Sunday, 20 October 2019

[BLOG] Beyond Erillion



It was over. The five adventurers turned their backs on the twilight battlefield with its scattered boulders and the great standing stone over an ominous burial mound, walking back through the dark forests towards the slowly fading rainbow bridge which would lead them out of the enchanted valley among the silent mountains. The Inheritance which had eluded them all this time was safely contained, to be gradually forgotten again by living men – or was the Inheritance the secret they now held in their hands, as its new guardians?

A proper ending to a long-running campaign is not something you see every time. Most attempts at continuous games trail off, fall apart due to scheduling issues or a clash of interests, stop in their tracks as the participants run out of ideas or encounter an insurmountable roadblock, or are just replaced by newer and newer ideas. The “full-length AD&D experience” as envisioned in the rulebooks is often more ideal than practice. It is quite nice, then, that we could finish The Inheritance, our latest game series, on a suitably high note. It is done – and here are my reflections and findings about the experience.

Enchanted mountains
Campaign dynamics

Our campaign lasted the better part of three years, running from October 2016 to September 2019, covering exactly 100 in-game days over 35 sessions. Our sessions grew more scarce in the last year – scheduling issues, sure, but also the changing nature of the adventures as the game flowed towards its finale. This is a common pattern in campaigns I have been involved in: a relatively unfocused, exploratory first phase; consolidation towards sub-objectives; and finally a more straightforward resolution arc (with fewer, but individually longer game sessions). Character power also contributes here: low-level adventurers must be careful opportunists looking for openings where they may succeed, while mid- and high-level ones can increasingly dictate the pace and enforce their will on the game world. As it happens, the characters in our game were exactly name level when we wrapped it up, going from 3rd to 9th at a rate of approximately 4-5 sessions per level (with some setbacks due to dead characters). This is faster than the Gygaxian standard, but at the frequency we can meet and sit down to game, my relative generosity with XP made for a good pace of advancement.

This is Bait
This was also a campaign which had chewed up all of the starting characters. I started out with a common motivation for the party – a mysterious letter of inheritance they had all received, promising riches and power in a ruined manor house. My idea was to use this initial spark to establish a common party goal, create hooks for further adventures, while allowing for complete freedom in reaching the clues leading to the Inheritance proper. My original plan was derailed pretty much instantaneously as the players followed an ad-hoc adventure hook instead of the main course, then followed it up with a colossal blunder that got them sold into galley slavery. Furthermore, the initial sequence of adventures ended in disaster as all but one player character was unceremoniously killed by a fireball under the ruins of Perladon Manor, a place of no outstanding significance.

As a result, a lot of the middle arc of the campaign was spent reorienting and finding our way again. Ironically, this left the planned “rival NPC adventurer party” to pretty much act unimpeded, and gather the magical geegaws required to obtain the mysterious Inheritance for their own – essentially becoming the protagonists of their own campaign until they were successfully (although not at all easily) dispatched in the grand finale. This changed the campaign in ways I did not foresee: it made it much longer (I originally expected it to end when the character were around level 6 or 7), and refocused it fairly thoroughly. A “tentpole dungeon” I envisioned for multiple forays as the campaign would progress, the tombs beneath the Valley of Barzak Bragoth, never came into play, and was left as a vague outline (if you ever play a campaign on Erillion, you can use Barrowmaze or a similar dungeon in its place). Areas I thought would become important became footnotes, while others gained significance. In the end, Erillion became a more complex place for it – larger in scope and detail than I had envisioned, and with a layer of unsolved puzzles which, in my mind, help establish it as a “real” place. Some discoveries shall wait for a different group to solve!

As an important aside, the party mostly lacked something usually taken for granted in D&D: a cleric. The cleric characters who joined the group died or left, leaving a constant need for non-magical healing. I employed a mixture of low-yield healing options, from first aid rules to healing berries and natural rest, all treated a little more generously than the rules tend to do, but turning hit points into a more strategic resource. Likewise, the party never gained access to raise dead spells (although it was not out of the question), and dead characters were simply buried and replaced with new 3rd-level adventurers (6th-level ones in the last stage of the campaign). This is not an entirely new experience, as the concept had been germinating since our second Fomalhaut campaign and the historical fantasy of Helvéczia, but it worked out especially well. Modern D&D loses a lot from its long-term dimension due to the abundance of player resources, and sometimes, even old-school D&D feels overly generous when it comes to replacing spells and hit points. In this game, the players often had to consider the hard choice between timed tasks (events moving at their own pace if they didn’t act) and fully replenished resources, and were often forced to operate at sub-optimal efficiency, particularly on higher levels. This made the campaign more low-powered than the default, and kept it challenging and tense to the very end.

