While finishing up the last session for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I found that I really didn’t know how the story was going to end. It’s tempting to drive the story into a happily ever after ending, especially for the players who worked so hard on the development of their characters and investment in the plot. But I know that playing a roleplaying tabletop game involves dice, chance and a very evil villain who wants something very badly and is not about to let this group of sojourners barge into their plans and ruin them.
While I could play nerfball with the players, I want them to feel the pain of making a stand at the end of the story, and the stakes are high. While preparing for the final session, I have resolved that it is very likely that one character dies. That doesn’t terrify me. What scares me is that I don’t know which one that is going to be. I can’t plan for who is going to leave the session. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not beholden to the dice. I’m the dungeon master and I tell the story, but even with all my planning, there exists the element that nothing is set in stone, everything is up for grabs, and anything could happen.
A lot like life. I can plan and then forget a detail. I can study and fail. I can prepare and realize that what I had planned didn’t happen and the thing I didn’t even realize could happen did and now I’m lost. Sometimes life doesn’t make sense and sometimes, it just requires another perspective.
So, here is my plan. I’m going to write out the aftermath of victory and the horror of defeat. This narrative helps me envision what kind of ending I want to encounter. Regarding the players and their characters, I still believe the dungeon master tells what happens, but the players tell how it happens. This partnership in agency is what makes the collective storytelling process work and feel good when we do it.
The Aftermath of Victory
A drop of blood slides down the rough forehead of an old dwarf and splatters on the floor of the temple, and he drags his broken leg to rest upon a boulder. The wind settled as the dragons all perched alongside the rim of the volcanic well and they peered down into the temple and saw that the evil wizard, maddened with love for Tiamat, lay dead upon the ground.
Gundren nursed his leg with a swift chug of ale from a keg and he began an old dwarven hymn, the same that was sung upon the eve of the birth of Dadock Rockstrong. So much time had passed since that celebration last year. Since then, so many events had transpired. He chuckled to himself at how things would have been different if he had not sent his nephew Felthran out on that first journey. Maybe better, maybe worse, but for now, the problem of the red mask of Tiamat was solved. The west world of Faerun would know peace, at least from the troubles of dragons, for a while. Now maybe the dwarves had a chance to reclaim many of their old homes. For there were many home lost, and not just the dwarves, but of the Dessarin Valley, of Waterdeep and the Sword Coast, many people displaced, and much wealth lost. And worse, there was left an option for evil to assume a new form, but for now, he sighed in relief. His eyes caught the sigh of the sojourners standing strongly alongside each other. Perhaps, he said to Felthran, “could you help me? I have a wagonload of supplies that needs delivering to Phandalin.” he laughs with a wink. And so for now, our story concludes.
The Horror of Defeat
The heavy smell of sulfur fills the air inside the open caldera. The ground rumbles and breaks apart, splintering rock and stone, as sand and dust blast from within the rifts of earth. A deafening howl shrieks through the caverns, sending brave warriors clutching their chests and lifting their hands to heaven for mercy. A lone red reptilian claw, reaches from the rift in the earth and smashes onto the ground, spilling lava from its skin. A single finger stretches over the bodies of 3 cultists who lie dead on the floor of the unholy temple.
Tiamat’s voice begins to sound throughout The Well of Dragons, “I claim Bonzarel for my abode.” she cackles in draconic and her arm stretches from within the well and she lifts her body out for all to behold. Filling the temple from end to end, she surpasses 3 dragons in size, with her 5 mighty heads now all reaching up in the same direction. Her feet land upon the floor with a thunderous thud and her tail whips like a bolt of lightning in the air. With a devilish smile, her red face stares on to Severin and opens her maw revealing an inferno of bright fire.
“Tiamat!” he harkens, “goddess of creation, we, your humble representatives from Bonzarel, greet you with – “ but his voice is cut short as she snaps her jaw closed, crushing his body between her teeth.
“I do not need a representative,” she retorts and sulfuric fire burps from her lips. “I can claim my own domain.” The remaining cultists flee in terror. She then turns to you and breathes a blast of fire, “and I do not need anyone to stand in my way.” And so for now, our story concludes.