Friday, January 23, 2015

Codifying Evil (AKA building a mythos from existing Game Material)

When I first started playing this wonderful game known as D&D I was the 'first on my block' as it were to have the materials so naturally I became a DM out of necessity.  I drew in friends to play and thus began my life-long hobby.

Like most from my era I had only one Module to begin with (the famous B2 Keep on the borderlands) and my players and I played the heck out of that thing. We went everywhere on that map and I tried my hand at building dungeons (The Caves of Chaos  still makes me wince).  Truth be told I sucked but my first dungeon did have a forgotten temple with goblin cultists.  They managed to kidnap the Castellan's daughter and the players had to carve their way through to save her.  When they reached the cliche dark temple with 'tapestries with images to their dark god' one player piped up  'what does the images look like?'  and this line of questions lead to the naming of my first 'dark god'  right there on the spot. His name was 'Vulgaar'.  (Yeah like I said I sucked back then)  It satisfied my players and we moved on.

Throughout that year I picked up some other modules.  I got, the A Series the G series, the D series, Q1 and T1.  These introduced me to the concept of a world and I used them to shape my own world (As the Greyhawk gazetteer was no where to be found).  These modules also introduced other dark deities  (Elemental Evil and Lloth just to name a few).   I got Eldritch Wizardry which introduced me to move evil to throw at my players.  Thus was born my world.

Fast forward a Decade or three and I joined the Greyhawk chatroom (Greytalk HERE is the link).  I always loved Greyhawk because through its early adventures I built my world.  I was welcomed and I got to rub shoulders with many of the folks that wrote for things like the Oerth Journal, Living Greyhawk and the like. (It was also nice to not be the oldest Geek in the room too :) )  It was during a reading of some Living Greyhawk material that I saw something that made me go 'hmmm'.  It was the origins of Saint Kargoth the original Death Knight.  In all of the Material on the Demogorgon his 'other name' Amon-Ibor is accredited to the Oerdians yet in this origins piece it says clearly Kargoth after not getting to be the leader of the Knights of the Great Kingdom took refuges in a ruined FLAN temple to Amon-Ibor.  So I reasoned the Flan who predated the Oerdians were the ones who used that name for the Demogorgon.  Now usually most things like this end there because getting in contact with the author was nigh impossible. Not so on this because the author of this and other such pieces, Gary Holian, was a regular visitor to the Greyhawk chatroom!  So posing this little conundrum to him personally and stating my theory he agreed that the Flan must have named him (It was this conversation that lead me to postulate of an undiscovered 'Golden Age of the Flan and the concept of Naming but that is for another time.)

What does this have to do with the title of this post?  Well, this rambling is me showing you faithful readers how I stumbled along before getting to stage of being able to  polish things.

'From Primal Fears and Ageless Dark crawled the Sibilance and swam the Shark. From Dire Crags and Forests Dread came the Wolf and the Hungry Dead.  Four Great Beasts, Nightmares All will ever hunt us and seek our fall.'  Excerpt from the Arrenite Sacra Derkas  (The Lightless Psalms)

Before the rise of mortals the Abyss was a different place, home to things no mortal mind could conceive these creatures of Dread Chaos waged war against the Immortals of Law. As an expression of Chaos itself the Abyss is ever changing so when the first mortals came into being so to came creatures that would be called demons.  The first demons though were not born of mortal sin as few such things reached the Abyss in those days instead they were born of the primal terrors that filled the collective mind of early mortality.  Amon-Ibor the Sibilant Beast, Dagon father of the hungry sea, Kerzit the Winter Maw, and Yeenoghu foul lord of Ghouls these four earliest of demons make up the Great Beasts found in Arrenite lore.  The greatest of them became the King of Demons later known as the Demogorgon.  The later Lords and Princes of Demonry born of mortal sins could never match these four beasts in power.

One would think the Great Beasts would end mortal life before it could spread but with Primal Fears comes Primal Hopes and from these hopes were born the protectors of mortality, the four-fold Mother and the four-fold Father, the aspects of the seasons each embodied the hopes of early mortals as manifested in the world around them.  These two beings were the genesis of Druidism and would evolve into the patrons of the first priests. (Again this is a subject for another time)

Gleaning from existing gaming material is how the Great Beasts came into being.  While the published origins stand in opposition to what I wrote above I am reminded of the words in the forward of the first DMG  'This is your game if you don't like a rule change it, if you don't know a rule make it up.'  So here they stand, the Great Beasts.

