I’ve been playing role-playing games since I was twelve, and running them for almost as long. There’s something amazing about sharing a story that you tell with your friends. I love the fact that D&D is seeing a resurgence, and that more people are returning to the hobby or picking it up for the first time.
One thing I’ve learned in the last too-many decades of rolling dice is to embrace imperfections. Trust me. It will make the game that much more fun and give it a surprising injection of depth and realism. One of the many great thing about RPGs is how deeply you can customize your characters. Another, is that unlike board games, there is no real winner or loser. In the best games, when all you want to do is tell a fun story and maybe triumph over the challenges before you, a player is faced with near infinite choices. Obsessing over not making the wrong choices can make it less fun and more like taking a test you’re under-prepared for.
There are many poor choices to be made in a game. But there’s nothing ultimately wrong with informed poor choices if it makes for a better game.
Now, a caveat–there will frequently be those in your game who will be frustrated by what I’m talking about here. What follows is a favorite example.
I signed on for a game that ran at the long-gone Wizards of the Coast Game Center almost twenty years ago. Old-school 2nd ed. Advanced D&D which had been the standard since 1989. I’d only been living in Seattle for a few years and while I had a few people I could game with, I really wanted to expand that circle. The game ran on Sundays for eight hours, and it was all players I’d never met. I’d created a fighter character sort of inspired by Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name,” and outfitted him with a floppy hat, weather-beaten tabard from a distant kingdom, and a broadsword. My thoughts were that he was fleeing his past, where he’d been a city guard and was on a path of redemption.
Now, here’s where it got crunchy. The broadsword is, on paper, an inferior weapon to the longsword. Most importantly, it doesn’t do as much damage. But I associated the longsword with nobles and elves and the broadsword was more of a working-class weapon, reflected by the cost. I wanted my unnamed fighter to be grittier. Despite being a seasoned player, I still face criticism from another player for my weapon choice, because there’s always that guy–that guy for whom the most important thing is maxing out his character in pursuit of perfection.
My character never equipped a longsword. It wasn’t how I envisioned or wanted to play him. In fact, I went the other way and started stocking up on daggers which did even less damage. Because the game gave the freedom to do so. Most of the friends I have now are a direct or indirect outgrowth of playing in that game, and I still have fond memories of that character. I will never remember how much damage I did on a single swing with a weapon. No one remembers that. What they remember is the adventure.
Did the party warlock make a mistake using a Shatter spell on a group of people clustered at the end of a bridge that the party was currently standing on? Depends on who you ask. Sure, the bridge collapsed and sent the party into the river, but the player reacted in the moment and everyone lived. And they had an encounter that they’ll remember a lot better than another sword fight against nameless guards.
I came to embrace this philosophy to a new level with the recently wrapped Tomb of Annihilation game I played in. My character, Kevin, was a half-ork (he preferred the term “orkish”) barbarian. He had a surprising amount of wisdom (he wrote poetry!), but was otherwise dumb as a bull and had very low impulse control. I sometimes called him my “murder toddler.” His favorite weapon was the spear that he’d tied a wyvern feather to. It was not magic. Neither was his stone maul, which he broke out when something needed smashing.
I evolved that character from level 1 up to level 8 by the time we played our final session last night. At some point, he picked up the only magic weapon he ever owned: a Mace of Terror. Nice weapon. Also a one-handed weapon. Kevin, I decided, was used to fighting with two-handed weapons. Something he could put his back into. He felt weird diving into combat with an empty hand. The temptation to pull random levers, something he was already struggling with, would be too strong! But in the fight of his life last night, after landing two pretty solid hits against a lich that would have killed him three times over in other circumstances, he realized his giant stone maul was barely making a dent.
And then he took a HUGE hit. If he were any other character, Kevin would have been on the ground making death saves. But because he was a half-orc barbarian, and too stubborn to die, he was left with a solitary point of health left.
The rest of the party lost their mind when they found out I’d been using an ineffective weapon not only in that fight but for the last three levels. Understandable. But now I, and Kevin, were faced with a decision.
Now, a bit of context: this was in the same game where our bard, our only healer, hadn’t realized one of her spells could cure the paralysis that had turned Kevin into a meat pinata for much of the fight until I’d taken an unholy amount of abuse. Now, to be fair, in order to do it, she would have had to put herself right up there in the thick of the fight. But it wasn’t fear that stayed her hand. She just didn’t know. And when she figured it out, the emotion that surged around that table was electric. That sudden surprise of “Holy shit, there might be a way out of this” is fun. Because it’s real. Because people get flustered and make mistakes.
Even more context: right before we went into the final big session of the game, our characters leveled up to 8. The only big bonus you get at that level is two points to increase character stats. As an orkish barbarian, the instinct would be to put those into physical stats. Strength for more damage, Dexterity to be harder to hit, Constitution to be more durable. All of them great choices. But I went another way. A way that would convey no real game benefit, but which would be reflective of his journey. I spent the two points in his Intelligence, raising him up to an almost respectable 8 points. Was it the perfect choice? Probably not. In fact, had I spent those in Constitution or Dexterity, I would have been missed by at least two attacks in that final fight.
But that tactically poor decision did pay off in other ways.
For one, he came up with the strategy of plugging our ears with fluff so we couldn’t hear the cries of the giant demon baby we’d fought in the opening challenge for the night. It was a nice evolution of character. Kevin was rarely the one to be solving puzzles. He was more of a “See a lever, pull a lever” kind of guy. Letting him think his way out of a problem gave the party a huge advantage in that fight.
In fighting the lich that followed, he had fallen back into brute strength attacks. And it wasn’t working out for him. Now, finally, he was smart enough to see it and change tactics.
When we started the next round and Kevin was given the chance to strike again, knowing this round would likely be his last the way things were going, he switched weapons. That extra two points of Intelligence was reflected in him realizing the big shiny mace belonging to the god Wongo could very likely be more effective than the ones he used for comfort. He dove in, gave it everything he had, and the dice were with him.
The dread lich fell and, as promised to the party earlier, Kevin did some frankly unwholesome things to his corpse. Just unsavory. The less said about it the better.
But we won. Not me. We. Imperfect choices and everything, everyone stepped up and contributed. The evil warlock who put himself at risk to pull Kevin out of harm’s way rather than blast safely from the perimeter. The novice bard who ended up removing paralysis not once but twice once she realized she could, and who occupied the lich’s attention so we could get a breather. The other warlock who, as a young player started off the night wrought with anxiety over picking the wrong spells when she leveled up or casting the wrong ones when in combat who finished the night engaged and energized as she chipped away at the threat turn after turn. The nimble cat person rogue who darted in and out, to bolster the first line of defense.
It was a hard won battle, and one of the best nights of gaming I’ve had. Certainly in the top five. Not because we were a perfect party operating with clockwork precision, but because we were human, we were messy, we made mistakes, but we stuck together and we found a way to make it work. Our ragtag party (Barbarian, Bard, Rogue, and Warlocks x2) conquered the Tomb of Annihilation, and it’s a victory I’ll remember for a long time.