On Character Death

Character death is a touchy subject in RPGs. Some people think the PCs should always be at risk, and that an adventure is an outright failure if at least one character doesn’t get killed off during the action. Others never have PCs bite the dust, using house rules that cause a hero to go unconscious but not die when the rules as written would have them pushing up daisies. And, as with any divisive topic with extreme opposite stances, the majority of players fall somewhere in the middle of that scale.

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Where Memory Lane and Rejection Road Meet

My house has too much stuff in it, so I went through my possessions to decide what needs to go. Finally, I came across my Big Box o’ Rejections.

When I first started writing, I decided to save all my rejection letters as a way to keep myself motivated. But now that rejections come electronically and are almost exclusively form letters – and now that I have a lengthy publications list – I don’t feel that I need it anymore. So this box has got to go.

The box itself contains rejections, old drafts of stories from writing workshops, and a few magazines and newspapers where I got my first publishing credits. As I sorted through old letters, I got the most enjoyment out of reading some old rejection letters from my high school days, when I wrote articles for Dragon Magazine.

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Gaming Stories: Curse Your Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal!

Night Below: An Underdark Campaign is a classic AD&D adventure that I purchased when it came out in the 1990s but which I never got to run all the way through until the 2010s. Beginning with D&D 3rd edition and eventually converting to Pathfinder, my final version of the campaign saw some changes, including revising the Rockseer elves and adding a secret villain behind the aboleth conspiracy: the Red Mage.

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Gaming Stories: Pirates of the Astral Sea

Well, that was certainly unexpected.

Last fall, my players greased up a rowboat and sent it hurtling down a waterslide of doom. They wound up in an entirely different world that used a version of the classic AD&D module Dungeonland, tweaked to fit with Pathfinder 2nd edition. And, well…they found a way out of Dungeonland. And now they have a bigger boat.

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Gaming Stories: A Contract with Mind Flayers

Over the course of several years, I ran Night Below: An Underdark Campaign in a multi-year game that spanned the gap between Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition and Pathfinder 1st edition. As we entered the endgame, the PCs learned that a group of aboleths had been kidnapping spellcasters in a bid to power a mighty structure that will extend their natural psychic domination abilities across the globe, effectively taking over the world.

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Gaming Stories: Rise and Fall of the Red Mage

Recurring villains are one of those storytelling elements that just seems next to impossible to translate into a role-playing game. A villain needs to make the players want to hate him, but he also needs to survive contact with the group. It’s easy to do one, but not both; if the players really hate a villain, they’ll often go all out to defeat him, plot be damned. There are only a handful of ways to keep a villain in live in that case: keep him behind a glass wall, illusory projection, or similar device to bestow plot armor, make him powerful enough to take the whole group on and win (in which case you run the risk of the players not knowing when to retreat), or use cheap GM fiat tricks to guarantee his survival…in which case you’re taking the “game” out of “role-playing game.”

I’ve been on both sides of the table on the matter. As a GM, I’ve watched guys I expected to be major villains gunned down, stabbed, or tossed out of windows. As a player, I’ve gone on murderous rampages to take down bad guys, sometimes sacrificing my own characters and sometimes ignoring the positive aspects of a villain’s personality because of my seething hatred of them. (In particular, my friend Nick once ran a game with a very good samurai villain who was not actually a bad guy but rather honor-bound into serving the big villain. He eventually tried joining the group, but I was so sick of getting my ass kicked by him at that point that I was quite hostile in the role-playing interaction, much to the detriment of the game.)

I’ve played RPGs for about twenty years, but I’ve only had a handful of really good villains. One of them is a decade old now and still going strong, much to my delight and the anguish of the players. Hailing from various Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder games, his name is Derrezen, but he is best known in my games as the Red Mage. This is a look at how he got introduced, what worked for him and what didn’t on his rise to villainy, and why he became a character my players loved to hate.

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Gaming Stories: Ride of the SS Stupid

The beauty of role-playing games lies in the stupidity of the PCs. Sometimes they will act with tactical precision and annihilate their foes, but often they will come up with the most ridiculous harebrained schemes imaginable. Those moments of glorious foolishness are where RPGs shine the brightest. Such was the case when the players in my Pathfinder game created the SS Stupid and set it off on its maiden voyage.

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The Many Faces of Elminster

I’m a Forgotten Realms player from my 2nd edition AD&D days, which means I got exposed to the setting right around the time that Elminster the Sage was crammed down players’ throats everywhere. He showed up in a great deal of Realms fiction, bothered PCs during official adventure modules, and even pestered the protagonist in the Baldur’s Gate videogames.

In most of his appearances, Elminster either served as an annoyance or suggested with his mere presence that the PCs were wholly unnecessary. After all, if a 29th-level wizard with multiple deities as his allies has his eye on something, mere mortals, no matter how well-intentioned, become redundant.

D&D‘s 4th edition tried to reverse course by stripping Elminster down to become less powerful, but he returned to his mighty stature with the transition to 5th edition. Yet despite his might, Elminster doesn’t have to be a nuisance to the PCs; there are many ways to present a massively powerful wizard without having him overshadow everything else. Here are a few optional takes on Elminster that jive with his official stats in most versions of D&D while giving him a twist to make his presence in a game less domineering.

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Why Don’t We Have More Good D&D Video Games?

The approaching full release of Baldur’s Gate III has a lot of gamers very hyped, and for good reason. It’s a high-end video game utilizing the ever-popular Dungeons & Dragons system…and it feels like it’s been forever. While fans got an expansion to an old classic with Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear in 2016, there hasn’t been an actual proper stand-alone D&D cRPG since Sword Coast Legends in 2015…and you have to go all the way back to Neverwinter Nights 2 to find one that was well-received.

Why the long layoff in titles and the difficulty in creating a solid game bearing the D&D trademark? With excellent cRPGS like Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity out there, why can’t the grandparent of all role-playing games follow suit? The answer, in my opinion, boils down to resources, creative restrictions forced by the property, and good old-fashioned corporate politics.

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AD&D Player's Handbook

The History of Dungeons & Dragons

Born in a basement in Wisconsin and spun together from a hodgepodge of borrowed rules, Dungeons & Dragons gave birth to an entire industry and remains a cultural icon almost half a century later. Other role-playing games have come along, but none have matched D&D‘s profile in the popular consciousness. In addition to a lesson on how creativity and innovation can create a hobby revolution, the history of D&D provides a very important lesson: what goes around comes around.

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