Friday, August 7, 2009

Jumping the Orc

Remember that episode of Happy Days where Fonzie jumped over the horde of Uruk-Hai? Me too. It was never the same after that, was it? And as long as we're waxing nostalgic, here's another blast from my "Live and Let Dice" column. This one is from November of 2004 and it's called....


November 3, 2004

A friend of mine was telling me about his D&D campaign. "Yeah, we're up to the 33rd level now," he said.

I boggled. The thirty third level???

"Well, we did start the campaign at 10th level."

I still boggled. I don't think I've ever been in a game of Dungeons & Dragons where we got past ninth level, mainly because I've never been in a game which lasted that long.

This got me to thinking. When do you end a game? When do you know that the campaign has long enough? When has your role-playing game jumped the orc?

Probably the biggest terminator of campaigns is TURNOVER. A couple players leave the group, either from internal friction or scheduling conflicts or discovering girls or whatever and suddenly you have a big hole in your party. With a big enough group, this might not be a problem. "During the night, the Paladin received a vision from his deity telling him he's been transferred to third shift, so he's gone off on a separate quest." Or: "Torgil unexpectedly got turned to stone, so he's going to be a statue until his girlfriend lets him game with us again." Or more subtly, "Suddenly, in the middle of the forest, Gunther got hit by a truck."

Sometimes the hole is difficult to fill. "Okay, we lost our paladin, our half-ogre ranger and our our drow ninja. We still have the halfling and the gnomish cleric. So, who's ready to tackle the Elder Wyrm?" Even the loss of a single player can doom a game, if it's the right player. If, for example, you've built your campaign around a specific character and his quest, you kind of need that character. I once joined a group where, after my second or third game, the GM hosting it left her husband and ran off to another state. That sort of killed the game.

An empty seat in the dining room is pretty easy to spot, but some game-killers are less obvious. The most insidious is BURNOUT; when the GM or the group gets tired of the campaign or the GM just runs out of ideas. Hack & slash games rarely have this problem because the GM can always dig out the Monster Manual and throw more critters at his group; but a more plot-based campaign requires a little more skull work in setting up story and creating interesting NPCs. Even the old reliable dungeon crawl will come to the point where the players say "Awww... not the legion of undead berserker beholders AGAIN!!!"

Related to Burnout, but in a more positive way, we have ATTAINMENT. With Burnout, the GM has run out of ideas. With Attainment, the players have Gone About as Fer as They Kin Go. Characters often have goals, and how they strive to attain these goals provide the GM with a good source of plot material. They could be as simple as "I want go gain enough XP to advance to the next level", or as dramatic as "I want to avenge the death of my brother", or "I want to clear my name of the crime I did not commit", or, as is often the case with my wife's characters, "I want to marry that cute megalomaniac who wants to rule the world!"

Once the players achieve their goals, the GM can try to create new goals to pursue. After all, a half-elf barbarian/druid's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for? But the attainment of an important goal can also be used as a good excuse to retire the character or even the game. If you think of the game as a novel, plot your storyline will be the most important event in the characters' lives. That's why sequels so rarely work; it's hard to top a satisfying conclusion to a story.

I once played in a campaign where our group had been duped by an evil NPC named Lord Raldigan Cheese, (actually it was Raldigan Monterey, but we really disliked him so we called him "Lord Cheese"), into unleashing Ultimate Evil into the world. The campaign became a long quest to once again imprison the Evil. Okay. So we did it. We hunted down Lord Cheese, killed him and stuffed the Evil back into its box. Yippee. Then Lord Cheese came back. And we did it again. Then he got better again. By this time the players were about ready to dip the GM himself in fondue.

Looking back on that campaign, I can see that the GM wanted to continue it, but he couldn't think of any threat to top Ultimate Evil. So he had to keep bringing Ultimate Evil back. He would have done better to simply end the campaign the first time we beat the Big Baddie.

When I get to a point where I'm ready to close off a game, I try to steer it towards a big CLIMAX, in which the individual characters meet their goals and the overall goal of the campaign is attained. That way the game has a good bang at the end so you know when to clap. Sometimes this takes some steering. The "Uncanonical X-Pals" campaign I ran recently with my wife Lute navigated at least three major plot climaxes which could have made good stopping points for the game but either it was too soon, or there were too many loose end in the plot to be addressed or something. Then, when I was ready to wrap things up, it took me several more sessions to set up a climactic conflict that would top what had gone on before. It took some doing, but it was a memorable and satisfying conclusion to a fun campaign.

Ideally, when one campaign ends, you like to have ANOTHER IDEA for a game ready to take it's place. This could be a matter of another player wanting to run something, or the GM wants to try a different genre or system as a change of pace, or someone bought a new suppliment or system that he's just dying to try out. If your group has more than one GM, very often you will wind up with more than one campaign running at the same time, with the GM's taking turns whose game the group will play each session. (In one group I used to game with, the first couple hours of each session was spent voting on what game we would play).

Often in a situation like this, the newer, fresher idea will supplant the older campaign. There is nothing wrong with this; Role-playing games grow, mature and fade, to be replaced by new campaigns. It's all part of the Circle of Life.

But on the other hand, there's no rule that says a campaign has to end at a certain point. As long as the GM and the players are enjoying a game, let it ride. Even up to the Thirty-third Level and Beyond.

And if you have any thoughts or remarks about gaming, cartoons or the Fonz, please leave a comment! I live for feedback!

Nil Desparandum!

Friday, July 31, 2009

"Hey, Babe, What's Your Alignment?"

