Gun Control and Becoming Better Men

A right-wing dude asked me about what my “solution” to gun violence in America would be, and I thought I’d put some stuff together. This is obviously a huge topic that could consume about a million more words, but here goes:

Gun violence is a complicated issue in America and it will require multiple, complex actions to solve. Some of them are policy, some of them are cultural, all of them are necessary.

At a high level, not getting into full detail, my proposed solutions include the following:

1) Compassion is #1:

Increased investment in community outreach for troubled kids and adults, including counseling, empathy building, and proactive conflict resolution to identify potential diathesis states and head off potential stressors before they can erupt into violence.

Important note: Mental health is not the cause of violence, and it’s not what I’m discussing here. There are a great many behavioral and social issues wrapped up in potentially violent situations, and licensed social workers can be extremely useful in heading off potential shooters before they shoot. We can just say “only a mentally ill person would shoot people,” but that’s an extremely facile way to talk about mental illness. We can’t just define people as mentally ill “after the fact,” like “oh, he seemed fine until he went on a shooting rampage, but since he did that, we can conclude that he was mentally ill all along.” That’s not how it works. We need to look for people who exhibit behavioral problems, threatening or violent speech on social media or in person, people with problems at home, people who feel isolated and abused by society.

As an aspect of forging a more compassionate culture, we must address the massive economic problems in our nation. We must fix our ludicrously broken health care system, so that people’s lives aren’t ruined by an unexpected illness. We must inject money back into the working people to lift people out of poverty. Poverty is a breeding ground for all sorts of vices, which is not to call poor people bad people–only to point out that poverty makes people desperate and limits their choices. You want to talk about the world being crushingly unfair to you, try being poor for just a week, let alone your entire life.

(How exactly we do that is another question, but I think taxing the rich to pay their fair share is a good start. The scale of wealth inequality is so monstrously enormous that anything I say about it probably won’t be believed, so I’d recommend doing some independent research on the subject if you’re interested. Maybe start with this video, which is 6 years out of date, and things have only gotten worse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM)

Compassion is our #1 shield against violence. And no, I don’t mean the whole #walkupnotout thing. That’s a transparent attempt to blame shootings on bullying and the victims of shootings, when shooters are more often the bullies than the bullied. If bullying truly caused someone to be a shooter, you’d think we’d have a lot more LGBT, female, and POC shooters. But the vast, vast majority of school shooters particularly (and most mass shooters in general) are angry straight white dudes.

(I 100% support anti-bullying measures, as I consider bullying to be a huge problem and an obstacle to a more compassionate society. But that’s another topic.)

Why are angry white dudes angry? What can be done about defusing their anger before it boils over? And the answer isn’t “just accede to their demands” or “be nice to them.” The answer is to identify the real causes of their pain and hatred and try to halt and repair the damage before it becomes murderous.

Sometimes people can’t be reached, however, and that leads to the next prerogative: keeping weapons of mass murder out of their hands.

2) Sensible, Preventive Gun Control:

Universal background checks of anyone who wants to purchase any sort of gun under any circumstance anywhere in America. Mandatory gun safety and training classes for all gun purchases. Additional screenings for more powerful weapons, such as AR-15s and other longarms.

It should be AT LEAST as difficult and time-consuming to own a pistol as it is to drive a car. Both are potentially deadly weapons that cause a significant number of accidental injuries. Both require responsibility and some degree of skill to operate safely.

Domestic violence, assaults, rape convictions, etc, all disqualify a person from owning a gun. Period. If one of these is discovered on your record, your application to purchase a weapon is denied. The end.

Note that any responsible, non-felon, non-violent, stable individual should be able to pass these checks and acquire the guns they want. I have no problem with responsible, good people having guns. I have a big problem with irresponsible, not-good people having guns, and I think that’s the point.

Also: we need to organize a national buyback program so people can get rid of their guns, no questions asked. And get a good price for them. Those who can’t or won’t play by the rules should have a means to give up their arsenals. After the amnesty period, those who hold onto illegal guns are criminals.

3) Preventive Maintenance and Liability:

Safety registration and training needs to be kept up to date. You must have a license for every gun you own, and must renew them with annual safety classes and tests. Failure to attend one of these classes/tests or failure on one of these tests leads to a suspended gun license, where you are not allowed to carry or remove a weapon from its protective safe in your house until you requalify. Repeat violations lead to gun seizure on the logic of you being an untrustworthy gun owner and a potential danger to yourself and others.

I am ambivalent on the issue of gun insurance, but I do think that if a gun you own is implicated in a crime, your gun licenses are immediately revoked and your guns claimed by authorities. Because you have demonstrated your inability to be a safe and responsible gun owner.

Also, except in a case of self-defense, if anyone is injured or killed by one of your guns, you are 100% liable for their medical and or funerary expenses, as well as any legal implications, which must be stiff. This would be a difficult balance to strike, since it isn’t like injuring someone with a car or they fell down on the stairs to your house. But it’s something we should definitely look into.

In a capitalist society, it seems the best deterrent to being irresponsible with a dangerous possession–be it a car or a knife or a gun–is not legal ramifications, which can seem abstract, but financial ones. But speaking of legal ramifications…

4) Penalties against Gun Misuse and Enforcement:

Having a gun without an active license must be a crime that leads to seizure. Purchasing a gun illegally must be an offense that lands you in jail. The existing laws we have about guns must be enforced. Loopholes closed.

We have a major hurdle in the form of the NRA.

Currently, the NRA maintains a stranglehold on our government to prevent enforcing gun legislation, let alone passing it or even *discussing* it. The CDC is currently not allowed even to collect shooting statistics or do any studies about gun violence. Let me spotlight that: the CDC can’t even study the problem. How are we supposed to do anything to fix it?

