03 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 9 - Favorite PC You'd Like to Play

This is a strange question.  Does this mean a pre-gen, or someone else's PC, or a concept for a character I'd like to play?

If we're talking pre-gen, then my answer is clear.  Let's go back to DL1 Dragons of Despair, the first module in the Dragonlance campaign, published by TSR way back in 1984.

Dragonlance was something new- an epic series of modules and source material that told a deep story and fleshed out a new campaign world, Krynn.  The PCs had the opportunity to quite literally save the world from evil.  The original presentation of the modules included all sorts of immersive information including sheet music for Goldmoon's song and an eventual book that included Krynnish recipes and poetry.  The Companions that would become so familiar from the novels were included here as pre-generated characters for players to use.

I.  Call.  Sturm. 

Sturm Brightblade, the son of a disgraced knight in a waning order of knighthood.  The young man who so stridently upholds the ideals that knighthood once held dear that he surpasses in the eyes of many knights with a more noble pedigree.  He has nothing but the gear he carries and the ancient armor and sword he wears, but he fights to uphold the Code and the Measure.  To dream the impossible dream, right?

That's my choice for a D&D character I'd love to play that I have never had the opportunity to play.  I think he would be a lot of fun and provide some great roleplaying opportunities for a party.

02 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 8 - Favorite PC Of Your Own

Having been tossing dice for 29 years, thinking back over all the characters I've played is an interesting endeavor.  The funny part is that one would think I'd played a lot more PCs than I actually have.  The curse of the Dungeon Master, I suppose, since I started DMing almost immediately after learning what roleplaying games were.

My first memorable character was Brother Maynard of the Holy Outhouse, a BD&D Cleric I played in Daniel Varner's and Tim Goorley's games when I was in Boy Scouts.  I recall his holy symbol being a miniature toilet seat.  We had made some teenage boy jokes about the holiest, most precious thing in a medieval D&D world being decent restroom facilities, and the very loose focus of the BD&D rules on what Clerics actually believed lent to Br. Maynard being quite effective while at the same time being comic relief. 

I'm going to have to answer this one in a two-parter (again) as my absolute favorite PC to play does not qualify, since he is not from a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The PC I have had the most fun with overall is Captain Deak Windsailor, a Corellian smuggler who flew during the Clone Wars for the Corellian Militia.  Deak is a character I played in Bobby Dean's two excellent Star Wars campaigns, and I loved every minute of him.  He was a crusty old veteran who was many times annoyed by the younger rebels with which he associated.  He was prone to showing them how it was done during the Clone Wars.  Deak was captain of a converted Mon Calamari yard tug affectionately known as the Squid Trawler.  He constantly complained that he wanted a proper Corellian ship like any self-respecting Corellian operator, but he had several opportunities to trade up and made many excuses for not leaving the Trawler behind. Many, MANY great adventures were had with Deak, and I hope to play him again some day.

Now, for a proper D&D answer. 

I am currently playing a character named Mikhail Ivanov, Misha to his friends, who is the younger son of the Baron of Luln.  He comes from a Traladaran family of deep roots who have learned to respect Duke Stefan Karameikos and are his stauch allies.  Of course, this puts them at odds with other old Traladaran families who seek to oust the Thyatian upstart and his people, but hey, it's good for the story.   Misha is the first Bard I've ever played in any edition.  As I constructed him on paper, his personality started to form in my mind.  Misha was bookish and affable, always ready with a tall tale or historical epic.  He spend his time in a series of libraries and public houses, and ended up the black sheep of his family.  What his family, who valued martial prowess and brute strength, did not know- was that Misha was at need the Red Dragon, a Zorro-like folk hero of the Traladaran people.

I modeled the Red Dragon on Bruce Campbell's Daring Dragoon from the sadly short-lived television series Jack of All Trades.  Using  his bardic abilities and spellcasting talents, Misha as the Red Dragon was able to pull off all sorts of swashbuckling daring-do while cracking wise and using his taunt cantrip to cutting effect... that is, until the Marilenev family organized an assassination attempt on Duke Stefan, and Misha was killed defending the Duke.

Misha's allies quested for a gem of adequate value to have him brought back, but in the interim, Misha had an encounter with Halav, the patron immortal of the Traladaran people.  King Halav told Misha that he would return to the world to spread the word that Duke Stefan Karameikos was the will of Halav returned to the world, and that Stefan would unite Karameikos and the Traladaran people as Halav had done in his lifetime.  This gave me some ideas on what to do with Misha...

