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Retired Obi-Wan Was A Killing Machine

This Is Not The Gaze Of Sanity

If we assume the prequels are canon (even Jar Jar) then Obi-Wan’s mental journey makes a sharp left turn into psychopathsville once he enters retirement on Tatooine. Specifically, when we consider how he spent the 20 years after cutting Anakin’s legs off, but before Anakin cut him into a force-ghost.

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Pictured: Obi Wan’s hut. Not Pictured: 1,000-Piece Puzzles

I mean, aside from stalking young Luke and waiting for the empire to get bored and disintegrate Aunty and Unky Lars, what keeps Obi-Wan sane? Those walls above look pretty bare, and the furniture is sparse at best. So what was that old crank up to? Tetris? Sudoku?

Or, was he waging a one-man war against the planet’s native Tuskens, slowly reducing them to a shadow population of their former glory? Does that last one sound like a stretch? Let me explain. But first, a warning.

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SPOILERS!

Imagine the emotional fallout Obi Wan was facing at the end of the prequels. Imagine the broken spirit of a Jedi Knight whose entire order has been crushed, whose best friend and pupil was left legless in a volcano, who has just retired from a life of rich political intrigue,  high-stakes negotiating, and PTSD-inducing battles. Now drop that man into isolation on a planet of dunes. Endless, boring dunes.

What would you do to keep your Jedi skills sharp?

During the prequels we see evidence of a large Tusken Raider population, bold enough and aggressive enough to take pot-shots at pod racers during the Boonta Eve event. That takes some big sandy balls right there. The Tuskens (named so because they raid-murdered the settlement of Tusken) are willing to shoot at–on live television–the planet’s most popular sports figures. That would be akin to a group of casual snipers take shots at Formula 1 racers in front of millions of spectators…if Formula 1 was the most popular sport on the planet.

The raiders are also known for kidnapping moisture farmers. That sentence alone should tell you everything you need to know about how pervasive the Tusken Menace was on Tatooine. They were known for kidnapping and torturing, to death, the people whose job it is to provide water to the planet’s population. Those farms should be better guarded than oil wells in war. But the raiders get away with it until Anakin shows up to ruin their day.

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Now consider how the Tuskens are portrayed in Star Wars: A New Hope. Twenty years later, after the Anakin incident, Obi-Wan practically has to explain every nuance about Sandpeople to Luke. This isn’t lazy exposition for the audience. This is because Luke, having grown up on those very same farms that were getting raided by Tuskens, has to be told about their tactics and habits. Obi Wan has to explain that they travel in single-file, that they scare easy, and they have crappy aim. Stuff Luke would know if the Tuskens were as pernicious a threat as they were 20 years ago.

If you grow up near forests you’re warned about bears and wolves. Live near the ocean, you’re warned about riptides and tsunamis. And if you grow up in Australia you’re warned about the many venomous creatures god has sent to punish you. The only way Luke wouldn’t know absolutely everything about Tuskens by age five would be if they were a non-issue. It’s almost as if a hermit with supernatural fighting abilities has been living between the Tuskens and the farmers for a generation or so, reducing their population steadily, until they were no longer a threat to civilization.

Maybe, just maybe, the Tuskens who flee from Obi-Wan in A New Hope aren’t running scared because he disguised himself as a moaning hobo. For a species that passes on their history orally, how would they remember the few Jedi they’d come into contact with?

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Oh, right…

Obi-Wan doesn’t spook the Tusken Raiders with his wacky getup. He scares the sand out of them because he has hunted them for two decades. And they know, culturally, to fear the Jedi. The bard-like lessons they’ve been sharing for the past 20 years are of Jedi slaughtering whole villages because of a kidnapped dame. And it’s happened not once, but twice. Those are Pablo Escobar levels of retribution.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that young prequel Obi-Wan was flowery in his swordsmanship during his battle with Darth Maul. But by the time he’s hacking dudes apart in Mos Eisly, we’re given to understand that Old Ben doesn’t mess around anymore when it comes to fighting. In Bushido, the art of drawing the sword to open an attack is called Iaijutsu. When Luke is shoved during the bar scuffle, Obi-Wan doesn’t draw the saber and hold it high like a Knight getting ready for a fair contest. He draws and strikes, making two precise cuts– one of which chops the loud-mouth assailant in half, according to the original script, and the other takes his friend’s arm along with the blaster he was wielding.

This is a man who has learned from experience that the most effective way to stop an opponent is to slice them into tidy pieces.

Images and Tusken facts from Wookieepedia.

“Sand people are easily startled.” Obi-Wan tells Luke in A New Hope. Well, sure. But you’d be easily startled too, if a literal boogeyman with wizard powers and a laser sword moved into your neighborhood. And then he just stayed there. For twenty years. Only venturing out to visit a young farm boy.

That’s not a hero of the galaxy. That’s Freddy Krueger with a beard.

The Intersection Between Speech Evaluation and Writing

This winter I submitted my first Sci-Fi into Writers of the Future, a highly esteemed quarterly contest for unpublished writers. It was both the first Sci-Fi I had ever written (I’m a fantasy guy) and my first time entering this contest. I walked away with an honorable mention.

With the volume of submissions WotF receives, and the incredible quality of their winners, I was overjoyed at getting this nod. Past WotF winners include Brandon Sanderson, who was a finalist in his quarter, and Pat Rothfuss, who won his quarter with an excerpt from Name of the Wind. Needless to say, WotF is full of heavy hitters.

There are some writers on the forums who have racked up a dozen or more Honorable Mentions in their pursuit of contest gold. Nonetheless, I’ll take my badge as a sign that I’m on the right track. If I can land anywhere in the ballpark, even the parking lot, of Sanderson, that gives me motivation to persevere.

This sentiment was shared by my writing group. When I told them about my mention I got several back-slaps and emotional hand-shakes (not literal hand-shakes, mind you, this is Covid season). And I was also asked a pretty simple question: What had I done to nudge my writing up to this caliber?

My answer was pretty simple. I went to Toastmasters.

Now, this may seem counter-intuitive. Toastmasters is a public speaking organization, after all, with an emphasis on professional non-fiction delivery. But here I’ll share what I told my writing group.

A Toastmasters meeting has 2-3 program speakers at each meeting. With an additional 3-6 tabletopics (impromptu) speakers. Evaluators give feedback for each speech, and there is usually a designated evaluator for the tabletopics speakers as a whole. Even if you’re not assigned as an evaluator for someone’s speech, you’re still encouraged to provide written feedback to the speakers. Most evaluators focus on vocal variety, body language, or presentation style. I, being a writer, focus exclusively on story structure. Every meeting. Every speaker. Regardless if I’m the designated evaluator. And when I’m not working overtime, I attend two meetings a week.