Not to mention, of course, that the NRA and their GOP servants won’t even allow us to try to prevent *terrorists* from buying guns.

Don’t believe me? Watch John Oliver explain it, and then do your own research on the subject about whatever he talks about that appeals to you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM

We must politically quarantine the NRA or at least cut off their lobbying efforts on our politicians to stop any of the above, because we all know they would do it. Their only motive is profit, and several necessary preventive measures (see above) interfere with their motive. We need to elect politicians who will not listen to them and will not take their money.

Also, taxing them might be nice.

5) An Honest Conversation:

We must be able to honestly, thoughtfully, compassionately discuss this issue.

We must not dismiss calls for sensible gun control as “but they want to ban all our guns!” or “guns aren’t to blame, people are!” or any of a dozen excuses the right throws out to avoid discussing this issue that’s killing us.

We must look at the 2nd Amendment in context, realize that our society and our weapons have evolved, and take some adult responsibility in discussing how to fix the problem. Note that I didn’t say “repeal” or “revise” or anything like that. That may not be the solution we come to. We may be able to find a path forward where we keep the 2nd Amendment as it is, recognize the need for sensible regulation of our “well-regulated militia,” and find a compromise that leads to fewer deaths. I doubt the Founding Fathers wanted to build a poison pill into the Constitution, and if they saw the massive gun violence rates in America today, they would be horrified that we didn’t use the built-in mechanisms of our government to do something about it.

We must call white mass murderers who target women or black communities what they are–*terrorists,* not “mentally ill” “disturbed” “lone wolves,” or imbue them with sympathetic descriptors like “sensitive” or “thoughtful” or “deep-thinker.” And we must not put a gloss over raving misogynist, homophobic, and/or racist BS spewing out of a white man’s mouth as “just talk.” It’s not. It’s hate, and it’s a warning–a promise of violence to come.

6) A Better Kind of Men:

Which is not to say white men are hazardous. It’s just easy for them to become radicalized in a society that seems to encourage them to be aggressive, in control, and not put up with people telling them no.

This is tricky. Young white men especially are dealing with a lot of pressure upon them to be stoic, strong, in control, persistent, and if they ever slip up or make any mistakes, their whole persona and manhood is called into question. This is a product of Toxic Masculinity, and that is what leads directly to shooting after shooting. How many shootings come about because a boy feels rejected, or out of place, or he’s “love-sick” or some other such shit? How many come about when a boy is made to feel out of control or vulnerable and doesn’t know how to deal with it? How many come from hate of women or LGBT people or people of a different ethnic background?

It’s all toxic masculinity, and it needs to stop.

We need to foster an honest, compassionate conversation about what men are allowed to be, which is individual, sensitive, and, most importantly, imperfect. Every question posed to us is not a threat. We can screw up sometimes, and still be worthy of love and personhood.

If we can get past our toxic views of masculinity, we can find a better, more compassionate, and ultimately safer way for men to live and grow. And it is our duty, as men, to do this.

Step up and help me.

Related:

How American masculinity creates lonely men on NPR’s Hidden Brain

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Review: Rites and Desires

Rites and Desires is a game of cat and bat, only Catwoman is a seductive magic-wielding mastermind and Batman is a precious cinnamon roll who has no idea what he’s getting into.

Ruby Killingsworth is the cutthroat evil queen of a media empire called Goblin Records (100% perfect), who hasn’t got where she is in life by using her powers for good. Her magic, both innate and ritual-based, allows her to manipulate and dominate most people she meets. When she loses her powers (shortly before the novel), she isn’t going to let a little thing like that slow her down: she forges a deal with Loki, everyone’s favorite trickster god, to secure a powerful artifact to replace her powers.

Along the way, she becomes increasingly embroiled in a scheme to blow up the perfect marriage of her neighbor, Cobalt City’s gee whiz tech hero Jaccob “Stardust” Stevens (like Iron Man if he were just really nice to people all the time), partly out of jealousy of his brilliant wife Liz (tall and blonde where Ruby is short and ginger, it’s a whole thing), and partly because, well, she can. She has to seduce him without her magic, and without him discovering that she has the artifact he’s looking for, and Ruby doesn’t back down from a challenge.

But in corrupting CC’s golden boy, Ruby finds herself drawn toward his shining goodness as well. Opposites attract and pull each other, for better and worse.

The result is an engrossing character study of a woman with villainous motives but, almost without realizing it, creeping toward a better path.

The majority of the narrative is from Ruby’s perspective, focusing not on action scenes but rather the details of her schemes and calculations and, as things progress, increasingly her feelings and maybe even a little doubt about her course. She’s definitely ruthless, no doubt about that, but she’s complex, intriguing, and I couldn’t help but like her more than a little bit. Not unlike the way Stardust does.

Ah, Stardust. Before Amanda wrote this novel, she came to me and asked for my blessing to put Jaccob Stevens–a character I’ve done a lot to develop, including my novella EYE FOR AN EYE–through the ringer, and boy oh boy, does she. As if there was a chance I wouldn’t give her an enthusiastic “yes!”

And I’m glad I did, because this is a smart, engrossing novel that continues in the Cobalt City tradition of telling stories of heroes who are people first, supers second. This feels like a real story–a real relationship–and says something true about all of us.

It inspired me to write more, about the fallout from this dirty bomb (flirty bomb?) Amanda had fired straight at Jaccob’s too-big heart, and I can’t think of a more perfect praise of a novel than that it inspires its readers to imagine and dream and tell further stories.

I thought this novel was great, and I eagerly await the follow-up. 🙂

Tomb Raider (2018) and the Thing about Adaptations

Tl;dr Go see it, it’s worth it, though it could have been better.

This review shouldn’t be too spoilery–you should be safe, but there is one big spoiler you should look out for near the end of this review. It’s marked. You’ve been warned.

