Sunday, August 18, 2019

D&D and Me: Part 4 (If I Could Talk to the Animals)

[This is the fourth post in a new series.  You may want to begin at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

[Last time I talked about playing a lot of different games, including a lot of D&D.  More importantly, playing a lot of very different characters.]

One of the most awesome things about D&D—all tabletop roleplaying games, really—is that it’s open to a lot of different playstyles.  Different people can get different things out of it, and that’s great.  I’ve talked before about my personal goals: chiefly, that I believe that roleplaying is storytelling and, in any story, character is king.  So I’m one of those folks who puts a lot of effort in my character when I’m a player, and wants my players to do the same when I’m the GM.  D&D can feed a lot of needs for people: a need for tactical combat simulation with more flexibility than any computer game can provide, a need for an improv space where you’re not limited by even a rough story outline but can do (or at least attempt) literally anything that pops into your head ... or, for many, it’s even simpler than any of that.  It’s a chance to play make believe, like you used to do when you were a kid.  A chance to return to a time when you could be anything ... be anyone.  Don’t like your name? fine, pick a new one.  Frustrated by your family situation? no worries: recast yourself as the long-lost heir to a vast fortune, or an orphan who discovers their parents were superspies who had to give them up for their own safety.  Don’t like your age? poof! you’re a little kid, an old man, a middle-aged matron with a huge family, an aging oil baron, an alien intelligence trapped in the mind of an infant, a faerie changeling in a pre-adolescent body, a girl who falls down a rabbithole, an orphan boy who finds out he’s a wizard, a girl whose house is carried away by a tornado, one of a family of orphans whose parents were involved in a secret international organization.  Anything.

And that’s all D&D is, really.  It’s make-believe for grown-ups.  Well, and still for kids too, but for kids who are ready to stop fighting about whether your invincible forcefield actually stops my laser sword or if it’s really true that MY LASER SWORD CAN CUT THROUGH ANYTHING!!  It’s just a way to roll some funny dice and figure out who wins: unstoppable force, or immovable object.  And what you use that for is to relive those childhood fantasies about being anything you could imagine.  Or anything you could steal from popular culture.

When I was a kid, I was really into animals.1  So a lot of who I wanted to be was wrapped up in Tarzan, and Mowgli, and Dr. Dolittle.  This is one of the very few concepts that D&D struggles with, actually ... the closest I ever came was playing a “beastmaster” bard (technically, the “meistersinger” kit from The Complete Bard’s Handbook).  You might ask: what do bards have to do with animals?  But apparently the theme was sort of a “pied piper” character.2  I really loved this character, although his name and stats haven’t survived, unfortunately.  But he was problematic in a fundamental way, because a beastmaster-style character “breaks the action economy.”  This is a phrase us D&D nerds use when we talk about characters who can do too much in a single turn.  How much you can do in a turn is limited in different ways for different versions and editions of D&D, but it’s always limited.  My beastmaster character had a weasel, a leopard, and a jaguar, which meant that when my fellow party members were taking one turn, I was taking four, because I was essentially four characters.  Sure, the weasel couldn’t do much, but even being three characters can monopolize a combat.  Eventually the GM put his foot down and I had to retire that character, and I’ve never seen anything approaching it ever since.3  But, you know, there are plenty of other ways to do animals in fantasy settings.

There are druids, for instance.  As a druid, you get to hang around with animals, talk to them, and even turn into them.  I played a druid for many months, possibly even years.  I have a vague recollection of doing so twice, although I may be misremembering ... certainly Sillarin is the only one whose name and character sheet has survived.  He was, according to the latest sheet I still have, an 8th level half-elven druid, with +1 leather armor, a ring of protection, a ring of invisibility, and a staff of the woodlands,4 who favored spells like entangle, faerie fire, dust devil, and spike growth.  He was left-handed, and the “flaw” he took was “tongue-tied.”  Back in those days, you could accept roleplaying disadvantages in exchange for mechanical advantages, which is overall a terrible system if your goal is to have roughly balanced characters.5  On the other hand, there are many cases in my own experience where those flavorful disadvantages are the main things I remember about the character.  And that’s never more true than in Sillarin’s case, where I decided that interpreting “tongue-tied” as “having a stutter” was just a cop-out.  Sillarin’s issue wasn’t with stuttering; in fact he spoke rather eloquently, and often at great length, and sometimes, if you got him started, he couldn’t really stop, and it was just that, sometimes, or even often, you might say, if you knew him, sometimes when he began a sentence, usually with the best of intentions, he would somehow get lost in the middle of it—through no fault of his own, mind you!—and you might never see him emerge from the other end, which could make conversational gambits with him somewhat ... tiring.  I loved playing Sillarin, who was endearingly annoying (as opposed to annoyingly annoying), and not exactly heroic, but not exactly not heroic either, and who believed that good could not exist without evil, which meant that, in the end, evil wasn’t all that bad, and that the preservation of nature was really the most important thing.

