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Social Science and Fiction: Interlude

Last time, I promised you I would write a bit about microfoundations. I will not be doing that today. I apologize for breaking my promise, but it is to my great sorrow that I must digress. Instead of the planned topic, I will revisit motivation. More specifically, I will revisit my own motivation for the campaign I am running right now.

As I mentioned last time, I am Dungeon Master for a homebrew conversion of the Spelljammer setting into Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules. Perhaps more accurately, it’s a reimagining rather than a conversion. All my old Second Edition materials are lost to the sands of time (read: buried in a cardboard box under my parents’ stairs somewhere), and tracking down rulebooks and errata from 1991 would be both time-consuming and pricey. The reason I’m doing this all is because it’s my turn to be DM.

It’s my turn to be DM because roughly two and a half years ago, I had the notion to run a 5E campaign on Twitter (Twitter was a slightly different place in those days). I would write up big scene descriptions and post them to an old blog of mine, which I converted for just this purpose. Players would comment on the post to advance the plot, and we would use Twitter for things like combat, table talk, and minor actions. If you’re morbidly curious, you can access the first post here.

Between the rubbish idea and a few personal things cropping up at the time, I abandoned the project, leaving my players in limbo (much to my shame). Even though that campaign sputtered and stalled right before takeoff, the idea of having a regular game they could play online at their convenience with other people too old and too geographically separated to be part of regularly-scheduled tabletop sessions resonated with my players.

Fortunately, they took my idea, buffed out some of the rough spots, and used a phoenix down on it. Brock Cusick took up the DM’s mantle to run the 5E Curse of Strahd campaign. He drafted a few of the lads from my discarded adventure, recruited a few of his own, and together they stepped through the dreadful mists into the land of Barovia to pit themselves against Tracy and Laura Hickman’s 1983 Dungeons and Dragons I-6 adventure module, updated for play in the current edition. Part of the reason he chose this particular adventure was nostalgia. He and I were in our peak playing years at about the same time, using similar gaudy three-ring binders for monster sheets, picking up the same flex-back handbook addendums to supplement the core game, and reading the same pulp paperback novels, which are pretty much just novelizations of the authors’ home campaigns.

It was novels like these, from Ed Greenwood, Bob Salvatore, Weis and Hickman, et al that helped build those shared worlds that I write about in this series. The Ravenloft setting is one in particular that I find compelling because it is so small in scale. One valley, a few mountains, a couple of villages, and a tragic tale cribbed loosely from Bram Stoker comprise the lore of the campaign. I admit it has been some decades since I last read one of the Ravenloft-branded novels, but I recall mostly little character studies, with a focus on translating old Gothic horror yarns into a high fantasy setting (what would happen if you took a classic Hammer Horror movie about werewolves and added the ability to cast Magic Missile?). With just a handful of factions and maybe a couple of dozen key characters, players can witness up close the nature of choice and consequence in a well-built, mature fictional world.

I rejoined the group a few months after they started playing. They were down a member, having lost their thief. It had been ages since I played a paladin, so Lloyd von Eblerheim, last scion of House Eblerheim, joined the fray — sans trousers.

Lloyd was brash and obnoxious, a bit dimwitted, and prone to ALLCAPS recitals of buttrock anthems peppered among promises of HOLY VENGEANCE. He was also just powerful enough when paired with the legendary sun sword wielded by the long-dead brother of the campaign’s eponymous antagonist to surprise-kill Strahd von Zarovich in what should have been a brief flavor encounter atop the mountain that held the weather control site responsible for the valley’s perpetual gloom.

I felt bad about derailing Brock’s campaign. He put so much work into expanding the module to fit our particular play style, and I just tanked the whole thing by being hasted, burning a couple of my highest-level spell slots on Divine Smite, and getting pretty lucky by rolling a double crit (yes yes, Matt’s ranger helped out quite a bit as well) that the Big Bad went down like a little punk. All this before we even started our crawl on what is perhaps the most iconic classic D&D dungeon ever crafted: Castle Ravenloft.

A lesser DM would have sighed in exasperation, declared an end to the campaign, and moved on.

We did not have a lesser DM.

We had Brock Cusick.