The thing about adaptations is that they’re not the same as what they’re adapting. That sounds facile, and it is, but what I really mean is that adaptations are an entirely different story that bears some degree of similarity to the characters, situations, or themes of the original. It is, and should be, fundamentally a different experience.

How *true* or close an adaptation is to the source material isn’t the best measure of its quality, in my opinion. When I go into an adaptation, be it a Marvel movie, Game of Thrones, or, in this case, Tomb Raider, I don’t necessarily expect to get the same experience the original gave me.

Tomb Raider (2018, starring Alicia Vikander, who is excellent in the role, her English accent is great, she deserves every bit of that academy award she has, fight me) is an adaptation of a 20 year old franchise, from the first polygonal snarky English Lady Indiana Jones games through a complicated and at times nonsensical morass of games through to the gritty and Uncharted-esque rebooted origin story 2013 Tomb Raider and its 2015 sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, which are fantastic games. And not coincidentally, Square Enix has recently (like two days ago) announced a third in the reboot trilogy called Shadow of the Tomb Raider (October? 2018, I’m gonna buy it immediately). And in those games, Lara varies so much it’s hard to come up with a really coherent version to base Vikander’s fantastic portrayal on, unless you pick one.

Naturally, it is the 2013 Lara this movie brings to life (though again, this is a fundamentally different Lara, since it’s an adaptation). And while I wouldn’t have minded an entire Tomb Raider movie franchise starring Camilla Luddington (voice and motion capture actor for the games and the wonderful Dr. Jo Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy, totally a great show, fight me again), it’s obvious that was the right choice and Vikander an excellent choice for the role. She is in incredible shape for the film, too, and that makes her stunt scenes very believable.

But how much does this movie owe to that fantastic game?

Well, not as much as it probably should have, really.

Sure, they share some of the same settings (the cursed Devil Sea, Yamatai island, tomb of Himiko, witch queen of Japan), same characters (Lara herself, the sinister villain Matthias played with verve and genuine menace by Walton Goggins, even Ana Miller played by Kirsten Scott Thomas, though she doesn’t actually show up until RISE), and a couple of the same themes/plot points (Lara becoming a treasure hunter, following up on her dad’s research, the treacherous sea voyage resulting in a crash and sunken ship, the airplane and parachute sequence, even a nod to the beginning of the game where she’s evading an islander crawling through small spaces to get her), the variances are significant.

In the game, Lara is a university student looking for a massive discovery, partly in support of her BFF Sam(antha) Nishimura (a young documentarian), with a while carefully sculpted crew of diverse and interesting characters, including the big and big-hearted Pacific Islander Jonah Maiava, the distrustful badass Nadine-Ross-a-couple-years-early Joslyn Reyes, and a couple father figures from her past, including Conrad and Angus, both of them tough guy adventurer types. They all crash and get separated, and Lara spends most of the game trying to survive the island’s insane inhabitants (part of a cult led by Matthias) and rescue her friends, particularly Sam, who Matthias plans to instill with the destructive soul of Himiko. There’s all kinds of hard choices and uncertainty about who to trust and what to do, and Lara keeps getting out of scrapes by the skin of her teeth and with healthy dollops of PTSD from the horrific things she sometimes has to do to survive. Oh, and zombie samurai. Anyway, the game is about summoning the grit and determination to fight, run, and survive by any means necessary. And it’s about the unbreakable bond between Lara and Sam–about these two characters who are essentially in the purest platonic love.

The movie, on the other hand, is a about 3/4 a streamlined version of that, with a lot of the “extraneous” stuff excised, to put in, uh, more extraneous stuff? Like an extended sequence where Lara is a bike courier on a merry chase through London that lands her at the police station? Flirting with her boss? Though the pawn shop scene was pretty hilarious.

We get it–she’s a bit rebellious and lost. Did we really need twenty minutes to establish that?

That’s the weird thing about this movie–it takes about 45 minutes to show us Lara figuring out she should go to the island to pursue the truth about her father, father a crew of one (Lu Ren, drunken boat captain/action hero played with charm by Daniel Wu, love that guy). It lacks efficiency. It’s a series of slow scenes showing us Lara is lost and uncertain of her way in life–something the game showed us in about a two minute opener and throughout the story. When the movie gets to the island, it abbreviated the, say, 2-4 days of the game into about a 12 hour time period told over 60ish minutes. We could have used more time on the island and less set up. The movie was a bit top heavy in that regard.

(Insert standard Tomb Raider top heavy joke here. Hahaha. Glad we’ve all got that out of our system.)

All the setup runtime could have been used to introduce Sam, at least, as a character, but that’s not where the movie goes. In fact, the female voice is largely chopped out of this movie, other than Lara herself. In the game, she has a community of women (Sam, Reyes, even Anna) who are relevant to her story. You know, the way women in real life do? That’s an easy mistake Hollywood makes in handling female heroes–treating them as isolated creatures.

The movie even headfakes this at the beginning, where Lara is fighting Lisbeth Salander look/fight-alike Rose (at least that’s who I think that is, Annabel Elizabeth Wood’s character) at her MMA gym, which at least explains Lara’s fighting skills. And the movie technically passes the Bechdel test by having Lara talk to her friend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen’s character? Hard to say, because I don’t recall Lara naming her) about the sparring match. But then those two characters disappear, never to be seen again, and Lara sails off into the Devil’s Sea with one guy of questionable motives, and it’s basically all dudes from there on, plus one long dead woman (Himiko).

And this is my biggest criticism of the movie: I feel like they inject as much testosterone into Lara’s story as possible, and not really for good reasons.

Was the movie written by explicitly sexist dudes? Maybe. But it certainly loses the implicit feminism of Lara Croft, especially the recent reboot games.