When I started to make the Great Beasts I looked through the reams of demon lords and princes searching for things that were recognizable but still alien enough to be something early man might imagine.  Obox-ob and Jubliex were just too alien while Graz'zt and Orcus were too human.  I knew the Demogorgon would be a member because I liked the idea of him being the first demon so I used him as an exemplar.  Dagon, a creature mixed of Squid and Shark fit perfectly.  Kerzit and Yeenoghu also fit the bill being basically humanoid with an animal feature.  I stopped at four because I used the seasons as a measure.  I modified their origins and polished them up and I had the evils between the Alien and the Human.

 Being a world-builder rather than using pre-made worlds forces me to adapt things to fit my world but there's no reason someone who uses pre-made worlds can't adapt things to their liking.  Were I to use Greyhawk for example the Great Beasts would still exist but be the foes of the Flan  or in the Forgotten realms they'd be the enemy of the Elves.   

Though these are worlds built for our use we don't have to use them as recommended because there is no warranty to void.  They are our worlds to use as we choose.  Codify your evil and see where it takes you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It's All about the Backstory

My Inaugural Post!

In the thirty-six years I've been involved in D&D one of the things that I've probably done the most is back-story.  Be it for characters, items, places, nations, etc I've written reams of words on paper and in digital format as the times change to make things more engaging for my players and my DMs alike.  Today however I wish to focus on character backstory.

It is easy to answer the simple questions DMs most often pose 'Why are you here?' and 'Where did you come from?' but answers are not a story. They are the germs of a story.  I know most of us aren't writers and asking for an engaging story is a bit much but not every backstory has to be The Hobbit just as not every character is going to be a shining paragon of virtue.  At one time reporters were taught to focus on the five W's: Who, What, Where, When, and Why (Yes How is attached at the end of that but not important for us at this moment). That's the beginning of a good story.

Who, that's easy, your character.  What, that can mean what is he, what is he doing here, What are his goals, and the list goes on but the first question in our list is most probably the correct one  What is your character...
          'Johan Schmit is a Human Ranger.'  There in one simple sentence we've answered who and two whats.

Where, now that one is tricky if like me the DM prefers home-brewed settings so you may need to ask the DM some questions first like what areas in his world fit your view of your character.  Let's assume though it's a prebuilt world or one you are familiar with.  Where does he come from and where is he going?
            'Johan Schmit is a human Ranger. He is from a rural village and is heading to the free city.'

When isn't really something we as players need to worry about.  Your DM handles most of the Whens.  Let us move to 'Why'. This is the question your DM will or should ask most often and it is here that a story can be started.  Answering 'Why' is where you begin to add spice to your character changing him from every other of the same race-class combo into your character.

Why is Johan a ranger?  Why did he leave his home?  Why is he  headed for the free city? Why is he an adventurer and not some safe profession like a blacksmith?  The more whys you answer, the bigger your story grows and the more meat grows on those bones of 'who' and 'what'.  You want to give your DM something to get a hold of. Good, bad or embarrassing it is what allows the DM to add you to the world in a unique and interesting way.

While I do understand it goes against the grain of most players to actually give the DM some way of tormenting your character it can be fun too when the DM incorporates something you've had in your backstory.  Take Johan up there,   what if the reason he left home is because someone is hunting him?  He watched his family home go up in flames and he ran for it.  That puts a whole different twist to the character, looking over his shoulder, a dark need for vengeance, who can he trust?  all of these change Johan from a cookie cutter character into a true character with a backstory that is more than two sentences.

Now I would be remiss in not pointing out that in this digital age there are numerous sites and books that have tables galore to roll on and consult on backstories.  I like them and I don't like them at the same time.  They're great when you really are stuck or don't have the time but they can become a crutch too.  Use what you need but always make sure you are the one modifying things to fit your story and not the other way around.

One thing to remember, the DM has a plan already and may not be able to use your wonderful back story the way you'd like and that's okay.  Clever DMs will involve elements when they can.  The best thing to remember is  every backstory you write is one more step you make on the path to better stories.

A fellow DM once told me that we (as DMs) all create the adventures we ourselves would love to play. I think it is also true that we write the backstory that we as DMs would like to get. So players remember,  give your DM something to work with and DMs try to use what the players give you and everyone will have the game they all want.