Tag Archives: role-playing games

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.

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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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The Siege at Castle Evernight

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I believe I gave you fair warning that I would be telling the story of how, in our family D & D game, we conquered a castle that was occupied by the forces of evil.  Well, this is it.  It happened in the castle I described as an adventure setting last week.

The heroes, led by the halfling Gandy Rumspot (number two son’s character) and Mira the Kalashtar (daughter the Princess’s character) were asked by the Kingdom of Breland to investigate what happened to their ally, the Duke of Passage, Dane Evernight, in the Kingdom of Aundair.

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So they loaded up their trusty airship and flew to Passage.  Where they immediately learned of two mysterious boys made completely of stone and, yet, still living.

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They found the two in the city square north of the castle.

Druealia the wizardess; You two boys are golems?  Living statues?

Angel statue;  We weren’t before Dr. Zorgo took us into the lab.  We were castle pages to the Duke of Passage.

Gandy the rogue;  He changed you?  Who is this Dr. Zorgo?

Faun statue; Zorgo was the Duke’s court physician.  When we woke up in the castle, everybody had been turned into some sort of golem.  Stone golems, rag golems, animated statues… even the Duke himself.  None of us remember much about our lives before our minds were put in these new bodies.

Mira the Kalashtar; We have to get inside the castle and put things right!

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So, the question became, “How do we get into the castle without this Doctor Zorgo finding out and turning us into golems too?”

The answer came from a visiting professor from Morgrave University in Sharn.  Professor Hootigan was a sentient giant owl.  Not only could he warn them about the dangers of facing a mindflayer, a psionic monster who can read your thoughts and attack your mind, which Zorgo actually was, but he could fly the two lightest members of the adventuring party up to the summit of the castle, bypassing all the many traps and defenses that Zorgo had most likely laid.  And it didn’t hurt that both Hootigan and Mira were psionically able to protect the group from Zorgo’s mind attacks.

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So up they went.  Hootigan’s flying skill roll was high enough to not only get them inside, but get them in quietly enough not to awaken the sleeping stone gargoyles who guarded the heights.

They were protected from Dr. Zorgo’s routine mind probes of the castle by Mira’s mind-shielding powers.

Once they were past Zorgo’s lab, they soon discovered two different things.  Zorgo hadn’t yet changed the Duke’s daughter, Sien, into a golem yet.  She was still imprisoned in the castle’s dark pit, called an “oubliette”.

They also discovered that fighting golems was extremely difficult.  They discovered this in a fight with three golems they dubbed Moe, Curly, and Larry for some mysterious reason.

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After a very frustrating slap-fight in which they discovered that you can’t kill or wound a rag golem with weapons, they finally won the day when they discovered all they had to do was stop the Larry golem from playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” on his fiddle.  That took away their will to fight.  And they were even helpful as former faithful servants of the Duke.  They revealed that all the golems in the castle were controlled by one golem-control wand wielded by Dr. Zorgo himself.

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First they sneaked down to the oubliette and rescued Duchess Sien.  Then they had to steal back her magical armor and swords.  Many more golem guards and gargoyles were in the way of achieving their goals, but they used a bit of trickery to turn the odds in their favor.

They tricked Major Jak Pumpkinhead into thinking that the castle was being assaulted from the front.  When all the castle defenders rushed to the front towers, Gandy closed the inner gates on them, locking them all inside their very own defensive positions.

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Finally they confronted Dr.  Zorgo himself.  This time Mira’s defensive mind shields were not so successful.  Zorgo incapacitated Sien Evernight and Gandy Rumspot with mind attacks because they did not have their own psionic defenses (and because Mira rolled a 4 when she needed at least a 10 on the 20-sided dice).  Dr. Zorgo set the golden golem that had once been Duke Dane Evernight on a course to killing Mira.  At the last possible moment, Mira threw her magic dagger at Zorgo’s golem wand, rolled an 18, and destroyed it.   The gold golem, realizing he was now free, exacted his revenge.  He grabbed Dr. Zorgo and plunged off the balcony of the castle’s summit with him to a jarring destruction at the bottom of the 300-foot tower and cliff.

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It was a mostly “happy ever after” event.  The player characters now owned a castle, provided that Fate agreed to marry Duchess Sien and become the new Duke of Passage.

The numerous golem servants, having nowhere else to go, and no longer being human, elf, dwarf, or whatever they had been previously, stayed on to be castle servants.  Duke Evernight’s golden head was retrieved from the bottom of the cliff and, still able to talk, was to be the useful adviser of the new Duke.

That is pretty much typical of our D & D adventures.  Full of slapstick humor and mindless destruction, it was a whee of a time that made us laugh and enjoy time spent together playing weird imagination games with various toys, props, and dice.

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More NPC Nonsense

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A view of the D & D table in my library.

I believe I warned you last Saturday that I had a lot more stupid stuff to share about Non-Player Characters in D & D.  I probably let it slip that I really like playing all the weird parts and the monsters about to be slaughtered.  I intend to share more of those strange characters today, so you can get a real sense of why my D & D games get so out of control and my children are turning into sword-wielding sociopaths.

