A Focus on Power Fantasies Ruins TTRPGs For Everyone

I saw someone post on Twitter that Dungeons and Dragons is all about power fantasies and, as a result, most people play characters that are like them in an effort to roleplay situations that make them, personally, feel powerful. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this idea and a WHOLE lot of thoughts about how it can play out in actual games. Part of the problem, of course, is that making any blanket statement based on your personal experiences shows your personal biases, privelege, and frequently overlooks the experiences of people who aren’t like you. I’m going to try to avoid making any such statements here by talking about my experiences specifically, but I will have to generalize a bit unless I’m going to write an entire novel. Which has a certain appeal, but this isn’t really the medium for discourse at length.

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I Hate When I Can’t Share This Cool Story I Wrote

One of the worst feelings I have that isn’t a result of my questionable brain chemistry and varying mental health is having a fun, interesting creative work that I’ve produced but cannot share with the people who would be most interested in it. I love creating stuff just to make it, but I want to share the things I create and like with other people. Partly to help make them (the stuff I’ve made) better, partly to share something I think people will like, and then also partly for the good, good serotonin hit I get whenever someone likes a thing I’ve created.

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Play A Barbarian

For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is a parody of the song “Madam Librarian” from the musical, “The Music Man.” I came up with it one morning while putting a D&D game together to fill my then-empty Sunday evenings, since I was one confirmation short of a 4-person party. My friend was expressing some hesitance because he didn’t have much free time to dedicate to the game, but didn’t want to just phone it in either. On the spur of the moment, I wrote the sentence “play a barbarian” and heard it in my head to the tune of this song. I followed it up with a couple more lines of a possible parody for my own amusement, but my friend recognized what I was doing and commented on it. So I wrote the whole parody. Which you can now enjoy.

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Player Engagement Is a Key GM Skill

I have not always been a good DM. I think it might still be presumptive to call myself a good DM and that I would be more comfortable saying I’m a decent DM with a few specialities, but I think I wouldn’t argue against anyone if they called me a good DM. I think the lesson I learned that made me an alright DM was to never, under any circumstance, take away player agency. They’re free to do whatever they want in the game and I should support their endeavors, but they’re also free to suffer the consequences of their actions.

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Post-D&D Glow

There’s nothing quite like that post-D&D Session high. It’s like exhaustion, a headache, and a stomach bug all rolled into one. Basically a hangover. So incredibly unpleasant, but a sign of great times now over.

I don’t really drink much these days, so maybe that’s me romanticizing my early to mid twenties than a reflection of how I feel about hangovers, so maybe don’t drink to excess.

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Making a Monster

Creating a good D&D 5e homebrewed monster is a matter of balance. Like all things within the bounded-accuracy system of fifth edition, most of the specific numbers for attacks, armor class, and attributes are unnecessary. What you need to know is how to land within certain likelihoods for damage input and output, understand how to balance the action economy of fifth edition, how the difficulty of a fight is set, and the purpose of legendary/lair actions. While this seems like a lot to keep in mind, most of it falls under a series of general rules that make it easy to adjust a fight as it happens so you wind up with what you, the Game Master, expected. 

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The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

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.

Bringing Social Distancing to Your TTRPG

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?

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TAZ and The Words I Needed to Hear

“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.

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Tabletop Highlight: The World of Fifth Edition

In the past year, I’ve begun running a lot of fifth edition D&D. I’ve spent several hundred dollars buying books, PDFs, and a subscription to D&D Beyond (which is where I bought said PDFs). I’ve also bought myself a tablet for DMing, backed a number of kickstarters for easy terrain or pre-made graphical maps, figured out how to use Roll20, and started designing my own digital maps. Out of everything I’ve done this year, I think only my job has gotten more time and attention than Dungeons and Dragons has from me. I also think I’ve spent more money on D&D and D&D paraphernalia than I’ve spent on anything that isn’t a bill or food. I’ve probably spent more on D&D than takeout or eating out, at least. Those books are expensive and I just had to buy myself all the spell cards even though I never get to play D&D and just use D&D Beyond to look up the spells I haven’t already memorized when I’m DMing, either in the general search or through the helpful spell description windows that open when you click on or hover over a spell.

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