I recently started watching iZombie (iZombie: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)) on Netflix. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a show about zombies that is currently starting its fifth season. Now, this isn’t some depressing ‘Walking Dead’ (The Walking Dead: Complete Series) type show (although I also love that…). It’s more like a funny cop/murder mystery show. Except if one of the main characters was a zombie who needed to feast on brains in order to retain her humanity. Oh, and she works in a morgue. It’s loosely based on the comics (iZombie Volume 1: Dead to the World) that were written by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred, and published by Vertigo.
My husband and both thoroughly enjoy it, and are currently nearing the end of the third season. Anyway, we were watching last night and suddenly came upon an episode entitled “Twenty-Sided, Die” wherein our beloved zombie heroine devours the brains of a dungeon master in order to help solve his murder. It was a hilarious episode, and completely absurd, but halfway through she convinces her friends to play a session with her, in order to help stimulate memories of the deceased. So there they are, sitting at the table: four people attempting to humour their friend. One secretly wants to play, one’s there to give it a shot, and the other two would rather be doing anything else. By the end of their session nearly everyone has had a blast, and gotten right into it. At the end the episode one of the serious cop characters tells the zombie girl that she should run a game every week. It was just SO refreshingly entertaining.
Which got me thinking.
It’s rare you get to see d20 games featured in popular media. I adored this episode of iZombie, and of course, there’s plenty of wonderful Dungeons and Dragons cameos and references in Stranger Things (Stranger Things (Season 1: Collector’s Edition))). But where else have I seen good d20 references? I know there’s others out there, but I couldn’t recall any specific instances.
More than that, though, it brought back memories.
The first time you played a d20 game.
Trying to figure out the rules while you make your first character? Being a little nervous at first, as you figure out what you can and can’t do? Finding your voice? The laughter?The nerves?
The first time I made a character for Dungeons and Dragons I was in high school. A friend had insisted a big group of us make characters and get together to play. Most of my friends said no, but I was one of the few who said I would. A few years before that I had stumbled across a copy of the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook (3.5) in a bookstore and flipped through it. I wanted the book so bad, but had no idea what it was. I must have looked at it over the next twenty trips. Passing by, browsing, but never buying. Flash forward a few years and I suddenly went ‘A-ha! That’s how you use that book!’ I made myself a dual-wielding elven ranger with long red hair named Meloriel. We went to the store and browsed minis until I found the perfect one. And then…. Nothing. We never played.
It wasn’t until many, MANY years later that I finally had the opportunity to play again. This time I made a half-elven bard named Lorelei. My husband (we had just started dating at the time) played her boyfriend, a gnome illusionist named Blount who worked as her stage-hand. My brother played a fierce minotaur warrior, while co-workers of my brother and husband played a lizardfolk and a half-orc monk. It was DMed enthusiastically by another co-worker of my brother’s. The game wasn’t very long-lived, but it sure was fun. We immediately began buying the rulebooks and campaign settings. I got addicted to Dungeon Magazine. We went out and bought pewter miniatures, only to paint them ourselves with whatever we had on hand. I even cracked out my pencil crayons and drew my own character art. Sadly, the campaign came to an abrupt end when my husband and I went on a vacation, but we never lost our love of the game. We were hooked from that first roll of the dice!
In the years since we must have remade our characters at least three times. But, each time, they never get further than a few sessions into their tales. Maybe we’ll make them again one day. Perhaps as Pathfinder Society characters, or in a home game with my kids.
It’s funny, I suppose, that something as simple as playing a game for the first time can change your life so completely. But, here we are.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Have any stories to tell me about your first characters or first experiences playing a d20 game? Know any awesome shows or films that reference d20 gaming? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what you have to say.
A few days ago my son decided he wanted to make a villain to join me and my daughter’s evil characters on their dark and shady adventures. We spent some time together, and Professor McMaan was born! But where, oh where, would a bunch of villains hang their hat? And what kind of adventures would they go on?
A good question!
When my daughter first told me she wanted to make an evil girl, instead of another hero, I thought long and hard about where she would live, and what she could do. Would she live in a large city and try to hide her misdeeds amongst the masses? Would she live on the outskirts of a secluded village and hide her evil under a cover life of lies and deception? Would she live someplace where no one cared what she did, and shady dealings were considered normal? For answers, I turned to my daughter.
“Who are you?” I asked her. “What kind of evil girl are you going to be? What does she like to do that’s so bad?”
