30 march 2019 – BRIGHT DESERT, OERTH
TAROn the fallen
Character defining events
This tale starts with Taron. Taron was a proud Paladin. He had achieved some experience and gained levels and abilities fighting alongside his fellow adventurers. In a brief time, he had amassed a sizable amount of wealth as well, both magic and mundane, even though he didn’t achieve that much of note.
Taron was the first Paladin I created for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I made him along with his two creatively named Paladin brothers, Turon and Tiron. I played him as cookie-cutter Paladin, devoted to truth and personal honor. His personality didn’t stand out though, in fact, I cannot remember even one role-playing encounter with him.
He did stand out in terms of game stats. His abilities scores were embarrassingly high, his red dragon armor and magic shield propelled his armor class far into the twenties, his saving throws were incomparable among his peers and he carried a solid selection of magic items. His latest acquisition was a Holy Avenger: the penultimate offensive and defensive tool for any Paladin. Also, standing at a solid 105 hit points he was my first character to go above one hundred.
When it was time for the next adventure I filled out a brand new character sheet with his stats displayed in crisp and careful pencil strokes. I brimmed with confidence: I felt ready for anything. My DM said that he had a special challenge, his personal adaptation of an old classic module he had played before: the Tomb of Horrors.
The initial encounter involved a rope bridge over a ravine with flying monsters and NPC spellcasters and fighters. It proved threatening to the other heroes in our party, but Taron managed to weather it with barely a scratch to show for it, and those were easily healed by his ring of regenerations. He easily outmatched the best the enemy could throw at him. I played him with confidence, perhaps arrogance even. Not because I wanted to play him that way, but because I really felt that way.
Then we entered the infamous Tomb of Horrors, and encountered a dead end corridor with a green devil face with a deep black hole in its mouth plus some vague hints that our destination might warrant a leap into its mouth. The rest of the party was scared of some trap, but not Taron. Boldly he announced he would risk the leap and went in, Holy Avenger leading.
Tomb of Horrors
The Tomb of Horrors is an adventure module written by Gary Gygax for the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game. Gygax designed the adventure both to challenge the skill of expert players in his own campaign, and to test players who boasted of having mighty player characters able to best any challenge. Several versions of the adventure have been published, the first in 1978, and the most recent, for the fifth edition of D&D, in 2017.
The module’s plot revolves around the tomb of the demilich Acererak. The player characters must battle their way past a variety of monsters and traps, with the ultimate goal of destroying Acererak. The Tomb of Horrors is a key part of the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which is set in a virtual reality world created by a man who was a fan of the module. The character James Halliday recreated the dungeon in detail, which the novel’s other characters must traverse to advance in the global contest and win Halliday’s fortune.
The DM announced that I felt my sword being pulled into the sphere and allowed my to use its magic resistance of 50% to resist the pull. I rolled, but too high. Still confident of a good outcome regardless of whatever lay behind this portal, I held onto my weapon and was pulled entirely into the sphere. It turned out to be something called a Sphere of Annihilation, a miniature black hole really. And the rules also stipulated that once you were pulled into it, no amount of magic, not even the Gods, could return you.
When you reach the middle levels in Dungeon & Dragons, death becomes more of an inconvenience and minor setback rather than the end of the story. Many ways to bring back dead heroes to life are available at that point. Not so with the Sphere of Annihilation. It was really, really permanent.
I felt shell-shocked. The impossible had happened. The perfect Paladin was gone, never to return. I never played a full Paladin again after that. He two brothers remained character sheets collecting dust and no one remembers their names.
However, to this day, I still remember that moment fondly. By his actions Taron had cemented himself into the memories of other heroes. This encounter defined his character, prideful, fearless, overconfident and unlucky. This is how I will always remember him. His annihilation defined him more than any other event.
And, if I look back at the many adventures me and my friends had with role playing games, the most character defining events, those events who we most closely associated with the character, are often the ones were they suffered a spectacular setback, died for the cause or goofed up terrible. Your character may start out with a certain concept, a certain backstory even, but it are the challenges, especially those they struggle to overcome, that define who they really are.
Gulia the wizard I remember as being reincarnated into a Boggle and using her greasy and slippery body to escape from the Hill Giants that tried to catch and grapple her time and again. Phantom’s career was shaped by reading a Vacuous Grimoire than nuked his mental capacity and made him leave his profession as Illusionist and instead gain levels in Fighter and Rogue. Nexa’s character was cemented by being false accused of theft by Martin, the party’s Paladin on account of his detect evil ability (she was Lawful Evil, but loyal), which turned into a feud that finally ended when he used a Wish spell he found to make her forget him.
I wonder if this is true of real life as well. I see some evidence that having a good and easy life doesn’t really build character. The easy life tends to turn people into bland, self-centered and often boorish people. Just a collection of stats and backstories really. But our struggles in life, even though difficult and perhaps impossible, they teach us who we really are and can become. They give us color, they are part of our story more so than those easy years.
Also, I’m thinking of bringing Taron back as a Oathbreaker Paladin / Warlock in 5th edition as the stipulation that nothing can be brought back from destruction by a Sphere of Annihilation has been removed from the rules. The idea being that a pact with a dark otherworldly being has allowed him to return. However, perhaps his memory is better left as is.