Category Archives: Inspiration

Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar

Like many adolescent geeks, I fell in love with my first computer game back when I had lots of time and very little money.  I mowed lawns for many weeks (probably around 12) to save up for Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar to play on my Commodore 64.   The game came on, I believe, four five inch floppy disks, and a nifty metal ankh and fabric map were included in the box along with two instruction books.  I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.

The object of Ultima IV is to live well and in accordance with eight virtues:  Honesty, Valor, Honor, Compassion, Justice, Spirituality and Humility.  This leads to becoming the “Avatar” of those virtues and positioning your character as an example to the rest of the world.  I was just impressionable enough to invest quite a lot of myself in the game’s core principles.  I took it so far that I stopped reloading at previous save points, when I made a mistake and lost some rating in the virtues.  A simple typo when dealing with a blind vendor would cause me to lose ‘an eighth’ of my avatar hood.  One cannot be the avatar of honesty if one rips people off.  It wasn’t a terrible hardship:  even if you took a step backward, you could always redeem yourself, though this took hours.  I probably added 50 hours of game play by compensating for typos provoked by an interface that I wouldn’t tolerate for ten minutes today.

After I completed the game, naturally I took my tricked out party back and slaughtered town after town.  At that point even the town guards presented little challenge.  After all those weeks spent tightly following a path of virtue, it was quite a relief to just go evil for awhile.

This reminds me of life in a long term Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  I like playing and developing the same character over long periods of time, but sometimes it’s fun to change things up by creating a character who thinks a less and cares little for authority.

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Creative Teamwork

I haven’t been gaming much lately, and I’m a smidge under the weather, so this will be brief.

When playing any role playing game, either as player or game-master, keep an eye out for bits of creativity from your fellow players that you can hook on to. If a group is going to create a world that feels developed and real, it will take all of your brains and all of you will need to participate. Otherwise, you may wind up with five completely separate and parallel stories surrounding your adventure. There are certainly worse things, but if you find ways to interweave your creative minds, you’ll find that it all hangs together in a more satisfactory way.

Along with the idea of hooking on to the stories of your other players, support your other players when they want to add content to a story that you’ve created.

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Character Sexuality

As a combat oriented role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition holds a tension between the tactical parts of the game and the character elements. I’m a fan of both, so I constantly try to inject flourishes into my player characters.

One often overlooked and avoided way to inject true character into your PC is to reflect on and identify a sexual orientation. Many gamers avoid anything to do with sex in their game: for some of us, our early gaming experiences were as teenagers when we knew little about human sexuality; when the topic came up, it likely to descend into adolescent silliness. There is also the concern of the gaming group becoming creepy or feeling threatening to those uncomfortable including sex in the game.

These concerns are fair. While it is reasonable for a group of adult gamers to focus on romance and other aspects of human relationships, most D&D groups frankly aren’t interested. As an aside, the Book of Erotic Fantasy by Gwendolyn Kestrel and Duncan Scott is a supplement that is compatible for the 3.5 rule system that focuses exactly on “intrigue and manipulation, marriages of power, dangerous seducers, sex and magic.”

Even for standard hack and slash Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, simply identifying your character’s sexual orientation is a large step toward making him seem more real. It is then interesting to flesh out a character’s interest in relationships. Consider Westley’s situation before the action really started in The Princess Bride. He is clearly straight, but when he was away, becoming The Dread Pirate Roberts, he had no interest in pursuing other relationships. Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Wildstorm comics’ Midnighter (member of Authority) and Moorcocks’ Elric of Melnibone are other characters with established sexual orientations that added something to their personas.

If your group isn’t in to it, there’s no need to role-play any of the details. This doesn’t mean you can’t add story elements to the back story or into the out-of-play scenes.

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Battlestar Galactica Reflections

I really love the Battlestar Galactica television series that ran from 2003 – 2009. Even now, a year after the series finale’ I consider it the best television I’ve ever seen. I’ve had a few recent reflections about the show that may prove useful for role-playing game players.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition character classes fall into one of four roles: the defender, the leader, the striker and the controller. These roles match well into BSG ship battles: the vipers are clearly the strikers of the fleet. While Galactica’s cannons are significant, a battlestar’s primary function is to launch vipers, so they can shoot stuff and win the battle. Galactica coordinates the fight, much like leader classes. When a viper gets damaged, it can land for repairs (or to spend a healing surge). Galactica is also really good at taking hits. It got hit by a nuke at the end of the miniseries, and do you remember how badly it got shot up in that final battle?

The Colonial Fleet was lacking in the controller department for much of the series. Conversely, the Cylons’ ability to control the battle led to the initial genocide when the entire Colonial Fleet simply stopped working as a result of the computer virus. Finally, during “Daybreak,” the show’s final episode, Sam steps into the controller role and is able to freeze the Cylon fleet, which allows the strike force to rescue Hera. Without a controller, both battles would have ended completely differently.

