Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dave K.'s Wild Kingdom

The number of gaming articles I will be publishing is going to be dropping off for the foreseeable future as I have had a bit of a dry spell of late.  I do have an idea for a series of articles but it requires me to watch a lot of Farscape and Gargoyles so it might be a while before those things get written.  In the mean time this article has been sitting on my USB drive for some months now.  It is something I have returned to again and again, tweaking it here and there.  While much of it is admittedly focused on nostalgia there are one or two kernels of advice locked away in there.  Somewhere.

Back in the day, before the goatee, when I possessed a glorious head of earthen hued locks, I was this guy:

Check out that dimple.  And the single chin.  Man, good times.

I  used to play Dungeons & Dragons (2nd ed.) every Saturday with a bunch of guys.  There was Rich, Gary, Mike, John (I think.  He was a quiet guy, the nicest of the bunch, and I recall he used to wear a cap all the time) and the two Daves: Dave M and the DM, Dave K.  If you are wondering why I am not mentioning names I do not think it fair to spread ‘em around without permission from the owners.  I have mentioned Dave Zyn’s before on this site but he already has a ‘net presence.  Man, I know a lot of Daves.  I think "Dave" might be the most common name in Michigan.

Now, if I am critical of a GM's actions please do not think my motives are vindictive.  Well, okay, there was that series of Drew posts I wrote last year but I like to think that is a freak occurrence.  I do not pretend to be a better GM than others; one of the reasons I chose to write this blog was to offer advice, said advice coming from years of mistakes I made in running games. So when I discuss this incident please do not think this is me attempting to get revenge on Dave K years later. Dave was a pretty uptight guy, but to be fair when he had to spend every Saturday trying to run a game whose players acted like a herd of feral cats then in retrospect I can see where some of his attitude came from.

Players can often be appeased by munchies.

On a side note, one thing I do recall of Dave K. is that he was quite possibly the biggest Jethro Tull fan in Michigan.  What Kate Bush was to me and Heart was to Dave M., Tull was to Dave K.  Musically, that is.

I always played a fighter type in Dave K's games: Barbarians, Rangers, things of that nature.  The only character I recall is Draffa of the Bujoc because he had an 18/00 strength, rolled legally.  Well, there was some contention because I did not choose which colored die denoted the single digit but with "00" there was no other outcome.  Draffa was not the sharpest pencil in the box but I liked him.  Hell, he scored +6 damage with every hit, what was there not to like?

I knew a guy from high school, a friend named Gene, and to me he was one of the best players I knew.  He once played a half Orc with a brick/rock as a weapon proficiency ("You can always find a brick", he had once explained to me.  I found his logic sound.) and I spoke to Dave K, asking him if he could squeeze him into the game.  Dave said “Sure” and I brought Gene in.  Gene was pretty excited to get involved in an established campaign and he had an idea what he wanted to play, inspired by an article he read in Dragon Magazine.  Ah, Dragon.  If I had more of a disposable income and space I probably would have purchased every issue.  Allow me to drift off on a(nother) tangent as I think on the awesomeness that was Dragon Magazine.  Back in it's heyday you had articles regarding a wide variety of subjects related to gaming including short stories, adventures, game reviews, even comics like Wormy, Fineous Fingers and What's New with Phil and Dixie, written and illustrated by the awesome Phil Foglio (These days Phil is doing truly awesome work writing and illustrating the comic Girl Genius).

Click on image to enlarge.  Say what you will, Phil knew his target audience.

Dragon Magazine was an invaluable tool for GMs and players alike. But like most tools Dragon Magazine could be quite dangerous in the wrong hands.  In Gene's it was like giving a chainsaw to a wild chimp and Dave's campaign was the tree.

Natural twenty!

Gene was very much interested in Japanese culture, he even spent some time in Japan later on teaching English.  He was one of the first people who turned me on to anime.  So it was only natural that when he came across this article character class he was very excited.  The article?  The samurai class. Bear in mind this was before the Oriental Adventures supplement came out so this character class was fresh and new.  The most almost anyone knew about Samurai was from the Shogun television mini series.  By the way, I was on a huge James Clavell kick years back and if you are looking for some non-fantasy or science fiction to read, I highly recommend the book Shogun.  In a way it it reminiscent of some science fiction plots in that you are reading about a man trying to deal with an utterly alien culture with it's own set of values that are often opposed to his own and he must struggle to adapt to them..  It is a wonderful read.

