Those who know me know that I seem to have extraordinarily poor luck with dice in games — not all randomizers, just dice. I’m sure some of it is selective memory, but, nonetheless, I have a story to tell of the worst die roll of my gaming career.
I was playing AD&D, and I rolled a natural 20, followed by another natural 20, killing the arch-villain that had been taunting and tormenting our group for a couple years of gaming.
Ok, that’s two die rolls, so I’m stretching a little bit. And for anyone who knows D&D, I probably need to explain why this was so horrible — and then I’ll share the revelation it gave me.
Let’s start with some context. I was playing in a D&D game — this was the mid 90s, so that meant AD&D2, with a stack of Kit books and some other supplements, plus a few house rules. I believe this was the end of year 2 of the campaign, but I’m not sure — at the very least, it was near the end of an intense [school]year of weekly-plus marathon sessions. So we had a fair bit of gametime under our belts, and it had been a fairly epic campaign, at least at times–and a big group, usually 8-10 players, most of whom had been there from the beginning.
And, right from the beginning, we’d had a nemesis. An NPC villain who had been getting in our way, and capturing and torturing PCs, and taunting us, and stealing our treasure, and just generally being a pain. He was frequently the source of the problems our heroes needed to solve, and when he wasn’t, he often showed up anyway to make our lives more difficult. Oh, we hated Jurel. And we loved hating him.
Now, Jurel had a couple signature traits. One of them was that he always wore a couple magic items: something that let him regenerate, and a harness that allowed him to teleport at will, and which would explode if removed. I don’t recall now, but I think he also had some sort of ring of protection, or otherwise had ungodly armor class, because it seemed like only the fighters could even hit him in the first place, in order to trigger his regeneration. I’m sure there was much more going on that I’ve since forgotten. But the gist of it was that Jurel could show up and harass us whenever he felt like it, and leave whenever he felt like it, and there was nothing we could do about it. Maybe it was that the harness would also explode if he was killed, and nobody had felt sufficiently self-sacrificial to take him out? Well, regardless, whether it was because we couldn’t, or daren’t, kill him, he just kept coming back.
A couple months before the events I’m about to narrate, I’d realized I was a little dissatisfied with the game. Everyone else was having a great time, so I figured it was just me. And the GM was, in most ways, an excellent GM. And I realized part of the problem was that I was too attached to my character — this was the 2nd campaign I’d played him in, and was very fond of him. But, most importantly, this wasn’t a character designed for change, particularly of the negative kind. I was very much attached to him the way he was, and didn’t want to see him change, not even to grow, really. Except, of course, to get more levels and loot. :-D And his stuff was a significant portion of my image of him — so even having his backpack taken away was un-fun (in much the same way that playing a D&D wizard in a null magic zone for an extended time is un-fun). [To be clear, even at the time, once i realized this, I realized it was poor character design. I’m to blame for that un-fun.]
So, as the game took a more horrific turn, and Jurel’s predations escalated from attacking us and stealing magic items to capture and torture and permanent damage (i.e., specific effects, rather than just hit point damage), I’d been spending more and more of my time turtling, and not really participating. Which was, of course, ruining my own fun. So I talked to the GM, and we worked out how to exit my character, and introduce a new one. This time, I made a character that I was interested in seeing change, and thus I engaged more in the game.
However, it didn’t last. I’ve forgotten now why, but i think he was killed. Regardless, I needed to introduce another new character, only a couple months after my previous character change — and very few other players had switched characters during the entire couple-year run of the campaign. New characters meant interrupting the narrative continuity, so, barring death, there’d been very little turn-over. So, I wanted to make sure I got it right this time. I got together with the GM a couple times, and brainstormed on my own, and hit on a character concept that really grabbed me, and persuaded him to let me give it a try: I would play a revenant, come back to get revenge on Jurel.
