I must confess. Sometimes I’m a bit insecure. And no, not in the predictable “does this belt of vigor make my butt look fat?” way. And certainly not in the “Holy cow, is the wait staff looking at me funny because I just devoured two baskets of chips, a grande burrito, and fried ice cream?” way that I probably should be. I’m talking about playmat insecurity. Yes, that’s right. Your Player-in-Chief sometimes lacks confidence in her PC prowess.
The sorts of things that get me include: Could I have negotiated a better deal from our patron and gotten the party more gold pieces? Did I give up too much info to the armed guards and put the party in danger? Should I stand here? Or here? What about over there? Should I make an Arcana check? Or History? Or just wait for New DM to ask for a Perception check.
So mostly, I stick with what I know. It’s all scorching burst this and magic missile that. But why am I so uptight? It’s just a game, right? Just like dancing was supposed to be just a hobby, but now I’m terrified of being a duck!
Right. I guess I should explain that.
When I was four my mom enrolled me in dance classes. This was after the “Balance Beam Blunder” but before the “Diving Board Disaster.” I really wanted to be a dancer like the ones on Solid Gold, and Mom loved the idea of starting me early in something that could potentially get me a college scholarship. I don’t remember the classes, which probably explains what happened at the much-anticipated recital. That, I remember, thanks in part to the pictures. The radioactive yellow ducky costume with white bobby socks and chunky tap shoes. My hands over my head while everyone else’s were down. Me pirouetting when the other girls step ball changed. Their feet stomped while my fingers snapped. That’s the day I gave up my dream of becoming a Solid Gold dancer, and Mom opened a college fund.
I tried to be a good duck, but there were just too many moves to remember. I figured it would be better to forgo learning the entire routine in favor of getting really, really good at one or two things like pirouetting and finger snapping.
And here I am, many years later, feeling like that 4-year-old duck when I play D&D. I want to be a more strategic player. I want to maximize Tabitha’s powers. I want to help the party solve puzzles and reap rewards. And yet, sometimes I choose to have Tabitha cast scorching burst because I know she’s good at it. I can attack and roll damage without once referencing my character sheet.
Here’s another secret. After Tabitha and company leveled and I retrieved my freshly minted character sheet from the printer, I looked at it. I mean, really looked at it. Hmm . . . when did I get wizard’s escape? Oh yeah, I have a shield! I double-checked to make sure this character sheet said “Tabitha Sparkles.” I guess I always thought my fellow party members just had more options than I did. I thought maybe wizards were minimalists. But now it was abundantly clear. Tabby is packing. I just didn’t know it.
I know there are programs on my computer I’ve never bothered to learn to use. There’s probably an app on my phone that does even cooler things than I use it for. There might be buttons on my remote control that do my laundry, pay the bills, and turn cats into pots of gold for all I know. But those don’t impact things like the health and safety of my fellow party members.
For instance, in a recent session, Bart’s kenku Holden was getting his feathers handed to him. The poor little birdman was down to single digit hit points, out of encounter and daily powers, and was the only party member left that could offer some healing. He was only 5 squares from Tabitha and marked by a mezzodemon, which was how Tabby managed to creep by it to find a bit of cover. One more decent hit and Holden would be a McKenku Nugget. You know what would have been cool? If someone had cast invisibility on Holden to give him a chance to get out of harm’s way. It turns out Tabby could have, if she bothered looking at her spell list once in a while. Instead she tossed a wimpy scorching burst at the offending monster, dealing maybe 7 damage. Holden survived, but no thanks to me.
This is all cathartic, so pardon me while I continue with a full disclosure. Once in a while, Tabitha gets close enough to the action to actually get hit with a melee weapon. That’s not the embarrassing part. My little wizard has been toting around something called wizard’s escape in her big, old spellbook. She could have teleported away from the enemy who hit her instead of clutching her bleeding oblique and provoking an attack of opportunity when she ran away. That same spell book contains arcane insight, which would allow Tabitha to reroll an Arcana check. Imagine that! Instead of saying, “Sorry guys, I must been out sick the day we covered force fields,” she may have been able to offer up some knowledge that would have helped the party in a skill challenge. Ugh. I hope they don’t read this.
Whew! That felt good! Anyway, while I was discovering my past failings and pondering my future as a wizard, something inexplicable happens. As if Avandra herself decided to take a hand in Tabby’s fate, a magical book lands on my desk. Actually I have no proof of its magical abilities, but I’m taking it as a sign anyway. It’s called the Player’s Strategy Guide. I flip the book open and read an inscription written on a Post-It note:
“Hey there,” says the note. “You and Tabby might want to read this.”