More stuff from my "Live and Let Dice" archives. This piece, from July 16 2004, discusses one of the most distinctive features of D&D, the alignment system.

"Hey, Babe! What's Your Alignment?"

July, 16, 2004

By Kurt Wilcken

It had been several months since I had last played my halfling thief, Frisco Flagons, in Fredd's AD&D campaign, and he warned me that some interesting things had developed during my absence. The party's cleric, an excruciatingly cutesey halfling druid named Caerduin Bando and played by Fredd's then-girlfriend, was telling everyone that she and Frisco were engaged. So when Frisco came back into town, everyone kept congratulating him and he had no idea why until he met Caerduin's father passing out invitations in the local tavern.

Now when Frisco finally confronted Caerduin (at the honeymoon cottage her father had built for them), the logical thing to do would have been to come out and tell her, he didn't want to marry her; but instead of telling her how he really felt, he tried talking his way out of the situation. Big mistake.

While the wily halfling was talking himself deeper and deeper, the village priest who was supposed to perform the ceremony showed up. Before Frisco could bolt out the window, Caerduin said in her cutesey-sweet lilt: "I cast Word of Command... MARRY!"

Now this raised an interesting dilemma for Fredd. Could the "Word of Command" spell be used in such a fashion? Bryon and Cath, the other players that day, were more concerned with the ethical question. "You can't do that!" Cath said. "You're Lawful Good! That goes against your alignment!"

"No I'm not," Caerduin smiled sweetly and held up her character sheet. "See? Druids are Neutral!!!"

* * * * *

The Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is one of the most distinctive aspects of the game; an attempt to provide a moral framework for a game which, when you come right down to it, is mainly about killing things and stealing treasure. It does so by classifying a character's behavior according to nine distinctive alignments based on two scales: Good vs. Evil, and Law vs. Chaos.

Law and Chaos are familiar enough concepts to anyone who's read the Elric of Melnibone stories by Michael Moorcock, or any of the more mystic DC Comics characters during the 1980s. A Lawful character believes in Following The Rules, adhering to strict moral codes and social mores. A chaotic character rejects the rules of society. He may have his own moral code, but it is a personal one which he will be willing to bend if circumstances warret it.

Good and Evil seem easier to understand, but can be a bit tougher to define, except in an "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" way. Good characters generally treat others with respect, are kind to children and small animals and strive to make the world a better place. Evil characters like to kick puppies, burn down places of worship and turn your favorite books and TV shows into Will Smith movies.

In between the extremes of both scales lies Neutral. A character can be Neutral in regards to Good and Evil, or regarding Law and Chaos, or both (although this last alignment is discouraged). By some interpretations, Neutral characters are concerned with "balance" between the two extremes.

So, putting it all together, we have nine separate alignments: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, "True" Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil and Chaotic Evil.

One thing this alignment system stresses is that Lawful does not always equal Good and Chaotic does not always equal Evil. Superman or Captain America could be considered Lawful Good characters; they devote themselves to helping people and they respect and obey the law. Dirty Harry from the Clint Eastwood movies is a definite Chaotic Good; he likes to bend the rules in order to pursue justice; but he still would be considered a "Good" alignment.

Going on the other side, an arch villain with a strict code of honor, like Cardinal Richelieu from The Three Musketeers or the Master from Doctor Who would be considered Lawful Evil. Then again, Richleiu is more of a Lawful Neutral type, because does not serve either Good or Evil as much as he does the Interests of the State.

Which brings us to one problem with AD&D alignments: they are open to interpretation and often the players will argue with the Dungeon Master over whether or not a given action really violates the players alignment or not. Actually, some players will argue with the DM no matter what, but that's besides the point.

Ideally, a character's alignment serves as guidelines to keep the player "in-character". If a player acts outside of his alignment, he can face divine consequences. If character goes around killing random peasants for the experience points, the DM has a right to question the guy's "Good" alignment, and an obligation to give the guy some consequences for his actions. In a previous column, I mentioned the game my buddy Fredd ran in which a guy was playing a vampire. Fredd decided that the player was performing too many good deeds to keep his Lawful Evil alignment, and so he had the guy "rewarded" by the gods by losing his vampirism.

It still comes down to interpretation. Some players, for example, would argue that it's okay for a Lawful Good character to torture a prisoner as long as that prisoner was of an Evil alignment. The Players Handbook gives examples of how characters of different alignments would behave, but by neccessity it becomes a judgement call on the part of the players and the DM. "I'm the only person who really plays Lawful Neutral correctly," one rules-lawyer I know likes to boast.

The AD&D rules assumed that players would naturally take Good characters of whatever degree. This is not always the case. "Lawful Good is boring," my wife likes to sniff, and many players agree with her; "It's too limiting." I suspect this was why the character class of Paladin, which is only open to Lawful Good characters, was created; to make that alignment more attractive.

Other players insist that "Playing an Evil alignment gives you an edge!"; that the moral constraints of the Good alignment are a liability in the ruthless orc-eat-orc world of the Dungeon. Running that type of player in the same game with the players who insist "Good characters are morally bound to attack Evil characters on sight!" is an interesting experience, and not for the weak of stomach. Personally, when a player in one of my games shouts "I am EVIL!!!" and begins cackling maniacally, I start preparing consequences to go with their evil acts. That's because, well, I guess I'm evil too.

The whole matter of character alignment brings up serious questions of Geek Philosophy. I find it difficult to define Absolute Good and Evil without resorting to moral codes, and a code by it's very existence implies Law, which defeats the whole purpose of having two axes on the Alignment Chart.