I talked it over with the DM.  We made a couple of changes.  Misha had died having picked up the knowledge bard specialization, we brought him back switching to valor bard.  So Misha returned to the living using the Red Dragon identity less and less - and doing his own fighting more and more.  He now wears a breastplate and carries a longsword, and tells tales of the valor of King Halav and the honorable deeds of Duke Stefan Karameikos.  I can't wait to see where else his story will take him now that they've discovered vampires preying on Luln, and a mysterious mist...

30 June 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 7 - Favorite Edition.

Ooooh, boy.  This is a can of worms.  Yes, I'm a veteran of the Edition Wars.  The experience has left me with some insights into what makes for great games, and what gets in the way.  Oddly, I'm a bit contradictory myself about a lot of my own conclusions- so I don't find it too hard to believe that there are zealots out there who champion one edition or another to the exclusion of all else. "Your favorite game sucks" has become something of an in-joke, since it seems that no matter how universally appealing an RPG seems, someone out there hates it with the fiery passion of a dying sun.  No game seems immune, and no edition of D&D seems to be immune either.

Let me start by saying that there is no edition of D&D currently in existence that I will refuse to play.  Yes, even 4e.  I find that each edition has strong points in favor of its use.  I do have a favorite, and I'll get to that, but I want to talk about other editions first to express my appreciation for D&D in all its incarnations.

0e, or the original 1974 D&D, has only recently become something I can say I've played.  Thanks to reprints, PDFs and Swords & Wizardry, I got introduced to the original D&D game more than three decades after it made its debut.  I expected to find clunky- and to a degree, there was a fair amount of clunk to the rules.  Some classes were missing from what you'd expect.  All weapons did d6 damage.  High ability scores got you a +1, low a -1, end of story.  What this, and Scott McKinlay's excellent Dungeon Mastery showed me, was that 0e D&D could be an incredible game because of the primitive and incomplete nature of the rules.  Go for it- rules don't cover something?  Roll a die.  Any die.  I don't care.  Decent roll?  OK, you succeed.  We played a campaign that was every bit as much fun as any game with more "complete" rules.

B/X Moldvay/Cook D&D Basic deserves a shout-out here.  It's recently been the basis of many retro clone projects from Labyrinth Lord to Stars Without Number.  It's a complete, self-contained RPG in two volumes covering 1st level to 14th level.  B/X has no more levels.  B/X needs no more levels.  If you want D&D in a medium-range campaign, this is all you need in 128 pages.

AD&D 1e was the first AD&D I played, as 2e wasn't out yet.  I still love AD&D, and would readily jump into a campaign.  Yes, some of the subsystems were almost random in their rules- no such thing as a "universal mechanic" back then.  Thing is, it opened up a LOT of options, and with things like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, there were a lot of classes and races that could be played.  Nothing wrong with 1e AD&D if one considers it a product of its time- it was the first multi-hardcover RPG.

AD&D 2e was the game I spent most of high school playing.  It launched my Freshman year, and we jumped to it almost immediately.  I loved the art, trade dress and layout of the 2e books.  I loved the brown leatherette cover splatbooks.  The 3-ring binder Monstrous Compendium.  It was a streamlined AD&D, and maintained everything we loved about AD&D.  We didn't miss the things that were left out, because we just grafted them in from our 1e books.  Again, I'd play this in a microsecond if the opportunity arose.

3.0 and 3.5...  Well, I liked them well enough.  Feats were a neat idea that quickly became open to bloat and abuse, but a lot of things we'd house ruled for years became standard.  Full HD for 1st level?  Yep.  Skills as a standard thing?  Yep.  Mages getting bonus spells for high INT the way Clerics got them for high WIS?  Yep.  I did not like the increasing complexity of PC, NPC and Monster design that the feat system wove into D&D, but all in all the system was robust enough to spin off lots of D20 System games I still like.  Spycraft and D20 Modern stand out in my mind.  Yeah, I'd do 3.5 again if a group wanted to - but I'd probably choose AD&D over 3.x if given my druthers.

4e isn't D&D to me.  Randomness seems to break 4e, it's math is built tightly to do a certain kind of game and do it well.  Old school campaigns I found difficult because of the whole formula for encounter difficulty versus encounters between levels plus it was assumed everyone in the party was the same level...  Yeah.  Now, ask me why I love it?  I love 4e, not for being D&D, but for being a tabletop RPG that rewards tactical thinking and teamwork on the part of the players.  If I wanted to run a campaign based on a traveling gladiator team, or something like Final Fantasy Tactics, this would be my go-to game.  And yes, I'd love to run that game.