The Isle of Erillion
Adventures and the campaign setting

As vanilla fantasy does, Erillion was clearly inspired by the British Isles, a place I only know from secondary sources (my one brief visit to London was a trip to a strangely placeless global metropolis, and does not count). The mood of the island was influenced by the idea of successive civilisations each leaving their mark on territory before fading away, and leaving behind their ruins and half-remembered legends. This is perhaps best captured by The Ruin, an Old English poem wondering about what had once been, and which, along with the painting to the top of this post, gave me the initial spark for the setting.

Of course, the main texture of the adventures comes from 1st edition AD&D, particularly the DMG and The Secret of Bone Hill (through a Hungarian pulp fantasy series), and my aim was to capture that kind of experience, to return to that particular brand of adventurer fantasy I had always loved. I seeded my sandbox setting with adventures borrowed from the classics library: Huberic of Haghill became the main hub for the start of the campaign, Citadel of Fire was used for “The Mage Tower”, a place where magic-users and illusionists would go for their trials, and all three Giants modules were placed in remote mountain locations of the map (the characters never found G2, gave G1 a wide berth, and mistakenly entered the gates of G3, but fled once they realised they were in over their heads). A few more modules, old and new, were distributed in various locales. Bone Hill and Restenford could not be used directly – every old-school gamer in Hungary knows it too well through those novels to be of use – so I ended up paraphrasing them in The Mysterious Manor (Echoes #01) and the city of Baklin (hopefully published early 2020), places of my own creation.

I envisioned the campaign as a mixture between hex-crawl-based wilderness exploration and site-based dungeoneering and city adventuring. Somewhere along the way, I got infatuated with smaller pointcrawls, and ended up designing multiple forest adventures (and a large mountain expedition) in a “deep wilderness sandbox”. Enchanted forests are not too commonly seen among D&D adventures, and I liked the challenge of this unexplored domain. As it turns out, they are very rewarding to construct and run using a combination of trail maps and landmark-based navigation. In these adventures, the “dungeon walls” are permeable (although increasing random encounter frequency, the chance of being lost, and convenience tend to keep parties mostly on the road), and finding a high observation point gives away, if not the full map, at least some of its interesting features. Two examples of these adventures were published as The Swine Lord and The Wandering Glade (in Echoes #02 and #06, respectively); I can wholeheartedly recommend other people to try their hands at making one – just describe your forest or swamp as a regular dungeon, and go wild with it.

The Valley of Lost Graves
How do you keep a vanilla fantasy setting fantastic? My solution was to use a basic texture of (relative) realism for most of the milieu, but keep plenty of hidden or distant places as enchanted locales – sometimes what Moorcock described in Wizardry and Wild Romance as “the exotic landscape”. If you stay in the well-trod areas, you are in a world of scheming orcs, craven magic-users, feudal lords, Northman raiders and ambitious merchants, but go off track, and you enter an unexplored and mostly uncharted world of faerie enigmas, spatial anomalies, lost ruins and shadowy forest realms, where mundane logic gradually gives way to the working mechanisms of symbolism and uneasy dreams. One of the guiding concepts behind Erillion was that civilisation mostly stuck to the coastal areas and a small road network connecting mostly maritime cities, and civilisation could never really make great headway further inland. The deep woodlands and forbidding mountains of the island could contain entire pocket worlds far from human eyes. The key to the experience was keeping alive this contrast – and gradually, letting the players come close to the island’s deeper and more carefully guarded mysteries where all bets were off.

