The Story of Marvin Howell

By | December 8, 2012

Hello once again!

As we roll on into December, we’re doing some very interesting streamlining of the Infinite Earths ruleset. Unfortunately, this means we’ll probably slip a month in getting our beta ruleset online and available for testing. However, we would rather make sure we have something good for you to look at, than give you something we’re just not sure about. So to help tide you over, today we have Ray Watters talking about one of the prime examples of social interaction that shaped our social rules, after the break:

This week, rather than talk about what we’re making here at Room 209 Gaming or how we’re making it, I thought I’d give an example of why we’re making our own roleplaying game.

The Infinite Earths design puts a large emphasis on players being able to use their character’s skills, words and fighting styles to make changes in the world of the game. That’s because each time the Players and the Guide sit down together to tell stories, no one is exactly sure what will happen.

There’s a plot, of course, and people have defined how their characters behave. But there always are moments that no one could have predicted ahead of time, and allowing the game and the players to embrace those moments is one of the wonderful things about roleplaying.

Which brings me to someone very dear to me – Marvin Howell. He can handle a car like a getaway driver, dresses like a dapper gentleman complete with cane and is obsessed with dragons. He also isn’t real, but that hasn’t stopped people from bringing Howell up more than two years after I created him.

Howell was a non-player character in a game I ran for a couple months back in 2010. He started out as a minor villain, a rich boy turned flunky by some magical powerbrokers who slowly infiltrated his family to leech away its wealth and influence.

This group cultivated Howell’s desire for arcane knowledge to help them with research, keeping him ignorant of their real plans. After a few years, and some drug-fueled rituals, they recruited him as a low-level minion.

He was a patsy, of course. The group had drained all the money it could from his family. His research had given the powerbrokers what they needed. He was only sent into the field to see if he could find something useful or die in the attempt.

He was not a very nice fellow, truth be told. And as that day’s session began, that was basically all the information I had on Mr. Howell. There were a few more details about his parents, the basic ties he had to the organization that sent him and a list of equipment he brought. It was a short paragraph for a villain I expected the players to either kill or turn over to the proper authorities.

Obviously, things didn’t go as planned.

Howell found a mystical seal to an ancient ruin, so he arranged an “accidental” explosion at a work site to open a hole to the secrets below and kill enough workers to appease whatever dark things might be down there.

The players in the game eventually claimed the ancient knowledge for themselves. And rather than killing Howell during a fight, one player shot him in the foot and another knocked him out. Howell woke up more than a day later to discover the town doctor had to amputate most of his right foot. The sawbones also removed the “odd growth” in the back of Howell’s throat that allowed him to breath fire during the fight. The villain was furious and refused to talk to anyone.

So the players took him to a nearby base to see what other secrets he might yield. There was no torture, but he was confined to make sure he couldn’t endanger anyone else. Over the next week, the party allowed other members of their organization to debrief Howell. Once his full story was revealed, the party was split.

One player felt sorry for Howell, who she believed was manipulated into making poor decisions. An odd powder-like drug along with some strange music they found in Howell’s belongings seemed to make him more susceptible to the powerbrokers’ abilities. Another player argued there should be no sympathy for a man who casually killed others on a hunch about old secrets, even if he was under the influence of some narcotic.

Once the debriefing was over, the party was asked what should be done with Howell.

At this moment, the lightly sketched villain had become a major subplot for two sessions. His basic motivations, which I had mapped out for myself weeks earlier to make sure the entire campaign remained internally consistent, were now being picked over by the players to make their next decision.

The players decided to talk with Howell again. By this time, the drugs had cleared Howell’s system. He was cynical and unhappy, but he wasn’t angry with them. Howell didn’t beg or plead or make excuses; he was born noble and far too proud for such things. He also was expecting to die.

The player who was sympathetic to Howell thought she detected some remorse in him. Another player said he thought Howell could be turned against the powerbrokers who used him.

So the party decided they would try to use Howell even if at least one of them was fairly certain he’d betray them. They bought him a cane and a nice prosthetic foot to help with his limp and tried to make friends.

Could an obsessed rich man willing to kill be convinced to care about people other than himself? That’s something my players decided they wanted to find out.

Their decision meant that Howell became their responsibility, in addition to their own jobs of dealing with all sorts of supernatural problems cropping up in the aftermath of a massive world war they both fought in.

The players had been very clear at the beginning of the campaign they did not want a DM player character there to fill in the gaps of their group. The game had been progressing well without one – thanks to a few rules changes. So I was surprised they essentially decided to adopt a new character. It was not something these players normally did.

Now I had to decide how this NPC would deal with the idea that his actions over the past few years had been perverted by the people he trusted. He also had to deal with the revelation that the magical powers he had were not a result of the drugs he had been consuming – those were indeed a narcotic to make him easier to control. The ability to breathe fire came from magical experiments done to him by the same powerbrokers he once trusted. And now a new group of people had hurt him, captured him, interrogated him and then promised to help him get revenge.

To say that Howell had trust issues is a bit of an understatement.

At first, Howell just ate meals with the group and discussed some of the arcane things they had found. The players fell into the roles of good cop and bad cop, either trying to draw Howell out or remind him of the horrible things he had done. Howell quickly became depressed, especially as the full enormity of what he had done became obvious.

Unknown to the players, Howell had been reading newspapers once he realized some of their exploits had been covered in the press. He eventually found articles on the very incident that led to their meeting. Then he read the obituaries of the people he killed.

The players began to investigate some museum robberies around the same time, forcing them to leave Howell alone since they didn’t trust him enough to come with them into danger. The bad cop player muttered that he didn’t expect Howell to be there when the party returned.

He was almost right. Howell finally reached rock bottom emotionally, convinced that everyone was out to use him just like he had used and killed the people at the dig site. So he walked across the street to the chemist’s shop, bought some cheap chemicals, went back to his hotel room and closed the door. Then he drew a hot bath, downed a lethal cocktail of drugs and sank into oblivion.

That’s how the players found him, hours later. Both of them were shocked. One of them rushed in to drag Howell out of the tub while the other grabbed some medicine to force their former captive to vomit.

The next eight hours were spent at the local hospital, where they managed to empty Howell’s stomach of the toxins. The doctors were baffled because the drugs should have been fatal, but weren’t. They also found an “odd growth” in the back of Howell’s throat when his stomach was pumped.

The players quickly figured out that Howell’s metabolism had been changed so much that not only could he regrow the fire bladder in a few weeks, he also was immune to most poisons. At this point, Howell felt betrayed by his own body and angry at the entire situation. The players commiserated with him, no longer trying to poke or prod him toward one of their goals. They just sat with him and talked.

When he was released from the hospital, the players treated Howell like he was another member of the team. Eventually, the bad cop player trusted Howell enough to let him enact his own plans during a dragon attack. And, while Howell could have run off and left the players to their fates, because of that bond of trust that they had built, Howell instead jimmied a car and drove it into the dragon just in time to save the rest of the party’s lives.

Over the course of the game, Howell and his family became just as important as the subplots tied to the players’ histories. That was a decision the players made, based on how they treated Howell.

Obviously, any roleplaying game allows players the chance to do things like this. Our rules will give the players a bit more of a framework to quantify their friendships and allies, so everyone understands how far people will go to help each other. But that’s just numbers and rules to help cut down on arguments and confusion.

The heart of roleplaying – telling an emerging story with friends – remains the same. That’s why my players still bring up Howell. He wasn’t just a block of statistics on a page. He was a character they grew to care about – and part of some fun stories to repeat with friends.

That’s why we want to make a game – so even more people can tell stories they’ll enjoy long after the game is done.