5e is amazing.  I couldn't have asked for a better improvement on what has come before.  5e manages to scratch my Old School itch at the same time it scratches my New Shiny itch.  Things are simplified, streamlined, and clarified.  The game just... works.  The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is sheer genius.  The revamped Feats are what Feats should have been to begin with.  I love that it mixes OS with NS.  I like spellcasters having "At-Will" cantrips, it means the mage is always a mage, even when his big spells are blown.  I mean... it's just what I wanted.  But it's still not my absolute favorite.

OK, who called it?

Yes, BECMI D&D is my favorite version of D&D ever.  I know 5e is cleaner and tighter, but I LOVE this version of D&D.  It was my first D&D, and it continues to be the one I want to play above others.  I like race-as-class.  I like level titles, and "name" level, and the Mystara setting, and I find that the Rules Cyclopedia is the best single-volume RPG I own, bar none.

Is it just nostalgia?  Is it just Elmore art?  No, not really.  It has just the right balance of crunch for me.  The rules are there, but I have room to play with ability checks, or saves, or just saying "toss a die."  It has optional rules for skills, weapon proficiencies, mass combat and domain rulership.  What's not to love?

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 6 - Favorite Deity.

I had to think hard about this one.  I have played a LOT of Clerics over the years.  In 3e, with the Greyhawk-inspired list of deities, I always leaned toward St. Cuthbert for the healing angle.  In 4e, I really dug the Raven Queen for style and a sort of "valar morghulis" attitude.  But I guess when I get right down to it, thanks to Mystara being my favorite game world, and Karameikos being my favorite realm within that game world, I have to go with the classic Traladaran Immortals - Halav, Petrov and Zirchev.

BECMI D&D does not have actual deities as such, they have Immortals, mortals who through deed and merit ascended to become a higher being.  They are somewhere along the power level of the Greek or Roman pantheon in that they regularly meddle in mortal affairs and are themselves mortal after a fashion.  Halav was a King, and he adventured along with his companions Petrov and Zirchev.  All three rose to Immortal status, with Halav saving Traladara from invastion by "beastmen" by killing their leader.  This leads to the three becoming the patron Immortals of the Traladaran people, and sparking the Cult of Halav later when some followers of Halav believe Stefan Karameikos to be the reincarnation of their beloved King.

  See THIS article from the Vaults of Pandius for a bit more info.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 5 - Favorite Die or Dice

Well, you never forget your first.  My favorite dice would have to be the ones I purchased with my own money back in 1987 to supplement the dice that came with the various games I played.  To this day, I maintain a cigar box full of dice of the same pedigree and color, although the surviving dice of my original set are in a special dice bag with many of my vintage dice.  I have a lot of the old hard  plastic dice that needed to be crayoned or inked- but like many vintage dice quite a few of them are worn and rounded.  Those dice got retired to a keepsake dice bag along with my first purchase.  You can click here and see the Koplow dice set, or its modern equivalent, that I purchased back in 1987 at King's Hobby Shop in Austin, Texas.  It was the 10-piece tube (though I remember it being 9, one less d6) that included 1d4, 4d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1 tens 10, 1d12 and 1d20.  They were transparent red dice with white ink.  And they were my first color-matched set, used to run my very first Robotech games as they were purchased the same day I got Robotech Book 1: Macross from the same shopping trip.  I use my modern clones of these original dice in the 5e D&D game I play once or twice a month, but let me tell ya- they don't roll like those first ones did.  Natural 1s all the dang time.

Honorable mention goes to the 20-sided d10s I got in my FASA Star Trek boxed set purchased for me by Mammaw and Pappaw Webb when I was in the 7th Grade, and the almost completely rounded d20 I used to play Lone Wolf game novels in algebra class my Freshman year.  I still have all three of these dice, and they are in the same keepsake bag as my first set.                                                                                                                   

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 4 - Favorite Game World

OK, so this one made me think for a bit.  I have a lot of experience as a DM but have played in relatively few published game worlds.  For example, I own several Greyhawk products, but have only run games there in a coincidental fashion- some modules are set in Greyhawk so you could arguably say I've run Greyhawk games.  I've wanted to run in Kara Tur, but never been given the opportunity due to my player base being less interested in Asian-inspired game worlds.  I also loved Al Qadim, thought I've never run there for the same reason.  My Al Qadim book sits on the shelf next to my bed, and I read it from time to time just for story inspiration.  Forgotten Realms?  I own every core set for the Realms since the original gray box, but have never actually run there aside, again, from the occasional module.  Why?  Because when FR first came out, I was already running in the Known World, and then FR exploded into so much canon I really didn't have the inclination to keep up.  I was happy with the game worlds I had come to love.

