When it comes time to make a skill check, every DM faces an eternal conundrum: do you let the players roll it or do you roll it? Is it better to allow the players to make every roll for every check, save, or attack or is it better to keep some of them to yourself so they don’t influence the way your players choose to act in the moment? Sure, there are roleplayers out there who won’t flinch at a botched stealth roll or who can resist summoning dreadful images in their head if they roll single-digits on a saving throw, but most people aren’t that good at separating what they know from what their character knows or can infer.
In the recent years of my life, I’ve grown to appreciate the run’n’gun style of games. I suppose you could say that it began with Halo back in the day, but I don’t think I really appreciate the genre/style until I started playing DOOM (2016). DOOM’s simple mechanics, fast-paced combat, and loose approach to storytelling made it a very fun game to sit back and play when I was too stressed or tired to invest in a game. Most of the story was told through codex updates and the occasional speech you couldn’t walk away from, which means it was mostly there for you to find if you wanted to look for it while it stayed out of the way the rest of the time. Doom Guy even leans into it, punching screens and breaking things rather than listening to exposition or operating instructions.
Roger wasn’t much for animals. They didn’t like him and he didn’t like them. Every dog he’d ever tried to pet had either run or bit him. Cats clawed him and even birds pecked him.
Which is how he knew something was wrong when he woke up with a mouse sitting on his nightstand.
“Go away” he said. It didn’t move.
“Scram.” Roger sat up and waved at it. It washed its whiskers.
Roger eyed the clock and then looked out the window. It was past eight but still dark out. Odd. Roger watched the mouse carefully as he stayed outside arm’s reach of the mouse while getting up.
He grabbed his things and headed to the shower without taking his eyes off the creature until he left his bedroom. Stayed facing him the entire time.
When he came back, it was still there. He combed his hair in silence, still watching the mouse that moved only to rub its whiskers.
When he couldn’t take it any longer, Roger stepped forward, grabbing a book off his shelf. “Get out of here now or I’m going to smash you!”
The mouse paused for a moment, and then resumed rubbing its little face.
Roger moved to the bed, put the book down, and picked up a pen. When he poked the mouse, it squeaked and then continued washing its whiskers.
Roger bent over to look at it and whispered half to himself. “What the hell are you doing, little guy?”
“Distracting you” said a small voice behind him. By the time he started to spin around, the horde of mice was crashing over him.
The last thing he heard as darkness swallowed him was a small voice saying “At last, the prophesied hero has fallen. Soon, so will all the other Humans.”
Once again, the world has changed in the space of a week. This time last week, I was worried about how I could share my experiences about being home schooled when I still couldn’t separate what was a result of the learning environment and what was a result of the emotional neglect and abuse. Since then I wrote that post, I’ve learned my employer might be forced to close due to the COVID-19 lockdown in the state of Wisconsin, learned my company was deemed essential due to a variety of reasons (though a lot of it has to do with us stepping into the medical face-shield business to help meet demands), settled into remote work life, learned my employer was going to be reducing everyone to 50% hours (alternating weeks to keep as few people in contact as possible), been told the factory was closing for two weeks due to an outbreak at the factory, and then was informed that we remote workers would still be working our 50% schedules despite the factory closure.
Most of the time, I don’t play D&D. I run it. There’s a pretty big difference. As a DM, running D&D requires an understanding of the style of game you’re playing, a hefty knowledge of the world you’re playing in, a grasp on at least the core concepts of the rules (though an encyclopedic knowledge of them is frequently very helpful), and at least several reference documents because there is no way you’ll know everything you need to know off the top of your head.
It’s a numbers game with lots of narration and storytelling that requires you to set aside your ego so you can provide opportunities for your players to explore the world, tell a story, and try things. Generally, you want to avoid a focus on “winning” as the DM and instead focus on making sure everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of social management since it is frequently up to the DM to intercede in arguments or interpret rules that don’t necessarily have a clear answer to the question the player is asking, all of which requires a certain amount of social consciousness as the DM. You need to watch your players so you can be ready to support them as they need it and challenge them as they want it. When you DM a lot like I do, it can be easy to think of playing as something that is incredibly easy.
When you get a chance to play though, and really get into it, your perspective shifts. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about managing numbers, turn order, and a thousand tiny details but trying to manage your expectations. Instead of trying to anticipate the players, you’re trying to navigate the minefield that is a combat encounter. Especially at low levels, one wrong choice can make the difference between a simple fight and a fight that uses up all of your resources and abilities. Whenever you’re confronted with a door, there’s no way to know what is behind it and, if you’re the leader of your sorry bunch of misbegotten misbegots, it falls on your to decide if you should open that door or if you should take the safe route and find a place to hunker down until everyone’s hit points are full.
