GM Edition: The First Watch

 I would say more that monster being antagonist that you’re not going to have a conversation with. But I think, and you’re, yeah, you got me thinking about my own biases now. But even then, why aren’t you having a conversation with them? Why aren’t you trying to?


Lucas: Welcome back to Making a Monster Game Master Edition, a five-week miniseries featuring some of your favorite actual-play podcasters as we explore the interconnected roles of monster, antagonist, villain, and hero in tabletop roleplaying games. If monsters are tools for storytelling, then game designers are tool-makers and game masters are craftsmen who use those tools to make art. This series will help us understand the storytelling tools that bring us together, and the values and beliefs we bring to the table.

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This week, let me introduce you to Andrew Coons and a show that makes the most of the consensus fantasy universe of Dungeons & Dragons.

Andrew: Hi, I’m Andrew. I am a filmmaker and a storyteller. but I am the DM and the show runner of The First Watch. The First Watch is a cinematic actual play web series set in, in an original world. We’ve got a main show, lots of spinoff shows and one shots.

We’ve got a podcast exclusive thing. I just love fantasy storytelling and want to do it until I’m old and gray or bald. Whenever one comes from.

I started playing D and D only about three years ago. And we’re actually just about to wrap up our very first campaign we started. So three-year campaign. And

Lucas: That’s about right.

Andrew: Growing up, I wanted to be a writer. I got into filmmaking, which is my full-time profession. And so like, storytelling was always the heart of everything.

But I found like a new way of telling stories via TTR RPGs and just that collaborative storytelling ability. And I was like, my god, that’s everything. That’s, that’s what I want. And was a big fan of Crit Role and Dimension 20 and all that. And being a filmmaker was, you know, it wasn’t long before I was like, can we do this? Can we like from our living room, can we make a show?

So we’re actually we’re a web series first and a podcast second. And we did our first season with multi-camera setup and everything. And then when the pandemic hit, we switched to more of a traditional kind of live stream style. We don’t actually live stream.

We would pre-record, but you know, with an overlay and everything like that, and we’ve done podcasts and stuff from there. But yeah, I just, like, for me, it was just a matter of like, okay, this is finally the way I can tell the stories that I’ve had bad way into my brain since I was a little kid sort of thing. Cause I don’t have the patience to sit and write a book.

Lucas: How long has the first watch been running? You said it was pre pandemic you started.

Andrew: It was pre pandemic. We had finished filming and released most of our first season when the pandemic hit. We kinda lost our steam for a couple of months there. And then the pandemic hitting actually gave me the editing time I needed to finish the first season. So yeah, it’s been about, I think we’re coming up on two years.

Lucas: What makes your game unique? What’s kind of the conceit of First Watch?

Andrew: We’re a cinematic actual play web series. So, so first and foremost, we don’t do live streaming. We prerecord. So even our stuff that is kind of formatted more like a live stream with an overlay and everything is prerecorded and edited. So we’re taking out the lengthy rules discussions for taking out the, some of the mistakes and what not.

We’re leaving some of that in in fact, I’ve started leaving more and more of the goofy moments and whatnot in then I maybe did in our first season. Cause I think I had a different vision at that time of having like this really like almost like a movie type thing. But that’s not what this format is.

Like most people it’s an original world. But I, I’m a filmmaker at heart, and you know, that’s what I do in my day job. And so, like, I draw out the genre a lot. I go into each new project thinking about a genre that I want to emulate. So each of our three character backstory one shots hearkens back to a different genre, whether it’s horror films, fairytale stories, or, war film, like 1917 style you know, all our different, you know, we’ve got a heist series, we’ve got a high adventure, we’ve got a children’s adventure. We’ve got you know, like a cozy, almost like hallmark movie type podcast. Um, that’s kind of the lens I use to, to think about things in the, I hope that it means that even though there’s a lot of content and maybe you don’t have the time to catch upon all of it, that there’s a little, there’s something for 40, no matter what genre you’re into.

Lucas: Tell me about your players. What was it that made you want to record with these people?

Andrew: Yeah. So everybody that is in our first, see our main show was in our home game. And it’s my wife, Melissa, and then my friend and coworker Benji. And then my friend from college, Joe, who also writes all our music which is probably another kind of unique selling point that we have. We have original scores for most everything.