  My runner-up is Dragonlance.  I love Krynn for many reasons, but I'll hit the big ones and move on.  First, Solamnic Knights.  The whole story of a once glorious but now faded knighthood that has grown inflexible and ossified- hey, wait... isn't this what happened to the Jedi?  I love the ideals of what the Solamnic Knights were supposed to have been, and the opporunity for a PC to make them uphold those ideas once more.  Something else I love about Dragonlance are the mages.  The Order of High Sorcery with the White, Black and Red-robed mages.  I really, REALLY dig that idea, as well as the idea that the phases of Krynn's three moons - Lunitari, Solonari and Nuitari - have an effect on the spellcasting abilities of the mages.  Everything about the Dragonlance world (during the War of the Lance, anyway) rocks... except, perhaps, Kender.

  So that brings me to my favorite game world.  Well, I'm going to cheat a bit.  One, it's a tie.  And two, it's a tie-in.  Hows that, you ask?  Well, there are two game worlds I invariably use for my D&D and AD&D games.  The first and oldest is Mystara, also known as The Known World.  It dates back to the Moldvay/Cook Expert Set circa 1980.  It was expanded on in modules, the 1983 BECMI sets, and the stellar Gazetteer series throughout the 80s, and became part of the AD&D line in the 90s.  Loved it.  The second setting is Ravenloft, the realm of Gothic horror inspired by the module of the same name, I6, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman in 1983.  I say it's a tie-in because in my D&D cosmology, the first of the realms in the Demiplane of Ravenloft was Barovia, which was itself an area of the Altan Tepes mountains in the Mystaran area of Traldar.  So here we go.

  My love affair with Mystara is nearly as old as my love of D&D.  The world we traveled in Daniel Varner's campaign was pretty much The Known World as presented in the Blue Book.  We started in Threshold, part of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos.  Threshold was suggested as a starting point both in the Moldvay/Cook and Mentzer Expert books.  It's a small settlement on the threshold of civilized lands, hence the name.  The Duchy of Karameikos is where a huge percentage of my D&D campaigns start.  It's just such an evocative place to adventure.  The land was known of old as Traladara, and its indigenous peoples are reminiscent of Balkan or Slavic peoples.  Then Stefan Karameikos, an young noble from the Empire of Thyatis, traded his ancestral lands for the Emperor's blessing to take over the Traladara.  You immediately get the clash of cultures as the old Traladaran nobles attempt to presever their power against the Thyatian upstart.  There's even a rebellion fought against the Duke by the Marilenev family.  This gives players a lot of options- are they Thyatian expats looking, as their Duke is, to expand their own wealth and influence by taming a barbaric land?  Are they Traladaran natives who either embrace or reject the Thyatian meddling in their affairs?

  Mystara isn't just Karameikos, though.  Within a reasonable traveling distance are many lands, the
Arabian-inspired Ylauram, the Northern Reaches with its Norse-like inhabitants, the Mageocracy of the Empire of Alphatia, the Italian merchants of Darokin and a lot more.  I love Mystara for its depth and diversity, and for the wonderful Gazetteer series inaugurated by the Karameikos book penned by the late, great Aaron Allston. 

  My tie/tie-in game world is Ravenloft.  As I mentioned, this was a spin-off of the Gothic horror module Ravenloft written for AD&D.  It was one of the first modules that wasn't a simple dungeon crawl, dripping with theme and containing some replayability, since the Tarot-like Tarokka reading given by the Vistani woman at the beginning of the module sets variables in the module that change the goal, the treasure locations, even the location of Strahd, the vampire himself.  This module was wildly successful, thus being fleshed out into an entire "Demiplane of Dread."  Castle Ravenloft became the seat of a domain, one of many, that were lifted from other AD&D worlds and deposited into a demiplane full of evil and terror.  Each lord of each domain was imprisoned there for eternity to stew in their own transgressions.  Strahd, for example, had to relive losing his Tatyana again and again, for his sin was killing his own brother to gain her hand.  There is a lot of inspiration from classic horror literature here- Adam stands in for Frankentien's monster, for example.  There's also evil from entirely different campaign settings.  Lord Soth, the fallen Solamnic Knight, appears here from Krynn.

  Ravenloft presents different ways to do horror with D&D.  The rules in the original boxed set are pretty punishing, with Clerics and Paladins getting hit particularly hard.  Communication with deities are disrupted, and some spells are perverted by the demiplane itself.  Some spells work differently, and some do not work at all.  Any evil act will potentially draw the attention of the dark powers that created the realm, who will offer power in exchange for corruption.  TONS of story fodder here.

