This week two members of my regular Dungeons & Dragons group weren’t available, so tonight I ran a short one-shot adventure, City on the Edge. City on the Edge is the first short adventure in the Adventurers League’s Tomb of Annihilation series. You can buy it on DM’s Guildhere.
Initially I thought we’d have three players, which I think is close to the optimum number. (Four players is just as good if not a little better, but beyond four I think it can get hard to manage as a dungeon master.) In the end we had one player have to cancel, so we ended up just having two players, a dwarf barbarian and a gnome wizard. I wondered if I should adjust the difficulty of the adventure. But I decided not to, because the current series of adventures, set in the jungles of Chult, are supposed to be brutal. During these adventures players are impacted by a death curse. This means that characters who die can’t be resurrected and characters who have previously been resurrected are gradually withering away. I really like this aspect of the adventures, because it means death is significant again. (Earlier in the year I wrote a bit about death in D&D as an opportunity to consider our own mortality.) So I didn’t really mind that the challenges might be a bit overpowered for the party of two first-level characters.
Like the Adventurers League’s previous introductory adventures, City on the Edge is actually made up of five related mini-adventures that should go for about an hour each. I prepared the first three mini-adventures, so that the players would have a few options when they arrived in the tropical city of Port Nyanzaru. Since I’d used a drawing of a dinosaur street race to promote the adventure, one of the players were pretty sure that was what he wanted to do, so we started off with the second mini-adventure, which involves participating in a race and then fighting in the arena. The party won the race (which was a lot of fun) and then they were defeated in the arena. I thought it worked well the way this happened. The adventure says that, because of the death curse, contestants in the arena aren’t allowed to do lethal damage. So the defeat in the arena didn’t mean the death of their characters. But I think it did forshadow their death…
After the tournament, the party decided to head into the jungle to see what was warping the plant life. They managed to avoid being bitten by disease-ridden insects, but then the wizard was poisoned by some thorny bushes that seemed to be semi-sentient. When they tried to rescue some fellow adventurers from as mass of vines, they were attacked by a group of blights. The adventurers put up a good fight, taking out the two twig blights and taking the two needle blights down to three hit points each, but were ultimately defeated by the needle blights.
This week census data was released. In the lead up to the census there was a big campaign encouraging folks to tick ‘no religion’. There was also a counter-campaign from some Christian groups desperately encouraging folks who were undecided to tick ‘Christian’, so that Australia wouldn’t become a Muslim country.
The data’s come back, and it looks like about half of Australians still identitfy as Christian. However, those who ticked ‘no religion’ were larger than any of the Christian denominations.
I don’t think it should be any surprise that all the churches are in decline. I also don’t think this is something Christians should be afraid of. Out of all the religions, we should be least afraid of death. Death and resurrection is what Christianity is all about. If the church dies, who knows what will come next?
I’ve been thinking about death in Dungeons & Dragons, partly because of a funeral I went to a little while ago. My understanding is that the person whose funeral we were attending shouldn’t have died. He wasn’t very old. There’s a suspect being tried in relation to the death later in the year. So you would be able to understand, there was a lot of grief.
Reflecting on the funeral got me thinking, How is it that we can sometimes approach death so blithely in a game? Normally what you do is just write up another character sheet and continue the adventure with a new character. If you put a lot of work and time into the character you’d proabbly be annoyed, but that’s it. I wonder if there are any ways that we could remind ourselves of the gravity of death when we play?
These are a few ideas I had:
We could suggest that surviving adventurers attempt to return the dead to their relatives. This would probably mean having to face the anger and grief of bereaved loved ones.
We could roleplay a funeral for the deceased character.
We could have each surviving character make a speech about the deceased.
We could roleplay a wake after the funeral where the characters speculate about what happens to the souls of the dead.
We could allow the death of an adventurer to direct the future path of the story, by having the surviving characters drawn into a quest for restribution.
One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this is because of Henri Nouwen’s ideas about the illusion of immortality. He believed that our society often tries to avoid recognising the transience of life. Just like attending a funeral should help us to come to terms with our own mortality (as well as expressing our grief for the dead), roleplaying could give us opportunities to reflect on our own mortality. (Not everyone’s game needs to do that – but the opportunity is there.)
Can you think of any other ways to make death carry weight in the game?
When I lived in Ferntree Gully with my parents, my dad made the same joke a number of times when we passed the cemetary. ‘It’s the dead centre of town!’ I can remember being in the car with one of my cousins when we passed a cemetery and he made the same joke. I wonder if he heard it from his dad?
This afternoon as I was walking home I passed the Melbourne General Cemetery, which is quite close to our house. Sometimes I walk through it, but this time I walked around the outside. I think it’s kind of sobering passing the resting place of the dead and considering the wieght of all the lives lived.
My understanding is that the earlier cemetery was in the location where the Queen Victoria Market now stands, and that there are a whole lot of people buried there, unmarked. I don’t think it’s good for a society to treat the dead in that way. I think it gives the living the impression that they too could be forgotten and walked overwithout a thought some day.
Endings are a good opportunity for reflection aren’t they? The Ignatians make a practise of taking time to reflect on the whole day each evening, but even those of us who are less disciplined tend to get reflective at the end of the year. It probably helps that there’s often a bit of time of away from work between Christmas and New Year.
We also tend to get reflective at the end of someone’s life, and as many have stated, it seems like so many people have been dying this year. I don’t think that this is because 2016 has been a particularly bad year, but more about our historical relationship with the mass media. It was in the 1950s that television became the dominant form of media, making it so easy to become familiar with the faces of celebrity. My guess is that 2017 may not be much different, as celebrities from the second half of the 20th Century continue to pass away. I wonder whether we will continue to hear about every public figure that passes away, but I also wonder whether we might take these occassions as opportunties for reflection?
When David Bowie passed away earlier in the year we invited a couple of neighbours around and watched a DVD of one of his concerts to reminisce about the impact his songs and person had made on us. I wonder whether we might take each news of death as an opportunity to reflect on our own lives, and how we want to spend them? The truth is we never know which will be our last day.
The other question I have is about whether we are attentive to the deaths of so many less celebrated people? Over the Christmas break another asylum seeker, Faysal Ahmed, has died while illegally detained by the Australian government on Manus Island. Others will die if this policy doesn’t change, so we need to be telling our federal MPs that we are attentive to these deaths and the ill treatment of asylum seekers generally.