Category Archives: heroes

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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Aeroquest – Adagio 1 – Googol Marou

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Adagio 1 – Googol Marou

 

Sometimes a good historical tale requires the right story-teller to really explain it correctly.  Sorry, you are stuck with me, Professor Googol Marou.  I am an astronomer and physicist, not the kind of story-teller I knew so well when the events I will try to relate to you actually happened.

I am not calling this bit “Chapter Two” like an ordinary writer with writing sense would.  No, I am following the unscientific metaphors that Ged Aero himself always used when telling a story.  He talked about the universe as if it were a symphony played by musical instruments that don’t make sounds.  Their musical notes are actually lights and energies, physics, if you will, or some such nonsense as that.  So the first chapter was called a “Canto”, a section of poetry or lyrics, intended to be sung out loud.  This little pile of narrative nonsense is primarily exposition, a part that is probably good to know about, but it won’t kill you if you skip it.  It won’t kill the story either… hopefully.  I may also use “Nocturnes” in the course of this tale, classical movements of romance and sensual beauty.  And I am looking forward to the “Scherzos”, the short interludes of comic musicality and brief relief from the heavier fare.

My over-all plan for this tale is to tell you how a group of teachers were able to make history and change the Imperium of a Thousand Worlds, turning it into the New Star League, even though the stars in it were billions of years old.

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Now, you might wonder how it is that a group of teachers were able to conquer and realign the very stars, especially since they didn’t know they were teachers at the outset, but I swear it is true.  I’m not the liar Trav Dalgoda was.  And, even though I didn’t personally witness everything I intend to tell you, I did participate a bit.  And, I was able to learn even more through my special telescope.

Space in the era of this history was already partially colonized by human beings who originated on Earth. Four branches of Earthers had reached out to the stars and planets of the Orion Spur of the Sagittarius Spiral Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.  The Texans had created the Coreward Union of Inhabited Worlds, also known as the Pan Galactican Union.  Those fools in their plasticized cowboy hats had a way of running roughshod over the galaxy until they met forces more determined and self reliant than they were.  I don’t apologize for Space Cowboys, there really is no excuse for them, but they were a necessary part of the cultural mix that preceded the New Star League.

The Japanese had reached out to the Trailing Area of the Spur and their colonies disappeared from known space. Many thought they had run afoul of a powerful alien menace.  In some ways, it was probably the truth.  Still, the inscrutable Space Samurai would come back to haunt us in a new incarnation.  It would prove to be the right thing at the right time.

The Southern European Union had branched out towards the Nebulas of the Leading Edge of the Orion Spur.  There they founded an exclusive humans-only Empire called the Classical Worlds.  They were so pig-headedly convinced of their own perfection and superiority, that they took to living everywhere as Space Nudists, shaping the environment to accommodate the human form rather than making any adaptations themselves.  These descendants of the French, Italians, and Greeks adopted Greco-Roman dress and culture, and I mean the Ancient form that had served the original Greeks and Romans back on Earth, the culture of social nudity and reverence for the naked human form.  They were very enlightened about philosophy and science, but as buck-naked people, they had absolutely no fashion sense.  They were also unusually prejudiced towards any intelligent being that wasn’t human.  They never seemed to figure out that most humans weren’t really intelligent beings.  Still, in the long run, we needed them too.  Good thing we didn’t have to look at them often… well, unless we really wanted to.

And finally, the Eastern European Space Initiative had made maximum use of their discovery of the humanoid lizard Galtorrians discovered in the Delta Pavonis Star System on a planet known as Galtorr Prime.  They established their Imperium in the center of the Orion Spur.  Something about the Germans and Russians just naturally dove-tailed with the lizard peoples of Galtorr.  The Galtorrian lizard-men and humans became the first genetically altered, melded race in known space.  They were able to take advantage of the many genetic similarities between humans and reptiloids for the purposes of making the two species into one, the Galtorrian Imperial Lizard Race.  They were like humans in every way, even mostly blond-haired and blue-eyed, but their snake-like eyes had vertically slitted pupils. They discovered they could thrive in Earth-like worlds and hostile Galtorr Prime-like worlds equally well.  They used their supposedly superior breeding to field vast space armies and navies of powerful starships and began conquering their neighbors.  This, of course, included the conquest and devastation of the Earth itself.

The Galtorr Imperium had been established almost 500 years before Ged and Ham Aero started the Great Outworld Expansion of 5526 C.E.  People would come to call the Imperium the “Thousand Planets” because of the 1,212 inhabited worlds in the 882 stellar systems it had conquered or colonized.  It was not the securely settled Orion Spur that I am sure you enjoy now.  It was necessary to keep an active scout service even in the heavily populated center of the Imperium.  Information traveled only as fast as the fastest starships, and one end of the Imperium rarely knew what was happening in the other end.  There had been a need for the Galtorrians to fight three Jihads and five Unification Wars.  Pirates and Privateers were everywhere.

