To Great Friends, a Tribute to D&D: Part 1

As I begin to write this, I can say with the utmost confidence that a campaign I’ve been running for over 18 months is barreling towards an ending. I’m not sure if it’s the ending the players will want– hell, I’m not sure if it’s an ending want, but it certainly is getting there. As I write this, I have ran 94 sessions, the first of which began on April 10, 2018. There were ups and downs, emotionally draining days and ones where none of us could stop laughing; there were times when someone was miserable and wanted to be anywhere else, but for those 4-6 hours on what was probably a Tuesday or Saturday night, we all tuned out the world and told a story together.

Because that’s what D&D is, isn’t it? The amount of calculations and interactive details you can get in a video game today won’t be topped with a few dice. No amount of words I can conjure will give as vivid an image as the rendering of wounds from the latest AAA game. But the one thing D&D does, that no video game can, is tell a story. Games have limits. Worlds have limits. Writers must eventually stop writing a script, and send it for editing. But when you run a game of D&D for a few friends in a campaign of your own design, those limits don’t exist. Instead, what you have, wholly unique to the tabletop genre of gaming, is cooperative storytelling. And it can be weird, but when it’s good with a few friends– it’s so very, very good.

As an aside, I should mention that when I say D&D, I don’t literally only mean D&D, be it 5th Edition or all editions. I’m using it as the colloquial term for all tabletop games. It just so happens that D&D is what I’m running, and what I’m familiar with, and what I enjoy.

As I stated, it’s been the better part of two years that I’ve met up, on average, over once per week to play D&D with the same, slightly evolving group of friends. I would love to run the game in-person, but sometimes the perfect group is friends from around your continent that you met online, and sometimes that’s just the only way to find the friends that you need to run the game you’ve always dreamed of. I just got lucky enough to find them on the first try. And now, I’m going to gush over how great these players have always been, and how lucky I was to have found them, in the form of anecdotes about the hijinks they got up to.

Myana’s great deal with a bad demon. The initial group was but three people blackmailed by bandits to do their bidding for a bit. They did the best they could in a shit situation, and eventually reached their destination. And that’s where the first story is. In the early days, people came and went – add one, lose two, add two, lose one – with Myana as the common thread. It’s not her story, but it was in the beginning. In an effort to gain more power, she was more than willing to make a deal with a demon, allowing it to house itself within her mind. A decision that would be a major plot point in a game, but was just something a player felt their character wanted, so it could happen. I never imagined a player accepting an offer like that, but rolling with the punches is what a DM does. And it was so cool to explore! She was more than willing to let this dark entity out, unleashing its own powers and giving into what it wanted, for just a modicum of its power in return. And it was a dynamic thread that followed throughout the entire first arc of the campaign. Eventually, the power turned on her and almost single-handedly caused her death at a crucial moment. But that’s for another story.

Fyra Prima’s badass intro. As the party reached the capital of Brightfall, it wasn’t long before something was causing an undead uprising. And when things were at their most dire, and this low-leveled party was trapped and being taken out, one by one, Fyra conjured a blade of fire and in one fell swoop showed herself as not just the naive young girl she would initially come off as, but one capable of protecting those around her while smiting those who would endanger her. For the first couple of days with the party, it really set the tone for who Fyra was as a person and how she would handle hostile situations for the entirety of the rest of the campaign. It was an introduction I don’t believe could be much better written if it were scripted.

The first time they went to a bar, Fyra performed a retelling of an old story of the White Witch, a cultural boogeyman throughout most of the world, in such a way that ended up being foreshadowing in a surprisingly unexpected, if slightly direct, way. While I consider that the most badass moment she had, it’s much more the thematic writing nerd in me that appreciates it, rather than the fan of the players or their characters.

Alraste finds a path to redemption. The player behind Alraste was very new to D&D when he joined the campaign, but what surprised me was how well he was able to act when push came to shove and it was time for emotionally revealing moments. From a mechanical standpoint, Alraste had been with the party for a longer time than anyone except Myana, but it wasn’t until after the undead uprising that his story and personality began to really make itself known. From trying to escape his past, he ended up right back in the city that gave him so many problems. And after some horrifying stories of people flayed and fearing for their lives, he revealed himself to the party to have, at one point, been the legendary assassin known as Zastildar Min, a terrifying boogeyman of Brightfall.

