I’ve been playing tabletop games for a few years now. In some of them, I was a player, while in others I was a GM. But whether I was running the game or simply enjoying it as a player, I have a lot of fond memories of nights spent around a tabletop. So I thought today would be a good day to talk about some of my favorite memories from tabletop games I have played!
The Mind Control Debacle
So for my first ever tabletop game, I chose to create as my character a superhero version of a character from one of my novels. The character’s name was Trueblade, and he was the only non-superhero in a team of people with superpowers (think Batman in the Justice League). Now we were playing Mutants and Masterminds, and because of the way the stats and points work in the second edition, choosing a character with no powers actually enabled me to create a very overpowered character – since I wasn’t investing in any expensive super powers, I was able to cap a number of stats and skills. I’m also something of a min-maxer, and so I’m pretty decent at finding loopholes and discovering good move combinations to make my characters really effective. Trueblade ended up being very powerful, and his greatest feat was in a battle against the mind controller Regis.
Regis had this incredibly powerful move that could simultaneously control the minds of every member of the party. Our GM rolled the attack and all eight players (yeah, that’s a whole lot of people) rolled Will saves. Trueblade was the only character on the entire team who managed to resist the effects of this mind control. So suddenly, here I am left facing off against seven superpowered heroes and the evil mastermind controlling their brains.
Desperate to somehow turn this situation to my advantage, I relied on a maneuver called “trick.” The trick ability allows you to manipulate your movements in such a way that your opponents end up hurting each other instead of you, and I did this every turn to try and get my allies to blast Regis to smithereens. It worked – most of my allies had a hard time hitting my particularly evasive character and so I was easily able to dodge their attacks and get them to smash into the psychic villain. Regis’ answer to this situation was to psychically knock out everyone who accidentally hit him. Slowly, person by person, he knocked out my allies until finally Regis got so tired of me never getting hit that he just knocked all the rest of us unconscious with his power.
The GM later revealed that his intent for this fight was for more people to pass the check and for the scene to become a battle between the heroes. Regis didn’t even have stats because he just assumed that no one would bother attacking him. My decision put him on his toes, and it was awesome to see my first ever tabletop character deftly dodging attacks from his superpowered allies.
My second tabletop game ever was the Star Wars RPG – the old one that was based on Knights of the Old Republic, which was based on D&D. Our party was pretty diverse – we had a smooth-talking toydarian, a HK droid assassin, a primitive scout, a Jedi guardian on the path to darkness, and my character, Guiscard, an ithorian military officer trained in medicine and tactics. We were on this planet called Axxila invading an enemy base, and as luck would have it, we could not roll badly while on Axxila. Everything we did was very successful, and we capitalized on this by doing everything we possibly could to mess with these soldiers.
We hacked into their droids and turned them rogue, so that the next time Axxilan droids hit the field they would murder their masters. After that, we compromised the integrity of their equipment, creating chinks in their armor and jams in their guns. That wasn’t enough, though – our next step was to hack the computer system and infiltrate their training programs. Guiscard programmed the simulations to teach poor battle formations and tactics to the soldiers, reducing the ability of any new recruits to fight effectively. And finally, we tainted all of their medicine so that the soldiers would be infected with diseases and so their bodies would be weak and unhealthy. With the Axxilan base thoroughly ruined, we left happy.
For the rest of the campaign, Axxilan soldiers appeared periodically, and it was hilarious every single time. Groups of enemies would suddenly get blasted to pieces by their own droids. A soldier would charge directly into an ambush because of lousy training. Anytime the GM fumbled and the enemy ended up doing something stupid or ridiculous, the reasoning was always “those guys were from Axxila.” It was a hilarious way to reward our efforts on the planet and it was a really fun running joke throughout the campaign.
Staying in that same campaign, Guiscard has actually been my favorite character to play as in any tabletop game. He was a really unique character (at least for me), and I have a ton of fond memories from playing as him.
