I still love making characters. An opportunity cropped up to join a game by an excellent DM. Part of what drove the game was our mutual frustration with the offerings available (or not, more precisely) on the boards—of course, between then and now a few cropped up, but none have the punch of this one. Huge, sprawling map, and the DM always takes me back to Howard, Lovecraft, and Leiber. I started playing around with concepts based on the excellent recruiting requirements:
- Name (with a link to the character sheet).
- Race, class, and background.
- A brief description of the character’s appearance and personality.
- One Unique Thing (I’m stealing this from 13th Age). What makes your character unique? This can be almost anything that doesn’t give you a mechanical advantage–no combat bonuses or combat powers. For example, “I’m the bastard son of the Emperor” or “I have a clockwork heart made by the dwarves” would work well, but “I am a dragon rider” or “I am the reincarnation of a previous Archmage/Emperor/High Druid and I remember everything” would not.
- The name and description of your personal magic item.
- The names and brief descriptions of two important NPCs tied to the character.
- The name of one powerful, recurring foe and what kind of threat they represent.
- One type of creature that the character regards as a particular threat to the land. This can be tied to the recurring foe or entirely separate, and can be as general or specific as the player desires. For example, one player might choose dragons as a general class of enemy, while another might specifically choose ghouls and link them to his personal recurring foe, the Ghoul King. Feel free to get creative here–exotic and unusual creatures are encouraged!
This was the first thing I wrote: Shriveled men. Desperate men. Men whose flesh wriggled as it tried to hide between their bones, to escape the thirsty desert with its million scouring tongues. The men of Mnar turned to Ul’Kawaw, for the Jackal Soul knew what it was to hunger, to quake with need.
After that, I fiddled around with the images that were driving me. Much of the campaign’s map is made up of ancient, lost civilizations. It’s ruins and scary jungles and castles everybody abandoned for reasons no one remembers. That set me to thinking about post-apocalyptic societies; specifically, the optimism we love to display when we make movies and stories about them. Sure, there’s all the murder and starvation and such. Still, though, we don’t present the idea that we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs. We have this assumption that after everything crumbles and our very livelihood is removed, we’ll still know how to gas cars and preform cesareans and purify drinking water. We’ll still weave cloth and build homes. We fall back a ways, but post-apocalyptic stories tend to be about examining man’s inhumanity to man rather than man’s dependence on microwaves and pacemakers.
Starting from there—from the optimism of the post-apocalypse—I thought about how an advanced society in a magical, D&D world might look after everything goes to pot. I’m not the only person to think about this, obviously; it’s a significant part of Chrono Trigger’s plot, and that’s basically in the canon at this point. Still, I looked at the pyramids in the top eastern-corner of the map and thought about a people from that place, an advanced people who benefited from fertile soil and trade with their nearby neighbor. I based this culture off of the Egyptians, but mostly just the whole “We have fertile soil and make the most of it and that’s a huge part of our gig” element.
I started sketching around this time, which is something that I’ve wanted to get back into as another means of increasing my creative output. I’ve been running a Google search for figure references and sketching a few out every couple of days. I started playing with some of those figures and hit on an image I really liked, so I worked on refining him. He was a dude with a thick bowl cut, lithe, one arm clutching a spear or staff, other hand casting some sort of magic.
This was when I also started playing with a figure for him. As he took shape—a process aided by fine Kraken Rum—I looked through my Reaper Bones acquisitions for something that might work. Now, this character’s being built for an online game, so there’s little chance that the figure will ever see use. But it’s an outgrowth of the sketching, something I love being able to do, something that’s fulfilling on its own merits. It helps me see the character in three dimensions, it helps me think about coloration of skin and garments, and sometimes there’s a pose or an element that becomes clear once I start playing. I started with the Reaper Bones Hellborn Wizard. I sliced off his tail with a hobby knife, which was tricky but not insanely so. One patch still lays tucked into the back of the coat, but I think I’ll just treat it as weighting the bottom of the coat for extra protection and cloak-fighting. I used my dremel to sand the horns and hair down on his head; this did leave him with a slightly uneven face, but the next step solved that. I went in with green stuff and built a thin, flat layer and dropped it onto some glue atop his head, then shaped it into the general look I wanted. After it’d set a bit and the glue was dry, I shaped it further into thick, straight hair…not quite braids, but with deep enough valleys between each strand that the wash was going to go on well. I also built an eel and draped it around the staff, partially because I’ve loved moray eels since Flotsam and Jetsam in The Little Mermaid. Also, though, I was really enjoying this idea of the character coming from a land where there used to be a sea, and somehow being representative of that himself, despite having grown up thousands of years after there was water anywhere. He’s a child of the desert, but more than that.
