Story Time: From Zeroes to Heroes
In all of my time roleplaying, I have adventured with all kinds of different players. I have seen trained actors slide into the skin of their character and live within the imaginary world from the moment we sat down until the moment we headed out the door. I have enjoyed the company of players who simply wanted to focus on creating a story with their friends and thus we all worked together as a very copacetic team. But there are times in which I have teamed up with a few players who push the limits of what a character should be able to accomplish, all in the way they build their character.
Have you ever played a game with someone like this, the very competitive type? They make combat choices instead of character choices and they know how to stack their abilities to create the ultimate killing machine. These players are still loads of fun and they certainly have their place at the table. But how do they compare to characters that were built with a story or personality as the focus? This is my story as to why you should never count out the little guys.
From Humble Beginings
The first time I ever played Pathfinder, the DM allowed me to add a Gunslinger into his campaign. He let me choose this unconventional character as I found my footing in the mechanics of the game, not having played anything since Advanced D&D. My Gunslinger was a loner, having come up from nothing, a young man who roamed about on the frontier. I saw him as a slightly darker version Huckleberry Finn. He came from the lands in the Eastern Wood of the country and since he did not know his true name, he took on the moniker of Eastwood. (Yes, I know, but I thought it was clever and the other players seemed to like the reference so I kept it.)
Zach eventually joined us and he played what even I mistakenly felt initially was a “somewhat generic” Cleric. This Cleric was a jack-of-all-trades, whose deity was represented by an all-seeing eye, and he took on the domains of Luck and Travel. He was an inexperienced adventurer who was sent out by his church to see the world but he was strong in his convictions, always thinking of his fellow man and how his actions reflected upon the faith. His name was Jovar and his weapon of choice was a crowbar.
The rest of the cast was pretty over powered, in my honest opinion. These players are really good guys and good friends of mine. They had played together in a tight group for a couple of years and thus had a very deep understanding of the rules and how to finesse them. The best combatant was a lawful-evil Monk who had ties to an assassin’s guild. At one point in our adventures, the Monk jumped off a wall 50 feet in the air, falling at full speed, landing a devastating palm-strike on a foe down below. It was an instant kill, by the way, but that wasn’t the ridiculous part. The man was mounted on a horse, but as the unfortunate man was pounded into red mist, the Monk was able to land ON THE HORSE without harming himself or even startling the horse!
Another character in out troupe was a very lethal Inquisitor who carried a sword that could speak with him telepathically. Inquisitors root out enemies of the faith and are willing to take extreme measures to meet their goals. He could inflict severe magical damage too, combined with his sword proficiency. He had the perks of magic casting on top of incredible fighting prowess. Many times we would be in the heat of battle and the Inquisitor would be quipping with his sword, fighting ferociously but keeping an uncanny calm.
The fifth person in our party was an Aristocrat who carried a magical soul-knife. This enchanted blade could turn the tide in any combat if it was wielded smartly and with courage. If the Aristocrat was played as a straight-up Fighter, she would have been a most challenging threat. However, it was her powerful name that made her truly formidable. Her father was a Duke or Baron or Regent of some sort, one who was in line for the recently vacated throne. The Aristocrat also had the boon of always having an underling or an agent of her father who could help out and do the heavy lifting.
Zach and I were clearly the weaklings of the troupe. For the most part, we were relegated to standing in the back and trying not to get killed. Eastwood would pop a shot with is pistol, pray he was able to actually hit the enemy, and then hide while he reloaded his firearm. Eastwood also wasn’t very intelligent, although he was very streetwise. This meant that he had great instincts and survivability, but he could barely read or write. Jovar would run out into combat and swing his crowbar with zealous fury, though it did little against most of the foes we ran across. Jovar also had a problem of not having a very high initiative, so he was usually the last one to enter battle, having to wait a while before he could make an action. I wouldn’t say we were pathetic, just basic low level characters that had to rely on something else than a strong build.