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Barkley is not exactly the family dog.  He’s a gnoll.  That means he’s a monstrous hyena-man who would be inclined to hate and eat humans were he not raised from puppyhood to gnollhood by a beautiful female elf cleric.  He now hates the gnolls (and probably eats them) because in the first D & D adventure, his gnoll brothers tried to kill and eat his beloved elf mother.  He traveled with the Player characters for about three adventures.  And though they treated him like a dog, they came to rely on him in several tough battles.  He proved his dog-like loyalty and learned some critical spy skills from them, so he became a Dark Lantern (a secret agent for the kingdom of Breland) and began a life of hunting and killing evil gnolls.

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Mysterious Mara was one of the few civilian survivors when the weretigers attacked the lightning rail train with the player characters aboard it.  She tagged along because she would not have survived otherwise.  She has never revealed her true identity, and it’s a real mind-blower related to the royal court of Aundair, but the player characters have been too busy with other things to look into the mystery.  In fact, she is what the D & D manuals call an “adventure hook” because following up on her essential mysteriousness would’ve led them into the middle of a kingdom-crashing conflict.  In the meantime, they have been feeding her, teaching her to make use of her natural acrobatic skills, and generally befriending her, not realizing she is the reason so many enemies of Aundair have been tracking and attacking them.

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Caitian Redfurr is a shifter, one of those half-men with the abilities of a cheetah, able to run like a rocket and use speed to best her foes.  She has been a part of the campaign since just after Barkley joined.  Her son, Night Sky, is the son of a former Dark Lantern leader whose ghostly presence now inhabits Fate’s head.  She has used her skills with a sword, and her skills with a bow, and her skills with Talaen Kara, the intelligent double-bladed weapon, to save their fat from goblin cookfires on numerous occasions.  The players are fond of her and trust her as basically an added member of the family.

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Finally for this Saturday, I mentioned Turkoman last week.  He is what is called a “patron” in D & D NPC-terms.  He’s the man with the expertise when a beloved character is cursed with frogs hopping out of their ears or is turned completely to stone by a gorgon’s kiss.  He also provides necessary magic items, spells, enchantments, and critical advice that can help bring an adventure to a conclusion.  When needed, he can even lend a hand in the actual adventure, giving the characters a chance to overcome difficult odds and find adventures that they would not otherwise have access to.

So, once again I have passed my word limit and must draw to a close with so much more to tell.  Even if you are bored stiff by D & D nerd-ism, I intend to inflict more upon you in the future.  So be warned, be wary, and watch out for curses that make frogs hop out of your ears.

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Spacey Stories

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I am usually considered a Sci-fi and Fantasy author when anybody tries to categorize me.  I learned to write during the 70’s when Tolkien and Michael Moorcock and Frank Herbert were growing bigger, and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov were gods.  Of course, I also have the YA-thing hanging around my neck like a bell.  I learned to tell stories being a dungeon master for middle-school and high-school boys back in the eighties.  And because it was Texas with a deeply-held and violently-enforced religious fear of anything with demons in it, I was forced to change my role-playing games from sword and sorcery to science-fiction.  I played endless Saturday-afternoon Traveller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveller_%28role-playing_game%29) games that could span parsecs and light-years in a single afternoon.  And I was one of those game-masters who used humor to build a campaign and keep the players engaged and interested.  We had epic space battles and conquered large swaths of the Orion Spur of the Milky Way Galaxy.  When I began turning my Traveller games into fiction, I used the personalities of the boys who played the game with me for characters in the stories.  I often used the same plots (applying considerable polish to portions of plot where… well, you know… teenage boys, not remarkably G-rated.)  I created things that made me and some of the players laugh, and even feel sad… with deep, cathartic effects, as if we had experienced those things in real life.  (The deaths of favorite characters and tragic failures of galaxy-saving plans come quickly to mind.)

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I enjoy practically everything Sci-Fi, from Flash Gordon, to Buck Rodgers,  to Star Trek and Star Wars…  I loved Mechwarrior books and comic-book Sci-Fi like Adam Strange, Hawkworld, and Guardians of the Galaxy (the old ones that came before Groot and Rocket Raccoon).  I let it warp and weave my imagination and the imaginary worlds that blossomed from it.
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nd the ideas continued to morph and change and become stories that I really had to tell.

Phoenix1My first published novel, Aeroquest is a compilation of old Traveller adventures.  I published it well before it was ready for market and used a cheap-o publisher that wasn’t worth the free price-tag,  They gave me no editorial help and apparently didn’t even read the novel.  I will not defame them by name here, but if they sound to you like Publish America… well, there might be a reason.

I love stories about time travel and sci-fi gadgets…  trans-mats and starships and meson cannons and sentient plants… oh, my!

And now that I have revealed that I have such a massive nerd-head that I really ought to own Comicon by now, I hope you will not suddenly turn me off and read my blog no more.  I can’t help it.  I was born that way… and any child doomed to be born in the 50’s and a child in the space-race 60’s was bound to have George-Lucas levels of Sci-Fi nerdism.

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