Across the Screen #4: Communication

Telegraph your GM today!

I have been around the role playing community long enough to know that one of the primary obstacles to a good cohesive campaign is a lack of communication. Time, of course, is the real death of countless campaigns, but I can’t change time, so we’ll focus on communication.

What problems can come from lack of communication? Plenty. Are you feeling left out as a player? Are you feeling overwhelmed as a GM? Is something about the campaign not meshing? Like in any group setting, small problems grow in the dark. Feeling slighted or stressed doesn’t always go away on its own, and a simple misunderstanding can be exacerbated substantially by time and silence.

Surely as role players, you have all had times where you have felt marginalized, unappreciated, or at the very least frustrated by the action of inaction of others; that feeling is completely natural. For many introverts that flock to the hobby (and perhaps some socially conscious extroverts), our instinctual reactions are also natural, though not especially helpful. We insulate ourselves, and stew on perceived slights.

So how do we fix this? Is the GM being fair with combats? Why can’t the group go west when the GM wants them to go East? What is wrong with stealing that paladin’s magic sword if he is just a figure head?

These are all examples of issues that I can and will discuss in future editions of Across the Screen, but for now know that they don’t have to result in a ruined campaign or even a bad session. Make sure that you speak frankly with each other about issues or misconceptions that might arise during play.

Now, this isn’t always easy, but the more you can work on keeping an open discussion (especially after or between sessions), the more harmonious things can be. Remember, no one knows you have an issue until you bring it up. Finally, if you aren’t comfortable or even confident that discussion can solve your problem, it might be time to rethink the group dynamics. Sadly, this is a harder issue to solve, but sometimes it is necessary to address. More on that further down the road.

For now, I leave you with the following advice. The game is meant to be played and enjoyed. If you are a GM, you have a duty to be inclusive and fair. If you are a player, you have a less realized duty to bolster the GM with good character choices and participation. Both of these things are easier when you communicate with your GM. Talk between sessions, ask for information and advice, and make sure that all participants are having fun. It only takes a bit of discussion to dispel most misunderstandings.

Next week, we will discuss the very important decisions that are made at character creation, and why it is probably better to make your character at the same time as everyone else, if able.


The Ishim: Counterpoint to the Imp


The counterpoint to the imp; there are no monsters that are a good counterpoint to the imp in D&D and its ilk. There are lantern archons, and other such beings, but nothing really comes close to an iconic creature that would serve as the mirror to the imp the way that some angels have equals among the higher ranks of demon kind.

So here is the Ishim.glowing_halo_op_640x560

Small Celestial, lawful good
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 11 (2d6 + 4)
Speed fly 40 ft. (hover)
Str 4 (-3), Dex 17 (+3), Con 14 (+2), Int 11 (+0), Wis 13 (+1), Cha 14 (+2)
Skills Intimidation +3, Insight +3, Persuasion +4, Stealth +5
Damage Resistances lightning; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities fire, radiant
Condition Immunities deafened, exhaustion, poisoned, prone, restrained
Senses blindsight 120 ft., passive Perception 11
Languages Celestial, Common
Challenge 1 (200 XP)
Messenger. The ishim is the messenger for the divine host, and projects its voice magically to all who can hear within 100 feet. The ishim has advantage on intimidate checks when it uses its booming voice.
Magic Resistance.
The ishim has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Tongue of Flame. The ishim can speak and understand any language. Additionally, it has an aura that grants this ability to any creature within 50 feet that can speak and understand a language.

Divine Flame.
Ranged Attack: +5 to hit, range 30 ft., one target.Hit: 13 (3d8) radiant damage.
Divine Speech (Recharge 6).
The ishim utters a holy phrase. Enemy creatures within 100 feet must make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw, becoming frightened for 1 round on a failure. Creatures that fail this saving throw by 5 or more are frightened for 1d4 rounds.
The ishim magically turns invisible until it attacks or until its concentration ends (as if concentrating on a spell).

An Ishim appears as a small glowing halo, sometimes literally a golden shining hoop, at other times as a glimmering mandala of symbols and numbers, but always with a golden light. Though small, the light it sheds makes it appear larger or at least more imposting.

The ishim is an exalted celestial creature that occupies the third sphere. They are the divine messengers, and are either born into existence by divine will, or are the exalted souls of righteous men of piety. Ishim are just as likely to deliver a word of warning to a man about to commit a grievous sin as they are to warn a city of impending catastrophe. Their minds are mysterious, following the vaulted edict of the diving host, and rarely speak outside of their intended message.

