Tag Archives: fantasy

Day Twelve: I’ve Got Options

With the word “dungeons” as a part of literally the name of the game, it’s surprising how easily these can be forgotten. I know that, for me, if my players are going to have to explore one, it needs to matter.

It’s day twelve of 30 Days of D&D, and the topic is Favorite Dungeon Type or Location.

Video games like Skyrim are awesome for the quality of the sandbox the player is placed in. I remember hearing that as soon as you finished the tutorial / intro, you faced an unstated choice:  Follow the road to the next storyline quest location, or wander in whatever direction you liked, exploring the region and its assorted scenic points.

D&D can be like that. Some DMs prepare that way, sprinkling the setting with a whole lot of everything else that’s going on in the world. I think that’s a good component of a game, especially if you’re trying to maintain a sandbox style or at least feel.

At my best, I keep a few of those parts of the world at the ready in a computer file or hard copy folder, just in case the players decide their current plan isn’t as interesting as some bit of news or rumor they hear, or some random clue they find in the wild.

On the one hand, I don’t want them to feel like they’re on rails in any way–“You can only go east because, um… reasons.” Namely, because that’s where the thing I prepared is on the map. (I did have to admit that to a group of players once. Didn’t like it.)

That said, I also don’t mind if they end up mysteriously coming across the orc cave I’ve prepared, regardless of whether they turned north toward the mountains or east into the forest. It feels natural and unexpected, because I haven’t tied myself down to “this dungeon exists at this partiuclar spot, period dot, end of story.”

Even more than location, what matters to me about dungeons is purpose. Every dungeon or mini-dungeon I build is meant to have some kind of meaningful end result.

I don’t remember what, but something powerful and BAD happened at that altar, carving a deep ditch through the stone.

Maybe it’s finding out more information about a bigger threat to the region or discovering an item necessary for the Big Bad’s ultimate evil plan.

Maybe it’s a plot twist or even a low-scale moral conundrum. Those goblins you thought were a threat? They’re actually in trouble, oppressed by the kobolds who moved in with the young dragon they serve, or deceived by their newfound friend, the hag. This sort of thing has led to some great role-playing and even a few recurring NPCs of an unusual variety.

Ancient Ghost
A picture card I made for an ancient ghostly NPC the players had to deal with in order to enter a key structure within a ruined city…

Maybe it’s just some object of great power, the knowledge and details of which have been lost to time. I don’t know why, but I always love the “ruins of the ancient, more advanced civilization” background to a dungeon, with objects that exude strange powers, interact with the players in various ways (usually bad), or reveal secrets about the world on a much larger scale.

I care far less about the location or type than about why it matters for these heroes to stomp through this particular network of tunnels and caverns.

Day Eleven: Adventure Time

Today’s topic in the 30 Days of D&D (or yesterday’s… don’t judge me!) is:

Favorite adventure you ran

I’m thinking the creators of the post might mean published adventure content. D&D puts out a bunch of rule books or setting content, stuff that gives you and your players great big worlds to play in and great big heroes to portray, and that’s most of what I purchase.

They also put out scripted adventures – story arcs designed for characters at certain levels with enough details provided to run games, in case you’re not looking to try to design your own. While these might have enough details to provide a setting or add onto a campaign already in progress, they’re also designed around providing some villain or villains, who are enacting some evil plot and must be thwarted.

I’ve never run one of these.

A lot of people get excited about the new stuff, like when Tomb of Annihilation came out (late last year? I think? Wasn’t paying attention). More power to them; I certainly don’t have anything against people playing the scripted books. Sooner or later, I hope to run a game of Curse of Strahd, which is like D&D in a horror/vampire setting.

There are advantages to the adventure books – they usually have a lot more thoughtful details put into the encounters and immediate locations. Someone has mapped out the dungeon, or they’ve laid out the blueprints of the castle, along with all the traps, monsters, plot twists, and treasures. They’ve probably been more inventive and varied in their approach than the stuff I come up with on my own. Maybe they’ve put a lot of backstory in, or they’ve set out some additional plot hooks so that the group can continue playing and building upon the story after the published part is over.

The heroes try to rescue a (supposedly) good necromancer from drow captors and their elemental minions, in order to get to the bottom of a surge of undead swarming the mountainous region…

For better or worse, I have only run homebrew settings. Usually, I’m trying to explore a corner of the world in my fantasy works, building upon the little bit I’ve already established in my head or in my books and drafts. This is invaluable to me, as sometimes what the players do can spark a creative idea for a scene using my established fictional characters.