“Oh, Mom!” she exclaimed happily. “I was a nice doctor lady, who lived near the woods and made medicine and stuff.” Suddenly she switched to her ‘spooky voice.’ “And one day I was out in the woods and I found a rabbit! Oooooo! But it was not a normal rabbit, it had wings like a fairy and it looked very… very… adorable!” She wiggled her fingers in an ominous fashion and make more spooooooky sounds. “Oooooo! So I took the little rabbit home and it made whispers in my head! It taught me magic! But ya’ know what?! It was a demon rabbit! And the demon rabbit told me to do mean things like make zombies! And I liked it! And now I am a necra– necROmancer!”
“Oh! I almost forgot!” she exclaimed. “I am also very nice and pretty, and that is a LIE! I am pretty and very mean! But I act nice because the demon rabbit taught me how to lie really good. Oh! And I can shoot fire at people.” She made some expert fire blasting sounds for emphasis: “WHOOOOOOSH! Burny burn!”
Absorbing this for a few moments, I concluded. “Dear… That’s awesome.”
We ended up making her character an aasimar witch with the grave walker archetype and a flying rabbit familiar tied to the elemental patron. Witches have a variety of spells that let them create undead, including zombies, skeletons, and (later) more powerful undead like ghouls and ghosts. The elemental patron would add some damage dealing spells to her list including the level one spell: burning hands, which will let her shoot a cone of flames at her enemies. The gravewalker archetype, found in Pathfinder’s awesome hardcover: Ultimate Magic, would allow her some nifty death themed spells in addition to the elemental spells granted to her by her patron and two awesome abilities: aura of desecration, which empowers negative channeled energy and makes undead harder to harm with positive energy, and bonethrall, which lets her take control of any undead within her aura of desecration that isn’t hers. The only downside: gravewalkers have creepy dolls made of skin for familiars instead of animals.
With big teary eyes (my daughter can cry at will), and her bottom lip stuck out sadly, my then four year old daughter tried her best to convince me it would be alright if she had a demon rabbit instead of a demon rabbit doll. Knowing it was only us playing–and mostly verbally on walks to and from kindergarten–I caved. Besides, she’d already found some artwork she wanted to use as her familiar (pictured on the sidebar) and decided on a name: Farris.
With her class decided, my daughter chose an alternate racial trait for aasimars, which grants them sharp nails or claws. She chose the cauldron hex, granting her a witches cauldron and the ability to brew magical potions. She finalized her spells, feats and traits, chose her gear and named her: Lorelei.
Then it was my turn. But before I made a best friend for the good doctor, I needed to know where we lived.
Taking into account her backstory, we decided Lorelei and Farris lived on the outskirts of a secluded village. She hides her evil deeds and necromancy behind a public life as a doctor, midwife and herbalist. Her maxed out ranks in bluff and diplomacy should keep her ‘friendly’ cover intact at low levels, and as long as she didn’t do anything too absurd she should be able to successfully lead a convincing double life–for a while at least. But where, exactly would this small village be?
Since Pathfinder’s my favourite RPG and Campaign Setting, it would be in Golarion, of course. But Golarion’s a large place and there are plenty of little villages that could fit the bill. I ended up choosing one that has a special place in my heart: Falcon’s Hollow. As the old Dungeon magazines published by Paizo came to an end back in 2007, Paizo launched a series of modules and variant rules for Dungeons and Dragons which would eventually become their own ruleset, Pathfinder, while Dungeons and Dragons branched off into 4th edition. With no desires to relearn the rules to 4th when I had only recently accomplished mastering 3.5, I decided to give the budding Pathfinder campaign setting a try. The first adventure I got my hands on was the very first one they printed: Crown of the Kobold King. This dark little adventure took place in the awful, horrible town of Falcon’s Hollow, and its surrounding forest, the Darkmoon Vale. With a free prequel adventure, Hollow’s Last Hope available for download online (STILL a free download, give it a try!), a sequel, Return of the Kobold King, due out shortly thereafter (ALSO a free download), and a supplement book (Guide To Darkmoon Vale) available for purchase, I had plenty of time to grow to love the little town and its dreary desperation.
