Y is for Kalodal Ybarra, Halfling Bruce Wayne

Name: Kalodal Ybarra a.k.a. The Whisperthief
Campaign: The Umbrageous Sodality and the Ghost Opera

Normally I refer to a character by their first name, but that gives my spellcheck fits.

Ybarra was also a vigilante, and also the stealthy kind. He was known as the Whisperthief, Lady Evening’s consort, because when your epithets have epithets you know you have a reputation. He was a gambler by trade, wandering about from place to place looking for a good time. This served as his cover, explaining how Whisperthief could flit about the continent, dispensing justice under the guise of an innocent traveler. His vigilante identity was aided by his physical transformation into a creature of shadow, giving him mystical ability along with his skills.

If I had to pick a superhero analogue for Ybarra it would be Batman, not because he was a genius or combat expert but because he loved leaving fearful enemies in his wake. Ybarra is the mask and the Whisperthief is the identity; the gambler was a means to an end, explaining his movement and letting him get close to a city’s seedy underbelly so he could take it apart piece by piece. He focused on precise strikes, slowly getting into a position from which he could exert overwhelming force, and he supported himself with ambiguously magical powers. Even at the end of the campaign he didn’t reveal his identity to his allies or officially join their group, leaving it unclear whether he would be there to help in the future. He is most definitely the lancer.

Ybarra was also frustrating, but this time for valid reasons. One of my soft rules is “no summoners”, not because their power irks me but because I’m so tired of seeing them in every campaign. So, of course, in this vigilante-only campaign, Ybarra had four levels of summoner. A synthesist, no less. His form gave him several benefits: it let him change size, so figuring out his identity became almost impossible and negated one of the key dramatic tensions of the vigilante; it gave him concealment, so even if something could hit his absurdly high AC he had a change to ignore it, and he ignored sneak attack from any ruffians in the campaign; it gave him a climb speed, so he could make it almost impossible to pin him down or approach him in melee. I never came up with an opponent that could challenge Ybarra without that same opponent pancaking the party. The character wasn’t a person, he was a powergaming exercise in a flimsy person disguise, and the only reason I didn’t force a complete rebuild was because the other players didn’t seem to mind and I didn’t want to create any table drama. I don’t have the same problem between campaigns.

In addition, Ybarra started as a lone wolf and ended there. His justification was that he couldn’t trust the rest of the party with his identity, and from the standpoint of a vigilante he was right. But from the standpoint of Law 4 and the clearly-defined campaign theme he definitely was not. I expect this won’t be a problem the next time the character appears, or he won’t be appearing at all.

I did get him back, though. In eidolon form Whisperthief was tall, strong, covered in grasping shadows that could look like fur in low light, and good at stealth. Some of his victims started thinking he was a bugbear. He also attacked from above with his climb speed, so they gave him a new, criminal-approved superhero name: Dropbear.

Again, Ybarra will return when the Eight Arms Crafting Team fights the Umbrageous Sodality (take a drink; if you still have the same drink as yesterday, that’s cool). Normally I love paring good guys and bad guys off with each other, but in this case the synthesist summoners on each team will probably not fight each other. Ybarra is a lancer, so he’ll probably fight the Eight Arms’ lancer. I’m not sure if that fight will be clever and satisfying or a meaningless empty slog.

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X is for Xavier Beauchene, Elven Clark Kent

Name: Xavier Beauchene a.k.a. the Voice
Campaign: The Umbrageous Sodality and the Ghost Opera

Full disclosure: I started putting together the list of characters for these posts months ago to make sure it was actually possible. It turned out I had never run a campaign with a character whose name began with an X or a Y (though I did run for a character named the Roman numeral IX, which is so close). Around that time I was starting the vigilante campaign, so I asked the players if they could kindly help me out. Conveniently these letters are right next to each other, which lets me do a bit of comparison. You may even want to skip this post and come back tomorrow so you can read them back-to-back.

Xavier was, obviously, a vigilante. He didn’t start the campaign with a code name but was soon forced to adopt “The Voice” given his predilection for very high Stealth checks during conversations with characters who had very low Perception. A member of the town guard by day, he worked the beat so he could explore the city as research for his nighttime activities. As a build he was focused on the sap, which let him apprehend criminals without killing them, and mobility, using a vigilante trick that let him get a sneak attack during the movement he made to get into position for further sneak attacks.