He cut from whole cloth an entirely new Act 3. Strahd’s origin story was rewritten—not tweaked, but entirely rewritten—to include a deal with a fallen angel, an avenue to reintroduce evil into the valley even after we purified it (which Andrew’s character might be up to even at this very moment for all we know), and other sundry bits and bobs so well-integrated with the setting that it’s likely they escaped our attention entirely.

The effort was so well-executed that it encouraged me to more fully flesh out Lloyd’s backstory. I have pages and pages of notes on the history of House Eblerheim, the politics of his homeland, the unique magical properties present in the porous crust and upper mantle region of his planet, and of the logic underpinning the non-traditional factions at war with each other (imagine an order of holy liches who feed their phylacteries with the souls of the wicked). I wanted to reward Brock for his efforts by slowly sharing what I had created over the course of the next few campaigns.

The bulk of the sharing had to wait. Next up for the DM role was Kevin. He moved from playing a strangely endearing Tiefling to running us through Tales from the Yawning Portal, which as near as I can gather (I still haven’t gotten around to picking up a copy of the book) is a collection of mostly-unrelated dungeon crawls cloned from classic Gygax modules. Kevin did well, but he was at a bit of a disadvantage thanks mostly to me. I was so hell-bent on sharing the massive von Eblerheim mythos that I played Lloyd’s long-lost sister, on a cosmos-spanning quest to reunite with her brother who had ended up on Faerun in the company of Dave’s gnome and Matt’s ranger as my next character.

Everything was integrated, you see. Even when we were still playing Curse of Strahd, Brock left a mostly-functional spelljammer in a swamp somewhere so that some of us could get back home after the mists cleared. Poor ol’ Kevin found himself bookended by the Ravenloft campaign we had just finished and the Spelljammer campaign we knew was coming next. And here I was shoehorning my own crap into someone else’s game.

Of course, I knew there was meant to be a payoff down the road. I wasn’t throwing elbows just to be cute. When most of us met up last summer in Brooklyn for a little impromptu(ish) get-together, I hinted that I really was going somewhere with it all, and if you guys would have a little patience, it would all pay off in the end.

It will not all pay off in the end.

You can’t know this by reading it, but it has been two days since I wrote that last sentence. It has taken me that long to summon the courage I need to write the next one.

Brock Cusick died suddenly and without warning on the evening of the 19th of August, Anno Domini 2018.

There is no pay off. There is nothing but anguish and pain and grief and torment. I ruined Brock’s fun in the short term in the vain hopes that I’d get a pat on the back for a long-game tale spun over the course of several campaigns that we will never be able to run now.

I built a world, and in the span of rolling for initiative against a clutch of Yuan-Ti kidnappers, that world is ash.

And all I can think about was his joy. His joy every time he mentioned his family. His joy that his oldest son was becoming interested in the game we were all playing together, even making his own dungeons together with his beloved dad. His joy when he carved a little time out of his day to come play with us. His joy at someday being able to take command of his own spelljamming ship and fly it through the phlogiston.

He even named his character in my campaign after his original character in my old, abandoned game, the one that sort of got the ball rolling on this ongoing thing we do.

Do? Did? I apologize, but I haven’t quite yet come to terms with any of this yet.

It has hit me hard. Like, really hard. I don’t have many friends, but of the ones I do have, Brock stood out as an exemplar of what we should all strive for. His integrity and sincerity were beyond reproach. Indeed, one of our last sidebar DM exchanges was him upbraiding me about how I handled one of the early side missions. I couldn’t tell him my underlying motivation for running it the way I did without spoiling a major reveal later on in the game. He wanted me to run the game the way he thought a D&D game should be run, and I adored him for keeping me honest.

And so in addition to the ordinary grief I feel at losing a friend, I also bear a streak of guilt at failing to meet his standards. This is particularly galling, since I specifically wrote this entire campaign with him in mind, knowing how much he cherishes the setting, how he’s fond of real-life space travel and technology in general.

I wrote forty pages on a whole civilization the party might not ever even encounter just because I thought there was a slight chance it would put a little smile on his face.

So I do apologize for breaking my word. I promised you microfoundations, and instead you get fifteen hundred words of my misery.

There is empty seat at my table. I beg your indulgence.

