A time comes in every gamer’s life when he or she steps away from the table, looks at his or her creation, and realizes that whatever it was, it wasn’t for the greater good. Maybe we started with the best of intentions or maybe we’re just the most terrible kind of person. In the end, it’s all the same:
Our character is going to destroy the campaign.
Just in time for the holidays, today’s article is all about creating those very game-breaking monstrosities to test the mettle of your friends and thwart the ultimate enemy in any D&D game: the Dungeon Master. With a DM Screen serving as an ivory tower, the DM looks down from on high, challenging us. It’s time to take our adversary down a peg. (Yes, folks, we realize that this behavior falls squarely into the “naughty” camp, but stay with us till the end . . . we promise to explain ourselves!)
Players Only: The following should be read only by players with the moral fiber to don one of the following five mantles of destruction. Dungeon Masters, this section isn’t for you. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the surprises. Of course I’m using the word “enjoy” in the D&D Outsider sense, which translates roughly to “burning your nose hair out with a curling iron.” Not a perfect translation, but it’ll work.
While the Defendus Interruptus is the fifth and most recently added Horseman of Character Apocalypse, it is by far the least monstrous when compared to its plague-spewing companions. Yet what it lacks in obvious diabolic intent, it more than makes up for in subtlety. Known colloquially as the “ClockStopper” because of its amazing ability to stop time from passing—if not reversing it entirely—the Defendus is often hard to spot in a party.
The Defendus wields almost any power source. Just to be clear, having a power that bears the mark of “Immediate Interrupt” does not automatically qualify it for Defendus Interruptus status. Nothing is inherently wrong with these powers. They’re great and good players use them all the time. They can, however, become tools of plot destruction and hazardous to dramatic flow if used in the correct manner (or incorrect manner, for those Dungeon Masters who cheated and decided to read ahead).
Only the timid staccato of brackish water dripping down from the cold cavern ceiling breaks the eerie silence of the surprisingly empty treasure chamber. Erol the Trackless stands poised upon a dragon’s horde, mysteriously unattended, alert as ever. A dull cracking noise echoes throughout the mountain, ominous chimes spinning in an ill wind. The party tenses, not sure what to expect. . . .
Suddenly Erol’s flesh sheds away in horrid ribbons as the ever-increasing mass of a crimson dragon erupts from what once was his impossibly slender elf frame. “Foolish mortals,” the emerging dragon roared. “Don’t you see, the treasure that I, the Nameless Flame, sought was in reality your own! Now, join my collection!”
“Um excuse me . . . but . . .”
“Yes? I’m kind of trying to do a scene here.”
“Before you do that I’m going to cast sleep on Erol with my orb.”
“But I’m not Erol. I’m really a big honking dragon.”
“My Uncanny Insight says I know everything about dragons so I knew you were going to do that.”
“Seriously? You knew I was going pop out of the elf you nursed back to health on the long road here?”
“Oh, yeah. Uncanny Insight”
“Dang. I thought I was being clever.”
Time Rewinds. No one in the party knew exactly why the Invoking Wizard chose to betray Erol the Trackless. Or why the dragon Nameless Flame never showed up. But that mage’s Insight? Downright Uncanny.
Besides narrative flow, the Defendus Interruptus is very good at creating paranoia at the gaming table. When you can do all sorts of things on other people’s turns, other players don’t know when you’re going to suddenly jump up and say the infamous: “But before you do that . . .” line. Remember to mix it up. Stop paying attention for a few minutes and when you realize one of your immediate interrupt triggers happened a turn or two ago, suddenly jump and ask to go back in time because it was their fault for not telling you. Rinse and repeat until madness sets in. Even better, try blowing a whistle or vuvuzela whenever it’s time for Defendus Interruptus to shine.
Ultimately whether you can pull off the Defendus Interruptus role is up to you. Even armed with the right powers (professionals recommend the battlemind’s lightning rush at-will interrupt and the divine philosopher paragon path), you can use the Defendus Interruptus with consideration and tact at the table. Yet those who wish to stay the course should be quiet with their triggers and try to stay a turn or two behind the action.
One of the most common shining stars of the Character Apocalypse is the Freak. Known by many other names, including One-Legged Cheetah Man, this build is all about someone deciding to play golf with a bowling ball. Let me unpack that. Say the party is made up of humans and elves, and the plot involves defeating deadly orc hordes that threaten the empire. What kind of character do you make?
. . .
Done? Pencils up.
If you decided to play anything besides orc “for legitimate roleplaying reasons,” then you won’t pass this class. So you’ve made an orc in an anti-orc campaign. Evil alignment? Nice touch. Oh, he’s also half-demon? Classy! Why not make him only communicate in grunts and stabbing? Remember, when building a Freak there really isn’t a limit to where you can go. The goal here is to make something so monstrous, so weird, and so overtly eye-catching that it’s impossible for the innkeeper to ignore.
And remember, race isn’t everything here. You can be just as distracting by playing an infernal pact warlock adorned in skulls who won’t stop talking about how baby bones make the best implements. One bit of advice, though: Make sure you’re playing in a format or a group that’s comfortable with the “as long as it’s in the book, it’s cool” understanding—after all, the local DM might not take too kindly to you wanting to play your zombie gorilla with a chainsaw from D&D Gamma World in a Dragonlance campaign.
The Freak role is part appearance, part concept, and part attitude. Easy to try, but impossible to master. I could recommend many things, but really just do your best to be the living pop-up ad at the table.