Defining Our Characters
In our first story arc, we were confronted by a demon lord who wanted us to accomplish a task for him, in exchange for the fate of the souls of our Aristocrat’s father and brother. It was a good hook to throw us into an adventure. Shortly thereafter, the party was asked for help by a group of angels in order to thwart the demon lord’s plans. They knew we were mostly good people and that we could help them with an inside scoop. Once we began to work with the angels, a celestial blacksmith inadvertently destroyed Eastwood’s only pistol as he was trying to repair it (the GM rolled a 1). Feeling bad about it, the celestial generously replaced it with a +1 Dragon Pistol, which is quite a remarkable upgrade. After this session, we sort of re-booted the campaign to have a more political feel, and thus we dropped the demon lord angle and learned about a nasty political rival who was much more than he seemed.
Shortly thereafter, the group was called to fight in some arena battles. Each champion would enter into the clash against an opponent to gain favor for their political “candidate”. The land was sliding into turmoil as political powers shifted, and the Aristocrat wanted everyone to help her win points for her father. It was a classic 1-on-1 gladiator situation, and everyone got a chance to fight against a random opponent. In his battle, Jovar had to face a nagaji (lizard-folk) who was a very competent and slippery fighter. In the heat of battle, the nagaji spit acid, which was deflected with Jovar’s crowbar. Although the acid’s effect was more cosmetic than anything else, the crowbar of quickness was now acid etched and it became a symbol of Jovar's power and devotion.
In the second story arc, the party was hunting for a group that had attacked them earlier, which lead them down beneath the city through a series of sewers and traps. After surviving a few close calls and disabling all of the traps, we ultimately discovered the underground lair. It was still occupied by our attackers, which we learned at that time were… vampires. What a twist! Our friends very quickly defeated the bloodsuckers without much aid from Eastwood and Jovar. The lair was then repurposed into our new secret headquarters, the Shadowhold Keep.
While we ransacked and cleaned out the place, Jovar found some old religious tomes to augment his spell book. He also found a holy relic which he could use to intensify his power. Eastwood turned his attentions to something he felt a spiritual connection to; a captured dire wolf. The vampires had kidnapped a young lady and held her captive down with the dire wolf in two jail cells. The lady was thankful for her rescue and asked to stay on as an assistant to the group, remaining in Shadowhold Keep. As the others were more concerned with learning how to use the secrets and dangers of the keep, Eastwood however, spent all of his time and resources into calming the dire wolf and training him to be his companion. After weeks of working, Eastwood had a new friend, Stark. (Yes, I know, but this was before everyone was going crazy for Game of Thrones.)
At this point, I felt as if the party didn't need much help from us weaker folk. Our friends weren’t unkind, but all of their plans were based on either the top two fighters or the daughter of the could-be king. The Aristocrat called Jovar her “Swiss Army knife” and Eastwood was usually trying to avoid taking damage as much as we was trying to dish it out. I personally felt as if we weren't useful in combat as we were out of combat and our particular skills were not really appreciated. The players were nice enough people and I cannot stress that enough, but sometimes their characters may not have played the same way. But it was alright; Eastwood and Jovar started becoming friends and watching each other's backs.
Taking it to the Next Level
In the third story arc, we traveled for many miles out and away from the capital city, entering into a more desolate and sandy landscape. We crossed a ravine thanks to Jovar’s flying spells and we came upon a large castle that was occupied by a goblin army. Following the lead of the fighters in the group, we dove headfirst into battle. We fought tooth and nail through the portcullis, along the hallways, up the towers, and eventually out to landing upon which was moored an airship! The Monk was killing the various goblinoid foes without breaking a sweat. The Inquisitor was having witty repartee with his sword as he cleaved through waves of green. The Aristocrat was darting in and out, throat stabbing her foes with speed and grace. Even Stark was ripping the goblins apart and sending them back down the tower in fear of his ferocity.
