Many years ago, during the reign of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, I rolled up a character old-school style. This wasn’t unusual. At the time, I was doing what everyone else was doing: roll 3d6, take them as they fell for each attribute, and take them in the order rolled. No re-arranging your stats. At the time, I knew no other way of generating a character, but it’s still my favorite. Not because I’m a fantastic die-roller—far from it. But I like that it forces me to interpret. I come up with characters I’d have never met if I’d used point-buy approaches.
To put things in perspective, my very first character was a wizard with the following attributes: Strength 6, Intelligence 14, Wisdom 6, Dexterity 7, Constitution 11, Charisma 14. (Note for newbies: That was the order in which abilities were rolled at the time. Also, Charisma wasn’t a key stat for any character classes, though it was sometimes a prerequisite.) Two sixes and a seven. Who plays with such numbers today? He survived, though. So did my next character, for whom I rolled consistently okay-ish enough (11s and 12s) to try out the assassin class, though I played him mostly like a fighter because, well, … we were new to the game. And we were in sixth grade.
Recently, I challenged myself again to roll up a character the old-school way each week for my Dice Unloaded column and see how compelling a character I could interpret out of the results. Not how powerful—how compelling. I’ll get to why I think compelling is a better goal than powerful later in this piece. The character in question isn’t a PC: no one is planning on playing him. But GMs might use him as an NPC (with or without modifications), and players might find in him some inspiration for their own characters.
And that brings me to Greggor Grip-Wight, the first entry in my Dice Unloaded series. When I rolled up Greggor’s stats, I had a flashback to that other character I’d rolled in sixth grade, the one I alluded to in the first paragraph but haven’t fully introduced yet.
The Original Glass Cannon
It was, as I said, sixth grade. First edition era. We were just getting ready for a big campaign that would have two GMs. The party was going to be something like 11 players. Everyone had to roll their dice in front of the two GMs, and we were taking turns. It came to be my turn, and I was, frankly, expecting the usual range of 6-14 described earlier. That’s pretty typical.
Instead, I rolled a God:
It remains, to date, easily the best character I’ve ever rolled on 3d6,
for an actual game,
Jaws dropped. Crowds formed.
And the first thing the two GMs said to me was that I had to – just had to – make an illusionist.
If you didn’t play 1st-edition, or don’t remember it well, this will sound like very strange advice for a character with a 16 Strength and a 16 Dexterity. And even at the time, it was a little weird.
However, 1st edition had ability score requirements: to play certain classes, you had to meet particular minimum ability scores. The paladin required a Charisma of 17 or higher. Qualifying for monk was incredibly difficult, though my brother had managed to roll someone good enough to be one in an earlier game, so we’d seen what a monk was like. The assassin was pretty restrictive as well, which is why the same GMs had earlier cajoled me into playing one when I rolled the first set of stats that qualified for it. They really wanted to see what the assassin could do.
Well, in 1st-edition, the Illusionist required a 15 Intelligence and a 16 Dexterity. No one else had ever rolled a character who could qualify as one.
Mine qualified and pretty much everyone at the table was convinced that illusionists must be bad-ass to have such high entry requirements. (How young we were!) So it was that I reluctantly agreed to take that God and make him a master of illusions, even though I’d really been imagining a fighter I could work up to bard.
Almost immediately, I was handed 1d4. You see, we had to roll hit points in 1st edition. They were random. Magic-users (wizards) and illusionists rolled 1d4. Random. For first level. I shudder to think of it even today.
Naturally, I rolled a 1.
And since my 12 Constitution wasn’t high enough for a bonus in 1st edition, at 1 hp he remained. My erstwhile God was now the poster child for glass cannons.
When the party formed and entered the dungeon, I was pushed to the middle. The party leader insisted that my Glass God was too useful and too fragile to endanger. For the first few encounters, I did essentially nothing. Whenever I’d suggest casting a spell, I was encouraged to save them. (Another 1st edition issue: spellcasters didn’t get to cast spells very often.)
Then the party encountered a pit trap. By luck, no one in front of my character managed to find it, so I tripped it. Glass God fell ten feet to his death.
It was the best character I ever rolled,
the first character I ever lost,
and the only character I have ever played that never did anything.
Gazing at a Glass Greggor
When I rolled Greggor for my first challenge, I got this:
The Constitution 4 really stumped me for a bit. A 4 in almost any other stat is workable. With Constitution? Well, that’s some pretty tough, chewy cookies.
Still, rule #1 I had set for myself is No character is hapless; no character gets left behind.
Sure, he’d probably be used as an NPC, but I wanted to create him like a player might, even if NPCs in 5th edition are now created like monsters. I also wanted his existence at higher levels to seem at least somewhat plausible.
So, what should he be?