For those keeping count, that’s 9-18 short stories per week that I’m evaluating/restructuring for practice. Oh, and my primary Toastmasters club is Story Masters; a club that specializes in storytelling elements, story flow, and value change.

9-18 short stories per week, at spoken pace, on top of my regular written story swaps from critique groups. That’s also 9-18 speakers per week who are ridiculously grateful that you a) paid attention, and b) offered them structural points on their speech, based on Fraytag’s Triangle.

So…who has two thumbs and an honorable mention after doing speech evaluations for every speaker, every week? This guy!

On Creativity: Miss Very Well

I stomped off the field, crying, while men in pantaloons pretended nothing had happened.

I threw my fiberglass bow at my father’s feet like a tennis premadonnna having a tantrum–like a golfer who puts his favorite putter over his knee before he pitches it into the grass. I screwed up my face, made myself look as angry as I could; to hide my tears, which seemed very important at ten. And I complained, bitterly.

“They’re laughing at me, and it’s not fair. I can’t pull it back any farther.”

My father looked at the children’s bow at his feet, and at the men on the archery range who were trying to save my dignity by ignoring me.

“They’re not laughing at you. They’ve just never seen a child hit the bale from that distance, and they think it’s funny.”

I wiped my eyes. I was too old for this kind of behavior, but I’ve always had a temper. “I missed.”

“Yes.” He agreed. “But you missed very well.”

It’s taken my entire life to learn that lesson. To understand how to miss well. To learn from my mistakes, I must abandon the idea of hitting a lucky bullseye. We should all abandon the notion that every shot will be a Robin Hood shot. Or that we’ll even hit the haybale with every pull. In this life, it’s far better to miss well, and be consistent, than to hit the bullseye once and never come close again.

In archery this is called grouping. Like throwing darts, any child can hit the center mark by happenstance or luck. But your grouping–consistently putting the arrows in neat, tight clusters around your target–that takes real mastery, and real practice.

So it is with writing. Or any other creative skill. You should never expect to write one book and hit the bullseye in your genre or market. You should never expect to loose one story upon the world, and eternally reap the rewards. You must shoot thousands of arrows–hundreds of thousands–before you can have a good grouping. And if you miss alltogether, you should miss very well.

The men standing on the archery line that day–the men who had come to the renessance fair dressed like English bowmen–they didn’t hold my tantrum against me. Far from it. They cheered when I got off the grass and came back to the field. They made space for me on the firing line. And when I missed, I missed very well, and they applauded that too.

For all of you writers who are getting your practice shots in; I applaud you. I’m glad to see that you’ve abandoned the bullseye. And I hope you miss well too.

Originally posted to TheProse.

The Nameless Boy

The boy who called himself Hiram was a noble’s get, but in the Stacks of Rat District, who wasn’t?

Blind Beatrix was a bastard—claimed her father was a port merchant who tried to sell her off. He’d almost managed it, too. But a bad batch of Whispersleep wine took her eyes, and her value as a servant dropped to nothing. It was a foul alchemic liquor, rumored to be stilled with a teaspoon of white oil in every bottle, for flavor. Imitation Whispersleep was sold from disreputable shops, some variations little more than vinegar and grease with a few drops of laudanum. A handsome young poet had drizzled some onto Beatrix’s tongue, except his had been wood spirits laced with treacle to mask the smell.

Opossum was a bastard too, though he’d tried to burn his house tattoo from his shoulder with a scrap of hot iron. The infection nearly killed him.

The girl named Spoons told everyone she was the illegitimate of a spire noble, but she refused to say which. When cornered by some of the older boys working for the watch they were more interested in what was under her stained tunic than which house she’d been cast out of.

Then there was the new boy. Hiram.

“They found me in the middens at birth, but the commander Amos took me in because I’m extra tough.” The boy named Hiram bragged, sitting on a mound of rotting wood and spokes, and scraps of metal siegeskin so rusted it was parchment thin.

“That’s why he trained me to fight like a legionnaire, see? Because he knew I’d be a soldier. No normal babe could survive being tossed out, that’s what he said. In another year, when I’m ten, they’ll let me join the children’s brigade. I was hand-picked by the commander before he died, you see? Cause’ Amos knew I was tough. But until I’m in the brigade I’ll need help from everyone. Once I’m in, I can bring you all food and clothes. But until then you’ll need to help me, you see?”

Heap was sitting next to Blind Beatrix, listening to the boy named Hiram. She kept shaking her head, glassy white eyes fixed on the putrid puddle at her feet. She said; “You left a warm bed and a bowl a day with the sisters at Menoll Home, to come here? You ain’t gettin’ our food.”

“The sisters didn’t do things the way I like.” The boy said. “I’ll bring you food later. More food than you can ever eat, once I’m in the brigade. Spoons already said she would. So did Badger.”

“You gave him your food?” Beatrix asked, and the younger kids said they had shared. “Stupid, stupid waste.”

“It ain’t stupid!” The boy shouted. “I promised I’d pay ‘em back. I was hungry, and the brigades don’t take scrawny boys.”

“Stupid!” Beatrix shouted. “They’re hungry, too. We’re all hungry.”

“But I need it.”

“We all need it. Besides, I can hear the fat on your bones.”

The other kids laughed. It was true. Life as a commander’s servant had given him reserves.

“It’s not funny, hag! Amos showed me how to fight, and I’ll knock your teeth in, you old blind bitch.”

Heap frowned, looking from the fat boy to Beatrix. She had pulled Heap squalling from the Stacks, to nurse him with a rolled-up rag soaked in pigeon broth. She must have had six or seven years on him, but she didn’t look old, unless you were gazing into her eyes. Not like some of the wrinkled beggars he’d seen on the streets.

“Come along Heap.” She said. “Let the fat boy whine about his rumbling tummy.”

Heap took her hand and followed her deeper into the Stacks, and the children dispersed without offering any more support to the fat boy. They seemed to have forgotten how fierce he was, now that Beatrix had shrugged him off.

They climbed through the rotting timbers and ties, through the spars and arms of the broken weapons of war, where the city dumped its engines outside the wall once all the valuable parts had been scavenged. The children crawled into tiny nests dug into the bellies of the old war machines, ignoring the hungry boy outside on his rusted throne.

Heap and Beatrix picked through the rubble to their shelter, which was a waterlogged siege frame and a slice of tin roof, fastened to the top with twine. It was the best spot in the Stacks.

Heap sat on a pile of rags in the corner, which was growing fuzzy black spots, and Beatrix felt her way to her torn quilt, folding a corner over her lap. She reached behind her and pried at a wad of rags with grimy fingers, revealing a hole. Inside was a heel of bread and a fried eel skin Heap had found in the market, neither of which were a day younger than rancid.

“We don’t share.” She said, stuffing the rags back into the hole. “Not with fat boys like him.”

Beatrix snapped her fingers at Heap, and he scrambled over to her and collapsed against her. He encircled her waist with an arm and she his shoulders, and they took turns nibbling at the foul heel.