No merchant traveled safely. New colonies often disappeared without a murmur.  Delivering goods meant risking life and limb.  Of course, some of my best friends were pirates at one time.  You shouldn’t really hold that against them.  But, it is no wonder that an outworld expansion required someone of great courage and character to step out of the general darkness.

Now, I’m sure you are wondering, “Who are you, Professor Googol Marou, to be telling us about the distant past over so many light years of space?”  Well, that would be a good question.  I’ve been described as a “total nut-job” on many occasions. I know what I’m talking about, though, because I’ve studied history in action through the Marou Ancient Light Holo-Assembler Telescope (the MALHAT).  It takes the collected light from the stars and planets we see, and reassembles it in a holo-recording that shows what happened at the moment those light particles reflected off the event.  The true genius, of course, was in finding the quantum shape-memory in photon particles and building a re-assembler.  That means that to view the past as it was 500 years ago, all you have to do is look at it from 500 light years away and gather 500 year old light.  This I could do from the relative safety of a space platform or space ship.  I mostly preferred a scientifically-oriented lab ship, but also found Ham Aero’s quaint little hunting ship serviceable as well.  And, I invented this wonderful thing.

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I won’t lecture you now on the fierce repressions of the Galtorr Imperium.  Most of that goes without saying, and if you’ve heard of them at all, you know it is true.

I know you are probably still marveling over the simple brilliance of the Marou Ancient Light Holo-Assembler telescope!  I can’t blame you.  I’m still amazed that I invented it.  It makes me have to stop in the middle of my thesis just to marvel at myself.  Wow!  Aren’t I wonderful?

What I will tell you, though, is that the Aero brothers left known space because Ged was slowly transforming into a rare form of Psion known as a Shape-Changer.  Like the telepaths, pyros, savants, teleporters, and telekinetics who made up the usual run of Psions, shape-changers could make use of their entire brain system in a conscious way to control the universe around them by mind power alone.  That is not to say that they were any smarter, wiser, or more moral that the rest of us, just unusually gifted with special brain powers.

The Imperium hated Psions because they were so much harder to control.  They actively hunted, persecuted, and, often, even executed Psions.  I, myself, am not a Psion, but you will note in the course of this history, when I come into the picture to play a key role, that I have a real affinity for Psions and their way of life.  So, as the story continues, please don’t doubt the veracity and mental stability of my observations.  I’m a genius, after all.  My inventions prove it.

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Demons and Devils

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Playing Dungeons and Dragons in Texas during the ’80’s and ’90’s was basically a subversive act.  The reason?  Fundamentalist Christians actively stepped in and persecuted you for it.  It was their sincere belief that a thing that had demons, devils, and dragons in it had to be from Satan.  Satan, they reasoned, used a game like that to poison the imaginations of innocent children and turn them to the Dark Side of the Force.  Or, rather, the Devil’s side of religion.  They were terrified of subtle corruption of the mind, believing that certain patterns of words and ideas could turn goodness into evil.  In other words, their religion advocated living in a bubble of non-association with certain words and ideas in order to superstitiously inoculate themselves against badness.  They were, of course, not entirely wrong.

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Kids playing the game will often develop the desire to play the Dark Side, to be an evil character, to commit evil acts and murder without the hindrance of conscience.  That is the reason I wouldn’t let my own kids even consider playing Grand Theft Auto or similar murder, rape, and pillage sort of video games.   It is, in fact, possible to desensitize yourself to violence and immoral behavior, and I have serious philosophical doubts whenever anyone tries to tell me that that can be a good thing.  My Dungeons and Dragons games always contained a rarely spoken understanding that if you chose to play an evil character you were going to lose everything, because any adventure is solved and overcome by combating evil and siding with the forces of goodness.  Paladins with their magical swords of ultimate sugary goodness are always stronger than evil wizards with their wimpy bat familiars and potions in the end.

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But leaving out demons and devils was never truly an option. If you never face decisions between good and evil during playtime, what hope do you have of avoiding a life-altering mistake later in life when faced with evil for real.  If you are going to make an evil choice, say for instance, committing an act of murder, isn’t it better to learn the consequences of such an act when the murder was killing an imaginary rival wizard for a magic staff you coveted than if you committed that murder in a fit of passion in real life?  The fact that the rival wizard’s spirit takes up residence in the staff and finds a way to punish you every time you use it for the remainder of your adventuring life in the game may teach you something you can use when faced with the opportunity to steal for profit and get away with it to make a better decision about what to do.

