Saturday, December 12, 2009

I Hit It With My Axe

L to R: Tiefling Cleric, Half-Elf Barbarian.

Yesterday's game

Character Generation With KK

Unlike the rest of my players, KK is one of those people who would, in the natural course of events, never end up playing D&D. She's just doing it because everybody else is.

I had to start at square -1 with KK. Like--"Elves have pointy ears...ummm...girls like to play elves, dwarves are short people with beards..."

I mentioned that half-orcs have fangs.

KK said she liked fangs and so that sounded pretty good to her.

KK then pointed out that she had fangs. She showed us how, yes, indeed, she had naturally unusually sharp canines.

This started a long discussion betwixt my players about blowjobs, professional and otherwise, the eminently reasonable theme of which was: it's good to keep unusually sharp canines and blowjobs as separate as is practical.

At the end of which KK then asked--"Ok, so what am I? A Fangor Beast?"*

"No, you are a half-orc."

I then showed KK a picture of a half-orc.

Then KK changed her mind and decided that she would be a half-elf.

Now, class...

(Does anyone besides me find all this discussion of "race-and-class" with new players always seems pseudo-marxist for a second before you remember what you're talking about? Anyway...)

Well, fighter seemed a good bet, but, knowing KK, I also made a decent pitch for barbarian. And that, indeed, is what KK chose.**

My Defense of the Barbarian Class by Zak S.

Now a lot of old-schoolers don't like the barbarian. It is, to them, the beginning of the path of nano-specialization that leads eventually to players being like Dragonfondle Darkslickers or whatever, and, more importantly, away from the original generic Gygaxian labels which said your character was either Trained to Fight and So Was A Fighter or Trained To Use Magic And So Was A Magic-User and the rest is entirely up to your players' imagination--a fighter might be a duellist, a gladiator, an old soldier--that was in your hands, the numbers only told you so much.

While this is fine and good for those of us inclined to investigate and philosophize about such things (DMs, basically) or for people aching to kill some kobolds so much they will do it under any name (12-year-olds, basically), the old names are far from evocative, and when dealing with a full-grown dyslexic adult who has somehow managed to go her whole life without hearing about basically what a gnome is supposed to look like, you need evocative.

"Warrior" is decent, but implies so much less--"barbarian" on the other hand, this means something to Kimberly Kane. It means fucking Metal.

(Dethklok is a close runner-up to Warcaft for Best D&D Gateway Drug of the Early 21st century.)

So my approbation for the barbarian class is based not on the mechanics, or the philosophy, but on the name. It is a good name. It says what needs to be said. Smashing will be done by this character.

"I like smashing stuff," says KK.

Now, I will go on to say that I now appreciate the mechanics of the 3.5 barbarian as well. Here's why:

DMs, how many times has this happened to you?

"Ok, what do y'all want to do?"

"I hit it with my axe."

And your heart sinks just a little because that player might as well have just said "I hit it with my axe a-fucking-gain!" or "I hit it with my axe because what the fuck else am I gonna do?" or "I hit it with my axe and though I'm ok with that for now, next week I'm trying out for the football team and if I get picked then screw you guys..."

Now, the barbarian is perfect for this kind of player because it gives the player an in-game excuse for not knowing what the hell is going on in the plot and not really caring. The barbarian, archetypically, cares for naught but skull-crushing, as does the first-time player who would be well to choose the barbarian.

(Is this player necessarily stupid? No, although, if asked, this player may self-identify as stupid. KK does, on occasion, but she's really extremely unstupid--for example, she knows more about taking a decent photo than I ever will--and I have a master's in fine arts from Yale. This is merely the kind of player who doesn't like puzzle-solving-as-recreation.)

The person who says I Hit It With My Axe in just this way likes to fight, but is yet uninitiated into the wondrous magical universe of tactics. (Or even the wondrous magical world of running away and coming back when you've levelled-up.) I have no doubt, in my game, that he or she eventually will be, but there is that crucial in-between period when the person (the person you like and want to play with) is deciding if they like this game at all, where combat walks the line between too-simple-to-be-interesting-and-too-complicated-to-be-comprehensible-especially-since-like-even-dominoes-drives-this-person-nuts.

So, into this void comes the quintessential 3.5 barbarian trait--Rage. In addition to definitely being Metal, Rage gives the axe-wielder something to think about:

Rage can be used only once per day.

To Rage or not to Rage?