“Beatrix?”

She was humming a wandering, aimless tune, but she stopped. “Yah kid?”

“Is it true?”

She sighed and brushed at his hair like he was a doll. “Is what true?”

“If he was in the brigade, could he bring us food?”

Her fingers knotted in his matted copper-brown hair, pondering the question. “It’s true the brigades feed their children, yes. But when the fat boy is gone he won’t be coming back to help us.”

“If I was in the brigade, could I get us food?”

Her hand halted its gentle stroking and slid to the nape of his neck, where it tightened. Her body seemed to fold over him, drawing the old quilt around them. “They wouldn’t take you.” She whispered. “Not someone from the Stacks, and you’re too young.”

“I could lie.”

“They’d know.”

“I could cut my hair and steal a fine shirt. I’d tell them I was short for my age, and my papa worked in Old King District, and I could—”

She quieted him by brushing her lips over his. She was always doing that sort of thing—the kissing. Heap didn’t mind because the two of them were close, and she’d done so much for him. It was a warm thing, not altogether unpleasant. He’d seen others kissing in the secluded parts of the Stacks, but he got the feeling it meant more to Beatrix.

They finished the bread and chased it with a skin of cistern water. The rain began to pound on the tin roof so hard he couldn’t hear her humming over the tiny drumming hammers.  Rust and mold and rain-soaked wood permeated everything. A tattered flap of skin shed oily droplets under a small circular window.

Beatrix dozed. Heap tried to keep still, lying against her side. She whimpered in her sleep, and sometimes her forehead crashed into his shoulder when she buried her face against him. He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t slept with her arms around him, quietly moaning in the dark corners, when there was no one around to hear. She trusted Heap. She’d rescued him, shared her life with him. In the early years before he was big enough to steal food she’d risked starvation for him. Now, because he was fast and clever, they ate better than the others.

She whispered in her sleep, calling for one of her brothers, Teppi. He’d been taken away when her father left the city, to Marathorn across the sea. She called his name again and her white eyes fluttered open, and she nudged Heap.

“Do you hear that?”

He shook his head, straining to hear over the rain.

“Get up.” She said.

While Heap was untangling himself from the blankets the boy Hiram ducked into the shack. He was wet and shivering. His dark hair was matted over his brow. In his fist was a pried-up cobblestone with jagged edges.

“Why won’t you share?” He said, eyeing the half-eaten eel skin Beatrix was holding. “You could share with me. I won’t tell anyone. I just want a bite to eat, and a place to rest for a while.”

“Get out.” Beatrix said, standing on the quilt. “This is our spot. Get out, fat boy.”

“But you’ve got so much! And I’ve got nothing.” He whined, coming closer.

“He’s got a rock!” Heap tried to warn her. But as the words spilled from his mouth the boy Hiram struck. He swung at her with an overhand fist like he was trying to crack a coconut, and the cobblestone caught her just below the nose.

There was a loud crack. Teeth hit the ground. Beatrix stumbled back, gasping through strings of blood, and she slumped down with her hands over her head trying to fend off the next attack.

Surprise was plain on the boy’s face as he struck her a second, weaker blow, glancing the stone off her scalp. She moaned as her head was jerked sideways, and a bead of crimson rolled down her forehead. Hiram dropped the rock and ran out of their little shack, not bothering to pick up the eel skin that had slipped from her fingers.


The boy named Hiram had nothing to fear from the children of the Stacks after they heard about Beatrix. They willingly gave over a portion of their meager means so he wouldn’t be underfed when he applied to the brigade. He relished in the status he had won for himself. After the initial shock of Beatrix’s death faded they gathered around Hiram—to hear stories of how he’d punished her for selfishly hoarding food. Once that story failed to hold their attention he spun yarns about life as the commander’s houseboy. Tales of mischief and adventure that would rival any penny novel.

Heap knew them for the lies they were, because his story about Beatrix was a lie. Especially the part about her death.

Beatrix wasn’t slain that night in the rain. It took a week for her to die, while Heap kept the shack shut tight with scraps of wood and rags. He stole boldly, often from the same vendors, risking life and limb to bring her food as quickly as he could. Most of it he had to chew or grind into paste before spooning it into her mouth. She wheezed and licked it down, but with her teeth missing and her jaw cracked open, it became too painful to drink broth.

Heap sulked and contributed to the new king’s gluttony, offering just enough to appease him. He could tell the fat boy was suspicious, but he never went near the shack with the tin roof. It smelled of blood. He let Heap go about his business with a few parting insults.

The doctors in town refused to see Beatrix. He was too small to carry her, and anyone in Rat District who heard him mention the Stacks immediately shut their doors or shoved him aside. The only helpful advice anyone gave him was to warn him about the rats, and to find a stick to keep them away from her body. He even tried the clergy, and the sisters at Menoll. They told Heap to pray to Illmaera, The Mother, on behalf of his friend.

On the sixth day it rained again, and a chill descended. He couldn’t keep Beatrix and himself warm, no matter how much tattered cloth he piled on top of her feverish body. He’d tried to wash her clammy skin the day before with a cool wet rag, and now he blamed himself for her sharp decline. He wasn’t able to get her clean with dirty scraps of linen anyhow, and the look of her pallid, maturing body made him ashamed. Near the end he pillowed her head in his lap and tried to feed her, and she shook her head.

“Heafff…” She huffed. The air from her mouth was sweet from the spoonful of broth and from the infection. The cleft under her nose and mouth never stopped oozing. The guilt was killing him, but he looked forward to his next run through city, away from her, when he was sprinting wildly through the streets.

“Yah.” He said.

“Taalll.”

“Talk?” He ventured, and the nod was barely perceptible. He brushed her hair, careful of the new scar running through her scalp, and his throat tightened. “I wouldn’t know…”

Her eyes squeezed shut, and tears gathered in the corners and streamed down her temples. In the years she had raised him, she’d never asked him to converse with her. It was Beatrix who did the talking, even when they slept.

“I’m sorry I’m not Teppi.” Heap said, and he felt a slight jolt of her head against his lap. “I’m sorry I didn’t stop the fat boy.”

She gave a low, pitched moan, and went still. Her tongue clicked as it peeled off the roof of her mouth. “Lufff…”

“Love?” He asked, leaning over her. She didn’t nod this time, or move, other than her shallow rasping breath. “Yah, me too.”

He bent his forehead over hers so the two of them were touching.


Heap found the greedy boy in his usual spot, the morning after Beatrix stopped breathing. He was trying to impress Spoons, telling her about the girl-servants he’d escorted to his bedchambers, although details of what they’d done in private were not forthcoming.

Hiram’s sudden interest in her might have been sparked by rumors that she was selling herself to beggars and purse-cut boys. Opossum said she’d confided in him after the first time, telling him it was better to earn a few coins for something they’d do anyway.

