Category Archives: characters

Time Travellers

In role playing games I was always willing to go where no other game master has gone before.  Such was the case with the role-playing game Traveller and the matter of time travel.  No rules existed in the rule book to cover time travel.  But I didn’t let that stop me. I made them up as we went along.

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I got a boost when one of my players wanted to create a character based on Dr.Who.   The British series played on Friday nights on PBS in the 1980’s.  But that particular player, though very creative, was not a precisely cerebral type of kid.  He spelled it “W-H-O-E”.  So, forever after, we referred to the character as Doctor Hooey.

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Good old Hooey was always getting the group into impossible situations that took a great deal of thinking to get out of again. He had a penchant for crashing time machines.  And when he got the destination right, he would get the time wrong on the year, century, or millennia.  And when he got the time right, well, what do you know?  He got the place wrong.  The players never seemed to realize that I was taking them to planned adventures no matter what the dice rolls supposedly said.

Many such adventures would encounter weird and wild characters who would inevitably also become time travelers, whether fellow travelers for the sake of goodness and light, or as recurring villains.

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For example, Brech was a student space ninja traveling through space and time with the teacher characters among the players.  And by time traveling, they ran afoul of the Revenant, a time-traveling cyborg assassin who stalked the players for accusations of serious “time crimes”.  The cyborg turned out to be young Brech’s future self.  Which proved lucky.  Brech was able to establish a psychic link with his future self just as the cyborg was about to execute everybody, and Brech thereby turned a deadly enemy into an ally.

We tended to adapt movie characters who were time travelers into important NPC’s, and they did not all come from the Dr. Who show.  The characters shown above were Doc Brown from Back to the Future and Professor H. G. Wells.

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When I stole characters from Dr. Who, like I did with Lady Romana here, I tended to adapt them totally to my own game universe.  Romana was nothing like her TV counterpart.  In fact, only the name was the same.

We soon had so many time-traveling characters in their different time machines that we had to organize it all.  This we did by founding the organization known as the Time Knights of Gallegos.

And we needed a leader to coordinate the various initiatives through time and space.  For this we chose a specific NPC, the boy super genius, Ryan Beowulf.  He was a charming super-brained perpetual ten-year-old who worked with his own future self, the thousand-year-old Time King Beowulf.

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Traveller, it seemed,  was never more fun than when we were free to go rock and rolling through both space and time.  We had some harrowing adventures and even made use of my own vast storehouse of useless historical knowledge that can wow ’em in the moment and make them wonder why they needed to know about that upon further reflection.  Time traveling, like fez’s and bow ties, is cool.

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Making Characters for Traveller

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When I started playing the role-playing game Traveller with a group of middle school students, one of the first challenges to overcome was the creation of original characters and interesting new stories.  You can only play for so long with characters named Solo, Skywalker, and Vader.  Then, you must get creative.

What I am going to show you today are a passel of characters so creative, lame, and craptastic, that you will probably forever after have pity on those poor kids who chose to play the game with me.

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Harry Scipio Strontium 90 was a space detective.  He and his assistant, the dwarf Quark, were necessary to the game because player characters had a tendency to kill people, aliens, and destroy planets, routinely misusing the biggest and baddest weapons in the equipment handbook.  He relentlessly pursued player characters and villains across space and time.

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The Geomancer was a deep space explorer who mysteriously never took off his space suit.  He bailed characters out of trouble when they invariably got marooned on airless asteroids, lost in dead space with no fuel for the starship, or imprisoned by cannibal plant people on an unexplored world.  In the end, it turned out that his mysterious space suit was actually empty, containing only gas and radiation, and possibly an alien spirit-entity.