His highest stat (still not good, though) was Charisma, so maybe a sorcerer. But, no, a sorcerer gets no armor and starts with a base of 6 hit points, from which I’d subtract 3 – I’d be running around with 3 hit points and no armor. I already knew what that was like. I didn’t want a glass cannon.
I could make him a warlock: 1d8 hit points and proficiency in light armor. That’s better, but even with AC 11 and 5 hit points, I was worried about him. And then there was the high likelihood of Constitution saves in his future. He wasn’t likely to do well on those. See, the warlock doesn’t get any favors on Constitution saves, though I think it ought to. The sorcerer does grant proficiency bonuses on Constitution saves, but then I’d be back to lower hit points and no armor. Tough call: better hit points and armor, or better saves?
Or was there a way I could get him a lot more hit points—and Constitution saving throws as a proficiency?
My eyes lighted on the barbarian. Ummmm, no, said a voice in my head. That’s just silly. That class calls for his two worst stats!
On the other hand…
- Access to medium armor and shields (though I eventually went without the shield)
- Base 12 hit points at first level (so 9 after my penalty)
- Proficiency bonus on Constitution saves
I filed that thought in the category of Crazy but Might Just Work.
It was time to look at races and see if anything clicked. Naturally, the first things I looked for were races granting bonuses to Constitution (the key weakness) and to Charisma (an apparent strength). I saw three options as viable:
- Hill Dwarf: +2 to Constitution and +1 to Wisdom. Suddenly cleric opened up as a possible option. The character might be able to heal himself!
- Half-Elf: +2 to Charisma and two other abilities at +1. One of those could be Constitution, but it wouldn’t be enough to mitigate my penalty at first level. The other might be Dexterity, which also wouldn’t make much of a difference at first level. But with a Charisma of 14, a half-elf warlock looked like a pretty good possibility.
- Human (variant): +1 to two ability scores of my choice, plus a feat and an extra skill. I could maybe take a feat like Toughness to improve my hit points or an armor feat to improve my armor. That could be well worth it.
At this point, I had three very different possibilities to play with:
a hill dwarf cleric,
a half-elf warlock,
or a crazy, off-the-wall human barbarian.
Now I must admit to two personal weaknesses: First, I am humanocentric. All things equal, I tend to prefer playing humans for reasons I will save for another column. The short form is that I feel they give me more of a blank canvas for writing and playing the character as a role. Second, I’m often more lured in by What would that look like? and Can I make that work? than by easy, obvious answers.
So, yes, a hill dwarf cleric might make those stats work out okay. So might a half-elf warlock. And to be fair, I toyed a little with all three, brainstorming ideas for what the characters would be like.
But my imagination had a lot more fun with that wacky barbarian idea. I decided I liked the Bruce Campbellian/Evil Dead-ishness of his origin story (see below), and that it explained how a barbarian might
develop despite such terrible physical attributes. I loved the idea of a character who had once been higher level and stronger—who was first-level and weak not because he was starting out, but because undead had sucked most of the life out of him. He wasn’t a beginning character but rather a recovering one.
In short, it was the most compelling version of Greggor, and for me, compelling trumps mechanics. Why? The answer to that question calls for another section:
Plot Immunity is a Super-Power
I know a lot of min-maxers, or what are often now called char-ops (character optimizers). They get a lot of joy out of squeezing every ounce of advantage they can out of every grape of opportunity they can find. Nothing wrong with that. They clearly enjoy it, and I get that there’s a kind of intellectual thrill to that meta-game. You try to figure out how to deal 100 points of damage with a single attack for the same kind of kick that you solve a hard sudoku puzzle:
because it’s there,
because other people can’t do it or give up trying,
because you think you’re up to the challenge and want to find out how well you know yourself.
And, in truth, I can’t mock them because—even though I’m almost always the GM—I play a very similar game as a player. It looks like a different game style, but when I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit I’m engaging in a similar feat of engineering.
It’s just that instead of trying to make my character mathematically extraordinary, I try to build an extraordinary story with lots of openings for the GM to have fun.
Years of GMing have taught me this: The more tied in my character is to the setting, to the campaign, to the encounters and plots the GM has, the more likely he is to live. I’m not just talking about GM dice fudging on my behalf, though that certainly happens at some tables.
No, the advantage materializes in other ways that are worth it all by themselves:
- The Stormbringer Principle: Magical items or specialized equipment that the GM has designed to fit in with my character’s background and story are much more likely to synergize with who he is than stuff I find randomly.
- The Prisoner’s Advantage: Non-player characters we encounter are more likely to be connected to my character in some way, and though some of them won’t like my character (if he’s well-designed, he won’t always be popular), it’s remarkable how often even political enemies and the indifferent have good reasons to help out or keep alive people who are plot-critical. If my character is highly connected to the story, for instance, he’s more likely to be taken prisoner.