For its small size and self-contained nature (with about the land mass of Ireland), you can put a lot of stuff in a sandbox of this scope. One of the things that informed the campaign background was the variety of competing cultures and ideas, for whom Erillion would be both meeting point and place of conflict: barbaric Northmen raiders living in a combination of anarchy and petty tyrannies in an archipelago of island kingdoms; the disintegrating Twelve Kingdoms, locked in a perpetual civil war; the southern empire of Kassadia, the local equivalent of a Roman Empire that never fell to outside invasion but effectively dissolved into competing city states; and Erillion’s lost kingdoms, which had all left behind ideas and legacies, however vague. I did not really think through all of these details at the setting’s inception (the setting information was consciously almost all bottom-up and adventure-derived), but the details emerged over play, and made for a nice, cohesive whole, influencing internal divisions, and contributing to the different feel of different parts of the island.

So what’s next beyond Erillion? I still have two campaigns of variable frequency to run: Morthimion, an OD&D dungeon; and Kassadia, a game set in the aforementioned Roman/Italian setting. I also have plans outside D&D, for a Mini-Six (simplified D6 Adventure) campaign set in a setting inspired by the Cherubion trilogy, my favourite set of Hungarian science-fantasy novels (this is where the character of Melan comes from), and featuring the clash of primitive and advanced civilisations. As for Erillion, the paper folders now return to the bookshelf, although some materials are still to be published in Echoes or elsewhere – and we will see how it goes.

Drusus the Historian and Phil the Terror of Turkeys make a new friend
Characters (in order of appearance)

+Gadur Yir (Gabor Izapy): half-orc Fighter 5. The only survivor from the first party, Gadur Yir was resourceful, lucky, and sometimes even up to the ideals set by Haldor, god of heroism… until he was cornered and killed by Argul the Demented, an undead barbarian warlord buried beneath the city of Baklin.

+Jonlar Zilv (Kalman Farago): human Bard 4. He was petrified by a cockatrice among the ruins of Perladon Manor.

+Harmand the Reckless (Gabor Acs): half-orc Cleric 4 (of Zeltar, God of Fortune). An adventurer in the classic sense, he sought risk and reward in equal measure. He was eventually fireballed by Godfred Perladon in the crypts beneath Perladon Manor.

+Einar Sigurdsson (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): Northman Fighter 4. Einar’s origins as a sea wolf came handy after the company orchestrated a slave uprising and took over the dragonship of Lady Geranith, a northern princess. He would have become an able sea captain, were he not also fireballed by Godfred Perladon in the crypts beneath Perladon Manor.

+Sufulgor del’Akkad (Laszlo Feher): human Cleric 3 of Kurlakum of the Seven Misfortunes. A truly wretched follower of an evil deity with delusions of grandeur (“just call me the Master of the Night!”), his way towards more substantial villainy was cut short during the siege of a homestead ruled by a small clan of werewolves. Trying to save his skin, he offered his cut-off nose and a terrible oath as a sacrifice to his deity, but it was of no use, and he was torn apart by wolves.

+Elandil Hundertwasser (Laszlo Feher): elf Cleric 3 of Irlan the Merciful. Coming from “the forests of song and harp-music in the distant West”, he made an instant impression with his flower-embroidered green cloak, and sayings like “It is a great sorrow, that man may not become a flower”. He was fireballed by Godfred Perladon in the crypts beneath Perladon Manor.

Drölhäf Haffnarskørung (Kalman Farago): Northman Fighter/Thief 9. Coming from a culture best known on Erillion for raiding and indiscriminate violence, Drolhaf (who earned his ümläüts over the span of the campaign) was a civilised barbarian who even had “soap” listed on his character sheet. Serving the interests of Gladuor, God of Aqueducts and human progress, he survived the campaign, and joined the Knights of Jolanthus Kar to keep peace on the island.

+Franz Who Wasn’t Even There (Laszlo Feher): human Illusionist 4. A talented “background player” who manipulated things from the back ranks with 6 Hp, he was, eventually, flattened into a paste by a boulder trap in the Singing Caverns.

Phil the Terror of Turkeys: hobbit Thief 9. Using several aliases (“Greg the Rat-catcher”, “Jan Quietstep”, “Uncle Philemon”, “Karl, the Guardian of the Flower”), this jovial and portly-looking hobbit grew into a frighteningly efficient killer by the end of the campaign, especially once he got his hands on the ring of gateways (which gave him the ability of using dimension door). He was also known for his love for mushrooms, which he knew very well.

