Welcome to Tavern Talk Thursday! This is a weekly column where we chat with a member of the TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) community to learn more about how they found themselves at the table, what they love about tabletop gaming and other fun things. Think of it as a little sneak peeks into the minds of our fellow players and DMs.
Check your weapons at the door; we’ve got another Tavern Talk for you to enjoy. And this week, we are chatting with the storyteller with the best hair ever (and yes, we are biased), Jake Ynzunza! From professional wrestling to DMing TTRPGs, Jake loves the world of adventure, exploration and excitement. So how did he find his way to the table? And what does he love most about this community? Keep reading to find out!
Keep up with Jake Ynzunza on his social media! (Twitter/Instagram)
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Julia Roth: Let’s chat your TTRPG backstory! How did you find yourself at the table?
Jake Ynzunza: My first time at the table was around 17 years ago, though it was brief, and I wouldn’t return to TTRPGs for another ten years, and with the crunchy (but fun) Shadowrun. I was working for a video game store at the time and one of my regulars, AJ, invited me to jump into a game to see if I’d enjoy playing.
At the time, I was just getting into pro wrestling, so between a full-time job and training, my social life was non-existent. I ended up having an awesome time playing in the world that the GM created, and still, to this day, I remember the story we all told together. For some reason, maybe because I was a newbie, I had asked if I could have a few random items of gear that popped into my head before playing, to which my GM had approved—tranquilizer darts (because I didn’t want to kill anyone) and some climbing gear. Our job was to infiltrate this skyscraper, grab a data stick, and get out. We worked our way up to the top of the building, not having found the data stick, and ended up entering the big boss’ office.
AJ gave this guy a great monologue that would set us up to be captured and move along to the next beat of his story within this maximum-security prison but after his monologue, I had asked the big boss if they were armed [with a weapon]. I had just seen Serenity, and that scene with Mal and the assassin was fresh in my brain. If you’ve seen the movie, then can probably see where this is going.
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He said “no,” so I rolled for an attack and succeeded, resulting in me shooting him with a tranquilizer dart; I asked to scoop him up and bind him with manacles. AJ was wide-eyed, and I could see the gears turning as I threw a very unexpected wrench into his plans; my teammates quickly moved to barricade the door, as they expected that we’d have security on us in no time. With no other way out, I pulled out the climbing gear and made a new exit by shooting out a large window, and we then (successfully) rappelled out of the skyscraper with the boss in tow.
The group called my character “The Planner” after that. AJ later told me that, despite totally screwing up his plans, it was some of the most fun he’s had at the table. Sadly, we never continued our game due to scheduling issues. I wouldn’t come back to the table until my wife (girlfriend at the time) bought me a copy of the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook for my birthday.
JR: Favorite world to adventure in?
JY: As a game master, the Forgotten Realms for Dungeons and Dragons. I love the lore, the world-building that’s already been done, and the wide variety of environments to introduce (or throw at) players.
As a player, I love playing in the Star Wars setting. I rarely get the chance to be a player character, and even though I had a decent amount of knowledge about Star Wars, it’s an evergreen setting—if done properly. With shows like Andor, The Mandalorian, and Rebels, there’s just so much great new content and inspiration for GMs and PCs to put into their shared game experience. I love the idea of doing a prison break or heist, or even fending off a swoop gang as a bunch of farmers in a remote town, a hell of a lot more than being Lando’s best friend and saving him from the Death Star.
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JR: Favorite one-shot adventure?
JY: I don’t think I’ve ever played in a one-shot adventure—and most of the one-shot games I run end up becoming three-shots or turn into campaigns—but the one I’d ideally like to play in, or run, is One Night at Strahd’s—a truncated version of the entire campaign of Curse of Strahd that starts you off in Castle Ravenloft with some of the relics needed to defeat Strahd. For one, I’ve never been able to finish Curse of Strahd as a DM, and I’ve never played it as a PC, so either would be a win for me.
JR: Backstory or class first?