As he approached them the rat-stick was heavy in Heap’s small hands. It used to be an oak lever to an engine, and it was almost too big for him to swing. Dirty brown splotches marked where he’d used it to defend Beatrix from sharp, needle teeth. Heap wished he’d used it from the start.

“Why you got that stick?” Hiram asked, trying to deepen his voice. He sounded dull and oafish, sitting on his timber like a toad.

“The cobbles were too tough to pry up.”

Anger faded from Hiram’s face, and fear blossomed when he realized what Heap intended to do with the rat-stick. Spoons saw it too, and she edged away from the King of the Stacks.

“I ain’t mad at you.” Hiram said. “I was mad at the blind bitch. She was hoarding food.” He slid off the timber, balling his fists. Heap kept coming. “Amos taught me to fight. You saw it. I don’t wanna have to—”

The stick crashed into Hiram’s forehead and the boy bit his tongue in half. He spat out a fleshy red triangle, and he tried to plea again.

“Nooo, aayy—”

Heap missed his face, bouncing the stick off the boy’s flailing arms, but the second swing split his cheek open and the impact hurt Heap’s wrists. Spoons was running through the Stacks, calling for Opossum or Blink or Tom-Tom, or anyone who would come help. Her shouts brought out a dozen faces, and the children watched from their holes and hiding places.

The fat boy whined and curled himself into a tight ball, begging. “Ah di’ meaaa ihhhtt!” He screamed as the stick made dull, meaty noises.

Heap didn’t rage or scream or stomp as he punished the older boy. He did what he had to do. When the fat boy stopped moving, Heap stopped hitting him. He couldn’t tell which blow had done it. There had been several cracks and crunches, just as there had been with the rats.

He dropped the stick and watched the mud puddles bloom crimson around the boy. Spoons came back with the others, and they gathered in a wide circle, waiting, staring at the body. They seemed to expect something from Heap.

“What was his last name?” Heap asked without looking at them.

“Don’t know.” Spoons said, but a younger boy answered; “Mortimer.”

Hiram Mortimer. Hiram of the children’s brigade. Heap thought to himself, whispering the name, practicing the sound on his tongue. I can be Hiram Mortimer. I can steal for the watch, for protection, and find a way into the brigade. I can be Hiram Mortimer.

Heap began rehearsing everything the fat boy had told them about his life before coming to the Stacks.


Thank you for reading my first contest-winning short story. (Also, the first written story I ever submitted.) It means the world to me to be able to share it with you. If you’d like to receive updates, posts, and more short stories as I write them, subscribe below.

How To Play The Evil Mastermind

There has always existed a trend in party alignment. The majority of the party picks Good if they’re playing a classic D&D game. Evil, if they’re playing a dark campaign. Or Neutral if they can’t be bothered to invent reasons why they tied the mayor’s intestines to the sleigh before pushing it down the hill.

Then, every once in a blue moon, you get the player who thinks he can pull off a lawful evil character in the midst of a good party. Be it hubris, folly, or the belief that an evil alignment is a blank check for slaughter and theft; this misconception usually corrects itself when the party Paladin is forced to cut off his thieving hands.

If you’re going to play evil, I mean really evil, you owe it to yourself to do it right. Put aside the murdering thuggery, and focus on the bigger picture. Why settle for being a wallet-grabbing stickup man when you can aspire to the evil heights of Dr. No, Loki, or any other middle-aged British man.

So, because absolutely nobody asked for it, here are my tips for raising your standards from common criminal to Pure Dag-Nasty Evil.

Ignore Small Rewards

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Pictured: +1 Boots of Shabbiness

Ever notice in movies how the evil mastermind will stop to rob an old lady because he’s short on cash? Or how Vader will halt his search for the rebel plans to loot the choked-out bodies at his boots? No? You don’t see Thanos going through Peter Parker’s dropped wallet? There’s a reason for that.

The villainous mastermind is above instant gratification.

It’s perfectly fine as the villain to accept bounty rewards or payment for a job well done. It’s your due, after all, even if that job was underhanded and loathsome. But the first and biggest mistake I see players make is to focus on the petty, instant rewards.

In the grand scheme of things, what’s a pouch of gold or a few credits? In fact, I’d recommend giving away gold or valuables to make yourself seem less threatening to the party. Because if you’re subtle and smart, your dedication to true evil will be rewarded with the trust of the people, which can be worth truckloads of gold and tons of influence. But only if you can…

Be Patient, Blend In

– Wiki

By now you’ve resisted the urge to murder the senile pawn-broker, and you’ve kept your puppy-kicking ways to yourself. Congratulations! Your ability to overlook quick gratification has allowed you to blend in with the party (so long as nobody casts Detect Evil)

So when do you finally reveal your true evil nature? When do you, the mastermind, unleash those pent-up bolts of lightning from your fingertips?

Not yet. Just wait.

Imagine you’re returning from a successful dungeon run, where the glittering jewel of Onk’Thur the Gaudy has been left in your possession, and the foolish party has given you first watch. Before you slip away into the night with the jewels, I want you to remember a radio station: WIIFM

In sales and marketing the acronym WIIFM refers to a short phrase: What’s In It For Me?

Sure, you might escape with the goods. But what then? Weeks later, after you’ve spent the cash and the party still wants your blood, how will you rejoin the group? How far will the gold really get you? What’s in it for you, in the long run? Instead, consider a more insidious tactic for glory and riches…

Drive the Party From The Back Seat

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Pictured: Your Party.

— Google Images/Wiki

As the evil mastermind the people you’re adventuring with are, first and foremost, your personal minions. They just don’t know it yet.

By now you may be noticing a pattern in my advice. Almost every part of playing true evil relies in being as inconspicuous as possible, right up until the end. Think about the most villainous characters we know and love: Hannibal Lector, Dexter, Mr. Glass, Lex Luthor, Keyser Soze, Walter White, etc etc etc.

They don’t let their evil nature shine through until they’re at the zenith of their power, at which point they gleefully reveal their role in the group’s downfall. Even out-of-the-closet villains will take great pains to appear fair and righteous to their own faction. Someone in the galactic empire supported Palpatine after he went all dark-and-sinister, otherwise the Deathstar would have had a skeleton crew. And the aforementioned Loki spent years pretending to be Thor’s loyal brother before he unleashed his ill-gotten powers on Asgard.

But how do you keep party suspicion down?