And then there's the whole "Neutral" thing. The system gets kind of mushy in the center of the chart. A person might well devote his life to doing good. A villain might devote his life to the pursuit of evil, although he probably wouldn't think of it that way. But apart from Karla the Grey Witch from Record of Lodoss War, who the heck devotes his life to "Balance"?

Kevin Siembieda came up with an alternative alignment system for his Palladium System, the basis for the ROBOTECH RPG's and the popular RIFTS game of the '90s. The Palladium alignment system is divided into categories of Good and Evil, like AD&D's system, but instead of Neutral alignment, Palladium has "Selfish," for characters who are not exactly out to harm others; but who are just "looking out for Number One."

Each category is then subdivided further. Good into Principled and Scrupulous: Selfish into Unprincipled and Anarchist; and Evil into Miscreant, Aberrant and Diabolic. In the system, each category is given a list of qualities to help define it; how the character regards things like lying, violence, and situational ethics. The list allows the GM and the player to compare the different alignments and get a better feel for them.

For example, a Principled character will always keep his word, avoid lies and never kill or attack an unarmed foe. An Unprincipled character would keep his word of honor, but would lie and cheat if necessary, especially to those of anarchist and evil alignments. He would not kill an unarmed foe, but would take advantage of one. A Miscreant character will not necessarily keep his word to anyone, will lie and cheat indiscriminately, and would kill an unarmed foe as readily as he would a potential threat or competitor

The Palladium alignment system isn't as elegant or symmetrical as the AD&D system, but it's a bit more realistic and easier to apply.

Most game systems dispense with alignment altogether and find other ways to define a character's morals. In point-based games where you buy abilities, players assemble their eithics piece by piece. In the CHAMPIONS / HERO System, you buy your attributes, abilities and skills with Character Points. You get points back for each Limitation you take. These can by physical limitations, such as "Vulnerable to Red McGuffinite", but they are often psychological.and express the character's moral outlook. "Code Against Killing" is a common limitation in a comic book superhero game.

The GURPS system works in a similar fashion, but they have a huge glorious shopping list of neuroses, abberations and hang-ups to choose from as Disadvantages. They include not only negative disadvantages such as Phobias and Odious Personal Habits, but also positive ones like Honesty and Truthfulness. The reason why these are classified as "Disads" is because they limit a character's behavior. A hero with Pacifism will have to come up with some other way to take out Doctor Entropy besides blowing his head off..

Of course you'll always get players who say: "What if I just kill the villain and feel bad about it later?" The wise Game Master will always make sure that consequences follow the players actions, whether they are true to the alignment or not. My friend Cath, who with her husband ran several CHAMPIONS campaigns when I lived in Iowa, regarded "Lack of Code vs. Killing" just as big a limitation as "Code vs. Killing." A hero who indiscriminately kills his enemies is going to face problems. The authorities will not look kindly on him. Depending on whom he kills, the public might support him but they'll probably consider him a menace. And what if he kills an innocent, or even someone whose guilt is questionable?

In the classic realms of Sword & Sorcery things are a little easier. You're expected to kill orcs; that's what they're there for. Here the AD&D Alignment System provides a helpful guide to Who It's Okay To Slay. Still, it never hurts to throw in a surprise now and then. The death of that necromancer you just fought freed all his zombie minions to wreak havok on the countryside. The brigand whose band of outlaws you just exterminated was the Duke's brother-in-law and now you have a price on your head. Sometimes doing the right thing, even if you're acting in accordance with your allignment, has unintended consequences.

Perhaps the most useful application of the Alignment System is as a tool for running the NPCs. A monster or a non-player character's alignment gives the DM a capsule summary of how to play him. Is the goblin liable to help the players or try to kill them? Is this a friendly dragon or a hungry one?

In the end, Character Alignment is a tool. It's a handy label to classify a character. Whether it's good or bad depends on how well it serves the need of the game, and upon the Game Master who is using it. Personally I tend toward Lawful Silly, but that's just me.

* * * * *

But what of Frisco Flagons? How did he escape Caerduin's marital trap? Find the answer here. And please, feel free to leave a comment. I live for feedback!

Nil Desparandum

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dice Capades

Another trip down memory lane. This piece ran in my "Live and Let Dice" column on March 29, 2004 and is about a rite of passage of sorts in my family. The day we took our daughter to buy her very first set of polydice. Ah yes. The family that games together, goes to Perdition's flames together. Or something like that. And some musing on dice in general:

Dice Capades

March 2004

By Kurt Wilcken

We performed a rite of passage of sorts this week. My wife Lute and I bought our daughter her first set of polydice.

Gamera Rose has been playing Dungeons & Dragons with us for about half a year now and I figured it was high time she got some dice of her own. Hitherto she's been borrowing my dice and we invariably wind up having to pass the good d20, (the gold sparkly one with the legible numbers), back and forth across the table. This is complicated by the fact that, like many children, Gamera suffers from the instinctive assumption that the further a die rolls the better the result, and so sharing dice with her invariably means chasing rogue dice all over the world.

So when we were out doing our Saturday afternoon shopping, we stopped at Victory Games, the local gaming shop here in Sheboygan, to peruse their selection. Lute took her straight to the counter where the dice sets were kept and began drooling. They didn't look twice at the garish rainbow-colored dice or the ebony 6-siders with skulls in place of the "1's". Lute knew exactly what she wanted.

