This morning on the bus, I tested my son’s knowledge of Tarzan to check Charlie Jane Anders’ assertion that the character is unknown to people under 30. It turns out that nine-year-olds have enough familiarity to nickname you “Tarzan” if you wear a lion-print Halloween costume that started as one year’s Charles Atlas and was re-used as Hercules the next. What Javi knows about Tarzan is that he swings on vines and drowns enemies in quicksand who are not hip to the vine trick. Tarzan’s origin story is news to him, which is probably not good for the long-term survival of what makes the character unique; apparently we are no longer much interested in people being raised by apes, but still need an iconic image of a guy who runs around hollering while half-dressed.
Anyway, Javi wanted to know why I was grilling him about Tarzan so I explained that I’d read an article about what new pulp characters have come along to replace old ones that are forgotten, like Doc Savage. Then he wanted to know who that was. Being a fan of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life I was able to do a credible run-down on the Man of Bronze, but a nine-year-old’s thirst for knowledge makes it very handy to have a hivemind in your pocket. The Wikipedia entry brings us to the thing I want to talk about, Doc Savage’s credo:
Let me strive, every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right, and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
Since Green Lantern was Javi’s first heroic fascination, he and I are no strangers to oaths. Our conversation about why the Guardians of Oa require that their agents to recite a daily oath to receive their powers, and what benefits Doc Savage might receive from having a code to guide his conduct, got me thinking about creating a credo for characters in a role-playing game.
I am at the stage of unpaid taxes where I guiltily suspect that a commenter like NUNYA who likes all caps and creative spelling might be Joesky in disguise sending me a warning, just as an unrepentant Scrooge might flinch at the sight of passers-by who just happen to be androgynous and candle-headed, robed and torch-bearing, or gaunt and spectral. So instead of just waxing theoretical, I will try to offer actual game-useful content. (Before the gassiness ban takes effect, let me note that Doc Savage is awesome because his myth is the unfamiliar archetype that sheds light on elements of our culture so familiar that they’re hard to perceive directly; doesn’t “strive to make myself better and better that all may profit” and “take what comes with a smile” sound like a perfect encapsulation of the ethos that makes original D&D appealing?)
And I won’t just say “hey you should make up your character’s code of behavior” because I haven’t done this and have no reason to suspect it would be a good idea. When I suggested to Javi that he and I should make up oaths for ourselves, he was clearly embarrassed by the notion and I suspect your average player, or even me when I’m not wearing my enthusiastic Dad hat, would feel the same.
But I really like the idea of striving, every moment of our lives, to make ourselves better and better, to the best of our abilities, that all may profit by it. Since the Joesky tax fund is full of stuff that’s useful to DMs, I’ll start a series of posts aimed at being better players.
Last night in the OD&D game Michael Mornard ran (here I make an exception to Games That Can’t Be Named‘s name-no-names policy), I rolled up Boboric the Huscarl and did not want him to get killed. Being a first-level fighting man, I decided that having plate-mail would go a long way to supporting this ambition, but I only rolled 60 gp and needed cash for flaming oil and door spikes and all the other things that would let me contribute to the welfare of the party without needlessly exposing myself to death in the front lines.
So I approached Roger de Coverley, who had emerged from the previous adventure with all kinds of wealth and second-level-ness, and announced “Sir, I will pledge myself as your guard and servant if you will equip me with a full suit of steel armor!”
After making sure that this pledge included standing in front of Roger in the marching order, Paul agreed to equip Boboric. Seeing the success of this tactic, the player of Melbar the Lesser got in on the action. “Hey, is there a Melbar the Greater?” I asked. Upon learning that he was indeed, M. the Lesser was of unspecified relation to Melbar the Greater, Lord of Toast, I said “Cool, will you accept me as your vassal so that I may wear his coat of arms?”
Paul cut himself into this action too: “Hey, Roger has a garter that you can wear.” Being quicker on the draw, Boboric got to wear the right garter, Melbar was stuck with the left. (He also wound up in the first rank of the marching order; sucker!)