My second reflection about BSG focuses on William Adama. In season one’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” he puts the fleet at risk to extend the search for Starbuck, who was shot down in the previous episode. While his decision to extend the search is questionable, there is the clear sense that he will leave when he is sure that all hope has passed. Near the episode’s end, he tells his son, Lee “Apollo” Adama, that if he had been shot down, “we’d never leave.” At the time I considered that to be a bit of sentimental claptrap: of course they would have left, there’s no way Adama would have sacrificed the fleet to continue a pointless search, even for his own son.

Then, I watched season four, and my analysis changed. During those final episodes, we see genuine vulnerability in Commander Adama. We catch glimpses of what he will do when his mind is set, even when those actions conflict with the measurable greater good. This is best illustrated in the final episode when he leads a group of volunteers on a suicide mission to save one little girl. He didn’t expect to find Earth as a result, he didn’t believe that she would save the human race. He just knew that Galactica was dying and that Roslin was dying and that he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try to save Hera.

In light of that, it’s clear that he really would have kept the entire fleet in place until he found Apollo, had the situation warranted it.

In gaming terms, this kind of nuanced characterization can be very effective. What situation will make your character abandon her other values? What does he value above his normal morality? Is this a flaw, a benefit, or a little of both?

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What to Choose?

I have two character concepts in the running. Last night I created a first level wizard gnome. My mind was crackling with the possibilities of a Yoda-like, active, arcane wielder. With my links to old school gaming, I want access to the powers from first edition: Mordenkainen’s Sword, Fireball etc… After I finished, however, I was less enthused: since my party already has two strikers, I shied away from Magic Missile and other focused damage powers. Instead, I picked mostly powers that obstruct monsters. At this point, I thought my decision was settled. My interest in the druid had faded and I was pondering paragon.

Then I had a moment of endorphin-clarity during my morning run. While I’m out running, I’m pretty disgusting. I spit when I feel like it, I blow snot at semi-regular intervals. I know these aren’t civilized behaviors, but I feel better when my fluids are flowing. No one enjoys a sniffly nose, especially during exercise. The clarity came when I considered basing a character on that behavior. It would work for any primal or otherwise uncivilized character. Like a switch, I was interested in the druid again. What if he had no concept of social norms, but with a heart of gold (or at least copper)? There’s a lot of juicy role-playing space there.

After I got home, I fired up the character builder and started on the druid. I must admit, from a design perspective, he might be more fun. I like the balance of close-up beast powers and longer range caster abilities.

By Thursday’s post, I should have a final decision. As usual, I’ll also chime in on Twitter with further developments.

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Creative Space

I love the creative space that role-playing games encourage. If it’s well designed, a game provides the structure that can cause creativity to flourish. In Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition, player character (and encounter) creation allows for vast creativity involving both design and artistry. Design, because the mechanics are engineered within specific parameters: a player group works best with a controller, defender, leader and striker, and each is best when created to perform certain functions. Within that framework there is infinite creative space with name choice alone, and it expands from there.

As I previously wrote, I’m creating a new PC for my weekly game. During this process, both design and art come into focus clearly. I tend to start with the artistic element, especially for longer campaigns. Sometimes, however, I do start with the design. In a game like 4e, what your character can do is very important. It ain’t called the ‘heroic’ tier because it’s a discussion group, after all.

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Super Heroes and Character Tiers

The three tiers of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition seem a little artificial in the context of a team of characters ascending from the merely heroic to godlike over a compressed time frame, especially if the campaign takes place over a compressed period of time.  The strength of the Heroic, Paragon and Epic tiers is that it allows players to tell stories featuring characters of varying power levels.  These stories have precedents in super hero comics that might help one think about play in the tiers.

When characters begin the game, they start as heroes with remarkable abilities and the will to change their world.  On the other hand, they don’t have political influence or renown and might not be trusted by those they want to help.  While they’re probably the toughest on the block, they aren’t the toughest in the city.  This tier reminds me of the X-Men from Marvel Comics, especially during the mid to late 1980’s, when Professor Xavier and Jean Grey as the Phoenix weren’t around.  Storm’s weather control was a little overpowering at times, but mostly they were a group that was on the run and got beat up a lot.

The Avengers remind me of a team in the paragon tier.  These are characters that have been around the block; while Captain America (a warlord if I’ve ever seen one) doesn’t have any extra super powers, he can hold his own in any situation.  Aside from a few exceptions (like Thor and Hercules), they aren’t at the epic power scale, but they can stand toe to toe with nearly everyone.  They have fame, popularity, wealth and a lot of control of their own destiny.  That’s what the Paragon should feel like in most D&D campaigns.

The epic tier isn’t something that Marvel Comics does very consistently.  Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer are good examples of that power level, but the best place to look is in DC comics.  The Justice League of America is the team to look to when considering the epic tier.  Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern and the Flash… these characters defend the world and the galaxy on a regular basis.  They are more than powerful heroes; they are heroes who symbolize power.

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