Sunday, 14 April 2013

A Look Back at Kalgar: Pushing Character Development

It takes me quite a while to like a character I've made, most likely because I am so critical of my own
Dallas Kasaboski
work. It often takes many sessions and levels of gameplay before I come to enjoy a D&D character I've worked up. While we've been tracking the adventures of our players in The Long Game, I would like to take this opportunity to update you on my own feelings toward my character and the game we've been playing.
When last I wrote about Kalgar, my dragonborn paladin, I had shared some of the work I had put in toward his motivation and history. We had been traveling back to Kalgar's homeland of Aes, and I wanted a better understanding of where he came from and what kind of a man he was.

Traveling through Aes was a great way to get a better feel for Kalgar, as it allowed me to really take up the mannerisms and customs of his people, namely stern naval folk. It allowed me to try different mannerisms and invent those little idiosyncrasies which start small but became staples of one's character.

But, it took more than a trip home to learn what kind of a person Kalgar was. While Aes gave me a chance to cement who Kalgar had been, it was hard to tell who he was, what he wanted, and it's difficult to roleplay if you can't answer those questions.

As the party continued traveling, I saw many opportunities for development and as is usual, I learned about Kalgar through the behaviour of others. Tong si Gong, one of Kalgar's companions, is a pious Ioun-worshipping monk who is highly observant to his customs. He is often too naive about the world around him and too strict in his own character. His backstory, shared in an upcoming article about Tong si Gong's character creation, is grim-dark and full of potential.

Looking at this, I saw many aspects of reflection for Kalgar. Tong had been cursed with a weapon of unthinkable power and through his ambition had destroyed everything he had once loved. Kalgar saw Tong's story as the dark version of what he may become. Kalgar, in his pursuit of honouring Kord, wanted to become a formidable warrior, showing that he was strong enough for any challenge. While not ambitious for power, Kalgar took the story of Viktor Whitehelm, Tong si Gong's former alias, to heart and has tried to learn to keep a much more open mind about his pursuits.

Along the way, the party met a dragonborn samurai from Albus named Shizuka. Starting off as a sad drunk, Kalgar saw a spark of strength within and, with the help of the party, coaxed it out. Shizuka too had a haunted past, one closely related to Tong si Gong, namely that he had been unable to stop Viktor Whitehelm, and had hid himself in the bottom of a bottle in shame ever since.

Tong had explained that the sword's curse made him invincible and that there was nothing Shizuka could have done. With this, and Kalgar's coaxing, Shizuka woke up from his drunken stupor and began traveling with the party, and training Kalgar.

While Kalgar saw Tong as one version of his own future, he saw Shizuka as another, as well as a possible reflection of his past. Kalgar had abandoned his people, and had broken an oath in doing so. He knew it was the right thing to do, but he also knew that running away wouldn't solve anything. He knew that he had to go back some day to face the challenges awaiting him. He also saw Shizuka's shame as something he could too easily adopt in a future failure. When you push yourself hard in one direction, a setback can be more deeply disturbing.

Additionally, Shizuka helped me understand how Kalgar acted in the world. Shizuka was wise, quiet, and precise with his movements. While not stronger than Kalgar, he was able to beat him in combat when he wasn't drunk with rage and alcohol. I took the chance to better understand how Kalgar would fight.

While Shizuka was precise and quiet, I realized I wanted Kalgar to be loud and demonstrably intimidating. Kalgar's god is the lord of storms and so I thought it appropriate that Kalgar demonstrated his zeal and his belief very evidently in battle.

Upon Shizuka's parting, he left Kalgar with a sword, a powerful katana, wishing him to either use it or bestow it upon someone who would make good use of it. Oddly enough, this was another moment of reflection for my character. Out of character, the sword was an upgrade, more damage, better proficiency, and I felt I had earned it, roleplaying the practice sessions, and felt rewarded for helping Shizuka.

But, I also felt that it wasn't yet time. Knowing that both I and Kalgar had to think about it, the party asked if I had a special tradition for blessing the blade. Put on the spot, I came up with something haphazard but explained that Kalgar was not ready to use the sword. His khopesh, while nothing really special, was a reminder of where he came from, and that he had unfinished business there.

Since that time, I have given a lot of thought to both the sword, and Kalgar's god Kord. I mentioned last time that Kalgar would need to learn more about his god. While there haven't been many role models, there have been a few skirmishes where I was able to help give Kalgar a greater understanding of his god, again, through interacting with others. Facing non-believers, challenging foes in combat, flavouring my powers to be more thunderous, I became to feel that Kalgar's faith was becoming more evident.

But, I was still missing something. I looked to Alex, who plays Tong si Gong. Coming up with an interesting way to keep a connection to his religion, Alex had it so that Tong looked to his master, through a psychic link, for guidance. Kalgar did not have a mentor, not anymore with Shizuka gone, so who was Kalgar to look to?