Counterpoint: For some reason, I wrote this terrible article called D&D Outsider: Playing Evil Races. I hereby rebuke all the things I said about playing a responsible character of a monstrous race, and I most definitely do not direct people to read the 5 Steps to Doing This Right. I mean, what kind of person would want to play a monstrous race and not be distracting? It boggles the mind.
Be you shaman, wizard, artificer, druid, or psion, chances are you could easily be a Litterbug if you tried. The key to this horseman is not taking up space on the airwaves or plot like the Freak, but rather to spread out on the battlefield like a contagion that’s impossible to track.
For the Litterbug, it’s all about class. You’d think that the summoning wizard or artificer options would be a good start, but you’d be only half right. As a Litterbug, you need to be defined by the sheer volume of junk you leave across the battlefield. That’s why the professional recommends a hybrid beast ranger/shaman multiclassed into anything arcane, along with a huge stack of wondrous items. Each combat you can field your spirit, beast companion, and familiar right away, freeing up those other actions to summon onyx dogs, plant battle standards, throw seeds of war, release ghost prisoners of Salzacas and all manner of things that change the way the battlefield works. Summon a Huge serpent in the middle of a cave. Sure there’s no water, but it’s a Huge creature taking up 9 squares your enemies no longer can! It’s even better if you don’t explain to the DM that while your spirit can’t be killed off, that large chain devil you somehow summoned has a criminally low amount of hit points.
Of course, this is an extreme case of Litterbugging. If you can’t do it all the time, wait until your party is in a small cave before summoning that herd of celestial bison. Sure, the party can’t move, but the monsters have hundred of pounds of beef to get through before they start hurting anyone you know.
As the Litterbug it’s your job to make sure that any space that a monster might threaten is filled with “something” of yours. Maybe you use your bridle of conjuration to block the door with a magic horse. The round or two of waiting for the orcs to hack through it means your fighter can hold onto those precious encounter powers just a bit longer! Whenever you find yourself on a battlemap, take your shoes off and make yourself at home.
ProTip: If your character survives into the epic tier, make sure to pick up some magic items called “immurements.” Trust me. You’ll want twelve.
The fourth horseman is the MetaBard. This is a character who has read too many adventures and been around the block a few too many times. Saying things like this: “You can’t kill me, I’m Plot!” Or this: “Quick friends, towards the obvious trap!” Anything like this shouldn’t seem out of place. In fact, a lot of what the MetaBard says could be mistaken for just the player talking out of character.
This role is really for the sharp-minded D&D deviant, requiring familiarity with both people and traditional narrative structure. If you see a hired NPC act shady and you’ve figured out he’s going to become the villain, it’s your duty to reveal his true nature before the adventure even starts. If your Dungeon Master blocks your plans, just keep asking him when you can attack him. He’ll cave in and, technically speaking, you’ll have completed the adventure! How’s that for efficiency?
The reason this horseman is called the MetaBard is that bards are the ones that weave the narratives in the fantasy world. They know adventures. Rising action, temporary binding, infernal visions . . . all those things we learned in English class come into play here. Bards are the recommended class for this role because they know they’re in an adventure.
Remember to guess what the next encounter/next plot twist will be. Shout it out! If you’re right, the whole party will be prepared for that unexpected betrayal by the high council, or at least you’ll have earned a proud “I told you so” dance. It’s your job to catch any plot twists or surprises before they show up, in a dangerous battle of wits against the Dungeon Master and the authors of the adventure.
ProTip: If your DM is running an adventure module, it’s totally in-character to use bardic knowledge to secretly read it between sessions. This trick also lets you play a mean psion. How better to make yourself appear psychic than by knowing what the DM is thinking?
The Old School
The final and ultimate horseman of the Character Apocalypse is the Old School. It’s a sensitive topic to some so I’ll keep it brief: There’s a stereotypical play-style for Dungeons & Dragons that is infamous for both those outside the hobby and veterans of it.
Such as: The rogue that backstabs the party and steals the treasure in the name of roleplaying. You’re a thief, so why shouldn’t you steal from everyone? Or, do you have an alignment? Follow it to the letter, even when it comes into conflict with the party. Don’t hesitate to take treasure or hit points from party members when a good roleplaying opportunity arises. It adds to the richness of the experience; why only fight monsters when we can fight among ourselves? As long as you have an in-character reason, you’re fine! Make sure you keep your plans on betraying the quest to yourself though. Dungeon Masters really appreciate the surprise!
. . .
Now that we’re through, it’s confession time. Unless you’re truly wicked to the core, you really shouldn’t do any of the stuff I’ve just been talking about here. That said, I’m guilty of each and every one of those character types to some degree and the only reason I think I got away with it for so long was that I’m kinda funny, and if you make people laugh you can get away with murder. To quote MST3k: “Puppets can get away with saying things a normal person can’t.” If you’re playing it tongue-in-cheek, it’ll fly.
But I digress. In the end, what you’ve just read is a confessional. Maybe there’s a little reverse psychology thrown in there, but really this is my completely backward way of apologizing for making my Dungeon Masters’ lives living hells whenever I had the chance. Take from this what you will. There really are great roleplaying aspects in each and every one of these Horsemen of the Character Apocalypse as long as you do it in moderation.
Does that convince you to rebuild my alignment from naughty to nice? I’ll leave that up to you.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a certain shaman/beast ranger hybrid summoner that I need to figure out how to play without a guilty conscience.