Rest in Peace, Brock. This world, these worlds, are colder for your absence.

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13 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction: Interlude

  1. Thank you for this window into your friend’s sterling character and your love for him. I’m so very sorry for your loss.

    I’m sitting here in an empty hospital room right now, waiting for my friend who is the wife of my friend (both of whom play D&D) to come back from the MRI they are doing to see how she is. She hasn’t been conscious since Thursday morning, so there are better and worse answers, but all within a pretty sad and challenging range. I don’t intend to show him this post, and she can’t read it, but it couldn’t have come at a better time for me to read.

    So thank you for that too, although it’s a gift I wish you’d never had to give.

    I hope you find some peace, love, and strength in the coming days.

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    • Sending energy to your friend I hope they come to a better answer.

      I would like to second your thanks to Sam for this gift it comes at a time when I needed it as well. Yesterday an old friend lost his battle with leukemia, his son, also a good friend of mine is dealing with not only the loss of his father but also with the fact that he did not get a project that his father wishes to see completed finished in time.

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  2. Back in my teenage and college years of playing tabletop RPGs, I somehow arrived at a philosophy that I would not allow the fall of the dice or the rules in a book to get in the way of telling a good story. I would always make this clear to my players at the start of a campaign and let them know that this meant, among other things, no matter what happened to their characters, they as players would always have a part to play in advancing the story. Implied and I believe understood, but usually unstated in that bargain, would be that the Big Bad NPC enjoyed similar sorts of narrative protections — they’d get to take out the Big Bad but only when in my judgement the story was good and ready for them to do so.

    I was a pretty tightly railed storyteller, in retrospect.

    In the OP we read of the machinations of chance and application of the rules causing a then-underpowered PC to take out the Big Bad very early on in the campaign. The gamemaster confronted with this situation here elected to let the chips fall where they did in that encounter, and retconned a tremendous amount of work to go on. Heroic writing by him, to be sure, and I recognize that.

    I’d probably not have done that back in my day. I’d have done something else. Instead, I’d have:

    a) Let the encounter resolve as it did, and later made the Big Bad even Badder by adding the ability to project a double (aka Luke Skywalker at the end of Last Jedi) so when the Actual Big Boss Battle happened at the climax of the campaign, the PCs had to defeat both the Big Bad and his avatar simultaneously;

    b) Added in a deflection or saving throw for the Big Bad such that he would withdraw rather than die with a pronouncement “You’ve won this round but I will make sure you lose the war, puny paladin!” and then had him vanish in a puff of smoke; and/or

    c) Written in an Even Bigger Bad to come after the Big Bad, if possible (and it’s always possible).

    As for the results of the actual extraordinary roll, the gamemaster has about three seconds to figure out how to react to it, while the rest of the players are marveling at the roll itself.

    I’m not saying the gamemaster here made a bad decision. Maybe it was a better decision than any or all of the ones I’d have made. I’m simply sharing that I’d have probably handled that differently.

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    • In the relatively small amount of DMing I did, I found the very best campaigns to be the ones that went totally off the rails at some point. The other players were improvising great stuff, and things went best when I was improvising too – that’s when we all started exploring the unknown together.

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  3. Somehow I stumbled across your touching tribute to my nephew, Brock Cusick. I am his Aunt Patty. I always knew how much Brock enjoyed D&D. In reading this, it is evident you all had a great time playing these games and knowing one another. Actually I live in Cedar Grove, NJ where as a preteen/teen Brock would come often to “Time Warp Comics & Games” shop to play D&D where it is still being played to this day. I find myself visiting this store now and trying to connect to Brock. It is true his son John was being taught to play D&D by Brock. Now other family members are trying to step in and play with John. Please know the last days of Brock’s life (hard to believe and say) were at my son’s wedding in Pennsyvlania and also in NJ visiting with Wendy’s family. Brock was surrounded by his adoring and loving family. As always, he was full of joy and so very happy. We miss him so much and it is comforting to know there are people like you who care. I hope you are at peace knowing how much Brock enjoyed his time with you all ! I want to say thank you again for your beautiful tribute, for being such great friends, and D&D partners/opponents? Not sure which but it was all in good fun and Brock would surely be the 1st to know that!!!!

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