In a way, running a game based on the world in my head makes the improv part of my in-game storytelling job easier. I know what has transpired in this or that part of the world, and what someone in one town might know about what’s going on in the region. Even though there aren’t a lot of details written down, I feel more comfortable describing the world to my players than I would if I had to remember a bunch of details in a published book.

This might feel like a cop-out answer, but my favorite “adventure” that I’ve run is the ongoing story of the world I’ve made, and the players’ contributions to the events that shape its future.

Day Ten: In the Dark

I’m working my way through 30 Days of Dungeons and Dragons, and today’s topic is: Craziest In-Game Experience.

Side note: The concerned reader might ask, “Where did day nine go?” Actually, it was D&D session day, and after that, my brain is usually pretty fried. Additionally, the topic of “Favorite PC you’d like to play” is pretty close to my answer for Favorite PC in day eight. Given the chance, and the DM’s permission if it fit the story or setting, I would play a PC of “the good necromancer.” I wrote my thoughts on that concept, as well as a fantasy fiction scene imagining how it might work out.

Now for day ten!

I’ve enjoyed some really lovely groups, with some excellent role-players and a ton of laughter. Most of the crazy in-game moments happen when villains get slaughtered all too easily, or when players come up with insane requests that I can’t help but agree to.

Despite coming up with some prepared events and ideas of what might happen, a DM is often left feeling in the dark until moments play out, then forced to adapt. On the one hand, that can feel like panic, when everyone looks to you asking, “What happens next?” On the other hand, it creates a wild spontaneity, an energy born of impromptu acting, planning, and adjusting.

The collaborative part of tabletop RPGing is a key component to having a great game. Players who can act out a roll of 1 as well as they describe a roll of 20 are a great boon to my already-taxed mind when trying to keep the action going.

We had a moment where our rogue was trying to withhold some information or mislead a suspicious ruler in a city. Two of the players in this group were fans of rolling certain skill checks and then playing out the result of the roll. “It sucks when you come up with a good speech and then you roll a 1 on your diplomacy check. It feels off… so I’d rather roll, and then I can play it well or poorly based on how my character did.”

Any DM will say, “Yes, please, more power to you.”

So he rolls, gets a decent result, and offers a pretty good effort at giving the ruler what she needs without exposing compromising information. However, before I can respond in character, his buddy the fighter says, “I’m gonna help.”

He rolls a 1 and starts laughing. “Uhh… yeah. So…”  He turns to his friend and whispers as loud as a normal speaking voice, “SHE’S TOTALLY BUYING IT. YOU SHOULD LIE TO HER.”

I think my first lesson concerning how easily a DM’s plans go off the rails came in the first session I ran. We had our 4th Edition characters ready: a dwarf paladin, a couple elf rangers, a halfling rogue, an eladrin warlord, and a half-elf NPC.

I went with “you’re hired as merchant guards for a caravan, on your way down the road when–Bandits!” That first fight went well and got us a little bit used to the combat rules. Of course, the party wanted to chase down the bandits that got away, and maybe find their hideout.

The dwarf paladin’s player starts up this elaborate plan, being all diplomatic and “let’s see if we can work some arrangements out” and “we come in peace.” He rolls well, and my bandits are suspicious but eventually, the party and the bandits are standing around the campfire under the night sky.

Things seem to be going well, though I’m surprised that the players went with parley as the plan.

“So,” the dwarf’s player declares, “as we reach this agreement… the bandits are all human, right?”

Me: “…yes?”

“I attack the fire.”

Me: “…wat”

“It’s night time,” he says. “All of us have darkvision.” (4th Edition was so generous with darkvision.)

“I attack the fire. I want to hit it like a golf swing, just–you know, catching the main logs and throwing the embers up into the bandit leader’s face… but ultimately, I want to scatter the fire to where it’s no longer giving off that light.”

Me: “… roll, I guess.”

Two short rounds of combat later, cue the Final Fantasy victory music, because those bandits literally didn’t see what was coming for them.

And that’s when I learned what I was in for if I was going to keep DMing.

And that’s also when I decided I loved being on that end of the table, behind the screen, in the dark.

Day Eight: Never Again (again)

For the last week, I’ve been working my way through this lovely “30 Days of D&D” series:

Today’s topic is Favorite PC of your own.

I don’t often get the chance to play characters. Since I started playing D&D, I’ve been the DM for six different groups.

I’ve played a dreaded DMPC in a few of those, and very quickly learned how terrible that idea can be. I had two chances to make a character and play through a short session, once as part of playtest materials when 5E was still in the works, and once as part of a new group at the local library. I also created a fun character for a Pathfinder game that had to stop soon after it started.