She's the same way in jewelry shops. My wife likes colored stones with personality. "Diamonds are dull," she likes to say. (She doesn't care for Carol Channing either). She prefers stones like opals and iolites that are enigmatic rather than aristocratic; colored stones with fire and unique iridescences. She carries these same preferences over to the dice that she uses, and while she was helping Gamera choose, she saw a set that caught her own eye: a set of crystal clear dice with black numerals and iridescent centers that sparkle with color when held to the light.

Everybody has their own preferences with dice. Lute and I both prefer six-siders with numerals rather than pips. When rolling 3d6 in Champions or GURPS, I like the dice to match for purely aesthetic reasons. (When rolling fistfuls of damage dice, naturally I don't have that luxury!) Lute has a set of "good dice" that she uses for GURPS and a set of "evil dice" for AD&D. Another friend of ours used to boast that he had his D&D dice trained to always roll high numbers, and indeed, he used to roll critical successes with alarming frequency.

We all know players who believe that some dice are lucky and always roll high; others roll low. I suspect part of the reason why classic AD&D has such a peculiar system where sometimes high is good and sometimes bad, was to neutralize the effects of "lucky" dice. Of course all a player has to do is keep one set of dice for his THAC0 Rolls and another for Saving Throws, but then there's always a loophole somewhere.

Some players don't like it when other people handle their dice. This goes beyond the reasonable fear that the dice become accidentally or intentionally lost, to a sense, whether conscious or not, that the dice might become "polluted"; that somehow their karma might be shifted from rolling successes to rolling failures.

Like everybody else, I've seen dice confound the bell curve. Just last Sunday in a GURPS game I ran, a group of NPC thugs my players were fighting rolled critical failures, natural 18's on a roll of three d6's, twice within a span of ten minutes, followed by a near-critical failure after that. But I don't worry too much about lucky or unlucky dice in my game. I shrug, with the simple faith in the Law of Averages that These Things Even Out. The whole point of using a random element like dice in a game is that you never know what will happen.

Back in my youth, I kept my gaming dice in a small leather pouch that I could tie to my belt. Yeah, it was a cheesy D&D-type thing, to pretend I had a bag of jewels just like an adventurer; but it looked cool. The leather thongs tying up the pouch also had a tendency to come untied and I lost the pouch once at a convention. After Lute and I married we pooled our dice into a large velvet bag. Once she bought a dice pouch and embroidered a dragon on it; (Lute specializes in dragons). Currently we each keep our dice in small wooden hinged boxes that we bought cheap at Wally World. She painted a dragon on hers; I painted mine blue with gold stars.

Unfortunately, her set only came with one d6. So when she plays GURPS with us, she still has to borrow my dice.

Well then, she gets the dice with the pips.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Care and Feeding of Mary Sues

Here's another blast from the past: my "Live and Let Dice" column from 12/27/2003. It's all about a type of player I refer to as a "Mary Sue" but which is also sometimes called a "Munchkin". Incredibly, I was unfamiliar with the latter term when I wrote the piece; or perhaps I was more used to the former because I was doing online gaming with people more familiar with fanfics.

In any case, here is my take on a perennial problem:

The Care and Feeding of Mary Sues

December, 2003

By Kurt Wilcken

The term comes from fan fiction. A "Mary Sue" is a story in which the main character is an idealized fantasy version of the author. Veteren fan-ficcers tend to look down upon "Mary Sues" as hopelessly amateurish, which isn't exactly fair. All authors project themselves into their works and base characters on aspects of themselves. Charles Dickens did this with David Copperfield. Mark Twain did it with Tom Sawyer. Of course neither David Copperfield nor Tom Sawyer ever got to date Mister Spock.

(Some pedants have attempted to create a male equivalent for the term, such as "Harry Lou" or "Larry Q." I feel this is unnecessary. A "Mary Sue" is a "Mary Sue" no matter what the gender.)

Classic "Mary Sue" characters tend to be talented, intelligent, and charismatic. They were top of their class at Starfleet Academy. They are natural Quidditch players. They have a telepathic bond with their pet Rigellian Octo-kitty. Their breath is naturally fresh and their teeth glint when they smile.

Some RPG players I know who are also fan fic writers have borrowed the term for a gaming character who is all-powerful and uber-competent. You know the kind I mean: the Barbarian with a Dex of 18, a Strength of 27 and a Magical Sword +3 vs. Anyone Who Annoys Me; the Wizard who has every spell in the book inscribed in a Ring of Memorex; the Ninja who doesn't actually have to go on adventures because he has an army of animated shadows to do his bidding for him. Usually we call them Power Gamers.

So why didn't I say so in the first place? I suppose because Power Gamers have a certain innate coolness. Nobody likes someone else who is a Power Gamer, but when you're the Power Gamer, why that's something else entirely. Try this experiment: Stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and say in a loud, clear voice: "I am a POWER GAMER!!! Fear my dice! Bwa-ha-hah!!!"

Felt good, didn't it?

Now try standing in front of the mirror and shouting, "I am a MARY SUE!!! Fear my dice! Bwa-ha-hah!!!"

It just isn't the same.

(Oh, and don't try this experiment unless you're sure your parents, significant other or non-gaming friends can't observe you doing it. They Won't Understand.)

(Too late? Oo. Hard cheese, old man.)

So, what should GM do who finds himself dealing with a Mary Sue? There are several options. The most obvious option is to DRAW BATTLE LINES.

I briefly played in one group where the GM had a sign in her gaming room reading "The DM's Word is Law." She declared that her games would be run strictly by the book and that she would put up with no attempts to bend the rules. The end result, of course, was that her players became consummate rules lawyers and would get into arguments with her over said rules.