But yeah, I think it was like, it was a little bit of, of, okay. Where are the people who are available? You know, are we the ones who want to try this, but as we’ve gone through and done these recordings and stuff, like I’ve just been blown away with how much thought and care that they have given to bringing this world alive.

And that’s the beauty of, of collaborative storytelling, right? Like I can only take things so far. And then it’s, you know, it’s a okay play. Here’s where, where are we going to go? And it’s been awesome to see them develop their stories and really care about their characters. Like, you know, getting those 2:00 AM, text messages about something that happened in the game.

It’s like, I love that I’m here for it. But yeah, they’re, they’re phenomenal and they all have. A really cool balance of loving RP, but also like they’re really tactical and like combat is challenging for me as a DM because they’re smart. And I mean, they don’t always do the smartest thing, but like it’s yeah.

It’s may take advantage of things and they’re tricky to, to, to sneak up on and whatnot. So, yeah.

Lucas: I got that from your episode. I’ve played long enough to be able to kind of suss out people’s play styles pretty quickly. and you can tell, like who’s doing the math who’s, who’s got that roll 20 measure and figuring out where the lines are.

Andrew: It’s funny too. As a DM, like you start to realize which players will challenge you more. Like Joe specifically who plays good Morgan or show? Super nice guy. We’ve been best friends for a long time, but like, if he thinks that a rule is not the way it should be, like the friendship hat comes off and he’s just like, no, no, no, not now.

And I love that about him. I love it. It keeps me, it keeps me on my toes.

Lucas: Great, no free rides with Joe.

Andrew: No.

Lucas: I mean with challenging tactical players, what’s your goal for your players when you put together an encounter for them?

Andrew: Well, I think like a lot of people who run actual plays for public consumption, which is essentially creating a form of entertainment, it’s different than what my home game looks like, because I’m not using- eh, and maybe there are folks who do it, definitely, but this is, this has always been my style – for the show, like I’m not using random encounters.

I’m building kind of touchstone moments throughout the season that we’re going to hit. And I do want each one to mean something. I think it might’ve been Brennan Lee Mulligan, who talked about the fact that like with an actual play, if there isn’t real danger in the encounter, then why are we doing it? The audience will check out. It is different from a home game where, okay, we’re just grinding for XP or it was a random roll of goblins or something. I think that’s a valid criticism of, of actual play is you’re creating entertainment. So I am keeping that lens as well.

But again, the same way we do genre with our shows in general, I almost want to emulate and create genre within encounters. So there are encounters that feel more like horror movie encounters, and there are encounters that feel more like specific moments for one character to shine and have like a breakthrough moment and there’s dice involved with that, obviously. So it’s not a predetermined thing that that character will have that moment. But you’re, you’re kind of setting the table for them and hoping that that happens.

In season two, Wasteland, where they’re trekking north through the barren deserts and having kind of multiple encounters happen I definitely was thinking through like, okay, this is a group encounter. Okay, this is an encounter. That’s going to test this player. This is an encounter. That’s going to test this other player. I’m trying to keep balance that way so that everybody felt like they had their moment in the midst of all the, the challenge.

Lucas: What are the antagonists in your story then?

Andrew: Yeah. so, and again, with a writing background and we all did some of this in high school English class, but I am also thinking of those classic things of mankind versus nature, mankind versus himself mankind versus each other versus God or whatnot. And I’m thinking about those because we have some encounters in our show that are more like environmental encounters.

There’s a whole episode where they get stuck in a gorge and they’re just being struck by lightning and they’ve got to figure a way out. So there, there’s some of that in figuring out what the antagonist is going to be. Behind it all, there’s, you know, there’s a secret society in their mages and there’s kind of some of the more classic stuff, which I don’t apologize for it because like when I started the campaign and the show, one of my guiding principles was I’m fine with this being cliche, as long as it’s good.

Like, I’m fine with it being like, oh, this kind of feels like Lord of the Rings, or this feels like Redwall, or this feels like anything else that’s been done before, because no one’s ever going to completely reinvent the wheel. And that was like, those are the things I love. And like, as long as I feel like it’s good, then it’s worth doing. So there’s a lot of kind of classical tropes in our villains and whatnot.

