[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—
[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—
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—
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—
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—
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).