An excerpt from the journal of one Jacker Stump, age and origin unknown, as transcribed by Bennonois, clerk to the Court of Canes, City of Runerock. (A warning to brothers of the Order: This document contains obscure profanity.)
When you face an obstacle, it’s always best to play to your strengths. For instance, this morning, I needed to get into Agillard to teach one of its students of magic a lesson about harassing innocent young ladies.
Okay, fine. So one lady in particular. You’re my diary, so you know the one.
And yes, she still runs from me. Well, rephrase that. Run is an extreme word. More like “picks up her pace to one that my English teacher, back on Earth, might have called ‘brisk.’”
But she hasn’t told me “no” yet, so there’s a silver lining. Of sorts.
But we’re off-topic. The point: I had a crime against
girls women woman to avenge. And though I lacked a cape, superpowers, and Batman’s billion dollars, I was going to avenge it.
My target? Geddard of Mountebrook.
What? Shut up. I can take him. I can totally take him.
Pretty sure I can.
Meh. Never know until I try.
No, screw it: I can take him. Sure, he has health and wealth and education. He has a rapier and training in its use. He knows some magic. At nearly 18, he has four years’ experience on me, too. And more friends. He also has full use of both his legs.
By comparison, I have, well…. You know I don’t really spend a lot of time counting my disadvantages. What’s the point? But since you bring it up, let’s do this.
- Three-quarters of my legs (a case could be made for four-fifths),
- a makeshift knife made from folded scrap metal,
- a “family” of cowardly fellow urchins (who, come to think of it, don’t count at all in this case — scratch them from this list),
- a single thrice-penny coin,
- and no training in anything other than four-square and dodgeball, two games they don’t play in this world.
- Oh, and I can quote from every movie in the Star Wars franchise. Also, not terribly useful. No one in this world has seen those movies.
You’re thinking I’m about to say something cheesy and stupid now, like “but I have my love for Lamicia,” or “but I’m clever” or “but I have a dream.” And those things are all true. But I know they aren’t exactly tie-breakers. (I learned that lesson a month ago in the Breyfuss altercation, as you’ll recall.)
I learn my lessons, at least when they cost me teeth.
Anyways, I have another, better tie-breaker: I’m a survivor. Hell, I’ve survived being ridden by alley-hags twice. Geddard has maybe read about them in a book. I lost my right foot. Well, most of it, but I removed the rest of it myself ‘cuz I’ve seen what happens if you don’t. Let’s see Geddard do that shit.
Back when he was wearing a streetscarf over his face and family bodyguards were keeping the sick at bay, I was one of the folks suffering from a full-blown case of winterpox. Survived that, too.
I’ve been stung by scuttlewhips while mudlarking and lost the lower part of an earlobe to a hungry buzzbill. I’ve survived near-death experiences on three — count ‘em, three — different worlds, while I’m pretty sure Mr. Rich Glitch has rarely left town.
And I survived the story I’m about to tell, obviously. So chew on the rubbery hide of that fact, know-it-all Diary. Seriously, you can be such an asshole.
So, yeah, when I set out this morning, I kind of knew Geddard might turn me into a frog and set me to boil, but I was pretty sure I’d manage. After all, I’m still alive after everything else took a chomp at me, so I’m not exactly going to tremble at a guy who buys himself a fancy new set of hair every week.
The first order of business was getting into Agillard. I figured I had two choices: break-in or talk my way in.
Now, this is an easier decision than it might seem. I can use the tools of the breaking-in trade, a little bit. (Okay, so maybe I should have included that in my skill inventory earlier, but I was trying to position myself as a scrappy underdog, so give me some leeway.)
How useful, though, are lockpicks and jimmies when we’re talking about a school where they teach spells? I don’t know of anyone who has successfully broken into the school, even though much of the stuff there is clearly valuable. So that tells you something. Here’s what I figure: The students have to practice magicky things. It’s a magic school. And if you’re going to have students practice spells in a school that has valuable stuff, you might as well have them practice by putting up defenses around the school. Right? It’s what I’d do. See how smart I am?
