The Payoff

I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears a bit of repeating already: I had no intention of this campaign I’ve been running going as long as it has, but the characters and story were good, and then great, and I loved everything about it. So here we are. What was initially planned for a shorter-term story grew into something bigger, and I penciled in a rough end date of August 2018. And then everyone started shuffling around their schedules, making sure it’d keep working, and we’ve continued on our more-than-once-a-week pace since then.

So now, as the calendar turns over and a new decade begins, before I can truly plan for the future campaign, I need to end this one. From August of 2018, delayed once and story rearranged, then again with a rough end date of ‘summer 2019’, and then finally the . And now here we are, the home stretch, the bottom of the 9th, the heroes are down, but not out just yet. One final rally, and one last baseball metaphor, and just maybe these next few weeks will be a walkoff.

It’s a strange thing, running a campaign in your own world with no real idea of where the players are going to go. Sure, the light hand of fate can nudge them in the right direction, but a few bad (or good!) rolls and all of a sudden everything shifts focus. I knew the overarching storyline of the White Witch, pretty much since the beginning: A quiet, behind-the-scenes rise to power, propping up a foreign nation, installing herself where she needed to be, and then being reunited with her super macguffin in order to throw a wrench into everything, which the party would need to overcome. As a story, that’s really simple. Which is kind of the opposite of D&D, and storytelling in a tabletop medium, in general.

So many things happened that could be considered irrelevant, but they built the world, characters, relationships, and stakes. So they’re only irrelevant in the strictest storytelling sense. If you don’t care about the characters, then you won’t care about what happens to them. Sometimes they make mistakes (see: all the time), sometimes they become heroes by mistake, sometimes they become larger than life– but it’s a constant evolution that isn’t always planned and definitely can’t be predetermined by anything I, as the DM, do. I’m not a big fan of the idea of evil beings in general, so my only rule when this began was “don’t be evil”– I couldn’t expect that they would do everything in their power to rise to the occasion and fight the good fight.

Any time an NPC made a suggestion, it was just that. Any time they had an idea, it was just that. I never once expected my players to play along, and more often than not they didn’t. They understood what was at stake, and given the level of care they had for it, wanted to fight. But becoming commanders, admirals, even historical legends? That was never in the cards, never a part of my plan. A hope? Maybe, but never a plan.

How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand… there is no going back. There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep… that have taken hold.

So now, here we are, and all of this is coming to a close. I write this on the eve of the beginning of what is likely the last battle for many of these characters. Not to say that they’ll die, but this is how things end for good people: They fight the final battle, and whether they vanquish the evil or fall to its power, the fight ends for them. Their stories will in all probability shift. They won’t stay adventuring heroes, going to war for the things they believe in. They’ll get to say goodbye to the blade, let the cobwebs grow on the armor, and see their ideas completed. That’s the hope, anyway.

The one thing, above all others, that Lord of the Rings taught me about storytelling is that it’s okay to say goodbye. It’s horrible. And it sucks. And it’s sad. And you will never have enough, constantly wanting more of these characters you care about, and their stories, and how much love and care was put into them– but it’s okay. Sometimes, the story is over. Sometimes, a character deserves a shot at their own happy ending.

You’ve finished it?

Not quite, there’s room for a little more.

And sometimes, that happy ending deserves to be respected. Sometimes, through the tears, and fears, and constant unending multitude of options, a player should just get what they want. No tricks, no rolls. They succeeded at the game, so they get the happy ending. It’s cooperative storytelling, but it’s still a game, too. As much as it’ll make you laugh, and cry, and truly be able to call these friends your brothers in arms and closest compatriots, it really is still a game. But like any game, the human imagination will make you laugh, cry, and see your friends in a different light.

Tangent aside, this is a story that I love with all my heart, and I’ve poured so much of it into. While I am the DM, the sole force that exists to act against them, give them challenges and set goals for them to overcome, I am also their biggest fan. I love the journeys these characters have went on, and I really want them to succeed, more than anything. I know that when the end comes – win, lose, or draw – there will be things that break my heart. Whether for good or for bad. But as much as I want them to succeed, as much as I don’t want my heart broken by the things that will happen after this story comes to a close, as much as I want the happily-ever-after stories to be just that, I won’t pull my punches. The fights will be as deadly as anything, just as I’ve planned them to be. Just as the story has called for them to be. As much as I love every second of my time with this party– every laugh, every dagger, every gut wrenching emotion, I still won’t cheat them out of what happens. They deserve a fair shake. Which means no pulling any punches, no making things weaker, no cheating. As much as every fiber of my happily-ever-after high-fantasy Lord-of-the-Rings-lovin’ ass wants this story to be perfect, it won’t be. I can’t let it. The blemishes make it better. Realer. If they do succeed, despite the circumstances? The victory will be that much better, taste that much sweeter, the story that much stronger.

We set out to save the Shire, Sam, and it has been saved– but not for me.

The last of three quotes from the closing scenes of Return of the King, which have punctuated the importance of an ending in my life. I wrote at length about how important success is to me, how much I want these heroes to be everything, but without the fear of failure, it’s hollow. And I don’t want a hollow ending. And this is a game, so I can’t just write the fear into the plot. Stakes are important. But I think I’ve said that enough, now.

During that ending, we find out what happens to our heroes after the story is over. After their battle. And sometimes, even when they succeed, there’s something heartbreaking about their decisions. Because for all those great times, the dangerous fights, the great drinking games, the fearful nights– all of those helped these characters rise up, and grow closer, and become – excuse my indulgence – a fellowship. That’s what inspired me to play D&D. To run games. To become a DM. These stories deserve that kind of closure. No matter how heartbreaking it is.

So to all the players I’ve ever DM’d for – past, present, and even future – thank you. You’ve given me an experience that I cannot help but gush over, constantly breaking my heart in a million ways, but putting it back together, stronger than ever before. This is the payoff to a lot of work, from all of us. I’ve put untold hours of work into writing this campaign, these NPCs, this world, and everything else, but it’s all hollow without you.

Everyone has a reason that they play D&D. Each and every one of you had a reason that you found me, made a character, rolled some dice, and had some fun. But for me, it was a bit more complicated. For me, it was the payoff.

Posted by Robert Wall