In the closing months of 2010, Jon, Ross, and I got together to play some 4th edition Dungeons And Dragons. I had very little experience running a tabletop game, so it took some cajoling to convince my friends to give me a one-time try. That trial-run session turned into a bi-weekly get-together that lasted over sixty-four games, a campaign that wrapped up last week when the main characters died in a heroic struggle to save a besieged city. We had a lot of fun in our small scale game, with many fantastic in-story and out-of-character scenes. Going chronologically(-ish), here are some of those memorable moments...
Sitting at a restaurant with Ross and Jon, working with them to generate their two dwarf characters and to develop the valley setting they would be playing in. It was this evening of character- and world-building that ensured all three of us on the same page about the type of game we'd be playing.
Introducing each character in game by having the others play that character's disliked authoritative figures. Not only did it hand out the game's quest, but it allowed the characters to feel connected and fleshed out before they even met.
Using medieval and "Lord Of The Rings" Lego mini-figs as game miniatures... and discovering some mini-figures can have a little trouble standing on their own.
The players first "holy shit, I didn't think that would work!" moment as they won a skill challenge to toboggan down the side of a mountain on a shield.
Having Jon keep an in-character journal and having him do a prologue each game by reading out of it, reminding us what happened the previous session. Seriously, its fun stuff, and I hope he gets it all up online someday.
Playing side-scenes that, instead of featuring the players' characters, feature some of the important non-player characters that affect their lives and stories. We got a chance to breathe life into bit parts, and by doing so, started a good habit of introducing antagonists instead of villains.
After spending several games growing and developing these side characters, many of them suddenly die in a treacherous poisoning plot! To determine who succumbed to the poison, we wrote their names on pieces of paper and randomly chose two-thirds of them. It was a great moment, as both players and characters were discovering who died at the same time.
The end of the first chapter, where they heroically save a rival clan of dwarves from being swept away in a flood... and are rewarded with banishment. From here on in it becomes clear that there are powerful forces in the world, beyond the control of our two dwarven heroes but not beyond their influence. The stories and plots and politics and conspiracies in our campaign all have a momentum all their own, making the world more of a real thing, and making every action against it feel important (if not entirely successful).
Having a second world-building session at a restaurant, developing the desert land of Tuat. We gave this land character and characters, culture and history, religion and government, antagonists and goals for those antagonists. We sat down at that restaurant with nothing but some travelling dwarves and, a couple hours later, having a foreign country they had to make their way across.
Getting Ross to sketch out maps of the world, the countries, individual cities, and occasionally some visually arresting scenes. We've scanned a couple of them in for our own private use in a Facebook group, but I'll ask him if its okay to post them publicly someday.
Introducing ourselves to the new country/setting that we'd just created, and being able to draw upon our own real-world travels to give everything sights, sounds, smells, and life. We also created one of our first physical props, giving a concrete representation to this new land. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend making some simple props that players can pass around. It really adds to the immersion.
The loss of our characters' souls to a dark ritual, and the effects it had on them. Based on their statistics and sheets, being "semi-undead" actually made them pretty powerful, but its to the players credit that we were able to focus on what it was doing to their characters. Personality started to erode away, morals became greyer and greyer, loss of time, lack of interest in foods and drinks and comforts, the growing horror that they might lose themselves before they could undo the ritual.
Being on trial before the dark masters of the country's necrotheocracy. Despite all odds, the players manage to win a series of supposedly impossible skill challenges to win their case and gain back their souls. Talk about lucky dice rolls, we were all but stunned afterwards. None of us expected the characters to actually win.
The desperate infiltration of the royal palace, stealing sentient ashes of the figurehead queen, and setting off a chain reaction of events that lead to war between two or three countries.
Making some hard decisions that resulted in betraying two fellow dwarves to the city guard so that our protagonists. We knew that decision would make them enemies in many circles. This is also where I started using my favourite GM mechanic: during a particularly challenging dice roll, I would offer the players extra bonuses/dice if they would make those sort of difficult, compromising, "bite you in the ass later" choices.
Having the three of us play as our own antagonists for a session. I love these little vignettes as it gives us a chance to flesh out these non-player characters and make them more than just must ache-twirling bad guys. By the end of the session, we all sympathized with them and recognized how justified their courses of action were... even it it went contrary to our protagonists own goals.