So, in light of that, the last thing I wanted to do was try to enter some window that a bunch of teens have enmagicked to abuse the unwary. I know teen-agers. We’re fucking brutal. Take the movie Home Alone, then add resources, creativity, and teamwork. You know exactly what part of my anatomy any spell by a group of teens is going to target, right? Yeah. The balls. Of course, the balls. It’s pretty much the funniest place to attack, if you’re a teen and given the go-ahead. And I don’t want to end up like Unmanned Fred down the street. Nice guy, but he seemed happier when he was, erm, more himself.
So nope, I wasn’t going to try going in through the windows or the sewers or anywhere else. That’s right. No sewers. Really, the number of people who try to break in through sewers boggles my mind. Granted, I tried it three times on other buildings myself before I realized that was a bad idea. Not because of the smell — I can handle that. I live in alleys. And not even because of the rats. They’re tasty, once you clean the sewer off of them. Well, okay, they’re filling. If you can keep ‘em down.
No, what I realized after three bad sewer excursions is that everyone thinks about the sewer option. From below the street, everything is Fort Knox. Locked up tight, with traps that will take your head off at the waist.
Yet every year, some fool (usually young, from out of town, or recently impoverished — and at one point, friend, that was me on all three counts) announces he’s going to pull off this great burglary by going into some fortified place through the sewers. We all smile and feign awe and let him go. Someone has to feed the gators, after all, or else they creep up onto the streets to look for food.
So to get into the school, I would have to rely on charm.
And what are my assets, when it comes to charm? Admittedly, I have some drawbacks there. I’m a street urchin, so there’s a class issue. I’m mildly crippled. I’m poor so I can’t bribe anyone, unless they’re blind, but I’m not that cruel.
But some people can look past class and poverty. More significant drawbacks? I haven’t bathed, properly bathed, in… well, a long while. I can’t say for certain because I’ve gone nose-blind, but if I had to guess, I’d wager I smell like someone who has been wiping his ass with raw fish for a year and then brushing his teeth with the fish. Not that I have actually done this, mind you. I’d never treat a fish like that. But my stench is probably in that olfactory neighborhood. I could kill a street dog in a dog-breath duel. I’m not sure about the range on that, but I might be able to stun at twenty paces.
So that’s … an obstacle.
I’m also scarred from winterpox. I’m not contagious anymore, but the locals don’t seem to understand how that works, so people still shy away from me.
And when I get nervous in social situations, I run into a saliva overproduction issue. When I say it, I spray it.
Basically, I’m like an emaciated Gungan.
A pungent, diseased, sewer-rat-eating, emaciated Gungan.
For some reason, Lamicia keeps trying to avoid me. Girls are a mystery.
So why did I think I had a better chance with my smile than with my stealth? I don’t know really. Call it bad judgment. But the other kids in my street-clan think I’m persuasive. I recall that Lara, back on Earth, said something once like, “You always get your way because you have no self-awareness. You don’t know how much you suck, so you’re really, really confident. And other people fall for it. They think there must be some good reason you’re so confident. There isn’t, but people are stupid like that.”
No, no. That’s not a direct quote. It was two worlds ago, and I lost that journal. But my memory is normally not-bad if I write stuff down, and I’d written it down at the time. I’m pretty sure that whatever she said, it was something like that.
So, based in part on Lara’s character reference, I decided to talk my way into the school.
In hindsight, a dip in the river and gnawing on mint leaves from someone’s garden would have been smart ways to prep. But I was in the moment. In the zone. I went straight to the door.
The guard at the door, who had always seemed so bored when I’d passed on the street, suddenly looked un-bored when I got close to him. A good sign!
“Greetings, good sir!” I said to him, flashing a big, mostly-toothy smile. “Today is your lucky day!”
Even without an S sound, somehow I gleeked it.