He’s the sand’s memory of the sea.
I loved that line, and moreso, I loved the idea that it would have a literal meaning: it would be salt. I had the basis for the character now, a wanderer, a mystic, whose magical abilities centered around aquatic iconography and salt. As he uses his powers, his body actually crusts over with salt. I started tinkering with the character sheet, and while I’ve got builds done up for about five different classes, I started—and will probably stay—with a Sorcerer. Haven’t played one in 5th, don’t particularly care for the class or its options, and that’s what drew me to it. I saw that the Unearthed Arcana had modified the sorcerer to make a Favored Soul, and considered running with that. It’d give me better weapons and armor, plus access to Cleric Domains let me take some powerful storm spells, or go the Trickery route and create a very mobile, elusive opponent. However, that was the one source not on the approved list for the game, and as I was leafing through the other things I realized that the Stormborn option was perfect. The origin provides a tremendous increase in options, ensures a mix of offensive and quasi-defensive spells so that I could use my actual choices to diversify, and has built-in mobility that offers cool visuals. Since I was settling onto the character being a bringer of rain and water and hope, I loved all of the environmental effects created from spellcasting.
The next night, The Kraken and I hunkered down with the soundtracks to Conan and Fury Road (thanks, Spotify!) and it was off to the races. I churned out something like 3,100 words.
For magic items, he received an ivory shard from one of the masks worn by the priests of Mnar (note that the names Mnar, and Thruul, came from the map, not my head):
To speak the name of the priests of Mnaar was the deepest of blasphemies. The name was hidden, and only those who delved into forbidden texts and studied mysterious fragments of old shrines stood any chance of learning it. Some kings dared this, or sent brave and desperate men to do so in their stead. Scholars, burning-eyed madmen, and unscrupulous merchants all bent themselves to the task.
However, of those foolish few who ever learned the name, it remained a blasphemy to speak it. A blasphemy with the most terrible of punishments, meted out within one month of uttering the name’s hissing, twisting syllables.
To speak the name of the priests of Mnaar was to become one. To disappear, between one day and the next, your garments left where you slept, your hair a disembodied halo against your pillow. Your fingernails arrayed in two spreading stars where your hands last rested. One single tooth placed at the windowsill.
In describing the lost kingdoms of Mnar and Thruul, I went to a very Hyborian place:
Mnar was once the sparkling citrine in the center of a bed of crushed sapphire. It twinkled there, and its men with brown flesh tilled brown soil and raised stalks of crimson-flecked grain. How the men of Mnar came to settle their land was a secret held by their white-masked, silent priests. Their gods were secret, monolithic entities venerated with vast monoliths of green-streaked stone; towers that clawed at the sky when Nabora brought storms.
Beyond the shores of Nabora, the men of Thruul stalked their perfumed jungles. Men with brown flesh flitted through the black shadows of green trees. Their weapons were black as well, a deadly-sharp glass pulled from the roiling maw of their great god, Rhethlae. Rhethlae’s veins were orange-red magma, and his pulsing heart was the heart of Thruul’s empire. Priests cast a thousand men into the hundred mouths of Rhethlae each year, a holy honor from which the men would emerge as pitted, bronzed skeletons. These skeletons fed the army of Thruul, which took riches from the lands to the south. They traded these riches to the men of Mnar, eager for the intricate brass sculptures and smooth stone furniture that the Citrine Nation produced. They also traded woods from their jungles, which the men of Mnar coaxed into sleek, sinister ships with black prows and white sails.
Reading over everything now has my editing fingers twitching, but I embrace that. I’m glad to have content to actually wrestle with in that way. Writing it was a very cadenced experience, with concepts sparking out of my fingers; that’s how I like to write, and trying to wrangle my thoughts into novels has proven very challenging because it doesn’t feel like it comes from that same source. I enjoyed being able to emphasize multiple non-white cultures in a fantasy world without making them orcs. It was an interesting challenge to paint the men of Thruul as multi-dimensional as well. Not monsters, any more than the Mnarese.
I delved a bit into the history of their feud:
When Nabora began to recede, however, desperation swept over the men of Mnar. They watched their brown soil bleach until it was as yellow as their buildings. They watched their brown flesh wither and split in the sun. They watched their paradise become a desert.
Beyond the shrinking sea, the men of Thruul watched as their god grew silent. His veins darkened, cooled, becoming rivulets of hard black stone. Their soil grew thin, so thin that the barest wind toppled trees that had sheltered their cities for centuries. Exposed to the sun, deprived of their fruits, and at a loss for trade, the men of Thruul fell back on the only other thing they knew: they went to war with Mnar. Mnar met them with blades held high, hoping their war cries would disguise the dryness in their throats, praying to their nameless gods that brandishing a blade would hide the tremors in their limbs.