Appear Outwardly Reasonable

-- knowyourmeme.com

— knowyourmeme.com

Offer advice that sounds reasonable. Help solve the party’s problems. And appeal to their emotions. Your job, as the mastermind, is to nudge the party, not steer them. Let the Paladin or the Warrior take the lead. Wait until a suggestion is made to solve a current quest. And remember this phrase:

“I totally agree. But maybe we could…”

This sentence should end with a suggestion that both solves the problem facing the party and (more importantly) puts you in reach of more power and influence. Examples of this are:

a) Instead of seeking the source of a threat to the village and eliminating it (a tribe of goblin raiders, local bandits, etc) offer to construct defenses around the village, arm the villagers, train a militia to defend the town, and set up a permanent outpost. All for the good of the community, of course. And if you are put in a position of authority for the operation, you should humbly accept your new station…as mayor.

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“Yup, much more satisfying than a bag of gold.”

b) Encourage the party to use miscommunication. Get them in the habit of holding back information from Lords and Ladies who send you on quests. Information is power, even if your Dungeon Master doesn’t intend it to be. Tiny details can change the scope of the game. If you “accidentally” misinform the local constable that a cult of C’Thulu, not Kor, is worshiping in the nearby swamps, who can blame you?

c) You’re offered a grand reward upon returning property/family to the local ruler. While the rest of the party loads up on weapons and gold from his coffers, politely decline all monetary reward. Instead, ask that you be granted asylum should you return to his lands. Or, arrange for free resurrection in his temple. An escape plan into friendly territory is priceless to the evil mastermind. Just ask any villain who’s ever stepped into an escape pod.

Have the “Big Picture” In Mind

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Pictured: The Big Picture 2.0

— Star Wars Wiki

If these suggestions sound too small, too petty for an evil mastermind, I beg you to examine your favorite villain from pop culture. Unless they’re throwing around stadiums like Magneto, chances are they work in subtler ways than you think.

They lie. They push. They manipulate. But every one of their tiny deceptions, white lies, or miscommunications, adds up to one villainous goal. Because they have the Big Picture in mind.

Palpatine ended up with a galactic empire, while Dexter ended up with a mini-van. Why? Was Dexter too stupid? Too underprivileged? Too under-powered to do better? No. Their goals were simply different.

Dexter’s ultimate aim was to murder a string of dudes with a knife without getting caught. Not too big a stretch, really. Palpatine, on the other hand, wanted a planet-sized ball of murder and a coalition of worlds at his beck and call. He kept the Big Picture in mind. Sure, he died(ish) by being thrown down a ventilation shaft, but he got his murder-planet.

Every seemingly reasonable suggestion to the party, every white lie to the dungeon master, should be done with your Deathstar in mind. In the end you might be shut down by the DM before you can finally blow up Alderaan, but you’ll be that much more successful than the hapless thug who writes “Evil” for their alignment just so they can steal from peasants.

— Google Images

Unless this really is your end-goal. In which case, who am I to judge?

Nesting House Scratchbuild

With less than a 15×40 cm left in my tabletop tote, I had a hard choice to make. Do I use the space for more miniatures? Do I stack in a couple of stone walls, or ruins, or grid maps? When you’re a dungeon-master on the go, like me, every centimeter counts. In the end I decided on more castle rooms. But I refuse to take a dolly stacked with rubbermaid tubs to the hobby-shop.

So with a need for more stone buildings, and almost no space whatsoever left in my box, I drafted a new design.

The Nesting House:

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(Note: I apologize for the lighting. And the camera. And the…everything. I didn’t intend to share this design. I only took photo evidence only so I could rub this in my fellow DMs’ faces.)

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Above: Cheap foam-core from the dollar store. One bottle of white glue. Straight pins. An exacto blade. And a self-healing cutting mat. The goal is to end up with apx. 6-10 houses, which fit inside each other, saving on tote space.

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I then used a 50/50 water and pva glue solution to seal the rims of the boxes and the corners. The foamcore wanted to separate from the outer paper layer. I convinced it not to.

Watching glue dry…

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I then carved stone-like facades into the foamcore, first by scoring it with an exacto knife, then by deepening the lines with a wax-carver tool. I use the broader spade heads for this part.

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You can bond the outer layer of paper on the foam-core by doing another treatment with gluewater in the creases you’ve cut, or strip the paper off entirely, leaving a foam exterior. Keep in mind that the foam under the paper doesn’t take water-based paints or glue as well as the paper layer.

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Note: This is a time-consuming yet brainless part of the process. Kick back and watch a movie while you score and mark the sides.

Next we layer tape on the inside of the houses for mock wood paneling. This will be stained later. The tape also acts as extra support.

As you can see I’ve also cut doors into my nesting houses, which are roughly the width of the 32mm miniatures I plan on playing with.

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Below I’ve demonstrated how to layer the tape. It’s pretty simple, and any imperfections or horizontal wrinkles in the tape will be brought out by the woodstain later. This can either ruin the project, or make it look authentic and aged, so be mindful of small creases.

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This layering is how it should look on the inside of the boxes. Cut the excess masking tape along the seems with and exacto blade and steel ruler.

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Now I use an acrylic black paint, mixed with 50% warm water. You’ll want a tar or pancake-batter consistency, to get into the many cracks we’ve carved into the facade.

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Be sure to get lots of black paint on your carpet, too.

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For the last step on the facade I sponged the brick with grey, starting with a dark gunmetal and working my way toward a lighter concrete. Irregularities in shade and hue are welcome at this stage. For the purpose of this build I’ve skipped flocking the brick, although you may choose to do so before moving on to the interior.

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Lastly, clearcoat the bricks. I used a standard matte finish from the hardware store, which costs half what most dull-coat miniature cans cost. For the grainy semi-satin finish on the bricks, this stuff works fine.

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Also, the more you shake the camera while you snap pictures, the better your project will turn out apparently.

This is how the wood paneling turned out, using various types of stains and lacquer.

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Left is a spray-on pine. Middle is a red mahogany, sponged and brushed. Right is a cherry-wood spray.

The sponged mahogany would have made for a good dungeon or peasant hovel because of the raw look under the tape layers. But I wanted more of a uniform, sophisticated look to the paneling. I went with brushed red mahogany. Again, I got these from the hardware store.

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Yes, that’s a tiny outhouse on the right. Because barbarians have needs too.

Here I’ve done some touch-up on my grey bricks. Also, you can see where I’ve intentionally split the wood panels here and there in the floorboards, to give it a segmented, nailed-together look.

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Some more touching up on the inside lids is required. Just avoid turning the newly stained wood panels grey.

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Next I cut brick fireplaces out of the foamcore. I made a paper template which I glued the carved stone to.

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Also seen on the right: A potted plant, made from a halved wine cork and a plastic aquarium plant.

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Some rickety shelves for a hovel or two.

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Barrels made from wine corks, sharpened / tapered with an exacto blade.

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Add layered masking tape, the same as the floorboards, for a wine barrel or cask.

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Lastly, paint. I used the same techniques for the barrel as I did the floorboards, and the same tone of grey for the fireplace as I did the walls.

