Over in the D&D Red Box thread, I said:
>I will say that I had a hell of a lot of fun playing
>in the one 3E game I was in, in large part because that version of the
>system allowed for a person to do really silly off-label shit (like
>the character I played, whose capsule bio sounds like I was completely
>taking the piss if read at face value) and play it completely
I've talked about this on the Forums once before, but it was a long time ago in an unrelated thread over on the New Frontier board, so I might as well go over it again and in greater detail. If you're not into reading about other people's tabletop* gaming experiences—which is totally cool with me, you don't have to stick around on my account—this is probably going to bore the crap out of you. If you are, then:
The aforementioned Third Edition game happened... ye gods... 16, 17 years ago, when I still lived down in Waltham, MA. Eric Reuss, game designer and generally together dude (who has been mentioned a few times around here), was the Dungeon Master. The campaign setting was one of Eric's own devising—nations, pantheon(s) of gods, the works—the focus of which was the city of Fairweather, which was... sorta like Waterdeep? But really only in the sense that they're both big, busy port cities in D&D worlds.
There were four or five players, not all of whom were on hand for every session, so the cast of characters varied a bit. I moved away myself before the campaign was finished, so my own character disappeared midway along.
We all had a fairly free hand developing our characters, and being mostly experienced players (albeit I, at least, was very rusty by that point, not having played since high school, and had never played Third Edition before), we all were up for trying things that were coloring at least a little outside the lines. Anne Cross's character, for instance, was a halfling cleric of a god of chaos—well, not to put too fine a point on it, a god of madness, really, not entirely unlike Sheogorath in The Elder Scrolls. Hillary Tinring was in fact so chaotic she had to roll at the start of each session to find out what alignment she was that day. One of the other characters, Marik (I am ashamed to admit I can't remember his player's name!) was a ranger, but specialized in urban rather than forest operations—understanding the city the way a vanilla ranger understands the woods.
For my own character, I decided to try out Third Edition's multiclassing rules, which were vastly more flexible than what I was used to from the hybrid First/Second Edition campaign I was in in high school. Using those, I rolled up a character whose two classes didn't really seem complementary on the face of it, but which I thought might offer some odd synergies—or at least opportunities for improvisation—in practice. I also had an idea about a background I wanted to try, the practicalities of which ended up dictating his race. The end result of this process was Einar Skinnarland.**
The starting point about Einar is that he sounds like a joke character: a half-elf barbarian/sorcerer, and with an inexplicably Norwegian name, to boot. Even learning the reason why he has a Nordic name—he was an orphan adopted and raised by dwarves—doesn't dispel the impression that his player must have been taking the piss (if anything, it might be argued to make it stronger). But the way we did things in the Fairweather campaign, and the way we made it work, is that when we did things like that, we played them totally straight. There was a reason for that combination of classes, and Eric and I worked hard fleshing that peculiar background out and making sure it all hung together.
Einar grew up in Jarukh, a traditional dwarven underground city in the grand fantasy tradition—nothing avant-garde about that part. He was adopted as an infant, so that life and that culture were the only ones he knew. Moreover, his adoptive parents, Oskar and Lotte Skinnarland, were personages of some importance in Jarukh—Oskar a well-known smith and civic leader, Lotte a prominent member of the city militia—and they raised him to be an upstanding member of society by very traditional dwarven standards: Learn an honest trade and do it well; work hard at a decent job, but don't let yourself be taken advantage of by your employer; honor your mother and father; respect your elders, but don't be afraid to call bullshit by its name; stand up for those weaker than you are; be ready always to defend your home and hearth by force of arms; hold your head up and always look people in the eye, for you are the equal of any man or woman alive.
The thing about Einar is that he isn't rebellious—he's a dutiful son and a doting elder brother to his younger sister Anneke, and anyone in Jarukh who knows him (and because he's Oskar and Lotte Skinnarland's son and he's hard to miss in a crowd, pretty much everyone in Jarukh knows him) will say he's a Good Man in that particularly sincere way dwarves have of saying that; but he's.... well, he's a chaotic good man. There's a restlessness in him, an energy that he can't quite fully suppress. And he's got a temper like a keg of gnomish blasting powder; it'll smolder for a while, but then it goes off all at once, and may the Shining One help you if you're the one who lit the fuse.
The other dwarves he grew up around didn't shun him for this, or even think it was particularly weird. They certainly didn't chalk it up to his foreign blood. There is any number of legends and songs about men, full-blooded dwarven men, exactly like that. The traditions call them berserkers, or more formally úlfhéðnar—"wolfcoats". They're to be respected, even revered, for their battle-madness is not a defect or a curse but a gift from the gods of battle.
(From this it should be apparent that, though I used the Barbarian character class for that part, I was really only using the Rage mechanic to simulate a Norse berserker; the whole Conan-esque Primitive Warrior of the Plains thing was not happening at all.)
The magic, too, when it manifested in his tweens (half-elves and dwarves having similar lifespans was why I ended up making Einar a half-elf instead of a human), was cause for comment, but not alarm. Sorcerers are rare in the dwarven kingdoms, but not unheard-of, and like berserkers, they're honored rather than feared or shunned. That talent is also a gift from the gods, and to have both of them at once—well, it's hard to hold something like that against a man, particularly when he's got a 16 in Charisma. :)
Still, there comes a time when a man has to leave his father's house and make his own way in the world, and when that time came for Einar he decided to leave Jarukh. He had, like any good dwarven son, learned his father's trade (in his case,
Craft Weapon weaponsmithing), and—armed with this marketable skill and the useful blend of strength and humility such an upbringing as his can provide—he left the rocky bastions of dwarvenkind for the great port city of Fairweather.
