Grief and Personal Revisionist History

The Queen died today (the day I wrote this, I mean). As a US citizen and a person with a great deal of disdain for the parasitic ruling class of wealth, nobility, and power, I’ll admit I’ve never had much concern for the UK’s royal family. I’m pretty sure I’m breaking some kind of rule about ways to refer to monarchs who have passed away in the transitional state between one ruler and the next, but I’d be lying if I said I cared enough to actually look it up. All I know is I started to recognize patterns in the ways that people were writing about the event on Twitter before I got tired of how EVERYONE was talking about it and found a new comic to read instead of doing my usual Twitter scrolling (Vattu, by Evan Dahm). Which I found because someone shared an image from said comic of a character saying “it’s a tragedy for an emperor even to exist.” If that doesn’t just about capture my feelings on the matter, then I don’t know if anything ever will.

Originally, I planned to never even mention this event on my blog. I don’t really care about the royal family outside of the abstract annoyance I feel about any news item that takes over the entirety of the internet for longer than an hour (there’s already YouTube videos about it, of course), so why would I waste my time on it? I almost deleted the whole post so I could write about my identity or how much I’m dreading the end of Spiritfarer because it’s everything I’ve thought it would be, but while I was looking up the exact text of the quote above, I found another tweet, this one from an account I follow because of her frank discussions about the difficulty of growing up and trying to heal from an abusive family and the grief involved therein: “You don’t have to pretend someone was kind or good because they died. Everybody dies.”

Since my grandfather passed away, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about grief, loss, and the way those things can warp our view of the past. Or perhaps the way we deliberately misrepresent the past in order to justify the grief and loss we feel. I’m still not sure which it is and I strongly suspect that the true answer is that it’s a bit of both for pretty much everyone. When he passed, my mother’s family spent a lot of time waxing poetic about my grandfather, sharing funny stories, and looking at old photos (which is when I had the uncomfortable realization that my older brother is the spitting image of my grandfather when he was younger). It was a difficult event, in part because of the emotion involved and my (to put it INCREDIBLY FLIPPANTLY) difficult relationship with that side of my family, but also because I could see my mother, aunts, and uncles leaving out parts of stories that cast my grandfather in a less than positive light.

Now, the way my mother and her siblings tell it, my grandfather was a jokester and a mischief maker who was well-liked by the people who knew him. He could supposedly talk his way into or out of just about anything. However, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about generational trauma and who has learned to recognize the signs of trauma in other people via the details they leave out of the stories they tell about themselves, the past, and the people who hurt them, I think the truth was more complicated. As it almost always is. I think that my grandfather was not always the kind, accepting, friendly person I knew. I think there’s a reason he used to threaten to slap people upside the head or that my mother and her siblings never tell any stories that involved them getting into actual trouble. He changed, I suspect, as he grew older, but that doesn’t absolve him of what he did in the past. I think that if he had acted to address the generational abuse he perpetuated, my mother might have been able to do so as well, rather than resist the notion that she has anything to apologize for.

As I reflect on how little I know about the life my grandfather lived and the way that people are reacting to the death of the queen–waxing poetic, noting the harm she, her family, and the UK have done to the world, or just avoiding the topic entirely–I find myself wondering if we’re ever going to be able to have a healthy relationship with grief. Will we (collectively, I mean) ever be able to mourn a person’s passing and the grief that engenders without trying to paint over all the harm they might have caused? I think there are probably a lot of people who have had a genuine emotional reaction to the passing of the queen, and I don’t mean the people obsessed with celebrities who personally feel the loss of a public figure. I mean people whose lives were touched in a positive way by a public figure through a small interaction or even act of kindness. Not even to mention her family, some of whom may have had a troubled relationship with her but who probably still care about her. I think we could make space for those people to grieve without needing to ignore all the harm the royal family has caused to so many people around the world.