Why couldn’t either of those women at the beginning been Sam, and then Lara had the ADDED motivation of rescuing her? Sure, it’s the damsel in distress thing, but it takes on extra depth the existing story could use.

Also: Vikander’s Lara is rarely given the opportunity to be vulnerable, the way Sam’s inclusion would have done for her. There’s one scene where she had to decide between attack or standing down to save someone important to her, but that’s it. There isn’t the sense of dread and helplessness about rescuing Sam, and thus there isn’t the will to push through it. And Lara isn’t brainy the way she is in the games, which I think further undermines her as a character. Clever, yes, but not academic. No language skills, except when the plot requires it. All the menfolk around her can be relied on to have the answers, though. :/

Next, and here’s that big spoiler I warned you about:

SPOILER

No seriously. Major spoiler for the movie.

SPOILER

Lara finds her father, Lord Richard Craft (Dominic West) on the island. Who has improbably survived seven years alone and whose mental health has quite reasonably deteriorated with all that isolation. Now, he makes a good character, and he hits some of the same beats as Roth in the 2013 game, including mentoring Lara and sacrificing himself to protect her, but I feel like his presence and story undermines hers a bit.

Not to mention suddenly all our story beats are about men doing manly things, like trying to discover a weaponizable magic plague, sacrifice themselves for their daughters, or shoot a bunch of dudes with machine guns (apparently). And that’s not really what Tomb Raider is about–it’s supposed to be about Lara. About her wit and ingenuity and grit and determination. Her heroism. It’s her story.

Much as I like Dominic West, I can’t help feeling that was an unnecessary misstep. I’d have taken Sam and/or Roth in that narrative role before Lara’s dad in a heartbeat.

SPOILERS END

(you’re safe again)

Anyway.

It wasn’t the movie I wanted, exactly, but I really enjoyed the movie for what it was, and I would heartily recommend it as an action film with a pretty awesome female lead.

Depending on where your fandom is placed along the timeline, this may or may not be your Lara. She very quickly becomes the badass we fans know and love, and she’s pretty darn good with that bow.

I will gladly go see a sequel. And watching this movie enriched my love of the 2013 game, which I would go back and replay if I didn’t have all this writing to do and Persona 3 to finish.

Review verdict: I give it 3 stealth takedowns out of 5, but the unpleasant kind where you wrap your bow around the enemy’s neck and choke them out, then snap their neck once they’re unconscious, *Jesus* Lara

A couple other random notes:

1. Unlike Angelina Jolie, Vikander’s Lara never actually fires a gun, or even holds one until a mid-credits stinger, which is mostly there as fan service. Not that the pistol was a great weapon in the games anyway, but it’s an ironic Tomb Raider thing.

2. The 2013 TR game also includes roughly 500 more falls off things, slides, tumbles, grisly death animations, and vicious slayings by a budding young mass murderer, but the movie does show Lara having a really tough time of it (the impaled midsection, falling through the trees, getting really freaked out having to kill a dude, being dragged down the river, falling into the raging sea, leaping across a chasm to belay herself with a red climbing axe) so it’s a mixed bag.

3. Three cheers for Nick Frost. 🙂

GM Advice: Should I Ban Evil Alignments?

I don’t “ban” evil alignments, but I discourage them without really good reason.

Over my career as a DM, I’ve run across a lot of players who want to play evil characters and end up breaking or killing games. They may be playing badly or take their evil alignment the wrong way or whatever, but the results are the same regardless: that the carefully crafted game falls apart, feelings often get hurt, and the fun shrivels up.

D&D isn’t easy to pull off sometimes, particularly as you get older and the logistics of getting everyone together get harder. So why take such a huge risk if it isn’t necessary for your game?

Evil alignments typically require an experienced, very mature, very respectful player to pull off. In the hands of an inexperienced or self-centered kind of player (a “but I was just playing my character!” type), the character is almost certain to mess up the game for everyone.

I suspect AL forbids NE and CE–only allowing LE, and then only if you’re Zhentarim–for similar reasons. It’s even more apt there, because you’re siting down with a table of strangers, and we’ve all heard stories about con games and the sorts of harassment that can come out of those. Even if no abuse is intended, it’s so easy to misunderstand the motives of strangers and have a really shitty time if they’ve acting up.

So, the answer is Probably, at least until you’re very comfortable with your game and your players.

Gaming Logic: DMPCs

They’re like any NPC, but better–because the DM likes ’em more.

Er.

Before I say this, remember that D&D is a lot of things to a lot of people, and so my opinions won’t necessarily be yours. And that’s ok. It’s a flexible game with lots of potential, and you can make it your way. It’s fine.

Now then:

PC vs. NPC vs. DMPC

First, some terms:

PC” stands for player character. These characters are controlled by the players (usually each player controls one PC) and are, typically, the most developed and sophisticated characters in the game. They have ability scores, attack and defense mechanics, spells, skills, and feats.

They have the most screen time and are rightly considered the main characters of most (if not necessarily all) campaigns.

They usually have backstories and often very detailed physical descriptions. Odds are the player or maybe the DM has looked online for a picture that matches their conception of the PC, or maybe even commissioned a pic of the character.

The game is typically understood to be an ensemble story about these characters.

They are the main characters of the game.

“NPCs,” on the other hand, are non-player characters. These are essentially every other character in the game and are typically controlled by the DM (Dungeon Master).

Depending on their significance to the plot, one NPC might be really developed, while another might be just a name and a couple personality traits that sells the PCs a new sword or some potions.

Villains are NPCs, some minor, some major.

Regardless, NPCs aren’t usually supposed to be the focus of the story in a typical D&D game.

(Note: you COULD play a subjected sort of game where the PCs are all support characters to a NPC that is the “hero” the main story, but even then, odds are most of the game will still be about them.)