Guiscard was really old. Not like elf or dwarf old, but he was legitimately an old man and as such I talked like one the whole campaign. I channeled all of my memories of conversations with my grandfathers and just had a great time goofing off. To this day, we still refer to the classic beginning of Guiscard’s stories – “back in the Mandolorian Wars” – whenever we start retelling a story we’ve told a million times. I also have a voice that I use for at least one character in every campaign that we affectionately refer to as the “Guiscard voice.”
Stats-wise, Guiscard couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. With no strength or dex to speak of and little constitution, even fighting from a range proved dangerous for this old ithorian. However, his mental stats were off the charts, making him very effective at things like healing, knowledge checks, and interaction skills. He could talk his way out of many situations, and the GM allowed me to use my various knowledge skills to learn secrets about new monsters or about the places we visited. His healing skill was literally so high that once I got leveled up a bit, Guiscard could return people from the dead as a routine check. We used this to interrogate enemies, our dark Jedi killing them and then Guiscard reviving them in order to get information in a very terrifying fashion.
But this character wasn’t just about goofing off and pretending to be old. Guiscard had lots of emotional encounters throughout the story – his son was drawn to the dark side, meaning that Guiscard had to try and redeem his only child from turning to evil. His old friends from the war were all falsely framed for crimes, but saving them required taking attention away from the real problems at hand, forcing him to choose between the Republic (which he loved) and his best friends. As the story went on, Guiscard developed a father-son relationship with the dark Jedi on the team – making it that much harder when the Jedi became a Sith and the group had to defeat him in the final battle.
I loved playing as this character, and I imagine it will be quite some time before I get to play as someone who is as much fun as Guiscard. Dagnabbit!
Surviving the First Night
I’ve blogged about Dread in the past, because it’s definitely one of my top favorites – right there with Dungeon World, which I have also blogged about a lot. Dread is a unique tabletop game because you play it with Jenga blocks instead of dice, and watching the tower sway as players make pulls to take actions earns the game its name. Other than simply enjoying the tension of seeing the players desperately testing blocks, though, I love Dread because the game really helped to change my approach to being a GM.
When I first started out as a GM, I was pretty given to writing a pre-planned story and sticking to that story as strictly as possible. I tried to give players options to keep from railroading them, but even then I planned out what would happen based on each option. The two paths I created led to the same conclusion, so player choice really played a very small role despite the fact that I wanted it to play a large one. It was during Dread that I truly got to experience the joy of giving real choices to my players for the first time.
The setting was a zombie apocalypse in a traditional fantasy world. Zombies (called revenants in this session) were fast, powerful creatures that could only be defeated by setting them on fire. In the party we had a knight, a healer (but not a magical healer like a cleric), a bard, and an enchanter. The group had a specific destination by the end of the session, but how they got where they were going was completely up to them.
The most fun I had was on the first night, where they had to figure out how to make camp and get some rest without being attacked by revenants. My mission as the GM was to let them try anything, and to think realistically about their decisions – if they left any opening, the revenants would seize it, but if the party could cover all of their bases then they’d sleep through the night. They made plenty of smart decisions: the bard did not use music to help the party with their preparations so that the sounds wouldn’t draw revenants close, the enchanter put an invisibility spell around the party to hide them from enemies, and the healer found a great lookout perch to warn the party of incoming danger far before it arrived. The only problem? When the knight successfully hunted them some food, the party cooked a hot meal, and the smell attracted the revenants to the group. Listening to the players plan and try to cleverly conceal their camp was a lot of fun, and they enjoyed having a challenge that was more open-ended than “hey, figure out this puzzle or fight this monster.” In future campaigns, I made it my goal to capture the fun and freedom of that Dread session.
