Improbable and Grotesque Mischief: Dungeons & Dragons Mayhem!

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I’ve been threatening to write about Dungeons and Dragons for a few weeks now. That starts today. These posts are a memoir. I’ve considered various ways of organizing them.

I almost went the chronological route and started with my earliest experiences but um . . . no. Chronological memoirs are so done. I’m bringing the fun.

I’ve got more tabletop gaming experience than any continuously-employed 40-something dude I know. I started with the old boxed set that came with The Keep on The Borderlands, the Blue Book, and chits instead of dice. During the 90’s and 2000’s, I was part of a Sunday gaming group which played at least two sessions per month for almost 15 years.

Quite an iconic cover, this. I first encountered it when I was 8 or so. It captured my imagination.

Quite the iconic cover, this. I first encountered it when I was 8 or so. It captured my imagination.

I’ve Dungeon-Mastered a lot of campaigns. I’ve played in even more. I’ve wandered Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk (my favorite out-of-the-box-world), many worlds created by friends, and a few offbeat settings such as Red Steel. I’ve run campaigns in worlds of my own creation. I’ve also played Shadowrun, Traveller, Cthulu (my favorite non-D&D tabletop by far), Masquerade, and several GURPS-based games.

I’ve played a LOT of characters, and I’ve been awestruck more than once by things other people did with their PCs. I’ve created enough NPCs to populate a canon larger than The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Today I’ll share  with you the best evil player character I ever created.

Hello, Louis!

A Forgotten Realms Hobgoblin. He'll do to represent Louis.

A Forgotten Realms Hobgoblin. He’ll do to represent Louis.

His name was Louis Scrounge. First name pronounced the way “Louis” is pronounced in France. He was a Neutral Evil Half-Hobgoblin warrior created with variant PC-Race rules for a gunpowder game (I love me some flintlocks, oh yes I do). This was also a maritime campaign. That means tons of close-quarters combat in light armor. It also means, for evil characters, egregiously bloodthirsty piracy.

One of the many rulers of France named Louis. You get the joke here, right?

One of the many rulers of France named Louis. You get the joke here, right?

His two chief accomplices were a Chaotic Evil Gnome Rogue/Sourcerer who knew every trick in the Joker’s Playbook and a Lawful Evil Drow Mage with a fetish for poison and Frankenstein experiments. In our first outing, we all joined the crew of a small merchant/privateer as specialists without letting on we knew one another. Louis enlisted to be the boss of the half-dozen or so 0-level fighters whose job it was to defend the vessel. The Drow signed on as the ship’s surgeon. The Gnome? LOL. Cabin boy. Can you say “Dangerously Genre-Savvy?

Needless to say, the captain ended up bleeding from the throat and tossed over the side in the dead of the night as soon as we hit open sea. We elected an NPC to keep the sails full until such time as we could consolidate our power and get Louis into the big cabin. Then we convinced the NPC placeholder-captain to go prize-hunting. This is how our career started. It’s one of the most memorable first adventures I’ve ever been a part of. That first ship was like Animal Farm, and we were the (extremely evil) pigs.

Some Technical Geeky Stuff

That long-running D&D group is the best interest-based offline group I’ve ever been a part of. It was a good mix of powergamers and roleplay nerds. Most of us were a bit of both. We rarely went the purist route with the rolling of three dice and taking whatever we got for ability scores in the order we rolled them. Sometimes we used point systems. More often, we did this:

  1. Roll four six-sided dice.  Re-roll ones until you get at least a two.
  2. Once you have no ones, drop the lowest number and add the other three together.
  3. If you happen to end up with three twos, you MUST take that six, but this method generates numbers less than nine so rarely that if you get a truly low score, it’s cause for celebration and character development.
  4. Put the ability scores wherever you want them to be.

What you usually end up with using this method is a couple of 11’s, one or two 16+ scores, and a mushy middle that can run from 10 to 15. We sometimes added Unearthed Arcana-style Comeliness to make Charisma-based roleplay more interesting. Occasionally we used Luck, which is not a normal ability score, but is derived from the basic six, and usually was a stat that ran from 3 to 5.