I’ll admit that the idea works a lot better when you’re talking about someone whose impacted was primarily felt within a family or family-adjacent social unit rather than all over the world. I think a lot of people are justified in their anger and resentment at the way that the queen is getting all of this attention despite the literal and direct harm done to the world, their country, or even their lives directly by the queen in her time as the (figure)head of the UK. But then again, this post was never really about her. She was just a convenient focal point for my reflections about loss and grief and this was really me trying to grapple with the flawed person my grandfather was, the flawed people my parents are, and how I’m striving to end the cycle that hurt all of us, so much as I can by myself, anyway.

I mourned my grandfather’s passing even as I recognized that he wasn’t always the person I knew. I will mourn my parents when they pass, if I’m around to see it, even if they are still the people I know they are right now. I will speak honestly of them, just as I do my best to speak honestly of my grandfather and as I hope people will speak of me when I’m gone. The passing of a person is a chance to grapple with the full weight of their life and it would be a foolish disservice to everyone who was impacted by them to do anything less. I just hope the world eventually gets on board with this idea. It would be a lot more healthy for everyone if they did.

Whiling Away My Hours With Reflections on Death and Stories

While I’ve been waiting on patches that will hopefully fix Cult of the Lamb, I’ve turned to other games to occupy my time. I’ve begun to dip my toe into Wildermyth on the PC and my impression from two hours of gameplay is that the writing is some of the best I’ve seen in a video game. Perfect balance between longer sentences, clipped fragments, and the natural warping of language that occurs when people who know each other talk in a relaxed or tense manner. Beautiful turns of phrase that reach past the awkward, stylistic structure of some of the prose to land a beautiful image in your mind that compliments the storybook style cutscenes and events. Just an absolute treat to experience.

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There’s an Old Black Train A-Comin’

I’ve rewatched Over The Garden Wall again. This time, I watched it with two of my siblings and got to enjoy the “I hate you but thank you” experience of introducing people to something they wind up loving. It was good to be able to enjoy things with people again, and then talk about it afterwards. I’m still looking for someone who has also listened to the latest season of Friends At The Table as well, so I can talk about trains, death metaphors, and near-death experiences, but I thought I could meet at least part of that need by reflecting on death in literature here.

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Tabletop Highlight: What to do When You TPK

It finally happened. Because of some mistakes, poor decisions, or just a run of bad luck, you’ve encountered your first TPK. Don’t worry! A Total Party Kill isn’t the end of the world! You have options! But first, as you should do any time you have a serious, potentially irreversible character death or one that felt like a particularly stinky pile of bullshit, take some time away from the table to breath. Thankfully, only characters have died. The players can still play, the DM can still run, and the game can go on. However, it will likely be different. That’s okay, though. Every time anything major happens, the game changes. This will be just one more of those changes.

The first option is generally the easiest. Instead of being killed, the party has been captured and now must escape the clutches of some dreaded foe. Finally, the rogue can put that escape artist skill to use! The paranoid ranger who has a chime of opening hidden on his person is finally vindicated! The barbarian… well, they just hulk out like usual, but it’s still fun! They’re short on gear, don’t have many hit points, and are on a time limit! They need to escape quickly or quietly. If they’re spotted, they need to move fast. If they get stuck, they might need to make some tough choices about who lives and who dies. If they can remain hidden, they might need to find the hole in the guard rotation so they can escape undetected. Maybe they need to talk their way out and suddenly the paladin’s high charisma is good for more than never failing a save. Or maybe the wizard finally gets a chance to show just how capable he can be in a pinch, even without an hour to prepare his spells. No matter what choice you make, it’s sure to make a memorable adventure.

The next easiest option is to have a conversation with your players. There are three options most players take, sometimes individually but usually as a group. First, they might elect to create all new characters who are going to pick up from where their previous characters left off. Sometimes they’re intentionally recovering the remains, sent on a mission to find the now-dead characters by whoever sent the characters in the first place. Sometimes they’re doing their own thing and stumble over the remains of the dead characters and choose to pick up from where they left off. If they don’t do that, another option might be to just create new characters in the same world, doing their own thing, in a space far from where their characters died. Maybe they’ll eventually have to defeat the villain their previous characters fell to at some point, but maybe not. This is a new adventure and that doesn’t mean they need to even inhabit the same world, much less inhabit the same area of said world. The third option is to decide to stop playing. Some players might decide they want to move on to something else, now that the journey their character was on came to a conclusion. That’s totally fine, as long as they’re not departing angrily. If they are, or if all of your players are choosing to abandon ship now that their characters are dead, it might not be a bad idea to look back and assess if you were running a game they wanted to keep playing.