Uh-oh, I thought. Meesa gonna die.
I could see the saliva droplets’ trajectory through the air — and marveled at how they homed in on the only living, armed target in the region. They got his beard, helm, breastplate — a wonderful, tight shot group on only vital areas. Had they been crossbow bolts, he’d have died instantly. Of course, if I ever needed to use them as a weapon, they’d fail me, but as long as I was going for charm, my assfish-scented spitlets would navigate the space between us and light on him as though guided by orbital computers.
He blinked, eyes watering. He was holding his breath.
Good, I thought. I can work with that.
I put an arm around him, chummy. He gripped his truncheon tightly, but didn’t hit me. Another good sign. I could see a bit of rat bone (a toe, perhaps) caught in his mustache and realized it had probably come from my initial greeting. Maybe he hasn’t noticed it, I thought to myself. (Yes, I think and talk to myself. You’re my diary. You know this. Stop being an asshole.)
“My name is Jacker,” I said. “And I’m here to offer the master of this house a special, once-in-a-lifetime deal, but we have to close that deal in the next five minutes. Are you the master of this house?”
He shook his head. I heard a gurgle from within his throat and his cheeks bulged.
I’d learned this kind of patter from two kinds of TV: B-grade buddy-cop comedies, and Guthy-Renker infomercials. No one here had encountered either, so sometimes they came away mightily impressed.
“See, my friend, I know where one can find an alley-hag — a real one, not a freak-show fakery — but she’s leaving this realm in … “ I glanced at my bare wrist, a gesture that never ceased to befuddle, “oh, well, not very long now. Your master will be very upset if he learns he’s missed this window. Now, I know you’re a good employee who would never want to upset his boss. Am I right or am I right?”
He seemed briefly confused by the menu of two identical options, but then nodded. His eyes were watering badly enough he was starting to remind me of my aunt, watching Titanic for the hundredth time in the hopes that perhaps maybe this time Leo would live.
“See! You’re a sensible guy! Can I call you ‘Guy’?”
Guy looked disoriented and perplexed. Understandably. Before that moment, he hadn’t known that was his name. I have this effect on people.
“Excellent! We’re going to be good friends. So let’s ring that bell, to let him know there’s an important caller. Go ahead, it’s right there.”
Guy weakly rang the bell. He seemed to wobble on his feet a little and his face was changing color. I don’t think Guy had inhaled yet since my first approach.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Well-handled. You’re a pro, Guy. Now, you have two choices, either of them fine with me: I can wait out here with you, for however long it takes until your master comes. Or you can let me wait just inside the door, in the lobby.”
Guy thought about this, hard, for like a second. But Guy really badly needed to breathe.
Guy opened the door, and I slipped in.
As the door shut behind me, Guy threw up all over the steps.
I came up with Jacker as an interpretation of the stats at the top of this article — stats I don’t expect anyone would attempt to play with.
Why did I do this? In part, to make a point about low scores. Not the usual, tired, “Low scores are an opportunity to make your character more three-dimensional or more interesting” kind of point, though. I wanted to make a rather different one: There are many ways to interpret a low score, and it’s possible to role-play some stats as a mix of strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s a good starting point: Assume that most characters, left to develop to their full potential, would have something like the standard array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. For any such fully-developed person, the difference between the ability with a 15 and the one with an 8 would boil down mostly to areas of interest: What has the character tended to emphasize? The strong character with the 8 Intelligence maybe hasn’t been interested much in reading, but cares quite a lot about how strong he is. (In general, this logic tends to apply to how most people in the real world develop. Weaknesses are, for the most part, just under-practiced areas.)
So if you have rolled up stats randomly, what does it mean if your character has one (or more!) stats that are below 8? Well, poverty is an easy explanation. Rich folk have more access to food, surgeons, clean living conditions, training, education, and charm school. Gary Gygax, back in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, said he assumed all PCs came from a reasonably wealthy background or else they wouldn’t have been able to build the skills their lifestyles depend upon. Now, it’s certainly possible for your character with a street urchin background to be an adventurer. Gygax has a point, but it’s not a straitjacket. But it’s worth noting that wealth and poverty can be invoked, quite logically, to explain a lot when it comes to ability scores.