How_I_Roll

Natural 20’s FTW!

We could use a Luck point to automatically roll a natural 20 or pass a saving throw, but once we did, that point was gone until we impressed the DM enough to earn it back. It was not possible to spend two Luck points in one go, nor fractions of them. They were awarded and spent one at a time, always.

We were in the business of creating above-average characters with superhero potential, and we had a lot of fun with it for a lot of years. Never once in all that time did I witness a character make it to 20th level. The first five levels are important — once you hit sixth, you know who you are. Most of the character deaths I’ve seen have either happened right out of the gate, or between 12th and 15th levels.

Back to Louis. He was a Third Edition character with feats and such. Started with a 19 Constitution and a very low Charisma, because Half-Hobgoblin racial ability adjustments. A 17 Dexterity and a decent Strength. He wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, nor very observant. That’s way survivable, though, with the right friends. I can be cunning even with a low Wisdom and Intelligence. And being confident that if you can hit something JUST ONCE  it will die 75% of the time is a huge advantage for a fighter in D&D.

Louis started out as a first level Ranger, of all things. Then took two levels in fighter. His career ended (I’ll get to the ending in a bit) at 12th or 13th level, and he didn’t have more than four levels in any one thing, but he could take down a 10th level single class NPC like nobody’s business once he was fully developed. He even took a level or two as a Cleric to some dark god late in the game. That decision was like a deal with the devil, but it got hime Cure Light Wounds and Cause Light Wounds, which turned out to be insanely useful.

His preferred weapons were dual-wielded short swords, whips for entangling enemies so as to stab them better, and flintlock pistols. At one point, he paid an artisan to craft a pair of super-accurate masterwork double-barreled flintlock pistols, and let me tell you. There’s nothing like racing into a boarding action with a pair of double-barreled pistols.

The first rule of tactical combat, in D&D, in a Zombie Apocalypse, and even in everyday life, it this. Never fight with one hand empty. Either fight with a two-handed weapon, or just have TWO weapons. Seriously. A rolled-up magazine in one hand, or a jacket wrapped around your left arm, is better than not using it at all. First rule.

The first rule of tactical combat, in D&D, in a Zombie Apocalypse, and even in everyday life, it this. Never fight with one hand empty. Either fight with a two-handed weapon, or bring TWO weapons. Seriously. A rolled-up magazine in one hand, or a jacket wrapped around your left arm, are better than nothing at all. First rule.

Memorable adventures. 

(DISCLAIMER: Keep in mind, these adventures are things that happened when I was in my 20s. I was not a fully-evolved feminist back then, and I may not be fully-evolved now. But they happened, and I feel like sharing them on the blog today. This is proof that people can change.)

This world was a lot like the Greek Isles. Early on, we made landfall on an island because we’d been becalmed for awhile and we needed fresh water. We thought that island was uninhabited. but actually a faun lived there. He abused us a bit, the Drow most of all. Much later, we gained enough experience for the Drow to learn Teleport. The first place we teleported to? That Island. Right into the faun’s front door.

I blasted the faun with my pistols and we made short work of him after that. Took all his treasure, which was not that much, but would have been a lot if we hadn’t lost that original encounter at second level. Louis made a pair of goatskin pants out of the faun’s leg-fur.

Once, we encountered a slave-market. Louis bought a barbarian witch from the slavers. She had a penchant for blood sacrifice and weather control. Louis kept her as a slave just long enough to make sure she wasn’t going to cut his throat once free (about three weeks of in-game time). Set her free, but offered her power and persuaded her to stay on as lieutenant. The  goatskin pants were actually made for her. She stuck with us to the end. I ran her at one point — the only time in all these years a DM has ever allowed me to run an NPC in campaign where I was just a player.