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Mantis was actually a player character.    The son of the high school science teacher was one of my most dedicated game players.  He decided that he had to have an evil player character.  He said to me, “Mr. B, we will make him secretly evil so that he does things that take the party into danger and betray them without their knowing.  It will be fun as they try to figure out how to save themselves.”  Now, Mantis was an alien super-scientist who had a very big head and small body, so he removed his own head and connected it to a large robotic body.  He stood imposingly taller than all the other characters at eight and a half feet tall.  His evil plots were initially rather lame and easily defeated.  It didn’t take the players long to figure out that he was working against them, and he spent a considerable amount of time as a detached living head on the starship’s auxiliary control panel.  He went through various penances and punishments, ultimately avoiding being flushed into space through the space toilet.

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Susano initially started out as Mantis’ evil experiment.  He was an enhanced clone with super powers and wings.  He was super charming and likeable, but supposed to further Mantis’ evil agenda.  They began to plot the take-over of entire planets like Djinnistan and Vilis.  But the longer the game went on, the more he became a son to Mantis, and the more he influenced his scientist father to use his abilities for good.  They would eventually help a band of rogues create a New Star League out of the ashes of the Third Imperium.  Teacher’s kids are often the biggest pains in a classroom, but that tends to be because they know all the teacher tricks already and are invariably more creative than the average classroom clown.  The last I heard from Mantis’ creator, he was an electrical engineer in Austin, Texas, and probably busy secretly planning to take over the world.  Though hopefully he didn’t remove his own head as a first step.

That is only a small sampling of the characters we created for Traveller, but at more than 500 words already, I need to be saving the rest for another day.

 

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Dilsey Murphy in Living Color

Dilsey Murphy

I finished the art project.  Here is Dilsey Murphy as she looked in 1990 while wearing her dad’s old Carl Eller Minnesota Vikings jersey from the 70’s.  I wasn’t sure I could finish it this quickly, but the colored pencils blaze with speed when you are coloring someone you love.

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A Girl Called Dilsey

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Mary Murphy, mother of Dilsey and Little Sean… among others.

If you have never written multiple novels about the same set of characters, you will not have inside knowledge of the process I am going to talk about in this goofy blog post.  Because you don’t fully understand what I am talking about, you are welcome to call me an obsessive-compulsive fool.  I am definitely a fool, but I prefer to believe the obsessive-compulsive part is off base.

I fell in love with Dilsey Murphy.

“You’re kidding!” you say with a disbelieving smile.  “You fell in love with a fictional character from one of your stupid hometown fantasies?  Nonsense!  Not only is she not real, she’s just a supporting character.”

I think that might be the one thing I love most about Dilsey.  She’s never the one demanding to be on center stage.  She’s a shy, sweet-natured girl from a big family who does the best she can to avoid being the ant under her brothers’ magnifying glass.  And yet, when she is called upon for empathy, or a little bit of sister wisdom, she mines the gold from King Solomon’s mine.

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A new picture of Dilsey Murphy wearing her father’s old Carl Eller T-shirt.

You may not know this if you are not a writer of fiction, but a lot of the character-building process consists of compiling the character’s personal facts, personal history, and back story, developing an in-depth storehouse of details that may, in fact, never get used in any book, short story, or other writing.  In order to create a character that feels real to the reader, an author must know the character far more intimately than the reader will ever be made privy to.

Dilsey is a member of the Murphy family who live in Norwall, Iowa.  Her parents are Warren Murphy and Mary Murphy.  Her father was a member of the infamous Murphy Boys, all of them brothers, that played brutal linebacker defense for the Belle City Broncos high school football team in the 1960’s.  Mary Murphy is famous for being a small woman with a very large personality.  The family is Catholic and of Irish heritage, determined to avoid church and yet hoping to get into heaven.  They ar e also devout Minnesota Vikings football fans.

Dilsey’s older brother is Danny Murphy, a skinny, goofy kid that grows up into a reliable problem solver and mature young man.  Danny eventually falls in love with Carla Bates, the sister of Blueberry Bates, Mike Murphy’s girlfriend.  Danny and Carla marry in 1992.

Dilsey is the second oldest, born in 1977, so she is a young teen in most of the stories she appears in.

