Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

Fantasy Combat

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Dungeons and Dragons is a role-playing game.  That means it is about pretending to be a fantastic character and, with your group of players, collaborate on living in story that takes place on the table top, but mostly in the imagination.

But it is also a game about battling and winning or losing.  And the combat system is based on a role of the dice.

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Cyrus the Cyclops faces off against a fire giant on the table’s edge.

Of course the dice thing is nerdishly complex.  There is a standard six-sided dice, but also an 8-sided, a 4-sided, a 10-sided, a 12-sided, and most importantly, the 20-sided dice.  The outcome of an attack depends on how high or how low is the number you roll on the 20-sided dice.  Rolling a 1 is a total disaster, making your attack wound an ally, or making your fireball burn you naked, weaponless, and hairless in the middle of the angry orc horde.  Rolling a natural 20 will automatically slay the fire-breathing red dragon.  Of course the numbers in between make all the difference.  If success is rolling a 15, but you only roll an 8, you will fail unless you have enough pluses in skills, weapon mastery, and magically enhanced weapons to make at least a plus 7.  That’s crystal clear and easy to understand, right?

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In order to protect yourself from enemies who have big nasty weapons, there are armor bonuses that subtract from the enemy’s attack roll.  Ditty’s magical plate armor adds a minus 7 to whatever the zombie leader’s attack roll lands on.  And if the zombie leader’s ogre friend throws a magical bomb at Ditty, Ditty can make a saving throw to avoid the fiery death he would otherwise be entitled to.

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So, over time, the character has to build up the pluses and minuses that protect him and make him a more potent part of combat experiences.  It makes the players carefully build up and enhance their numbers.  And kids learn a lot about numbers and math by playing D & D.

Here, then, is the reason for all this wonkish nerdism.  It is the way the game works and the necessary process of making the game seem like any outcome is possible, even though the object is to complete the story and succeed in having an adventure.

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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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Dragons

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Dragons in the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games are the central monsters of the story.  In our Eberron campaign they not only rule an entire mysterious continent, but they are credited with the very creation of the world and everything.  Not only monsters, but also gods, is a pretty big order for a   character to fill.

Skye, the Blue Dragon to the left above is a dragon who believes that human people are the most important part of fulfilling the Dragon Prophecy.  Therefore the characters can rely on him as an ally, and sometimes even a patron.  He is a blue chromatic dragon with lightning breath, and the Blue Dragon Aureon, his great great grandfather,  is an important leader of the god-dragons worshiped as the Sovereign Host.

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Phaeros, the great crested red dragon, is a servant of chaos who actively opposes all that is good.  He works with orcish dictators and priests of the Dark Six to accomplish vast swaths of damage, destruction, and war.

He is a big bad villain that has to come at the end of a campaign, because dragons are not only powerful fire-breathers with monstrous monster-damage capability, they also know far more magic than even the wisest of wizards.  My players have not crossed him yet, but if they start finding the missing dragon eggs, that will happen soon.

You may notice that my dragon pictures are mostly coloring-book pictures repeated with different colors, but in many ways dragons are like that.  They all have the cookie-cutter qualities of a dragon, but with different-colored personalities and powers and ideas of good and evil.

Penny Dragon

Pennie is a copper dragon with divided loyalties and the soul of a clown.  She never takes the adventure at hand too seriously.  But if she decides to help the player characters find the missing dragon eggs, no ally will prove stronger and more helpful than her.  And she knows things that the players need to learn from her to find the missing eggs.

So dragons come in many forms and personalities.

In fact, the search for the missing dragon eggs will be critically affected by the fact that the eggs have all five hatched and dragons instinctively protect themselves when young by using their polymorph self magic to become some other creature.  And someone has implanted the idea of using human form as the default even though the wormlings have never actually seen a human being in real life.

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This is a double portrait of Calcryx, both as a white dragon wormling and a young girl.

So, playing games with dragons is fun and archetypal story-telling, and I will continue to do it, even if it means getting burned now and again.

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Recurring Villains, Part Two

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Calderus, Vampire Queen of UnderSharn

In Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game, there is always a special villain that has to stay alive to the very end of the campaign.  His or her demise may be the ultimate goal of the entire game and, when achieved, may actually bring an end to that adventuring group as they all retire with super-high-level characters and powers to wipe out cities with a snap of the fingers.  This is the ultimate villain, the big bad, the controller who has operated behind the scenes until the very last dungeon door, the very last encounter.