In the Tomb of Death adventure that the three demons illustrated in this post came from, the only solution was to find the weakness in the demon team.  Estellia had been ill treated by the other two and deeply resented it.  She resented it enough to tell the adventurers’ thief about the brass demon bottle that could be used to magically imprison the demons and then force them to do the bottle owner’s bidding.  Viscarus had been using it to control the other two, so only his soul truly needed to be captured.  The demon-hearts of the other two were already inside.  That story taught several lessons.  Manipulative evil can bite you in the neck even if you are the one wielding it.  (If only Trump and his cronies had learned that about their own brass demon bottle.)

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Evil people don’t see themselves as evil.  Often they only see themselves as victims.  And it is true in real life that there is goodness in even the most heartlessly evil people.  You can find it, appeal to it, and possibly even reach the goodness in their hearts necessary to change them for the better.

I truly believe that those kids who over the years played my story-telling games were better, stronger, and more inherently good because they played my games and learned my lessons.  I believe it is true even though there may have occasionally been demons and devils in the stories.  And if I believe it strongly enough, it must be true.  Isn’t that how faith is supposed to work?

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Kaurak Kholzil

I could very easily have titled this post “How to Use a Published Adventure to Establish an Adventure Site“.  I didn’t because that title would be ridiculously long and foolishly boring.   People already click past my posts at near the speed of light.  So, instead, I used the name of the dwarven castle in the above published Dungeons and Dragons supplement from 1995.  The name means “griffon nest” in the Kundarak dwarven language.

The supplement provides the interior floor plans of the castle embedded in the mountainside.  It saves a lot of work.  Making castle floor plans takes time.

Once you have the place established, then you have to populate it with non-player characters.  This dwarf castle has a mining operation.  You only reach the castle site by air, so there is an exterior tower that contains a griffon aerie.  You have to ride a griffon to enter the castle.

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If you don’t have a crazy griffon rider like Madryk Featherstone to give you a ride through the air to the castle in the side of the Graywall Mountains, then you have to come through the mines which are so deep they connect to the underworld.

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Solfaera Dezzav, the drow dark elf, was exiled by the drow people in the underdark of the Khyber realm.  She came to Kaurak Kholzil as a refugee and helped to set up the protective network that shields the castle from the terrible things that lurk under the mountain.

The rulers of Kaurak Kholzil are Daggan Mastersmith, the King Dwarf, his wife, Rorrina Gembright Mastersmith, and his father-in-law, Dennin Gembright.  They mine the precious and martial metals of Kaurak Kholzil.  Daggan is a particularly severe and demanding ruler, rather joyless and humorless.  His wife is much younger than he and is a bright soul who often suffers in the darkness her husband rules.  She often seeks solace and entertainment from visiting adventurers.  Dennin, the old dwarf, once ruled here.  but now is a bit of a doddering buffoon, no longer capable of thinking in straight lines.

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Of course, there are a lot of other colorful characters that live in Kaurak Kholzil.  They all have their personality quirks and know things that could lead to future adventures.

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Some of them, like the Mastersmith Twins who raise and cook giant spiders to feed the castle on spider steaks, are potential comedy relief.  But they can also serve as noble castle defenders, using meat cleavers and enraged spiders to take on any invaders.

So there is a little insight into the mind of a dungeon master who steals good adventure ideas from published sources and embellishes them at will to continue to make the game interesting.  If you are a dungeon master too, feel free to steal all these ideas for your own D & D game.

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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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Evil Wizards

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Evil Voldemort has now appeared atop the highest tower of Cardboard Castle.  Please ignore the snake who appears to be doing something really creepy and x-rated.

In the Dungeons and Dragons game, just like in good fantasy fiction, it is the villain of the episode who makes or breaks the story.  Good villains in D & D often means an evil wizard.  After all, what would the Harry Potter saga be without Voldemort… (sorry, I mean “He who must not be named.”

Like H.W.M.N.B.N., a good villain must have a truly evil goal in mind, something for the heroes to thwart or fail to thwart until the world is on the edge of ultimate doom.  Brother Garrow, the shape-changer masquerading as a vampire cleric of the Blood of Vol religion, wanted to find an ancient mechanical evil in an earth-rending robot, and bring it back to life.  He was fully thwarted and died a horrible death, but the robot would later be given life and unleashed anyway.  Malekith the Pyromancer wanted to subvert the entire college of magic at Cymril University and set them on a path to a new age of necromancers and undead evil.  Unfortunately, the heroes got side-tracked with looting the Peppermint Wizard’s Candy Store and Alchemy Shop, so he is still out there subverting successfully.