Mike Murphy is her younger brother, a member of the Norwall Pirates, a kids’ gang and 4-H softball team.  Mike is a year younger than Dilsey. His girlfriend, Blueberry Bates, has a terrible secret, one that makes Mary Murphy turn resolutely against her even though she previously loved her.  Mike and Dilsey refuse to abandon Blueberry even when Mike is forbidden to see her any longer.

Tim Kellogg is Mike’s best friend.  Dilsey believes him to be a jerk and a hopeless goon. And yet, even though Dilsey hates him and is a year older than Tim, he is the only boy she dreams about naked.  They eventually go on dates in high school and it is rumored that they will be married in 2000, though my hometown stories never progress beyond the 20th Century.

Dilsey is based on my unmarried sister and my daughter, though she really isn’t very much like either one in the long run.

Okay, so I know I haven’t sufficiently explained why I am so much in love with Dilsey Murphy.  I, of course, take that as a challenge.  I will write more stories.  You will fall in love with her too.

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Mickey at Sixty

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It is true that I am now only a month away from being 61.  But this reflection is based on what happened to me while undergoing the year past.  My fictional character, Valerie Clarke, took the selfie above of the two of us.  She doesn’t have her own smartphone, after all, she’s a fictional character, so she used mine.  It shows in the picture what she looked like at eleven and what I looked like at sixty years and eleven months, in other words, this morning.

So, what exactly does the picture reveal about us?

Well, for her, it is fairly obvious that she’s only an imaginary person.  She was eleven in 1984, the year of the fictional snowstorm in Snow Babies.  She’s a bright and vibrant young girl with hopes and dreams ahead of her.  She’s also known tragedy, especially after her father’s suicide.  But the fact that she’s fictional and based on more than one real person from my past does a lot to explain why this reflection is not about her.

For me, however, you get a look at a grumpy old man with a straw farmer’s hat, an author’s beard, and silvery Gandalf hair.  More of my drawings are glimpsable on the wall behind me.  I look like the kind of seedy old curmudgeon who yells at neighbor kids who walk on his lawn.

But I’m really not what I look like.

I am a writer.  So I am full of experiences, ideas, and feelings.  And I am also full of people.  Valerie is only one of those.  I create fictional people from the people I knew or knew about in my little Iowa town, Rowan, where I grew up.  Kids that went to school with me.  Their parents.  Shopkeepers and business people and creepy old people that I sometimes encountered.  Hot tempered people.  Wise people.  And stupid people who were often laughed at for good reason.

I can also draw on (and draw pictures of) all the people I knew as an educator.  More than two thousand kids who passed through my classes in four different schools, some of whom I knew as well as I knew my own children, were available to pull details from to mix and match and make fictional characters from.  Fellow teachers, some gifted with a natural way with students, some hopelessly lost in the wrong profession with the wrong sort of personality were also available to make characters from.  Fools and idealists.  Bullies and shrinking violets.  Heroes that possible readers could look up to and love.

I am the kaleidoscope, the thing that you can look through to see the world and have it refracted and patterned to make it beautiful, even in its ugliness.

But all of this reflection is only that, the view in the mirror, the outward look of the man who is me.  Mickey at sixty is many things, not all of them pretty, not all of them wise.  But some of them are.  And some even better than I think they are.

 

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D&D the Robert E. Howard Way

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The idea for this post is to illustrate with covers from my own collection of books and comics.

Robert E. Howard, for those of you who like the stories but never look for the name of the author, is the young Texan who created Conan the Barbarian.  I say “young” because, although he was born in 1906, he died in 1936 at the age of 30.  And this young man created not only the iconic hero of the epic sword and sorcery genre of fiction, but basically founded the genre itself.  He definitely laid down the basics of it as a pattern for all others to follow.  Including the players of the sword and sorcery Dungeons and Dragons game.

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For D & D players the primary influence of all this is the Conan method of problem-solving.  “If you are confronted with a complex problem, a life and death problem, whack it with a sword until the problem is solved.”  This is the source of fascination for players with the fighter character; the warrior, the paladin, the knight, or the barbarian.  Superior physical prowess gives the individual control over so much more than he or she could ever be in control of in real life.  (And stop making that face while reading this.  Girls do play Dungeons and Dragons too.  I’ve seen it happen in school and with my own daughter.)

