I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons games for over a decade now. Twelve years, this summer. For the last six years, I’ve been running Sunday evening games for a group that has changed many times, with the exception of two players. These two people, friends I’ve known to some degree about as long as I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons, have been an endless source of amusement and fun for me as a dungeon master. From tragic beginnings, moments of hilarity, grave failures, and a general willingness to go wherever I lead them, I don’t think I could ask for more from any players of mine.
Once upon a time, I thought that I had them figured out. I thought I had gained the ability to predict their every move, to anticipate the choices they’d made ahead of time and make sure the world was ready for them to walk in that direction. Time and greater experience as a storyteller has taught me that what I had learned was what they were interested in. Instead of being able to prepare and tell a perfect story, I had the even more valuable skill of being able to provide my players with situations and stories they found compelling enough to want to explore.
Now, as I juggle two different games, stories separated by three years and a continent that may yet intersect, I find myself marveling at their specific combinations of skill, luck, intuition, and drive. I say “luck” specifically because I’m honestly not sure if it’s good luck or bad luck. This past weekend, one of the player characters made their saving throw against a spell that was supposed to keep them out of harm’s way while a Villain covered for a minion’s failures. Since they saved, and then decided to pursue the villain in an attempt to learn where she was hiding, they actually ran right into the villain as her minion packed up their belongings. It was a fun but tense exchange that followed, the villain clearly uncaring but intrigued by this person who managed to break free of her enchantment and the player trying to burn time in the hope that someone might come to his rescue (or at least get kidnapped with him).
Honestly, I should have expected it. The dice love those moments of tension and RNGesus has a habit of delivering on unlikely developments in the name of more interesting stories. Or, that’s what I would say if I hadn’t been in the seat as it happened.
When it happened, the player and I laughed. He’s not shy about losing characters and sees death and loss as another method of progression and change in D&D, so he was willing to push in interesting ways that another player might not have if their goal had been to make it out alive no matter what. We shared a few jokes about his bad/good luck and then carried on the scene, secure in the knowledge that we trust each other to play out a tough moment like that. I had to scramble in the moment, to come up with a reason this villain (who I’d originally written as more brutal) wouldn’t just kill him once her first plan had failed. Killing the player character wasn’t interesting at that point, you know? And since the character expressed only curiosity and a mix of fear/awe at the terrifying weapon she held, she decided to give him a job offer. Only after kidnapping him and letting him stew on it for a while, of course. I needed time to think, after all, since I was managing split scenes already and didn’t want to take a break that might cut down the energy of the unfolding sequence.
I had to come up with ideas for how the player character could make it through the recruitment process into the cult, will and soul intact, so he’d eventually be able to escape as well. I also had to keep things moving for the other player so he wouldn’t feel like there was nothing he could do while I was whispering with the other player (the game was built to be run with as few as two players so the group would be able to play almost every week). It was a difficult balancing act, forcing me to think and improvise on the fly now that the stakes had gotten even higher than a bunch of largely nameless NPCs (except our beloved Jimothy, most popular waiter in town, who got a name because he was too good at his job to be faceless) going missing around a holy pilgrimage site would suggest on its own.
I wound up doing some personal plot advancement, as their arcs progressed a step I hadn’t decided would exist until the exact moment I realized I could use it to solve pretty much all of the story problems introduced by bringing the villain into their sphere so much more directly than I had planned. While the changes don’t remove all possible risk, they give the players ideas on what to do next, on how they might be useful in whatever comes of this situation, and how they can continue down the paths they’ve chosen without compromising their goals, ideals, or personalities to preserve a player character.
They’ve come a long way since they accidentally TPK’d by making the worst possible choice at every juncture for about twelve hours of session time straight across three session, as have I. Now, as we push through what might have been the premature end to the party’s adventure into a new, more interesting world with a better understanding of what the major powers want, I can’t wait to see where the players go from here. There’s a point where getting too involved will get them killed (they’re already clearly in over their heads), but I think they know where the line is here and have enough other options that they’ll make better choices this time. Plus, there are other players around who will hopefully remind them not to dismantle magic traps with their faces this time.