Where was I?  Gene, Dragon Magazine, Samurai class.  Right.  Gene showed up that Saturday, Dragon Magazine in hand.  He sat down with Dave K to generate a character and he made his pitch.  When I knew Gene he often had jobs in retail selling stuff.  Gene was pretty good at his job and he was able to sell Dave on allowing him to run a Samurai.

I apologize if I seem hazy on details but I was not writing notes at the time so I am operating on memory alone, and frankly the only parts of the campaign that were memorable were the parts where Gene was involved.  If that sounds cruel where Dave K.’s campaign is concerned, it is not intentional.  The advantage of running a PBEM is everything is documented so if I so choose I can go back twelve years and search for details.  If I did not have that luxury I am certain only a fraction of my adventures would stick in the minds of my players; they have more important things to commit to memory.

That still does not mean I hope at least one or two of my adventures are memorable.

Gene was one of those guys who felt very strongly about playing in character.  No, he did not show up in costume or insist on talking in a funny accent.  But he did feel that if you were playing a thief, you lied, cheated and stole (not from fellow PCs; that is just stupid, and stupid Gene was not.).  He was once in a Shadowrun game playing a pair of bikers (We often played two characters in our group.  You know, in case one died during the adventure.  It tended to happen.  A lot.).  When the GM (me) noted a plot point about a rival biker gang riding down the street (this was the Dreamchipper module, by the way) he asked if the PCs were currently in his gang's territory.  When the answer was an affirmative his characters Iron Paw and Drunken Monkey (Gene had a talent for names) whipped out his submachine gun and went to town on the invading bikers.  Never mind the (drunken) monkey wrench thrown into my plans, those bikers were not supposed to be there and they knew it!  This is an important point so bear with me.

I forget how, exactly, Gene's character met the party or why he had decided to join our quest.  Odds are three to two that we met in a tavern.   The party reached the outskirts of a town and if I recall correctly we were searching for a network of caves where a pack of ogres were hiding.  We came across a farmer and asked him for information.  The farmer was pretty abusive to the player characters.

“Wait,” Gene said to Dave K., “The farmer said that to my character?”

“Yes,” Dave K. replied, not thinking anything was unusual about a player asking for clar-

“I kill him!” Gene said.

“…What?” Dave asked after the laughter died down.

“I kill him!” Gene repeated as he rolled his ten sided die for initiative.

“Why?” Dave asked, desperate to regain control of his game.

“Samurais don’t take crap like that from peasants,” Gene explained.  He grinned at his initiative score and said, “I have fast draw with my katana, I don’t think anyone is going to be able to stop me.”

Really, why did anyone want to stop Gene?  This was the most fun we had with Dave’s game in weeks.  At least, it was the most fun I had had.  Like I said earlier, I mostly played fighters and the death count was pretty high for meat shields in Dave’s games.  Back then before you had online random name generators you were stuck coming up with them on your own.  After the first four or five characters in as many months you start to get jaded and start calling them variations of your middle name or were pulling random ones out of a phone book.

Back to Gene.  The peasant did not stand a chance.  In the aftermath there were in-character arguments but in the end the good players determined that the foreigner could not be held responsible for a misunderstanding.  The fact that Gene’s samurai murder machine was likely to score initiative and had a high probability of critical hitting us had absolutely nothing to do with our decision to let the dead peasant issue lie.  Really.  Dave K quietly fumed, but really what could he do?