My wife Lute and I entered her D&D game with first-level characters. All the other players were 8th Level or higher, and we often found ourselves standing to the side while the tougher characters fought the monsters. One of her players, a friend of mine who brought us into the group, was playing a 10th Level Assassin with a small entourage of followers. This was the kind of player who justified everything he did by saying "I'm just playing my alignment" and if questioned would claim that he was the only one who truly played the D&D alignment system correctly.

The higher-level members of the party encountered a big-time boss monster. In the ensuing fight, the monster struck the Assassin with a +4 Hammer of Irresistable Force or some such thing. The GM rolled a Critical Success, which under normal circumstances should do the target some serious ouch. The Assassin, however, announced that he was wearing his Helm of Utter Invulnerability and therefore took no damage.

"You took a Critical Hit!" the GM argued, "Of course you took damage!"

"The Helm of Utter Invulnerability protects the wearer from all damage. It says so in the book. I have it on my character sheet."

The two of them argued back and forth for a good fifteen minutes. It might not have harmed the Assassin, but it sure killed the game.

So direct confrontation is not always the answer. A better approach might be to CHANGE THE RULES.

My buddy Fredd tells the story of the first D&D game he ran. His brother and his friends had developed a system for dealing with dragons. First the magic-user of the group would send an illusion of the party into the dragon's lair. After the dragon had wasted it's breath attack on the illusion, the party would rush in and attack.

So Fredd had the party come across a red dragon snoozing in a dungeon. As usual they sent an illusion ahead of them. The dragon opened one eye and said, "Do you think I'm so stupid that I don't know an illusion when I see it?"

The party had to think for a change. After some discussion, they tried a direct attack. The dragon breathed his firey breath on them and the party managed to dodge the worst of the attack. Now, they thought, they could attack the dragon safely.

"Goodness me! The dragon said, "I've used up my breath attack! The only thing I can do now is... use my OTHER breath attack!!! RARRRR!!!"

"That's no fair!" the players complained. "That dragon only gets one breath attack per day!"

"I'm special!!!" the dragon roared.

The party wound up running out of the dragon's lair, but to their surprise the dragon followed them. He couldn't squeeze through the dungeon passages very well, and the party could easily out-run him, but he kept after them. Every time the party paused to rest, they could hear the dragon down the hall yelling, "Come back here ya little gits!" (Or he might have called them something that rhymes with gits. It was something like that). In any case, the encounter challenged their expectations and resulted in a game more enjoyable to everyone.

Fredd had one cardinal rule for dealing with Mary Sues: when a player asks for something you think is unreasonable, LET THEM HAVE IT. And then let them deal with the consequences.

In one of his games, a player wanted to be Elric of Melnibone, the classic Michael Moorcock character. Fredd temporized. "You can be someone like Elric." "Can I have a sword that sucks the souls of it's victims?" "Okay, okay."

So "Elric" got a magic sentient sword that could devour souls. And it talked to him. "Feed me, Elric," the sword would say in the voice of the plant from "Little Shop of Horrors", and it would tell him who to kill: the minotaur around the corner; the band of orcs waiting in ambush; the harmless NPC peasant he met in the road. With a good role-player, this could have led to some interesting character conflict as he struggled between his conscience and the demands of his bloodthirsty blade. As it was, our Elric just did what the sword told him to. Before long, half the party was ready to kill him.

In another game, one of his players thought it would be cool to play a vampire. "I'm gonna be one of the Lords of Ravenloft!" he boasted. "But I thought under Ravenloft rules once you become a Lord you're automatically an NPC," I said. "Oh, Fredd said it's okay." I caught a glimpse of Fredd's evil smirk and knew he had things well in hand.

So the guy got to be a vampire. He got his cool vampire powers. He got to enslave a hot vampire babe to his will, (woo-hoo!). He got a castle and hunchbacked minion named Igor. And after a couple months worth of games adventuring with the party, Fredd decided to give him some consequences too.

The gods appeared to the vampire and informed him that because of all the Good Actions he had been performing with the other adventurers, they decided to reward him by removing his curse. All of a sudden, his cool vampire powers were gone, Igor was planting flowers around the castle and worst of all, his sexy vampire babe had become modest and virtuous! "Nooooo!!!!!"

The game Teenagers From Outer Space has a special rule for Power Gamers. "Like real life we reward mediocrity by grading on the curve." Anyone who tries to overload his character's attributes and abilities risk invoking the Too Much rule. At the start of play, the GM arbitrarily chooses a number. If anyone succeeds in a roll by that amount or more, he is deemed to have succeeded by Too Much. He gets what he wants, and then some. He succeeds in impressing the cute girl from Vega Epsilon, but now she's so enraptured by him that she won't leave him alone. He succeeds in beating that rich kid in a thumb-wrestling tournament, but now the kid is sending his ninja minions for vengence. He succeeds in training his Arcturian Mega-puppy for the dog show, but now the dog is more famous than he is. Success brings its own problems.

Which brings us to perhaps the most satisfying way to deal with a Mary Sue, which is to MOCK HIM. Power Gamers tend to take themselves very seriously. Sometime a little embarrassment is just the thing to teach them to behave. If nothing else, it will entertain the other players who probably have been just dying to see the jerk get his comeuppance.

My wife, Lute, was in an online game once with a particularly annoying Mary Sue. Online games tend to be a blending of RPs and fanfics; they generally lack hard and fast rules and often lack GMs to moderate them and so they tend to be fertile grounds for Mary Sue-ism. In this case the fellow had a bad habit of jumping in and commenting or acting on everybody else's posts, even if his character was supposedly someplace else. In annoyance, Lute changed him into a platypus. It was weeks before she got around to changing him back. Ever since then, every time that player has gotten out of line, she threatens him with becoming a platypus. Incredibly enough, the guy has become resigned to the fact and even puts it in his online sigfile.