The next time I returned to the concept of a nature-loving (and, this being D&D, pretty much nature worshipping) character was with my first female character: Ellspeth, cleric of the nature domain.  My party wanted me to play a cleric for a change (druids can provide some healing, but not as much as a proper cleric can dish out), so I was doing something I’ve often done over the years: building a character to fill a gap, but trying to find a way to make it interesting for me.6  I’ve always thought of this as being somewhat akin to writing poetry using meter and rhyme: sure, free verse is fun and all, and you get to break the “rules,” but sometimes giving yourself constraints—even artificial constraints—will force you to get more creative than you otherwise would.  So how could I take the concept of “cleric” (which many, many people view as equivalent to “walking first-aid kit”) and make it actually fun?  My min-max-ing friend (who may well have been my GM at the time too) suggested I find a race with a bonus to wisdom, which is the primary ability score for clerics.  But racial wisdom bonuses are hard to come by; one of the few races that get it is the swanmay, which is just a refluffed human who can turn into a swan.  They make excellent rangers and druids, and, yes, clerics, but the one catch is: only women are inducted into the swanmay order.  No men allowed.  I wasn’t looking to play a female character, but I didn’t dismiss it out of hand either.  Could I take on that challenge?  Playing against type is one thing, but playing against gender is quite another, and I think it may be harder for heterosexual cisgendered males (especially young males) to do so than their female counterparts.  Intellectually, we all knew that playing a female character didn’t indicate any tendency towards being gay, but societal messaging can be insidious and doesn’t always respond to logic.  So playing that first woman was a bit daunting, I won’t lie.  But there were a lot of things to make up for it.  A swanmay is essentially a lycanthrope—a wereswan, in a weird way.  Where Sillarin worshipped Silvanus, Ellspeth worshipped Artemis, the huntress, and took the bow as her signature weapon.  Her flaw (still taking those to get the corresponding benefits, of course) was a phobia of the undead, which she acquired at a very young age when her family was wiped out by zombies or somesuch, leaving her as the sole survivor.  Raised by elves and then inducted into the swanmay order, she hated undead and vowed to kill them where she could find them, but she was also terrified of them, leaving her with difficult choices when confronted with them.  Since I had dumped charisma for her stats (most of us dumped charisma back in those days), she was blunt and plain-looking, totally unremarkable personality-wise.  But she was fiercely loyal to her friends, had a love for her horse Fiona, animal empathy, omen reading, and in addition to her bow could throw a mean chatkcha (which was just the closest D&D equivalent I could find to a glaive) and favored the hatchet for close-up work.  Unlike druids, when a swanmay transformed, her clothes and equipment just dropped to the ground and had to be retrieved later, which meant that, just as would an involuntarily transformed lycanthrope such as a werewolf, Ellspeth would come back to human form naked and vulnerable.7  This never bothered her; I decied that someone who had to go through this process with this much regularity had probably abandoned the quaint concept of modesty long ago.  She achieved 9th level, as near as I can tell from my old character sheets, and had an even more impressive array of magic items than Sillarin had amassed, including a staff of curing, a cloak of elvenkind, and a bow of accuracy.  She was often gruff and perhaps she sometimes complained about having to heal everyone all the time, but she was yet another character that I developed a sort of closeness to, and one which stretched my concept of what sort of character I could be if I pushed myself to explore parts of myself I hadn’t yet discovered.

Next time: even more characters that I played, and what they meant to me.


1 As I’ve already mentioned a couple of times in this series.
2 That explains the German name, I guess?
3 Although I’m currently working on a way to import the concept into fifth edition.  If I can figure out a way to do it without breaking the action economy again, I’ll really have something.
4 For those who are familiar with newer versions of D&D but not the older ones, this was a pretty standard amount of magical loot for a 2e character of that level, although I agree it seems excessive by today’s standards.
5 Whether D&D characters of different classes—particularly when pitting fighters against wizards—are even remotely balanced in any edition of the game is an ongoing debate that will probably never die.
6 For a more recent example of me doing this, you could go back and review my character concept for Arkan.
7 It is probably worth wondering why the designers intentionally assigned this particular disadvantage to a race composed only of women.  The early days of D&D are not particularly enlightened in terms of feminism (or any other ism, for that matter).