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Doomsday device activated – coping with minor setbacks in the campaign

C: So today I thought that, instead of talking about one of our campaigns, we should talk about the latest session in a game on our friends DMs, in which we’re both players.

A: The one where I’m a gunslinger-witch wine mom and you’re an uptight inquisitor learning to be less judgemental.

C: Which is ironic for a class based around judgements. But anyway, in this campaign we had quite a tumultuous last session, wherein our characters pretty much—in the run-up to the story’s conclusion—fought an apocalyptic threat that was set to recreate everything in an eldritch, incomprehensible, ominous new world order.

A: It was an intense fight against a tentacle being from another plane and their sort-of human, sort-of eldritch allies.

C: And we lost.

A: Our bad.

C: It was a super high-octane session. There were all these crazy reveals and cool twists. All this stuff came to fruition that had been planted episodes ago, like a year and a half ago in real life.

A: True—the villain from Act One was suddenly active again and had this redemption arc, despite being dead.

C: And it came down to the wire. But we straight up did not beat them. We didn’t die, but they did manage to catalyse the end of the world, meet their god, and then escape with the activated doomsday device that will begin the new world. Which was pretty rough.

A: Yeah, I think after the session we all sat there in kind of shock. Like, we’ve lost combats before, but never one where the stakes have been so high. We never lost an ‘end of arc’ combat.

C: Yeah. And while my game has been intense recently because a character has just died—and while nobody died in this session—there was that same feeling of, like, heaviness. It’s like Thanos getting his forever gems and then the film ends and you’re left with just this feeling of…of incredulity, almost, that this could happen and has happened.

A: A sort of hollowness, and disbelief that we could have let this happen, that Thanos got his stones of infinity despite everything.

C: And unlike a Marvel movie, where you know that the good guys will eventually win even if you have to wait to see Thanos 2: the Desolation of Thanos, D&D is a largely improvisational game. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the end. We’re caught in the middle of an unscripted Thanos-snap and it’s a really intense place to be. Well…not unscripted, but it authentically feels that way to us! We should have stopped this!

A: As a side note, can I just say that I think that the main villain in my game, Thomas Gorey, has way better motivations than Thanos does in those films. And has a way better relationship with his horses than Thanos does with his daughters.

C: Yeah, Thanos was really—anyway, we’re getting off-topic. Thor: Ragnarok is a good film.

A: True.

C: Returning to D&D, losing that fight was brutal. I was devastated. I rolled a natural one to hit a bad guy with a spear and maybe accidentally caused the end of the earth. Also, the doomsday device was something I had on my person—oops.

A: I mean, that was on the rest of us too. We were all like, ‘Better to take that spooky sword in with you than leave it lying around.’ In retrospect, possibly a mistake.

C: And this is a horror narrative. The campaign setting is designed to be spooky and grim.

A: That’s true. If you’re wondering why we’re not mentioning the name of the villain we fought, it’s because when we say it, we all take a point of stress.

C: This campaign has a mechanic where there’s ‘Stress’ you accumulate, and if you get too stressed, you die. Which is very relatable.

A: My character’s pretty unstressed most of the time. Though she’s a little perturbed right now because her horse just got killed by an eldritch being.

C: My character learned that his entire religion was actually a Ponzi scheme by extra-planar tentacle-monsters, so it was a stressful session for him.

A: Okay, you win on the distress-o-metre.

C: But looking at this spooky, Darkest Dungeon story, it felt—and maybe this is just me justifying what happened to myself—but I think that it felt tonally appropriate to not have defeated the monster. The DM said afterwards that if we’d won, that would basically have been the end of the campaign, that other spooky stuff on the island would have just sort of collapsed in on itself. From a narrative-perspective, it’s better that we still need to go face the Witch in the Weald and other things. It’s weird to be like, ‘My character did not succeed and that’s okay,’ but it makes for a really good story.

A: Yeah, it was a fun reminder—well, a reminder—both that as a player it’s okay to ‘lose’ in D&D, as much as one can lose, and as a DM that it is okay to do something that intense. Like, it was a really good DMing lesson for me to watch our friend DM a fight in which he was very fair to the players, but in which he didn’t capitulate at all when it became clear that we might not win. The NPCs had a plan and they stuck to it.

C: Yeah, he did a phenomenal job.

A: Having the guts to go with a ‘morale TPK’, as it were, was impressive. Often as a DM, I feel like the party should always be moving forward, so it was really cool to see how that doesn’t always have to be the case.

C: Absolutely, I think both of us can learn from this session about DMing our own stories. Letting Thanos get his doomsday skittles served a really powerful purpose in the story. It was devastating for my character, but as a player, it made me more committed to this campaign.

A: Yeah, last time we talked about the trauma of killing other people’s darlings, but it has to be said that inflicting massive setbacks on your party is kind of fun.

C: It’s a little like the villains this friend creates. He builds all these miniatures out of bluetac for us to fight—they are super-intricate and beautiful. And if we kill them, he immediately squishes the model. This thing which took all this time and effort and is gorgeous—he just destroys it. There’s something very powerful about being that ruthless with your own creations, whether it’s an object or a narrative.

A: True. Would you like to watch Thanos and the Eternity Rocks with me—

C: No.

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