Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Are You Gonna Go My Way?

I love role-playing games, but I hardly ever play them. Don't get me wrong, I run games as often as I can, but I'm always refereeing. I love being the DM. It's the act of creation that serves as the draw for me. When it comes to role-playing, I love nothing more than creating deadly circumstances and watching how the players work their way out of it. Sometimes this goes according to my plan; other times, not so much.

I'm going to share two instances of this from my current D&D campaign, The World of Yezmyr. The first anecdote is about a time when things went my way, and the second—surprise, surprise—is about a time when they didn't. Now, I'm not the most sadistic DM out there, but I do tend to have fun at my players' expense. My dungeons are weird places. I wouldn't say that they're fun houses or anything, but they definitely have a malevolent edge.

Not too long ago the party was working their way through one of the levels beneath a particularly nasty ancient ruin. One of their number, Trebor the fighting-man, played by R, had recently died, having fallen into a deep and narrow pit. The other party members managed to haul his broken body out of the pit. They carried it for a while, but the burden became too great. The player characters unceremoniously dumped Trebor's body into an otherwise empty room. "We'll come back later and get the body," they said. Right.

Fast forward a half an hour or so. The party found a secret door that opened up a slew of heretofore undiscovered rooms. The players' excitement level increased as they began to explore afresh. In time they came across a large, pillared hall. "What do you want to do," I asked. "We enter the hall," they said. I threw some dice and informed them that Yazmine, Z's elven magic-user, had been encircled by a bright, penetrating, white light. A number of magic mouths then appeared on the hall's various walls and pillars. Before anyone could react, the magic mouths intoned, "O GREAT ADVENTURER, WHAT BE THY WISH?"

There were exhortations from the other players to "Wish for gold," to "Wish for health for all," and to "Wish for health and gold for everyone." I had to be very careful while all this was going on. My players know me well and they constantly analyze me, looking for telltale signs that they can use to their benefit. I didn't want to give anything away, so I did my damnedest to remain aloof. You see, there was a trick at play here. There was indeed a wish in effect, but the reverse of what was asked for would happen. I had no idea what the players would wish for when I keyed this room, but that didn't matter. Playing through this encounter would be fun, regardless. So here they were, caught up within its effect. In time, Z wished for "Trebor to be brought back to life." In unison, the magic mouths intoned, "OS TI LLAHS EB."

If Z had just followed the urgings of the other players then everyone would have taken damage and been slapped with the medieval equivalent of mountains of credit card debt. I suppose that's what I half expected to happen. As it turned out, I still got what I wanted. Z's request for Trebor to be brought back to life got translated by the warped enchantment of the place into a mandate for permanent death for Trebor.

To satisfy the reverse wish—and ensure that the body would be useless if presented to high level clerics back in town—I had it consumed by a carrion crawler. There was a nest of the foul creatures located not far from where the the party had dumped Trebor's body. Up until that point I had been rolling dice periodically to determine whether a carrion crawler in the vicinity had sniffed out a tasty treat. However, given the current situation, it was clear that a carrion crawler not only found Trebor's corpse, but was consuming it—from the head down!

I wish I had a picture of the players' collective faces when they finally managed to make it back to the room where they had left Trebor's body. It was slack jaws and wide eyes all the way around the table as I described the horrid scene. The carrion crawler had managed to work its way from the head down to the gut. It was clear that there would be no resurrection for this corpse. In the end, the player characters wasted the carrion crawler, Trebor's player, R, rolled up a new character, and the game continued. Best of all, there's still an occasional mention of Trebor's glorious corpse.

The second anecdote is about a time when things didn't really go my way. It's not nearly as lengthy a story, so I will be brief. The player characters had managed to fight their way down to an evil temple deep beneath the sunlit surface. They had hacked their way through what seemed like an endless horde of undead temple guardians, and made it to the final hall, a sunken affair with an obsidian floor. Surely the EHP and his minions would be found at the end of this accursed place. "Forward to death," I encouraged everyone with a smile.

The players noted the unsual floor with trepidation and refused to set foot on it, much to my chagrin. I had at least expected a tentative foot so that I could roll the dice for damage: the floor was magicked to shock those who were not of chaotic alignment. Perhaps a cliche ploy, but seemed valid since this was a chaos temple. My players, however, were not biting. Instead of running across the floor, which I surmised would have removed a reasonable number of hit points from them, they instead threw zombie carcasses out onto the floor. In this manner they formed a path as they went, ultimately traversing the obsidian obstacle without taking a single point of damage. I was admittedly nonplussed. I shouldn't have been—my players are quite smart; I shouldn't have expected anything less from them. In this particular case Z noticed that I was aggro and called me on it. Touche! In the end, the player characters slew the EHP and his minions and escaped from the dungeons with their lives intact. Oh yeah, they got some treasure, too.

Sometimes the action goes the way I want it to and sometimes it doesn't. I can try and influence the direction that play takes, but in the end it's the players who are the ones driving. Regardless of where we all end up, we always manage to have a good time. My players tell me that the game is fun, and they keep coming back, so that's all that really matters.

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