Table Talking
Areala's Favorite D&D Adventure
on Friday 01 August 2008
by Areala author list print the content item create pdf file of the content item
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Anyone who role-plays for any significant length of time will have a number of favorites that he or she has experienced over the years. Good adventures and average adventures seem to run about equally in my experience, but great adventures? Those are reserved only for special occasions and they require a very exceptional game master as well as players willing to commit everything to their roles.

Game Master ingenuity can even turn a simple hack-n-slash pre-scripted adventure into a story of perilous journey fraught with twists and turns and respectable non-player characters (both friend and foe). And good character role-playing can pay off huge dividends when a player finally gets his shot in the spotlight and can shine for a few minutes by pulling off that incredible feat that no one thought possible.

While I was growing up, most of the campaigns I participated in were home-brew creations of the specific game masters, and in fact several of us rotated the duties of being the DM over the course of the years. It became clear that every DM had his or her strengths and we tried our best to play to those strengths. When we all wanted to just head out on a good old fashioned door-kicking dungeon crawl, we used the DM who was best at creating those types of one-shot locations. When we wanted more role-playing than roll-playing, we called out the DMs who were better suited for creating long-running campaigns that would allow us to create names for ourselves and earn the respect of our communities. And when we needed someone who would turn everything on its ear and surprise us in ways we could never see coming in a million years, we turned to my brother.

Everything I know about being a good Game Master to this day, I learned from my younger brother, Michael. From picking up little tidbits of innocuous news that could be twisted into the most vicious and unreliable rumours to creating NPCs that had lives of their own, from running a simple "kill 'em all" monster mash session to setting out clues for a party to discover and (hopefully) connect together after months or even years of game-time, my brother just has the gift.

We were all in high school at this point in our lives, and many of us had been playing in our little group for years. And all of us, over that course of time, had lost characters who had been important to us or special for one reason or another, whether it was a certain block of statistics or personality quirks, every one of us had at least one "beloved" who had gone on to their final resting places on their deity-aligned Outer Plane. Some GMs are cruel and sadistic and like to force players to hand over their character sheets, or physically destroy them. Michael never played this way; our characters were our memories, our sheets were our records of deeds heroic (and occasionally embarrassing...nothing worse than suffocating to death in a gigantic pit of whipped cream, but that's a story for another time).

One afternoon in the summer, we all gathered together in the basement to continue our campaign which had been running for several weeks straight now. A lot of us (players and characters alike) were frustrated, because we had seemingly hit an impasse, and morale for the group was rather low. My brother and I had discussed this at home, but he told me not to worry, gave me one of those "I know better than you do, sis" winks, and said that next session would be something special.

After we'd gotten all the typical pre-game chatter out of the way (who was ordering the pizza, where was all the Mountain Dew, when did everybody have to leave, etc...), we grouped around the table where my brother had set up his DM screen and what seemed an extremely large plethora of notebook paper and began to unload our books, dice and equipment. As soon as our character sheets hit the table, however, Michael smiled and said, "Uh-uh. Put them away. We're not using them today." Confused, we asked him how exactly we were supposed to game without our characters, and he just chuckled. "I never said you weren't going to use characters. You're just not using them. Something rather extraordinary has come up, and extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures." He then instructed us to open our character folders and extract from them one (and only one) beloved character who had been killed in past sessions, whether months or years had passed since their demise.

Not ones to argue with reuniting with old friends, we each found ourselves pulling out an old favorite and scanning their sheet again. Memories instantly flooded back, and there were many smiles, laughs, and instances of mirth as we all murmured, "Man, I remember when..."

"As far as your other characters are concerned, you're still at that minor impasse from before. But that's OK. There's something a little more important going on in the world right now, so we can shift focus for a few hours." And Michael proceeded to lay out the story for us.

All of us, including one quiet female NPC whom none of us had ever met before, suddenly found our characters in a room far, far away from what appeared to be normal reality. There, we were confronted by the visage of a powerful deity who apologized for removing us from our eternal rests but assured us that it was necessary. Great evil was afoot, and we and we alone possessed the fortitude required to stop it. As it was, this sounded rather cliched at the time but nobody protested because we were all having too much fun getting back into our old PCs' snug-fitting boots. The deity explained that a nightmarish force from the past, a dark power long thought vanquished, was stirring once more. Millennia ago, this force had been contained in the hopes that it would never escape. But the powers of containment had weakened, and something had to be done.