Jovar and Eastwood were helping, more or less. They held their own and did some damage, protecting each other and working in unison with the support of Stark. Most of the kills were going to Stark, as he began to develop a taste for goblin meat. The battle raged on, spilling out onto the deck of the airship with the leaders of the army at the forefront. In the end, the Monk fought a duel with a hobgoblin General. Of course, the Monk won in spectacular fashion, single handedly outclassing the General in martial prowess! Under the rules of the duel and by the honor of the hobgoblin General, we took control of the castle. The Monk was also now their leader. He mandated that all of their siege weapons and air ships be destroyed, except for the one we commandeered. His new army was to stay put in the castle, ready their forces, and await further notice.
Before leaving the castle, Jovar used his keen intellect and was able to convert 30 of the goblins for his church, gaining a small army under his own command. The goblins were fairly good workers and required only minimal flogging to keep in line. In the background of the main battle, Eastwood had defeated a hobgoblin Lieutenant, taking his musket-axe as a trophy, and discovered some desings to build a 6-shot revolver. Eastwood also rolled some incredibly high dice rolls to quickly learn how to fly the last remaining airship, becoming its only pilot. And thus, we had a ship that we named the Rapscallion. With the goblins' help flying the ship, the party had a new means of transportation and attack.
Survival of the Fittest
In the final story arc, the party went up against the big baddy that we had been chasing since the very beginning. We followed some minions through a portal in to a dark world, The Plane of Shadow. Everything was a twistedly dark and exaggerated verison of that of the real world. Again, we were set upon by waves of increasingly difficult foes, and you could almost predict the outcome. The Monk and the Inquisitor would lay waste to the horde, while Eastwood and Jovar hung to the sides and rained down damage from time to time. However, a shift had begun to happen. The super-fighters were getting torn up a bit, bloodied, and tripped up. Jovar had found his footing and was doing some really interesting things with his spell choices. Eastwood was bringing on the pain with a new pair of 6-shooters, dodging and rolling all over the place. The playing field was almost even!
That is when we went up against the big baddy’s pet: a mature adult umbral dragon. Umbral dragons are spawned between worlds, beings half of the mortal plane and another, looking sinister and starved in appearance with scales so inky black that they mimic shadow. There was a fire fight! It was a pretty brutal scene with most of our party taking injuries, especially from the shadow breath the dragon eschewed. We had another character come along with us who was a white dragon (or was she blue?) in human form. As the fight broke out she changed shape and tried to battle the umbral dragon in her full form, but she was all but eviscerated immediately. Everyone was losing ground and taking massive damage. We knew that it would come down to the wire and we were likely to suffer some casualties with the vitality sapping effects caused by the dragon’s shadow breath.
If someone was going to do something big, now was the time to do it, and Eastwood delivered in spades! I rolled a 20 on an attack. This is generally a good thing, which means I automatically hit, but I get to roll again to see if it was a critical hit. If I rolled high enough to hit the target, then I would have gotten double damage on the dragon which would have been great. Then I rolled another 20. Since I rolled another critical hit, I was now threatening much greater damage so I needed to roll a third time to see if I got high enough. That is when I rolled a 19, which confirmed the hit! That’s an instant kill my friends! The players in the room are screaming and cheering as the Game Master calms us down and explains how the story unfolds.
Eastwood jumps onto the back of his dire wolf Stark to get around the room faster, hanging on to the saddle as the dire wolf leaps into the air. The dragon sees his movement and lunges forward, roaring. Eastwood takes aim, squeezes the trigger, and fires a shot directly into the open maw of the assailing dragon. The blast catches the dragon directly in the roof of its mouth and with its brain bursting out the back of its head like a shower of Jell-O pudding, it fell dead on the spot. Now there were more cheers! Having a moment to breathe since the combat was over, we were all able to briefly lick our wounds; all thanks go to Jovar’s healing skills for getting everyone back on their feet. In a moment of inspiration, Eastwood took out a pair of silver daggers and carved off sheathes of the dragon’s skin, then he rolled them into bolts and lashed them underneath the saddle of the dire wolf.
