Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Quintessential Dungeon Master

Back in the days of yore, around the time when Iron Maiden’s “Flight of Icarus” video could be seen on daytime MTV, and the Baltimore Orioles were winning their last World Series, there was a young high-schooler affectionately called Chico.

Chico was a Dungeon Master. That means instead of doing homework or playing sports, he was busy making Dungeons and Dragons adventures for other people to participate in. Let the record show that Chico was rarely a PLAYER of D&D. He chiefly existed to be the Dungeon Master.

Now, dungeon masters come in all shapes and sizes. However, Chico was “special”. He was the Quintessential Dungeon Master.

Chico was probably around average height and build for a teenager, with perhaps a bit more girth than most, due to the fact that he never picked up a basketball or worked out in the gym.  He walked as one hunched forward, leaning out over his front feet. This was probably due to the heavy backpack he bore through the school halls, which undoubtedly housed all of the D&D reference books needed for the spontaneous Dungeon Master.

Watching Chico run was pure delight for the senses. Whereas most teenage boys look somewhat agile in their gait, Chico ran as though his leg muscles had severely atrophied, taking quick baby steps, looking as though he would topple onto his face at any moment.

Slovenly is how I would describe Chico’s appearance. His brown-grey hair was always semi-short, yet he was always brushing it away from his eyes. I believe it may have stuck to his forehead at times. Since Chico rarely showered, his dandruff was legendary. The numerous white flakes cascaded perpetually onto his heavy blue-grey coat, which he always wore. His fashion sense was the epitome of unkempt. He usually wore a plaid (or other striped design), button down shirt accompanied by too-short, strangely-colored pants, dirty white socks and grey Adidas knock-off sneakers.

Chico had one of the more remarkable faces that you would ever want to see. His eyes were dark and beady, reminding one of black pools of Abyss. He had an enormous overbite, his top teeth jutting far out over those beneath.  When Chico smiled at you, his eyes beaded up into little prunes. You always had the feeling that one of the demon princes (or Ygorl from the Fiend Folio) had taken up refuge inside his head, and that his huge mouth would open up and envelop you in an instant.

Chico’s intelligence was strictly limited to the world of D&D.  He was not an “A” student, perhaps not even a “B” student. He cared little for the academic demands of English, Math and Health classes, concentrating his mind solely on statistics such as the hit dice of a Skeleton Warrior or the experience points needed to advance a 15th level Thief. Chico’s unheralded genius lie in the realm of Chess Clubs, Scientific American and the Monster Manual, not SAT scores.

Chico’s role as Dungeon Master dictated a strong repelling of the opposite sex, well actually, any sex. Females in particular shunned the Master of Adventure, citing such phrases as “He seems really nice” or “Why doesn’t he ever wash his hair?” For Chico to talk to any woman would be rare in the extreme, and was usually accompanied by a redness of the cheeks, and looking down at his feet, muttering rather than speaking.

I only had occasion to visit Chico’s house a couple of times. His parents owned a nice house on a 2-acre lot, above average for the neighborhood. Despite this, his family’s abode smelled somewhere between a fart and an old shoe. You didn’t dare eat anything at Chico’s house, because you were never quite sure where the smell was coming from. However, this was Chico’s domain. This was where the adventures took place. And Chico was master.

As I mentioned before, Chico rarely played Dungeons and Dragons as a player character. He had no desire to be flung about at the whims of another dungeon master such as himself. No desire to be defeated, when he could be the defeater. And when it came to being the DM, Chico was as ruthless as they come.

For one adventure that Chico expertly whipped up in his head, I happened to create a 1st level character. When one starts out a campaign at 1st level, one expects the challenge and/or competition to be appropriate for that character’s abilities. However, that was never Chico’s way. He mostly dwelt in the realm of god-like persons: 28th level mages, arch-devils and ancient dragons. For Chico, anything below 10th level was just a momentary precursor to the real game.

Thus, my first level character and supporting party entered a typical low-level dungeon, and had some moderate success, escaping with our lives. When we exited the caverns, we discovered a road, which we followed to a nearby city.  What should come out of the city to greet us but an army of 3000 soldiers, led by a 19th-level mage casting Delayed Blast Fireballs. Needless to say, we were Delayed-Blast Incinerated.