What started out as a simple exercise in advantage-seeking (with overtones of greed and paranoia) became my key to roleplaying Boboric. When I challenged a bandit leader to single combat, after defeating him I went over and laid down my spear (which cost me 1/60th of my wealth, and had a valuable spider stuck on it for safe-keeping!) at Roger’s feet, establishing to the surviving brigands that he was the big man here; Boboric had proven himself to be tough and fierce, but how much more to be feared was the guy who commanded him!
The decision to play a character who was eager to pledge allegiance and see what he could get in return unlocked a lot of fun for me during the session. Here’s what I think can be generalized as advice on being a better player:
- Want something. D&D is a great and compelling game because, in every edition, it gives me ways to “strive to make myself better and better.” As we’ve said at the Mule before, one of the great things about XP for GP in TSR editions is that it gives characters a specific, concrete thing to pursue with monomaniacal zeal in pursuit of that goal. Both gold and XP are so fundamental that the advice to want these things is unlikely to lead to better D&D play, although it may be useful to note that a character concept that involves not wanting wealth and power will probably be no fun to play. Odyssey has written about how a party full of characters who are addicted to things other than gold would provide not only motivation but also a reason for everyone to know one another. Maybe the greatest benefit of wanting something is that it helps you understand other people who might want that too. Boboric’s drive to get a suit of armor out of pledging allegiance to the highest-level dude around set the stage for the party to embrace the idea that the bandits would sign on to our party once they learned that, under Roger’s leadership, we ate three times a day.
- Look up and down the ladder. One of the biggest things I learned from Adventurer Conqueror King is that low-level guys want to wear the insignia of a higher-up on their shield for the extra protection it affords: mess with me and you’ll answer to Melbar the Greater. And name-level characters want to find competent people to wear their coat of arms because they want someone to go around showing the flag and doing the scutwork that’s beneath their notice. You don’t need ACKS for this (although the PDF will be available for sale real soon now!) – you could have learned it from Jeff’s posts about to-do lists for BX characters, or just from the basic assumptions of D&D. Last night’s session began when, as we were working out our marching order in a tavern, Lord Gronan sought us out because Roger’s success in the kobold mines meant we might make useful vassals, and we were delighted when taking over from the deceased bandit leader meant we emerged with nine new henchmen of our own. This stuff is as old as RPGs, but like much of the original D&D lore it risks being forgotten.
- Set up connections within the party. You never know whether the situation in a session will provide whatever externals are necessary for you to pursue the thing you decide your character wants. The one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll always be around your adventuring companions. Linking them into whatever striving you have in mind for your character means you’ll never lack for a roleplaying hook. Boboric got lucky (or plugged into an omnipresent D&D current) in that we did meet NPCs who wanted to play allegiances with him; but since Gronan of Simmerya was Michael’s character from the original Greyhawk campaign, even this was an example of making PC-to-PC connections.
- Be considerate of fellow citizens. Allegiances within the party shouldn’t obscure the fact that everyone’s first loyalty should be to one another. Boboric was Neutral; he kept his word but was careful about what he pledged, and although he gave his loyalty for keeps he didn’t commit until a quid pro quo was established. The player to my right, Maurice, rolled up another fighting man, The Mauler, who (as Mike pointed out at the end of the night) was definitely Good. The Mauler never hesitated to risk his life by stepping up in battle, and when one of our magic-users was killed by a poison chest trap, the rest of us were like “oh yeah, old-school play is lethal, what can you do?” The Mauler didn’t accept that answer, even when the player of the magic-user in question was like “hey no big deal”. He took the body to Gronan and demanded that something be done for his fallen comrade, and the next thing we knew we were in the Temple of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel witnessing a miracle (and receiving a geas in return). Wanting to do the right thing is a powerful motivation, and I think we were all inspired by the dedication with which Maurice lent his assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.