If I had been the GM in the situation with my friend the Invulnerable Assassin, I probably would have conceded that his helm did protect him from all harm... but that the Critical blow from his opponent had driven him into the floor like a tent peg. Then I'd let him figure out how to get out. But then it's always easy to be the Monday Morning GM.

But having said all this, the GM has to keep in mind that the most important thing is to have fun. We all game to enjoy a bit of wish-fulfillment and so to a certain extent all RPG characters are Mary Sues. The only time Mary Sues absolutely have to be dealt with at all is when they wreck the GM's plot and interfere with the enjoyment of others and even then, the latter event is more serious than the former. With proper care and tending, even a Mary Sue can be a constructive part of an entertaining game.

Fear my dice.

Nil Desparandum.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Live and Let Dice: Creative Plagiarism

Another piece from my "Live and Let Dice" column. This one originally appeared November 30, 2003:

Creative Plagiarism

November 2003

By Kurt Wilcken

Let no one else's work Evade your eyes!
Remember why the Good Lord Made your eyes!
So don't shade your eyes,
But Plagiarize! Plagiarize!
--But always remember to be calling it RESEARCH!

Tom Lerher, Lobachevsky

True, there are some instances where you do not want to commit plagarism. If you are a journalist or a respected historian, people tend to look at you askance when you forget to credit your sources; and if you want to sell your first novel, it would be best not to name your boy magician hero "Larry Potter." And don't even get me started on Russian mathematicians.

But to role-playing gamers, imitation is more than the sincerest form of flattery; it's our very life blood. Long before E. Gary Gygax put J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and Fritz Lieber into a blender and poured out Dungeons & Dragons, or the first kid uttered the words "How come I always have to be Tonto?" kids have been stip mining popular culture to use in their games. It's as American as Tom Sawyer and his friends into playing Robin Hood and King Arthur.

This is not always acceptable, as Gygax found out when the Tolkien estate objected to some of his borrowings. That's why D&D has orcs and halflings, words found in old english literature, but not hobbits, a name invented by Tolkien. For that matter, references to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos and Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar stories that were in the original Dungeons & Dragons were also cut out or modified so that the serial numbers no longer showed.

(Phil Foglio did a funny comment on this in one of his old "What's New" cartoons in Dragon Magazine. He visits TSR's Legal Department and overhears one person say "My boyfriend gave me a engagement circular-metal-band!" Another person says, "Look at the children outside playing Circular-metal-band-Around-the-Rosie". Yet another guy yells, "Someone answer the phone! It's circular-metal-banding!" Phil comments: "Still having trouble with the Tolkien estate, I see.")

Although copying will get you a frenzy of salivating lawyers snarling "trademark infringement" if you publish, it can be safely done in the privacy of your home. With a little imagination, it can even be done creatively.

RPG Plagarism (or homage, to use the Politically Correct term) can be divided into two categories: generally speaking, players do it for their characters and GM's do it for their plots

A lot of gamers base their characters off existing ones. If you're going to make your character a feral berserker with rapid healing powers, keen senses and unbreakable metal claws, you might as well just call him "Wolverine" and be done with it. My friend Bryon, who with his wife has run several comic book-based Champions games, likes to say that some actors have an ambition to play Hamlet and that RPG's give him the opportunity to play Captain America.

Apart from the fun of playing your favorite hero, pre-existing characters also have another advantage: they have a ready-made backstory. Not all players care for this. Many prefer to create an original character. Most of the time I do too, but having the character's history and personality already established saves a lot of effort. It gives both the player and the Game Master a feeling for the character from the very beginning and presents the GM with ready-made NPC's and plot possibilities.

Granted, this works better in some games that in others. Game systems designed around choosing abilities and attributes, such as GURPS or HERO, lend themselves well to building characters to match an existing one; games based on archetypes or character classes, such as Dungeons & Dragons don't. The Third Edition D&D rules have a greater emphasis on skills, which gives it a little more flexibility than the classic AD&D, but the system is still designed around character classes. This isn't to say that character borrowing in D&D is impossible, just somewhat limited compared to more flexible systems and gameworlds.

Game Masters can also swipe characters. This is obvious; if a GM is running a game based on X-MEN, his players shouldn't be surprised to encounter Magneto; in fact, they should demand it. But the GM doesn't have to limit himself to opponents. If a player is running Batman, then Alfred is probably lurking nearby as a Non-Player Character; likewise, Spider-Man has Aunt May and Ranma Saotome has his father Genma. (Yes, I once had a player actually volunteer to play Ranma in a Teenagers From Outer Space campaign! You have to admire a guy who's willing to take a bucket of water in the face for the plot).

The GM can also build plots and sub-plots off elements in the character's background. In a WWII-era game I ran once, my brother Steeve was playing Doc Savage. I built a nice wicked plot around his "Crime College" where he rehabilitated criminals by surgically removing their criminal tendencies. (Some of my players were rather startled by Doc's rehabilitation techniques: "You do what???" "I remove their Crime Gland," Steeve replied with a perfectly straight face.)

