“Any last words?” The jackal-headed demon hissed. A man in a dirty cloth robe kneeled at his feet. His shock of black hair was matted and caked with sand, and a thin line of blood ran freely into his eyes from a cut on his forehead. The demon held a bladed staff at the ready.
“Er,” the man stalled for time. He glanced around him at the bodies of his fallen companions, scattered amongst the desert camp. “You shouldn’t kill me because…” His eyes suddenly lit up with the spark on an idea. “We have an army!”
“An army?” The demon cackled. “Where?”
The wind whistled audibly over the dunes. A canvas tent flapped and snapped. Empty sand stretched as far as the eye could see. The man’s face fell. “That’s fair,” he admitted. The demon drew his blade back, and plunged it into the man’s chest.
“I get it, shut up guys,” Zak muttered, rubbing his chest sympathetically where his character had been struck. We were huddled around a small card table in our school’s black box theater, laughing hysterically at Zak’s attempt to bluff his way out of death.
Paul wiped a mirthful tear from his eye. “Where the fuck would we have had an army? Jesus,” he chuckled. Zak turned slightly red and smiled sheepishly. He was used to being the target of a good-natured ribbing. The laughter at the table died down, the smiles slowly replaced with frowns. “Now what, though?” Paul asked. “We’re all dead.”
I frowned too. I was the Dungeon Master, who made the adventure and played the non-player characters (from monsters to friends) and the environment. Normally I rolled behind a screen of some kind, so that I would be free to adjust fate so as to make the night dangerous and exciting, but not deadly.
That night, however, I had no such screen, and my rolls had left the party out of commision. “Well you’re not dead, dead,” I explained. “You’re just unconscious. You can try to save yourself each round now. If you roll below a 10, you get a strike. Three and you’re dead.” Spirits fell. “But if you roll a 20 you recover, and can get back up,” I offer. Spirits rose. “Of course the demon is probably going to start executing you one by one.” Spirits fell again.
Paul stretched across the table and grabbed a 20-sided die (referred to as a d20). “No problem,” he said, the die bouncing around inside his palm. “I’ve got this guys.” He threw the die across the table and it clattered to a halt. We all leaned in.
Across the camp from the demon, the priest blinked the sand from his eyes.
Paul’s own eyes rapidly skimmed his character sheet. “I’m pretty much all out of good spells though,” he mused. Sarah added, from the other end of the table, that we had barely scratched the demon. “Alright, alright,” he said, scooping the die back up. “I’ll hit him with Piercing Light.”
We leaned back in. He cast the die and it spun lazily on one axis for several second before settling on a result. Another 20. Paul fist-pumped. “Critical hit! That’s max damage. How does 12 work for you?” All eyes turned to me. I looked down at my notes. The demon had 14 health left. Still…
The demon kicked the man’s body off of his blade, and swung it back up for another strike. This one would finish the job, he thought. These humans had been a nuisance, but he would soon be able to return to his more pressing business. The blade arced high, and then jolted to a stop. He looked down to find a shaft of blazing light burning through his stomach. The demon turned, staggering, to see the priest, with his arm outstretched and a triumphant smirk on his face. The demon gasped for breath and collapsed.
The table cheered. Paul was quickly smothered in high fives and hugs. I glanced at my watch. “That’s all I’ve got guys. Party’s starting soon.” We packed up our bags and made to leave the theater. I looked at them a little nervously. “Was that fun? Should I make more?”
“Yes!” They cheered back. I smiled.
The six of us had been friends for some time, but this night cemented it. Most of us had never played a role-playing game before, but for the next two years we would meet almost every weekend to play together. In the summers we would camp out at empty houses for days on end (our parents having retreated to the Cape), role-playing and sleeping at incredibly odd hours.
Even as we’ve aged, and our entertainment tastes have turned more towards the carousing end of the spectrum, we find time to get together and play for a few hours. Last winter, amidst the “Star Wars” frenzy, I led an adventure that cast my friends as mercenaries on the outer rim of the galaxy, and we huddled around my dining room table, just as we did so many times back in high school.
I’ve gotten more feedback on my creativity and my writing from my role-playing friends over the years than from all of my teachers combined. They criticize and pick on plot inconsistencies, on boring characters and uncompelling story lines. They tell me what’s funny, what’s exciting, and what they want to hear more about.
I wonder now, how that 0.25 percent chance of rolling two 20’s in a row affected the course of our friendship. If they had died, would they have never wanted to play again? Would we have spent as much time together, become as close as we did, without this excuse to waste our weekends away together?
All relationships are somewhat determined by fate, but I find the literal example quite amusing.