All right, so it wasn’t exactly the best movie ever made. But I still enjoyed it, and couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason. After all, we were treated to a series of horrible and disgusting images of people turning into rotting corpses while still alive. But then I realised it: this is not a movie, this is a D&D gaming session!
I mean, think about it: the story is completely linear, the whole point is to accomplish a quest given by a powerful authority figure, a group of individuals gathers to do it, and there are many obstacles on their way. Ring a bell, or do you still need convincing? (spoilers galore)
1. The Characters
Five individuals with different backstories, personalities and skills meet to perform a task assigned to them by the plague-stricken cardinal. These include:
Two experienced, high-level fighters, guys who know how to use a sword and are not afraid of anything. That is to say, your honest, no-nonsense tanks. One of them is trying to add some character depth by showing some remorse and signs of morality crisis. You can see the player has given it some thought, but doesn’t have the acting skills to show it convincingly. Cue Nicholas Cage.
The other knight is even simpler and closer to earth, a courageous, straightforward and practical fighter, not prone to overthinking things. He sticks to his friend through thick and thin, even if he risks being hanged. This is an easy part, and so the player pulls it off very well. Enter Ron Perlman, who can act something like that in his sleep.
Those two are joined by a priest (need I say more?), a
thief a smuggler who knows the way through dangerous forests, and a level 1 paladin wannabe. The last player is allowed to be good-looking to compensate for his lack of skills.
So we have our standard Five Man Band. Why are there only four on the picture, you ask? Because the reason no. two is,
2. A railroading GM
For those unfamiliar with terminology, railroading is a process when the Game Master forces his players to do what he planned them to do. Actions that could have sent the adventure on a different course are swiftly prevented. The “Season’s” GM is not a bad one, but not even character roleplaying (y’know, the thing this is supposed to be about) can stand against his rails: when one of our tanks refuses the main quest because of a shift in his principles, they are simply thrown into jail untill they reconsider.
On a similar note, when the thief player – keeping true to character – opts to just kill the prisoner and forget about the whole affair, he is killed off instead so that the quest goes on. And the thief’s death brings us to reason no. three,
3. Random encounters
The guys are escorting a powerful witch to her trial. This means we have a travelling adventure, so of course we need random encounters. “Season” gives us full service here: beginning with the first encounter where the boy joins the party, already on the road, through a visit in an empty village (the GM didn’t bother to describe) where an NPC companion is killed off,
an attack by a pack of dire wolves (conveniently, the meddling thief dies here), for the feeling of danger to grow, and ending with a rope bridge over a picturesque, bottomless ravine. The only thing missing is meeting a witch that would curse the- oh, wait…
4. Clumsy but dedicated party interaction
The players in this campaign are visibly dedicated, and not at all munchkins. Our tanks are seen using the same equipment for years, and this says a lot already ; the priest refrains from exploiting his “connection to divinity” and is content with in-character preaching instead. The paladin kid has some moments of guilt and remorse, together with a strong feeling of honour.
However, the way they try to present all this is clumsy, unconvincing and disorganized, which is a sure sign of a true D&D session. Players often put a lot of thought into their characters’ personalities, but lack acting skills to actually show that. Other players usually understand and pretend that, yes, we sure as hell are motivated by your semi-rousing speech. Or something. Let’s go.
5. A noble-expendable NPC
So we have our Five Man Band, but the GM likes to play too, sometimes. This is why he attaches Eckhart, a noble knight who lost his whole family to the plague, to our little troupe. Since knight Eckhart is a loving father and husband, carrying his mourning with dignity and grace, and believes the witch is the innocent victim here, what do you think happens to him?
He dies, of course. We all know the estimated lifespan of a character is inversely proportionate to the sympathy he provokes. Understandable, too: when the bad guys die, all we feel is “good riddance”. Eckhart’s death also serves as a stiffener of the player’s resolve. “We jolly well better get the witch to the monastery, guys! For Eckhart!”
6. The dice decide
A lot of things that happened to the party are quite silly, when you think about it. There are numerous examples, big and small, but the way the NPC died is a particularly good one. Of course, we all knew he would die, but how? Impaled on the kid-paladin’s sword by mistake? Just like that? It’s stupid, it’s humiliating and just plain bad, from a storytelling point of view, so the only remotely good reason is, the GM rolled 1.
The GM adhered strictly to roll results throughout the whole adventure. Ron gets stabbed in the back? Roll a fortitude save, if you pass, you can get back to action in the next round. That’s why he falls and stays flat for some time, then gets up. The same is true for the priest: he gets two-thirds of the ritual done before the demon breaks his neck, so we have to assume its previous attack rolls were too low.
7. The climactic Last Stand
So our players manage to bring the witch to a monastery, where a powerful grimoire is supposed to contain a spell to strip her of her plague-causing powers. Of course, things go all pear-shaped then, with the “witch” showing her True Form and generally ruining the evening for everyone. The players find the book in the empty monastery (the monks all died of the demonic plague so they won’t get in the way, see below) and get ready to battle the demonic cohorts.
Of course, in the true spirit of RPG-teamwork, the priest gets to use the
magic the holy book and perform a ritual to destroy the demon, while the fighters have to keep the aggro off him. Honestly, I’ve done that myself on a couple of occasions. Roleplay-wise speaking.
8. It’s all about the players
What’s the point of an adventure that is not being, er, adventured, by the players? The demon could probably just fly all the way to the monastery, but what would be in it for the party? Things have to make for an interesting scenario, giving the players a chance to use their skills and brag about it afterwards.
Does it happen in “Season” campaign? You bet. Knights show their swordsmanship constantly, complete with quips-in-between. And the whole damn(ed) monastery has been killed, so that, a) the priest can get his crowning moment and perform the ritual (and, because of the Dice Death he suffers, the paladin kid gets to continue) and b) there is enough undead demonic monk mooks to keep things interesting for the tanks. Reason, logic and probability always get the back seat when a gaming session is driving.
Special reason no. nine (aka Summary): Despite sounding stupid, it’s actually quite fun
All in all, it was an entertaining movie (if bad), despite the horrible hangings and rotting corpses. But seen as a D&D session, it’s one hell of adventure. And, like many sessions, when you describe it to others it often sounds stupid, but while you’re at it, it’s fun. I think I’d like to play a campaign like that sometime.