Saturday, January 29, 2022

Building Character

Lieres, Around Session 28
Image made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
Let me tell you about my character, Lieres.

No, wait! Where are you going?!

Yeah, nobody wants to hear anyone go on about their Dungeons & Dragons character unless they have some cool artwork to share. If they want to listen toy you tell a story about D&D at all, it is hopefully a short anecdote about some exciting experience that you had. Or maybe  if you learned something important about D&D as a hobby that others can learn from... but you had better tell it damned well if that is where you are going.

And that is how Lieres came up last time on the blog, (and I hope I told it well,) as a story about dealing with character death in Dungeons & Dragons. Last time I mentioned him, he had fumbled horribly while being attacked by horrid mutated rats, drove a shortsword through his own leg, and was bleeding put and burned from the lamp he had dropped. I liked Lieres... he grew on me in spite of being a statistically pathetic character whom I'd originally played as if he'd had a death wish. And I was going to be sad that he died, but I had also learned to enjoy seeing my characters die in D&D. And his was shaping up to be a hilariously ignominious death.

But here's he thing. The sleazy little varmint pulled through. The other players in my group at the time, Hayven and Thomas went through heroic efforts to save him... including crawling around in dark, creating stretchers of broken  equipment, and building elevators for him using iron spikes, rope, lamp oil, and wire. It was some elite level play, with the players actually explaining the design, using magic potions with great effect, and making some pretty intelligent logical deductions about the dungeon layout. They managed to find a path to a familiar point in the dungeon and pull him out alive.

Since then I have played Lieres in over 30 sessions, and alternated with other characters. The campaign has run fifteen months as of the writing of this article, spanning 65 sessions of which I have played in 61. And there is a lot of things that I have learned by playing him, for such a long time that I have missed in my years as a "Forever DM."

Some of these are pretty straightforward:

Levelling doesn't make a character any more fun. Thanks to our use of AD&D training rules, Lieres has missed thousands of experience. He's currently 4th level, but could be 8th by now... and I really don't care.

The relative weakness of the character doesn't matter, if you play well. By being smart about how I play Lieres he has overcome obstacles that the character sheet suggests he should be far outclassed by.

Resource management makes the game more challenging. It isn't always fun to shift objects around item slots, but it is worth your time in the long run. The challenge and constraints that food, light, and encumbrance create are worth your time.

But here is the one that I think is most worth sharing:

You build your character over the course of play, not during character generation.

Lieres, Original Character Portrait,
(Back Before Hero Forge had colour!
Colorized w/ Adobe Photoshop Elements.)
Image made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
What do I mean by that? Well, the new "Original Character" focused or New School tendency to see characters as a sacred expression of self, and to come prepared with a "story arc" in mind for the character, attempts to force a character into a mold. And it may or may not succeed. Ultimately, though those are just suggestions. You might change your mind during the early sessions of the game. You might find that they don't matter given the session. The character might die. In fact, any great amount of time spent designing the character before they make it through the first few sessions has a good chance of going out the window, or into the wastepaper basket.

And more importantly, no  matter what game you are playing in, your character is going to change a lot in their first few adventures. And if they survive, they are going to keep changing.

I find that the best character backstories, if you are going to create any at all, are best made with serious constraints, are designed to give the GM a few things to work with, and are built after the character is rolled up, so that you can use the character's abilities and class to give you a sense of who they might be.

Over the course of the campaign, there are times where the character will actually surprise you. Things that happen, and what they mean to how your character is going to respond to new situations in the future are going to be critically important.

The Example of Lieres in Character Genration

Lieres' visual character sheet,
Around session 6
(Made the week after Hero Forge
added colour options!)

Image made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
I have lucked into a great GM in Stephen Smith. He is really dedicated to building an amazing world, and playing it in a way that is deeply informed by OSR philosophy and some of Gygax's most interesting concepts for campaign structre.

He offered me a very specific set of questions to create my character, once I had rolled up the basics.

