I’ve experienced a bit of loss recently. I lost my job at Wizards of the Coast this past December. No permanent employment has come my way yet, so I could lose my house. (Maybe not such a bad thing, all considered.) I gave my pound of flesh to the surgeon who removed my little cancerous growth. (Shaking my fist at the sun, I know it’s really my fault.) I lost my sister this past month. Heck, I’ve even lost over thirty pounds, taking the good with the bad. Loss has been on my mind a lot recently.
This isn’t about me, though. Truth be told, despite some dark instances, life has been good to me. Any suffering I’ve endured has been, thankfully, minor. I feel like I’ve gained a lot in the past few months, from experiences to friends to opportunities.
Loss shapes us. How one responds and moves on from loss can have a profound effect on the path one’s life takes and the deeds one performs. In this world, loss is inevitable but often without deep impact. We don’t live in a place where kobolds can eat our babies or a maniac can call up the avatar of the Mad God. Our characters do.
Making Up Losses
The minor travails of modern life are not the norm in for heroes in a fantasy world like those of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The harsher the world is, the greater the potential for suffering. Take Dark Sun. Characters on Athas have a potential for loss few of us would like to imagine. Even if you’re playing a game set in cushy Faerûn, DM or player, you should take some time to imagine loss.
Loss and the desire to do something about it is one root of character motivation. It can be key in the background of a player character and the adventuring party’s forward momentum. Something as little as gambling debt or as big as the death of an entire tribe can shape a character’s path. If you’re a DM, loss can turn good guys bad, bad guys good, and mold the fate of nations and deities.
One element I included in the character history questions for players in my Dark Sun game was had to do with loss. It went something like: Athas is a harsh world in which people suffer regular hardships and loss. What have you suffered or lost? How has this event shaped you or your life? What are you going to do about it?
Malamac, one of those characters, had a lot of loss in his life. He was the only dwarf in his clan who had no touch of primal magic. For “blasphemous” discoveries in an ancient dwarven city, servants of the tyrant of Tyr killed Malamac’s kin and enslaved Malamac. Malamac found himself an unwilling gladiator bereft of possessions and friends.
Like with Malamac, I learned the most about the characters from the losses they had suffered and what they planned to do about them. The answers have shaped adventures and encounters for over a year now. As the characters approach paragon tier, I’m working to provide opportunities to resolve or provide closure for many of those losses. I’m also fostering new attachments and planning possible threats to those attachments.
You see, loss often leads to new experiences and connections. Malamac’s initial loss opened the way for his primal power to blossom. It also provided him with a new “family” made up of some characters in his party if not the whole group. He has risen to leadership among his friends, providing him with a sort of status he might never have gained otherwise. The “loss” of his status as a slave opened the door to adventure, and adventure has led to prestige that might become actual influence in Tyr. Certainly, Malamac and his peers stand in a position to influence Tyr’s future fate.
Loss I’ve imposed has shaped the narrative course of my Dark Sun campaign. I began the game, and some of my “Welcome to Dark Sun” sessions, with an encounter against a gang of slavers known as the Red Hand. The encounter was (and is) utterly unfair, a beatdown five levels higher than the characters. After putting up a truly spectacular and desperate struggle in the first run of this encounter, the characters fell to the superior forces. They lost their freedom instead of their lives, setting up the first adventure, where they must regain their freedom far from home or die.
The players, and characters, have been itching to even the score with the Red Hand since that first encounter. The current meat of the campaign is rooting out the gang and its leaders, and gaining some payback alongside some justice. The motivation is largely based on the first loss with a dash of “let’s end slavery in Tyr” thrown in.
That’s cool, because the players are the driving force behind the course of the action. Yes, I bait the hooks well, but the players choose which ones the characters bite. Attachment and connection, and possible loss of these, are huge motivators.
In the narrative, characters also wanted revenge on the owner of the Cracked Jack (a cracked drinking horn as its sign), the bar in which they were abducted. Jak, the owner in question, a bald half-elf with a scar down one side of his face, seemed like he was in cahoots with the gang. It turns out, as it does so often, that Jak was almost as much a victim as anyone. What would you do if a gang of thugs gave you the option to let them use your establishment or lose your skin?
When the characters returned to the Cracked Jack, they ended up facing the Red hand again and discovering Jak’s dilemma. They tried to save Jak, but failed. They then felt a sense of duty toward Jak’s orphaned teenage daughter, Danae. She is now part of the characters’ NPC entourage. Jak’s loss has led to new possibilities in the narrative.
I have another hook floating out there that the Dragon of Tyr demands a thousand slaves per year from each of the seven cities. The free city of Tyr has no slaves to send, and too few prisoners who deserve such execution. Rumors are now spreading on the streets that Tyr is doomed to face the Dragon’s wrath. The players and characters know they can’t face the Dragon and hope to live (at least they can’t at 8th level). Yet this possibility threatens almost everything the characters love. What can they do?
Possible losses need not be that concrete, however. Corvas, a deva avenger, exists on Athas only because he comes from a time long forgotten. He remembers little of his existence as a once-great servant of the goddess Melora, not even her name. Divine power is part of his being, however. He is one of the few devas left on the planet, supposing any others survive. He is the rarest of characters in that he has actual divine power.
Corvas looks at today’s Athas and can feel only great sadness. Although the past isn’t clear in his time-fractured mind, he recalls better days in his subconscious. He also knows who’s to blame. Defilers.
The very threat of any more loss to defiling on Athas drives Corvas to rage beyond reason. Further, he cannot, will not, accept the dying world. A desire to bring life back to the brittle husk that Athas has become drives Corvas to strive and slay, and to seek his memories and true power. Does his “Painted Lady” live, is she dead, or is she a delusion?
Loss looms large in Corvas’s future, formless and ominous. It has countless strings I can pull to manipulate the course of the game.
Loss to Catharsis
The point of loss in a game is to provide some sort of tension. It can provide motivations for villains that characters can sympathize with. Player characters can explain unusual or nontactical behavior with it. (For instance, to the chagrin of his teammates, Corvas breaks off from his current target to attack anyone who or anything that defiles. I like it, even if the other players sometimes don’t.)
Tension is a good thing for any old story, and much more so for a narrative game. The tension doesn’t need to be released, but it’s very satisfying when it can be. Players feel rewarded for their efforts, in character background and in ongoing play, when the game’s play provides a chance to make up for past failures. Imagine how the players felt when they faced the Red Hand again and won with no losses.
Consider using loss and the emotions it entails to give your characters and scenarios more depth and tension. Then manipulate the depth for personalized narratives, and use the tension to set up satisfying clashes and releases. Give loss meaning. I hope I’ve given some of mine a little more by sharing this with you.
Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.