The reveal itself was one he treated in much the same way an action movie with an invincible hero would when they speak of their dark secret or lost love: A forlorn passion with an unexpected ending that revealed something major about the character. And without any sort of direction, it was at that point I realized just how great of a player I had lucked out in getting into my campaign.

Ekk, the simplest substitute of superior swordsmanship. Not long after the campaign began in earnest there was another character, Kietas, who had to leave for a considerable amount of time (I believe 6-8 weeks). In his stead, I recruited someone from my other (just-beginning) campaign to fill in for a little while. What I got was a character who, while simple, seemed to tug at my heartstrings in just how wholesome she was. A dumb-as-bricks, straight-forward hulking orc woman, her backstory was that she ‘got on the wrong boat’ and ended up in Brightfall. And that was it. She wanted to provide for her family, and needed to get back there to do that. She didn’t know how to talk real good, but she was a great fighter with a very wholesome view of the world, second only to the outward personality of genuine goodness she seemed to exude, a woman so dumb that the concept of doing bad things seemed a bit beyond her belief system. And it was incredible for every step of the way.

The liberation of a base of operation. One thing I knew I wanted out of this campaign was the ability for my party to have a place to relax. It might not have happened right away, but eventually the story spoke of an island that needed liberating. And liberate the party did. A showdown with an unexpected rival and eventually a dark energy under the island were the culmination of a session of D&D that lasted for eight and a half hours. There was a metric ass-ton of roleplay, in-character arguing, and battle. But eventually, though just barely, the party was able to triumph and purge the awful from the island, claiming it as their own. A place they still return to this very day, a place they and many of their NPC friends have seen as home.

Kietas, the local celebrity and unconventional knight. After the player returned from his strange IRL exile, Kietas returned to the party as they reached the city once more. The explanation of his time away? He was noticed during a celebration and, upon learning of his local upbringing, he was to be the face of an uncle sam-esque campaign for the recruitment of the next generation of peacekeepers for the country. This meant that he was consistently recognized as a knight and there were expectations thrust upon him the likes of which neither the player or character seemed ready to handle, and it became a trademark of Kietas: A big city kid in over his head, trying to do the best with lofty expectations.

His naivete and want to help people drove him to make very stupid, impulsive decisions, but in the best way possible. At no point has it been frustrating from an in-world perspective to see this young knight grow into the person that everyone expected him to be, but it’s been something else to see a new player and character parallel that same thing, putting those lofty expectations into themselves.

Lhion’s fear, constant and without end. Having a war veteran who was discharged after massive wounds from fire and the subsequent fear that that bestowed upon him in a party with a mage who wielded fire as deftly as any knight a blade seemed a recipe for disaster from the beginning. And it wasn’t long before magic turned Fyra against the group and Lhion saw himself in a showdown with his greatest fear.

Though consistently an awkward social wallflower, he tried his best to help his new friends at every turn. They saw in him a guidance that they didn’t really have, and he saw in them friends that he never expected. And it was something that was quick to cultivate, but slow to truly grow. He was a reluctant ally for a long time, only coming along because he believed it to be the right thing. If a singular word described him, it was consistently trepidation. But he stood beside the party as they went to war for their friends and tried to take back a city beset by the enemy. Even in the face of his fears. Even when wielded by his friends.

I, the DM, wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Everyone knows that at the earlier levels of D&D, a few bad rolls is all it takes to see a party member fall. And as the first arc of the campaign was wrapping up, the final showdown with the occupying general and his bodyguards was at hand. And though the party was victorious, the battle saw Myana lose her demonic powers and fall shortly thereafter. But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this character. I knew that it wasn’t just me, not just Myana, but the player, too, who had more story to tell. So her death became a turning point.

In retrospect, it signified that I was committed to this campaign, these characters, these players, and this story. I wasn’t going to let something as small as death stop it. It was a scene that absolutely broke my heart, and spending a week lying to the rest of the party, so I could have their genuine, in-character reactions to her resurrection, was almost heartbreaking on its own (if not a bit satisfying, seeing that level of investment from them).

So, with the first death of Myana (yes, another story), I knew that I wasn’t going to be ready to say goodbye to any of this, any time soon. I loved these characters, these people, the stories I was going to tell, the stories they were going to tell me– it all began with an idea, but from here, I could see that I was ready for the long haul, and I knew my players were, too.

And I saw just how goddamn lucky I was.

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