A gift from a secret admirer? Nice! Turning the book over, I see why.
“For Awesome Characters Only.”
Of course! The back cover promises to make me the envy of my gaming group due to my jaw-droppingly awesome newfound player skillz. Wait a minute. New player skills? You mean my sub-par D&D proficiencies are that obvious? Suddenly I feel like those people who order “Flab-Be-Gone” or face freezing lotion from late night infomercials. Oh please, let this work! I dig into the first chapter right away.
It says something about why I might enjoy playing D&D. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I probably want to play more effectively. Sure, sure, whatever. Then: “On the other hand, you might be struggling with the number of options available to your character.”
Whoa! This is a sign. Already I’m starting to feel better. If R&D wrote a whole book about this topic, then surely there have to be more of us out there, right? “What are you reading?” my boss asked, walking by my desk.
“Nothing!” I answer, snapping the book shut. Why am I being so defensive? Am I not allowed to read the books we publish? It’s not like I’m reading US Weekly or How to Deal with Ineffective Leadership or something. But sometimes you don’t want to let anyone in on your quest for self-improvement until you know it’s going to work. Plus my boss is in my game. If I forget to use shield again, that could show up on my review. Better that she, and the rest of the Wyld Stallyns, stay in the dark a little longer.
In the safety of my own home I returned to studying.
Tabitha doesn’t have to be perfect. Just like the little duckling Shelly didn’t have to perform every step perfectly. But there are similarities between a dance recital and a D&D party. You should be in synch. Each person should have a role. If one falters, plays half-assed, or goes rogue during an encounter, you all suffer for it. (You might also laugh your face off like my brother did. There are pictures of that, too.)
Is Tabitha really the best possible character she can be? Not according to Chapter 1. I mean, sure, she’s got a backstory—that was one of the first things New DM tasked us with before we even sat down to play as a group—but does she have goals? Career ambitions? An epic destiny? I didn’t know she needed one!
At least I’m doing something right. The book recommends you, “shop for particularly utilitarian or extraordinary flamboyant clothing.” Finally! My work as Player-in-Chief has paid off. It then goes on to say, “Come up with a couple of interesting possessions to wear or carry.” This must be a nod to Tabby getting a new outfit or accessory every time we finish an adventure. She’s been dressed by the best—bracers by Hershey, robes by Cote D'Or, feather boa by . . . well. . . someone’s Halloween costume.
I skip ahead to the section about choosing powers. Tabby kills stuff, so I must be at least moderately proficient in that aspect. It turns out, nope. Apparently my method of choosing spells based on maximum dice of damage isn’t always the best option. Perhaps this is why most of my daily and encounter powers are fire-based. That’s great if you’re only going to fight stacks of dry logs and marshmallows, but maybe not the best defense when you’re fighting a fire elemental. Maybe I should look into swapping some out in exchange for powers that will round out the types of damage Tabby can dish.
And clearly I have issues with utility powers. You’d think something that basically promises to be useful would be easier to remember. Arcane insight, invisibility, wizard’s escape, shield. Yep. Pretty useful. And with the exception of invisibility they’re all encounter powers. Who picked these? Remember that fight I mentioned earlier? The one where only Holden and Tabby were left standing and both of us were getting beat up from all angles? My shield may have prevented enough damage for me to sustain Tabitha’s flaming sphere and keep attacking the naga rather than spend a healing surge.
So it’s pretty clear I need to develop mission statements for Tabitha.
Mission Statement #1: Examine utility powers and learn what they do.
Mission Statement #2: Use them!
To be honest, at this point I kind of wish I had a scorching burst right now so I could scorch away this depressing book. Or maybe fry some ice cream. Not since the Great Duck Debacle have I felt so poorly about myself. But just as my spirits hit rock bottom, I saw a beacon of hope: Quizzes! How would I have ever known what kind of friend I am or what my purse says about me without quizzes?
I open right up to the “What Class Are You?” quiz. Hmm. . . maybe I’ve been playing this all wrong? The fantasy me has always been drawn to magic users because the real me loves a little slight of hand. Unfortunately the quiz does little to quell my concerns. Out of ten questions I scored three points each under ranger, rogue, and wizard, and one point under paladin. (How did that get in there?) For the record, question four about my wardrobe didn’t have any appropriate answers. A taxidermy shop? Maybe R&D should have consulted me before coming up with these answers.