And yeah, I mean, season one was about monster hunting and being those those rogues who get coin for bringing back goblin ears and sorta stuff, and then seeing how that, tumbles into we’re now part of this bigger conspiracy and whatnot.

So when I think about the antagonists, I mean, I, I like the variety of what both their character’s background of being general monster hunters allows for. They’ll hunt any monster? Cool. I can make a million encounters out of that. And then also the kind of arcane weirdness of my world as they’re going through this trek north through the wasteland, and like the different planes of existence are merging and causing different monsters to come in and out. It creates at least variety if nothing else.

Lucas: If we’re talking cinema and B plot, then I’m thinking back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and those kind of Supernatural, those monster of the week kind of shows that had their season long B plot or C plot, however you call it. Is that the way you think about it?

Andrew: A little bit. Certainly in season one more than anything else, that was the thing. In season two, and I talked to the players about this, it’s not an on the rails adventure, but it’s a very directional adventure in season two. We are south. We must go north. And there’s not a lot of room for, for straying off that path.

So it was really a lot more about like hitting and getting through every obstacle in their path. It was a war of attrition type story. So the B plots really become more about what the characters create in the moment. And I’m worried a little less about creating those for them. I do always have kind of my background going on and like I’m constantly making notes as far as like, okay, they’ve been here for this long, that means X person, 700 miles away has done this. And how will that eventually affect the story? So it’s not something you’re actively seeing throughout the campaign and the show, but it’s, you know, watch it through and you’ll see it come to roost.

Lucas: Right. Yeah. When you put all this together, where do you get your stat blocks from?

Andrew: I’m lazy. I don’t Homebrew a ton of stuff. I’ll, I’ll pull them off of on online and I’ll add some home brew elements every once in a while. I tend to think first of what the encounter is, and then I go look for something that’ll fit that. So, yeah, I, the, what I’m doing with staff blocks mostly is as far as any tweaks or whatnot, is I’m usually bumping up the HP.

Because most stat blocks are just written too low. In my opinion as far as the HP numbers go And yeah. And then I’m looking for like cool ways to like flavor attacks or flavor weapons and swap things out versus just, oh, the stat block says that he has a spear. Well, what if I don’t want him to have a spear?

Lucas: Sure.

And you’ve been doing this for about, we’ve been doing this for three years. It must be dozens of things that you’ve chewed through or used, right?

Andrew: Yeah. I mean, both in the show, and the home game, like, I mean, I’ve run my fair share of goblins and orcs and wolves and everything, but yeah, it’s, I’ve been trying to branch out more and more, and that’s been one of the reasons why in my world, I liked the fact that we’ve got this element of the planes of existence.

The barriers between the planes are very thin. So a lightning storm will cause the Fey wild to shift into, into realm all of a sudden, because what it allows me to do is have a very easy narrative reason to bring in any monster I want. So I’ve had some weird stuff come in that like, okay, this, the magically makes no sense in this setting. Um, But it’s a cool monster and got world reason for it to happen.

Lucas: With your focus on genre, it seems like it would be hard to say from the back front, which monsters you’re going for or which ones you find most useful. If you had to look back and think on, on the whole or on average or the ones that keep coming up what are the things that those monsters have in common or the, the traits or themes that you find most useful?

Andrew: Yeah. I don’t love running combats that have a ton of moving pieces for me to keep track of. Um, So I’m not a huge, like, “oh, you’re gonna fight 17 skeletons” type of person. Or if I do, I’m going to treat them like a swarm. I do like finding big, beefy encounters that are still challenging because the trick, whenever you’ve got one monster versus a party of any size is they start flanking, they start kiting. Like it’s very quick to go against you as a DM. But if you look back through our two seasons so far, we’ve had, you know, a really big troll encounter. We’ve had the giant skeleton, they fought the Lonely at one point, one of the Shadowfell monsters. And I’m looking for mechanics that allow those big beefy kind of singular enemies to hold their own against a party, whether that’s the fact that the troll was a two on one and that’s just dangerous for anybody or the skeleton has three attacks and tons of HP. So I was like, okay, there’s a good chance. Someone’s going down in this encounter. And also this giant skeleton had immunity to Turn Undead. So I knew my cleric couldn’t do anything about it. Which was a cool kind of story moment.