  I tied Ravenloft into Mystara by having the people of Barovia and the Vistani gypsy-analogues be transplanted Traladarans, and I retconned the Vistani into the Duchy of Karameikos in that role.  Barovia was in the Altan Tepes mountains northwest of Korizegy Keep, and the Vampire Korizegy was a betrayed ally of Strahd's, and has a bone to pick with him.  It all worked out rather well in an epic campaign I ran about ten years ago.  Twas amazing.

  See you in the next post!

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 3 - Favorite PC Class

Well, there isn't much internal debate on this one.  I *know* what my favorite PC class is without even thinking about it very hard.

Before I get to that, though, I'm going to discuss my runners-up.  My very first D&D PC was a Cleric, but he didn't last very long.  My first D&D PC with any sort of lifespan was a Magic-User who, as I noted before, lived into the late 20s level-wise.  That's as far as I've ever gotten a character since- in fact I've not gotten a PC out of the teens in level since then.  So I do have a very, very soft spot for spellslingers.

 I love Magic-Users, or Mages, Wizards, whatever.   Since I cut my teeth on BECMI D&D, I tend to revert to that nomenclature.  I wasn't a very athletic kid, so the idea of a bookworm who could potentially become incredibly powerful and wield unearthly forces was very attractive to me.  It was also what drove me to learn as much as I could about computers and electronics as a kid, because that's the closest to magic we're going to get in the mundane world.  I loved tossing magic missile spells (they never miss!) and phantasmal force and yes, the old favorite, fireball.  Magic-User was where it was at, and remains among my first choices when I create a new character for a fantasy game.  I'll throw Elf in here, too, as Elves in BECMI D&D are basically multiclass Fighter/Magic-Users.  The Elf, as described in Day 2's post, can wear full armor, use any weapon, and still toss spells.  This, of course, is limited by slow level advancement- but still.  Of course, Elves topped out at 12th level, so they'd never have access to the really powerful magic available to human Magic-Users as they climbed the level ladder.  That sort of power took a long time in-game and IRL to amass, but woe to the foe who crosses the mage that wields it.  Think fireball is bad?  Wait'll you get a load of meteor swarm.

Also in the runner-up category is a class that appears in BECMI only after a Fighter earns name level, a term lost on more recent D&D players that refers generally to 9th level and specifically to the level where a class gains the title by which the PC is considered to have matured in power and standing.  At 9th level, a Fighter could opt to become a Paladin, which was a separate class in AD&D.  Paladins were warrior knights with a holy devotion to an immortal- like the Crusader knights, but with a bit of clerical magic.  Folks that know me generally describe me as having "Lawful Good" ideals, always wanting to do what's right, to help those in need, etc.  My friend Scott has referred to it as a "White Knight Complex."  Perhaps that's why Paladins appeal to me.  This extends even moreso to the Cavalier of AD&D's Unearthed Arcana and especially to the Solamnic Knight of Dragonlance Adventures.  The story of Sturm Brightblade, who sought all his life to uphold the honor and ideals of a knighthood that was tarnished and dismissed by society, who succeeded in his actions and in his own death in surpassing those same knights in honor and valor- WOW.  What a tale.  If Don Quixote de la Mancha had been a younger man, sound of wind and limb, he and Sturm would certainly have had a similar career.  The ideals contained in the song "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha sum up what I love about Paladins.  And the world will be better for this- that one man, scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star!


So... this brings me to my absolute favorite PC class.  CLERIC.  Why Cleric?  Well, because of the Elmore artwork in the Expert Set book, initially.  MAN those Clerics rocked.  Also, Aleena, the Cleric from your first adventure in the D&D Basic Set.  But seriously, take a look at the Cleric.  Wear any armor.  Use any blunt weapon- warhammers and maces rule.  Now, gain the ability to make undead creatures run from your holy rebuke.  Now, on top of that, add the ability to cast spells that heal and protect, and even a few with offensive capabilities.  WOW!  That makes for a powerhouse class that amazingly fun to play.  You can play the character like the Paladin, just minus the sword.  You can play a jolly, Friar Tuck-style Cleric.  You can play a vengeful Cleric of an immortal of War, there's so many ways to play a Cleric.  All of them, however, are able to mix it up in melee *and* use clerical abilities to defeat undead and heal their allies.  Most D&D parties would never leave town without a Cleric.  Sure, the Elf can fight and cast- but he can't heal.  The only source of magical healing beneath 9th level in BECMI is the Cleric, and it was and remains my favorite D&D character class.