Deep in the bowels of the City of Towers, Sharn, is the lair of Calderus.  She controls the doings of the undead in the entire city, in fact, in the entire southern half of the continent of Khorvaire.  The players have never yet defeated her directly. She is the one who turned the Dark Lantern agent, Lucan Stellos, into a vampire, forcing the adventurers to track him down, capture him, and return him to his Dark Lantern masters.  She is also the one who leaked false information to the Royal Eyes of Aundair, the rival spy agency of the Dark Lanterns, to make Turkoman the wizard believe the player characters are evil double agents, causing him to begin tracking their every movement and learning their every plan.  Of course, my players don’t know about that yet, so please don’t tell them.

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Big bad villains are very useful to the story-teller known as the Dungeon Master.  They allow the DM to start events moving that make no logical sense until the players begin to figure out that there is someone manipulating events behind the scenes and they must find that BBV out and track them to their castle or lair.

But adventures are not satisfying when the players attempt to cut straight to final scene and murder the big bad to bring about victory.  That kind of meta-gaming strategy has to have severe consequences.  Often that means that the villain must be at such an astronomically high level of ability that the player characters will all be turned into hop-toads after the first round of combat.  Interesting adventure, that.  The group of enchanted hop-toads have to avoid becoming part of the sauce in Calderus’ hop-toad soup, avoid the all the animated cutlery in the vampire’s kitchen, and escape to find Turkoman and get turned back into humans, halflings, minotaurs, and elves so that they can fight again another day and learn from their mistake.

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Of course, it doesn’t hurt a bit that the wizard was watching by magical means when the players stumbled upon the big bad villain.  He helped in their rescue because he realized that somebody had told him something untrue about the adventurers, and they really were useful to him and his spy schemes after all.

So, the big bad villain is an important kind of recurring villain to be met and pursued and met again, always driving the game forward to bigger and bigger doings and greater and greater rewards.

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Another Little Inn

Last week in the family D & D adventure I told you about the closest thing our campaign has to a home base.  That was the Broken Anvil Inn in Sharn.

But there are other places like that which also serve as the starting point for quests.

Let me tell you about the Purple Mermaid.

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On a lonely waterfront in Aundair there exists a sad little ale house and inn that is losing business.  Everyone is apparently apprehensive about going to a place where so many sailors who were regular customers have simply disappeared.

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The proprietor is a festive and portly dwarf named Osric who is desperate for your business.  It has gotten to the point of offering free beer to anyone willing to rent a room.  Veteran sailors and adventurers, it seems, have paid for a room, went to bed that evening… or early morning, and were never seen or heard from again.

A storyteller sits in the bar, telling tales of a long ago voyage of discovery in which the crew of an ill-fated ship, the Lavender Leaf, happened on an undersea discovery shown to them by desperate mer-people and sea elves.  It seems a great evil had taken over an undersea temple that housed a very powerful sacred relic.  Great treasures were promised for aid in liberating the temple from an unnamed evil.

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So, it is an interesting inn, with a promise of adventure.  But there are obvious consequences to choosing to stay there.  In the corner of the tavern room sits a sea wizard with an ominous look about him.  Why is he waiting there?  Are there connections between his presence and the disappearances?  Do you really want to find out?

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As always the quest must wait for the next turn at the D & D table.

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Wizards on Ice

I need a quick and cold post for today, so I will turn to the ice wizards of Talislanta.

Ice Alchemist

Viktor, the ice-alchemist, and his son Zoran-viktor are Mirin, a sort of ice-elves who live in the frozen ice-world of the far north.  Viktor’s people are cold-resistant enough to wear bikinis in freezing weather (but smart enough not to).   So Viktor managed to become the Mirins’ most powerful user of the magic of chemistry by developing hot stuff. In the picture he is brewing a bit of the really, really hot explodie stuff that melts a Mirin bad guy.

Juan Ruy

Juan Ruy, the Mirin prince,  built many ice castles out of his magical substance known as iron-ice.  It was far harder to pierce than steel and impossible to melt with fires less hot than dragon’s breath.  With it he built frozen castles vertically to the highest heights.  And they still stand, primarily because I haven’t played that particular D & D game for more than two decades.

But this is what I love most about the Dungeons and Dragons game.  It is a never-ending game played in worlds of shared imagination where every person at the table adds something to the story.  It is interactive, and it retains the unique twists and turns created by the players.  I created the scenario.  The player behind the character Juan Ruy created the idea of iron-ice that completely changed the story.

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Saturday Night D & D on Sunday

Yesterday I forgot that it was Saturday.  But that doesn’t matter much in a D & D campaign.  You may not play at regular times… or at all, like this week.  But you do what you can when you can.  Just like in real life.  So let me share a character gallery, in order to give me my weekly dose of fantasy sword and sorcery nonsense.

These illustrations all come out of my D & D notebook.  They are done in colored pencil on colored paper.  Many are copied from models in catalogs, action movie stills, comic books, and illustrated Dungeons and Dragons products, but always interpreted in my own style and costumes.

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