One of my role models in the practice of Creative Plagarism is comics writer Roy Thomas, who for decades has fought the good fight keeping Golden Age comics alive in the present day. Roy was one of the first wave of comic book creators who had been a comics fan himself and he made a career out of taking characters and plots from the books he loved as a kid and incorporating them in to current stories. He didn't just limit himself to old comic book characters either. He once wrote a storyline in THOR based of Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung and in YOUNG ALL-STARS paid homage to material as disparate as Philip Wylie's Gladiator, (the pulp novel which inspired Superman), and H.P. Blavatsky's The Book of Dyzan with a cameo by Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

A good example of Roy's technique can be found in an issue of YOUNG ALL-STARS where the heroes visit a secret government laboratory hidden beneath the Statue of Liberty. Apart from the main plot, (which involved the Ultra-Humanite trying to steal a new terrifying body), the story gave us connections to other bits and pieces of the DC Universe circa WWII. We learn that a scientist at this lab built Robotman, a member of the All-Star Squadron; this lab also created the "Creature Commandos", a group of DC's weird war heroes based on classic monsters. Over there sleeping in a coma is an obscure hero named Miss America, and in the big hanger we have a live T-rex captured by American troops on a strange Pacific island that was the setting for the "War That Time Forgot" tales; and next to that, an unnamed gigantic ape who fell off the Empire State Building back in the '30s.

Now of those elements, only the dinosaur and Miss America became relevant to the plot, but the other references gave the lab more believability (well, as believable as a secret government laboratory under the Statue of Liberty can be) by adding what Pooh-Bah called Corroborative Detail. (And yes, I swiped that secret lab for the first Justice League International game I ran. King Kong came back to life and battled the JLI!)

I developed a reputation for strange crossovers in our group. I had the JLI fight everybody from Dr. Loveless from The Wild Wild West to the Misfits of Science. (Hey, I liked Misfits of Science!).

The downside of character lifting is that you have to know when to stop. If every PC in your game is an existing character with his own supporting cast, you'll find yourself up to your eyebrows in NPC buddies. When my brother played Doc Savage in my WWII game, I left his five assistants out of the game except for occasional cameos. (If I'm running too many NPC's, I start arguing with myself. My wife finds this amusing, but I try to avoid it because I never know how to stop).

Sometimes, the crossover characters just don't work. In one of Bryon's super hero games I thought it would be fun to play Jonny Quest as an adult. I drew him with a dapper mustache like his dad's and gave him a robotic version of Bandit. For laughs, I wrote down that he was dating Penny, the niece from Inspector Gadget. So Bryon introduced her into one game along with her bumbling uncle. That was the dreaded Dr. Zin / Dr. Claw Team-up, which provoked another friend of mine to say "If Popeye the Sailor shows up, I'm walking!"

A less obvious practice than lifting characters from other sources is borrowing plots. On a few occasions I've taken favorite mystery stories and altered them to fit my campaign. The only problem is that you have to choose a plot your players are unfamiliar with, but even then you can still get away with it if you modify the plot enough to confound their expectations.

That is where we get to the Creative part of Creative Plagiarism. I once worked as an artguy for a small weekly newspaper. We used a lot of clip art for advertisements and spot illustrations there and our art director gave me a useful piece of advice: Never use clip art straight; always modify it in some way to make it different, to make it your own. I use the same philosophy when I'm stealing... that is, when I'm borrowing material in my games. I always try to tweak, warp or otherwise mutate the source material to make special. I figure if Hollywood can give Spider-Man organic web-shooters, then I can give replace Bucky with Rex the Wonder Dog as Captain America's sidekick.

The most satisfying use of stealing plots is fixing them. I think everybody has read a story that bugged them. Bryon's wife Cath really hated the X-Men storyline from the late '80s where the team faked their own death and went into hiding; so she ran a game which explored what the ramifications of that would be. Likewise, I once ran a JLI game that attempted to explain the mess with Monarch from the DC's ARMAGEDDON 2001 crossover. Swiping a plot and reworking it to your liking is the best revenge against a bad story.

Properly used, plagiarism can be the Game Master's best friend; as long as he remembers to use it creatively.

Nil desparandum!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Live and Let Dice: Confessions of an RPGeezer

For the past few years, I've been writing an occasional column on Role-Playing games entitled "Live and Let Dice" at a site called Pop Thought. Well, it looks like the site is going to be shutting down, so I've decided to move some of my pieces from it over to this blog, (since I don't seem to be using it for anything). And maybe I'll start actually using this blog again. Stranger things have happened.

First up, from October of 2003, my first Live and Let Dice column:

Confessions of an RPGeezer

October 2003

By Kurt Wilcken

Welcome to the first installment of "Live and Let Dice", a monthly column exploring the polyhedron-sided world of role-playing games. Well, maybe "exploring" is an overstatement; "wandering vaguely all about" would probably be more accurate. But since a journey of a thousand miles begins by forgetting where you put the map, perhaps a few words about your guide would be in order.

In my secret identity, I am a ninja cartoonist. I live in the Enchanted Land-O-Cheese with my wife, Lute; my daughter, Gamera Rose; and a menagerie which currently includes two ferrets, an enormous cat, a finch and several fish. I've been playing RPG's almost as long as there has been Dungeons & Dragons.

I started in high school, in 1981, back in the days when Atlantis was young and the world still flat; when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Reagan the White House. We'd play in the school library between classes: myself, my wacky brother Steeve, his best friend Frodo, and Lute, who played bass clarinet in the row in front of me in band and who, my first day as a freshman, had loaned me her paperback of the Star Wars novelization. You can see why I married the woman.