Point being, many times, my NPCs are characters in the world who I would love to play as PCs if given the chance. My favorite character that I actually played as a PC was one I made to round out a small party for an intro session with my two sons, giving them a feel for their characters’ powers and skills.

We explored the first half of “Death House” from Curse of Strahd, and I played Assyla, a warlock haunted by her tragic past, who spoke with spirits whose voices no one else heard, and fought to ensure no one else suffered the same fate.

The face card I use for Assyla as an NPC. Face cards are amazing for building NPC recognition from your players.

Given an Old One style pact, twisted spells made the most sense (stuff like Arms of Hadar and Dissonant Whispers). I gave her a creepy way of talking where she repeated the last few words of anything she said, but in a raspy hiss like it came from a strangled throat (strangled throat).

I also arranged the role-play traits I felt would best suit her:

A person with no trust in divine beings, who refuses to be a victim or allow others to be victimized. “The gods won’t help us, so we must help ourselves (help ourselves). Rest assured, we won’t let anyone hurt you (hurt you).

She was chaotic good – not beholden to some laws or moral ideology, but certainly willing to sacrifice on behalf of others.

Even so, her flaw was assuming the worst in people–that, and the whole “talking to spirits” thing. As an NPC (or briefly as the DM PC to round out the party for my kids’ intro to playing 5E), she served as an unreliable voice that could give the party misleading “insight.”

The ‘haunted one’ background in Strahd includes another key component – a harrowing event that set the character on their path into some form of darkness. For Assyla, that was the day her entire village was slaughtered before her eyes. However, when the shadowy beast found her, it froze and stared at her for a moment before calmly walking away, never to return.

One day, in fiction or in a campaign, Assyla will have her time in the spotlight… but for now, she’ll appear as an NPC, providing heroes the questionable wisdom of those beyond the grave (beyond the grave).

Day Seven: Story Trumps Powers

Today is Day Seven of 30 Days of Dungeons & Dragons, and the topic is:

Favorite Edition

ok. It’s actually day eight for me… I failed my saving throw against sleep after getting home from work around 10:30 PM, so my post is late!

I feel like we’ll all get over that.

Full disclosure: I really only have two options to choose from, 4E and 5E, even though five editions exist. I suppose it might be fair to say that since I’ve tried Pathfinder, I’ve played something much like D&D 3.5, but I absolutely hated the mechanics of that system, so I won’t address it further.

I liked 4E. I love 5E.

I first started playing D&D when 4th Edition came out. Unbeknownst to me, having no previous experience with which to compare the new books, 4th Edition focused heavily on all the cool powers your characters possessed.

Every class had a variety of options. Some could be used all the time, at-will. Some were complex or taxing enough that you could only use them once per encounter or combat. Some were the best abilities in your whole bag of tricks, and could be used only once a day.

Fighters didn’t just get better at swinging a sword or ax as they leveled up… they learned amazing techniques and maneuvers that they could employ much like how a wizard might cast a spell.

I honestly enjoyed 4th. It felt like a big deal when one of my players declared, “I draw back my bow, glare at the enemy, and unleash a Thunder-tusk Boar Strike.” Then he rolled a nat 20, and everyone cheered at the ridiculous damage inflicted on this rando bad guy.

It also felt a lot like learning your button rotations in World of Warcraft or some other MMO. Use these abilities when fighting trash mobs, and then use all these “cooldown” super abilities when fighting a boss.

4E got a lot of grief for putting the spotlight on tactics and combat, powers and spells, while leaving the story in the dark corner at the edge of the stage. I think that’s an unfair perspective–if story mattered at your tables (as it always did to my players), you could make sure the collaborative storytelling aspect shone through.

It’s an unfair assessment in my opinion, but it’s one I hear often.

Not surprisingly, from the playtest materials of 5th Edition, the D&D team made sure to sprinkle hints and ideas throughout their works, like plot seeds ready to sprout into epic campaigns.

The character sheet dedicates prime real estate to jotting down reminders for role-playing, covering what matters to the character:

  • Personality Traits, like “I have a quip for every situation, the more inappropriate, the better” and “People, like feral beasts, are not to be trusted unless broken.”
  • Ideals, such as “I’ll always lend a helping hand” or “I’m not afraid to use my strength to get my way.”
  • Bonds, such as “I would do anything for a member of my old traveling troupe” or “One day I will find my missing sister and make those who took her pay.”
  • Flaws, such as “At best, I immediately forget the plan. Most days, I directly disrupt it” or “I can never resist a pretty face.”