JY: For me, it depends on the story, or theme, for the game that I’m playing in and what’s needed. I have way too many ideas for characters in my head, and I don’t feel particularly precious about going backstory or class first, as I feel like I can make whatever changes are necessary to make it work rather than forcing something in. It’s good to kill your darlings, right?
I don’t know if it’s the Forever DM in me creating so many characters that never see the light of day or proper acting training, but I do lean towards backstory. Unless we’re doing a one-shot where we can just go crazy and not care too much about where this character goes after the session. When I do get to play, I will always ask the GM about my class options to see if anything is off-limits or what’s needed to have a cohesive party.
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JR: Favorite spell and why?
JY: It’s so simple, but I love Speak with Animals because, as a DM, it makes me think, “well, what does that creature sound like?” It’s created some memorable moments, not to mention that it’s a great acting exercise!
JR: Who has been your favorite character to play?
JY: In my home game, I made a Tortle innkeeper of the Silken Sylph in Waterdeep named Ok Bunlow, who collected scraps of fabrics that he would find or adventurers would bring in to create a mosaic in the Sylph. We started out in Waterdeep, and I wanted to make my own mark on the city. There wasn’t any solid cannon on the Silken Sylph, so I created Ok Bunlow and then the rest fell into place after that. For my last birthday, my group commissioned a hanging sign of the Silken Sylph for me, which I now have proudly hanging above the bar in my living room.
JR: Do you have a particular race/class you enjoy?
JY: For fantasy, it’s usually extremes, such as a smaller character like a halfling or dwarf—or a much larger character like a goliath or minotaur—but never a human. For sci-fi, I’m a human about 90% of the time, with a droid or very human-like alien here and there. Maybe it’s my quick inclination of fantasy heroes being Frodo, Sam, or Gimli, while sci-fi heroes are Han Solo, Lando, or Luke Skywalker.
As far as classes go, I don’t think I get to play enough as a PC to have a particular class that I gravitate toward, but I did recently roll up a character concept that I’ve wanted to play for a while now in a Goliath Paladin with the Oath of Redemption. I really loved the idea of this big, imposing character that isn’t just eager for a fight, that they want to redeem, or save, their foe.
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JR: Is there something that you build into every character? A fun trait or a special item?
JY: For my NPCs, I try to make sure that they have some depth to them, which can be as simple as “what do they want” and “what are they willing to get it.” It’s Acting 101, sure, but when you combine that with some strong character choices (thanks, improv), you can make some memorable characters that you can then build upon further to make them recurring characters.
JR: What is your favorite system to play within?
JY: I gotta say that I do love D&D 5e a great deal. It isn’t without its flaws or confusing elements, but I think it does a good job of getting players to get invested in the story they’re part of, as well as stripping away everything other than having fun by giving them a license to play.
We all knew how to play as kids, and we lose that as we get older, maybe feeling a sense of embarrassment at the table to jump into another person’s shoes by changing how you sound or even choices they would make rather than yourself. I think 5e does a great job of laying out your character’s given circumstances or motivation so that you can play into their strengths and weaknesses.
As a DM, there’s so much to learn about the ins and outs of the system, but the primary focus is on fun overall. For that, I think it’s getting easier to be a DM/GM and to be comfortable with not knowing everything from the get-go. We all get better the more we play, and we can’t play unless DMs have players and players have a DM.
JR: Tell us about the wildest adventure you have been on?
JY: In my home game (again), one of my players became afflicted with a rare form of lycanthropy as I set them against a Loup Garou (pulled from Van Ricthen’s Guide to Ravenloft). Sure enough, our fighter was up in the front line against the monster and failed their save. The player mentioned that they weren’t worried given that they can just remove curse but later found that, as the stat block describes, the curse cannot be removed while the original Loup Garou still lives.
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I knew that this would be a possibility, but the party played the combat well, distancing the PCs with a lower Constitution away from the werewolf and having the higher Constitution fighter take it on. I hadn’t expected the fighter to utterly fail their Con save, but, as with life (or any TTRPG), the best stories come from failure.