Lucas: Right. Yeah. The first time that doesn’t work.

Andrew: It’s huge.

Or the Lonely, just being built for that type of an encounter. The Lonely is all about, “Yes, bring me as many people as possible and I will bring them to myself and do psychic damage against them.” So it, it, it was almost a. That one was almost like a ruse against the players. Cause why? Oh yeah. There’s four of us. One of him. That’s exactly what he wanted. So, um, so yeah, that’s kinda what I’m looking for in my team. Now I gotta shake it up though. Now that I’ve identified it.

Lucas: I think that’s what D and D does, is so much of your storytelling is determined by how is this going to be satisfying and how do we balance the action economy of four people versus one monster? So in that sense, I feel like the game is by its nature, making you do some things with

the villains that you have in the game. Are there reasons other than mechanical crunch that you would use a certain monster in your game?

Andrew: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that, honestly, there are just times when I’m just flipping through the Monster Manual or Volos or whatnot, and I’m like, that’s cool. I want to run that. I want to try it. So I mean, there’s certainly the fun factor. I mean, if the DM’s not having fun as well, then what are we doing here?

I think that the, the ones that have more emotional weight are those ones that are NPCs. Right? And those, you know, those people that they knew that betrayed them or that person, that they can have a conversation with before attacking. And this is just kind of a, maybe a terminology thing I need to get over.

But when you say monster, I don’t immediately, my head doesn’t go towards, an intelligent, arch mage type of encounter. My, my head goes towards trolls. That’s just what I’m wired to think of when I hear monster. But there is a, there is a really good point to be made for those social skills and that conversation and that decision-making also being just as important as, as the combat which they’ve run into for sure in our season.

I like stakes. I just think that stakes mean different things at different times. And when it’s a big beefy monster, the stakes have to be, are we going to live through this? And when it’s something else you can play more with the stakes are, you know, is this person going to betray me or is this person going to kill the other NPC that we love so much or whatnot?

Lucas: You’ve anticipated my question, which gives me some faith in the way I put this together. I know how the Monster Manual defines monster it’s on page four, I think. And it essentially says anything with a stat block. Other than just troll do you have a way of defining for yourself what monster means?

Andrew: Yeah. And it’s, it’s funny because even in our very first episode of season one we pick up mid hunt with the party hunting a troll. But the twist on that encounter was that the troll starts trying to talk to them. They just can’t speak its language. So even then there’s like, I was hoping to sow some seeds, which will still pay off in season three of okay, you think it’s just a mindless beast? It’s not. It has thoughts and emotions and dreams and whatnot of its own. And yet we hunt these things.

I think that for me, it’s a really, really easy answer is anything undead you know, they’re skeletons, they’re zombies or whatnot. Shoot them up, you know, like we can just, we can just go crazy.

I I’m, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong or, or given a different opinion on that one as well. But I think the way I look at it, you know, the undead have already had their life and they’re not back of their own accord. So there’s almost some mercy in putting them down again. But yeah, I hope that in the midst of telling a classic story where you know, people are fighting orcs and goblins and trolls and whatnot, there are moments where we can stop and go, why are we fighting them? And what have we been told that causes us to fight them and whatnot.

Lucas: So it sounds like the way you’re using it, And I’m, I’m really kind of reading between the lines here. It sounds like the way you’re using the word monster is to mean anything that that you wouldn’t have to feel bad about killing.

Andrew: You could

Lucas: I close?

Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I guess for me personally, I would say more that monster being antagonist that you’re not going to have a conversation with.

Lucas: Okay.

Andrew: But I think, and you’re, yeah, you got me thinking about my own biases now. But even then, even then, and, you know, even like, I was just saying the example of like, why aren’t you having a conversation with them? Why aren’t you trying to?