Now, this isn't the most complicated choice in the world, but it is about the level of complexity the dyslexic, dysnumeric, dominophobic player can handle in an early game, plus it engages a surprising number of subtle judgements:

Is this the boss monster for today? Why or why not do I think that? Have all the underlings I've been killing til now point to this guy?

When's the next time I'm going to get to rest?

Wait, so my hit points get better but my armor class gets worse? What does that mean?

In other words, it slowwwwwwly introduces the meat-and-potatoes player to what's going on in the game and to the rich and surprisingly vast pleasures of Fictional Resource-Management. Of which pleasures I surely do not need to expound upon to a bunch of D&D bloggers and DM's.

So, Anyway...

Point is, KK, despite appearing to be a 20-something-year-old professional adult-film actress with an apartment in the Hollywood Hills, is actually the I-Hit-It-With-My-Axe Jock that you've all known since you were 14. He was playing because his best friend was, and so is she.

Her character is named Rookia. As in: Rookie+ambiguously fantasy-sounding-suffix. (Though I prefer to think of it as Ruhkya--with an umlaut but I don't know how to type those--as in a vaguely-Icelandic or Finnish warrior-princess name. Tell no-one.)

So this game is all about trying to keep KK entertained despite the fact that she showed up on the day where I had just decided to do a day where I pushed things a wee bit away from the full-on hack-and-slash.

Every second of not-fighting provoked vicious eyerolls from KK. There was a map, there was a prisoner, there was a puzzle with cubes, NPCs with names (I could feel the eyerolls stab me in the heart as I pronounced them--Maleketh, Ettengeth, Gormengeth), there was an encounter where fighting was unnecessary, there was a book with writing to be deciphered, and Connie deciding in the middle of everything that she wanted to know what kind of elf her character half-was and so we had to look up all the kinds of elves, oy, then, thanks to my oh-so-clever-random-dungeon-generation-method there was what felt like a year of everybody bumping into walls trying to figure out which way to go.

Oh, my heart was fearful. All she wanted was to hang out with her friends and we had unfairly inveigled her into our horrible and involuted game.

But then there was some fighting...

Most of the encounters were cakewalks of the oh-hey-wait-there's-five-PCs-now-and-you're not-all-rogues-anymore-guess-I-shoulda-given-that-guy-more-hit-points variety, but that seemed to suit KK well enough. I felt KK's threshhold for enjoying-rolling-moderately-high-numbers-and-then-having-the-resulting-imaginary-bloodshed-described-to-her fast approach.

Oh, but then...

The Perfect Storm

I couldn't have planned it better.

Also: I didn't plan it better. The dungeon was randomly generated plus I hadn't even realized the PCs could get where they went from where they were to start with until they were nigh-upon the One-Eyed Thrall Wizard.

Plus, I'd kept forgetting to spring the Damsel-In-Distress-They-Saved-From-A-Tentacle-Monster-That-Was-Following-Them-Around-But-Was-Actually-A-Doppleganger on them and remembered to do it only when the big fight came around.

Plus, by the time the fight came around, an eldritch curse had already melded KK and Mandy into a sort of grotesque siamese twin.

Plus, Mandy's first tactic was to summon a random monster. Which I handled, as usual, by selecting wholly at random from the entire CR 1/3 thru CR 1 monster list and which resulted in a pseudo dragon.

Plus the dice hated everyone, especially the veteran players.

So, then here's the situation:

All the party members knocked unconscious except Frankie--newbie dark elf rogue with 3 hit points--and KK, on the floor, out of Rages for the day, siamese-twinned to an unconscious Mandy...


The Thrall Wizard and The Doppleganger, both in perfect health (20+ h.p. each), and a snake that the wizard had created out of a wasted arrow.

Now, those of you who read last week's actual-play report about Frankie's first game will remember that Frankie likes--almost exclusively--to sneak. And to do almost nothing else.

You can see how the proclivities of these two new players might create discord in the party. It's hard for Frankie to go around sneaking into unexplored chambers while KK is itching to murder things.

And they are both so terribly, terribly new to all this. Did I have a TPK on my hands?

Frankie (cowering in the corner, watching her misfired arrow turn into a snake) "What do I do? What do I do?"

Mandy (metagaming from beyond the vale of consciousness): "Run away!"

KK: (from the floor, hauling Mandy's dead weight, being fanged by a doppleganger) "Blaze of glory, Frankie! Let's do it!"

Breath was baited, and the dice did roll...

