Monday, May 26, 2008

My First Character

I've always been the Dungeon Master.

From the moment I broke the cellophane wrapping on my Holmes Basic Set in December 1979, I was the default referee for all the many RPG adventures and campaigns in which my group of friends and I would participate. I certainly didn't mind. By temperament, I generally prefer being the referee and, when I am inspired, I think I can say, without too much hubris, that I keep the game entertaining. My forte, to the extent I have one, is the off-beat characterization of NPCs, both major and minor. My best creations are almost always eccentrics of one sort or another, individuals with personality tics or peculiar obsessions. Sometimes they're just background color and sometimes they're important elements of the unfolding story, but I think it's fair to say that, although many other details of my campaigns may be forgettable, my NPCs rarely are.

Consequently, I actually rarely get to play a character of my own. When I do, they often turn into somewhat toned down versions of my NPCs, oddities and all. Part of it, I suspect, is that I simply don't have a lot of experience with player characters, which are a very different beast than NPCs in my experience -- at least good ones are. By this I mean that a good NPC is often, by necessity, nothing more than a bundle of memorable quirks. That's how your players can keep them straight and not confuse one orc chieftain with another. PCs, on the other hand, need to be (generally) less caricatured while still being broad enough to admit change when random chance and other circumstances require it. That's why the best PCs I've encountered in recent years have all had both very thin backgrounds and "archetypal" personalities to start. Over time, of course, their backgrounds firmed up and their personalities developed subtleties, but, at the beginning, they often have less distinctiveness than NPCs.

All that aside, I did once have a character I played for some time, who, as it turns out, was my first character as well. Back in the ancient days, we played D&D almost every day we weren't in school and, while I was DM 90% of the time, that remaining 10% still represented untold hours of my wasted youth. So I was actually able to create a character and play him often enough for him to achieve the lofty level of 14 under the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Ironically, he was probably the second highest level character in our old campaign, because, unlike my friends, I never got bored with my character and created a new one every adventure. So, our campaign was littered, not just with the corpses of PCs who fell victim to untold hazards of the dungeons, but with literally dozens of characters between the levels of 4th and 7th levels, with the occasional one reaching in the 8th to 10th level range. Perhaps this is why I've got an almost congenital aversion to high-level play: we simply never managed to get characters to such lofty ranks.

My first character was, I am mildly embarrassed to report, named Sir James Calvert (his heraldic device looked like a thinly disguised version of the Maryland state flag). He was initially a Fighter, but I converted him into a Paladin once we got hold of the Players Handbook, because it better suited the concept of the character. He was basically a Knight of the Round Table of the Sir Galahad mold -- morally unimpeachable and a bit of a know-it-all. He traveled around with four henchmen who were themselves lower-level paladins that my friends would occasionally play. Unsurprisingly, we tended to battle demons and devils -- Sir James had a long-standing feud with Demogorgon and the various anti-paladins and death knights who served him -- and other exemplars of metaphysical evil. In time, Sir James acquired a +5 holy avenger, was granted a fiefdom, built a castle for himself, and adopted a young boy he'd rescued somewhere, whom he raised as his son. The son's name was Philip, if I recall, and I intended for him to become a ranger and take off into the wilds against Sir James's wishes, but I don't think I ever got around to that.

Looking back on him now, a lot of stuff I did with Sir James -- not least of which are his name and escutcheon -- were rather silly, but then I was barely 10 years-old and I had fun with it all, as did my friends. In the end, I guess that's all that really matters.


  1. Excellent post! I didn't get heavy into gaming until the early 90's, so it is fun to read the tales of folks who got to enjoy the golden age of the hobby.

    I always wondered about the first people who sat down and attempted to learn this thing completely on their own. By the time I started, gaming was firmly established and you had to log in several years of actual PC gaming before you picked up the DMG and got to run your own games. This helped!!!! I know what each class and race are capable of, so I can now properly challenge them and know what to avoid because their spells would make short work of it.

    I honestly cannot imagine playing the game at a table where nobody knows what they are doing. Great stuff!!!

  2. Yes, your character was silly. Good for him. IMHO, sillieness, sincre-fun-loving sillieness, is something that is missing from most of today's rpg's. Not satire. Not camp. Just silly.

  3. I started playing Moldvay Basic with another tyro down the block, but switched to AD&D shortly thereafter, so know how mysterious and difficult it was to figure out how to "properly" play the game. Glad to see we weren't the only ones winging it.

    Interesting that your first (and basically only) character was a paladin. I don't think I've ever known someone to play a lawful good character, let alone a paladin, in all of my years of gaming. My first character was a chaotic evil cleric ("Malik" by name, now THAT is silly). I bet there is some deep psychological insight to be divined from these first choices, and it doesn't seem to indicate a healthy state of mind for me at the time :).

  4. I was basically always the DM as well. I think my longest running PC probably stretched over a couple dozen sessions, and was in the afterschool D&D club, so they were always short sessions. As far as legitimate characters, I think my highest ever was probably in the level 6 range.

    I still remember a few of them, but their names escape me (well, I do remember Drastius Phangorus). This was all in the late 70's early 80's. After that, I was DM 99% of the time. I would love to play in a real campaign one of these years, but I'm the only sucker in my gaming group who is willing to take on the DM workload.

    Nice post, and kudos for the State flag on his heraldic device!


  5. I agree that it's best when characters start off thin and acquire depth from real play itself.

    I sort of roll my eyes whenever a player brings a PC to the table with some ridiculously detailed background that they expect to be incorporated. On the flipside I don't like when DMs refuse to invest anything in the background of PCs...

  6. I don't like it when a player brings a PC to the table with a detailed background, because I don't know if they're going to die in the first combat, and if they do, the player is probably going to be quite upset. Who needs that?

  7. That is an interesting point, Jim. A few years ago I would have agreed with you, but in recent days I have come to see detailed character background as not bad in and of itself, but rather a symptom of a mindset that has a hard time dealing with character death (conflating it, perhaps, with 'losing').

    So, I have no problem with players bringing characters with detailed backgrounds, as long as they have the right mindset as to what to expect and how to deal with it. After all, a detailed character history can be reused for other characters or even serve as inspiration in various ways.

    Characters with a 'destiny' to fulfil or history that is a thin diguise for a novel, well, those are another story...