If I had to pick a superhero analogue for Xavier it would be Superman, not because he was a top-tier powerhouse but because he wanted to do what was right both in and out of costume. Xavier is his identity and the Voice is his mask; he joined the guard to fight for justice, and when the legal system proved too corrupt to mete it out he starting doing it himself. Despite using stealth he still took his fight to his enemies up front, and he did no permanent harm when he could help it. Most of the time he approached the other party members to talk rather than the other way around, and he was probably more into the idea of a superhero team-up than any other character (which I appreciate, since that’s what the campaign was about and I made sure everybody knew that). He is most definitely the hero.

I’ll admit I was frustrated when I saw how easy it was for Xavier to knock out an opponent in a single turn, approaching an enemy and making two sneak attacks with bonus damage before the enemy even knew he was there. But that only really happened with low-level mooks, which is the exact point of low-level mooks. The more I saw Xavier work the more I liked him, and he could be the unofficial leader of the unofficial vigilante team if they ever got around to considering such things (this does make the fourth time this player has been the party leader, so I’m starting to think he has a type). I think it’ll be really interesting to see how he works when he’s not in a town where he’s working in the guard and how the character changes as he works with people who have his back.

The good guys won, so Xavier is still alive and active. One of the explicit points of this campaign was to build the characters as antagonists for a future campaign, where the two groups the players have in this setting face off against each other (take a drink). I’m looking forward to that.

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W is for Nate Westerling, Every Western Hero

Name: Nathaniel “Nate” Westerling
Campaign: The Eight Arms and the Conqueror Worm

For as proud as I am of the Eight Arms campaign setting, I haven’t leveraged the cross-campaign ramifications of it much. After seven campaigns there have only been six characters who appeared in more than one, and one of those was an NPC. Four of the others are part of the same party, and I couldn’t get away with not mentioning them.

Nate Westerling was a member of the Eight Arms Crafting Team, a group of adventurers ostensibly united by having some sort of item-making skill. Nate was the group’s bullet-maker and he also happened to be an expert rifleman, which was good considering how often “making bullets” segues into “fighting for your life” in my campaigns. He didn’t much trust fancy modern technology, which was an interesting trait for a person whose boss fought in a steam-powered flying suit. Most importantly he had a nice hat, which we think was the reason he was hired into the Eight Arms in the first place.

I like to think he was the result of a government experiment to pack as many Western tropes into one character as possible. Sometimes he was a young guy looking to make a name for himself with only the gun on his shoulder, sometimes he was a grizzled veteran of many a strange and unspeakable thing, and sometimes he was the loyal deputy willing to ride anywhere for the friend at his side or the woman he loves. But he always, always, pronounced the letter G as an apostrophe (fightin’, thinkin’, tryin’, etc.)

…Cripes, he had “west” in his name. How did I not see that before just now?

I should point out that Nate was a gunslinger that didn’t use guns. When the Eight Arms campaign setting started there were no gun rules, so I made some that largely treated guns as mechanically-viable crossbows. Paizo published gun rules between that first campaign and the second, but we generally don’t like them. The bits of guns that were good were balance-breaking good, and the bits that were bad were fun-destroying bad. Instead Nate used the gunslinger class and with one of our homebrew guns, so I got to see the gunslinger without the “does so much damage so safely, nobody else in the party matters” issues I hear about. That may be the most readily a player has ever adopted one of my custom rules.

Nate’s story isn’t over, though after he went on trial for the murder of a supervillain, got the Eight Arms banned from Scotland, accidentally helped the love of his life change sexes, and overthrew a country’s rightful ruler to put a demon in his place, he might want a break.

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V is for Valitude, Insufferable Mirror Man

Name: Valitude
Campaign: Unnamed Monster Campaign

You know, I almost made it through a whole month without admitting I had a campaign name “Unnamed Monster Campaign”. I didn’t realize they were all at the back of the list.

Valitude was the monster campaign’s third arcane spellcaster, after the first died to a frost worm’s death throes and the second died to an incredibly overpowered arrow demon. He was a nerra, a race of mirror-people from the 3.25E Fiend Folio. He was in many ways a mirror of his player: laid-back, didn’t have a lot of relevant knowledge but didn’t need fancy thinking to do his job, reflective spell resistance, and so on. He didn’t guide the plot or even follow it as much as hitch a ride with it whenever it was going someplace.

