I had a very D&D moment the other day. A few of us around the office like to run the stairs for exercise. I’m talking four flights. We’re not exactly firefighters in training able to run the Empire State building with 135 pounds of dead weight on our backs. I can’t even handle my iPod strapped to my arm.
So Bart, Adam and I get to the fourth floor landing and instead of his usual “Save yourselves. Let me lay here and die”, Adam huffed out a “Cool!”
The doorway leading to the roof was propped open and without missing a beat, Adam and Bart trotted right through. Not even a Listen check! I, on the other-hand, paused at the threshold, convinced this was a trap. Surely there was a wasp queen who lived on the roof wanting to turn my friends into bisque. Maybe the rooftop is being repaired because it’s unstable. Or worse: Maybe we’ll get in trouble!
But then again, if one of the aforementioned things did happen and they needed me, I wouldn’t be able to hear their pleas for help. So I followed, but lingered halfway in the long hallway. If they were to be chased out by goblins, I’d be leading the pack down the stairs. If they found something cool like an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet, I’d be third in line. They jogged back seconds later right past my post in the hallway.
“Nothing to see,” Adam said.
Relieved, and somewhat disappointed, I raced them down the stairs to continue our workout.
The exact same scenario used to happen almost every time I played D&D. The rogue, the fighter and, well, just about everyone and their familiars, went racing into foreign territory while Astrid, my sorceress, hung back. Yeah, I know it was her job—but there have been times she was so far removed that she had to use her turn just to get within throwing distance of a magic missile.
If there’s a column, she’s behind it. A door? She’ll shut it. A masterwork panic room, she’s in it. Fantasy seeps into my reality all the time. (Perhaps a little more than it should.) But I hadn’t realized how much of my reality plays D&D. Kind of defeats the purpose. I mean it is a game of fantasy, right?
Astrid was my portal into D&D and I wrote Confessions about her adventures. I couldn’t help but feel protective of her. My group often went out of their way to defend her, sometimes resulting in their demise. Astrid—ok, I—took it hard, carrying the dust of their remains in her backpack in case we encountered a druid willing to reincarnate them. It never mattered though, because at our next session, their newly created character showed up at some tavern, joined our pack, and we resumed our travels. It’s that easy, I thought? Losing Astrid would have crushed me. Maybe I was missing out on one of D&D’s biggest draws. Next time, I told myself, things will be different.
Next time was a 4th Edition playtest where I found myself caring for an eladrin wizard named Eztara. I had nothing to do with Eztara’s conception—she was merely a robot wizard generated to test some new rules. Yet there I was, telling the group to call her Tara and retelling stories of her glory days at Wizard School. Stop! I reminded myself. Tara isn’t real. She’s a summer fling, single-use gadget. Good for a few adventures before you both move on. It worked too. Tara ended up in all sorts of situations Astrid wouldn’t have dreamed of. She entered into strange rooms first. Strayed from the group. Got hit by some well-directed arrows courtesy of three hobgoblins she angered with a fireblast.
“Tara takes 5 points of damage,” New DM practically cheered.
“Another 7 points.”
“That hits Tara for 6 points.”
I had a pile of eraser shards next to my character sheet at the end of every session from deducting hit points. So this is what it’s like to really play D&D. Forget the doors and columns. This I can get behind.
For someone who can’t bear to say goodbye to a character, I love the character building part. When the time came to create my own, I brought my new “love ’em and lose ’em” attitude.
“It’s better to have lost at D&D, then never to have played at all,” I tell New DM.
“You sound like an 8th grader who just found out her crush asked her best friend to the dance.”
(Weird. That actually happened in 8th grade. 9th grade too.)
“I’d like to stick with sorcerer for the block,” I tell New DM in my best game show contestant voice.
“Oooh, sorry,” he counters, sounding alarmingly close to Wink Martindale. “Sorcerers aren’t part of 4th Edition yet.”
Say what? Who’s behind this madness, eliminating my class of people! I immediately brought my concerns to R&D.
“What about all those little girls who read about Astrid and want to grow up and be just like her?” I argued.
They did their best not to laugh, but Chris Perkins cracked, “All those little girls?”
“You,” Chris answered, soothing and sage-like, as he waved his hand Obi-Wan Kenobi style in front of me, “will be a wizard.” No wonder people love playing in his games. He might as well have boinked me on the forehead and handed me my robes.
“I’m a wizard,” I repeated all the way back to New DM. “I’m a wizard.”
I was determined to create the “anti-Astrid” -- someone whose shoes probably involve Velcro and shock pads, and who carries bug spray and emergency ponchos in her rucksack. Someone I could never get attached to.
“A tiefling,” I answer when New DM asks what race I’m thinking of.
“I see,” he smirks, flipping to the proper section of the Player’s Handbook. “You know about tieflings, right?”
Of course I do, and I love them. The whole overcoming a dark side, avenging their past, demons in the closet -- very As the Planescape Turns. I immediately filled out the personality section of my character sheet with adjectives like “disdainful,” “voracious,” and “elitist.” Tabitha’s not here to win friends.
We’re not in 3rd Edition anymore, and that quickly becomes obvious. First, the prototype character sheets look like The Container Store designed them. The new sheets are laid out like a well-maintained drawer. There’s an easy-to-find compartment for your weapons, defenses, ability modifiers -- even your cash. And they’re editable on your computer, so no more deciphering if that was a 6 or a –8 you wrote under hit points.