In rare situations, a person is deemed to have a pious destiny may have an ishim granted to them, in which case the ishim becomes a doting mentor and guardian. Such cases are exceedingly rare, and recipients of this mentorship are usually cloistered by mortal agents seeking to protect the individual.

Limitless Adventures and Boundless Encounters

limitless-adventuresSo, Limitless Adventures has reached out to me and asked that I review their products. I want to refer you to my reviews page so that you can see the reviews that I’ve posted, but let me say in brief that the Limitless Adventure series of encounters is excellent! I’ve had the pleasure of looking over both the Storm King’s Thunder and the Sword Coast iterations of encounters, and they have some excellent and brief encounters that can replace those tedious random table encounters.

Please check them out, as they are excellent and brief encounters that can fill out a session or be themselves expanded to a thorough story. There are even “Further Adventure” notes that excellently suggest ways to expand each encounter into something more interesting.

In addition, I wanted to help announce that Limitless Adventure has a Kickstarter  that will be a collection of the first 15 encounter products from their line. Here are some highlights.

  • 150 fully detailed encounters set in 12 different environments
  • OGL stat blocks for all mosnters
  • Creative, CR appropriate treasure
  • 451 “further adventure ™” writing prompts

You will have your choice of PDF or softcoverprint copy (color and black and white options available).

Judging from the excellent nature of the encounters that I have already seen, I look forward to the compilation, as should you. If you want to see for yourself, have a look at the Limitless Adventure website and see the products that they have available, including a few free products.

Oh, and here is the link to the kickstarter!


Across the Screen #3: Solid Advice for GMs



For GMs

#1. Listen to your players. Solicit feedback. Make sure that they are enjoying things. Some people like less combat, some people want more logic puzzles, and some people don’t want to hear you prattle about the minutia of the labor dispute of your created world. That’s important information! You share your world with others, and it is important to let them shape it as they move through it. You will soon see that the players who are heard will be more engaged, more connected to the world, and more enthusiastic about the game in general. And it doesn’t mean that you have to accede to every request, but that some compromise makes the game more fun.

#2. Be firm, but fair. You can’t try to kill the players unless that is the point of the game (say, Call of Cthulhu). You aren’t there to provide a challenge, you are there to provide fun. These two goals can sometimes match up, but you shouldn’t confuse one for the other. The trick is that you can always kill your players. You are the alpha and the omega. But surely you are there to tell some kind of story, whether it be a sweeping epic or a gritty drama. The story should not end with the characters killed by five angry dragons that they foolishly insulted. It is important to…

#3. Fail forward. No consequence should stop the progress of the story. Did your players fail to solve the puzzle? Figure out a way to move the plot along. Maybe there is a consequence, but allow the players to continue moving towards their goal. Losing or failing at something should not bring the game to a screeching halt, and no consequence should ever make your players feel hopeless or highly frustrated. And don’t be afraid of letting your players find “gordian knot” and “ocams razor” style solutions. Unless your players are especially good or enjoy complicated puzzles and mysteries, you won’t get much enjoyment from sitting and watching them try to solve them.

#4. Make your encounters memorable. Don’t just make an encounter with 12 orcs because a table told you to do so. Instead, make the encounter meaningful, either by including complications (strange terrain, some narrative element, etc) that makes the encounter meaningful. I refer you to the bonus article “Creative Encounters”. It seriously makes a difference when your players can remember a session as being dynamic.

That’s all for now. This list is not exhaustive, and will be appended, but I hope you find some usefulness in it.

Next week we tackle the ever popular session zero. Until then, don’t forget to reach across the screen!

Across the Screen Bonus Article: Creative Encounters

If you are reading this soon after I post it, you will know the shock that I do (or an elation I cannot understand). But… I intend to move on.

There is always so much to do. But lets start with something simple.

Today I ask you to think about tactics and emotions. You may not think it, but your groups tactics are shaped by circumstance. Whether you are a tactical leader for your group of players, or a GM looking to predict how your players will act, you should take care to understand the role that emotions play in a fight.

For instance, consider a fight in which there are innocent lives at stake. There is a very much different tone to a fight with an evil dragon in its cave lair than it might be in a crowded church full of children. The final action sequence in the first Avengers movie was a pretty good portrayal of this, and shows not only the difficulty of simultaneously managing a battle and a crisis, but how true heroism can be achieved by rising to the occasion.

If your players are more mercenary, you could even have the treasure (a pile of loot or some mcguffin) being dangled over a pit of lava about to be dropped in at any moment, and suddenly the stakes have changed. Or perhaps the players have the choice of sacrificing their own lives to achieve an objective that may or may not be greater than themselves.