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Always measure the clearance available between one nesting box and the walls of the box it will rest in. Some of my smaller boxes will only have room for tapestries or objects narrower than 1/2cm. My larger boxes have a clearance of nearly an inch. Your designs will vary.

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As you glue pieces into the houses, I suggest re-stacking them to be sure your furniture won’t hinder the boxes from fitting back together.

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As you can see, the final product is a pair of outer boxes that measure less than 6 inches by 4. Each segment can be stacked together for castle walls, or strung together for larger manses, or separately as small homes.

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A potted plant in the entryway says “welcome home”.

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Dark Dungeons – A Nostalgic Look At Satanic Panic

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For anyone who has never read a Chick Magazine (Chick Mag for short) I would like to enlighten you about a staple of Christian Evangelism, and one of the funniest portrayals of Dungeons and Dragons to ever grace the pages of a comic book.

But first, a warning:

Chick Magazines are no joke. Any irony gleaned from the pages of these anti-heathen lessons are coincidental (and numerous). In no way am I condemning or condoning the use of religious propaganda. I am reviewing this short comic purely from the standpoint of an outside observer. If you find any of the following review offensive to your religious beliefs, I apologize in advance.

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Not from Dark Dungeons. This is just an example of the back pages of a Chick Mag.

Roll a D20 to determine if you’re damned.

In the early life of Dungeons and Dragons, news networks clamored to publish stories about gamers joining D&D cults, making pacts with the devil, and forming gang-like bonds with their fellow players. Most of these news stories ended with teens committing suicide as a result game-related depression. And although the game D&D has been around since its publication in 1974, the religious controversies didn’t get kicking in the media until the 1980′s.

Due in part to the media outcry against roleplay fantasy games, this little gem was published and handed out by the hundreds of thousands, and they can still be purchased online in bulk for around 13 cents per issue.

The most unbelievable part is having an adult woman as a Dungeon Master pre-1990′s.

Of course this comic may be taking a few liberties about the culture of Dungeons and Dragons. Even the most die-hard Dungeon Master wouldn’t ostracize a player because their character died. They’d simply be banished to the far reaches of the kitchen for 20 minutes, or however long it takes to cook a frozen pizza and make a new character. But because this is an unbiased, well-rounded view of tabletop gaming, I’m sure everything works out for Marcie…

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Dark Dungeons_03

This paper could have been used to draft a new haughty, self-important elf.

Despite Dungeons and Dragons being a far more social game than the media has given it credit for, this comic also seems to suggest that roleplaying is the exclusive domain of psychopaths, shut-ins, and people who are actively recruiting for demonic cults. That’s not to say D&D players don’t have their own baggage. Some of my best friends use D&D as an outlet for personality disorders–disorders which they reconciled long before they stepped into a pair of adventuring pantaloons.

But according to Dark Dungeons, even a glimpse of Dungeons and Dragons can send a normal, well-adjusted schoolgirl spiraling into a realm of satanic delusion.

It can also give you a wicked case of Benjamin Button.

Warning: Casting high-level spells can give you a wicked case of Benjamin Button.

Conclusion:

I don’t know if I can adequately explain the twisted love I feel for this comic. I’m fairly certain the author meant it to be a warning against Dungeons and Dragons. But this is achieved in such a ham-handed, over-the-top way that I can’t help but cackle at it like Willy Wonka in a children’s burn ward. Every Chick Mag I’ve been given has been a tiny nugget of humor, but this one takes the cake, and then it uses E Coli frosting to teach you the dangers of eating cake.

And if that ringing endorsement doesn’t convince you to read Dark Dungeons (you can find it with a simple Google search) then this should do the trick…

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Dark Dungeons_05

Well said, Debbie. Well said.

Using Achievements In Tabletop Games

In video games the Achievement has become ubiquitous. It pops up at the bottom of the screen with a ringing soundbite and a glitzy trophy like you’ve won something, even if your biggest accomplishment has been not cutting your hands off with safety scissors.

But it’s the impressive, unforeseen trophies that mean the most. Achievements for oddball discoveries, like tipping the bar-wench $10,000 (Borderlands 2) or killing the enemy by throwing his grenade back at him (Day of Defeat) or mastering every other achievement category in the game (Gears of War 3)

These are the achievements you brag about later. And these are the kinds of trophies you can bring to your tabletop game.

I warn you though, if you give out an achievement for creative murder or accumulating gold, your D&D sessions will turn into a bloodbath. Instead, you should use achievements to…

Reward For What Your Table Lacks

My first piece of advice is to dole out printed achievements on physical cardstock (more on why later) for behaviors you want to encourage in your game. NOT for attacks, even if they are badass or difficult to pull off. If your players notice a relationship between how many trophies they get, and how many villagers they cut in half, your game world will become depopulated as the players become the horsemen of the apocalypse.

Likewise, if all of your achievements have to do with communication, emotional intelligence, and openness, your game table will turn into a group therapy session.

When I say that achievements are powerful attitude adjusters, I’m not kidding. That’s why it’s important to reward for qualities your gaming group lacks.

Keep Your Achievement List Short

Many achievements will require an active count, so I would advise keeping the list short. I started with less than 20 ‘chievies and I still found it taxing to remember who changed clothes for the 4th time while everyone else was trying to slay the troll. (Achievement: Clothes Horse – Changes Clothes 5 Times  “The clothes make the man…“)

My advice is to have a cheat-sheet with the names of the achievements tucked into your campaign book. Give each player a designation, and a letter or number to the right of the achievement to indicate how many times each act/deed has been made.

It’s also important to make achievements difficult or unlikely. As an experienced DM you should adjust for whichever game system you’re running. Giving out an achievement for every critical hit in 4.0, for example, will make the trophy feel cheap. Whereas giving an achievement for anyone who doesn’t screw over the party at the end of a successful Shadowrun heist is a bit far-fetched.

If they look like they’re working together, think again.

Achievements Should Be Physical, But Not Necessarily Monetary

The first time you hand a player a tiny cardstock square with a trophy and clever phrase printed on it, you will believe in miracles again. Players come alive when you validate the last 5 hours they wasted on plotting a pretend siege on 1-inch grid paper.

In my last campaign I gave out an achievement for botching five attack rolls in one encounter. The player had a string of improbable, math-defying misses, and his d20 betrayed him more times in one round than should have been possible at his level. The name of the achievement was called “F*#@ Lady Luck!” and the player who received it went from angry and spitting, to laughing and proud in 2 seconds.

This is my reason for recommending physical tokens or scraps of paper to give to the players. It’s something they get to keep and take home, and it’ll remind them of your campaign. Being rewarded gold, EXP, or items for a quest well-done are great. But in my experience, the sense of satisfaction the players get from a tiny printed trophy is worth more than all the magic potions in the alchemy shop.

