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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Gaming Stories: The Evolution of Claude the Clydesdale

A long-running campaign of mine transitioned from several weeks in a massive dungeon to a cross-country trek. The party featured a paladin with a celestial horse and a sorcerer who rode a phantom steed. The final PC didn’t have any mount. She wasn’t really interested in getting one, but the rest of the group twisted her arm and convinced her that she needed to buy a horse. She did, and she named it Claude Awesome the Awesome Clydesdale.

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Deck of Many Things

Gaming Stories: Pick a Card

Every once in a while, I like to send the PCs against a monster that’s just out of their league. When you’re low-level, encountering an adult dragon or a lich can still be fun. The only difference is that the goal stops being killing the other guy and taking his stuff and becomes a matter of survival. After all, sometimes the monsters want to kill some adventurers and take their stuff.

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Council of Thieves Carriage

Gaming Stories: The Ignominious Death of Machiavelli

This is a story about chaos and mismanaged expectations. It involves the death of a PC whose player had only started gaming two sessions ago. Somehow, my botched GMing didn’t drive him away from the tabletop for good and in fact became a tale that many who were there recall fondly.

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Gaming Stories: The Evil Tree Spirit

Originally published in Knights of the Dinner Table #146

The quest was a simple low-level affair: men in a small lumber town were disappearing into the forest. All the PCs had to do was find out what was going on and put a stop to it.

The culprit was a lonely dryad that had been luring men into the forest and charming them to keep her company. I had planned the session out as a diplomatic session, since I figured the PCs weren’t going to outright slaughter an apparently innocent dryad. This was going to be the session that taught the adventurers that not every problem needs to be solved with swordplay. A nice thought on my part, but not a plan that would endure the night.

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