Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Case of Morgan Just

I remember a lot of characters and adventures from my old D&D campaigns, but none stand out quite as strongly as the 6'4" Lawful Neutral Fighter my childhood friend Shawn created. Originally given the ominous name of Morgan Justice, the character was intended to be, as you might guess, a grim dispenser of rough justice, a fantasy version of Judge Dredd (except that we'd never heard of Judge Dredd) perhaps with a touch of The Stranger, from High Plains Drifter. In play, Morgan Justice eventually became known instead as Morgan the Just or Morgan Just, for short. Far from being a barely human avatar of Law, he was instead a rather jovial guy much given to defending the weak and the innocent. By all rights he should probably have been Lawful Good in alignment, but Shawn insisted that Morgan wasn't actually good, only that much of what the figher did seemed good to outsiders who didn't understand his true reasons for doing so.

Count me among those who didn't understand, but I was willing to cut Shawn some slack, as Morgan was a well played and interesting character. He was one of those rare fighters who really did have a natural 18 Strength, as I saw the 3d6 roll with my own eyes. Later, he also rolled high enough on d100 that I granted him 18/00 Strength as well, since I'd decided that, being a tough guy from the northern wastes, he ought to get a bonus of +25 to his percentile roll. I didn't mind this, because Shawn wasn't a power gaming munchkin and, truth be told, +3 to hit and +6 damage isn't exactly a campaign-breaking bonus. At any rate, Shawn rued the day I allowed this, because, after Morgan had accumulated a girdle of frost giant strength and a hammer of thunderbolts, he was all set to get medieval on the trolls who'd slaughtered his family as a child -- you didn't think he wouldn't have a cheesily melodramatic background, did you? -- I explained that the giant-slaying ability of the hammer only functioned while also wearing gauntlets of ogre power. Simply having 18/00 Strength naturally was not enough, as the power was wholly magical in nature, not merely a function of raw might. This led to a long and tedious series of quests so that Morgan might gain the gauntlets and unlock the hammer's true power. He eventually succeeded -- at great expense to himself and his comrades -- and moaned that he now wore on his hands magic items that conferred him no benefits in and of themselves.

Here's the thing: Shawn just accepted my decision and moved on. He could have argued with me about my ruling on the gauntlets of ogre power being necessary, but he didn't. Back in those days, it was a given that, as the referee, my word was law and that's all there was to it. At the same time, there was an understanding that, if a player really wanted something, as Shawn did, that it was part of my duty to provide him with opportunities to acquire it. Again note: opportunities. There was never any expectation that I'd give Morgan the gauntlets just because he needed them. Indeed, Shawn knew, as every player in my campaign knew, that making it clear to me that your character wanted X, Y, or Z was pretty much a guarantee that you were going to have to sweat blood to get any of them.

And so it was with Morgan. After literally weeks of searching and much expense employing scryers and sages, Morgan discovered that the only location of an unclaimed set of gauntlets of ogre power -- remember that Morgan the Just would never steal -- was in the hoard of a huge, ancient red dragon whose name escapes me at the moment. Morgan and his friends succeeded in slaying the dragon, although at least one PC died, as did many, many henchmen and hirelings. Morgan at last had the item he sought -- only to discover that the now-slain dragon was one of Tiamat's consorts and the Queen of Evil Dragons was none to pleased by Morgan's actions. She didn't take too kindly to Morgan's actions and proceeded to mow through his party, killing another PC and, I think, all the henchmen and hirelings remaining. Morgan himself barely escaped with his life and, thanks to a critical hit table I'd be using for some time, lost his eye in the process. But he had his gauntlets and the giants of the world would soon feel his wrath!

Shawn took the loss of Morgan's eye without complaint. The fighter took to wearing an eye patch for a while, which Shawn thought was cool (as did everyone else). It also gave me the opportunity to introduce the Eye of Vecna into the campaign, as an enticement to Morgan, but of course he didn't fall for it. Another PC did, though, and he slowly became corrupted by the artifact, eventually becoming a major villain of the campaign -- a ranger who turned against his friends and allies and established a "Most Dangerous Game"-style maze in his forest demesne and challenged any who could dare defeat him to do so. He filled the maze with all sorts of monsters and evil henchmen and killed even more PCs before Morgan Just eventually overcame them all and meted out justice on the miscreant. Of course, now the Eye of Vecna had to be destroyed before I found yet more ways to wreak havoc with it in the campaign ...

I could go on -- perhaps I will some day -- but I hope I've made my point clear. Back in those days, I don't ever recall anyone once calling me a "killer DM" or complaining bitterly after I'd killed or maimed their character or taken away some hard-earned loot from them. Back then, this was just how you played D&D: defeats and victories alike were opportunities for further defeats or victories. The end came only when you decided you wanted it to come, for most deaths -- save those in the Tomb of Horrors, for example -- were never final and there were always ways for the clever and persistent player to undo past mistakes and get another shot at their heart's desire.

Maybe my players just trusted me and knew that even my most diabolical schemes were intended to be fun. Or perhaps we were all just masochists who took pleasure in misfortune. I don't know. All I can say for sure is that I used to put my players' characters through the wringer on a regular basis and they seemed to have enjoyed it. Indeed, they would often boast of having "beaten" me, even though they knew this would only embolden me to try harder next time. But maybe times really were different and my players just didn't realize they were playing D&D wrong.

In any event, I'll always remember Shawn and Morgan Just. They both remind me why I still enjoy playing D&D after all these years.

5 comments:

  1. Something about that Lawful Neutral dispenser of justice figure is really appealing. I had a CoC character with a similar bent: the basis of his concept was that he would do whatever needed doing, no matter how unpleasant, to save more delicate PCs from having to do it. I was looking forward to him decaying slowly into an ever-more-doctrinaire caricature of his earlier self. Never happened: got eaten, suddenly. That might say something about the styles of different games, I guess.

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  2. I had a Lawful Neutral fighter in 2d ed. He was supposed to be just a soldier -- the mission was what was important.

    He ended up in a party of chaotics (go figure) and became their leader because he was the only one around who could actually make a decision.

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  3. James, your quote:
    "Back in those days, it was a given that, as the referee, my word was law and that's all there was to it. At the same time, there was an understanding that, if a player really wanted something, as Shawn did, that it was part of my duty to provide him with opportunities to acquire it." is the summary of sandbox campaigning to me. Thanks for sharing this (all those years ago).

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  4. As a late newcomer to the game, I still "function" as a DM of the 90's and 00's  where the group is supposed to fend for itself with no need of henchmen and hirelings, and where the kind of healthy competitive mindset between the DM and players is wholly rejected as being the antithesis of good roleplaying. I avidly read your blog and find it full of insightful posts. This is yet another one that I find very enjoyable. I want my game to be like this, I want my players to be creative and surprise me, and I want myself to create the most devious but fair dungeons to test and entertain my players. You, good sir, are an inspiration. Keep it up!

    ReplyDelete
  5. As a late newcomer to the game, I still "function" as a DM of the 90's and 00's  where the group is supposed to fend for itself with no need of henchmen and hirelings, and where the kind of healthy competitive mindset between the DM and players is wholly rejected as being the antithesis of good roleplaying. I avidly read your blog and find it full of insightful posts. This is yet another one that I find very enjoyable. I want my game to be like this, I want my players to be creative and surprise me, and I want myself to create the most devious but fair dungeons to test and entertain my players. You, good sir, are an inspiration. Keep it up!

    ReplyDelete

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