Falcon’s Hollow is better understood as a lumber camp run by a greedy, amoral lumber company known as the Lumber Consortium. The lumberjacks work long hours in the dangerous, fey-filled forest and live in dismal shacks provided by their employers. All the shops that sell gear and food are controlled by the Lumber Consortium–who charge massive fees for basic necessities–as are the law courts, and the town guards. Even the hardest working and thriftiest lumberjacks soon fall so deep into debt to the Consortium they have no chance of getting out of it. These people work non-stop just to get by in this hopeless, dreary town. Their families find what work they can, either working as lumberjacks or in the few shops and bars around town. The Consortium in Falcon’s Hollow is run by a corrupt, mean fellow named Thuldrin Kreed, and his right hand man is Boss ‘Payday’ Teedum, a pug-nosed man as vile as his employer. The only source of justice is the sheriff–who refuses to bow to the Lumber Consortium despite threats of violence and worse.
Against this backdrop I placed Lorelei’s herbalist shop, replacing the town’s original herbalist with her (for now…). And her first adventure? Hollow’s Last Hope. It was perfect! So when a mysterious sickness made more than half the town ill, and Boss Teedum came knocking on her door to bully her into curing this plague–or else!–even my daughter’s evil girl was moved to finally find a cure.
It’s been quite a few short adventures since then, and Lorelei and Farris have had a blast. With burning hands and grasping corpse her go-to level one spells, and boneshaker her level two spell of choice, she’s had a lot of fun shooting fire, making dead bodies trip and grapple her enemies, and painfully grabbing peoples skeletons and dragging their bodies around the battlefield. She keeps a collection of corpses, carried around in a cauldron by her skeletal minions, for the inevitable time when her current undead minions are destroyed (always keep some raw materials laying around!).
In addition to saving her town from illness, she’s gone grave robbing, treasure hunting, and visited cursed locations in the hopes that more powerful undead can be researched there–and that she can learn the secrets to crafting them (or at least mind control some!). As for undead under her control, she’s had zombie crows, human skeletons, kobold zombies and her current favourite: the ghost of a cannibalistic druid.
She’s made friends along the way (and killed others!), including her best friend, Kilarra Bloodborn. A tiefling kineticist (blood kineticist archetype (from Occult Adventures, one of my favourite d20 books of all time) and dark elementalist archetype (from Horror Adventures)) who sacrifices humanoids to her demonic patron, Shax, in order to gain dark powers. When she shoots blasts of blood at her enemies the howling faces of her sacrifices can be seen in its depths, bound to her in their torment. With a skeletal hand that loses flesh the more she uses her powers, and regains flesh each time she rests, shrunken heads woven into her hair, and the habit of painting cards with the images of the people she’s sacrificed, Kilarra’s one disturbing room mate. She was heavily inspired by this amazing art shown in the sidebar.
The first time I described the very creepy Kilarra with her skeletal hand walking through Falcon’s Hollow, my daughter smiled.
“Oh, Mom! My girl runs right up to her and looks at her hand. She takes it and she tells the scary lady: ‘You’re beautiful!’ Because I think her IS beautiful. My girl wants a skeleton hand! But, I don’t think people would like doctors with skeleton hands much.”
It was a friendship forged in blood and corpses.
There’s other’s she met along the way. Kiyla, a little girl who fights with a unicorn’s horn as a sword and loves to dance. The only problem? The music she loves best is the cries of tortured, wounded animals. I swear I didn’t make that up. It was my daughter. And let me tell you, it is creepy as heck when this pretty little girl starts to dance ballet whenever an animal’s in pain.
And now, Professor McMaan, my son’s mad scientist who likes to trap souls inside the bodies of the dead or dolls that he’s created. His piece de resistance is his pig familiar, within which he trapped the soul of his rival, Professor Piggs.
But on what adventure would the newly expanded four person party embark upon?
Having made a name for herself saving Falcon’s Hollow, Lorelei, Kilarra and Kiyla recently returned from an extended vacation where they visited haunted locales in the area. Coming back to Falcon’s Hollow to find a new herbalist has moved into town in her absence–Laurel (that witch!)–Lorelei decides she needs to make this backwater town remember why they need her!
Meanwhile, another new face recently arrived in the area: Professor McMaan, a foul scientist from Sandpoint who was forced to abandon his research and flee before the law caught up with him. Newly arrived to Falcon’s Hollow he spent the last of his savings on building a new secret laboratory, underneath an old hut in the woods outside town. After settling in he went to check on his nearest neighbours, expecting lumberjacks or thugs, he was surprised to discover a herbalist’s shop–with strange moaning sounds coming from it’s basement. After sneaking into Lorelei’s home and discovering the necromantic experiments hidden in her secret lair, Professor McMaan has been biding his time, anxiously awaiting the moment his delightful new neighbours return home from their trip!