So what’s a DMPC?

As commonly understood, a DMPC is a NPC (controlled by the DM) who is elevated above the level of most NPCs both in their mechanical maturity (often they’re about as articulated as the PCs, perhaps having a full character sheet) and their relevance to the plot. They may be there to help the characters directly, fill out the ranks in combat, or maybe they just hang around.

This character is essentially the character the DM would be playing, were they a player. In a very real sense, they ARE playing this character, in addition to DMing.

DMPCs are frequently considered quite negatively, and many players will not play in a campaign that had them.

Some players get REALLY pissed about DMPCs being included in the game, and even if they tolerate them, there are usually a lot of jabs and jokes about these characters. But why?

What’s Wrong with a DMPC?

DMPCs get a bad rap for a number of questionable DMing behaviors, and it’s not entirely unwarranted.

it is incredibly easy to screw up a game by using a DMPC poorly, and it’s even easier to use a DMPC poorly.

We’ve all been at a table where a NPC swoops in and does something super important before the PCs get the chance. Or a NPC who is part of the party but somehow always has the spell they need or never actually fails at an attack or skill check or something. Or a NPC seems to be invincible, constantly surviving for story reasons.

(Don’t worry, guys—I’m not from the DM’s novel or anything! I’m sure I can be hurt just as easily as you! Art by Raymond Swanland)

Maybe a DMPC gets a full share of treasure and XP, which can make the PCs feel short-changed on their own accomplishments.

DMPCs can bog down combat, especially if they have the same level of complexity to their abilities that the PCs have. They have a specific initiative marker and attack numbers, armor class, and sometimes even spells and other abilities that require you to look in the book.

If the DM has to adjudicate all their abilities, that further divides their attention, as though there were another player at the table, eating up an entire turn.

Sometimes the DMPC will be the driving force of the game. And I don’t just mean when the DMPC talks to NPCs, and it becomes a one-man show. They come up with the idea to get into the palace, they talk the party past the guards, they sing the key song at the ball, and then they are the one that finally challenges the big bad evil guy (BBEG) to a duel. The PCs essentially become spectators in the game.

It’s easy to interpret this NPC as getting extra favoritism from the DM, as if they want to make their own character awesome at the expense of the other PCs.

These are obviously bad behaviors on the part of the DM.

What’s the Proper Way to Use a DMPC?

Generally, the PCs should be the focus of the campaign, not any NPC, and that includes the DMPC. They should serve the same purpose as any NPC: to support the story of the overall campaign, whilst not getting in the way.

What’s important to remember is that they should NOT bog things down. Use Narrative Combat techniques: Don’t roll for all a DMPC’s attacks or checks–just narrate the effects. Have your DMPC fight more enemies in the corner or the room or go off into a tunnel to cover the retreat–only roll for their actions if a PC’s immediate status depends on it. Otherwise have them recede into the background while the PCs battle the real threat or conquer the real challenges.

Also? Have the DMPCs fail from time to time. No one ever succeeds at everything they do, and a NPC who never blows a check will just irritate the players and break the immersion.

Reasons to DMPC

There are several key purposes DMPCs can and should serve, if you’re gonna use them, which I’ll illustrate with the aid of some examples from games past.

1. The party needs specific mechanical support:

Sometimes the players build their characters and no one wants to run the cleric or the rogue or some other important archetype the campaign requires. In this case, sometimes the DM needs to run a regular, generally mechanically straight forward companion character who will be with them basically all the time.

For instance, I ran a witch/pirate sort of DMPC in a Seventh Sea campaign whose role was to be the “face” of the party, since no one else was a talking/charisma sort of character. What she would do was go distract guards or hosts or whoever while the rest of the group sneaked in and did their stealthy-stealthy, stabby-stabby thing. And it worked fine.

2. The DM needs an organic voice:

If your group has a lot of discussions and scheming, and/or your campaign is very RP heavy, you as the DM may want a means to participate in the deep party mechanic in an organic way, rather than the voice of the omniscient narrator.

You’re playing the game too, after all, and you can really enrich the experience by being involved directly through a DMPC.

Care must be taken here to avoid violating player agency here. You can steer them or toss out hooks they might be forgetting (your DMPC reminds them about the shrine they saw in the way into town, for instance), but you can’t and shouldn’t make decisions for them. DMPCs should always be secondary to player decisions and even if they really disagree with the decision, they should drop the subject and move on. The last thing anyone wants is a nagging NPC reminding the PCs of their mistakes, as the NPC sees it.

3. You take turns DMing:

Some campaigns are structured in such a way as to have multiple players taking turns as the DM, in which case each DM usually has a designated character they play when it’s their turn to be a player.

My first log running D&D game saw the advent of Whisper, an elven thief (2e) who I would pick up and run when one of my fellow gamers wanted to DM for a while. She was kind of an outsider and occasional backstabber to the group, but her role and presence were very good for the team, I think.

4. Guest players need a character:

Sometimes you have guests who sit in at the table for a session or two, and it can make sense not to have them build their own character (who you then have to incorporate into your game) but rather to play this DMPC that the group has been adventuring alongside for years. That’s instant team-building there, and it can give a new player a chance to see a team at work in the game without a clunky integration process for their first game.

Generally speaking, if that player is gonna join the campaign for the long term, it’s best that they build their own character at some point, but sometimes new players love a NPC so much they keep playing that character, and that’s fine.

5. The story demands depth:

Some games require extremely deep characters who go along with the PCs and need to be very significant to the plot. For instance, in my Persona tabletop campaign (based on the Shin Megami Tensei spinoff games of the same name), the whole concept is a growing group of characters whose number often exceeds that of a D&D party–no way am I gonna have 20 players in the game, but I need that many deep characters, some of whom will be adventuring alongside the PCs.