Finally, one of us had the sense to ask why we (as in these formerly-deceased characters) had been selected for the job...and we were soberly informed by the deity before us that we had been selected because the task set before us was, in every sense of the word, a suicide mission. Whether we failed or succeeded in our tasks, we would not remain in our mortal bodies. We would all, we were told, die again. The power of the deity was such that only one person could be returned to the Prime Material plane after the task was accomplished, and there were six players seated around the table.

Needless to say, this was upsetting to a degree. What sick force had returned us all to life and health only to promise all but one of us nothing but death remained upon completion of the task set before us? But slowly, it began to make sense. Our characters, having been dead once, no longer feared death. They knew, with full conviction, that no matter what happened to their mortal bodies, their spirits would once again be freed to exist in their "afterlives" again. And who better to send on a suicide mission than a group of heroes who had proven themselves once before and were not afraid of the outcome?

It's quite easy to think that the spectre of impending doom hanging over our heads would have been an absolute mood killer. But as we all came to realize as we played further into the session, the foreknowledge of our deaths didn't dampen our spirits. Rather, it turned us into heroes of the highest order. It was my brother's subtle way of letting us be true heroes for the evening, taking all the risks that the best characters of fantasy literature take on willingly, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, all while protecting the very confused young woman who was traveling with us but whose presence had not been explained by the deity who sent us except for a cryptic message of, "When the time comes, you will understand."

And for hours long into the night, we were a force to be reckoned with. Many of the characters did not know one another, and thus we were constantly surprising one another when someone pulled a certain spell or magical item or ability "out of their hat" and had the chance to shine. And as we descended upon the dark power, we discovered that the deity had been correct. "You fools!" it snarled at us in our minds. "The best you can do is hope to subdue me yet again, for to destroy me will destroy this plane and your very lives will be forfeit!" But we were heroes. And by the end of the night, we had done what the previous force against the evil power had refused to do: destroy it and sacrifice themselves.

The final moments were some of the most powerful emotionally that I've ever experienced in a role-playing game. It became quite obvious that our little group, which had forged an unexpectedly powerful bond in the face of such overwhelming opposition, would soon be dissolved again. There were almost tears in some eyes as each of our characters gave our own versions of the "Gentlemen, it has been the finest honour of my life serving with you..." sentiment, and more than a few chuckles as Chris's thief ate the pack of iron rations he'd been carrying on the assumption that this would be the last time he'd get to taste "real" food. So this was it, then...we had succeeded in our quest. We would know what we had accomplished, but what of the rest of the world?

It was Perry's monk who had the flash of insight. One of us, he remembered, could be sent back. And there was only one logical choice. He pointed to the young woman (we discovered early on that she was a bard) who now was no longer so confused. "She goes back," the monk declared. "We've all died once. We've served again, and return to our reward. But she goes back. Because someone has to live to tell the tale, and who better than the songwriter who was with us all the way?"

So saying, we gave the ring we had been given by the deity to the bard who had been with us the entire time, bade her farewell, and watched her fade away as the inky void of nothingness surrounded us and we slowly winked out of physical existence, each with weapon, fist, or holy symbol raised in silent tribute.

In all my years of gaming, I have seen and experienced killer dungeons, suffered through the humiliation of the Total Party Kill, and even gleefully sent entire groups of adventurers to their death in the meat grinders of such adventures as the Tomb of Horrors or its even more bloodthirsty sequel as a DM myself. But only once have I been involved in a session that ended with every character's death and complete lack of treasure obtained, but every player's mutual agreement that it couldn't have been any better. We returned our character sheets to their respective folders, binders and notebooks, carefully annotating the results of their true final excursion, and as far as I know, those characters have never been played again.

Adventures are what you make them. But once-in-a-lifetime experiences are just that: they can never be repeated and never be equaled. It takes committed players and committed DMs to manufacture them. But in all the role-playing world, there is no reward more suitable than to retire a character, knowing that he or she made a difference.

After all, that's what each of us aspires to in our real lives. Why should our game lives be any different?

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