Writing Partner: Two For One Rehabilitation Special

D&D Iron Golem and Copper Dragon mini

After a hard month at my day job, I’m finally back to a point where I can focus on my creative work again. I’m not kidding, it was a rough month – at one point I worked eleven, nine hour days in a row. But now I’m back and craving that sweet storytelling fix.

Because August was a fairly dry month creatively, I really want to hit the ground running. Beyond getting back to the 3rd draft of my book, I have two new short stories to work on. For those of you who have read a few of my blogs before, you know this means finding a couple of painting projects that fit my stories. In the spirit of refreshing new beginnings, I have decided to pick a couple old minis that could use a fresh coat of paint.

Project Number 1: A Deadly Construct!

Iron Golem mini

This poor golem has seen better days. I bought it on a whim (it is an Iron Golem from the WizKids line) and ended up using him to test paint markers. I do, however, think this will work as a base for what will be a weathered, ancient golem when I’m done.

The story it is paired with is for a contest inspired by Steven King’s flair for making every day things seem otherworldly and scary. The contest cites Christine and Cujo, but my mind went to The Mangler. Something about a normal machine with the desire to kill speaks to that bit of my brain that is far too willing to personify objects.

Project Number 2: A Pretentious Dragon!

D&D Copper Dragon mini

This poor brass dragon (also Wizkids) was the sad result of neglect. I was working on him during a group painting night and was much more focused on the social aspect of the event than my dragon. He was also my second mini of the night, so he got far less time and much more tired eyes. The result was far too much shader on a mini that, let’s face it, is already lacking in definition. I’m going to need to grab lighter versions of the red and copper I used and slowly build definition into the paint job.

This mini will be matched with a story about the character who originally inspired my color scheme. He’s one of the dragons from my own fantasy universe and, while he does not appear in my book, he’s an important part of the world he lives in. He’s also a huge hipster, and when I saw a contest pop up for hipster fantasy stories, it was a no-brainer.

Those are my two main projects for September. I’ll write up a post for the results of each. I’m pretty confident I can pull off the stories, but let’s see if I can fix those messy minis I ruined!

Upping Your Game: RPG Characters as Writing Prompts Part 2

Part 1 can be found here: Upping Your Game: RPG Characters as Writing Prompts Part 1

I want start off by reminding you that for the purpose of this prompt, I will be building a fantasy RPG character that could be used in D&D, Pathfinder, or any system that uses the same core ability stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

I chose to do this to make it easier to get the point across with a familiar system. I also randomly chose a familiar fantasy race. In this case: a Goblin. His name is Clot.

Clot, King among vermin

Clot’s Stats were rolled randomly and placed in the order they were rolled. After racial modifiers (D&D 5th ed) they are:

  • Str: 14
  • Dex: 12
  • Con: 15
  • Int: 10
  • Wis: 10
  • Cha: 11

Weird stats for a goblin. He could make a good thief, like most goblins, but that doesn’t lean into our prompt. We want to explore weaknesses, hardship and formative experiences. The strength and con are very high, so that is where we will start. Sometimes standing out is a weakness.

When Clot was born, he was nearly twice the size of the average goblin infant. When his mother bore no further children, the tribe determined Clot must have eaten his siblings to grow so big. His size was a strange omen, one that filled the small with awe, but drew the worried gaze of other.

We have now established a myth or rumor for our character. It is unlikely to be true, but its existence can create conflict which is what drives plots.

I don’t want to make Clot into a fighter and I want to lean into his weaknesses. So how do we make his strengths into a weakness to overcome? And what do we do with those middling metal attributes?

As Clot grew older, he soon towered over his kin. His physical prowess was feared, but did not inspire respect. In a fully goblin tribe, Clot would have been a king, but his people were a lesser caste. Those who ruled his class were Orc, and they saw in Clot a rival to be put down.

While Clot has incredible physical attributes for a goblin, he is average by Orc standards. Moreover, the fact that he could potentially overpower one of the upper caste means he was not only feared, he was disdained.

How could he hope to thrive, jeered and beaten by all those around him? The Orcs hated him for rivaling their power. The goblins attacked and spit on him to impress their betters. Clot was relegated to the lowest position in his clan. He slept each night, bleeding in the gutter among the filth and the other vermin.