While the effort involved is vastly different, the toll isn’t. As a player, you don’t have to manage a thousand little details, but your character’s life hinges on the success or failure of your actions. As DM, you don’t need to emotionally invest in each decision because there’s no risk of failure for you in a combat encounter. Your job is to help tell a story and provide a challenge. As a player, making the decision to stand at the back of the group is fraught with danger. If, like my character was today, you’re at half hit points and facing a swarm of creatures that aren’t tough but could easily overwhelm you when there’s over ten of them to your single you, that decision isn’t an easy one.
You, the player, don’t want your character to die, but sometimes that’s what happens. Sometimes characters die because of the choices they make. And I say “they” because Chris Amann would not choose for Lyskarhir the Elven fighter to stay behind the group of villagers as they flee the church they’ve hidden inside, but Lyskarhir the Elven fighter certainly would, even if he’s a cantankerous asshole. They didn’t ask to have their town wrecked and their loved ones slaughtered in front of their eyes, and most of them aren’t up to the challenge of standing firm in the face of an oncoming hoard, but you are. So you stand and hope they get away quickly enough for you to get away instead so you don’t need to find out if you’re the kind of person who’d let someone else die instead of facing an attack you’d probably survive.
Chris Amann wouldn’t choose to keep Lyskarhir exposed to danger so that as many of the enemies focus on him instead of the fleeing villagers, but Lyskarhir sure would. He knows he can probably get away and, once the group splits, idly walk up behind them with his longbow out and kill them as they chase the defenseless townsfolk. Chris Amann knows Lyskarhir can do this and Lyskarhir’s battle strategies are only as good as Chris Amann’s strategies, so Chris Amann lets Lyskarhir decide what to do and does his best to fight the duality of his mind so that he (I) can properly roleplay.
As a DM, roleplaying is swapping masks to be whoever the players are talking to. If you’re really good at it like Matt Mercer, you can become entirely new people with every new character. If you’re just alright at it like I am, you can try to change the tone of your voice and at least make them use different words to help the players see the difference between the people they’re talking to. When you’re playing, you’re putting on a mask, a costume, and assuming an entirely new persona. You have to manage the difference between what you know (which, as a regular DM, I know EXACTLY how many hit points each monster we fought had) and what your character knows. Lyskarhir doesn’t know that kobolds have five hit points, but he does know that not a single one has survived being shot by him. Chris Amann knows that Ambush Drakes don’t deal much damage, but all Lyskarhir knows is that there is a pair of wolf-sized dragon-ish lizards running toward him at an alarming pace.
As much as I enjoy storytelling and being a Dungeon Master, I will never be as excited by a gameplay moment as I was when my Elven fighter survived four wild swings, three of which missed thanks to his excellent planning, that left him with one single hit point and the final attack he needed to take down the champion of the enemy forces. Even if the DM let me get away with 1 hp because I’d gotten lucky enough to reduce an enemy that should have wiped the floor with me to the single digits, it won’t change how great it felt to emerge victorious from a fight that went better than it had any right to.
Now, three hours after the fight concluded (which is when I’m writing this), I am still jittery and excited about that moment. I want more. I’m reminded of how much I love playing, of the highs and lows of tabletop gaming that you feel as a player who can only do their best in the given situation. I miss it. I wish I could get more of it. But it also feels pretty great to be reminded of the experiences I can provide to other people when I run games for them. I just hope I get to keep doing both as the world shifts and changes in the face of this pandemic.
The first and only Animal Crossing game I’ve ever played longer than a day (I borrowed one in college but didn’t have the time to do more than make a character) was the original one on the GameCube. That isn’t a result of a lack of willingness on my part so much as a result of my disconnect from buying new games during college (I think the only new game I got while I was in college was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and my lack of free time as a post-college adult. I’ve always had something come up that make a time-intensive and daily play game like Animal Crossing prohibitive.
“Thank you all for gathering on short notice.” Harry sat in his chair with the light of his monitor reflecting off his glasses. “I know these are hard times, but I’m glad we can still gather quickly as the need arises.”
Harry focused his eyes on his webcam, doing what that guide to video conferencing had told him to give the illusion of eye contact to the people on the call. It was tricky to maintain, but he’d had a lot of practice.
I’ve been watching a lot of my older friends (and a few of my peers) on social media post about homeschooling and trying to figure out how to get their child to engage with at-home lessons during this pandemic. There are so many tools out there for them to use: websites to crowdsource lesson plans, video tools for teaching lessons to multiple people (crowdsourcing education or stuff schools have set up so teachers can have lessons with their students without anyone needing to leave home), websites with all kinds of neat learning tools, and so much more. Some people are even choosing to forego standard education and instead focus on life lessons like cooking, home maintenance, simple car repair, baking, and the sort of things that schools no longer teach children that are still essential life skills. It’s amazing watching the world shift before my eyes.
Planning your next Dungeons and Dragons session but unsure how the burgeoning pandemic will affect attendance? Wondering how much Purell you’ll need to clean all your dice after you roll them on the table? Unsure how to handle taking turns to bring the food when your increasing paranoia about getting sick has granted you the ability to see the germs wafting out of everyone’s mouths as they breathe?
“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”
Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.