When you make a character, you establish these aspects and have them readily available to answer “What would Grobthar do in this situation?”

One bit that caught my eye was the character backgrounds, particularly the starting equipment that you get for being a sage instead of a charlatan, for example. The sage starts with, among other things, a letter from an old friend with a question you haven’t yet been able to answer. What question? Who is this old friend? Where might the answer be found? Why does this information matter? 

The charlatan starts with a particular scheme they use to dupe their marks – do they forge documents, run con games on street corners, or make some easy gold by selling worthless trinkets to the naive? How would you role-play this in town? Who have you fleeced in the past? Who might be looking for a refund for the fake holy relic you pawned off on them?

The trinket tables in the DMG and Curse of Strahd are full of interesting and/or creepy options that can tie into a campaign or provide additional fluff for the setting.

Also, there are rules for laser guns, jetpacks, and bombs–if your campaign needs those. Haha… “needs,” as if there is any other option.

Newer 5E books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes break down the story and background elements for a variety of monsters, allowing a DM to create enemies that feel like real personalities operating inside a vivid world, with unique motivations and intentions along with distinctive features or quirks.

With Volo’s, for example, common enemies like a hag, an orc chieftain, or a gnoll pack alpha become much more than bags of hit points and loot, pursuing some obscure, vaguely evil threat while waiting for a party of heroes to come slay them for XP.

To me, 4E felt like a great game, well worth the time spent playing.

With every section of every book, the 5E materials feel like pieces of a living world that welcomes you into a story which is already being told, already ongoing, just waiting for the answer to the age-old question:

What do you do next?

Day Three: Lawful Stupid

Today’s 30 Days of D&D challenge is:

Favorite PC class.

Leaving aside previous editions, 5th Ed already gives a number of strong options. I can see lots of interesting uses for bards (I even had an annoying NPC bard sing a mocking song about the heroes in the party I DM for). Rogues are fun, especially when it’s not the chaotic neutral, steal-everything-in-sight type. Sorcerers bring rolls on the Wild Magic Surge table, making for some cinematic and/or hilarious moments in-game. Warlocks offer so many story-laden options depending on where they get their powers.

Despite all that, I decided upon Paladins as my favorite.

Not exactly a paladin, since this comes from LOTRO… but he looks the part

Those who have played editions prior to 4th coined the phrase “Lawful Stupid” regarding paladins because back then, pallies had to be bastions of virtue and morality… which often turned into some ridiculous moments where a paladin refused to go along with the party’s plan OR engaged in a foolish plan of their own, all because “I have to be Lawful Good or else I lose the source of my power!”

I mean, they DID have a lot of restrictions. From Wikipedia:

Typical tenets of the Paladin code are as follows (though many variants exist):

  • A Paladin must be of Lawful Good alignment.

  • A Paladin may never willfully commit an Evil act.

  • A Paladin cannot associate with any character who persistently commits acts which would cause the Paladin him/herself to Fall – notably Evil creatures.

  • A Paladin must remain truthful and forthright at all times.

  • A Paladin must give fair warning and due quarter to enemies.

  • A Paladin holds stealth, subterfuge, attack from the rear, missile weapons and especially poison as weapons of last resort.

That might lead to conflicts with the rogue, for example:

“Not only will I not slit the sleeping orc’s throat, but I will fight you if you try to do so.”

“Oh by all the gods, who invited this dolt on the quest?”

Now, I admit, there are a lot of storytelling options connected with keeping in good ties with the Divine in order to drop those holy smites on the forces of evil. Players might lose their alignments or their class powers and be forced to make atonement for their evil ways. Or they could just go evil and find… “other” sources of power.

4th Edition said, “Hey, you know what? Evil paladins are a thing.” It makes sense in a way. If the gods can give you holy power, certainly the EVIL gods (or neutral gods) can likewise grant their power to their servants. One of the first players in a campaign I DM’d was a dwarf paladin of nature, and he was awesome.

5th Edition took it further and said, “You know what? Some paladins champion an ideal or virtue. You want to play the brooding edgelord with a past who is out for vengeance? Why not make that your oath which gives you power? You want to play that atheist paladin? Why not?”

Again, the point is broadening the story options, not restricting, so I feel like it works.

On top of that, Mike Mearls (one of the big names in D&D design) put out a video saying that classes like paladin and warlock don’t have to stay on good terms with their power source (divine beings or powerful supernatural entities, respectively), so that does away with much of the “lawful stupid” problem of the past.

This step, I disagree with, as I feel like it divorces the character and their power from the story aspect which explains their existence… but to each table and player their own.