We weren't exactly sure what we were doing in that first game where Frodo led us through the Caves of Chaos. I didn't quite get the alignment system and the artwork in the stapled booklets seemed rather amateurish. (which, as an amateur cartoonist myself, I found extremely annoying. The oddest part of all to me was the method of determining success and damage. The various shapes of polydice we all know and love now were not readily available in these antediluvian times. The boxed game came with carboard punch-out chits to be drawn out of a cup to simulate a 1-in-4 chance or a 1-in-8 chance or what have you. It was an inconvenient system, but not as loud as rattling dice, so it probably saved us from getting booted out of the library.

Our various class schedules gave us little time when the four of us could game, but the experience did give me inspiration for my first hand-made comic book: a sword & sorcery parody that I originally devised as a comic strip and which I printed at the local copy shop and sold out of my backpack.

I gamed occasionally in college. The wargamer's club at Iowa State University met in the student union every Saturday afternoon to wage battles between minatures across felt terrains and they condescended to allow the RPG-ers to occupy the tables they weren't using. Some members of the campus science fiction club hung out in that group, although they usually spent more time trying to decide what game to run than they actually did gaming. As a rule, they avoided traditional sword & sorcery. They ran games like Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes, a modern-day adventure and intrigue game, or Pendragon, a fairly realistic game set in the Arthurian Age. I also met McMack, a short fellow in a black trenchcoat who edited our science fiction club's fanzine for a year and who may have been a time traveller. He also was a master of the Silly Dungeon, skewing the grim hack & slash of the traditional D&D game with a Monty Pythonesque sensibility.

After graduating, I got a job in Des Moines. I didn't know any gamers there, but I did finally have a disposable income I could use to buy gaming supplies. I discovered GURPS, the "Generic Universal Role-Playing System" from Steve Jackson Games, which looked extremely useful; and TOON, also from Steve Jackson, a game based on wacky Looney-Toons-type cartoons. TOON taught me the three basic principles of running an RPG:

(1) Keep it fast.

(2) Keep it funny.*

(3) Reduce everything to the simplest possible die roll.

* (The second rule literally only applies to comedy games like TOON, but if you interpert it as "keep it entertaining," you could apply it to any genre of game).

In Des Moines I joined a comic book club. At one meeting a couple of new members saw me drawing in my sketchbook and said "Tell me, are you Kurt Wilcken?" It turned out they had been at ISU at the same time I was and were fans of my handmade comics. Cath like "Brisbane the Barbarian". Her husband Bryon prefered "Arizona Schwartz the Lost Archaeologist." The two of them ran their own gaming group which specialized in superhero games using Champions.

Cath taught high school english in real life and she insisted on incorporating plot and character development into their games. Bryon believed that the character portrait was an important part of the game and redesigned his own Champions character sheet to provide more space for it. Generally he photocopied characters from comic books and hand colored them. (I suspect part of the reason they invited me into their group was so that I could draw character portraits for them).

They had some unusual ideas about RPGs. As a rule they based their characters off existing ones from comic books or other sources. They didn't give out experience points or deal with character advancement. "Characters in comic books rarely change regarding their powers," Bryon said. Instead, they designed each character to match what he or she was like in the comic. Then Bryon laminated the character sheet, for durability; (and because access to a laminator is one of the perks of being a public school teacher). Cath had endured years of D&D from her gaming father and brothers and developed an aversion to mindless hack & slash, so she prefered rewarding players with intricate character subplots, what she called "the interpersonal stuff", rather than mere upgrades in character levels.

I ran my first campaign in their group, based on Justice League International, the infamous Keith Giffen incarnation of the venerable JLA known for it's comedic take on superheroes; (which does the series a vast injustice, but that's the subject for a whole 'nother column). At the time I didn't really know much about the Champions system, but I ran it like a TOON game. I kept the plot moving and reduced everything to the simplest dice roll possible. Then I asked Bryon how much damage to roll.

The JLI game led to other games: a Golden Age superhero campaign, then a "Justice League, the Next Generation" campaign. I persuaded our group to try a quirky, anime-based game called Teenagers From Outer Space which wound up becoming my longest campaign ever.

I made contact again with Lute, after living in different states for nearly fifteen years, (I in a state of confusion, she in a state of Illinois), and shortly afterwards we got married. I've heard that those mixed marriages where one spouse games and the other doesn't rarely work out. Fortunately that has not been a problem for us. She joined our gaming group and we even ran RPG's on our dates together. (I have yet to persuade her to run a game herself, though. Someday.)

Lute and I moved back to the Enchanted Land-O-Cheese. We found a landlord who enjoyed playing D&D, which is almost as ideal as finding a gaming spouse, and so returned to the game we started with. I also discovered the joys of on-line RPG's with all the special challenges that presents.

Currently, our gaming group has dwindled, but I find time to participate in a couple on-line games and run a couple others. I occasionally run a private game just for Lute and myself, just as we did before we were married, and I'm corrupting a new generation by letting our 10-year-old Gamera Rose into my Sunday afternoon game. Just this week she came up with a creative way to use the "detect magic" spell to defeat a monster. I'm so proud of her.

I'm also writing this column, in which I hope to share with you some of my wisdom, experience and opinions (which aren't all the same thing, mind you) regarding this eccentric hobby of mine. Some of the topics I plan on covering include Creative Plagarism (the GM's Friend), How to Run a Mystery, On-Line RPG's, Dice vs. Diceless, Gaming Fiction, Character Portraits: The Most Important Part of the Character Sheet, and perhaps even What Role-Playing Games Have Taught Me About Theology. There's also a good chance I'll wander into Comic Books, Favorite TV Shows and the Care of Ferrets, so be prepared.

If you have any remarks, whether good, bad or chaotic neutral, by all means leave a comment. I live for feedback.

Nil Desparandum.