A key here is that I will only have one or two DMPCs actively participating in combat alongside the PCs. Too many and it’ll get bogged down. (See what I said about narrative combat above.)

Example DMPC:

In my current 5e Realms campaign, I have introduced a character called Red Rosalyne, who is the half-sister of one of the PCs (himself the half-brother–other half–of one of the other PCs), who is a half elf bard/paladin. She has important healing skills, provides a useful perspective in party conversations as a DM insert (I can inject good humor and suggest considerations), and she enriches the story for multiple PCs. Her noble background provides useful ins to certain noble NPCs, and her religion (devout Sune worshiper) leads to all sorts of compelling discussions with the other PCs, one of whom (her brother) is kind of not religious but obviously blessed with near divine charisma and another who is kind of a reincarnated goddess (it’s complicated).

(Red Rosalyne, artist Dan dos Santos)

I like having her in the game, and she provides an important support and voice without distracting from the business at hand. She never takes center stage, and she’s only there to deepen the PCs’ story. She’s also a NPC that a guest player could jump into without much trouble.

Ability Scores, Stat! About Charisma

Charisma is like pornography–I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

Erm, let me start over.

But first, a caveat: Dungeons & Dragons is intentionally open-ended and subject to interpretation. It is meant to spark decades-spanning debates, foster a sense of camaraderie, and sometimes destroy friendships. (Ok, not that last one.) The point is, all this is my opinion and my perspective, honed over 25 years of gaming, since grade school.

What is Charisma?

Let’s talk about what Charisma isn’t.

For a lot of its history, D&D has fostered this impression–not exactly a misconception, but an oversimplification–that Charisma is a measurement of how beautiful you are.

That your physical appearance is the primary factor in how well you can convince people of things, how well you can persuade people, how much people like your performance when you’re rocking it out, and how good a leader you are.

Or, y’know, how effective your sorcerer spells are. Or your paladin smites. Or your warlock invocations. Or basically any magic you do unless you’re a wizard or cleric and thus not one of the cool kids.

Hot damn. She looks like her fireballs would be hard to dodge because she’s so pretty. Wait, what? (Artist unknown, found on Fjcdn.com)

I mean, yeah, beautiful people *are* often very good at lying, and we believe CHA-focused characters (like movie stars) way more than INT-focused characters (like scientists) about things like 1) Is the Earth round? and 2) Do vaccines cause autism? and 3) Who should we elect as president, a racist yam or a competent woman who looks a bit tired?

Ahem. All right, that was too easy. Ahem.

Charisma isn’t just skin-deep.

But what is it?

History of Charisma in Dungeons and Dragons

In the early, halcyon days of kicking down doors, killing people, and taking their stuff we call early D&D, Charisma, that 6th ability score on the list, was an easy dump stat. It typically wasn’t relevant to your adventures, except for the occasional social encounter, when it would give you a static bonus or penalty to the check to determine whether randos wandering across your path would like you or not. Ostensibly, this would determine whether the randomly determined table of prostitutes (no lie, look in the back of the 1e DMG) tries to get you to hire them or tries to stab you and leave your corpse in the gutter.

I’m just saying, game designers can be lonely. And sexist. (Source: D&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide)

Otherwise, a high charisma served three distinct purposes: 1) allow you to qualify for the paladin class (Prerequisite: CHA 17? WTF?), 2) fuel how many followers you attracted at high levels (higher charisma equals a better leader, equals more hangers-on, you know, like in real life), or 3) indicate whether a character was female (without fail, every female character in an early D&D book has Charisma 15 or higher–fight me).

In 2e, Charisma didn’t have much purpose other than what I’ve outlined above, and some Nonweapon Proficiencies. You’d get a reaction bonus or penalty with NPCs, so you’re well served to have the charismatic PC be the face of the party. This didn’t always translate into “make the player who can talk good” into being the party leader, and often the more interested and forward roleplayer would end up with the low-to-average charisma bruiser and your kid brother who just wants to be included ends up playing the Chaotic Evil fighter/mage with the high charisma who starts ALL the fights. (True story.)

High Charisma, Zero Chill. (artist unknown, found on Gameforge.com)

When WotC rebuilt D&D for 3rd edition and later for 3.5th (rd?) edition, they decided to make Charisma more significant. They introduced the sorcerer–like a wizard, but for players who didn’t want to do all the tedious spell management and preparation and just liked a few spells they could use to blast things. They introduced the warlock, whose magic worked similarly but was largely dependent upon how clever they were in negotiation their pact with some evil eldritch entity (#Cthulhu #HighCharisma #Chosen). And there were a lot of skills, many of which actively used Charisma. No longer was it the dump stat of yore.

At this point, it became clear that Charisma wasn’t just “how much people like you.” It was still that, obviously, but it had to tap into this RAW STRENGTH OF SELF POWER. You were literally (er, figuratively) walking around with a ring with a heart symbol on it, and you did things BY THE POWER OF HEART.

Around this time, when they were picking races for 4e, WotC decided that Charisma had become so important, and that it was more about COOL than BEAUTIFUL, that tieflings went from having a Charisma PENALTY (in 3e) to having a Charisma BONUS (in 4e)*. Also because darkness is cool, kids. Eladrin (or high elves) had a Charisma bonus. Half-elves had a Charisma bonus. All the races who are cooler than you, a mere human, became literally cooler, on average, than you.

* Note: Tieflings also had a Charisma bonus in 2e. Because those designers knew darkness was sexy.