For those who don’t know — or don’t remember — revenants in D&D are undead, people who died in horrible circumstances, and have come back to seek revenge on their murderer. The Crow, but without a crow. The GM agreed to tweak the rules a bit — normally, they only “live” for a few days, regardless of success or failure in their revenge; we agreed that my character wouldn’t return to the grave until he succeeded. With more talking, we ironed out some details: The character concept was that he thought he had narrowly escaped dying, but Jurel had nonetheless killed his family before he escaped from being “buried alive.” To help justify this conceit, he was a lizardman, so his skin started out dry and tough and leathery. He still ate, because he didn’t know he didn’t need to eat. And he didn’t realize he never slept, because he was so obsessed with revenge that he just thought he was driven. At the point where he entered the campaign, he’d only been dead a couple days, and the plan was that he’d eventually realize what was going on. For his level, we rolled some dice, with a small chance of being a level above the rest of the group, a modest chance of being a level below, but most likely the same level — the possibility of a higher level was to offset the fact that he couldn’t gain any new levels after his death, because both the GM and i were expecting him to be around for a while.
I thought I’d crafted the perfect character for the campaign — at least for me. He was obsessed with the villain that had shoe-horned himself into the centerpiece of our campaign, and thus had a reason to hang around the other characters. He would be around for as long as our arch-nemesis was. Jurel wouldn’t be able to kill him, but it was unlikely my character would be able to kill Jurel, either. My character had no big attacks, and his psionic abilities were mostly defensive and personal. And, his abilities helped fill a couple gaps in the party’s capabilities. And without the threat of losing my character completely (i.e., death), I could get more into the game, and embrace all the other horrible non-character-taking-away things that might happen to him. In fact, I was really enjoying wallowing in the revenge and despair and hatred — the moreso the more bad things happened to him.
Or, would’ve, had the opportunity arisen. As it turned out, the first session with the new character went as expected: I met the rest of the PCs, we noted each other’s PC glow, we figured out we had a common goal, and Jurel showed up. We traded blows and barbs — he struck me a few times, but I just kept bouncing back; I don’t think I even managed to hit Jurel. The other PCs, however, had sufficiently effective attacks to drive him to teleport away. And he was out of range of my homing sense, so we carried on. Shortly after — a couple sessions later, i think — we were in the midst of some mostly-unrelated quest, when the GM told me that I’d detected Jurel. Probably due to prompting on my part — I honestly don’t remember. I bent my characterization to stick around until we’d solved the immediate dilemma, and then set off after him (yay, psionic powers!), and caught up with him a couple game days later, after an uneventful chase. [I’m not sure, but I think it was actually the next session, because my basically-solo venture was tabled while we got the rest of the group to a good break point.] He had made it to a port, and hid aboard a ship. I followed him in, where my infravision made his hiding in the shadows pointless. He won initiative and got the first blow in, doing some serious damage. I rolled my attack: 20! A critical! I rolled again on the critical chart to see the results: 20! I’d beheaded my opponent! He was dead!
And that was it. The fight was over. The very first blow I had successfully landed on my nemesis — my raison d’être — had killed him. My character literally had no more point to exist — in fact, couldn’t continue to exist. I wasn’t supposed to kill Jurel, at least not right away. I was supposed to struggle and suffer and inch my way towards revenge, and then, only then, either kill him or perish in the attempt. And, to add insult to injury, it wasn’t even a glorious death, sacrificing himself to exact his revenge and destroy our nemesis: one of my character’s powers was enough to protect him from the blast generated when he killed him. Not only that, but Jurel had previously had most of his magic items — and thus power — stripped away by another NPC that I didn’t even know existed, which was why he was so vulnerable (though, in fairness, one of the other PCs had apparently been involved in getting him captured, so this wasn’t a case of NPCs doing all the work — i just hadn’t known about it). So, while I may have struck the killing blow, it wasn’t really a challenge, because someone else had done all the work.
I never returned to that game.
