Tag Archives: role-playing games

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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Filed under Dungeons and Dragons, heroes, humor, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, villains

Life By a Roll of the Dice

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These are Warhammer 40,000 Harlequin Warriors I painted myself.

Over the years I have played many role-playing games.  Virtually always I have done so as the game master, the dungeon master, the story-teller behind the action.  Players decide what to do about the story problems I represent to them.  They have characters that have painstakingly advanced in skills and levels of skills to use for the problem-solving the plot centers around.  But ultimately, when they take action, the outcomes are decided by a roll of the dice.

Life is like that.  You labor hard to control what happens next in your life.  But random chance intervenes.  If you are the Harlequin Space Elf known as Smiley Creaturefeature (the masked elf in the green robe on the front row, far left in the picture above) and your band of high level Harlequin War Dancers have come to Checkertown City Square hunting for your hated enemy, Bone-sucker the Space Orc, it is entirely possible when you use your scanner operator skills to find him, you could roll a “1” on the twenty-sided dice.  This would mean failure.  Not merely failure, but failure on a spectacular level.  The scanner would explode, killing your entire squad, yourself included.  And all those weeks of building the character up to level 17 in order to defeat Bone-sucker and his mutant minions, would be lost and become all-for-nothing in the disappointment department.

Of course, a benevolent game master would alter the outcome in some way to keep the story going.  Perhaps the exploding scanner, instead of killing everyone, created a mini worm hole in the fabric of space-time and transported them to a parallel dimension where Bone-sucker is actually the chaotic good hero of Checkertown, and you must now work out an alliance with him to fight his enemies, the other-dimensional versions of you that are actual Evil Smiley Creaturefeature and his band of Evil Harlequin Space Elves.  You must then defeat your evil selves carrying out the evil plot that the game master had originally designed for the villain Bone-sucker to employ before returning to your own original dimension.

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Real life does not work that way.  It works more like you see above.  The lovely, metal-bikini-clad female barbarian of swimming pool repair is faced with the attack of the giant rats of city pool inspection, necessary electrical repair, and limited finances.  You can see, if you look incredibly carefully at the purple twenty-sided dice, that her defensive attack roll is a “2” for catastrophic failure.  Her sword cuts off her own leg and causes personal bankruptcy.  The giant rats roll a lucky “13” on the black twenty-sided dice for successful tooth and claw attacks.  They then go on to eat her and force the pool to be removed from the property, using up all the money the player (who is me, by the way) has left.

No game master steps in to create a more reasonable outcome.  The worst possible outcome is what happens.  That is how real life works.  Roll the dice, and lose your swimming pool.

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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 Action Pictures

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I finished my fantasy battle scene started over a week ago.  In many ways it was just like a D & D battle fought on the table top with miniatures, a battlefield grid, and dice.  It had to happen in steps.

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Remember this step?  The pen and ink step?  That isn’t even the first step.  But pencil drawings don’t photograph and reproduce as well as pen and ink.

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And then the colored pencil work had to proceed a section at a time.

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I basically went character by character, starting with the good guys.

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And that is the same way the combat occurs.  Shandra the Unicorn Maiden rolled an 18 for initiative on the twenty-sided dice.  So she attacked first.  She only got a 15 on the attack roll, however, so her wand of silver-fire only did five points of damage, depriving the kobold of one claw arm.  The shadow archer (not pictured because he was invisible at the time) had a 16 on initiative and an 18 on attack, so he wounded Sammy the Satyr with a two-point damage from his crossbow bolt to Sammy’s left arm, preventing the young satyr from attacking during the round.  Turkoman the Wizard was next, using his wand of fire-bolts to attack the skeleton-ghost, igniting its death shroud and making it drop its magic +2 long sword.  You can see both Greebo the Half-orc and the evil beast-thing have not yet taken their turns in the combat.  Seriously, a three-round combat seems to take forever in the D & D game.

So. there you have it.  My Dungeons and Dragons post for this week is simply an excuse to show off the newest silly drawing I did, brag a little bit, and play silly word-games even more.  I hope I didn’t stretch your patience to the breaking point yet again.

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Filed under artwork, Dungeons and Dragons, goofiness, humor, Paffooney

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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