Saturday, 12 January 2013

Making a new character, and how tough that can be...

Dallas Kasaboski
Well, it has been entirely too long since I wrote a post here, but it has been a while since I last played. Tonight, I played a thrilling session of Dungeons and Dragons, probably one of the best of my life, and it was so exciting that I was compelled to start writing this blog post at 1am.

There are several contributing factors to the awesomeness of this session. The first was that it was for a friend's birthday, so there were general feelings of excitement all around. The second was because of the preparedness of the DM and of the world he created. We had agreed to come together to play a session for the birthday party, but little did I realize that our DM would throw an entire world at us, with a campaign setting and plot hooks and everything. With just the idea of a "one-shot" in mind, finding out that the world was larger and richer than previously imagined really amped up the stakes and excitement for this session.

The third reason was the intense characterization, the attention to detail, and the richness of the player interaction. Remember a while ago when I said that a 3-person D&D party was my favourite? Well, that held true today. We had a small group, but it was very balanced, very coordinated, and decisions were swift, yet still shared by the party. Everyone was consulted, and decisions were made which benefited the players in and out of character.

My friend Alex was playing a character we had all heard of before, but only encountered once or twice. I am going to try to get him to write a post on his character creation because it is one of the most intense, detailed, and truly inspirational I have ever seen. Basically, his character made a deal with a devil for a sword which would make him invincible in battle. Known as The Edge of Sanity, the sword made him completely unbeatable in armed combat. He ransacked a nation, spreading his war across the land, until one day he encountered some monks. Experts at unarmed combat, they managed to defeat him because the caveat of the sword was that it only proved invincible against armed combatants. Unable to separate himself from the sword due to the pact made, he joined the monks, and learned their ways of meditation and physical/mental focus.

Now, not only is this an incredible backstory but it adds so much to the character. Starting off as a low-level Monk, but coming about it from a changing of tactics, Alex was able to circumvent a feeling a lot of people get when making low level characters; that of wanting to feel more worldly but not having a way to explain why they're only low level. I've had this feeling myself, wanting a character to feel more experienced, but unable to rectify why such a trained or wise character is at the bottom of the adventuring hierarchy. Most of the time, this feeling is swept under the rug, but I found Alex's approach interesting. Additionally, it adds a lot of material for him to draw upon whilst roleplaying. Praying, chanting, exclaiming about the power of the mind over the body, and with a tendency to shun all weapons, Alex's character is always present, always coming through, always adding something to the adventure, even with minimal effort.

My friend Mike asked me to join the party and of course I was thrilled. He said he was playing a Wizard, Alex was playing a Monk, and because he knows I like to have a varied party, suggested I played a Paladin or some other leader-like defender. It was an easy sell, and one I took to very quickly. I have ample experience as a Fighter, having played one for almost 3 years straight, and was excited to try something slightly different.

And that was the theme of my early character creation: to do something different. I loved playing Mark, my Shifter Fighter, my sword and board savagely disciplined paragon of Erathis, but I didn't want to fall into old habits and I didn't want to cross characters over. Mark is awesome, and I didn't want to spoil his memory by playing a pale comparison of him in another character.

So, how best to do that? Well, as much as Mark was a religious character, and did indeed multiclass as a Paladin later on, his religious beliefs were basically, "Erathis put us here to do great work, and she expects us to do it without Her help." I decided to play a little more religiously this time, but I had to ease into it.

I decided that instead of playing the usual bastion of strength, the inspirational martyr, I would play a little more aggressively. I would make my beliefs known and would act more toward zealot devotion than guardian Fighter. It was tough at first, because I had to work out a backstory, one which gave me some room to play around, but also fit into the campaign setting and plot hook, the point/mission of the story.

We started the first session with the idea that I had been a member of the royal navy of one nation, had been a promising soldier, and that the entire nation had a strong faith system, praying to Melora (goddess of the sea) and Kord (god of storms and battle). Lately, the military had been testing weapons of mass destruction, something my character wasn't too comfortable with. One of Kord's tenets is to avoid using strength for wanton destruction or domination. The main plot hook, the point of the adventuring party, was to be part of a secret society going around trying to safeguard the world against such Doomsday weapons. So, faking my own death, I left everything behind to try and do Kord's work, because I believed my people had lost their way.

Borrowing from Alex's approach, I thought this was a great way to make me feel like a great and accomplished fighter, but still low level. I was striking out, not entirely on my own, but feeling very alone as I had abandoned everything I had ever loved. So, obviously, I'm going to fall back on my beliefs, the will of my god. Focusing on the teachings of Kord, that of strength and battle, I focused on trying to make character a scary right arm of my god.