It is actually exceedingly easy to unbalance your players, as long as they are invested enough in the story, or at the very least in their characters. Once the fight has ceased being about “who can make the other side stop moving first”, the tactical themes can shift dramatically.

And I say all of this to highlight that the point is to care. You should care that your characters are making choices that are more meaningful than “kill thing, get paid”, and game masters should really think to craft a story into something that is more memorable than a diablo-clone*. It falls on both sides of the screen to come together and make a story shine with highs and lows of dramatic tension and narrative depth.

With all honesty, this requires less buy in than you would think. The players are already there, and you as the game master should take initiative to really make encounters be as exciting as possible** so as to be a highlight of the game, and not just a statistical break between social interactions and exploration. Your combats and encounters should be as much a part of the story, not because combat is intrinsic to the game, but because it is an ever growing opportunity to blend rules and storytelling in exciting ways.

So I put to you that you should try to think of a great encounter.

  • The group find a ghost town where actual ghosts are about to hang a live captive at the town gallows. Use difficult terrain, put a fountain full of oozes between them and the prisoner. Make them work for it!
  • A throng of refugees is running from a pack of hell hounds. How does the group hold the line and keep the hounds from maiming a large number of innocents? What do they do to help afterwards?
  • An eclipse has caused the sky to open up and rain monsters on a crowded city. How do your characters react? Do they flee the city and leave the rest up to fate, or do they try to enact a plan to minimize the chaos?

There are no bad ideas, only bad implementations. Remember to be kind and let the players decide. If you punish them for any choice, that is bad game mastering. Of course they COULD want to flee with their lives. Of course they MIGHT want to try and take a valiant stand against insurmountable odds. You have to roll with those punches because you are the one that put that situation in front of them.

Just shape the campaign to reflect the choice they made, and don’t crush or judge your players. If there is a “right answer” that you have in mind for a situation, there is no way for the players to know it without some guidance, and at that point it isn’t about their agency or their story, but yours. If you present a unique challenge, always ask yourself what you might do if the players don’t do as you wish them to do, because they are VERY likely to surprise you with an ironic consistency.

That having been said, please share with me some of your ideas. Have you had some exciting encounters that have made you or your players really think or feel? Are you thinking of introducing a gut wrenching emotional choice into your next session? Tell me about it, because I’d love to hear it.

And always remember to reach across the screen.


*Not to trash on that video game genre, but really it exists to scratch that itch so that tabletop doesn’t have to.
** And not every encounter, but really most of them. There is never an excuse for making a mundane boss fight, for instance.

Across the Screen #2: Solid Advice for Players

Synnergy within a gaming group is important.

Although the duty of a game master is to provide enjoyment for players, each side of the screen has responsibilities, whether or not they are explicitly expressed. Players aren’t responsible for much, but they should definitely minimize any problems for other players at the least, and problems for the game master in ideal.

I can talk about a general behavioral framework at a future date, but here is some game oriented advice that can improve  your time at the table.

For Players
#1. Try to save any serious rules discussions or disagreements for after the current session, and make sure you leave time for it before people leave the table. I can’t stress how hard it is to make on the fly decisions in the middle of the game when tensions are high. There is a time and a place to debate the rules; your character is on the edge of death, an important plot point hinges on a ruling, or some other pressing matter makes it important to find a solution.

However, you can let the small things go. Don’t remember what happens when you rise from prone? Let the GM make a snap decision, resolve to look up the rule later, and move on. Rules questions can create a byzantine experience that few will appreciate.

The communication in this case is better focused after the game, when the atmosphere is more relaxed, people aren’t concentrating on player turns, and a genuine discussion can be had about what seems fair or fun. I promise you that you will yield better results this way.

#2. Don’t let your character’s personality/coolness/concept be detrimental to the fun. This is a shared world, and your character’s amoral sensibilities might just make the game not fun. Guess what, you have a solid idea for an interesting personality that you want to express? Write about that! But unless you are being run solo by a very patient GM, you are in a group setting and have to be a team player. Honestly, if you have to justify something by saying “that’s what my character would do”, ask yourself if that will advance the story or not. The answer might surprise you.

Here, communication is important in that you should not only express your character concept, but hear out the GM and other players. Maybe you really want to play a magic hating barbarian, but picking fights with the group wizard might just end up with bad feelings. When you have acclimated to a group, you will know when your innovative character concept will be appropriate. Bonus points if you collaborate with another player on complementary character concepts (which, by the way, can still include good natured bickering).