Thousands died. Thousands bled out in the new sands, fell moaning in the new valleys, and left an inheritance of nothing for the new men. Those new men said that the death of their nations had come at the hands of those who built the Tower in the Waste. They claimed those in the Tower had stolen the Heart of Nabora.
The Heart of Nabora is the other magical item I gave the character, whose name, Nzail, I’ll just start using at this point for convenience. In 5e’s magic item-averse system, getting two items off the bat was a big deal and a bit power boost, and many of the applicants jumped right into magical weapons and armor. I picked a Decanter of Endless Water, and the Ivory Shard is a Helm of Telepathy. I almost went with a pair of magic gourds, with one being the Heart of Nabora and the other an alchemy jug.
Nzail also had allies, of course, including one I’d been talking about with the DM for the Council of Thieves game I talked about already–and got into, by the way. He’s just too perfect not to find a home somewhere, and I was glad this gave me the chance. It’s a bit of stunt-casting, but Richard Schiff earned his place at the table long ago:
Glowering, dark as a Lord of the Underworld, Tobus is a dwarf with patience shorter than the distance from his wide boots to his bald pate. His remaining hair clings to the area around his ears, climbs down past the top of his neck, and dangles from his jaw and chin in short, tight curls.
Burdened with a masterful comprehension of conversation, of the tools by which a man or elf might be manipulated, Tobus also bears a wretched curse: he has no interest in knowing how people tick. He can twist the mind of a stranger with a few whispered words, but with his magic he’s capable of far worse.
At this point, the character’s taken a pretty full shape in my mind. While I’ve enjoyed exploring the various class options, Sorcerer is still the standout. Bards and Clerics have shockingly limited offensive options, though a Lore Bard could modify that slightly. I did appreciate that a Trickery Cleric got most of the spells I’d been selecting for the character’s Sorcerer build, though. I’m focusing on negative energy whenever possible, which meant the Wizard was a strong contender; that main problem that build runs into is that I only heal off of level 1 and higher spells that kill their targets, and the character seems like he’ll mostly jump around and use cantrips. All of the negative energy and acid spells will be powerful alkalies, with his lightning and thunder represented by the charged moray that shoots out of his staff or wrist. Use of his magic causes salt crystals to build up on exposed flesh (hence the light colors on the hand there, which match the salt-encrusted eel on the staff), along with roaring winds, spreading damp, and moderate increase in cloud cover.
I’ve reached a point where I generally build my characters to be party-friendly; that’s massive progress from my wild college days. Back then, I tended to build the biggest pricks I could, because I spent most of my day outnumbered by assholes and tragically, tragically lonely. These days, I’d rather know that I have a character who can help nudge the party along, can work with the DM’s plot goals, and has the Wisdom, Intelligence, or Charisma to make a convincing case for doing what should be done. It helps if the character can also expect to kill at least one other player in a conflict, should it come to that. Nzail’s thus a good-humored sort, eager to learn and share stories, happy to throw his lot in with folks in trouble, and always in a hurry to get into whatever dungeon’s available.
I’m also hopeful we get to do some work against his enemies, because I combined the men of Mnar and Thruul into a ravening horde of bestial jackal-men (gnolls and jackalweres, mechanically) leading masses of starved humans mixed with ghouls:
The Kaw Aen are known beyond the borders of the Howling Waste and the great desert. They’ve raided the fertile Southern lands, driving the slavering, feral hordes of the kingdoms of Thruul before them with barbed wire whips. Everything is fangs, soiled ivory stalks of the wheat-that-threshes. Everything is crimson, sunsets over every chest split down the middle, every yellow nest of snakes steaming in the air. Kaw Aen are swift as hunting dogs, with jaws strong as the hyena and claws like short knives. Their priests sing the hearts of men to sleep, while their golden fur sheds blades like water.
An article I randomly stumbled upon while looking into whether jackalweres even existed in 5e—my book was not at hand—drew my attention to the jackalweres having full damage immunity to non-magical/silver weapons (which was true the last time I really saw them, back in 2e) but having a CR of only 1/2. That makes them a fully accessible foe for a low-level party, and they can come in numbers against a group of 5th levels without capsizing the game. Combined with the ghouls and the gnolls, which were mostly me playing favorites, that creates dynamic and difficult encounters with a multitude of distinct threats. I’m excited to wade into the middle of such a mess, and then zap and dessicate my way out the other side.
I am, just generally speaking, excited.