As soon as Lorelei, Kilarra and Kiyla get back home, Professor McMaan’s at their door, knocking happily and introducing himself as “a fellow bad guy and professor of dead things!”
Lorelei was intrigued and insisted Kilarra NOT sacrifice him. Yet.
My kids had a blast introducing themselves to each other, sharing dinner at Lorelei’s home, and giving each other tours of their secret labs. By far, the majority of our session was spent on them talking and play acting as their characters, showing off drawings they’d made of their homes and pictures they’d discovered on Pinterest of their furnishings. Professor McMaan had a particularly dashing shelf of pickled eyeballs and brains to share that my son found on a halloween board.
Unfortunately, their dinner party was interrupted by a rude knocking. Boss Teedum was back, demanding that Lorelei get her things together. Five kids in town–Mister Kreed’s son included–have gone missing, and they’re sending guards to get him back (him, not them, because all Mister Kreed really cares about is his own son). They’re expecting the kids to be hurt–the stupid brats!–and they’re going to need a doctor in case Kreed’s boy is hurt.
Realizing this is her chance to make the folks of Falcon’s Hollow remember why they need her, Lorelei graciously accepts the Boss Teedum’s ‘offer’ (orders) on one condition: her friends accompany her.
Not caring whether or not Lorelei’s weirdo friends die, Boss Teedum accepts, telling Lorelei that the guards set out in only a few hours. Then he stomps off.
Lorelei is thrilled. She quickly hurries to her necromancy lab to pick some of her weaker, more lively-looking undead. She selects two zombie rabbits and two zombie crows from her collection, each kept in cages (they’re not under her control right now, and are very dangerous) she picks them up carefully and puts them in her cauldron (it’s an animated object now, and can walk around on its own. Usually she rides inside it). With some backup undead ready to go, and her handy ghost cannibal creepily haunting her every step, Lorelei’s excited to set off for the Darkmoon Vale.
The guards are creeped out by their new travelling companions, but it matters little. The cannibal ghost kills them in their sleep, and soon the four heroes villains are by themselves.
They follow the trail of the children (Kiyla’s a magnificent tracker) to a burnt down orphanage long thought to be haunted. It seems the children dared each other to spend the night camping nearby. After exploring the campsite they decide to check out the ruins in case any delightful new undead are lurking in its halls. They’re not, but they do find signs that whatever fire claimed the orphanage was not what it seems. They find a secret torture chamber made to contain and harm a werewolf. A werewolf that seems particularly small sized… The werewolf is nowhere to be seen–burnt in the fire, perhaps, but the orphanage matron is there, long dead with her throat torn out.
Lorelei decides she doesn’t want that body, and uncharacteristically leaves it behind. Why? We’ve accidentally stumbled upon one of my daughter’s recent fears: lycanthropes.
Nervous and jumpy, my daughter expressed fear. Now, this might seem normal, but my daughter’s encountered lycanthropes in D&D before, and never had a problem with it. The last one she met was a wereshark by the name of ‘Bloody Frennick’ who she made friends with and insisted join her pirate crew. In all honesty, I thought she’d welcome a little werewolf girl into the group as a friend! Deciding it was best to let my children fight the mysterious werewolf and put an end to the suspense rather than leave it out and have them nervous and paranoid the rest of the adventure, we took a short snack break. When we continued they met a young girl, who tried to trick them into the deep, dark forest, with promises of how she and her friends were ambushed and dragged into the woods. She gestured to the trail that… yes, it did seem to belong to the five children, but Lorelei knew better. This girl was NOT a child from Falcon’s Hollow! She was a werewolf!
A battle ensued with Lorelei hatefully exclaiming: “She’s lying! I think she’s a werewolf! Kill her just in case!”
Although it should have been a tough fight, Lorelei’s cannibal ghost made quick work of her, and she was unable to escape. Lucky for my daughter’s conscience, it was a werewolf, as she proved when she transformed during the fight.
With the terrifying werewolf dealt with we wrapped up for the night.
But not before Professor McMaan scooped up the girl’s body for his experiments.
Concluding our first session of Crown of the Kobold King, we packed up our dice and minis and put our villains aside for a while. Even undead need a rest sometimes. The children of Falcon’s Hollow would have to wait for rescue for another day.
Soon it was dinner, and my kids moved on to play Pokemon in the other room while I cooked.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Werewolves are terrifying. Weresharks are not.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be WAY more scared of the shark.