Meeting angry paladins as they trekked north, and learning how dangerous the political situation was getting at the border. A grand conspiracy was revealing itself, taking advantage of chaotic events, and it was up to our two heroes to steer everything away from the brink.
Failing to prevent that disaster due to the destruction of an entire town. A paladin and the undead queen from unleashing their fury on each other, devastating the people and non-player characters we had spent the last two or three sessions giving life to. We learn to never underestimate Ross's astonishingly bad luck with dice :)
Taking a break to try out the then in-development 5th edition Dungeon And Dragon rules. We played some mini-scenarios in the devastated town, as survivors tried to help others and, in some cases, help themselves.
Another world-building session as we said good-bye to Tuat and the characters enter the fractured human city-states.
Changing over to the Burning Wheel gaming system. The kicker was how much fun we had with the 5th edition in-development rules, especially as it lacked the miniature-strategy-based grid-gameplay at that time. We had a discussion and recognized that we were playing a story-driven game... and 4th edition Dungeons And Dragons wasn't doing us any favours.
Our dwarves entering the human lands penniless and afraid someone might recognize them, or at least, their involvement in the destruction of the human town. After such gigantic events, it was entertaining to play through a session or two where the main objective was to scrape together enough to eat day to day.
The creation of paper currency to use in-game, adding real texture to a story-based experience.
A small adventure where our dwarves try to earn a living digging and mining against the orders of local mining guilds. This series of tests cumulated in the two players singing a Snow White song to get some much needed helping dice.
The death of Jon's character, not at the hands of some great enemy but by the clubs of some miserably hungry goblins. All three of us have a discussion and agree to keep playing; so long as Ross's character was alive, there could be a continuation of plot. The player creates a new human character and we introduce him as smoothly as we can... though it takes many sessions of distrust, cultural confusion, and social awkwardness.
Designing and ordering our very own custom-made Burning Wheel dice! These were in no way required to play the game but I liked the idea of having a bit of a keepsake for the game.
The realization that the mining released a monstrous threat, and only the two players knew about it! A gigantic spider capable of hypnotizing men and casting illusions. An alien underground creature with motivations they could not understand, but that saw people as little more than prey... and it had taken the form of a powerful, influential businessman. Here's where the Burning Wheel system really shined, as the spider creature had instincts and beliefs that guided its actions beyond the generic "roar, i'm a monster" type.
A stalemate with the spider as neither it nor our heroes can act directly. Months pass in an interlude as our characters heal from injuries, level up skills through practice, and try to learn how to strike at the growing power of the spider.
Infiltrating the palace of the caliph and finally killing the spider, only to discover that the conspiracy they thought they left in Tuat had already spread to these human city-states while they were preoccupied.
Travelling back to the border of Tuat and seeing how their previous actions had set these two cultures at war against each other. Out of character, we were able to see how these events were affecting everything even beyond the sight of our in-game protagonists, how this war was even outside the scope of the conspiracy they were racing against. It made the entire setting a living breathing thing, reacting to the characters actions even if the characters were not directly involved.
The death of both Jon and Ross's characters in a desperate bid to scale a city wall and warn the inhabitants of the undead threat facing them.
...as much as we loved the game and the characters, we decided it best to take a break from it. The death of both protagonists broke a continuing progression of story that had lasted almost three and a half years. But we don't expect to be discarding the whole thing yet! All three of us have put so much work into the game that we want to see how the overall plot will finally resolve itself. The characters played were certainly the centre of that story and their actions had definite impact, but the real focus of the game, the real centre of those sixty-some game sessions was the setting itself. What happened to the dwarven clans in that valley? What happened to the human city-states, so distrustful of each other but now facing an army of the dead at their borders? What happened to that undead nation, tearing itself apart and now marching on those that had wronged it?
We hope to revisit that world in the near future, coming at it from the other side. The dwarves had a long-standing quest to get what they knew to Rhul, the introverted mountain kingdom of all Dwarves; we may begin a new game there, with some new characters wondering why they haven't heard from that far-away valley in such a long time, wondering why they're getting word of war in far-away lands.
In the meantime, we're taking this opportunity to play a little Torchbearer :)