The PC had a bit of time before the next full moon when their curse would overtake them, but I began to sprinkle in moments where they’d make a blind roll on a chart, and I’d have a list of things that would happen to them such as waking up to find scratch marks all over the room they had rented for the night or advantage on perception checks related to hearing or smell. The further along we went, the occurrences would become more intense, resulting in potential harm to other PCs, or NPCs, nearby.
The curse actually changed the course and direction of the campaign, resulting in some incredible role-playing moments that I’ll never forget.
JR: What has been your most impactful moment at a table?
JY: During my first campaign of the Curse of Strahd, I ended up killing one of my PCs as Strahd von Zarovich, by dropping her off the bridge at Tsolenka Pass. Most of the party were fighting the Roc of Mount Ghakis, and by the time they noticed what was going on, it was too late. Despite the circumstances, everyone agreed that it was a wonderful moment that we all got to share in together.
JR: Favorite dice to use?
JY: The first precious stone set I ever bought, which was a full malachite set from Level Up Dice. I have rolled an unfair amount of natural 20s with that malachite d20, and any player that’s been at my table for more than a couple of games knows it, unfortunately, well.
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JR: Would you rather face off against an entire dungeon of undead or charm your way through a royal court?
JY: My DM-brain wants to make it an undead royal court…but, as a player, I’ll say face off against an entire dungeon. I’ve never actually had the chance to run through anything closely resembling a dungeon as a player in D&D, so I’d definitely want to do that at some point.
JR: Favorite TTRPG Monster?
JY: The Scheduling Monster. I wish I knew what its stat block was so I could min/max the hell out of it so that my party would always be successful, but, alas, it eludes me. Otherwise, Mind Flayers are incredibly interesting to me and fun.
JR: Good luck charms or rituals before a game?
JY: I don’t have any good luck charms, but I do like to do a few things before I play: 1) make sure that my dice tray and dice are organized (they can go into total chaos during the game but must start out neat), 2) have the PDFs that I’m anticipating I’ll need ready for the session (I recently hot-keyed them to my Elgato Stream Deck, which has been a game changer), and 3) catch up with my players about life and any non-game related happenings, which helps relax and remember that this is a fun time with friends.
JR: Who is sitting at your dream table?
JY: I think it depends on what game we’re playing because I have a different answer depending on the game we’re playing.
If I’m playing Star Wars, I’d want to play with Tony Gilroy (showrunner and writer on Andor). Rogue One is my favorite Star Wars film (…and here comes the social media hate, haha), and Andor has been nothing short of phenomenal. I’d love to tell a fun story with him, along with a few of my friends who are big Star Wars fans.
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If I’m playing Call of Cthulhu, I’d love to be an investigator with Taliesin Jaffe as the Keeper. Watching his one-shot with Critical Role folks and friends very much piqued my interest in the game, and I’d love to play in something from that man’s brain.
For D&D, I’d love to roll dice with any of the Critical Role folks—who wouldn’t, right? Though I would love to DM that table, especially with Matthew Mercer as a player (give him a little break).
Overall, and this is going to be a bit sappy, but no matter what I’m playing, I’d want to have my wife, Natalie, playing. She’s, without question, the best player I’ve ever rolled dice with. I know that’s probably biased, but I don’t really care! She does her prep, pays attention, takes chances, and plays her character (flaws and all) to a tee.
JR: What are you most looking forward to within the TTRPG world?
JY: I’m incredibly curious about One D&D and to see how the next evolution of D&D will build on 5e rather than (hopefully) replace it. I’m also very excited about a new TTRPG called Blackbirds by a buddy of mine, Ryan Verniere. It’s an original dark fantasy TTRPG using the Zweihander system and very much up my Dark Souls/Elden Ring-loving alley. I grabbed a copy at Gen Con this year, and I’m hoping to get to play sometime in the new year.
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I love the fact that you remember that Shadowrun game fondly.
Yes, you certainly threw a wrench in my plans, but it was an amazing session.
Still cannot believe that I threw you into the Crunch that is Shadowrun as your first game. Sink or Swim I guess. 🙂
Who knows, maybe we’ll get together again and I can run you through a traditional dungeon crawl.