- The Bear-Racing Strategy: Admittedly, some of my rationale is similar to that famous joke about outrunning a bear: I don’t need to outrun the bear; I just need to outrun the person next to me. In this vein, there are moments in every game in which a healer (PC or NPC!) has to decide which bleeding-out party member to save, or an attacker has to decide which surprised PC to skewer. In these moments, there’s, on the one hand, a character who is integral to the game and plot, and, on the other, a character who was built to be GM-proof—a hypothesis which is always testable. You may take my word for it that these 50-50 judgment calls favor the interesting, integrated, story-critical character to a degree not explainable by dumb chance.
Finally, the game’s new edition has brought in an exciting new rule that gives even the most die-hard point-scrounger a good reason to be compelling: the Inspiration mechanic. Good role-play can gain you advantage, and you can gift that advantage to your other party members.
Which brings me back to the concept of making a compelling character. It isn’t enough to scribble on your character sheet that you have connections or that there’s some mystery in your background. Good GMs are, of course, often capable of connecting their plots to those elements.
But they’re going to make more connections more frequently to the characters that they think about most often, and those characters are invariably the ones that engage imaginations—not just the GM’s, but the player’s imagination as well.
The Character: Greggor Grip-Wight
Greggor isn’t culturally primitive or tribal. His berserker conditioning was forced upon him.
A criminal in childhood, Greggor was captured and conscripted as punishment into an order of berserk-trained warriors trained to be fearless (or perhaps to fear the masters behind them more than the foes ahead). Along with eight fellow warriors, Greggor was tapped to enter a recently discovered witch-tomb in large part because it was believed he could help with any discovered traps or locks. Instead, the very first trap took off his hand at the fore-arm. Apparitions within the tomb killed half the team and the master leading them, leaving just a wounded Greggor and three other berserkers. The other berserkers, contrary to their training and without a master overseeing them, fled the tomb and sealed it behind them, leaving an injured Greggor lying on the ground bleeding from his stump.
Shortly thereafter, he found himself staring up at the liege of the tomb: a witch-wight whose power seemed to come from an arm slightly too large to have originally been his own. Recalling legends of Vecna and other undead hands, Greggor—then a stronger barbarian than he is today—chopped off the witch-wight’s arm, killed the being, and took the arm as his own, fusing it to his stump with flame. Then the remaining apparitions descended on him.
Three days later, Greggor emerged, digging himself from the tomb by the light of dawn.
Dessicated, aged, white-haired, emaciated, and ravenous, Greggor was a startling figure to the villagers who beheld him (the army having moved on). Most peculiar was his arm. Where once a living arm had been, the ghoulish arm of a wight now was–fused to the living flesh by torchfire.
The arm did not, of course, work. Villagers attributed his fusing of the appendage to (admittedly understandable) madness. A local healer offered to remove the arm before an infection set in. Greggor declined without explanation.
In the year that followed, Greggor’s arm began to work. After a year, it could be used to wield weapons. Yet Greggor could not shake the sense that the wight-flesh was growing, spreading, displacing previously healthy tissue. With each passing month, more of his arm appeared to be dead than before. (Or that was and has been his impression, which even today he keeps to himself, fearful that voicing it will make it true.)
Over the same first year, Greggor revealed a new ability, one that appears connected to the hand of the witch-wight: He can conjure forth a disembodied apparition of that wight’s hand and send it to do his bidding, its touch killing flesh (and sometimes people) through Chill Touch or lifting small objects (Mage Hand). By pointing at targets with it, he seems now able to curse them (Hex).
Some former companions, creeped out by Greggor’s new demeanor and striking image, call him “Grip-Wight” or “Witch-Hand.” Not helping matters is Greggor’s appetite, which has remained as ravenous as when he exited the tomb. He eats whenever he can and never seems to gain weight. He looks as starved as ever. He eats food raw, apparently with impunity. Rumors abound of acts of cannibalism; some believe that, starving in the tomb, he ate the rest of the wight or ghoul whose arm he stole. (“There’s a reason you don’t see the rest of it,” they say.) Anyone spending a few minutes with Greggor finds those rumors easy enough to believe. He looks at you like you might be a dinner roll.
All that said, Greggor’s intensity, fearlessness, and survivor’s confidence give him a peculiar, dark charm. Those weak enough of will, even if not afraid of him, often find themselves eager to please him for no real, rational reason.
Greggor does not talk about the nights spent in the tomb with the apparitions that haunted it, nor of how he survived. And when he suffers nightmares about that experience, as he often does, he refuses to talk about them.
A note on pronunciation: For Greggor’s name, I like the old Anglo-Saxon style pronunciations, in which each consonant is pronounced distinctly, even when we’d normally treat a double-consonant as a single sound or treat some letters as silent. Pronounced in such a manner, Greggor’s name sounds something like this:
Note: The stat blocks for Greggor are being revised off-line for the time being. If and when they are updated, a link to them will be posted here.