The session started out well, we were on our way to a tomb, recently uncovered at the base of a mountain. We made our way, meeting some low-level thugs. Quickly dispatching them, we were able to learn more about the area and give our characters a chance to interact with each other and the world at large. As I explained to the other players, I like making a framework for a character, just a history, and maybe some preferences, a lens if you will through which to see the world, and then using the other players and our experiences to further shape it. Since Alex's character was playing, as we call it, grim-dark (mysterious and grim), and Mike's character was a serious leader with a chatty, friendly side, I decided to play aloof, but approachable. I love rounding out the party, not only because I think it slightly necessary, but because I like seeing how people react to differences in opinion and approach. I also thought this made sense as I was playing a character making his way in the world feeling a little more lost than most. Abandoning your entire life and devoting yourself to a god gives you a lot to think about so while I wasn't grim, I wasn't chatty either.

As we made our way to the tomb, I realized something very quickly: my character was not very skilled outside of combat and athletics. Sure, I had trained him in Religion, and he had a few other decent modifiers, but when it came to scouting around an area, he wasn't very good. But, I went with it, thinking about how my character had lived his entire life at sea in one nation and would only have heard of the outside world through training and from stories told by sailors. Plus, he was born and raised to fight, why would he know how to crack a lock? But, just because he wasn't formally trained didn't mean he couldn't help. So, I rolled on some skills, and made suggestions when I could.

One thing I'm always working on, is how to give instructions "in character". I don't like too much "table talk" in D&D. Table talk is where you talk strategy outside of character, given what you know about the game. We've written some posts about this: here, here, here, and here, and how dangerous/not fun it can be, so we all try to be in character as much as possible. Table talk isn't necessarily bad, but sometimes, it's less entertaining.

For example, there we were, at the base of the mountain, having found the entrance to the tomb, a hole which had been sealed by a giant wedge of stone. I tried pushing it, using Athletics, to no avail, even though I was the strongest member of the party and rolled well. I wanted to use Perception to look around to see what could help, or what I was doing wrong. I knew my Perception score was not the greatest and that, in fact, Alex's Monk had a greater chance. But, I didn't want to say, "Hey Alex, roll perception on this door, will you?" It offsets the game, and slows it down. So, I grunted and said, "Hmm, it's really stuck, and I can't see how to move it. Is there another way around?" This not so subtle clue inspired Alex's Monk to backflip into a tree (he's all about the acrobatics), roll Perception, and notice that there was no other entrance, and that there were subtle notches on the door. Pointing these out, my character used the notches to pull the door out and open the tomb entrance.

The tomb was wonderfully designed. The DM, Dominic, had been running games for years but had yet to run a dungeon and wanted to try it out. He printed a maze onto a sheet of paper and then cut a tiny hole out of a piece of paper, saying this was all we could see of the maze at one time. It was a brilliant move, and made exploring the maze that much more exciting, mysterious, and difficult. We moved along, trying to be stealthy, on our guard, and marking off passages as we crossed them. The power of imagination is nothing to be trifled with and I really enjoyed moving through a maze having no idea if we were getting closer or farther from our goal. Additionally, the DM kept giving us little clues about the dangers of the tomb, informing us that we could hear booming footsteps but had no idea where they were coming from, and giving the walls a damp smell.

Somehow, through either birthday-related magic, or sheer divine intervention, we made it to the centre almost immediately. There, we found a tomb and right behind us, a rock ogre! (It has a better, actual name, but essentially, it was a giant ogre made out of rock, guarding the tomb) The room was a 40 foot wide circular area, surrounded by a 20 foot wide, unfathomably deep, pit. Not knowing what to do, I assumed the defender's position, in front, between the ogre and the party.

It attacked, I rallied, it missed, it tried to get past. The Monk attacked it, not doing any damage, strangely. The Wizard attacked, again no damage. The Wizard used his magical knowledge (Arcana), and learned that the guardian could absolutely not be harmed in any way. It was defending this tomb and was empowered by it as well. So, there we were, in a giant danger zone, with an impenetrable rock ogre between us and the exit, what to do? Well, we all quickly had the idea of pushing it off into the pit, but due to Mike's Arcana check, we learned that the rock ogre was really hard to move. But, being the clever guys we were, we stuck to our strengths.

