Adversity in Role Playing

Phoebus is presently a lizard man but certainly has not been this all of his career. Originally a fighter, Phoebus rose to 10th level before he was slain. A cleric being unavailable, a druid was prevailed upon to perform a reincarnation. Phoebus returned in the body of a lizard man.


Thus begins the tale of Phoebus in the TSR product The Rogues Gallery.  In many of my games it would have been a campaign ender.

The mere fact that a Player Character would have to deal with a little unforeseen adversity would have ended an entire campaign.  I can barely believe I am typing it, but it is true.  It’s not simply that the so offended player would have quit.  No, we could have at least continued playing around that bit of childishness.  More often than not, the player would instead continue playing and either insist on writing up a new character, or rarely continue with the altered character.  What was more certain however was that the player would do everything in their power to sabotage the campaign including, but not limited to, influencing the other players behind my back to abandon the campaign.


Case in point; the story of Faelel Eveningfall.  Faelel was a male Moon Elf Bard of the Forgotten Realms.  The campaign started in Silverymoon, but soon moved to the besieged city of Nesmé.  Faelel while fighting with a pair of wererats in the city’s sewers was infected with lycanthropy (possible in v3.5 D&D) and eventually had his first night as a wererat.
  The player was not happy.  The player decided that Faelel would embark on a suicide mission to escape the siege by hobgoblins, bugbears, and giants to try to reach Silverymoon and bring reinforcements.  This was an effort doomed to fail, but the player was seemingly shocked when Faelel’s horse was crushed with a boulder, and Faelel himself knocked unconscious and taken captive.

I had planned to allow for Faelel’s rescue the very next adventure as the adventurers stormed a hidden hobgoblin outpost.  The player would have none of it.  He instead wrote up a Cavalier who insisted on trying to take his warhorse into every dungeon the adventurers entered.  I had great campaign plans for Faelel.  Part of the campaign eventually would take the adventurers to Waterdeep, where a devious plot was underfoot by the People of the Black Blood.  They were actually in league with Gerti Orelsdottr, and Faelel would have been in a perfect position to infiltrate the organization due to his lycanthropy and not only foil the plot, but also gain critical insight into the plans of the frost giantess herself.

None of that was ever to be.  Due to the Cavalier’s insistence on attempting to get his horse into each and every dungeon the adventurers assaulted, and a growing dissatisfaction with the campaign (that I later learned was due to repeated relentless attempts on the part of the offended player to sway the rest of the group against my story) it ended before the adventurers were able to recover a weapon of great importance that would have allowed them to not only slay the frost giantess, but also her fiendish white dragon Rynnarvyx.

And that wasn’t the only, first or last time something along those lines happened. That I put up with it for so long is proof that I am either the most patient person on the planet, or that I am certifiably insane.

Lord Falor the zombie
Lord Falor the zombie

So apart from getting that story off my chest, what is the point of all that exposition?  Well, it serves to illustrate a disturbing trend that I think has been going on in gaming, and especially Dungeons & Dragons for a long time.  Certainly since Wizards of the Coast took over the brand in 1997.  I am at a loss to remember instances of this before then, but in 1997 the internet wasn’t what it is now in regard to exchanges of competing ideas.  Certainly since then I have noticed a trend on the message boards where players will put up with no deviation from their original character concept and build.  I find myself asking, what happened.  In 1st Edition, and even for most of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (and for what little we played of B/X Dungeons & Dragons) such adversity, while not sought out, seemed to be at least accepted when it did occur.  We had characters that lost levels to undead.  We had thieves that died due to a failed poison save.  We had dead Player Characters raised as zombies, so the adventurers could at least get their body and equipment out of a dungeon so they could be given a proper burial (at age 14 the logic of that seemed irrefutable, but now I don’t think that is necessarily a good act).  We had characters that turned on the party to become enemies.  We had enemies that could be shown the error of their ways.  We had characters that were polymorphed into all sorts of creatures.  We had characters that were eaten by all sorts of creatures (an
encounter with carrion crawlers springs to mind).  And through all of that and more, we never rage quit.  We played adversity to the hilt and sometimes took it even one step further.  Adversity was looked at as an opportunity to show what you were made of as a role player.  It was seen as an opportunity to truly shine, even if only for a short time one tried to burn (in the words of Eldon Tyrell) “so very, very brightly”.