It was hideous, grueling and slow:

KK whacked at the doppleganger, landing effective blows,

The pseudo-dragon bit the wizard, who failed his poison save and fell asleep,

Then KK got knocked out,

Frankie got in a good shot on the doppleganger, but it yet lived, biting her for 2 hit points, leaving her with one,

(and alone)

The pseudo-dragon flew to the doppleganger, bit it, failed to poison it, (the whole table hanging on every die roll now) and dematerialized, its 4 rounds of existence ended,

and then Frankie remembered about the whole cause-darkness-then-backstab-business.

And that was that for the doppleganger.

Collective sigh of relief.

"Um, what's this white potion Satine has?"

"Well since if you're a dark elf you know that's a Drow healing potion."

And it's all cake once the 4th-level cleric's healed.


KK liked that so much she took a photo of the tabletop and twittered it.

We'll see if we can keep it exciting.

*Called it.
**Half-elf barbarian? No sweat. In my campaign White Elves are the pitiless creepy viking-lore kind of elf with blond braids and broken teeth.


  1. This is discouraging. My games never have this degree of chaos. I need to find players with no idea what they are doing.

  2. cool!
    maaan, your games sound so fun
    [i make the umlaut (ö) on a mac by pressing alt U
    ... ü ... perhaps helpful

  3. Just occured to me. You shouldn't ever mention to KK, that there is a game titled:


    just sayin'....

  4. This has got to be the funniest gaming group ever assembled.

  5. "...Dragonfondle Darkslickers..."

    WOTC D&D summed up and dismissed in two words, or the title of gamer geek's dream movie?

    " eldritch curse had already melded KK and Mandy into a sort of grotesque siamese twin."

    See fig. 1. (I keed, they're both gorgeous)

    "...and then Frankie remembered about the whole cause-darkness-then-backstab-business."

    How *there* is a gal with absolute mastery of dramatic timing. 8)

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I had to read this twice to take it all in.

    It occurs to me that you Zak could easily put together the best "How to Introduce New Players to D&D/RPGs" article or book ever written.

    I mean if you can get this group interested, imagine what an easy time the rest of us would have with our friends and relatives if we just knew the secrets of your technique.

    I have only one criticism of this otherwise awesome post. Not enough pics of Frankie. Now that I think about it, I don't know that you can ever have enough pics of Frankie. I know, I know...but reading about her here and from what I've seen I'm crushing big time, lol.

    Anyway, fantastic as usual.

  8. Also, mega-props for the Galaxy Quest reference.

    Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

  9. Stuart--
    a good way to simulate it is make up a bunch of house rules that you yourself only partially understand.

    unfortunately--in many respects, I have a PC.

    one day i'll post some video, then you'll see the full lunacy.

    yeah, it occurred to me that they looked like a shambolic meld-monster best-case scenario pic. like if they were trying to sell "Ettin" as a lifestyle choice.

    Frankie showed up late. She levelled-up though.

    And I had no idea that was a galaxy quest reference until kk pointed it out.

  10. i really think alien is right bout the introducing thing

  11. For/from the oldschool crowd there is the one page primer, I have my edited version on Ancient Vaults somewhere. A quick, one page rundown of how to approach the game. The version of the game isn't as important as how to approach it.

    I throw so many gonzo things at my players that half the time they are babbling and scrambling for cover.

    Now the chick with fangs might have sharp canines, but can she bite into a beer can with them? Always a neat party trick. After shotgunning about six one gets a bit tipsy, but it is a neat effect before one sees nothing but the ceiling.

  12. To do a "u" with an umlaut, hold down ALT and type 0250 on the keypad and you'll get "ü"

  13. Hey Zac, any interest in seeing if I could get your videos of "I Hit It With My Axe" embedded to the very wicked cool site? I'm working on collecting videos of D&D gamers from and it breaks my heart that I can't embed from The Escapist. So far I have the scene from Freaks and Geeks, some homemade stuff from the 1980s and 2000s, Community's episode, Vin Diesel and That '70s Show clips, plus commercials for D&D from the 1980s. Also Robot Chicken playing D&D with Chris Perkins.

    I bought your book last year.... And I found it refreshingly inspiring.

    I DM a game through WotC's Virtual Table on Tuesday nights with friends from Brooklyn, south NJ, Maine, Portland, OR, and Manhattan from my place in central NJ, so I know good game when I see it.

    If not, for probably copyright reasons, that's ok. Keep fighting the good fight against lame gaming!

  14. My email address is public--track it down, clever adventurer. Then tell me everything that I ( a reasonable man ) would ask you that is not in the comment above.