Tag Archives: story-telling

Master and Padawan

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At their heart most of my stories, including role-playing game stories, are about being a teacher.  In the Star Wars role-playing game, that manifested itself in the Master/Padawan relationship.  According to the rules, a Jedi character becomes a Master at experience level ten.  For Number One Son’s Jedi character, Juba Jubajai, that happened in the middle of a deep space adventure.

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At the time the adventuring group was traveling in space in an interstellar tug boat, in trouble with both the enemies of the Republic, and the Republic itself for their actions on the planet Naboo.  While traveling incognito in deep space, they came across a battle-damaged ship that was mostly wreckage and had no life signs.  But as they investigated the ship, they found two children frozen in carbonite and still alive, even though the ship had been destroyed thirty years before.

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The children were Trad and Verina Paddox, heirs of a noble house in Tapani Sector that had been reported assassinated years ago as aggressive House Mecetti had forced their noble family to give up most of their planetary holdings and killed their parents.  Tracking down folks that it would be safe to return these children to was next to impossible.  They ran into folks from House Mecetti with a shadowy agenda that probably included erasing the two children from history and existence.

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Wraith was a scarred and ferocious agent for House Mecetti that seemed intent on finding out everything he could about the children.  He had several run-ins with the adventurers and shots were fired.  At one point he was seriously wounded by the Wookie.  But he didn’t give up, and was apparently impossible to kill.

During the struggles with Wraith, Verina began exhibiting force sensitivity and immense power that needed Jedi training.  So they located a friendly Jedi who seemed to overlook the adventurers’ wanted-criminal status.  This dippy and jovial  Jedi was named Jean D’Ark, who continually joked around, but would ask clearly inappropriate questions followed by a quick, “Never mind!”

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He naturally became Nevermind, or the  Nevermind Jedi.  They began treating him like a jolly old uncle.  It was assumed that he would train Verina as a Padawan and take charge of the children.

Fortunately, more than one character turned out to be the opposite of what he seemed to be.  Wraith returned from the dead to reveal that Nevermind was a dark Jedi with Sith ambitions.  He was working for Darth Sidious and the evil parts of House Mecetti, and intended to kill the children.  Wraith not only revealed the plot, but helped Jubajai to drive the dark Jedi off.  So Master Jubajai began teaching Padawan Verina Paddox.  The player characters adopted the children and began to fight to reclaim the children’s birthright, leadership of House Paddox and possession of the planet Pelagia.

It is satisfying to tell stories where the teachers are the heroes.  But, of course, role-playing games are on-going stories, and there is always more to tell.

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Stranger Things Too

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I admit it.  I binge-watched Stranger Things 2 this weekend, just like everyone else who fell in love with the original.

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The monster is bigger and scarier this time.  It uses new versions of last year’s monster for minions.  The characters are growing and changing and falling in love.  If anything, I love the characters as people even more than last time.

The whole thing is very seriously set in 1984.  You know, the year of Ghostbusters as a summer blockbuster.  References to D & D, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and visual homages to Speilberg movies, gritty urban dramas like The Warriors, and the video game Dragon’s Lair  don’t merely set the scene, they are cultural references artfully used to weave the story together and move the plot, providing short-hand explications of science-fiction-y ideas and Steven King tropes.  There is story-telling mastery to be marveled at here.

And my favorite thing of all here is the satisfying collection of resolutions to ongoing issues.  Eleven re-connects with her past and separates herself from it again.  She finds a place for herself and someone to love her, in more ways than one.  Jonathan and Nancy and Steve work on their love triangle.  And Joyce and Hopper move closer together in spite of the tragedy that tears Joyce’s world apart.  (I can’t talk about Bob.  I identify with Bob. He is just like me in so many ways.  And what happens to Bob?  Ack!  There have to be horrors in horror movies.  And the best ones rattle the foundations that you live on.)

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I am the Uncritical Critic.  I only tell you about the things I love when it comes to movies, TV, books, and music.  And I definitely love this.

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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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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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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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Recurring Villains

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Now, this is a Saturday D & D post, but for the record, recurring villains are a lot more than just a part of a story-telling game.  Toxic people who have it in for you occur in real life almost as often  as they do in fantasy story-telling with villains who are often orcs.

But unlike insurance adjusters, city pool inspectors, and bank representatives, the villains in a D & D game are severely challenged to survive a single adventure.  Yes, the player characters are constantly on the lookout to slay the dungeon master’s recurring villains so they can’t recur without being raised from the dead.  No matter how much you hate that unfair insurance guy, you are not allowed to slay him with a sword.

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Mallora is not a sexy female villain… more like vile.

Mallora was a lucky witch woman.  She was one of three agents of Karnak, the Vampire Kingdom, who were trying to thwart the player characters as they sought lost technology in the wastelands of Cyre.  She was a second level sorceress at the time, capable of only a couple of basic-level necromantic spells.  She was a part of the evil organization known as the Emerald Claw, a sort of religious cult built around worshiping the undead, and had an evil dwarf fighter and an evil archer to help her trap and kill the heroes, along with about six animated skeletons who, at second level, are one-chop minions that go down in the first round of battle usually.

The green haired witch successfully trapped the heroes in the mists of Cyre and the dwarf and the archer were taking their toll when Gandy rolled a twenty and not only nailed the archer in the eye with a crossbow bolt, but made the archer’s shot go awry and hit the dwarf in the back of his bald head, shortly after Fate had knocked his helmet off.  So Mallora cast another concealing fog spell and ran like a little green rat directly away.  She survived to haunt them another day.

LucanThis she did as a member of Brother Garrow’s Emerald Claw crew in the next adventure where the heroes had to track down a friendly agent of Breland who had been turned into a vampire.  She was eighth level at that point, just like the adventurers themselves, and a much more dangerous adversary.  She didn’t prevent the characters from capturing the rogue vampire, and she did some damage, but managed to slink off unharmed once again.

 

She would enter the player characters’ lives one more time in the jungles of Xendrick as the mini-campaign was reaching its climax.  She and Brother Garrow pursued the heroes through the jungle to the giant ruins where the monster construct Xulo would finally be brought to powerful and evil life in a necromantic ritual.  Brother Garrow definitely met his end in a spectacular fashion, being sucked into another dimension through a keyhole trap set by giant mages a millennia before.  It was gruesome.

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Garrow before his transformation into a toothpaste-like substance

Mallora was aboard the Emerald Claw’s flying skiff as it chased the airship the heroes were themselves aboard.  A well-placed fireball by Druealia the Wizardess took the skiff down to crash into the jungle below with a fiery explosion that should’ve killed all aboard, including Mallora.  But is she actually dead this time?  They didn’t see her die.  So only the dungeon master knows for sure.   After all, what good is a recurring villain if they don’t recur?

 

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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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