Previously, the dice controlled your character’s fate when it came to ability scores, and you often you wound up with a rogue who looked like he dove into a shallow gene pool and chipped his two front teeth. 4th Edition is like creating a “designer baby,” minus the controversy. Move over bad dice rolls, now there’s something meatier: point buy! You start with six base numbers and get to improve them with points you can distribute where you like. I dumped a bunch into Intelligence and Wisdom, and then bumped up Charisma because someone has to sweet talk the minions. If you’re the gambling type and don’t want to mess with science, you can still leave it to the dice -- just start saving your gold now for braces and SAT prep classes.
Time to hit J.C. Wizards to do some spell shopping. Here’s the part I always associate with the old-school way winners used to pick their prizes on Wheel of Fortune. “I’ll take magic missile and fireblast for my at-will powers. Oh! Burning hands for an encounter power, and, let’s see, sleep for my daily.” (Sorry—no Service Merchandise gift certificates here. I asked.)
Moving on to skills I encouraged Tabitha to study up on Arcana, Insight, History and Diplomacy. Dungeoneering was enticing but sounded too much like something people who burst through open rooftop doors would learn, so I balked. Baby steps, people!
You don’t want to cut a tiefling off in traffic because it doesn’t take much to get the internal furnace lit. I can relate after taking an accidental foot to the head in kickboxing class by Mr. Bart Carroll. Had I been a tiefling, I would have gotten an attack bonus when I retaliated by sucker punching him in the kidney while he was waiting in line for coffee. Hellfire blood is also a racial freebie (anger management anyone?) and if that weren’t badass enough, I got to choose one more feat at 1st level. Perhaps Ferocious Rebuke, which pushes your enemy back one square after taking a hit? Couple that bad boy with my infernal wrath and Bart would still be picking biscotti crumbs out of his pores. Tempting, but after fretting over Astrid all those times, I choose Toughness.
Maybe it’s because I’ve gone through this process before, but Tabitha was born remarkably quick. In a 2-hour private coaching session with New DM, my disdainful, elitist character was playmat ready. I know what you’re thinking—2 hours is an improvement? Sure, you could have written an entire campaign and ran through it twice in that time, but for me, this is super warp speed. I remember spending what seemed like days (Okay, it was. Three to be exact.) with Teddy hunched over the Player’s Handbook asking every 23 seconds “What are you doing now?” “What’s this number?” “Can I roll that again? She’s so weak she couldn’t lift a finger.” I subscribe to the crock-pot school of character building, preferring to stew over every skill, feat, spell and even my alignment. My fellow party members are of the convection oven variety, taking only about 20 minutes, by themselves, to conceive their characters. When I'm all done, I’m chock full of hellish, ferocious, infernal wrath. Yep, no way can I get attached to Tabitha. She’d probably turn her rage on me if I dared.
At our first session with the new characters, it’s odd, looking around the table at the familiar faces of my friends with their fresh-faced new characters. It’s like the first day of preschool where all the parents smile and drink coffee while their kids pull each other’s hair and write swear words in pink chalk on the blackboard. (You did it too. Admit it.) I’m used to Scott playing a ranger so I keep asking him things like “what kind of footprints are those?”
“How the heck should I know,” his eladrin rogue answers.
And now Adam, who could kill off more maladroit rogues in one campaign than Jack Bauer could in an entire season of 24, is playing a short-in-stature, tall-in-brawn halfling warlock. It’s weird.
“I think we should wear Hello, my name is tags,” I suggest.
“I think you should have homework,” New DM says.
In exchange for bonus experience points, we were tasked with writing our characters' backstories, complete with promises made and broken and how we ended up adventuring with at least one member of the group. This I can do, as I can gleefully give a rich history to any object—animate or otherwise.
Tabitha, a self-taught wizard, learned her craft just to spite her slothful mother and villainous, underhanded, fur-trading (sometimes that of Tabitha’s pets!) father. And she’s darn near the most well-adjusted of this bunch. Her party includes a rogue who vowed never to steal after getting busted swiping weapons at school, an avenging elf determined to reclaim his family’s woods from the orcs who drove them out, and an ex-carnival kid who was lured away as a youth by a mysterious human teenage girl. Right. Like that ever happens. Odd that Astrid never knew much about her old gang—maybe because they died off so quickly trying to save her.
New DM won’t let Tabitha have a familiar yet (just like my mom wouldn’t let me have a dog) so I gave her a failed “show bear” named Oso de la Fez (just like I gave myself an imaginary German Shepard named Woofie). She and Teemu, the honest rogue, sprung Oso from a burlesque troop. New DM said it’s fine because none of the other players can actually see Oso. Again reality merges with fantasy. Or would that be fantasy merging with reality? Or fantasy merging with fantasy? Whatever.
The other day I was running stairs alone, and lo and behold, the roof door was open. Thinking about Tabitha, I walked through it, figuring that’s what she’d do. So I may fall off or through or get clubbed and hogtied by a witch—big whoop! And then I heard voices, which made me remember I don’t actually know how to cast fireblast, so I beat it the hell out of there. Now that I think about it, Tabitha would have done the same thing. Why? Because it’s not her job to lead the troops into battle and she’s okay with that. More importantly: I’m her mother and I said so.
So much for baby steps.