We also did this. Sailed into a port which had a gladiatorial industry and brought with us a large amount of disposable income. Louis went and signed up to be a free-agent gladiator. The Drow and the Gnome ran around the city pretending not to know one another and placing bets. We even bet the ship we sailed in on at one point.

Louis’s arena technique was simple. Stride into the arena with a short sword in one hand and a whip in the other. Two extra whips on the belt, two extra short swords on his back. Roll initiative.

Entangle opponent. Drop the whip and pull a second short sword. Stab stab stab until it’s time to drop the second short sword and pull another whip. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Louis sometimes fought three opponents, and he never threw a fight but sometimes he took damage just to affect the odds.

We ended up with a lot of money and artifacts.

Eventually, we captured a well-armed flying ship which could also sail on the water and look like a normal ship. That was the peak of our career. Happened around 10th level.

The DM grew weary of our evil mayhem, though. He decided he did not care to get into an arms race with high-level characters, and ran us to ground the way the British Navy ran pirates to ground in the late 1600’s, just to make sure we never got to be high-level characters. The last scene was satisfying. It made perfect sense.

This entire series of fictional events took place over the course of less than a year in real time, and covered maybe 18 months of campaign time. It was quick, and it was delicious.

No actual persons were harmed in this roleplaying experience, except maybe me.

Have a Cold War-Era Rock and Roll video by an artist who is no longer among the living. The content of the song perfectly encapsulates where I am with this blog right now.

Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War!

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No comics today 😦

I figure that having comics every Wednesday for almost two years gets us a little leeway. I’m about to mouth off here, people. You can endure a monologue from me, or you can find yourself another blog to read. This is where we are.

So, first. We’ve not been posting as often as we would like to post lately.

Second, I haven’t been around to answer comments.

Third, this blog is absolutely not going away.

A year ago, more or less, I made this blog a political no-go zone. I am considering lifting that restriction and allowing contributors to speak their political minds on this blog.

Just so you know, this here pop culture blog is supported by a huge gaggle of feminists and other left-leaning people.

What if we decide to bring the politics back onto this blog? Slowly, carefully, and liberally? What about that?

Leave us a comment, if you have an opinion.

And have a video!

 

The Truman Journey

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Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of the Truman Show. When Truman is a baby, Christof (Ed Harris) somehow buys him. He is placed in a fictional town, Seahaven, and surrounded with actors. Christof broadcasts every minute of Truman’s life. And Truman has no idea his friends and family are paid actors. So that’s terrifying.

Truman only begins to discover the truth when a lamp, labeled with the name of a star, falls from the artificial sky one day. After that he notices things, like everyone knows his name, he has never left Seahaven, and his wife will act like she’s in an infomercial and try to shill products. When the entire town turns against him, refusing to let him leave, Truman escapes the only way he can: by sailing across Seahaven’s body of water to the edge of the world. There he bumps into the horizon, finds an EXIT door, and escapes into the real world. It’s like Under the Dome, if Stephen King wasn’t a horror writer.

truman

Life celebrated a baby sold by its parent to television executives.

A couple things about this movie jump out at me.The audience has to be most of the planet, because the show’s overhead must be huge; Christof enclosed the entire town in an arcology dome, and has a weather control device (something most supervillains have to put on lay-a-way). The governments of the world must not exist, or are so corrupt that “money over everything” is official policy. And the cast, crew, and audience must absolutely believe that Truman has a good life, because it only takes one defector to ruin the show.

At the end of the movie, Christof tries to drown Truman, preferring a magnificent death to Truman’s escape. When Truman survives, Christof claims Truman brings people hope and inspiration. He even asks Truman to stay. Something Truman does provides the world with enough satisfaction to justify all this.

My first thought was nuclear apocalypse, because the world must be some twisted ruin for people to think Truman’s life is acceptable. It would also explain the dome; perhaps Christof has fenced off a healthy area of the planet and is selling dreams of what life used to be to a devastated population.