This harsh treatment can help to explain his high constitution. His skin is scarred and thick. He has been hardened by his life.

But we want to make use of his mental stats too. They have room to grow. Clot’s life is a prison he cannot escape through strength of body. 

Among the refuse, Clot found peers. The rats were like him: dirty, despised, discarded. But they were also strong. He saw in them the fire of survivors. That was something worth embracing.

Among the rot, Clot found friends. As he treated the rats with respect, they returned it. Food and warmth was shared. What started as respect grew to kinship. The rats grew to anticipate Clot’s needs, as if they could understand him.

Among the swarm, Clot found power. He was not imagining it, the rats listened to him. Clot soon realized he could hear them too. They started as many trembling voices. They shrieked in a chaotic choir. But they soon became one voice. His voice.

Clot found his way out. 

One night, the orcs returned from a raid with a stockpile of food and keg after keg of ale. Clot was never invited to feast, but this was his opportunity. He waited until the leaders and their favorite sycophants were drunk, and then unleashed the rage of his swarm upon them.

This is another opportunity to build a lingering myth or rumor for Clot. We know a low level character and a rat swarm couldn’t wipe out a whole clan. But that doesn’t mean this story can’t be exaggerated. 

The rats tore into the unsuspecting clan, aided by the strong hand of their king. In the low light, all the tribe could see was the glint of a thousand eyes and one bloody dagger. By morning, their bones were picked clean. The swarm was satiated – they had eaten well. So had Clot.

A grisly tale to inspire fear and respect. Whether it is true or not can be explored in the campaign.

As for his power, there are multiple ways to explain this. My choice is that Clot is a fledgling Druid. I know his wisdom is low, so his spell-casting potential is going to start off pretty weak, but this is another opportunity for good storytelling.

As Clot escaped to the wilderness, he found himself conflicted. The ways of nature were those of balance. But in his heart, he found little room for such thoughts. Peace was a concept beaten out of him. A cold flame burned in his chest. If he could tame it, he could build a kingdom. If he could not, he would burn his new kingdom to the ground.

If Clot can tame his hatred and anger, we can showcase this by putting all his ability modifiers into Wisdom as he levels. He may even go from being an objectively evil character to one with more of a neutral alignment. From a certain point of view, he could even become a hero.

If Clot gives into his rage, we will distribute his improvements more broadly. We can also express his inner turmoil through multi-classing. Maybe he adds some points to Charisma or Intelligence and takes a level or two of sorcerer or wizard to gain access to actual fire. Or maybe he dips into rogue or fighter and leans into the traits nature gave him. This would be followed by further improvements to his physical stats. In this way, he could augment his shape-shifting and relying on brute strength over spells.

Regardless of the direction we go in, Clot has a solid foundation. Moreover, we built it using the numbers we rolled for more than bonuses to hit rolls.

I hope this article inspires some awesome characters. If you use it and like the results, please leave a comment. I would love to see what you can come up with!

Upping Your Game: RPG Characters as Writing Prompts

Welcome to Upping Your Game – the series where I help you make your favorite games tell a better story.

For my first article, I’m going to break down an old strategy I have for making engaging NPCs and player characters for tabletop RPGs. It’s pretty simple and seems like random generation, but let me explain my design method and I think you’ll see how this can lead to some great characters.

One more disclaimer: we aren’t aiming for “strong characters” in a game-play sense. If you’re a GM, you might want to give your players a re-do if they roll up a particularly difficult character. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re looking for a more challenging experience or play at a table that is more interested in role-play than combat, then this may be perfect for you.

The basic method is just to roll random ability scores. That’s it. But the really important part is that you have to keep them in the order they are rolled. That mean that for D&D or Pathfinder you will want to roll 6 sets of 3 D6 dice and place them in Strength, Dexterity, Consitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma in the order they are rolled. By contrast you would usually roll the numbers then place them in the most appropriate places. For games with races I would also suggest picking one at random. Then you pick your class or profession (game specific) based on what you have rolled.

If you are unfamiliar with D&D, check out a basic character sheet.

But why do this? Why do you choose the class, and how does it make interesting characters? Let me explain – good stats don’t make good characters. Bad ones do. Or, to put it differently, interesting characters are defined by their flaws not their strengths. A person is more defined by the challenges they face than the skills that come to them naturally.