Playing him in the context of that city, there were two particularly fun things about Einar. One was that, because of his background, he had long since developed the habit of carrying himself as if he were the biggest person in the room—not arrogantly, but with a certain casual confidence that showed in his plain-spoken dealings with people. Back home in Jarukh, once past his first adolescent growth spurt, Einar was something of a giant, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested like a dwarven smith should be, but also standing head and shoulders taller than anyone else in town.
Einar was 5'2" tall, so this made for a mildly comical effect out in the non-dwarven world. :)
(As did the fact that he dressed, and spoke, and wore his hair and big red beard, and apart from his height was generally built, like a dwarf. NPCs who were fellow half-elves or full elves rarely knew what to make of that, or of the fact that he couldn't speak a word of Elvish, nor did that bother him in any way, nor did he give one single tenth of one damn about elven politics or religion. Dwarven NPCs, on the other hand, had often heard of him, though not all had actually believed he existed until they met him.)
The other really fun thing was that he wasn't a traditional FRP Murder Hobo—the classic player character who has no home nor any actual job or means of support beyond looting dungeons, and who in fact may as well not exist outside of gameplay. He had a job, one in which he took considerable pride, and a modest home nearby his place of employment. For him, adventuring (in the form of sanctioned mercenary work through a guild) was a side gig, a way to pick up some extra cash and find an outlet for his more violent energies that wouldn't get him in dutch with the City Watch. We didn't spend a lot of time on it in play sessions for obvious reasons, but he had a life outside of clobbering monsters and raking in the mad geepees for it.
Sometimes all this took him, and us, in unexpected directions.
One of the things Eric liked to do in his RPG campaigns was get his players to write up little after-action reports following sessions, kind of like homework. It was optional, but if we did it, we'd get a few XP out of it next time, and sometimes a little perk or two if we did a particularly creative job of it. The "employee absence report" I posted elsewhere recently is an example of one such writeup from another game.
Einar's reports took the form of in-character letters home, in which—ever the good son—he kept his father abreast of the latest developments out in the big city. I don't have all of these any more; I think most of them must have been written on a computer I didn't save the HD contents from when I decommissioned it. In digging through files from one of my old desktop systems that got dumped into the documents file on my current one, though, I did find a couple of them, including what I think was the last one I wrote before moving away.
It chronicles a session that didn't go very well for Einar, in ways I honestly would probably have been pretty pissed off about if they had happened to one of my characters back in high school. Basically, Eric set the PCs a trap and I, acting in character, barged right into it, with results that both Einar and I found pretty upsetting. You'll see the details if you read the letter when I link it here in a minute. For now, enough to say it was the kind of thing that could have been avoided with sufficient cleverness, but, well, for all his virtues, Einar is not a clever man. He's not stupid—his Intelligence is, in fact, exactly average—but he's not clever.
(Also, I seem to recall I failed a perception check, even though his Wisdom stat is actually pretty high, so there's also an element of the Will of RNGsus involved, as there should be in all the best D&D stories.)
Anyway, the point is, Einar did a bunch of stuff in that session that he wasn't proud of, and he could have glossed the hell out of it in his next letter home... but he didn't, because that wasn't the kind of guy he was.
Like I say, I think in high school that development would have really pissed me off as a player. I'd have read it as a pretty massive DM dick move. As a slightly older (and I hope slightly wiser) player, I was shaken by it, certainly, but I also recognized it as solid storytelling. It was, after all, supposed to be a horror-themed adventure, and while that's not really my cup of tea, it was what was going on, and what happened was solidly in character. Plus, it gave me the interesting opportunity to explore what happens when an adventurer whose whole shtick is not being the Standard Murder Hobo has cause to think, What in the hells am I doing with my life?
In the event, Einar did in fact hang up his axe for a while, or at least he left Fairweather, although that was more because I moved away and had to stop playing than because of his vocational crisis per se. I don't have a writeup for that part now, but I vaguely recall that Eric and I kicked it around and decided that he'd either gone back to Jarukh to talk to some people, or had gone on a vision quest, or possibly both, in either case as a direct result of Shit Going Wrong as described above.
His story does have a happy ending, though. A year or so after I moved away, Eric emailed to let me know that he was going to be wrapping up the campaign soon with a final, climactic session. We arranged matters so that I would come down and Einar would rejoin the gang for the big finish, without letting on to the other players that it was going to happen, so that it would be as big a surprise to them as it was to their characters. And for once in this life, something went exactly as planned, so that was pretty awesome.
At one point in said final session—I forget exactly why, now, I'm fairly sure it wasn't directly related to the reasons why he left town, but I have forgotten the details—Einar went out and more or less deliberately got himself killed by the Forces of Evil that were besieging the city, and Hillary resurrected him, in part because they still needed everyone they could get to defend the city, but basically so she could shout at him for doing something as dumb as that. She always rather liked Einar, even when she'd rolled "I'm evil today," possibly because as a berserker, he had that touch of madness in him.
So anyway, yeah! That was long-winded as heck and probably not that exciting, but the discussion of Third Edition's flexibility put me in mind of it. I don't think Einar would have worked with a different DM, or without the willingness of everyone involved to play the whole thing completely straight, but it doesn't sound like he'd even be possible in Fifth Edition without a whole lot more house-ruling than we had to do in Third, which is kind of a shame.
* Well, I say tabletop; most of my personal D&D experiences have happened in more of a lounging-around-the-living-room format, because, oddly enough, I've never played in a campaign that used miniatures.
** He's named after Norwegian WWII resistance fighter Einar Skinnarland, who participated in Operations Grouse and Gunnarside against the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant at Vemork in 1942-43.
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