Bored with the low-level shenanigans, Chico would insist on the players using a higher-level party, say 9th level. We would spend several hours carefully choosing our classes, equipping our characters with whatever magic items Chico would allow, and learning new spells for the upcoming adventure.

I remember the session began with my party outside three cave entrances, somewhat like the Tomb of Horrors (Chico’s favorite official D&D module). We chose one entrance, and crept carefully inside. However, no amount of care could stop Chico from dropping a heavy stone wall on my party, bringing the hit point total of my main character from 43 down to 4 within 30 seconds of entering the dungeon. Barely alive, we chose another entrance, and even more carefully navigated the hallway around the bend. As soon as the light from the outside was no longer visible, our torches went out, and we found ourselves in total blackness.

What happened next was Chico’s genius operating in its element. One of the party members, a fighter, “tripped” and lost all of his hit points and died. The culprit? Juiblex (whose name I always misspelled Jubilex), the Faceless Demon Lord of slimes and oozes, who was revealed when the lights came back on. 


For those who don’t know, Juiblex resides on the 222nd layer of the Abyss, can swallow foes whole, and spits out acidic secretions which can dissolve just about anything. He is basically a great pile of demonic ooze. What he was doing unguarded in a dark hallway on the Prime Material Plane is anybody’s guess. Chico!!

Those of us who remained ran down the hall, only to come into a wide, empty cavern.  The cavern was not empty for long, because Orcus, lord of the undead, soon came riding in atop a German Panzer tank. As if two demon lords were not enough to contend with, Asmodeus, the Overlord of the Nine Hells was next to enter. How they destroyed us is irrelevant. Of more importance is that the actual adventure proved to be much shorter than the anticipation of it.

When Chico DID play as a player-character, he used what may be the most blatant abuse of power in D&D history, the Anti-Paladin. A regular paladin was supposed to be a virtuous, lawful-good knight type who existed primarily to serve the common good. As such, he would gain special powers, such as self-healing, which were not available to the other classes. He also had higher-than-normal ability scores to compensate for the tend toward goodness. The Anti-Paladin had all of the powers of the good paladin, but in reverse. So, Chico’s character would be able to hurt, not heal. Also, his mount was a flame-spewing nightmare from the nether reaches. When Chico fought, he used a Dark Vorpal Blade +12. In other words, he rarely, if ever, missed anything that he swung at.  He took out a village of 400 orcs with his sword alone. I never saw Chico’s Anti-paladin at anything less than 40th level, and I doubt that it ever was.

That is all that I have to say about Chico, a high-minded, misunderstood master of his domain, who never quite fit in to the real world, but who always excelled in ruling others in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Skyrim Journal Part 1

System: Xbox 360
Race: Bosmer (Wood Elf)
Current Level: 37

So I purchased Skyrim the day it hit the stores. I played for about a month on an old 27” console TV before forking out a few hundred smackers for a shiny 32” 1080p model. If you’re not playing Skyrim in Hi-Res, HDTV, I highly recommend it. The increased quality of the graphics made all the difference in the world. Plus, I could not read the smaller print on my old TV set. Now, everything is crystal clear, and I don’t have to squint like an old codger.

Now then, onto the game itself…

As you may well know, Skyrim is the fifth installment in the Elder Scrolls series of video games. The vast expanse of wilderness that is covered by Skyrim is second to none. I still do not know how the makers managed to get ALL of the detail for this game onto one disk. It’s simply mind-boggling when you consider all of the towns, dungeons, rocks, trees, blades of grass, etc…and the flying DRAGONS are superb.

There are many things to love about Skyrim. The ability to explore every facet of the wilderness you’re in takes you as close to a real-life RPG as you might want to get.  If you don’t like the main quest-line that the game offers, simply ignore it and go off adventuring wherever your little heart desires. If you do follow a quest line, Skyrim guides you on your way with a directional symbol – otherwise it would be nearly impossible to complete some quests in such a vast world.

