Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Legacy of a Name in a RPG

All memorable roleplaying stories need unforgettable antagonists. The characters will be nothing but hack n’ slashers if they aren’t opposed by vivid, convincing, multidimensional non-player characters. Every single RPG book highlights the importance of recurring villains, and how much flavor they can add to a story if their goals are a little more inventive than simply “I’m evil and I want to destroy everything for no specific reason”. Having the deceiving antagonist moving in the shadows, using his minions to thwart the characters’ actions, allowing him to escape a direct assault, to return later with additional power, is paramount in most long running games.
But what if the antagonist dies before the game master planned? We can simply shrug and make the next villain enter the scene, or we can grasp the opportunity to give birth to an enduring legacy.
Esra Nacros Logos was the name of a dwarf wizard. Notice how the phrase mentions was. Esra was killed in a mid-campaign battle with the heroes in a rather spectacular way. He had first encountered the group in the beginning of the campaign, when he was part of an invading force that had conquered the heroes’ city. When the players liberated the city they had a brief battle with Esra, from which both he and another dwarf escaped when defeat was obvious. The other dwarf was the typical brutish “I destroy everything with flames while spitting and cursing”. He wasn’t particularly impressive. Regarding Esra, he was a mage specialized in the school of Enchantment. Very polite, easily excitable when placed before new things or recent discoveries, and actually admiring some of the heroes despite their differences.
When Esra and the heroes met in battle again, thirteen game sessions later, he surprised them. Protected by an invisibility spell, he approached the group’s magician and tried to perform a feeblemind in him (a potent spell that reduces a character’s intelligence and charisma scores to the minimum, thus making spellcasters unable to cast spells). Esra actually whispered to his opponent “I deeply apologize for using such malevolent techniques in an esteemed arcane colleague”. But the hand of fate decided that such was not to be the flow of events. The hero saved against the spell, and having that exact same spell memorized, made Esra taste his own venom. At that exact same moment, having his invisibility compromised, and unable to communicate coherently, the dwarf mage was struck by a charging paladin, mounted in his pegasus. Completely helpless, Esra’s death arrived swiftly.
Now, I could simply say “That isn’t much of a problem. In a world with access to magic I can easily resurrect him.” Well, I did so once, and the players almost severed my head. Players hate to be deprived of their ultimate victories. I was disappointed with Esra’s premature death, but his fate was sealed.
Then, lightning struck! Although the character was dead, his name need not be discarded into the pile of “victims of the heroes’ cleaver”. Esra was a cherished hero for his people. Why not put his corpse to rest in a mausoleum? In ancient times, monuments like mausoleums would take years, sometimes a lifetime, to be built. But in an adventuring world with access to magic, they can be constructed in a matter of hours. And the mausoleum can be a point of interest for countless things. It can be a landmark, a place of holy pilgrimage, a future dungeon filled with the undead to be explored by a new party of adventurers in a generation to come.
What about Esra’s spellbook? It was taken by the party magician when the enchanter died. Can it be understood as a kind of Holy Grail from the dwarves’ perspective? Will it draw countless hordes of young adventuring dwarves willing to go on a crusade to recover the artifact?
Let us not forget about Esra’s family. They will most likely want revenge. He may be dead, but his siblings, apprentices, kinsmen, live on.
Names in a story play a larger-than-life role. They can be the foundation of lore and legends. The most rewarding aspect in a roleplaying game is the continuing collective story building. It falls in the hands of each group member (both game master and players) to give meaning to the key elements. Won’t it be astonishingly breathtaking if some years from now a new player looks to the map and asks: “What is this Esra’s Mausoleum signaled in the map?” And suddenly the other players’ eyes start glimmering…

Note: the image above is a portrayal of Drizzt Do’Urden and his black panther by artist Jeff Easley. It depicts one of the most iconic names/characters in fantasy roleplaying games, created by author R. A. Salvatore for a series of novels in the “Forgotten Realms” setting (part of Dungeons & Dragons).

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