Youth is also a powerful explanation. Maybe your character’s stats are low simply because she hasn’t been around long enough, and after she’s been around a few more years (i.e., levels), those stats will improve, just like they tend to with age for other folks. (On the flip-side, a person with low physical attributes and high mental attributes might be interpreted as quite old.)
Disease is a third good explanation. A single bad encounter with a plague in childhood might leave a character with a low Dexterity, or feebleminded, or scarred badly enough to affect Charisma.
Here’s a less-obvious one: If your character started in a very different culture and is now in a new one, that might explain a low Intelligence score without the character having to be brain damaged. It isn’t that your character doesn’t know anything. Like Jacker, above, you might know plenty. But very little of it is relevant to the world in which you now live, and for that reason, you do stupid things and are treated as stupid. Intelligence is, in short, a measure of what you know — but it has to be useful knowledge. Even if you manage to get a handle on the local language (as Jacker appears to have), you didn’t grow up there. You don’t know people there. You have fewer people to tell you things that local kids might have heard.
I had the most fun interpreting Jacker’s Wisdom and Charisma.
I didn’t want to imagine the poor fellow as a complete dolt without an ounce of charm. And really, I don’t have to imagine him that way. All I need is an explanation for why his die modifiers are -3 and -2 respectively. In each case, I have interpreted Jacker’s attribute as a tangle of strengths and weaknesses, with some strengths that come across in his voice and style, but which don’t necessarily impact the kinds of rolls he’s going to make. For instance, Jacker is capable of thinking through a problem pretty well in a planning or remote stage, but because he lacks impulse control, he skips steps (like trying to wash up first), tries foolhardy things (like breaking into a school of magic, knowing none), and generally, thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, assumes that the odds affecting other people don’t really apply to him. If the object of his affections (and he does see her as an object–he’s young and solipsistic) walks by, he’s going to be distracted. This is not a guy with a lot of willpower or focus, even if he’s clever.
Ah, that word: clever. Let’s talk about it briefly. Wise people have historically recognized forms of smart other than the D&D attributes of Intelligence and Wisdom. Clever, crafty, and cunning aren’t really covered by those stats very well. When I play the game, I tend to assume these are attributes provided by the role-player. As DM, for instance, I don’t blink if a character with a low Intelligence does something clever. The low Intelligence score affects die rolls tied to memory and education, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be dangerous with the few things you do know. So to some extent, I’m using the same approach with Jacker. He’s clever and crafty, but he lacks a lot of local knowledge and has some serious self-awareness and impulse-control issues.
Charisma is perhaps more straightforward in Jacker’s case: He is highly confident, which is why his Charisma is a 6 instead of a 3 (or, hell, a 1). I’ve saddled him with a lot off drawbacks here. If he weren’t supremely self-confident, his Charisma would certainly be a lot lower. Lara, quoted in the story, is right about him.
I haven’t written up full stat blocks for Jacker, like I have for other characters, in part because in this story he’s kind of zero-level, still locked more into his background than in his character class. If I were to play him, though, I’d make him a wizard — that’s one of the reasons I’m sending him into the school. If he gets in enough trouble there, maybe he’ll have to stick around and work off his transgressions. And for those who are curious, yes, his stats above were randomly rolled, and I’ve already included his two +1 bonuses for being a variant Human. (+1 Con, +1 Int.)
What feat would I give him at 1st-level?
Oh, almost certainly Lucky. It’s not just a good feat. For Jacker and this interpretation of him, it’s the right one. ‡
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Graham has also written a Dungeon Magazine city adventure titled “Thirds of Purloined Vellum” and a fantasy novella titled Godfathom. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.