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5 Tips For Character Backstory In D&D

For the past few weeks I’ve taken a break from Dungeon Mastering to work on some novel re-writes, which you can read an excerpt from by following this link. But why would you do that? It’s not funny, and it’s not about role-playing. Come on, stay focused here!

While comparing notes with the rest of my party during character creation, I came to a realization about building backstory; It doesn’t happen.

Sure, the players had character sheets where they recorded columns of numbers to represent how hard they can punch an Orc. Or a bar wench. Or ball a fire. But aside from this numerical wench-firing value, the players were content to craft generic humanoids in chainmail, stick a sword in their hand, and push them out the door with blank spots for their history. In fact, my understanding of our party’s fighter begins and ends with “He’s our fighter, and he’s part wolf.”

On the other end of this spectrum there are players (like me) who write far too much backstory. They staple what amounts to a John Grisham novel to their character sheet. Before the game starts this ‘Biography of a Bug Bearer‘ gets read aloud to the group, word for painful word. None of it gets absorbed. None of this rich backstory is ever mentioned again, lest the storyteller feel compelled to re-read his masterpiece again. And the party continues with four interchangeable murder-hobos, and one character who seems vain for fixating on their dark and brooding past.

This is a shameful waste. Character backstory is an opportunity to infuriate other players, bungle the dungeon master’s plans, and bring interesting conflicts to the game table.

So how do we write character backstory that will get used? How do we make our character so compelling, so interesting, that other players will actually ask questions about our Bug Bearer?

Make The Backstory Immediate

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— Google Images/I, Robot

One mistake I see in character backstory is that it happened long, long ago, and involves a dead family member the party never met. Or, the backstory only serves as an flimsy excuse to go adventuring. Which, in a tabletop RPG, risking one’s life to go adventuring is the norm, not the exception. Nobody needs a reason to pick up that +1 Longsword and leave the farm forever.

During our Pathfinder game, I created a knight who absolutely hates arcane magic users. He doesn’t have a good reason, other than his affiliation with his old anti-mage Order. After a few sessions the party became genuinely interested in my knight’s prejudices, which directly related to how he was raised in The Order.

Nobody gives a damn about my character’s childhood, or yours. But if you seem to take delight in torturing goblins, or threatening authorities, or if you point a crossbow at the back of a party member’s head for trivial, unexplained reasons, questions get asked.

The more bizarre or extreme the behavior is, the more the party will be compelled to dig into the complexity that is your wench-firing bard. Just be careful not to cross the line from interesting and quirky, to a problem the party must solve by rolling up in a carpet and dumping in the lake.

Your Backstory Should Involve Active Goals

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Pictured: My Goal

Loot isn’t a goal. Gaining experience isn’t a goal. Leveling isn’t a goal. In fact, from your bard’s perspective, he hasn’t the slightest clue what level he is. All he knows is that he keeps getting better as he survives battles and solves puzzles.

Level, rank, and class are constructs of humans who want a yardstick to hold their progress against. In a free-flowing, continent-spanning journey that takes you into the darkest depths of taverns, you need a goal that your character can be consciously aware of.

Make it your lifelong goal to join a knightly order. Unless you’re starting as a paladin from D&D 3.0 or higher, in which case you probably own a knightly order.

Decide that your necromancer won’t be satisfied until he starts a cult. Brag about how your cyber-enhanced street-tough will be shredding death metal on the big stage one day. Win a fashion contest, or whatever elves do.

My point is, believable characters have their own goals that are independent of the storyline or the party. Sometimes their personal goals will even go against the party. This is a universal truth in gaming and in literature.

Your Backstory Should Include Weaknesses

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My name is Shen, priest of darkness, slayer of Gren’Tha Um, master of the shadowless kick…and I’m an alcoholic.

This was the introduction for my priest who would later burn down a tavern while frost elementals were writhing around inside. Because Shen had a drinking problem, among his many other faults.

Character flaws will give you something to fall back on in role-playing. Depth isn’t always about how badass your Hellknight is, or how unstoppable your cyborg is, or how many assisted suicides your medi-bot has performed. Depth is, more often than not, about your character’s weaknesses and how he overcomes them on a day-to-day basis. Think of your favorite fictional character in novels or film, and in less than five seconds I bet you can tell me their greatest physical or emotional weaknesses.

This also gives the dungeon master something to play off of. Sure, the DM’s going to send unending ranks of monsters to taste your sword, like the world’s worst factory line. But give them the opportunity to tempt your gambling-addicted rogue with a dice game. Let your DM choose between the same old goblin bloodbath, and an interesting side-quest involving your past.

Use Descriptors That Hint At Your Backstory

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— Google Images

The above picture has been making its way around the internet for a few years now. It depicts the endless variety of videogame protagonists we see nowadays. Look at all the shades of pale skin, dark hair, and grizzled frown…

This is consequently what everyone at the table sees when a human male character is introduced to the group. White. Dark hair. Square jaw. Average features. Even if he has cybernetic implants, runic tattoos, or a hallow peg leg that churns butter as he walks. If you’re playing a human male, you get to be Grimace McScruffy.

Shake it up by using a literary device– The Three Descriptors Method. Pick three notable traits that would pop out to anyone who met him in a tavern. Try to use more than one sense to describe them. And directly relate these traits to your backstory.

Playing a scholarly monk who spent their life in the cloister? Give them soft hands, a perfect unbroken nose, and robes that smell like sandalwood incense. Writing a noble elf that never learned discipline? Give your elf a beer-belly, a moist handshake, and an aroma of cheap perfume. Go wild. The more specific, the better.

Using these descriptors will make characters real to the players, instead of just screaming  “I Monk!” and dropping a monk miniature on the table.

Get the Party and the GM Involved In Your History

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This board has imprisoned the soul of a vindictive DM.

You may have noticed that all of these tips on backstory follow a theme. Yes, your character is important. Your understanding of your character, like an actor playing a role, is important. But your character’s contribution to the central narrative is more important.

The more your backstory and past experiences relate to the current mission, the more your character will seem like a part of the game world. That’s why it’s in your best interest to tie your history to in-game events.

If another player says his flame wizard is from Shadow-helm-deep-realm, the city that never snoozes, tell them your character has been there. In fact, that’s where your rogue first got addicted to betting on ostrich races.

Encourage the DM to pick apart your character’s history for quest ideas. Try to get other players involved too. Question them, in-character, about where they’re from and how it can help the current situation. Use pictures from wiki about kingdoms that have existed, so you can wax nostalgic about rolling countrysides, towering castle walls, and town squares where you used to throw rocks at adulterers locked in the stocks.

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– Wiki

Or if this all sounds like too much work, I understand. I can only assume from the overabundance of same-looking, generic, Mary Sue characters that appear in video games and tabletops that everyone loves the idea of playing clones of Sylvester Stallone. Don’t let me discourage you.

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Maybe think about giving them skin?