Now, to be clear, I’m not really blaming the GM. I mean, yes, I can see a couple of places he could’ve done better. One thing I only found out much later was that he had recognized that the group was getting sick of Jurel, and was thus downplaying him — basically, I’d finally warmed up to embracing him as a villain, just about the time everyone else had gotten sick of him. I’d never enjoyed him as a villain, he was “obviously” going to be an ongoing feature of the game, so I had very carefully crafted a PC that fit the villain. I think the problem was communicating expectations: the GM thought i created a character bent on revenge in order to get revenge; I thought I had created a character bent on revenge in order to try to get revenge. There was a confusion between player and character motivations.
Oh, it wasn’t the first time I’d played a character whose goal I didn’t want to see fulfilled — I’d enjoyed seeing my own characters fail in the past, at least at times. But I think this was the first time that I intentionally created a character to not achieve their goal(s). I’d been stuck in the competition/winning mentality, where part of the point of the RPG is “success”, and that success is defined as surviving and killing the monsters and gaining levels and loot. If your character dies, you “lose”. Which means that all sorts of fun things you can do with literature are shut off from your RPing. Even this time, I’m not entirely sure I was doing it consciously — I don’t think I realized until Jurel was dead what I was doing. But, to the degree I was aware of my own motives, I certainly thought the GM was, too. I thought it was obvious that his job was to not pull his punches, to make my revenge as painful and difficult as possible. So, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to say “btw, don’t let me get my revenge — it’s ok if i get it, but don’t just let me; don’t make it easy”.
In the style of play we generally engaged in, it was a given that the GM played opponents fairly — fudging neither to make them weaker nor tougher. So it never would’ve occurred to me to say “don’t give me an easy Jurel to fight”. And, from the GM’s perspective, it would’ve been cheating to prevent me confronting Jurel when he was weakened — if that’s when I managed to track him down, that’s when I managed to track him down, and the fact that there were machinations behind the scenes was irrelevant. Prior to this, I’d been aware of, and talked about, more “story-oriented” play in my RPGs. But I don’t think I’d completely gotten it. We were still playing the basic same way, just using more vivid descriptions. ;-) Or, on a bad day, the GM used the excuse of story to railroad [and I’m not necessarily talking about this GM — I know i was guilty of it myself at times, frex]. For me, at least, the necessary step was to recognize the distinction between what I would later come to call “authorial” and “actor” stances — to recognize that, just as in a novel, the author and her characters might have different motives — that I didn’t need to want the same things for my character that my character wanted for himself.
In hindsight, it’s an obvious thing — but I don’t think it had occurred to any of us at the time. And, at the time, I couldn’t articulate my displeasure — I remember talking to the GM afterwards, and we simply weren’t communicating. I don’t recall specifically what I said, but it was pretty clear from his comments that what he heard was something along the lines of “I want you to fudge as necessary when you’re GMing, so that we can never defeat the villains”. Which simply didn’t make any sense to him — and me clarifying that, yes, I did want to kill Jurel, just made it sound like I was contradicting myself. I couldn’t seem to explain the difference between wanting the destination and wanting the journey. So, unable to communicate my frustration, I just left the game.
Ironically, it must’ve been about that time that I was participating in discussions on rec.games.frp.advocacy that would lead to the GDS theory — and some talk of what would later be termed stances was going on, but I simply didn’t make the connection between that and my experience, nor could I explain this clash of priorities to my GM. But, looking back today, I can see that this marked a profound shift in my RPing priorities, opening up new realms of play.
Postscript: I was recently reminded of this as the players in my current game started setting up the situation that will likely get one PC killed at the others’ hands, due to misinformation. Before my untimely revenge, I’m not sure I had really come to grips with the necessary dissociation between player and character that can make this sort of thing possible without hurt feelings. While I may have made brave talk about not taking it personally if someone else’s PC attacked mine, I think that was because I felt it was the “mature” thing to say, not because I really felt it. Nowadays, a great deal of my fun comes specifically from exactly those sorts of conflicts.