+Dawn of the Southern Climes (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): elf Bard. His name a poor translation of the much more flavourful “Délszaki Hajna”, he was encountered in a valley known for an enchanted flower. On the way out through a sequence of cavern passages, he was caught and strangled by a ghost.

+Balthasar the Elf-bane (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): dwarf Cleric 3 of Haldor, God of Heroism. He was flattened into a paste by a boulder trap in the Singing Caverns.

(+) Buck (Laszlo Feher): half-orc Cleric 3 of Agak the orc-god. A walking disaster instantly hated by the rest of the party, he saw fit to retire after just one adventure. He was encountered much later as a much more powerful NPC cleric in the orc fortress of Tol Grannek, and was defeated during an epic battle at what would later be called Orc-Kill Pass, backstabbed by Phil the Terror of Turkeys with a dagger carrying rock spider venom. Petrified, the lifeless body of Buck was left as eternal reminder of the great slaughter.

Drolhaf Haffnarskorung, Silver Olaf Thorvaldson and Armand the Scumbag
encounter suspicious barbarians on the Plateau of Faces
Lafadriel Hundertwasser (Laszlo Feher): elf Fighter 9. An armoured knight and much less talented minstrel (with a Strength of 12 and a Charisma of 8!), Lafadriel came from “the distant West” to find and bury his dead brother, Elandil Hundertwasser. Of a gloomier disposition than Elandil, his poetic adventures were either wildly successful or complete flops, with no place in between. He survived the campaign, and true to his word, returned to his homeland with Elandil’s remains.

Armand the Scumbag (Istvan Boldog-Bernad): human Assassin 9. An ominous stranger from the distant and decadent, Italy-inspired lands of Kassadia, Armand, who had sometimes also called himself “Yil the Mysterious” (but was really called Arianus) was sent by his brotherhood to investigate the opportunities for expanding the business on the Isle of Erillion. Finding himself in the middle of a bid for power by the assassins of Gont, who had betrayed, and were slowly killing off the rival crime networks on the island, his cover soon compromised, he successfully turned the tables to his own advantage, and – when the campaign was finished – managed to take over the local crime business.

+Drusus the Historian (Gabor Izapy): human Magic-User 6. Coming from the southern lands, Drusus was tasked by his new mentor, the wizard Slarkeron, to bring him the brain of a mind scrambler to let him take the Test of Mastery. Ironically, Drusus met his end much later in the icy mountains, in the secluded tower of a mind scrambler, which had reduced him to a drooling vegetable and sucked out his brains.

Silver Olaf Thorvaldson (David Barsony): northman Cleric 3 of Edoran the Mysterious. A puzzling figure who would occasionally appear out of nowhere, join the company for an adventure or two, then disappear just as mysteriously. This is something the others had found creepy – was he following them? Was he a spy? A dimensional anomaly? He was not telling.

+Yaxur (Gabor Izapy): human Cleric 6 of Roxana, Goddess of Death. Yaxur joined the party after Drusus’ unfortunate demise, and lasted all of a half session. Coming to a great stone throne on a high mountain peak buffeted by icy winds, Yaxur was the first to encounter Kornax the Revenger, a powerful anti-paladin cursed to this place. Yaxur won the fight by ambushing Kornax with a hold person spell and killing him outright (thereby winning the powerful sword of chaos), but he did not count on Kornax coming back from the dead next night and massacring him without breaking a sweat.

Zartan (Gabor Izapy): Illusionist 7. He was the last to join the group, suddenly appearing among the mountains in his elegant clothes. Was he motivated by anything more insidious than a desire for loot and new spells? The world would never know.

Grey Ooze : Magic Spear 1:0
Notable quotes

Jonlar Zilv, musing about the party alignment: “If I sold you lot out to Lord Gramantik, my alignment would move a notch towards ‘good’.”

Gadur Yir: “Werewolf wounds! We must burn them out with fire.”
Jonlar Zilv: “I am already feeling better!”

Einar Sigurdsson: “I believe we should stop exploring hypothetical realms of fantasy, and go loot that manor house.”