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Morgoth the Mad and the High Lama of Krakatos

Some wizards, like Morgoth the Mad are based on published game characters, and some are entirely my own creation like the High Lama.  Both of these wizards are not only lead figurines that I painted myself, but they both lend an oxymoronic meaning to the idea of “Good Villains”.  Morgoth was certainly evil when he tried to sack the city of Gansdorf.  But his son, Kath, was adopted by the heroes and raised to be a hero himself (though one that bore endless suspicion because who ever heard of a hero with bat wings?)  The High Lama did only evil magic spells, but he also raised an orphanage full of adolescent were-rats.  Any mentor and teacher, no matter how evil, cannot be all bad in my book.

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Lucan Stellos was not actually a wizard himself.  He was an agent of the Kingdom of Breland who should’ve been a great hero, but got turned into a vampire by the evil vampire queen of Sharn.

His sister, Grilsha Stellos, however, was a level 6 sorceress who used her magic to help her brother carry out the will of his evil mistress.  She loved her brother and fought for him courageously, but in the end she fell in combat with the player characters.  It was her death that shook Lucan free of the power of his mistress, and so he let himself be captured, expecting to be destroyed.

Instead, the heroes set him on a path to redemption as a good vampire, killing other vampires in the name of a forgiving god and vengeance for his lost sister.

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And let me end this silly list of evil wizards with the Lizard Wizard.  Old Lizzie is dragon-born, half man, half dragon.  And he uses his evil dragon magic to loot and plunder for the pleasure of himself and his lizard-man minions like Kato who follows him here. In the picture, you can see old Eli Tragedy trying to drive the Lizard Wizard out of the Cardboard Castle with his magic wand of really painful cold sores.

And that is not the end of my list of evil wizards.  They are immensely fun to play with, so naturally I have a lot more.  But I will not inflict them upon you here and now. Too much evil in one essay is never a good idea.

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D & D Sidekicks

Why did Batman have Robin the Boy Wonder?  Not only that, but why Bucky and Captain America?  Green Arrow and Speedy?  Aquaman and Aqualad?  Superman and Krypto the Super Dog?  Fredric Wertham, the Seduction of the Innocents and the Comics Code guy, would have you believe that they were there to make young boys turn gay and violent.  But that was nonsense, wasn’t it?  Better change Krypto for photographer Jimmy Olsen just in case.

But if that was merely nonsense, why was it such a part of the formula?

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As a D & D dungeon master, I have my own theory about sidekicks and their function in story-telling.

Young sidekicks were an important part of the stories I told as a game master because the players in my games were mostly adolescent boys themselves.  It was the same as the primary readers of Batman comics in the 1950’s of Wertham’s Comics Code.  The young hero or adventurer character, most often in the form of a non-player character, was someone they could relate to because of age.  They had more in common with the sidekick than the lead hero.  It helped to draw them into the story and make it relevant.

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As a story-telling device, you often find the young apprentice character in novels written for younger audiences.  Think of David Eddings’ Belgariad, or Lloyd Alexander’s  Chronicles of Prydain, or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The characters of Garion the youngster in the Belgariad,  Taran the young protagonist of Prydain, and certainly Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island.  

So, with that realization, I incorporated youthful characters, both boys and girls, as apprentices and student-adventurers.

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Initially it proved to be a hard thing.   Wizards and sorcerers, according to D & D rules, can take an apprentice once they reach level three.  But first level characters as apprentices are vulnerable because damage done by third level monsters wipes out the meager hit point reserves of a beginner character.  After several traumatic deaths of beloved sidekicks, the player characters begin to take steps to protect them better in combat, or quickly learn where to find priests with resurrection spells who work really cheap.

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Of course, these characters are useful for more than just creating combat complications.  They are really useful for comic relief.  The missteps, mistakes, and total botch-jobs that these inexperienced younger characters create can make us laugh, make us sweat a little to correct it, and move the plot forward in interesting ways that I, as the game master, wouldn’t have otherwise planned.

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So, hopefully, Mr. Wertham’s ghost isn’t hovering over my D & D game thinking it is all a plot to create a generation of violent, gay youths.  Hopefully he can see that it is all a part of a well-established story-telling literary device that actually helps to educate and deepen the understanding of youths.  But it is swiftly becoming irrelevant what Wertham’s ghost thinks anyway.  I haven’t played D & D for a while now.  My sons and daughter now have their own groups of friends, playing under different dungeon masters with different dice.  But hopefully, the need for youthful sidekicks will remain.

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