Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Borrowing Role-Playing Ideas: G.I. Joe

A lot of Dungeons & Dragons supplements talk about borrowing adventure or story ideas from other sources. Even other role-playing games make a point of suggesting that a Game Master, whether experienced or not, take a cue from other sources of fiction. Television, movies, books, and comics can be a great source of inspiration for elements within a good Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
Luskan, City of Vice (circa 1479 DR)
My Neverwinter campaign recently found its way to Luskan, City of Vice. Although there are legitimate reasons they came to Luskan, the real intention was for one of the characters, a boy ninja from Luskan, to have an important reunion from his past. The development actually started early on in the campaign, while they were still trying to stop the machinations of the Lost Heir of Neverwinter, but a trip to Luskan was the opportunity I needed to bring the boy ninja face-to-face with his childhood nemesis. I thought I would go over how this storyline developed and how I tore thematic elements from other sources.

Adversaries from the Past

The 1980s cartoon/toy commercial G.I. Joe had a pair of ninjas, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. The rivalry between these two characters throughout the different G.I. Joe continuities changes, but it is always based on the idea that they have shared history. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow were ninjas trained by the same person, the Hard Master. [Note: No, seriously. The Hard Master.] Years later, after the mysterious death of their master, Snake Eyes firmly believed that Storm Shadow had killed their master and the two found themselves on opposite sides of the Cobra-Joe conflict. The peculiar space between brother and nemesis was something I felt could make a great contribution to my Dungeons & Dragons game.

The iconic 1980s story of brother against brother.
Despite the popularity of childhood nemeses in ninja-themed literature, comic book ninjas are not the only place that the story of two "brothers" that end up on opposite sides in some conflict. It even appears historically: the US Civil War has always iconically been known as the war that set brother against brother. But, whether it be Civil War soldiers or ninjas, the idea of family conflict spread out across a greater battle is interesting and worth inserting into a role-playing game scenario. It is the kind of things a game like Fiasco was made for but that does not mean it cannot be an excellent contribution to a game like Dungeons & Dragons.

Development of the Ninja Brothers

Ninjas! Never be afraid to add
a popular meme to your D&D.
When I started the Neverwinter campaign, one of the players decided relatively quickly that he wanted to be a boy ninja. Somehow, Luskan got worked into the narrative. Pretty soon, we had a story about a kid from a checkered past getting picked up by an old master in Luskan and trained in the way of the Ninja. [Note: At the time, I did not know of the significant Shou presence in Luskan. This worked out surprisingly well for me in the long run.] I decided, relatively easily, why the boy ninja would leave Luskan: his master had been murdered and boy ninja had been caught at the scene. With no other recourse, he fled south to Neverwinter and eventually Waterdeep.

Most of this backstory had been contributed by the player with a few details worked out with my help. Once the campaign started, I decided to start inserting little things to see where the story could go. Early on, I asked the player whether or not he had been trained alone or if there was another young ninja student with him. At that point, the "ninja brother" was born. He had no name or identity other than "ninja brother." Of course, like every story of ninja brothers, this one would likely end in bitter rivalry. Every now and then I would remind my player about his ninja brother but I did not push the idea, letting it slowly simmer.

The Neverwinter campaign actually began with Erik Scott de Bie's Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters adventure Lost Crown of Neverwinter. During Session 6: Arrival in Blacklake, the party finds The House of a Thousand Faces, an inn and bar where they hope to find signs of the Lost Heir. They run into Charl, a name-worthy halfling thug of the Dead Rats in Neverwinter. During this encounter, I had Charl identify our ninja boy as the Reaver of Luskan. This was something I threw in, not quite sure how I wanted it to resolve. Would it be that ninja boy was this reputed Reaver of Luskan? It seemed just as likely that ninja boy was mistaken for his ninja brother; most residents of Luskan and Neverwinter would not expect that there were two kid ninjas. Two ninjas would be ridiculous.

Let me recap this story, so far: An ancient ninja master trains two young boys. After a few years, the ninja master is murdered and one of the students escapes. That ninja boy is accused of the murder. The other student, nowhere to be seen at the time of the murder, resurfaces later and gets involved with the wrong kind of crowd.
Eben07's Ninja Dan and Justin. Not the ninja brothers you expected?
My player's ninja boy character would routinely ask Dead Rats that he came across about the Reaver of Luskan, trying to figure out what it was all about. All he kept hearing was that this strange fellow was a brutal murderer, carrying out assassinations for King Toytere of the Dead Rats. As our ninja boy had already conceived that his character spent time as an assassin when he was still a member of the Dead Rats, this did not seem inconsistent with his own character view. No significant development occurred throughout the rest of the Lost Crown of Neverwinter, but ninja boy's player still felt like this was something that continued to need investigating.

Return to the Homeland

When the party found its way to Luskan, ninja boy showed some concern about being in Luskan. He had found a local alchemist in Neverwinter who provided him with a magical ointment that prevented people from passively noticing who he was. [Note: For the Doctor Who fans out there, I did give one of the characters a short-term perception filter.] The party got into a brief conflict with Dead Rats that ended in the realization that Toytere had some sort of lofty plans and that he was working with mysterious partners.

After about a day into the Luskan venture, the party was approached by Mitsurugi Yoshikage, Shou sword master. After proving their worth, he took them to the leadership of the Shou in Luskan. This is where our ninja boy discovered that his ninja brother had been the actual murderer of their master and that he now worked as an assassin for Toytere. They demanded that ninja boy find and defeat his brother in order to restore honor to their master, the suspiciously named Ryujin. With that set, the epic Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow (or, more appropriately, Ninja Dan/Justin) conflict had been set in motion in the streets of Luskan.

Only time will tell how this conflict will be resolved.

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