Jonlar Zilv, stoned: “I call it ‘temporary invulnerability’.”
Harmand the Reckless: “I call you our ship’s new figurehead.”

Elandil’s player, after a near-TPK, where Elandil and the rest were torn into bits by a fireball: “But who will now make the world a better place?”
Someone else: “Not you.”
Someone else 2: “Was this a homemade module?”
Elandil’s player: “Do you really think anyone else could make up something like a shadow shooting a fireball?
Someone else 3: “The ecological footprint of Gygaxian Naturalism strikes again.”

Gadur Yir, about 500 gp worth of cave crystals: “The two of us mined it together, while the rest of you were cowardly homos. It is ours.”
Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: “In civilisation, everyone does his own share of work. We guarded the passage while you were exploring, and we have our due.”
Gadur Yir: “A Marxist barbarian!”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys, under attack by a giant stag beetle, to Drolhaf: “It is going for your horned helmet; it just wants to mate with you!”
(…)
Gadur Yir: “I wipe the bug juices from my rations.”
Franz Who Wasn’t Even There: “You wanted to play David Fucking Attenborough, wise guy.”

Franz Who Wasn’t Even There: “This must be a gender-conscious sphynx.”

“Favoured enemy: Doors.”
Franz: “I am not really in love with this fucking door.”

Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, after Buck sent his new followers to their certain doom: “…But you are the follower of Agak, NOT Ayn Rand.”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “I slide the poor widow a coin as my condolences, and as a form of carousing.”
GM: “It is worth no XP because there is self-interest involved.”
Phil: “I take back the coin.”

Lafadriel’s player: “The menu is… gelatinous cube in aspic. And then, black pudding.”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “This was no random ambush.”
Armand the Scumbag: “It couldn’t have been meant for me.”
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “Who could have done such a thing?” – I ask the cruel stars, but there is no answer.
Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “I know these things and it was definitely meant for you. Look, Armand, it might be time for you to assume a fake name.”
Armand the Scumbag: “I am not very creative with these…”
Phil the Terror of Turkeys: “You could be… Armand the Clod!”

Drusus the Historian, dripping with water: “The grand master of sailing found us a leaky boat.”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “My whole wealth amounts to 25 gold pieces, but at least the light of the stars is mine.”

Someone: “Have the mugs been cleaned [in this pub]?”
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “When the world was young...”

“My god is Erdogan... no, Edoran!”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “This is a low-budget valley.”

Drolhaf to Lafadriel (after Drusus tried on the expensive boots and the golden diadem): “Is your god also Robespierre?”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “Rest here? In the Forest of Death?”
Drolhaf Haffnarskørung: “This is where we will screw the pooch.”
Drusus the Historian: “Just two or three days?”
Someone: “You have already died twice in this campaign.”
Someone 2: “Yeah right, the Forest of Death is famous for providing a healing rest.”

Silver Olaf Thorvaldson joins the party.
“We could use a few strong hands.”
“That’s two of them, because that’s how many you’ve got.”

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “The spiders are not evil… they are just different.

Armand the Scumbag, to a new party member: “Can you break curses?”
“Impotence is no curse!”

Silver Olaf Thorvaldson, looking at small figures in the distance: “Are these giants? …or dwarves?”

Phil the Terror of Turkeys, after encountering some giant goats guarding a gold vein: “We shouldn’t tell this tale in the pub… crapping our pants and chickening out when we saw a bunch of goats.”

“Why do you think you are the destined bearer of this sword?”
“The world has carried no greater scumbag than I.”

“What kind of moss isn’t suspicious?!”

“There is no more paper this way, let’s go in the other direction.”

Zartan has donned a helm of opposite alignment, turning from Chaotic Neutral to Lawful Neutral.
“Wait… he can’t steal from the party anyore!”
“Oh YEAH!”
“Yesssss!”
“It was worth it.”
“You are the reason we set guards at night.”



11 comments:

  1. Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing that!