#3. Make sure you make your voice heard. If you can save it for later (after the session, between sessions), that’s great, but if something in the game is heavily bugging you, it’s ok to bring it up. Everyone else is there to have fun, but if you are not having fun because of a touchy subject (suicide, killing captives, etc), then you should speak up.

Generally, you will be heard and understood. If speaking up causes tempers to flare, then you probably need to find a new group. That doesn’t reflect poorly on you, but it is a solid signal that you probably won’t mesh with that group. Believe me, you’ll be better off not subjecting yourself to the stress.

But more importantly, most groups won’t know that a thing is bugging you unless you bring it up. Maybe you felt like you didn’t get an equal share of the treasure, or that you didn’t get a chance to talk at the last social encounter. Be heard, and make sure that others know. A good GM will internalize these issues and make the game better for you. Trust me when I say that most accomplished GMs are dying to get feedback on what you want to see more or less of in a game.


That’s it for this week.  Next week we discuss game master advice. In the meanwhile, feel free to comment with any of your recent game table issues, and I’ll resolve to write a post with personalized advice on your specific matter. Just don’t expect me to pick a side.

Happy Halloween: The Formless Horror

I thought I’d do something a little different for the season. There are a lot of themes that might scare your players, but few are so thorough as simulated body horror.

The Formless Horror is a creature from the nightmare of the imagination. It takes any shape, but it is not entirely subtle; the creature plays at an orderly form, but prefers a coagulation of shapes and consistencies that drive the mind mad with primal fear. It is at once a devilish impostor and a polymorphic mass of flesh and terror.

Clearly, this is an homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it could apply to so many awful creatures…


Formless Horror
Medium aberration, chaotic evil
Armor Class 16
Hit Points 153 (18d8 + 54)
Speed 35 ft.
STR: 18 (+4) DEX: 15 (+1) CON: 17 (+3) INT: 12 (+1) WIS: 11 (+0) CHA: 2 (-4)
Skills Deception -2, Stealth +7, Perception +6
Damage Resistances bludgeoning
Condition Immunities charmed, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, prone, restrained
Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive perception 16
Languages can speak any language with rudimentary ability after 1 minute of exposure
Challenge 7 (2,900 XP)
Amorphous. The formless horror can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch without squeezing.
 Boundless Predator. The formless horror can spend its bonus action to subtly change its form to gain a swim, fly, climb or burrow speed. This movement type lasts until dismissed. The formless horror can only have one additional movement type at a time.
Inspire Terror. The formless horror can use its action to transmute itself superficially. It can retain its shape or take a new shape as normal, but it augments that shape with disgusting appendages, teeth, and other putrid features that inspire terror in all those that witness it. Any creature within 100 feet that can see the formless horror must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1d8 rounds and take 14 (3d8) psychic damage. Creatures that success on this saving throw take half as much psychic damage and are not frightened. Creatures frightened by this ability must make a saving throw at the end of each turn, ending the frightened condition on a successful save.
Mimicry. The formless horror can take the shape of anyone and anything by using an action to take that form. When taking the form of an object, it is indistinguishable from an ordinary object as long as it does not move.When taking the form of a living creature, its disguise is less thorough, but it is still difficult to pierce. The formless horror is always considered to have rolled a natural 20 on its Charisma (Deception) check against active or passive attempts to see through its disguise.

Multiattack. The formless horror makes two appendage attacks.
Appendage. Melee Weapon Attack:+7 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 22 (4d8 + 4)  damage. The creature can choose from the following damage types; acid, bludgeoning, slashing, piercing, and poison damage.

Shock Attack. The formless horror can use its reaction to attack a creature that is within 10 feet while the creature in the form of an object or a perceived ally. This attack deals an additional 14 (3d8) damage as chosen by the formless horror (see appendage attack), and deals 14 (3d8) psychic damage to any ally of the target within 30 feet of target.

Alternate Formless Horror
As an alternative to the formless horror above, you can remove its amorphous and mimicry abilities, as well as its ability to deal poison or acid damage, and instead give it the following feature.

Head Parasite. The formless horror’s natural form is that of a worm that crawls into the bodies of humanoids, seeking to take the place of the victim’s head. Victims must make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw, becoming killed and becoming a new host for the creature’s second life cycle stage.

The formless horror can then shape the head into various deadly forms to kill and consume flesh. When not actively hunting prey, the creature is indistinguishable from the humanoid that it infected. If the creature’s hose body is killed, but the host body is intact, it can attempt to usurp another body by decapitating a new host and simply inserting its body into the stump. The parasite can eventually evolve by transmuting the entire host body into a deadly mass of flesh, then budding off new parasites to infect new hosts.