“Do you have a moment to hear about the Dark Lord and his gift for you?”
Totally a paladin, guys… it’s fine.

Since the newer editions opened up more options, I see interesting or compelling story backgrounds that fit the class. It’s a very close competition with some of the others, but if forced to choose only one class, my PC will be a paladin.

Delusions and Adventures – Two Open Submission Opportunities

Writer friends and followers:

While there are a host of magazines and collections that often solicit submissions, two recent options caught my eye.

ApparitionLit runs a quarterly open solicitation for submissions of poetry and short fiction, with some appropriately thrilling or mysterious theme. This quarter is “delusion,” but unfortunately, the session is about to close (Feb 28th).

They’re accepting works with a theme of vision from May 15-31, and submission guidelines can be found here.

Find a quiet place, listen to the voices in your head, and write out all your inner pain… easy!

 

 

 

 

 

Since I’ve been focused on preparing my own submission, I failed as a blogger and provided those links far too late for anyone else to benefit. To make up for this heinous misdeed, here is another opportunity for short story submissions:

Rachel Ritchey is organizing a short story contest for adventure fantasy and sci-fi pieces as part of an anthology to raise money for charity. The inspiration for this piece is a cover picture provided with the submission details at the link above.

This contest just opened up today (Feb 26th) and runs until March 16th.

Now my guilty conscience is (somewhat) appeased, and I can get back to working on my own pieces.

A Bright Future

Netflix released Bright starring Will Smith the other day (Dec 22nd), and I found some unexpected free time today where a 2-hour movie could fit.

Vanity Fair reviews Bright here
“Be nice if you could do some of that magic $#!+ right about now…”

The above image comes from Vanity Fair, who are far less flattering in their review than me. I might be biased, wanting a movie like this to work more than I care about whether it deserves a place in a cinematic hall of fame.

Here are my spoiler-free thoughts:

Bright is a good movie–not amazing, not without some obvious faults–and I look forward to more of this fresh setting and novel concept.

I say “novel” because I can’t think of a modern fantasy movie that’s worth its entry fee. In books, video games, and tabletop RPGs, modern fantasy has long been a thing. Shadowrun springs to mind, though Bright lacks the cyberpunk flair.

Pros: Will Smith is Will Smith. He can’t help but shine. I already mentioned the novelty of the setting, but I like that they pointed to a history they didn’t bother to fully explain. It feels more like a real world that way, and the few times they slipped exposition into the dialogue didn’t feel too painful or forced. Bright touches on the expected themes: racism, privilege, tensions between communities and police forces. For the most part, I think it does this believably and effectively. The action is entertaining, a nice mixture of magic and gunfire. Most of all, Bright scratches an itch I didn’t know I had and makes me want another installment without leaving big questions unresolved. It’s almost like a good pilot for a series, and instead, you’ll get another sequel with Will Smith and presumably the rest of the main characters.

Cons: It felt like a really slow build. I didn’t really care about what was happening until a good half-hour in. Some of the “reveals” felt all too obvious and expected. You’re probably going to call a few things as soon as you realize they are part of a subplot, and you’ll be right. I guess it IS fantasy so certain things are going to go the main characters’ way, or else we wouldn’t be reading about them. This is Tolkien in the modern world, not Game of Thrones… not that Tolkien is a bad thing, but I know it’s not what some people want. Somehow our heroes survive fights with creatures that can breeze through LAPD SWAT teams. The villains felt a little hammy and made some really stupid decisions–or failed to take action when they should have. (Kill your foe, don’t gloat.) Finally, either magic is relatively tame unless you have sweet gear, or nobody really unloaded their magic skill… and I have no way of knowing which is the case.

None of that detracted enough to make me regret watching, and I heartily recommend a viewing. However, I’ll caveat that with…

Bright is definitely for mature viewers. Depending on your taste in films, you might balk at the strong language throughout the film, or the frequent graphic violence, although the latter is more tame than what makes it to the big screen. The characters do enter a strip bar at one point and breasts are shown.

My two cents. Your mileage may vary.

If you watched it, what do you think? Let me know how wrong I am in the comments section.

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Means Condemn the End

A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).

In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.

One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:

Is necromancy inherently evil?

If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.

In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.

In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.


It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you know all that already, so I’ll stop explaining the concepts and get back to the question:

Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?

In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?

I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.

The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.

But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.”  “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.”  “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”

I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)

I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:

Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building. 

Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.

Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.

In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.

Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.

Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.

Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.

A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.

One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.

Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:

“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”

The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.

Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.

It doesn’t make any sense.

For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!

Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”

Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!

Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.

Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.

As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.

What do you think?

Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.