I mean, there’s very much of an idea of like, you know, the real monsters are within us type of thing, right? Anyone can be a monster. I think there also has to be that sense of danger and evil with it, you know, if they have a conversation with said troll and realize that said troll is just trying to live his life and it doesn’t know why people are hunting him, all of a sudden that’s not monstrous anymore. It’s not scary. It’s not other. All those things that I think are important to to think about.

And as characters in this story, you know, making money, trying to survive in a very tough environment they maybe think less about it than we as 21st century people of privilege, get to sit back and think about. And then how do you rectify that, you know, player versus character decision balance and all that?

It’s complicated. It is complicated.

Lucas: I love the, we talked about it earlier. The most common thing I hear people do is trying to subvert what it means to be a monster or trying to do something unexpected with their antagonist.

Why do you think we do that?

Andrew: Oh boy. I think it’s because . . . some of this is probably rooted in my religious upbringing as well, which I’ll certainly own. But I think that there’s an element where we all recognize our own capacity for evil. Even if we feel like we are good people or do good things, I think there’s an element of, we recognize our capacity for evil.

And I know I recognize the fact that you know, me and the murderer. You know, that that person didn’t always think or know they were going to do a horrible thing. There are circumstances, there’s nature and nurture that goes into it. And certainly there are decisions, but I think at the end of the day, we recognize our own capacity for evil, we choose to do good, and we hope for redemption. And I think that there’s an element of we find monsters in each other. We find monsters in our characters, but then really we are hoping that they get redeemed in the end that they come back around. No one wants a story where someone just turns out to be evil and that’s it, right? That’s the magician making something disappear, but not bringing it back.

And so. We want to see the, the, the horrible journey and the betrayal, the knife in the back and the, you know, you know, the hero’s journey that they go on. But in the end we want some sort of reconciliation or, or some sort of closing of the book on it. I think we recognize that we have to go down in order to go up on that rollercoaster.

Lucas: I do want to get to the other side of that. if monster is redeemed toward hero, then how do we end up with so many heroes who have that relationship to the monstrous. But before we go there, I want to, I want to detour a little bit cause you did say that that your religious upbringing is something you have to own. And I really wonder what you mean by that.

Andrew: So yeah, I mean, I was, I was raised evangelical and I you know I and I do hold to a lot of those faiths still. I think that there are elements of being raised, religious that as an adult, I now look back on and see as like, okay, with, with my own life experiences and my analytical brain, like I agree or don’t agree with X, Y, and Z.

And I think that there’s a lot of, um, depending on the circles you run in, there’s a lot of fear-mongering that goes on and there’s a lot of painting with very black and white brushes. This is good. This is bad. There is no in between. And that is problematic from the standpoint that I think we’re all in the gray area.

I don’t think anyone’s a hundred percent evil or a hundred percent good that there is, you know, as Skywalker would say that I could feel the good in you there it’s there deep down in and the flip side of that means that the evils deep down in there somewhere too, and that we have to make choices on how we act on that.

But yeah, I guess I qualify that just so that when people don’t think I’m coming to it with an immediate black and white approach.

Lucas: Do you feel like it’s a liability in the community that you’ve found yourself a part of in the TTRPG space?

Andrew: At all. not at all. I mean, the TTR PG space is incredibly varied and diverse, and there are people like me who are straight white men who are Christians. And there are people who are of, you know, all walks of life and sexualities and genders and races and religious beliefs. And like, I think the beauty of it is that we come together through storytelling and that we don’t have to necessarily agree on.

Or, or not even agree or even like, just be able to relate to everybody’s individual upbringings and backgrounds, but that we have this commonplace of storytelling and that through that and that, in that, you know, there are there, you know, we need to be respectful of one another. But if you can do that, then it’s family. It’s awesome.

Lucas: I’m really glad I got that on tape. I’ll have to figure out how to handle it. Cause it is a little bit.

Andrew: It’s a little heavy.

Lucas: Yeah.

But it’s really important to me. I want to circle back because I want to talk about heroes. Dungeons and Dragons being an example of heroic fantasy means that it has such an emphasis on the hero

and that every player is themselves a hero and together, you know, they’re functioning narratively as one hero and that hero has the name of the party.

So if you, if you have a working definition of monster, and if hero and monster are diametrically opposed, then what’s the working definition of hero?