The cave network was found and we went in, then we discovered a host of ogres.  And that was when we discovered just how lethal Gene’s samurai was.  The Ginsu Warrior, as he was now known, had a devastating two weapon combo attack that sliced into ogres and almost guaranteed a kill each time.   We came to a fork in the cave and ogres were flooding the passageway from two angles, and I am sure Dave was thinking now was his chance to regain some semblance of sanity.  Only Dave M. or Mike, I forget which, determined the best way to handle this was to have all the meat shields charge down one passageway to fend off the ogres there, and Ginsu (by this point we forgot what Gene called his character; nick names have a way of developing lives of their own) hold the other passage while the magic users act as artillery.  While the meat shields valiantly held off the ogre assault on the right with the thieves acting as back stabbers, Ginsu was having trouble finding new targets, what with that pile of corpses forming in front of him.  I swear, I think everyone playing a fighter type at that point was seriously considering playing a samurai for all those wicked hit bonuses.  Dave K’s campaign soon came apart and he had to retreat, metaphorically speaking, to determine what to do next.  Dave K later took Gene aside and Gene agreed to retire Ginsu.  He later ran a Halfling thief named Erwal Fizwig, which really was not his real name; it was the name he cried out during torture.  We never did discover what name Gene wrote on the character record sheet.

The lessons to take away from this incident are these.  First of all, it is all well and good to want to make players happy, but do not bow before pressure if you have reservations about the character they want to play.  Each character should be looked at carefully to see if there are any potential pitfalls to avoid.  Is the character too powerful, is their background too weird or exotic? That is not to say that Gene would have walked if Dave had rejected his samurai.  Likely he would have pulled out the half orc with the brick weapon proficiency.  Which in retrospect would have been an entirely different kind of awesome.

I was talking to Dave Zyn a little while back and discussed the concept of Mary Sues and he in turn mentioned the Special Snowflake.  I had never heard of this term.  For those of you who do not know what that is, the Special Snowflake is the PC who has to be different from everyone else.  They are not necessarily a Mary Sue but they must be unique and stand out.  You see this a lot in Star Trek games; the half Betazoid/half Bajoran, or the dude from the 21st century, or the rescued Borg.  Spock is partly to blame for this, but the real culprit is The Next Generation with their collection of Special Snowflakes: the only Klingon serving in Starfleet, the only android in Starfleet, the half human/half Betazoid, the child genius, and the blind guy with a visor that gives him super vision (And notice how you never see anyone else with disabilities in Star Trek employing devices to compensate for them?).  I am not saying Gene-the gamer gene, not Gene Roddenberry-wanted to be a Special Snowflake, but you see how the unique nature of his character really put a monkey wrench in Dave’s campaign.  And if a player threatens to quit if he does not get his way then perhaps he is not suited to your game.  A player has to look at thing from the GM’s perspective.  In this case Gene was easy going about the whole thing.  It was just a game; everyone should have a good time, DM included.

Second, a GM who does not do his homework is only asking for trouble and gets exactly what he deserves.  If a player is role playing a character from a comparatively alien or unusual culture from the other PCs then the GM should take special care in how that character is going to interact with PC and NPC alike.  Furthermore, if the player is running an unusual character class, research it thoroughly first.  Gene should have approached Dave earlier about the class but back then before scanners and e-mail (Yes, this happened that far back.) the only way he could have done that was to drive the ten or twenty miles to Dave’s house, and back then we all played at Mike’s house so hardly anyone knew where Dave K lived.   So the pair getting together before Saturday?  It would have been a pain in the ass to do.  It is hard to say what they could have done differently.  Met for dinner at McDonalds somewhere, maybe?  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Third, never assume!  It is hard to get into Gene’s head but I think he thought everyone knew Samurais were lethal swordsmen who did not take crap from peasants.  This was before the big anime boom so you had to be a pretty hardcore fan of the genre to get ahold of the good stuff and not crap that was normally dubbed and released for American consumption.  Japanese culture simply was not as widespread as it is now among geeks and the only way you really knew about this sort of thing was if you saw the aforementioned Shogun mini series, or got your hands on Shogun Assassin from the local video store (Video stores were places you went to in order to rent things called video tapes), or maybe had read Frank Miller’sRonin.  Access to the genre was still pretty thin.  Gene simply should not have assumed Dave K was prepared when the game began and Gene should have warned Dave in advance a bit more about what the Samurai was about and what he had in mind.  So while Dave K made some mistakes so did Gene.

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