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  2. Well I intended Buck to be cool by being way beyond any inhibition, someone like Frank Booth of Blue Velvet fame, but he turned out to be more like his other source of inspiration ("my name is Buck and I'm here to f***"). Looks like losing any inhibition isn't the free ticket to instant coolness, just to being a repulsive asshole. Still, Buck left his mark on the world as a monument at Orc Kill Pass, and one does not often get the opportunity to fight with one's own character against another.

    Anyway, thanks for the memories. I think I'm not overstating when I say the Heritage will stay with us for a long-long time to come.

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    1. Yeah. As I have said before, there is only a thin line separating Batman and Bateman, but that line matters.

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  3. It's games like these that keep us pulling up chairs time and again. Tremendous fun!

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  4. My character didn't die in the last couple of rounds of the last fight of the last session of the campaign. An absolute first for me in Melan's games.

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  5. This sounds absolutely brilliant. I love you observations about the unexplored (and undeveloped) areas adding ambiance and mystery to the world over time, and particularly how you walked the line between the civilized (vanilla) and fantastic elements. I am very intrigue to see what you did with enchanted forests.

    I must say, my own long running campaign (and attempts at world development barely a session ahead of the party's predicted direction) sounds like it resulted in a very similar experience and end-product. Surely this is not coincidence. The (1e?) campaign is a thing of beauty.

    Lastly, you statement "Modern D&D loses a lot from its long-term dimension due to the abundance of player resources, and sometimes, even old-school D&D feels overly generous when it comes to replacing spells and hit points." really hits the nail on the head for me. You have a keen eye for observations.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  6. This is good wholesome fare. I recognise your D&D instincts and find it easy to understand what you are about. You are lucky you can convince so many people to play D&D.

    I will say though that allowing players to carry on in situ with (new) characters of similar rank after a death is not far from the method of insulating player characters, without them knowing. I have tried both and prefer the latter for two reasons:

    i) the player tends to enjoy playing within a narrow band of character with any depth - even if he does start up a 'fresh' character.
    ii) the loss of groundedness of the player character in terms of associations, conversations, aspirations, grudges, the loss of historical depth is unbearable to me as a DM.

    To retain the necessary fear inherent in true risk for the players I encourage the early (low-level 3rd) adoption of hirelings (men at arms, etc) and the henchman who has no immunity. Again, players are never made aware their primary characters will not be killed, excepting stupidity.

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    1. We default to third as our starting level in most campaigns (although not OD&D), and I believe this is the standard Gary also adopted in his later years. Third-level characters are competent, well-rounded individuals who can take a few hits, but still have to be careful about their actions. It sidesteps the level 1-2 meatgrinder, which is also enjoyable, but different from what I was looking for here. (This is also the reason henchmen did not feature prominently.)

      Bumping this up to level six in the later stages of the campaign was intended to avoid major power disparities. As long as the difference is two or maybe three levels, I am fine, but more than that is getting too much. It is not entirely realistic (and my "you meet him on the road" approach to introducing new characters is even less so), but it works. It must also be noted that this is in the context of a game where raise dead was not available, fallen PCs were buried with their valuables, and all new characters started with the standard package of basic class equipment and 2d6*10 gp worth of stuff.

      Insulating characters is a temptation, but in the end, even my most story-minded player (posting here as Volja) had to realise it takes something away from the game which is only there if the stakes are always real and the dice are rolled scrupulously and openly. The 3rd level starting point is not a bad buffer, however. In OD&D, we use the helmet rule (but only for PCs).

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    2. ==Insulating characters is a temptation, but in the end, even my most story-minded player (posting here as Volja) had to realise it takes something away from the game which is only there if the stakes are always real and the dice are rolled scrupulously and openly.

      You are absolutely right. I have *never* met a player who would tolerate being patronised by being protected in a rigged game. I am they kind of DM who will huff and puff with disgust when I roll 'badly' and the players achieve success. The world I confront the players with is obscene, horrible, dangerous, they are always on their tip-toes. There are ways of dispiriting, disappointing, diminishing, mocking players without destroying their characters. Because I am so vigorous a critic, the players have *never* realised they are protected.

      In all honesty, as someone who understands probability mathematically, if I asked any DM to justify the sequence of probabilities that lead to a character death they, in many cases, would not be able to in a realistic way rather than a game way.

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  7. Wonderful recount of the campaign. So much to learn here.

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