In 4e, Charisma became important also because it was significant to your defense. You could resist enchantment, compulsion, fear, and other such sorts of effects based on your Will defense, which was calculated either with your Wisdom OR your Charisma. Yes, you could literally tap upon your massive ego to ward off a wizard commanding you to perish with a death spell. Or to remember that you are, in fact, a high level monk on a mission to find a lost scroll, and not a small squirrel that you were just polymophed into. (Though to avoid the polymorph, that’s actually a Fortitude thing.)

High Charisma squirrel. (Found on Tumblr, because Tumblr)

(Come to think of it, I think that’s a DM ruling and not a RAW example, but anyway, you get what I’m saying.)

In 4e you could also take Combat Training (Charisma), which allowed you to use your Charisma modifier AS YOUR ATTACK MODIFIER. You could literally out-cool, out-beauty, out-insult, or out-fox an opponent. With a sword. To death.

5e tripled down on the “Make Charisma the New God-Stat, GTFO-Dexterity” quest, and now, well, everyone can stand to have a few points in this big, complicated, important ability score. Bards (the OGs of Charisma) use it for their performances and magic, sorcerers and warlocks channel it into casting spells, while paladins and even clerics (really? clerics!) use it to reflect the strength of their faith while channeling divine power.

I predict that in 6th edition, everyone will use Charisma all the time, and it will be a primary ability score for all classes. Because social skills are important, kids. Stay in school, but mostly for recess and extra curriculars. (Go Rams!)

What Charisma is, 5th edition:

Charisma is this murky combination of physical appearance, social skills, ego, self-confidence, and awareness of self.

A charismatic person is instantly likeable, instantly noticeable, and draws your attention, affection, or jealousy. They may be eloquent with words, persuasive, charming, or just deeply, emotionally supportive. You’re more likely to click with someone with a high charisma than a low one, and become friends with them quickly. If they ask for a favor, you’re likely to go right along with it, no questions asked.

High charisma people are the people you’re constantly talking about, whether in a good or bad way. They may be drama factories or cool, controlled badasses you want to emulate. You probably believe them easily and want to think the best of them, or if they’ve wronged you, it’s easy to feel manipulated or toyed with by them. This isn’t to say that you instantly fall in love with everyone you meet with a high charisma, or that anyone just becomes a stalker around a person with high charisma. But the odds are you’ll have a more favorable impression of them than some other rando you meet on the Internet, er, street.

You, man. YOU. (Fallout 4, Bethesda)

The higher the charisma, the more pronounced the effect. It’s like fame: the more famous you are, the harder it becomes to avoid notice, and the more stalkers will be drawn to you. Really high charisma becomes a curse in its own way–a lot of people like you, but it becomes difficult to tell if they like you FOR YOU, or for how charming, powerful, beautiful, popular, etc. you are.

Charisma also represents your inner strength and force of will in an offensive sense. In D&D, sorcerers can literally manipulate magic that wells up inside like a spring, and obviously Charisma is the force that does that. Warlocks are much the same way, though that power originally came from the eldritch entity they somehow convinced to give them power. Paladins use Charisma when smiting things. Etc.

Charisma is great. Important.

So what do various Charisma stats mean?

I’m gonna say a few things about each level of charisma, and try and give an example that we can all relate to. We’ve all seen the Lord of the Rings movies, right? Welp.

Charisma 0 is an object. If you have Charisma 0, you don’t know you’re not an object. You can’t tell yourself apart from the world around you.

A sentient plant is CHA 1. If you have this level of charisma, you sort of know you exist, but mostly you’re an automaton.

An animal is probably Charisma 2-3. At this level, you know you’re a separate being from the world, but you see yourself as being a part of others. Your pack, for instance, is also you. You serve a purpose in that pack. The wargs in LotR have this level of Charisma.

Brutish humanoids have Charisma 4-5. At this level, you’re a bit more settled than an animal and you sometimes disagree with others of your own kind. But generally, you do as you’re told by those you see as superior and you don’t even consider having a conversation. What would be the point? The orcs and goblins in LotR typically have Charisma around this level.

Most humans range from:

Charisma 6-7: You have low social skills and limited emotional affect. You avoid others, and they avoid you. You have difficulty relating to people and a weak sense of self. Gollum has this level of Charisma, as do most Uruk-hai (augmented orcs).

Charisma 8-9: You’re gruff, brusque, rude, irritable, just some person most people don’t like very much. People don’t like paying attention to you and look forward to escaping a conversation with you. Gimli the Dwarf has this level of Charisma, as does the leader of the Uruk-hai (y’know, that jerk with the bow).

Charisma 10-11: You’re average, competent, can carry on a conversation, and are kind of forgettable. Many stranger don’t keep track of you if you don’t hang out a lot. Most hobbits in the Lord of the Rings have this level of Charisma, including Frodo and Sam.

Charisma 12-13: You are sunny, interesting, charming. You’re the one people want to be friends with. There are things about you that others want to learn or experience, such as your excellent singing voice or your inspiring bravery. Merry and Pippin have this level of Charisma, as do Eowyn and Faramir–likeable enough, but easily overshadowed by greater presences.

Then you get into the higher tiers, which are increasingly rare and make a big difference. At these tiers, you’re the kind of person who can walk into a room and all the attention goes to them, regardless of what was happening–unless someone with a higher charisma is there:

Charisma 14-15: You are magnetic, compelling. You’re the popular one in the class. You set trends, even without meaning to. You are a competent leader, but you don’t inspire fanatical loyalty. People trust and admire you and try to emulate you. You have your moments of greatness. Arwen and Boromir have this level of Charisma, and Gandalf is probably about here.

Charisma 16-17: You seize people’s attention without doing anything. You might be the beloved leader of an entire community, a great hero, or perhaps a person of great faith or principle. People may get flustered trying to talk to you, and you who can talk most people into doing whatever they want. You can lead a fellowship into battle and they will follow you into peril. This is Legolas’s level of Charisma, and it has most to do with how handsome and graceful he is.