I stood between the ogre and the party, challenging the creature, focusing it on me, and Kord was surely smiling on me as the monster critically missed me 3 times in a row. Mike, the Wizard, came up with the idea of attacking the ground, it being made of sandstone (a fact mentioned early on upon entering the maze). With a running start, Alex front-flipped over my character, striking with open fist and pointed fingers creating a giant crack in the ground. The monster rallied by digging into the sandstone, but it wasn't good enough. With a short prayer to my god for strength, I smashed the ground and pried the monster off into the black.

Seemingly okay, we examined the main coffin, the painted mural on the walls, and respectfully, but pragmatically, took what we could. It was a fantastic couple of minutes for a couple of reasons. First, we had survived a harrowing encounter, using quick thinking and improvisation. Secondly, we had reached our goal with surprisingly little harm. As we were examining the body, Alex and I, our characters being the more spiritual, came up with a dual-theistic chant to bless the body of the dead. It was a nice little moment, and allowed our characters to grow, explore more about ourselves and about each other. Out of character, it gave me some ideas for ways to approach the tenets of my faith and of Kord's teachings, and in character, it gave our characters a chance to know each other better and foster respect for each other.

In another room, we saw a spider's web, some rubble, and a 10 foot wide pit. Spotting something shiny on the other side of the room, we decided to move, cautiously, along the wall. The Monk scounted ahead and noticed a thin wire-like strand hanging from the pit. Fearing the worst, and thinking we may need help getting across the pit, I grabbed my climber's kit and secured it to the wall. The Wizard realized he could get the shiny object using Mage Hand (a magical ability in which he can move small objects at will), and in order to do that, he stepped in front of me. I immediately secured him with the slack of my rope, again fearing the worst.

Well, it was a good thing I was so paranoid as the strand, alerted by the Mage Hand, reached out and grabbed us both. Suddenly pulled up into the air, above the pit, I reminded the DM that we were secured with rope. So, there we were, hanging over a pit, not as high as we should be, victims of a deadly game of tug-of-war between deadly creatures and the wall I had fastened my rope to. Fighting to break loose, the Wizard fell into the pit, but thankfully, was still clinging the rope. Climbing out, and shooting fire at the creatures, he was able to scare them, but not enough for them to release me. Feeling like the quintessential defender, I had every creature's attention, and now that they were all focused on me, the rope tied to the wall was coming loose.

Dodging attacks left and right, Alex had the brilliant idea to, well be awesome. He wanted to attack all the creatures, but they were hanging 20 feet in the air. So, he ran along the wall, up the rope, leapt off me, and essentially flash-kicked everything, knocking me free, causing us both to tumble to the ground. Mike, invisible and fending off attacks, used an ability to get Alex out of there quickly, and had another stroke of brilliance to cast Ghost Sound on the creatures. Making it sound like the ogre was coming back, he scared the creatures away, allowing us all to escape.

It was the perfect Dungeons and Dragons encounter. We had suspense, danger, awesomeness, and a well-coordinated party. It is really rare that you will get an encounter where everyone plays their roles so well and where you get such strokes of inspirational teamwork, but there you had it. The defender was drawing all the enemy fire while laughing it off; the striker (Monk) was keeping mobile, dealing damage and adding some exciting imaginative flavour to the situation, and the controller (Wizard) was moving player and enemy alike for the tactical advantage. We left that room feeling not only like amazing individuals, but an amazing team.

With the ogre gone, we made our way through the rest of the dungeon, finding some treasure here, some junk there, ending the session with another plot hook and the promise to keep the adventure going. The encounters were intense, well planned by the DM, and well-tackled by the party. The focus, the energy, and the cleverness of the players made the encounters a fast-paced, thrill-ride from beginning to end. The framework of the dungeon, the suspense due to the trickling of information, and the sheer terrifying nature of the odds against us gave praise to the DM's ability to make even the most experienced players scared and worried about their chance of success.

Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game, at its heart. The intense focus on trying to make memorable characters, whose actions rely on a combination of backstory, current situation, and player interaction, make for a fuller game than simply rolling dice and hitting monsters. Sure, the fighting is fun, without it, I wouldn't enjoy D&D nearly as much, but pretending to be something else, someone else, exploring the feelings, compulsions, and motivations for fictional characters in fictional situations, well this gives me a chance to reflect on my own feelings. This allows me to analyze how I might react to a crazy situation like that, which broadens my knowledge of myself, and through a shared experience, allows me to broaden my understanding of my friends.

Not to mention that with a great group, and a little shared effort, you can make a truly exciting and memorable experience. I look forward to the adventures to come and when I'm not living in the real world, I'll be coming up with cool rituals, personal tenets, and exclamations for my character to use to make his beliefs more present in the eyes of the players.

As sure as the tide, may Kord's strength wash over you...

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