Another option, which would require a lot of work to keep the players from feeling like you just saved them for expediency, would be to have them wake up in a stronghold of an ally. Maybe they were brought back to life or maybe they were rescued, but it must have been for an important reason, whatever the method. Maybe this ally wants to use them for something and figured having a group of adventurers in their debt due to being returned from death would be sufficient motivation to get them to do whatever this ally wants. Maybe it isn’t an ally but a previously neutral NPC who wants the characters to work for them. Perhaps there’s even some kind of curse or geas placed on the characters that forces them to work for this NPC and now they need to not only pursue their given goals but figure out how to escape from the NPC controlling them. This would be a lot of fun because it’d require a lot of clever thinking on the part of the players, though I can understand that it wouldn’t work for every group.

There’s always an undead campaign. It’d work really well if they died fighting a necromancer or failed to disrupt some horrid ritual that would give the souls of everyone mortal on the material plane to some evil god. Maybe something didn’t go entirely wrong and some aspect of who the characters was before their transformation lingers. With the right kind of build-up, you could create an adventure where they either embrace their new undead forms or find a way to undo their transformations. Maybe they find the last divine caster in the area who was saved from the ritual because they were praying within a consecrated area and they can be returned to life. Or maybe they figure out how to save their souls and then take on the new undead overlords before (or maybe after) using a miracle spell to return the world to the way it was before the ritual went off.

There’s always retconjuration, the magic of changing how things happened, but that almost always feels cheap unless they died because they all rolled a bunch of fails in a row while their enemies rolled nothing but natural twenties. I’d recommend against it if you have literally any other option. You could also effectively un-do their death by stripping them of their gear and saying they managed to just barely survive, but they were looted and left for the vultures. Whoever beat them did to them what they’ve likely done to countless other humanoids and monstrous races. That would be a fun spin on things and I’d love to see how a group of players recovers from being stripped of everything that wasn’t hidden. I love creating moments for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking, so I’d really enjoy seeing what my players did in that case. I might do it as a one-off, sometime, just to see.

All of your options pretty much fit into three categories. Figure out how to get the current characters back into play (capture, not-quite-dead, or undead), create new characters (who may or may not encounter the corpses of their former selves), or just stop playing. If you have any ideas of other options, besides what I’ve listed here, I’d love to hear about them! I’m really curious about what other people do in TPK scenarios when they come up.

What A Headache

Ed woke with his head throbbing in pain. Someone was banging on something, but he couldn’t tell where it was coming from, so he looked for the source.

His shelves held their usual dusty allotment of trophies and books. His dresser was covered in dirty clothes and the TV on it was showing the logo of his DVD player, as it always did after he fell asleep watching it. His desk was covered in junk mail he hadn’t gotten around to shredding and a neat stack of bills he hadn’t paid yet.

Guilt picked at him, but he dismissed it. He already tried to get extensions and they’d work it out eventually. It’s not like he had much they could take.

The banging hadn’t gone away, so Ed climbed to his feet to go looking for it. When he stood up, his foot caught on something. As he turned to look, his door burst open and his roommate flew in.

“Dammit, Ed!”

Ed winced. “Even if I don’t have rent yet, that’s no reason to break down my door.”

Matthew dashed past him and Ed turned around to see Matthew start giving CPR to someone. A wave of shock swept through him as he realized Matthew was giving CPR to him, but it quickly passed.

Ed watched, curious despite himself, and unable to muster up more than vague apprehension about Matthew’s attempts to save his life. After a minute, Matthew’s screams for an ambulance and demands that Ed stay faded to grunts. A few minutes later, when the EMTs arrived, Ed realized what had happened.