Who are two friends of the PC, and what would they do for him? What does he do in return. Who is one enemy, and why are they an enemy? How does the PC dress? What is one thing the PC loves? What is one thing the PC wants to do? What is one thing the PC is afraid of? This actually comes out as pretty simple bullet points.

The character I rolled up was, frankly pathetic. With the exception of a good Dexterity and Charisma he was below average. He was scrawny, sickly, slow, and particularly weak-willed. I also rolled that he was noble-blooded, and an Alchemist (despite being stupid.) All he had was nimble fingers and boyish charm. From that I got this:

  • Lieres is a spoiled rich kid who was bad at the family trade.
  • He wrecked his life with drugs, often ones he made himself.
  • He turned to stealing to support his habit.
  • He was hidden away by his ashamed family in a sanitorium where he was experimented on by the owner, and is afraid of healers, accordingly.
  • His enemy is his father, who wants him locked up before he brings more shame.
  • His allies are a Sister who paid Lieres to conducts some targeted thefts, and a drugged-out oracle.

I resolved to play him as a degenerate in the style of Doc Holiday in Tombstone. A dissipated and drunken degenerate, who was craven but desperate enough to go adventuring. I would have him run and abandon his allies if the danger was too great.

But his actual adventures have changed him.

Lieres in Play

Lieres, Around Session 37
Haggard and Cursed
Image made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
After nearly being killed in the rat incident, Lieres was flabbergasted that his allies took the terrifying risk of hauling him out of a monster-infested dungeon. They could have left him to die, and gotten out much more safely. He was so touched by his companions' care that he has promised himself that he would never let them down. After all, no one had ever gone out on a limb for him before, let alone risked their lives. He is incredibly loyal.

Lieres has had several moments where big lies told in dramatic fashion have saved him and his group from fights they cannot win. He has become a consummate bluffer and con artist. And can boast of it. He is more likely to use words than stealth. He's quick witted.

After making that promise, he was given a chance to prove it; he could have run and saved himself, but instead stood up against monsters far more powerful than him to save a friend. He has turned out to be the opposite of what I imagined. his oath has forced him to be brave so many times, it is a quality just about everyone ascribes to him... even though he would have remained a coward were it not for his promise.

Lieres accidentally moved too fast in a hostage situation, and got a little boy tossed into a pit. He was so horrified at his own stupidity that he threw himself down the pit to save him. He ended up getting the boy out alive, then took insane risks to protect him. After his party saved another thirty three children in the same incident, he became - in his shock - obsessed with caring for them. He is a defender of children.

When he had riches after raiding a dragon's lair, I decided that he would spend it on building an orphanage for those children. He intends to train a few talented theives and perhaps use it as a Thieves' guild... but in truth, he is telling himself that because he wants to justify it . He both thinks he is more selfish than he is, and is also accidentally noble. I have learned that he has a strange self-image problem.

Lieres, Session 55
One of my Comic Book Covers to
commemorate game sessions.
The character art is made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
Lieres has the opportunity to end a curse that causes all the dead in his world to rise as undead if not given last rites. Or, at least his friends seem to think so. Oddly, they are taking their time collecting treasure and building up their levels. Lieres wants to get on with lifting the curse. He has unwittingly become heroic.

He is no fighter... in fact Lieres is terrible in combat. Many times over the course of the game, he has ended up stuck way out at the edge of a battle, unable to fire into melee or enter the fray. I have taken to having him using things like shone lanterns, sprayed water, shouted bluffs, etc., to make him an improviser.

Almost none of the petty spoiled brat I started with remans after all of his adventures. He remains vain and effete on the surface, but he has turned out to be a reluctant hero who acts fast, loyal, and steps up to defend and care for the defenseless. He is a character I am more than fond of now: he is the favorite one I have ever played. He didn't start out a good guy. I didn't want to make a champion... but now I have one. And that makes him all the better.

Lieres is nothing like the character I had intended to play. I didn't design or premeditate him. As a character he has been built up over months of play. He happened as a result of the game.

If I am smart and lucky, he will live to evolve even further.

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