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And for the story-teller, also known as the game master or dungeon master, this can be a very good thing.  The sense of power  extremely high strength and endurance scores provide get the character strongly addicted to the hack and slash style of play, allowing you to teach all kinds of timely morals to the story about the need to use your brain and your creativity once in a while as well.

Conan was a brute and a slayer.  But he is perceived as a good guy because he was also capable of standing up for the little guy, righting wrongs and protecting others from powerful evils.  Conan had empathy, if not love, for others, and exhibited truly magnificent levels of the power to sacrifice self for the good of others and the general well-being of the weak.   As game master, all you need to do is add a vulnerable character to the party that needs some protecting in the fantasy game world.  It helps if that character has a good sense of humor, useful knowledge to offer, or cuteness to offer in return for the protection.  But even that is not required.  D & D players learn to wield power in ways that benefit others.  The Spiderman thing, you know; “With great power comes great responsibility.”  It is a lesson about life that many non-D & D players also really need to learn in their youth.

The Robert E. Howard way does not always work out so well for wizards.  Conan hated magic and wizards.  He whacked wizards even harder than he did other bad guys.  But that is generally assumed to apply to evil wizards.  Conan sometimes appreciated having a wizard on his side.

But the basic conclusion is this; there is a brutal, barbarian way to handle problems in real life as well as in Dungeons and Dragons life.  And it would be much better for everyone if people learned the right way and the wrong way to use it in the game world before the choice has to be made in the real world.

 

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Imaginary Friends

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When you know someone has an imaginary friend, something like Elwood’s six-foot invisible rabbit called Harvey, don’t you immediately think that person is crazy?  I do.  But I have imaginary people as friends. I think most writers do.  So am I crazy?  Probably. But hopefully it is a good kind of crazy.

It began with imaginary friends from books.  The Cat in the Hat was my friend.  Jim Hawkins was my friend, as was Mowgli and all the members of the Swiss Family Robinson.  They entered my dreams and my daydreams.  I told them my troubles the same way I listened to theirs through their stories.

I began to have imaginary friends that came from my own imagination too.

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I used to tell my mere human friends about my friend Davalon from outer space.  I told them that he was real and secretly visited me at night to talk about being able to learn about humans on earth by walking around invisibly and watching them.  I got so involved with these stories that my sixth grade class began saying, “Michael is from Mars.”

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When I was a teenager, I began having conversations with a faun.  His name was Radasha.  He was a creature from Greek Myth, a sensual Dionysian creature who, in his child body, was both younger than me and way older than me.  I didn’t realize until much later in life that he was the result of my repressed memories of a childhood sexual assault that I was the victim of.  I could talk to him about my fear of nakedness.  I could tell him about my blossoming interests in naked girls and their bodies.  I could talk to him about all the things I was somehow too terrified to talk to my male friends about, even though none of them had the same reluctance to discuss sex.  Ra was imaginary.  But he helped me heal.

Then the story-telling seriously began.  I used Davalon as one of the main characters in my novel Catch a Falling Star.  I created Torrie Brownfield, the baby werewolf to express the feelings I had as a boy about being a monster and secretly terrible and deformed.  Torrie is a normal boy with a condition called hypertrichosis.  I am working on The Baby Werewolf now.  And then there’s lovely Valerie Clarke.  She is the main character of Snow Babies which is a finished novel, edited and proofread and ready to publish.  It is I book I will have to find another way to publish since the recent death of PDMI Publishing.  She is not a me-character, based on my own thoughts and feelings.  She is based on former classmates and students who told me things that express the sadness and isolation of growing up female.  So she is even more imaginary than my other characters.

They become real people to me.  They have their own point of view. They talk to me and I learn things from them.  But they are imaginary.  So am I crazy?   Yes… as a loon.  And happy as Elwood P. Dowd to be that way.

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