I talked things over with Mike, explaining my concerns. He suggested maybe Kalgar would attempt to contact Kord. I realized I had hesitations over this.

I have a weird sense of logic and humility in D&D. I often impose limits on things when I feel the occasion calls for it. If my character cannot understand a language and the players who do don't translate, I pretend I didn't hear it, even if it would cause trouble or damage.

In this case, I didn't feel it was right to be able to contact my god. While Kalgar had leveled up and obviously showed favour with my growing strength, I didn't think Kalgar should be able to just call a meeting with his god.

Mike reminded me that gods in D&D are more like the gods of Greece; real beings who could show up anywhere at anytime. Plus, they were powerful, they could be in many places at once. He also reminded me that paladins, clerics, divine characters were less of a converting force, and more an advertising one, or a filter. As a paladin, it was my task to do the work for Kord, I was his foot-soldier. It wasn't my job to make people worship Kord, but to do Kord's will and to show people how formidable Kord was.

I thought about this, quite a lot, and came up with something I liked. I still didn't think Kalgar had earned the opportunity to talk with Kord, (killing a young dragon was great, but not god-worthy), so I thought it would be interesting to create an order of Kord's servants.

Modeling it off of the listing of international naval ranks, I decided that Kalgar was still a Seaman (laugh all you want), and that going up the ranks would be the mortal servants of Kord. I chose the navy ranks as opposed to the army ones because of Kalgar's past. It would make more sense to Kalgar, and would be a nice pivot point between his old life and his new one. On a recommendation from Mike, I also looked into creating the semi-divine creatures who served Kord. I came up with several creatures with various powers, brief reasons for being, and ways in which they served the lord of war.

I then thought of a way in which Kalgar could contact these people. The manner of contacting them was important as it said a lot about the order and the people within it. Ever since making this character, I have maintained that he is more than an avid fan of storms. Kalgar treats a lightning storm as a ceremony and is the most pious at this time outside of battle. I have often thought of the imagery of Kalgar watching a storm and in his confusion and rage, calling upon Kord, demanding what the god wanted of him.

Developing this further, I came up with a scenario in which Kalgar was faced with just such a moment. As he cried out with rage, wondering what he was supposed to do with his life, lightning stuck the ground, rendering him blind and he was faced by a giant mounted warrior.

Dismounting, the man took off his helmet, dropped his weapon, and challenged Kalgar to a fight. Dropping hints that he knew Kalgar, he refused to answer any questions until Kalgar joined him. This trope has been seen several times, with a character learning something through a fight with his superior, and I enjoyed the imagery. The man would taunt Kalgar, and Kalgar would never really know for certain who the man was or how powerful he was. Had the man appeared by chance? Had he appeared via a lightning bolt? How did he know Kalgar exactly?

I dropped hints here and there in my writeup and description so as to make it just vague enough to merge on the mystical. I wanted the party to be just as unsure as Kalgar. Still, in the end, the man had introduced Kalgar to a wider world of Kord's servants, those who acted while others merely worshiped, and while not giving Kalgar too many answers, at least helped him move in the right direction.

Additionally, leaving the true power of the man in question, but having the man easily best Kalgar in battle gave Kalgar another model of his own prowess. He might not have clear goals just yet, but he had a challenge, and Kalgar loves a good challenge.

Once that was clear, I decided to take up the katana. The only thing holding me, and subsequently Kalgar, back, was my own hesitation. Re-imagining the ceremony I had barely thrown together earlier, I came up with something different, something better.

Kalgar lives for fighting. While Tong si Gong's heart may beat with the drums of discipline and peace, Kalgar's heart pumps to the march of a battle drum. Every fiber of his being moves with the swiftness of a coursing river (to quote Li Shang from Mulan), and so the ceremony had to account for the bond formed.

I decided that since Kalgar respected battle for its own sake, for the strength it helped foster, Kalgar would pay tribute to the blade by giving some of his own blood, his own strength. Taking the blade in his sword hand, he poured some of his ceremonial saltwater over the blade. He then ran his hand along the blade, cutting himself, mixing the blood and salt together. For the sake of the weapon, he quickly wiped the sword clean, but the bond had been made. Kalgar's blood, and the saltwater representing his home, had mixed with the weapon. The sword's price had been paid, and the weapon would respect the wielder for paying this price before others.

Give and take. That's how I like playing this game. I feel better when things make sense and when I have earned the rewards or punishments which happen from time to time. It may sound like a lot of "work" developing all this extra material which will only play a small visible part in the game, but it's fun, and helps give me a better understanding of the character.

By continuing to develop Kalgar's motivations, I understand his situation better, and it helps me make the character into someone with depth, someone interesting, someone memorable, and not just some numbers on a paper with a mannerism or two. It makes the rewards that much sweeter and the challenges that much more involved. You get out of D&D what you put into it, I think.

I thank you very much for reading, and I hope we continue to entertain and inspire you here at D4sign.

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