I call the “Guild Home”. In this setting, the players set up a guild very early on, and the entire campaign is focused on raising the guild’s renown, building a reputation, and ‘upgrading’ the guild hall. It’s therefore very centralized and while it will naturally have story tied into it, there won’t be a main antagonist trying to end the world.

There are countless ways to run D&D campaigns. The most common is possible the “one-shot”, which starts and ends after one session. But many others are short-lived. In my experience, campaigns that last longer than a few months are in the minority.

The key thing is that D&D can be whatever you want it to be. You can have a campaign set in a dystopian sci-fi future full of the common fantasy races of elves, dwarves, and orcs. (I’ve done that!) You can have a campaign where the party is a bunch of wizards trying to take over the world. Maybe the setting is a zombie apocalypse set in Middle-earth, and the party has to kill literally everything in their path.

Dungeons & Dragons can be anything. It’s my firm belief that if somebody plays it and doesn’t enjoy themselves, it was a problem with expectations not meeting up to reality, which can almost always be fixed. I honestly believe that basically everyone can have fun with this game if the circumstances are right. It just requires the dungeon master being vocal to the players about what kind of campaign they plan on having. A good DM can accommodate any player, but everybody needs to make their expectations and needs known in order to let that happen.

 

Life — August Update Pt. 1: Blog Changes

Technically, this is a week early, as I had reserved my monthly updates for being “the first Monday of the month”, but it seems strange to wait an extra week when August is tomorrow. I have a lot to talk about this time around, so I decided to split it up into two posts. This weeks will be exclusively blog changes, since they’re pretty extensive.

Like I predicted last month, I’m making some significant changes to the blog schedule this time around. I had been struggling with coming up with topics for my Learning! posts, but adding another “Prompt” day would have made them back to back, which didn’t sit well with me. I’ve been considering dropping days from my schedule and spending that time writing stuff I don’t publish immediately, but I decided against it for the time being. While I may have the discipline to trust myself to write every day, the idea of making more of those words go “under the table” makes me a bit uneasy. I like having new content accessible for anyone that wants it. If I made that sort of change, it would be adding ‘phantom’ words that don’t get posted, not subtracting the amount of content I post on the blog. But anyways, here is the new schedule:

  • Sunday — Long Story
  • Monday — Life
  • Tuesday — Prompt
  • Wednesday — D&D
  • Thursday — Wildcard
  • Friday — Review

With this setup, I’m making two big changes to the blog. I’m removing Improv 101 and Learning! from the weekly schedule. Why? Well, I’ve covered pretty much every improv game I’m familiar with, so while I do have more to say on the topic, it won’t be enough to warrant a weekly spot. I’ve also removed the Learning! posts because, as I said, I simply don’t know what to say in that category. In their place, I’m adding a new category: “D&D”. In them, I’ll talk about my experience in Dungeons & Dragons, including both tips and funny stories. As the months go on, the game is taking more and more of a focal point of my life, so I feel justified in this change. I’ve already sort of posted the first few in the guise of Learning! posts, but by the time this publishes the titles (and the sidebar) should be reworked.

I’ve also added a “Wildcard” category where I’ll talk about anything, even retired categories. (Maybe even a new chapter excerpt from the Spear Gate book, though I wouldn’t count on that happening often.) For example, if I have a new improv game to talk about, it’ll be on a Thursday. Truth be told, I still have about three more of those posts that haven’t gone up yet, so they will be the first few “Wildcard” posts. But rest assured it will be different afterwards.

To organize things more temporally, I’ve shifted everything over a bit. With this new schedule, every other post on this blog has the chance of being fiction, (and Tuesday is a better Prompt day for me, anyway). And last and least significant of these changes is the fact that I will now only be keeping track of posts in the multiples of 25. This means a post will only have a number tagged at the end about once a month. I don’t need the same amount of validation I needed a year and a half ago. At this point, I just enjoy keeping track.

So, that’s it for this week. Next week I’ll give the second half of the monthly update and talk about everything else that’s going on in my life!

 

D&D — Dispelling More Misconceptions

Just like there are many things people don’t understand about playing Dungeons & Dragons, there are even more things to get wrong in regards to the dungeon master, even for avid players (especially for the players, in fact). Being a dungeon master is both more and less work than people realize. So let’s talk a bit about the things I’ve learned over my years of playing D&D, and what I’ve learned from being a DM.

People have the idea that being a DM is all about inventing a world, monsters, and even politics that the players can interact with. Apparently, if you don’t do everything from scratch, you’re not hardcore or dedicated enough. All the pros invent everything off the cuff, right?

Not even close. I guarantee that any official module you buy online will be more creative and detailed than anything you could come up with yourself. Most of the dungeon masters I know of have started their campaigns off with a preset city and quest. There’s no shame in it. It does a ton of the work for you, and the only cost is the literal one your wallet will have to face. Besides, it’s a great way to learn about what being a DM is all about before you venture off into the hard stuff. Nothing is stopping you from building a world around the module once your players get through it, either! (That’s what they’re there for.)

The consideration of whether or not a DM is morally obligated to worldbuild their adventures from scratch completely sidesteps what it really means to be a dungeon master. This is something that a lot of people don’t understand. You are not (necessarily) an evil overlord trying to kill your friends. You are not an author dragging your friends through an adventure.

The way I see it, the dungeon master is the true force of neutrality. They set the board up, and the players move their pieces around however they want. They shouldn’t be punished for making what you might consider the wrong move. Dungeons & Dragons is all about choice and freedom. You give them the world, and then you supply the means to make it interesting. A campaign is not the dungeon master’s game, or his/her story. It is everybody’s story. The players set the tone of the narrative just as much, if not more, than the dungeon master does. In the words of Matthew Colville, who has a series about DM’ing adventures on YouTube (go watch it), “Giving the players one choice is the same as them having no choice at all.”

Now, there’s a lot to learn about being a DM. I won’t pretend to be somebody seasoned enough to go through all the do’s and don’ts, but the key thing is that it is the DM’s job to ensure that the party is having fun. They give interesting things for the players to do and explore. They challenge their wits and their rolls. A realistic campaign is all well and good, but sometimes realism has to fall by the wayside in order to make sure the experience is enjoyable for everyone.

A DM is somebody that knows (or makes) the rules. But they are also the person that breaks them in favor of memorable and fun adventures.