Please understand that it’s a little hard for me to effectively describe Valitude without also discussing his player or degenerating into a fit of enraged spittle, both things I’ve tried hard not to do this month. I have never had a character or player so emotionally distant from the storyline, the other players, or the table mood, and I’ve run for characters named Fat Albert, Gloves Badidea, and “Richard, son of Ganon.”

Weirdly, Valitude is a contributor to, if not responsible for, one of that most important realizations I’ve had around my gaming style: the DM is a player too; as with any player, if he or she isn’t having fun there’s something wrong. Running for Valitude wasn’t fun. He liked save-or-die spells, which broke encounter balance and session timing. He responded the same way to everything, which broke emotional pacing. He had a racial ability, his reflective spell resistance, that hurt the cleric’s healing and buffing powers and thus broke one of her key roles. Once his player even played a full session without a character sheet, making up his numbers as he went. I don’t think I can properly describe the breadth of ways in which that stuck with me as a DM and as a player.

Rather than describe him in detail, I recommend you check out the beginning of the episode of I Podcast Magic Missile where we talk about him some years after the fact. It’s better for my blood pressure. Valitude’s ignominious death is also discussed there. Suffice it to say that while there are several characters where I’ve had to talk to their players and make significant changes, Valitude is the only character I’ve ever had to put down.

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U is for Mikau the Unwitting, Zora I Remember

Name: Mikau the Unwitting
Campaign: Osaevu the Chosen

U is a hard letter. Leveraging an epithet is a bit of a cheat, but whatever.

Mikau was a 3rd-edition character in a Legend of Zelda campaign, so prepare for a lot of unrecognizable words: he was a zora hexblade who multiclassed into warmage. His gimmick was low Wisdom, and his method of expressing it was by manifesting overtly evil magic in a way that used it for good (this is not the same player as Sammael, but they travel in the same circles). As a character in a campaign based on a video game setting he didn’t have a massive amount of complicated backstory, or at least not any that came up during game.

He may be the first character I saw in a campaign who had an arc, however limited. He started as a pure hexblade, and as the story progressed he realized his powers weren’t cutting it, resolved to change, and branched out into a mechanically similar (Charisma-focused combat magician) but thematically opposite (self-taught shadow paladin vs. academy-taught explosion wizard) class. A less forgiving DM might point out that he went from a class with excellent accuracy but low damage into a class with high damage mitigated by its bad accuracy, but there isn’t a lot of game-breaking damage you can do with 1st-level spells in an 8th-level campaign. I, on the other hand, encouraged the switch entirely by accident: when the players entered the Dark World I gave them corruption effects, and his (absolutely random, I assure you) corruption was a penalty to the schools of magic hexblades use and a bonus to the schools of magic warmages use. I figure if my dice like Mikau that much, who am I to argue?

I don’t have a lot to say about Mikau, but the point is that I have anything to say about him at all. He’s the only character on this month’s list from either of my first two campaigns. Most of the characters in those campaigns were forgettable stereotypes of either characters (the one-off joke, the straight-out-of-the-book rogue, the mechanical thinking exercise who really wasn’t a character, etc.) or players (the cheater, the joker playing himself, the I’m-only-here-because-my-boyfriend-is, etc.) Before reviewing my notes for this month I could only name half of them off the top of my head, and I certainly couldn’t put together two paragraphs like the above. Compare to my third campaign, where even ten years later I can say “oh, character X joined the party in session Y because the previous character died to monster Z despite the following list of mitigating effects”.

Mikau was the lone exception, memorable for something besides a gameplay story or a mechanical gimmick. In a way he was a more advanced character than we were ready for at that point in our careers so I didn’t give him as much chance to shine as he deserved. Now that I’ve caught up to him I’d like to run for him again, but he’s not in the current Zelda campaign and I’m not looking to run another any time soon. The only way I’d be able to do it would be if somebody else ran a Zelda campaign in which I was a player.

…Interesting.

The last session of the campaign is kind of a blur. I think Mikau survived the final battle against the campaign villain, the for-reals final battle against Ganon, and the during-the-credits accidental final boss disaster. As a victorious hero in a Zelda campaign, he probably started roaming the world looking for ways to make fans argue about timelines.

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