‘Epic Scale’ Is A Bad Way To Game

If you’re anything like me the quests you write will eventually escalate in danger and importance, slowly climbing the Mountains of Epic, until the party is eating ancient monsters for breakfast and pawning legendary weapons at the local market. Their equipment is so expensive that one character could stabilize Middle Earth’s economy by dying abruptly in a national bank. And the monsters that actually scare the party could only be described as “so rare they were added to the bestiary on a dare.”

Congratulations, hypothetical dungeon master who made all the same mistakes I did; You’ve revved the engine past the red line, and now the party expects Epic Scale in every game. Epic isn’t a goal to shoot for anymore, it’s the default setting. And every quest the players embark on is now “To Save The World” in some way or another.

So today I will share my folly, and offer a few reasons why “Epic Scale” can truly ruin your campaign.

Epic Sets a High Bar (Which Will Eat Into Game Time)

-- Wiki

— Wiki

You have 10 hp. Your enemy, the flea-bitten Mur-Kin, has 12 hp. At your disposal is a dirk that attacks for 1d4, and a single acid spell that deals 1d6. How many rounds, at minimum, will it take for you to emerge victorious?

The answer, of course, is zero. If you’re locked in combat with a flea-infested murkin you’ve already lost the battle. My point is, you probably had the encounter math figured out before you started the next paragraph.

Low-level games have shorter combat engagements, based purely on stat simplicity. But when you’re running a 20+ level game with dozens of home rules and expanded materials, a simple man-on-mur duel can take all day. A boss fight can last several sessions. And a large-scale battle becomes a weekly bastardization of Math Club and Fantasy Football.

Aim high. Plan for epic (legendary, if you like) level scaling. But try to simplify as much as you can. I prefer a “reroll” system. When the party as a whole reaches too high a level for us to do any real roleplay, I let the players retire their characters, and then they play as their sons or daughters, or they make deals with deities to restart life at year-one.

Power for Power’s Sake Is A Boring Benchmark

— Wiki

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Genghis Khan conquered half the world, and because his favorite past-time (after murder) was getting his Mongolian freak on, 1 in every 200 people today are direct descendants of the Great Khan himself.

If the party Bard spends most of his free time trying to get sex from bar wenches, imagine him bored, at level 20, with a Charisma to rival Aphrodite. It’s going to get messy, and 1 in every 200 NPCs will be his direct descendant by the time your campaign ends.

Or how about the warrior who seems waaay too willing to slaughter villagers because they overcharged him on tack and feed? Or the necromancer who prefers to make undead horrors out of fresh ingredients? Or the sorcerer whose only goal thus far is to see how much free fire he can pass out to the peasants?

Heroic levels and wealth do not, in and of themselves, make players heroic. I was in a heroic-level game recently when the party took a break to discuss the moral implications of starting an undead harem of camp-followers with a beauty glamour cast on them… unbeknownst to the army they were servicing.

Please remember that power in the hands of bored sociopaths can be a ticket to hell with all the boxes pre-punched.

There is a Material Cost for ‘Epic’ Tabletop Games

-- Wiki

— Wiki

Need a demon for the party to fight this weekend? Not a problem. A trip to the plastic mini’s aisle and an hour of painting later, and your dungeon boss is ready to gnaw on the party.

What’s that? Your players ride roughshod over anything less than an elder dragon? Well, if you want to uphold your high standards of miniatures, play sets, and models, you’ll need a full-scale dragon mini. Your costs just multiplied by a factor of ten. And god help you if you plan to buy armies to send against an epic-level party. You’d be better off buying old board-game pieces and claiming the Top Hat and Thimble represent the plight of the lower classes.

This is a small gripe. But I’ve seen dungeon masters completely scrap miniatures and maps because it would be too expensive at higher levels. Unless you want to pretend that the goblins they fought 20 sessions ago are now physical manifestations of sin, or some other nonsense.

Epic-Level Quests All Become Boring “Save the World” Adventures

-- Wiki

— Wiki

Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Game of Thrones. Any Zelda Game… Can you think of any long-running fantasy wherein the trope of ‘Save the World’ doesn’t dominate the story eventually?

When the Earth itself is at stake, how often do the characters take time to go on a heist that doesn’t directly relate to the Great Evil spreading across the land?

Like fantasy in novels and movies, Save the World will eventually reach the top of the players’ To-Do list. And when it does, investigating the spooky old house on the corner becomes a laughable priority. Interesting, fun, quirky quests are abandoned when slaying Sauron takes precedence.

There’s an episode of the Walking Dead where Rick & Friends encounter an army Sergeant who’s escorting a scientist to Washington. The scientist claims can help cure the outbreak. When the party agrees on a detour to find someone’s wife, the Sergeant is perplexed and outraged. Nothing, nothing could be as important as saving the world, right? This is exactly how your players will see anything unrelated to your doomsday plot. And quite frankly, they’re probably right.

Epic Games Lose Personal Scope

-- Skyrim/Forbes

— Skyrim

The best stories are about small scale, personal stakes. Logan was about saving one little girl. The Magnificent Seven were magnificent for saving one little town. And LOTR was really about one hobbit’s addiction, and a really committed support network.

I want you to think back on your early days of gaming–back to the first quest you were ever part of. Dredge up those early cobweb-curtained dungeons. Those creepy woods. Those lazy afternoons, when nobody in your group had finals to worry about, or a full time job.

Got it?

Now I’m going to ask a very simple question. What level were you?

Silly, right? What does your level have to do with your personal investment in the game? The game was about friendship and humor, and laughing, and Cheetos and Mountain Dew and all the other stereotypes gamers can’t escape.

Here’s a fun poll you can give to friends and family. Find the people in your life who tried Dungeons and Dragons and discovered that it wasn’t for them. Ask them what level the group was. Ask them how long the game had been going before they arrived. I’ll bet they quit because it was too much to take in at once, the group was already established, and they became overwhelmed by the mechanics of the high-level combat system.

-- Google Images

— Google Images

The group collectively muttering “Seat’s taken!” may have played a part.

Lower levels make you feel vulnerable. They make you more creative as a problem-solver because your fireball hasn’t reached DBZ-levels of warhead yield. But low levels are also simpler, and they put focus on the storytelling.

Players love to talk about how badass their character will eventually become. But the real game starts much earlier than that. The real game is already established long before characters reach “Epicness”– when they’re still figuring out how to work together.

When the players run out of challenges that don’t rhyme with Bar-esq-yew– when they’ve gathered enough magical items to start collecting king’s ears on a necklace, that’s when the game is on its deathbed. Reaching epic level starts a clock ticking on your game, and it’s only a matter of time before you run out of resources, challenges, and quests to keep them engaged. Savor the early levels, and string them along until you can’t not let them level past that sweet spot of storytelling.

Or, you know, kill them all and force them to re-roll at level 1.

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Pictured: Your party after 3 hours of arguments.