An Unexpected Finale
Proceeding further ahead, we found a large throne room. There, we were met by our ultimate foe, the man parading around as our political foe who had actually been a Vampire Lord. He was a spell casting, sword wielding, demonic danger that would have had Nosferatu cowering in the corner. It was utter chaos. We were throwing everything at it we could think of at it. The Aristocrat could do nothing with her magical knife that had been so effective before. She was almost useless at this point, but she tried her best. The Blue Dragon lady tried to hurt the Vampire Lord, but he seemed almost impervious to everything she dished out at him when it came to her magical spells. The Monk was raining down damage like only he could do best, jumping in and out of combat. He was violent and savage, but he was certainly taking more pain than he was giving.
The Inquisitor clashed swords with the Vampire Lord. There were sparks bursting on every contact as they struck out furiously at each other. What we didn't know was that both of their swords were in actuality shards of the same demon’s soul! No one, save for the Inquisitor, knew anything about this, that a great demon’s soul had been split between the two blades. Once they were brought back together in combat, they desired to merge back together. Now, a different combat began, a combat of will, and the Inquisitor began to lose control. It took a few moments as they struggled, the swords never breaking contact as energy swirled about. In a moment of shock, we saw the iron resolve of the Vampire Lord and the immense power of the demon within win the battle against our teammate. Before our eyes the Inquisitor was completely devoured by the blade: mind, body, and soul.
Sent into overdrive, everyone sprung forward. Eastwood dodged around, popping shots and inflicting steady damage. He was getting very good at knocking things out people’s hands and he kept the vampire at bay that way, shooting his newly enhanced sword away! Magic was cast all over the place between the noble cleric and the vile vampire. A wayward beam from the vampire caught Jovar full on in the chest. As the smoke cleared away, Jovar was revealed to have been transmogrified into a frog! But as fate would have it, his power of will was high enough that while his form was changed, his mind was not and he was still able to cast his spells! He leapt around, taking refuge under the vampire’s throne, and he cast spell after spell from under concealment. Jovar even cast a spell that created a shadow clone of himself in human form. The vampire was confused and kept attacking his illusion, opening himself up to damage from everyone else.
In the final moments of the battle, just before the vampire was defeated, a final killing blow had befallen the Monk. He was struck down dead, his body lifelessly fell to the floor of the throne room. With the conquest of the Vampire Lord, a large blast of dark energy shook everyone and a swirling vortex began to open. The shadowy maelstrom was trying to suck everything inside of it as the surviving characters tried to escape. Using the strength of Stark, Eastwood helped to pull out the injured party members, throwing the Monk’s body onto the dire wolf’s back with the Aristocrat grabbing the frog version of Jovar. The Blue Dragon Lady barely survived her wound and limped along side of Eastwood. Everyone fled back the way they had come with the destruction occurring only a few dozen feet behind them, eventually making it back to the first portal and diving through to safety.
Can We Ever Be Normal Again?
Time passed and a few days later we were able to have a magical ritual performed in order to bring the Monk back to life. Seeing their strength and appreciating their courage, a new respect was developed by the Monk for Eastwood and Jovar. The Monk took his rightful seat at the head of an assassins guild, commanding power and respect in the seedy underbelly of the city. The Aristocrat promised that she would be forever in our debt, licked her wounds and went home to her father to serve as his ambassador. Jovar was brought back to his original form and he took on a higher position in the church. Unfortunately, the Inquisitor was completely lost to us, being so utterly destroyed.
So that is where the story ends, for the most part. Eastwood and Jovar went on many other unwritten adventures together, with their dire wolf companion, a goblin platoon of religious converts, and they would sail the skies in their speedy little airship.
Maybe there is something to be gleaned here about the values of storytelling and character building over purely optimizing a character. I feel as though a good Game Master or Dungeon Master will reward you more with good character moments and unique choices that make your party so special. You shouldn't neglect being effective, but I don't feel that it should be your main concern when creating a new character. You never know how awesome the interesting characters turn out to be until they conquer the world.
What about Eastwood? Well, for a time he took a position offered to him as the head of the city guard, the Red Lanterns. He had made for himself with the umbral dragon skin a long duster-style coat and a matching Stetson hat. He would patrol the streets of the city, with a red badge on his chest, two six-shooters at his side, and an 800 pound dire wolf walking along behind. How bad ass is that???
An unpainted Eastwood and his companion Stark