Tabletop: Season 5 moments, volume 1

I do love GMing for my spouse.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve got a huge party rambling through the Underdark, so what we’re doing is rolling 1d10 every session to see which character will be the PC for the evening. Because the characters have such strongly defined and distinct personalities, the path the party takes is sometimes defined by which character is in the spotlight. In other words, the group is big enough and diverse enough to be unpredictable, and individual influence on group actions shifts depending on the circumstances.

That’s not something easily modeled by D&D and its derivatives, which generally establish a static party dynamic early on in a campaign (especially when tropes like the caller / party leader are encouraged). It’s also not something readily achieved in a once-a-week (or once-a-month) group of gaming friends, whose table chatter is much more relaxed and depersonalized compared to the intimacy of the comrades-at-arms (or the mistrust within a tenuous alliance) that the party represents. I fully believe that this situation is unique not only to a single-player campaign, but specifically one in which character interaction is a primary driver of play – and you need a damn fine player to pull it off.

For example: on day 4 of their deep delving, the let’s-go pep of the party had faded into the grey mood of their surroundings…

They were ticking off supplies on their fingers as they traveled, especially since four of their number had been caught in a flooding room which had ruined those members’ food stores. The nightly screaming call of a dragon came ever closer with each slumber. They hadn’t reached any of the landmarks their guide had given them. And when they finally came to the first landmark – the second, actually; they had passed around the first on the list – it was the chained-up entrance to Giants’ Exile, a dangerous place their guide had warned against entering. A ghostly voice from beyond answered their query: the party’s destination could be reached without traveling through Giants’ Exile, and it would only be slightly longer than going through the haunted catacomb ahead, where they would certainly face mortal peril.

On the one hand, this party doesn’t usually shy away from mortal peril. On the other hand, they tend to avoid fights that aren’t strictly necessary. Plus, this session was being run as a late-night release valve as we prepared our daughters’ Solstice gifts (this year we wanted to surprise them by having “Santa and the elves” assemble the winter-themed Lego sets the girls were receiving so that the girls would wake up, come into the room, and see a Lego winter wonderland… which meant squeezing in late nights of brick assembly whenever we could manage for days at a time). On a metagame level, I fully expected my spouse to say “let’s just go around”. And pretty much anyone in the party would have agreed. Why court even more danger in an already threatening environment?

But the PC for the evening was Jorog. Jorog is an orc (phenotypally human, but raised in rural orcish culture) with a painfully angsty background and a tendency to dig in her heels in response to frustration. On top of the fact that they were slogging through endless black (which was itself a needle in Jorog’s side, since she was being reminded of her lack of darkvision, which reminded her of what it was like to grow up around people who took darkvis for granted, which reminded her of her Tragic Backstory), she was also smarting from a conversation with another party member, a longtime friend, where she had totally screwed up and hurt her friend’s feelings.

Jorog didn’t want to go around. Jorog wanted to kick the door in.

So after plowing through the animated skeletons of a cloud giant with an oversized (even for a cloud giant) morningstar and an ettin tossing boulders from a nigh-inaccessible ledge, the party climbed an enormous stairway to confront the evil skeletal giant shaman and his skeletal black dragon pet. The party quickly huddled and tossed jan-ken-pon to decide who would be in the group taking down the giant and who would smash up the dragon. Jorog wound up in Dragon Group (alongside Lucha, who simply volunteered for that group since she, herself, is a young adult blue dragon who adopts human form).

Between wrangling with six different bags of bricks and squinting at occasionally arcane instructions, my spouse helped Jorog vent on the dragon skeleton. Even distracted by her task, she was able to recall and employ Jorog’s optimal tactics and teamwork feats (Jorog is a bruiser, a barbarian / paladin who identifies with orcish and human martial life, and her character sheet reflects it). As a result, the fight went off quickly and efficiently, even after the skeleton picked up and bodily threw a dragoned-out Lucha into Jorog (Lucha got her own back; after Jorog brought the dragon down to single digits, Lucha pulled its skull off – I think she deserves a new mini now).

It shaved a day off of their travel and got rid of that screaming dragon. And it also brought to the forefront of my consciousness how strong of a player my spouse is and how these characters really are their own people with their own motivations, and often those motivations supersede the player’s.

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