The Battle Against Death
Ever since I started playing tabletops as a Gamemaster, I’ve been striving to create a final session as epic as the endings of some of my favorite video games. The sort of session that leaves you satisfied, yet hungry for more, with just the right dose of emotional impact and epic combat. I ran two campaigns of Mutants and Masterminds where I tried to achieve just such an ending, but I never was able to create one that was particularly satisfactory. It’s not that my players hated the endings – but those finales did not meet my standards, and didn’t have the epic feel I had been striving for.
Then we played Dungeon World.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spoken a lot about my love for this tabletop. I have a ton of fond memories of my most recent tabletop experience, but the fondest will always be the fact that I finally got the epic ending I really wanted. There are a ton of elements that worked together to make the ending a ton of fun, and I owe a lot of it to my players for making bold decisions and for being great sports. Dungeon World is a cooperative game and it took all of us together to make the finale great. What I will talk about is one particular aspect of the ending, one that basically happened by accident.
One of the players had a character named Conan, who was bonded with a symbiote named Nexus. Mechanically, the symbiote worked like Venom from the Spiderman comics, able to fashion his substance into tendrils or blades and enhancing Conan’s senses and physical abilities. Now in Dungeon World, when a character dies they make a roll for a move called Last Breath. On a 10+, the character lives with no penalties, and on a 6- the character dies, no question. On a 7-9, Death makes a bargain with the character. Once I met Conan and Nexus, I knew exactly what I planned to do if they ever had to make a bargain with Death.
But they never died. Every other player in the campaign had to make a Last Breath roll at least once. My wife almost died twice, making two different bargains with Death to keep her character alive. Two other players ended up making new characters because they refused to take their bargains. Yet Conan never once faced Death, until the final session when all of the characters had to fight the Reaper as the final boss of the campaign.
Now although Conan didn’t meet Death until the final session, he had a stronger connection with the Reaper than he knew. Conan’s player wanted to explore the history of his symbiote, Nexus, but he hadn’t designed that history himself. So I decided that Nexus had actually been created by Death, a way for him to keep his eye on the world at large and as a sort of example to human kind – a monster could be a better “person” than a real person could. Conan learned all this just before the final session thanks to some good rolls and the ability to form mental connections to Nexus.
For reasons way too in depth to explain in this post, Death was a character comprised of many different characters and possessed a wide array of abilities along with the power to transform. His plethora of powers made him a very difficult opponent for the party, and they were struggling just to lay a finger on him. He even managed to obtain mind control of one of the party members, a character with a Hulk-like monster form that posed a huge threat to the rest of the party. Conan stayed in the thick of combat the entire battle, and after over fifteen sessions of luck, he finally took a fatal blow.
The time had come. Conan’s player would have to roll his Last Breath, and if he got that 7-9 Death would offer him a bargain. He rolled, and there it was. The time for my bargain, the one I planned from the very beginning of the campaign, had finally come.
Conan had to choose. He could live by returning Nexus to his creator, or he could die but allow Nexus to live free. Who would he choose to kill: himself, or his symbiote that had protected and fought alongside him the whole adventure? Conan refused to choose one, so Death chose both, killing Conan for refusing the bargain and then taking Nexus for himself.
But Conan wasn’t done just yet. The party had one last ace up their sleeve – a character named Oliander with the ability to summon spirits from other realms. His power had limits, of course – he had to define the nature of the spirits, and a bad roll meant that the spirit did not have the nature that he chose. Oliander defined his spirit as one totally out of control, dedicated solely to fighting a defeating Death. When he rolled and rolled successfully, Conan’s spirit successfully returned to his body, and Nexus returned to his true master. Although dead, Conan was able to participate in the rest of the final battle, and his death and temporary resurrection were one of the best parts of the finale.
These are some of my favorite memories of tabletops that I’ve played, whether as a player or as a GM. Now I pass the ball to you, adventurers. What are some of your favorite stories from tabletop games you’ve played? What character did you create that you loved the most? Be sure to post your stories in the comments so we can all enjoy them together!
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