The audience doesn’t really fit the Mad Max marauder type, though. There are old people, fat security guards, and a nice bar. The world looks okay. But these people still watch Truman, each day, as he toils through life, despite the fact that they apparently have normal lives themselves. Reality television is a form of escapism too; most rely on a gimmick (The Biggest Loser) or the antics of people filmed in just the right way to make them seem terrible (literally any contest-style reality show). All Truman does is live a normal life.

Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became Blade Runner, which became the reason Ridley Scott still has a career. In the story, humans live on a ruined earth. Most of the animals are dead, so people try to raise personal livestock, or if they can’t afford it, “electric” simulacra. The protagonist, Deckard, has an electric sheep, and fears people will find out (it’s a social no-no). He takes a job to hunt down androids capable of nearly perfectly simulating human beings. They lack empathy, however, and a complicated test can reveal them.

It’s left out of the movie, but the book also shows that people are capable of “dialing” their emotions. Deckard avoids a fight with his wife by choosing a more pleasant mood. He also regularly logs into a simulation of a tormented figure rolling a stone eternally up a hill. Living with near-human androids has degraded human perception of reality, so they have to engage in something “real” to maintain their empathy and humanity. But, they are still living a lie, in denial of what humanity actually means.

The Truman Show serves the same purpose. Truman is the suffering saint; his lack of reality, and the life he suffers, makes the pale lives of the audience seem bright and real in comparison. No matter what their day was like, the audience can dial into Truman and adjust their emotions according to his life.

Truman’s world might be very close to ours, but it’s suffered something that makes engaging in life through Truman more acceptable than really living – he’s both sheep and shepherd, cared for by the audience and leading them through what life ought to be. And at the same time, he’s contemptible, because they can watch him poop and he doesn’t know.

I see two arguments about what happens after the ending. Truman abandons Seahaven, sails to freedom after nearly drowning in Christof’s artificial storm, and finds his world is truly false when he bumps into the “sky.” He leaves with his usual greeting: “In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”

Truman doesn’t curse or even seem to hate Christof. And the audience loves it. The ending is a montage of cheers and people flipping out. He’s provided their comfort for thirty years, and now Truman’s victory is the audience’s victory. As the chosen one, he led them through the hero’s journey to a heroic “ending.”

Truman is an artificially selected chosen one, however, not picked by fate. Christof had to know Truman would grow into a perfectly average (Jim Carrey-ish) adult, with no mental or physical problems, because anything else would have ruined his show. Truman’s revelations about his life, and by extension the audience’s lives, don’t have the same impact as a “real” chosen one. The audience watches him discover them, and they cheer like they’re watching football game.

The chosen one is an excuse for why “ONE MAN” can make a difference. Truman might not even be able to integrate into society, since he’s never actually lived in it, just in the television version. His life has as much to do with reality as Leave it to Beaver has to do with the actual 1950s.

We all wish (as the audience that watches Truman does) that we could be that one special person, chosen by destiny (or Ed Harris — close enough) to… do something. Other than be born, live as our birth and means dictate, then die. We need the chosen one myth, it keeps us from losing our minds in the vast, uncaring cosmos.

Truman shows that a chosen one is the avatar for the pointlessness of the audience’s lives, not a bringer of light and reason. Once he is gone, taking the inspiration and hope the audience relies on, we really only have two options: abandon the myth and try to find or make meaning in life, or, as the security guards say, “See what else is on.”

Weekend Music: The King is Gone (But He’s Not Forgotten)

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Neil Young at Toronto. Notable for the excellence of the harmonica work. One of those songs no one except the person who wrote it can play correctly. You don’t want your kids to internalize this attitude, but it is a way of thinking the 60s and 70s produced in North America. Great performance here. Watching this video is like standing in front of a large monument.

On to business.

No business today. Stop by tomorrow for a Fear the Walking Dead post from Luther, and read his damn blog, y’all.

Coffee here on Sunday, and we’re working on some things for next week which might include a Sourcerer’s 11 interview with author/blogger extraordinaire Alex Hurst.

Have a great weekend!