Andrew: I feel like it’s a lot more complicated. Even within D and D there are certain ways that it encourages players to be an antihero or to not necessarily fit that White Knight in Shining Armor, you know, type of thing. I mean, you know, the rogue who’s chaotic neutral, but is still a hero, even though they may do some really shifty things.

Heroes are problematic because you have any hero you’ve got, you have to recognize that unless they’re Superman and they have no flaws and no character flaws that there’s, that there’s darkness that comes with it.

And so what is it that makes them heroic? What, there, there is an element of overcoming of doing the right thing in the face of adversity of courage. But even then, could you have a coward who, who still became a hero? I think that if I had to give a working definition of hero, it is a person or a character that we see ourselves in, but that inspires us to try to be a better version of who we are.

So that’s vague in the sense that it doesn’t assign any sort of like, you must slay the dragon, you must save the princess. You must help the orphan. No. A hero to X person could be really shifty. But if X, but in fact here will also helps them realize that no, I mean, I can make the right decision sometimes and I can do that thing that I thought was really hard to do. It’s a small heroicism, but it’s, it’s heroic. Yeah.

Lucas: Let’s take that and then let’s work backwards. In doing this little mini series with actual play podcasters, I’ve heard as many interesting definitions of the relationship between

monster and hero as I have done interviews. And I know it talked about them being opposites. If you could, recontextualize that relationship, how do you describe it? What’s your metaphor for that?

Andrew: I think that at the end of the day, you know, it’s funny, I talked about earlier, you know, there’s the whole man versus nature, man versus god, man versus himself, man, versus whatever, really, they all boil down to man versus himself, humanity versus themselves in one way or another to me. Because whatever antagonist you’re going up against, whatever monster, whatever evil villain, whatever environmental challenge, that you’re up against, at the end of the day, it’s kind of like the real flip of the coin is are you going to screw your courage to the sticking place and do this? Are you going to stand your ground? Are you going to take that leap when you have a D the percentile say you really shouldn’t. And that’s what we want out of our heroes, right?

We want them to kind of throw care to the wind and do the right thing and everything. Monsters and encounters give an opportunity for that courage to be on display for those decisions to be on display. And this is why I think that it’s tough to as, as again, people in a 21st century world where, you know, there are certainly are soldiers out there fighting and doing physical combat, but for a lot. if not most of us, we’re not fighting for survival, the way our answers, the ancestors did, we can manage, you know, a meal a day and a roof over our heads and enough clothes to keep us going. Even if that it can be tough, like we can survive. And so we still have within us those desires to, to prove ourselves and to have those moments.

And I think some people find unhealthy ways to do that. And I think D and D offers a health, a healthy way to kind of vicariously live those moments and make those decisions in a game where it’s like, no, I, I will face down the the pit fiend, even though I’m the last one standing and my party lies dead around me. I will not run. That’s not about fighting a pit fiend. That’s about you and your character. Making a conscious choice to be courageous, maybe a little stupid, but create. courageous.

Lucas: Man. Yeah, you did it again. No one else has given me exactly that and I love it.

Andrew: Isn’t that the cool thing though, is that in, in this, in this infinity game, there are just so many different ways to think about and play. And I, yeah, I, I, this is one of the reasons I love this community. I love doing interviews like this and whatnot is like, I just get to hear so many different diverse perspectives and it’s, it’s beautiful. I love it. Humanity is a cool thing.

Lucas: Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. I’m really excited to share with you what I’ve learned from these storytellers, so I hope you’re enjoying this diversion from the format. First Watch is a show committed to visual quality and making the most of its genres. Here’s how you can find out more.

Andrew: To find The First Watch, we can be found on Twitter mostly at first watch show and then YouTube channel has all of our content, including our podcasts. So that’s a YouTube slash The First Watch Show as well. And yeah, we’re on Instagram and Facebook and whatnot as well under the same handle, but Twitter and YouTube or where you can usually find us.

Lucas: If you like what you’ve heard on Making a Monster and you want to support the show, you can share it with the people you play games with. If they like this episode, I’ve got two dozen more and the best is yet to come. Your recommendation proves you’re the most savvy monster hunter in the room – look around, it’s you – and it proves this show is worth the time and attention.

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