I have often said that I think drama occurs when characters fail.  This is true in all kinds of fiction and is perhaps doubly true in role playing games.  If characters always win, always succeed, and always do so with panache I think a great opportunity is missed.  If when a character fails, a player or Dungeon Master does not leap to the ready, prepared to make the best of a bad situation, then the player or DM has also failed.

Pheobus’ story doesn’t end with the quote above.  It goes on…

Eventually he retired, becoming the mayor of the bucolic village of Greatrock on the shore of Woolly Bay in the Domain of Greyhawk.

At some point since 591 CY, Phoebus traveled to Irongate and discovered the portal to the World Serpent Inn. Enjoying the relative anonymity of a place where he rubbed shoulders with beings as varied as efreet and githyanki, he decided to stay. He now works as a bodyguard there. For once, he no longer has to worry about being treated as a freak.


  • I fully agree with your sentiments. It does seem with the push of PC games, console games and WOTC 3.0 and beyond DND, that more and more players get disgruntled should their precious character die or suffer loss of any sort.

    David Stairs
    Posted February 6, 2015
    • I find it to be quite a shame. Most of my best role playing stories from any genre are when things went terribly awry. Whether it involved the alteration, disfigurement or death of a character, or some seemingly impossible quandary like our (Traveller) Far Trader’s engines being nearly destroyed in deep space, those times always brought out the best role playing. I am saddened that I no longer can find that with my old, long time group. C’est la vie.

      Posted February 6, 2015
  • I understand where you are coming from. What I suspect is that with the rapid uptick in sensory overload because of newer technology/culture, instant gratification/feedback, “extra-lives”, “reset” mentality, etc, people find it easier to to pursue the easy path. To be honest, I would only want to have players and DMs that are committed to the game/campaign, the sense of adventure (in other words good riddance to those who don’t want to participate.). But I also believe that it can depend on the story-telling strength of the DM, i.e. if the DM has difficulty conveying the sense of destiny for a player character, or that there is a story arc with “pay dirt” at the end, players can lose interest. My $0.02

    Posted February 6, 2015
    • Thanks for commenting Matt!

      One thing I always tried to convey to players, without giving anything substantial away, was that they players did not know everything that was going on and that there was definitely world changing actions that could be taken by the players.

      Posted February 7, 2015
  • I think you hit the nail on the head with the phrase “players will put up with no deviation from their original character concept and build”. With the way 3rd edition worked with it’s feat structure and Prestige Classes the “build” ended up being a thing that was frequently planned out from the beginning all the way up to high level, in order to achieve the desired abilities. Any disruption in that could sabotage a players route to the Prestige Class that matched his original character concept. 2nd edition D&D did not have “the build” and more skill-based games do not have the same. %th edition, with its set class pathways is also safer from the straightjacket of “the build”.

    Vaughan Cockell
    Posted February 17, 2015
    • Vaughan,

      Not surprisingly this was a v3.5 game. I simply don’t recall this kind of character rigidity in older editions. Sure we still sometimes had the odd rage quit, or feeling that things just weren’t going the character’s way, but not to this level of absurdity. Of course 1st and 2nd Edition Paladins wanted a holy avenger, magic-users wanted a staff of the magi, etc. but never before was it necessary for character completeness the way it became in 3rd and beyond.

      Posted February 17, 2015
  • 5th edition, that is

    Vaughan Cockell
    Posted February 17, 2015

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Omens and Portents




Omens and Portents

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