“Sleep apnea.” Ed shook his head. “I really should have gotten that checked out.” Ed drifted towards the window to watch his body get hauled away. “At least I don’t have to pay my bills.”

Tabletop Highlight: Dungeons & Dragons Under The Sea.

Underwater or otherwise water-centric (sailing) campaigns for D&D Are generally set up from the start as a campaign focused around the water or underneath it. Races will be adapted for wet environments, every actually puts skill ranks in the Swim skill, and everyone makes dexterity-based characters because no one wants to be the person in heavy armor who sinks and then drowns before they can get out of their armor. At this point, handling underwater combat, the drowning rules, and how movement works is fairly academic. It is just one more bit of math that needs to happen for the players to take their turns and determine their actions.

You generally do not see a lot of mixing water environments and non-water environments. It happens occasionally, as most land-based campaigns need to cross water at some point. Oceans, rivers, lakes, marshes, and underground lakes in dungeons are all fairly popular. At that point, the players are forced to scramble. If they have time to prepare, a typical Dungeons and Dragons part can figure out a way to get everyone across safely and have a few plans in place for accidents. If they’re just shown a bit of water they have to cross in a dungeon, they will still plan. Their resources are just somewhat more limited.

Unless the campaign established that water environments are going to be a big part of the campaign, most of the players probably won’t look up the rules for swimming. The rules are fairly straight-forward. The swimming skill check to move around in water is dependent on the type of water. Still water is very easy, while flowing water is harder, floods are harder still, and stormy oceans or rocky rapids in rivers are incredibly dangerous. When swimming underwater, there are a few more things to consider, such as how long the character can hold their breath, what can affect that (fighting something underwater makes them run out of breath more quickly), and then what happens once they run out of breath. The rules are pretty brutal, but so is water. If the water is still enough that the checks are easy, some good common-sense practices like having a plan for extra air (extra-dimensional storage spaces are often full of air) or knowing how far you have to go to get back to the surface are a must.

Unfortunately, those do not always happen. After a few sessions involving water, including a couple close-calls, on of my players finally had a character drown. The character was a Halfling, so his movement was barely worth mentioning underwater, even though I’ve house-ruled half-speed movement instead of the usual quarter, and though he had plenty of rounds for holding his breath, he spent a lot of them fighting something because he tried to be invisible underwater as a means of sneaking past the security octopus. Invisibility is mostly ineffective in water, since an invisible person still displaces water, and there’s very little other cover to provide a means of effectively stealthing your way up to an octopus for a sneak attack.

The rest of the party, of course, helped him kill the octopus, but the Halfling couldn’t make it back to the surface in time, failed his constitution checks to survive, and then died before anyone could get him to the surface since no one else was a very strong swimmer. Tragic, of course. The scout then set a land-speed record for getting his body back to the druids for reincarnation because that isn’t his original body and a standard Raise Dead spell wouldn’t exactly work the way they wanted. But that’s a story for another day.

Sticking aquatic environment adventures into my dungeons is always a tricky concept. I had two possible traps that involved water in the first dungeon my players encountered, but the plan for those dungeons was to radically shift the campaign if the party got trapped by them, since it would have swept them all away. I left them out for a while, because the party wouldn’t really have an answer for them and they’re difficult to deal with. Also, to be entirely fair, the number of monsters and creatures that’d maintain water features in dungeons instead of just living in underwater dungeons is rather small. There just isn’t much of a need for them in most low-mid to mid level adventures. There’s plenty of other ways to kill a party. At the same time, water can be a great equalizer. Unless they’re specifically prepared for it, a high-level party has no advantage over water that a low-level party wouldn’t have as well. Drowning can kill anyone, no matter their level.

If you want some good resources on water combat, D20SRD.org has some useful information and the SRD section of dandwiki.com contains a lot of important info as well. Otherwise, feel free to make it up when you need it. Just make sure to write it down so you’re consistent. As I said when the Halfling drowned, “Everyone has to follow the rules, even the DM.” Once you set a rule, stick to it.