I was hoping the “What Race Are You” quiz would be a bit more telling, but instead it depressed me. Out of the eight races, I scored one point in every category except tiefling and scored the highest in my least favorite race: human. (I don’t understand the desire to play a human in D&D when you already play one in real life.) Basically, these quizzes only proved what I already knew: Tabitha might be one cocky tiefling, but Shelly is one conflicted human.
Reading on, I come across something I hadn’t heard since my Introduction to Acting class back in college: What’s Your Motivation? Well, what is my motivation? To stay alive? To have a good time? To not get Kierin’s character, Aaeon, caught in Tabby’s bursts or blasts again? According to this quiz, I’m once again at odds, this time between a thinker and a slayer. What does that mean? I daydream about how to blow up monsters but seldom act on it? I do spend a lot of time fretting over which spell to use. And let’s be honest: Encounter powers are the equivalent of TSA regulations on liquids. I now live in fear of running out of conditioner 537 miles from my bathroom and using up shock sphere 537 feet below ground. And don’t even get me started on daily powers.
Time to study up for class. My wizard class that is. Thinkers fit best with controller classes. Finally, a sign my seven levels with Tabitha have not been in vain. But I’m disturbed by what it says about wizards under hidden talents: “the widest range of problem-solving options of any character.” Tabitha? Has she ever solved a problem? Not single-handedly, but I realize that’s my fault. While she’s trained in Diplomacy, Insight, and Intimidate (not to mention travels with a show bear who gives her a +2 on Intimidate checks) she is seldom the one to start up critical negotiations. But that’s me metagaming, rather than possibly (probably) playing in character. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. But Tabitha wouldn’t be so urbane. In fact, if I actually roleplayed her she’d be saying the wrong thing all the time. How’s that for zero pressure? Play a character without a censor! She’s gruff and intimidating and would rather make you pee your pants than compliment them. I gave her that backstory, yet I’m afraid to use it. I don’t need to show up at our games in a feather boa and horns, but I do need to start thinking like a hot-headed tiefling.
Mission Statement #3: Get into character.
I continue to study. According to the PSG, if a player is already feeling overwhelmed, perhaps mastering the powers and knowledge they already have should come before taking on even more. But what fun is that? A long time ago, Tabitha went and got herself all multiclassed as a warlock. Oh, I never mentioned that? Well, that’s probably because I have no idea what to do with her fancy warlock sophistication. It’s the same sort of impulse that keep me buying over-processed juice at Safeway instead of reading the stupid instructions that go with my big, fancy overpriced juicer so I can make my own! I don’t even like juice that much! And Tabby doesn’t really like hellish rebuke. Fortunately Player’s Strategy Guide is all about asking for help—from your DM, your party, your buddies down in R&D. Maybe Tabby should ditch her dreams of becoming a warlock and concentrate on becoming a really good wizard. And maybe I should figure out how to make a smoothie at home. That leads me to:
Mission Statement #4: Use it or lose it.
Here’s a topic my group continues to debate: When ten monsters are spread out on the playmat, is it better to split up and target multiple enemies or focus all of our efforts on one? Just like it’s hard to resist buying two dozen rolls of paper towels at Costco (I may not need that many rolls at the time and have nowhere to put them, but I’ll never have to buy them again), sometimes it’s hard for Tabby to resist dropping a big, flaming orb on a gaggle of baddies. That’s kind of the point of a burst and blast, right? But if there’s not a grouping or a clear leader of the bad guys, we’re all over the place, knocking over bookshelves and jumping over sarcophaguses and firing at whomever is closest. Apparently, this sort of tactic is a little counterproductive. Right. If common sense didn’t tell you that, simple math should. There’s a whole chapter in this book on strategy and tactics, and I’m about to read it for the fourth time. And I add the following to my list:
Mission Statement #5: Think before you detonate.
Tabby might not be a sequin-adorned dancing duck, but she’s certainly a quack. I feel like I just completed my first year of wizardry grad school and there’s still more studying to do. I haven’t even gotten to the “Don’t Be a Jerk” section of Chapter 4 (sorry, New DM), but I’m certainly inspired to try out some of my newfound wisdom in the coming weeks. It looks like Tabby needs to learn the whole routine. Snapping your fingers only gets you so far.
To be continued…