One quibble with Skyrim’s predecessor, Oblivion, was that the quality of the faces in the character creation screen was downright awful. Well, the faces in Skyrim are better, but not a lot better. Some of the elves look more like aliens, and it’s quite necessary to tweak the faces so much to make something halfway attractive, that they no longer resemble the races that they were supposed to represent. In fact, there is too much darkness altogether in the faces, and it would have been nice to lighten them up considerably. The Nords have perhaps the lightest skin, and probably look the best of the human-like races.

Skyrim offers only a simple set of three ability scores (Health, Magicka, Stamina) for improving your character. When you level up, you can improve one of these scores, plus one of 18 skills. In turn, each skill has a tree of perks, which are arguably the most important aspect of improving your character. I don’t use much magic in the game, so I have spent most of my perks on Archery, Sneak, One-Handed, Heavy Armor and Enchanting. There are some pretty cool perks available in each tree if you get your skill to 100, but I’m not there yet.

One thing I do miss from Oblivion is the Ring of Night-Eye.  The Khajiit race has this ability naturally, but it’s not available to the other races, except as an Illusion spell. Fortunately, the dungeons are well-lit compared to Oblivion, so you can see pretty well most of the time.

My main complaint about Skyrim is the lack of variety of creatures to fight. This does not keep Skyrim from being a great game. However, I think I knew just about every creature in the game by Level 12. In the wilderness, I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered every kind of creature possible, so that only leaves the dungeons as places where I might meet up with something new. If I do come across something new, it’s usually just a higher variant of one of the many bandits, zombies, falmer, etc…If there’s an Elder Scrolls part 6, I’d love to see some chimaera, cockatrices, gelatinous cubes, or gorgons. And how come none of the Skyrim creatures has the ability to Turn to Stone or Drain Levels?  That would make the combat more interesting.

Skyrim is pretty easy to play with just a basic combat style. I can defeat most foes with my bow even in melee, or then simply bashing the heck out of them with my mace. I recently discovered (around level 35) that having a bow that drains health is by far the best option for long-range combat. At least – I haven’t been challenged much in combat since I started using that bow. I do use my shield every once in awhile, but prefer to keep Fast Healing equipped in my off-hand instead. I also haven’t used Dual-Wielding, but that might be fun to try at some point. I also have a perk that causes huge additional damage with daggers when sneaking, but I haven’t been able to get it to work yet.

My character got married around level 15. I married the first semi-pretty girl I saw, Ysolda – the one who sells in Whiterun at the market stalls.


Her face is OK to look at, but I really like her voice when she says, “Hello My Love". We moved into my house in Whiterun, and she brings in a tidy profit from her trade activities. I can’t for the life of me figure out why she still charges me for her wares instead of giving me what I need, but hey, that’s marriage in the wild world for you. It also spooks me a little that she carries a dagger on her hip when I’m around, and then talks to me in that sweet voice. I got Lydia as my House-Thane, and I find it a little odd that she hangs out in my bedroom, while my wife roams the rest of the house. Three’s company, I guess. Now that I’ve been around a bit more, I kinda like Sapphire from the Riften Thieves’ Guild. I don’t know if she’s the marrying type, though. I sure wouldn’t want her carrying a dagger around in my bedroom…

I just finished a quest where a talking dog took up with me. It said that it needed to go to its master at some shrine, and could I follow it there?  Little did I know that the journey would take us forever, and its master was actually some kind of crazy god. Then, the god wants me and the dog to go ALL THE WAY ACROSS SKYRIM to fetch a certain item. Try climbing a mountainside with a mangy mutt who wants to carve his own path up the hill. He was a really good fighter, though. I think he could have single-handedly taken down most of the baddies that we came across. After all this was done, my only reward was to see dog and god reunited in stone friendship forever. I’m never having a stupid pet, that’s for sure.

Speaking of gods, that insane Sheogorath from Oblivion is back. I won’t spoil the quest that he’s associated with, but it took me awhile to figure out exactly what to do because the guy is clearly bonkers. I’m kind of hoping that he comes back into the game at some point, because he seems to add some random fun whenever he shows up.

I’ve put about 90 hours into Skyrim so far, and I don’t think I’m that close to finishing the main quest-line. I hope you’re having as much fun as I am! I’ll try to have another update for you soon.