Every fighter has a high strength stat. How could you ever make that interesting? But try to explain why they have a 7 in wisdom, and you’ll see what I mean. This can also apply to higher than average stats in strange places. Why does your wizard have a higher strength stat than wisdom, or an equal constitution to their intelligence? Are they natural factors, or did something in their life mold them? You can use these numbers, that would usually just be “dump stats” (the numbers you throw into your least important stats) to build your character’s background and explain why they chose the path they did.

In the next article, we’ll roll up a character as an example. Hopefully, we get a good one. The last time I did this, I created a giant-slaying gnome fighter. I’m hoping for a magic user this time. Fingers crossed!

Part 2 can now be found here: Upping Your Game: RPG Characters as Writing Prompts Part 2

Making a writing partner.

I’m a big fan of tabletop gaming and, about three years ago, I passed that final nerd hurdle and began painting miniatures. At first I thought I would play wargames like Warhammer, but since I have played a full game twice in that time period, I have settled into the reality that I mostly just paint them. Now…I’m not very good. I think I have mastered what they call “tabletop standard.” That means my work is good enough to game with but won’t be winning any beauty competitions. I use them for RPGs and simply the joy of the hobby.

I have, however, found another use for them. I have found they make really great writing partners. No, don’t worry, I’m not crazy. I’m not saying they talk to me or anything… at least not yet.

What I find is that having one on the side of my desk to work on has really helped my productivity. I use them like fidget toys or desk curios. When I need to think over an idea I’m working on I paint. It is much better then other forms of abnegation or distraction like surfing the web. By the time I need to put the mini down to dry I have usually figured out what I’m going to write next. It’s a win-win. They help me write and by the time I’m done a project I usually have a fully painted mini.

The featured image today is a great example. I was commissioned to write the intro and outro scripts for a ghost hunting show (I’ll probably link to it at a later date) and I needed to get into the right mindset. So when I sat down to write the scripts I grabbed that mini. It’s from the Warhammer: Age of Sigmar line, in case you were wondering. As I wrote and rewrote those scripts again and again, trying to get the right balance of spookiness and daytime TV bounce, I slowly picked at the mini. It allowed me to keep my mind clear and working without getting distracted. By the end I had a script the producer was pleased with and a mini I love. Again, it’s a win-win.

This might not work for everyone. I get pretty zen when I paint and I don’t worry about perfection. It’s my side art. I know I’m not perfect so I don’t even strive for perfection. But if you’re a very talented painter or more of a perfectionist your mileage may vary.

For those who are interested, I’ll break down my selection process. I mentioned Warhammer but that isn’t the start and end of my painting. In fact, for this particular purpose, they often fall short. They don’t always fit for two reasons. One: big regiments of the similar minis; and two: they aren’t always generic enough.

Let me explain both issues:

The first is simple, I tend to paint one mini over the course of a project, a few if it is a long one. I try to match minis with my projects for the added thematic focus. I also work on a wide variety of subjects. This means I like variety more than repetition. This isn’t just a Warhammer issue, most war games have the same problem.

The second issue relates to my theme choices. Games Workshop (the makers of Warhammer, who I will refer to as GDubs from now on) make beautiful products but they are also heavily themed. This is usually a good thing – they have a rich lore they pull from with unique fantasy quirks. For example, if I were to write about dragons, one would think I could grab a GDubs dragon and go to town. Not necessarily. All of their dragons have riders. They have armor with custom heraldry on it. They have morphology that isn’t necessarily generic fantasy. The list could go on. Sometimes this is ok, or I can modify the mini to suite my purposes, but often it’s hard not to see a Warhammer dragon when I paint it. I want to see it as my own if it’s going to sit there, subtly influencing my own story.

How to I make my choices than? Well the short answer is: I buy too many minis. A better answer would be to say I (usually) buy individual minis, mainly heroes and monsters, and I (usually) buy figures that are not too heavily themed to what ever their game setting is. I break both of these rules all the time, but that just results in purchases that don’t end up becoming writing partners. I also purchase minis from a variety of sources, including the second hand market where I can sometimes find some real gems.

That is probably enough navel gazing about my miniature painting choices. I hope that wasn’t to long winded. I promise that the next time I bring this is up it will be to show you another fun mini connected to another fun project.