Updated: Jan 17
“I fireball the mindflayers,” is not a statement you often get to end a game of DnD with. Especially when you’re a party of five level 6 heroes, and there’s an even dozen of them.
One focus I'd like to bring into my blogging is why roleplaying gaming is good for us. Why you should feel good if you do it, why you should start if you don't, and why you should encourage your kids to play. (Possibly with you!) There's many reasons, but here's just one thing, and it's the reason we play any game: practice. This, after all, is the point of play--it is a way to practice skills that someday will be needed in earnest.
Roleplaying games give us the opportunity to think through complex situations and figure out where our moral compass lies on issues that may not be simple. It gives us the opportunity to imagine ourselves in myriad situations and reflect on those. Moments of crisis, the real turning points in our lives, may only happen a handful of times in an entire lifetime. And when you're there, you may not have the luxury of time and space to think it through! But if you've seen that situation before (and I think any form of storytelling here applies, but gaming, of course, puts you in the driver seat), then maybe you will have already thought through some of the issues at hand. That can help you make a good decision.
Here's a story of something I ran into in a recent game, and what I learned from it. This session taught me a lesson about courage.
If you’re thinking my DM is insane, you’re probably right. If you’re thinking I’m insane, you’re also probably right. Especially since, as the session started the following week, my very next action (after the fireball), was to activate my ghost step tattoo and sink through the floor to the level below, leaving my entire party to their fate. Very quickly, they were decimated by stunning, AOE, psychic attacks. Some of them never even got a chance to swing. Yeah… the artificer still has some abandonment issues after that.
So there I was, all alone. As the last of my party members on the floor above failed their Wis saves and got stunned, the DM said to the party, “OK, this fight is basically over. Unless Ashton wants to keep going.”
He turned to me, with the implication that if I kept fighting, he would keep rolling damage on my party—some of whom were getting very close to 0 hp and death saving throws—while if I gave up, the fight could be over. Sweet surrender could make the suffering stop.
The other players all looked at me. I swallowed hard and said I was not done.
Here’s the thing: the illithid had offered us our lives in exchange for our assistance, but we weren’t alone down there. We had 44 Feathergale Knights with us, loyal allies, there to help fight the mind flayers. This included the knight captain, Lord Thurl Meroska, his second, and the entire contingent of Feathergale magic-users.
If we accepted their offer, sure, we might get to walk out, but at what cost? The mind flayers had made it clear what their intent was. The very first thing they said to us when we led the knights into the sunken city was, “Thank you for your gift of 44 knights.” (I should have known something was up when the DM asked, as we were preparing, “So how many knights in total are you bringing with you? 44? Got it.”)
The Feathergale Order would be gutted if we left this core of their membership here to die. Not only would we lose an ally, but then we would have 44 mind-controlled knights (some of whom know magic) to deal with next time we tried to face the Illithid. I couldn’t leave friends to die like that. Besides, who knows what awful things they might ask of us in exchange for our own lives?
Also, I know my character, and he’s just not inclined to surrender, no matter how bad the circumstances look. (They looked bad.)
So all those knights and their juicy, juicy brains were currently downstairs, twiddling their thumbs, while the illithid mopped the floor with the rest of my party. Despite our best magical protections, they had mind-controlled the knight’s leader, Lord Meroska, and he had flatly refused to accompany us up the stairs. That is where I had fled to with my ghost step through the floor.
Wave after punishing wave continued upstairs. One of my party members went down, then another. One more attack would start bringing the failed death saves that could end lives. And finally, finally, 12 mind blasts later, it came back to my turn.
I was starting to feel very out of my depth, when the DM again said, “Ashton, it’s you. The fight is over if you want it to be. What do you do?”
I have rarely been more stressed in a DnD game. It was starting to feel like the fight was over, regardless of what I did. And if I kept pointlessly pushing, I’d just get my friends killed.
But surrendering just isn’t in this character’s nature. And the knights were right there, if I could just get them moving.
I rolled the persuasion throw of my life, giving my all into roleplaying out the speech that I hoped would motivate the knights to action. The illithid are upstairs destroying us. Thurl is mind-controlled—you knew this could happen! The fight of our lives is happening, and you’re missing it!
I rolled a 28. (Bard is the best class.) The knights burst into action, and I ran with them, yelling my head off as we charged back up the stairs. Thurl Meroska was looking for me, his illithid-addled brain trying to cut me down.
The mind-flayers sensed this change in the tides of battle, and they began to teleport away. They didn’t want to risk their own lives, not when they have plans to pursue. Poof. Poof. Poof. On each of their turns, they vanished.
And the stupid knights finally burst out into the room and went, “You told us there were mindflayers here!” Derp.
We managed to convince them there had been a battle, and their arrival saved our lives, so they got to leave feeling like heroes. But that’s not the point.
We didn’t win, but we didn’t die and we didn’t lose the knights, and that’s a lot better than I thought we were going to get out of that scene. But that’s also not the point.
The point is that I learned something from this. I saw a lesson, a lesson I know from books, from studies, from teachers who have told me—and that I, in turn, have tried to impart upon my own students—but here, for the first time in “real” life, I saw it in action.
Things looked hopeless. Things looked so bad, I literally thought we were going to TPK and have to start a new campaign. I was sweating. I was miserable. I was at the absolute end of my rope, facing the choice to surrender or give it the very last push that I had in me.
I chose to fight on, and that last push, that last bit of strength that I had, the very last bit of anything that I had to throw at that fight—that turned out to be the nudge that pushed it over the edge.
So here’s my lesson, and this isn’t just for DnD. This is a life lesson. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. When you’re at the make-or-break moment, when all else has failed, when the stakes couldn’t be higher, fight on! There will be voices inside your head that tell you are not good enough, that you can’t do it, that it’s not worth it, that you should take the easy way out. (This time, those voices were very literal! But your own brain will provide them if there’s a shortage of Illithid.) Don’t listen to those voices. You might not be enough, but you’ll never know if you don’t try. You might be scared, but scared doesn’t mean it’s over. You might fail, but if surrender is just as bad as failure… fight on.
And they say DnD is just a game.
That is a lesson that matters. Not just for games, but for life. That is something we all need to know, not just in our heads, but in our guts. Courage. It may only come up once or twice, ever, in your entire life. For many of us, it will never reach that point. But when it does, you may just know what to do. Because you’ve seen this before. You’ve practiced. In this game.
Fight on to the last ounce of your strength, because you never know when that last bit of strength you possess might be just barely enough.
And that’s why we play this game.
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I’m Ashton, co-founder of Sun Sailor Productions and Story Tables, and this blog is about our projects, my random gaming-related thoughts, and why tabletop roleplaying games are good for you—why you should feel good about yourself if you play them, why you should play them if you don’t, and why you should send your 11-18 year old child to our summer camp :)