Friday, December 24, 2010

Death at the Table

I've been absent from this blog as of late, and it has in large part to do with the death of a friend and fellow gamer.

When Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons came out, I ended my long RPG hiatus, posted a campaign idea on Pen and Paper Games, and waited for nibbles from players.  The campaign was called "The Sea of Tears," and was set in post-flood water world, sans Kevin Costner. The bites on the line came rather quickly.  I met some really great people, among them a guy named Merlon. 

Merlon was dying.  He had good days and bad days.  Sometimes bits of his body worked, and sometimes they did not.  He had played RPGs for decades, but hadn't much since he had been sick.  Merlon knew he was dying and told me that he wanted to go out playing what he loved.

The new gaming group turned out to click really well.  We had a hoot island hopping and saving the day in the crumbling and soggy remnants of the Old Empire.  Merlon was one of those players who was a joy to role play with, breathing life into his character and  showing both the polished and rough sides.  He also played as an excellent tactician and loved the fiddly type classes with lots of knobs and buttons.  He was, however, obviously not healthy.  He would become very ill and not able to play sporadically and on very short notice.

After digesting the gravity of the situation, I found myself looking at the campaign and the game mechanics in a different light.  How does a DM prepare for something like that?  I've long been a proponent of not handing out XP if not earned.  I am not a friend to lazy or flaky players who just want to play whenever they feel like it.  But how do you handle a player who may be well one day and sick the next on a regular basis?  I mean, how do you avoid punishing someone for their body betraying them on a regular basis?

It turned out to be quite easy.  My first caveat - each character gets the same amount of experience points per session, whether they show up or not.  This led to being more lenient with retraining.  If a player wanted to try out a different feat or power, they could retrain at any time, assuming it made sense within the game.

I then opened the door to (what they used to call in Champions) nuclear accidents.  A player could completely rework their character - changing class, etc, as long as there was a good story mechanism for it.  I then just dropped most pretenses and let the players bring in a completely new character at the same level, should they get bored of their character.

Mechanisms that I had introduced to make sure that a sick player didn't feel left out and wouldn't get bored turned out to benefit everyone.  I was surprised that no one abused the very flexible character guidelines that I had set forth either. 

The Sea of Tears was the most rewarding campaign I've ever run.  We played for almost two years and covered two major story arcs - saving the world from extra planar horrors not once - but twice.  Guest players came in to share the experience, including Merlon's son and daughter. 

Eventually, however, we were done with that world.  The stories had been told and the heroes rode off into the sunset.  We then began to plan another campaign with another gaming system.  Shortly thereafter, Merlon fell into a coma.  Three month later, he was dead.

The planned game fell apart and the gaming group dissolved like mist in the night.  It's been a while since I've even talked to the guys.  Merlon was very much the glue that bound us together.  It makes me sad.

I've never really had to deal with the death of someone I knew that was so close to my age - and of someone whom I shared so much in common with.  I still have dreams about Merlon, and about his characters.  I miss him a lot.  I miss the spectacle and revelry we created around that bright and noisy table - for that brief moment - in this vast and dark universe. 

As the year comes to a close, I to reflect on my blessings, and knowing Merlon was definitely one of them.