Charisma 18-19: You are a star. People grow happy at seeing you and start crying when you’re upset, people can’t help but love you. You’re the beloved king of a nation. People have a hard time focusing on anything else while you’re there, and often people lose track of what they were saying when engaged with you. You can lead armies into battle. Aragorn has this level of charisma.

Charisma 20-21: You have an unnatural appeal and power that exudes from you like nothing most people have ever experienced. Yours is an otherworldly presence that makes most people either nervous or distracted around you. It takes a similarly strong sense of self to question you or argue with you. Galadriel has this level of Charisma, as does Sauron.

Examples of High Charisma

James Bond, for instance, has high Charisma.He’s very good at getting people to like him, and it isn’t just his sparkling personality. He’s an excellent manipulator and well known as a womanizer, which he couldn’t accomplish without high charisma.

I’ll have those dice shaken, not stirred. (image copyright MGM)

His actual attractiveness is up for debate. I mean, I’m not really much to judge, but I do know that Sean Connery and Roger Moore look fundamentally different. Daniel Craig has a hard, predatory look and riveting blue eyes that might have been chipper from an iceberg and… ahem, like I said, I’m not really much to judge. Regardless, James Bond is one charismatic asshole, emphasis on the asshole.

Speaking of charismatic assholes, Tony Stark. Sure, he’s handsome and all, but it’s mostly the money and the attitude. He just projects self-confidence, which is why he’s most compelling (IMO) when he’s at his weakest in this respect, in Iron Man 3. But I digress. Generally speaking, Tony Stark is the charismatic face of the Avengers.

Lots of money, mostly. (Image by Marvel Studios)

Tony’s charisma doesn’t always help him. Sometimes it gets dangerous people involved with him. He attracts lunatics, and I don’t just mean the big green ones. Whether they’re jealous business partners, dedicated assassins, or creepy stalkers with bad hair, many of Tony’s worst enemies are envious of his success and charm.

Speaking of charisma not always being a good thing, Galadriel.

Yes, yes we will. (Image from New Line Cinema)

Seriously, mostly people can’t even act normally around her, she’s so beautiful and graceful and serene and then when she goes DARK, it just gets MORE and… you know what, I’m going to move on.

I think you get what I’m saying.

Examples of Low Charisma

High charisma is all around us. Kings, queens, paladins, everywhere you look, there’s some charming dude or steely-willed lady commanding hapless rubes to their deaths.

And most people around us just have average charisma. Most of us also have average charisma. We take care of ourselves, we hang out with friends, we try to be attractive if that’s what we’re looking for, etc. But most of us are just a crowd, and the high charisma people are the ones who stand out in the crowd.

What about LOW charisma, though? How is that represented in the game?

There are lots of ways to explain a lower charisma.

A character or creature with low charisma suffers from a significant deficit in one of the things Charisma represents. They might have zero social skills. They might have very little sense of self or be extremely timid, lacking confidence. They might have hideous deformations, scars, or other wounds. These might all combine to produce a low charisma character.

For example, a low charisma character might have grown up far removed from society and have no ability or interest in that society. If your wood elf has a charisma of 4, for instance, then odds are they really aren’t good with people at all.

If I were designing this character, I’d go the feral route. Your wood elf would be little more than a beast and probably doesn’t have much interest in being treated otherwise. Completely out of their depth in etiquette, social interaction, or even basic conversation. They frequently offend people even when they’re trying to be nice. They might not be house trained or able to stop themselves from making a mess of their surroundings. They might relieve themselves in public or just take their clothes off without regard to the situation.

Did you ever play Final Fantasy III/VI? Do you remember Gau, that wild kid who lived out in the wilderness, was raised essentially by wolves, and could emulate enemy attacks? IMO, that’s an example of a low charisma character.

Remember me? Me friend! (Image by Square Enix)

Privilege Feats

I’ve said something like this before, but I was thinking about it this morning.

This is just my perspective, but I think of sorts of privilege as being like initial feats your character has. You don’t choose these feats–they are assigned to you and operate whether you want them to or not. 
(Though you could in theory take actions later in the game to modify how they operate, more on that later.)

All of them have different effects, and some are more broadly useful than others.

Having the “white” feat is almost always to your benefit, except in certain situations (wandering through a street in a black neighborhood late at night, trying to discuss racial issues with a room full of POCs, hiking in the mountains of Afghanistan or Iraq, etc). As with “straight” and “male,” it’s a pretty great, extremely OP feat that is almost always useful. (Possibly the only more OP feat is the relatively rare “Wealth” feat.)

If, on the other hand, you have say the “black” feat or the “gay” feat, it is of much more limited utility, and you run into significantly more situations where it either doesn’t help or actively injures you. Worse still if you have a bunch of underpowered feats, like a “POC” feat, “female,” “trans,” etc, which have a chaining effect. Your character’s going to run into a lot of issues in the adventure. 

As I said above, you can’t modify what feats you start with. You’re born white, you have the white feat. You’re born gay, you have the gay feat. You may be able to hide one or more of your feats (particularly the “not-straight” family of feats or “trans,” “NB,” “genderqueer,” etc), but over the long term that hinders your character quite dramatically.

You can take additional feats and skill trainings to modify how these feats operate, however. You could take the “ally” feat (which is more complicated than one might think before taking the feat) or the “feminist” feat (whose prereqs are easier if you have the “woman” feat, but doable for all). If you have skill training in Diplomacy and Empathy, then your “white” feat can be put to good use, and you might be able to take the “wealth” feat at some point despite not having the “white” feat, but it’s really, REALLY hard to get (mostly because other people with the “white” and “wealth” feats actively discourage you from getting it).

Anyway. If you’re trying to wrap your head around privilege, that might be a useful way to look at it. 🙂