The Sideshow S2|31: Friend of the Devil - Roll For Combat

Make sure to follow our upcoming RPG Superstar Battlezoo Bestiary Kickstarter!

The Sideshow S2|31: Friend of the Devil

Jason recaps the events from Three Ring Adventure S2|31: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In last week’s column, you might remember I played around with the whole “five stages of grief” thing. I’m pretty sure the real world is messier than that and grief doesn’t move in a straight line – you think you’re fine, the wrong song plays at the grocery store, and all of a sudden you’re tearing up while hugging a bag of frozen peas – but it made for a useful framing and did capture the different layers of shifting emotions about Darius’ death at the time.

Well, the funny thing is, over the weekend I had actually found my way to acceptance. Or at least I had managed to find some positives to introducing a new character. It would certainly have shaken up the roleplaying dynamic. What sort of character would Rob play, and how would the rest of the party react to this new person “filling Darius’ shoes”? It might have also freshened up the combat dynamics a little – I love Darius as a character, but his role in a fight is to stand in front of something and punch it. A new character might have introduced some new tactics. Maybe Rob would roll a TRUE non-human character – yeah, Darius and Alhara are half-elves, and now Hap has genie blood, but Rob could’ve really pulled out all the stops. (My suggestion: a boar-based beastkin who, to inject some irony, still loves bacon.) Also, out at the skinny end of the bell curve, part of me hoped Steve might let Rob brew a beta version of a Magus or Summoner since Secrets of Magic would be out by the time this aired (or close to it). Like he did with Alhara and the Swashbuckler when the show started.

So yeah, I had actually reached a point where I was willing to see the positives of a show that didn’t include Darius. Instead, the Reaper is cheated, and Darius lives to fight another day… but with a HUGE catch.

Now, let me step out of the story for a second and discuss “cheating death” as a general mechanism. My overall position is that the VAST majority of the time, death is death and shouldn’t be undone lightly, but I also think there ARE situations where you consider it, and maybe this was one of them.

Rule #1 is “play stupid games, win stupid prizes”. If the player gets killed because they were being reckless or stupid, they don’t get any favors. The GM should NEVER reward downright bad play. In this case, they had no way to know about the curse, and once they used the first round to figure out the golem’s “pattern”, their kiting tactics were actually pretty clever. Trip, run away, lather, rinse, repeat. Other than metagaming that it was an optional encounter and avoiding it entirely, you can’t accuse anyone of being reckless here.

Rule #2 is that sometimes you cut the players a break if the dice are REALLY against them – to borrow a phrase from poker, sometimes as a GM, you find a way to let them walk away from a bad beat. If we’re being fair, Darius’ death was probably in the middle. On one hand, it was a powerful creature so it had a high DC, and nobody told them to spend all their hero points. On the other hand, they had like five or six chances where a 15 or 16 (estimated) would’ve solved the problem, and couldn’t hit it. Mr. “I Took Stats In College But Mostly Slept Through It Because It Was An 8 AM Class” ran the numbers and the chance of failing ALL those rolls was 10 or 15 percent. That starts to get into the territory of “maybe the dice are cursed”.

I’m adding a Rule #3 based on how Steve handled this situation: if it can fit within the story, the player should have some choice in the matter. Maybe the player is actually ready to make a new character and doesn’t WANT to come back, or maybe they love that first character and would do anything to keep it. If you’re going to upend that apple cart, it’s probably a good call to have the player be on board.

Rule #4 is the big one. If you’re going to overrule death itself, it can’t be for free; there has to be a cost. Now “free” doesn’t have to mean money or losing a level… it just has to mean there’s some consequence. Even if it’s just a story/roleplaying consequence, where maybe people react differently to the character because something unnatural happened to bring them back.

And hot damn, here’s where Steve really pulled the rabbit out of the hat. And where laying all the roleplaying groundwork with the mark paid off.

First was the voice itself. As I joked in our group chat, Steve did such a good job with the Achakaek voice I ALMOST forgive him for the existence of Gibzip. I’m still trying to figure out whether Steve added some effects to the voice in post. If he did, that’s pretty cool. If it’s not, it’s just a testament to how good a job he did that I convinced myself he did.

So it turns out that Darius and Alhara’s mom was, if not a full Red Mantis Assassin, certainly an adherent of Achakaek, and must have passed some sort of protective blessing/curse… blurse?… onto Darius. So when Darius “dies”, he gets a VIP meet-and-greet with the bug god himself and he’s offered a diabolical choice. He can die and move on, or he can be brought back to life by giving up more control over the mark. And he would be doing this knowing the mark is a product of malevolent power.

And I mean… come on. Darius is Darius. He’s going to protect his family, and he’s one of those people who REALLY believes they can overcome ANYTHING. This stuff is hard-wired into him. So of course he’s going to accept the consequences of the curse and come back. So now we have Darius, but now with 30 percent more stone-cold killer. It will be interesting to see how that manifests going forward. (And as a “rubber meets the road” thing, I’m kinda curious whether Darius will have access to the full Red Mantis archetype, or whether the status quo will continue and the mark will continue to provide a few select powers.)

Before we move on, I wanted to commend all THREE of the group-mates for their excellent roleplay in this moment. It had to be hard to “go there” and play real grief, but Vanessa and Loren really pulled it off; it was really heartbreaking there in the moment. That’s not to disrespect Rob P. either – he had to play it more subdued because Ateran is someone who guards their emotions more closely, but I thought Rob’s choices of working through the intellectual puzzle of Darius’ death, wondering what they might have done differently, while still trying to comfort Alhara were well done.

Now, Darius’ death and return cast a pretty long shadow over this episode, but we did get one more intriguing little bit of lore dump when the party FINALLY gets around to reading “the letter” they found several episodes back. And as I somewhat expected, the letter sheds more light on Mistress Dusklight’s role in this operation, formally and finally painting her as Evil-With-a-Capital-E. She wasn’t just tomb-robbing and happened to bump into them; she formally helped augment the power of their rituals and – most sinister of all – helped round up surface-dweller sacrifices (presumably various townspeople of Escadar) for the xulgaths. So, I don’t know how Achakaek will feel about all of it but sounds like Mistress Dusklight needs to die sooner rather than later if she hasn’t left for Absalom yet.

There is one small silver lining in all of this. The letter does also hint at a xulgath faction that was opposed to what this group is doing. I’m not even going to TRY to spell specific xulgath names, but Dusklight’s letter mentions a diadem being damaged when knocked off the leader’s head during a battle with a fellow xulgath. So that raises at least a possibility that humanity may have some… if not allies, at least people who can be reasoned with… amongst the xulgaths. It’s SOMETHING to hang one’s hat on.

So this week, Darius rests and recovers and we all eat our feelings. Next week, we get back to work, whether that’s clearing the last few rooms of the temple, confronting Mistress Dusklight… or maybe they’re the same thing and it’s just a race for the diadem at this point. As always, feel free to drop by our Discord channel or other social media and let us know what you think of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

(Achakaek voice) OR ELSE…