Here lies Cade Ratcatcher, halfling rogue and pest exterminator, elected mayor of the village of Crannock and lately leader of a party of adventurers who have saved the world from imminent destruction on at least two separate occasions.
Cade met his end in the jungles of Teth while engaged in mortal combat with the foul snake people who inhabit that distant place, but it was not flashing fangs nor constricting coils that killed him. Instead, he was undone by an unlucky stumble which left him flat on his back with his trusty dagger buried up to the hilt in his skull.
His death was instantaneous, shocking and, above all, hilarious.
As an adventurer in Dungeons & Dragons, you are living on borrowed time from the minute you make your first roll of the dice. We spend hours dreaming up and creating characters with a rich histories only to watch them get cut down in their prime (and, more often than not, before reaching a paragon path). It’s almost funny. Almost.
Unlike movies and books where, as you watch or read, you know the main character has an extremely high life expectancy, D&D campaigns offer no such promises. You aren’t going to find a hero like John McClain who, regardless of being shot repeatedly or having to pull glass out of his bare feet, will survive to face the final boss and even make a clever quip before finishing him off. There is no one like Dutch who, after the slaughter of his entire commando unit, figures out how to defeat the big bad monster by simply hiding in mud. Regardless of how clever and well prepared you are in D&D, it will more than likely end one of two ways for you: badly or bloody.
This is one of the things that makes Dungeons & Dragons exciting and separates it from conventional storytelling. Characters are lost, killed, cursed, resurrected, retired, corrupted – it doesn’t matter what their individual fates are. The story continues to evolve, both according to their whims and in spite of them.
You fall on your weapon and it pierces your skull. Death is instantaneous.
There is no assurance that the heroes you or any of your friends create for the first game will be standing victorious at the end of the campaign. It is like watching an 80s hair metal band that is still touring under the same name but without any of the original members (or maybe just the drummer that nobody really counted in the first place). The show must go on, but your group may include all new members playing that same old tune.
This is why you should never get attached to your character.
Our 4th Edition campaign has some house rules to keep it interesting, including the use of a critical hit/fumble chart from an older edition. In essence, if you roll a 20 on your attack roll, something awesomely violent happens to your opponent and on a roll of a 1, something bad
happens to you. How good or bad is determined by a second roll, this time 1 to 100, which determines the exact nature of the effect. Theoretically, this accounts for the fact that sometimes, despite all the accumulated skill of a combatant, a lucky shot or a bad break can determine a fight against all odds.
At our most recent game, during a fairly straight forward warm-up encounter against a small group of outwardly fierce but statistically inferior snake men, Cade Ratcatcher rolled a 1 to attack.
For five years, Cade had led a ragtag group of heroes in defending the world from evil (and making a pretty solid paycheck to boot). As the wildcard with a crazy plan, he wasn’t always the first into the fray, but he was usually the one saving the day. He was lucky, until he wasn’t.
We broke out the fumble chart and the hundred sided die was rolled. It came up 100, the worst possible result. “You fall on your weapon and it pierces your skull. Death is instantaneous.”
Now, plenty of characters in the party have died and on more than one occasion, but never in such a spectacularly accidental way. After everything we had seen in the game and every hard fought battle, the thing that did Cade in was two incredibly bad rolls in succession. It was senseless, against all odds and monstrously funny at the same time. We all laughed for a long time.
But we were mid-combat, so we had to keep going.
We finished the battle and when the dust settled, a new character was rolled up. That was it. There was no fanfare, we just moved on. It is a game after all. Cade was soon replaced by a dragon hunting paladin by the name of Samm. The world is still in danger. There are still villains to defeat.
The story goes on.
with Stu Horvath