Saturday, 4 May 2013

Enter the Demon (devil!): Creating Tong zi Gong

Throughout the campaigns I've been involved in, my two biggest in-party philosophies continue to be:

Alex Adams
     1)  Have a reason to be where you are, but also have a reason to keep                                                                                  moving.
    2)  Always create character chemistry. Rub your personality against other player characters and see what happens (gross).

     This removes two major roleplaying bugaboos that face a lot of new players (myself included).  Firstly, their characters grow stronger on paper but don't evolve and grow as people, becoming flat and sterile.  Tied to this, PCs often run out of motivation in the world of the story, or forget what they have learned through character interactions and don’t know, on a personal level, why they are doing what they are doing beyond mechanically chomping on story hooks.

     Because of this, I had always been fond of the “burdened with power” archetype. A character with some hideous, powerful secret is both a ubiquitous force to evolve the story, while simultaneously developing tension and agency between the other PCs.  Even back to some of my earliest characters, I had always been tinkering with this elusive concept. Often, this "burden" would be too trivial and end up happily resolved in the first few sessions, or conversely, it would be some wildly overpowered gimmick, destabilizing combat and overshadowing the goals of other PCs. I am reminded of the first character I ever brainstormed: A hilariously one dimensional wanderer-vagrant named Viskagg cursed with an ancient runic chainsaw instead of a left arm. Named the BLOOOD GEEEAR, it was laboriously heavy, causing the character to limp with reduced speed, but once it was fueled with blood (what else?) it would rev up and become a terrifyingly quick slashing-weapon.
(Thus proving the unspoken rule that everyone’s first character must be a grimdark psychopath).  I eventually scrapped the character and, after a few other campaigns, shelved the power/curse concept entirely.

     A few years back, I penned a character mock-up for a supposed campaign which never happened, with what I thought would finally do justice to my “burdened with power” fantasy archetype:

A Monk, sworn never to lay hands upon a weapon, burdened with a sword of immense power...

     This had considerable mystery, a very visual character feature, and could be tied to goals and motivations of myriad NPCs and factions. But how to fit it into R.A.W.? Too weak and it would be solved in three sessions, or worse, the character could just live with it and disregard the "burdened" keyword altogether. Too powerful, and it would again eclipse other characters’ growth & goals and throw combat out of wack. I solved this by, ironically, shattering another self-rule I had cultivated. No multi-page, grimdark backstories! Normally, parties start out at level 1, so any kind of legend lauding how much of a badass you were would fall flat on it’s face when you start your first combat and get your dumplings crushed by a lvl 1 Knoll Chieftain.

     No no, this Monk would have to be a Swordsman in a former life.  His oath against weapons would be directly linked to the cursed blade on his back. This way, it would make sense from a mechanics-perspective because the character would be learning a new set of skills at level 1 while unable to utilize the old ones he earned his reputation with.  Story wise, you could facilitate a lvl 1 character possessing such a powerful relic, which both makes sense in the story-world and remains out of the question during combat. I squirreled it away in hope that one day, Fourth Edition D&D would release the Monk class.

     They did. Enter: Tong zi Gong.

     Tong’s backstory and motivation fit perfectly with the new 4E campaign universe Dom was crafting. Tong was given a nationality, and his genocidal rampage under his former name, Viktor Whitehelm, became a historical event in a neighboring country. What I appreciated was this now dubbed "Whitehelm Reaping" appeared as a minor tragedy in the grand geopolitical landscape of the world alongside some of the greater historical catastrophes such as The Betrayal and larger wars. The events of Tong’s past became terrifying and influential, but within the scope of a larger story. Enough to make a tavern owner drop his ale in fright at the mention of Viktor Whitehelm, but not so much that Tong became a demigod superstar.

   Taking the power to destroy out of Tong's hands and into the Sword itself also made for some dramatic interactions. Named The Edge of Sanity, It was no longer Tong’s sword. It almost became a personality in itself; assiduously striving to control Tong’s body and bring mass destruction to the people around him, as well as reminding him and others both of his own former sins, and of the misery and terror that powerful weapons can bring to civilization; another larger theme of the campaign. As well, the fact that it remained a secret to the rest of the PCs for the first few sessions made it a landmark for character growth and really brought cohesion to the differing personalities we had invented.

     A lot of ideas for Tong and his world came rather spontaneously. The actual name "Tong zi Gong" is the name of a hyper-flexible Kung Fu stretching regime that I saw in a youtube video days prior and decided to choose the name on a lark.  Tong’s master, Ting-Tang Wong-Gong began as a running gag in passing, but as I realized that the personalities of Monks are often heavily tied to a master or teacher, and that Tong’s grim past needed a comedic element, I decided to build on that initial joke into a fully formed personality as the headmaster of the Canitian Monks. What began as a passing jibe at "crazy old kung-fu master" archetypes had warped into a nonsequitorial enigma of Sage and sass which has become a major hit at the dice table.

The Monk, Diablo 3

     Most of the visual designs of Tong were inspired from the concept art of the Monk class in Diablo 3. I was impressed by the use of eastern orthodox Christian symbolism and theosophy instead of the usual East-Asian martial arts trope. Something about the vague east/west fusion intrigued me, and the idea of the west having a martial monastic tradition of it’s own was even more interesting.

     A lot of Tong’s own philosophy, as well as my general affinity for role-playing Monks comes from my own appreciation for Mysticism and the spiritual/attentional practices of central Asia and the Middle East. Sufism, Zen & Hinayana Buddhism, Taoism and Vedic concepts all played a role into both the way Tong acts and his combat. Looking back, I think that I also placed him in sort of a cultural tension between his upbringing and his monastic tradition because, as a white westerner I always have either felt out of place or phony when discussing my beliefs regarding God, Enlightenment, or spiritual paths in general.

     I wanted Tong to be intelligent in some ways, but naive in others. Most of his profound statements fall short of Kalgar’s seafaring straightforwardness or Alvyn’s comedic cynicism. What works bets is when Tong cannot see outside of his own cultural bubble which leads to situations which are heartfelt, hilarious, and profound.  Abstaining from an ever-growing list of worldly pleasures, his ironic neurosis regarding "Meditation Niches", and acting the unknowing straight man to Ting Tang Wong Gong’s zaniness makes for a versatile personality that plays off both the situations at hand, and the other players’ decisions.
   These major elements, combined with the stellar effort put in by the rest of the party as well as the DM has made for one of the most iconic and memorable worlds I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of.

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