Charlie, the Mystery DM

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Happy GURPSDay, all! With 2019 well underway, I hope your year is shaping up to be a good one for gaming.

When I first discovered RPGs, I was lucky enough in those formative years to have a lot of wonderful GMs (and DMs and Storytellers and Keepers and…), many of whom I’m still good friends with to this day.

And then there’s Charlie, a GM I’ve been wanting to write about for quite a long time.

Another gamer was asking last week about times an RPG has emotionally affected you, and I immediately thought of Charlie’s game. Only twice in my life do I recall a game bringing me to nearly shed a tear, and this was one of them.

I didn’t start with GURPS as my first tabletop RPG — my introduction to the hobby was 1st Edition AD&D, and my friends and I played a lot. A lot. Like, picture what you think of as a lot in your head, then double it. Maybe triple in the summer.

It was glorious.

Once those halcyon days of high school gaming came to an end, I ended up at U-Mass and quickly showed up in response to an ad around campus from a DM named Charlie who was looking for players. On the appointed day, I got to the Student Union room specified to find four other guys waiting and chatting. After a few minutes, Charlie came in – and Charlie was a woman.

For me, in the mid-’80s, that was honestly unusual enough to be of note, but then I simply waited to hear about the upcoming game. Except, then three of the other four (I think they knew one another) stood without a word and just… left. Like, who does that? Even then?

Anyway, Charlie watched them go and then, the moment the room door closed, she turned her full attention to me and the other fella (and a third, who showed up about a half-hour in) and just welcomed us, talked a bit about the setting, asked about our own gaming experiences, and we made some characters. The four of us (and a couple others who joined the following month) met weekly for maybe a dozen sessions… and it was a total blast, a game I still remember fondly after decades. We couldn’t wait for the weekends!

In addition to Charlie’s talent for playing memorable characters and seeming to never have to look up a rule, I believe the emotional impact of the game was heightened for me because it dovetailed so nicely with where I was at both in life in general and as a player specifically.

The party was a fairly standard assortment of fantasy tropes, led by my PC, a Lawful Good Paladin. There was almost always a party leader in those days, for efficiency I suppose, but despite having played for a few years by this point, I had never chosen to be party leader. I was much more comfortable as a back-rank support character, or the “silent but deadly” magic user or Conan-type. But I hesitantly agreed to roll a Paladin as our leader (he was the ‘official’ in-game leader as well, not just meta) and figured we’d see how it went.

The game world had clearly been lovingly crafted, and had a real fairy tale/fable quality to it. Our kingdom had been ravaged by blight and disease, eventually discovered to be the handiwork of the King’s banished bastard, a necromancer who had unleashed all manner of dark magics against his father’s kingdom, the crux of which was an ancient forest in the kingdom’s heart. For millennia it was our lifeblood, providing strong timber, revitalizing water, plentiful game, and a home for magical creatures of Good nature.

But the necromancer’s pall had corrupted the entire forest, turning the white-barked trees black and sickly, making the water fetid and the animals diseased, and attracting all manner of foul creatures to its borders. These creatures and the bastard’s forces assaulted the kingdom on all fronts, and there was barely a sword-arm (or spell-hand) to spare as every able-bodied warrior and wizard sought to defend against the encroaching evil.

On counsel of his advisers and oracles, the King entrusted his most trusted knight — me — with the only surviving seed from the mighty trees of that wood (having been moved to the safety of the palace by his ancestors). The few other loyal defenders that could be spared (the other PCs) and I were to bring the seed to the center of the forest and bury it in the earth.

That was the first game. From there, over the next ten or so adventures, we battled our way free from the palace and the capital, across many treacherous miles beset by roving bands of the necromancer’s army, until finally reaching the edge of the wood and leaping into that heart of darkness.

We battled evil monsters, soldiers, and necromantic disciples for every inch of progress towards the heart of the wood. Two of our party were slain (replaced by new PCs we rescued from an Ogre camp’s larder), and by the time of our final adventure we were all bloodied, exhausted, and all but beaten.

We usually played from noon to 6:00 pm in the Student Union, in a large room with 12-15 tables set up. The semester was ending soon so it was the last day we would be able to meet, and the plan was to finish off the game hell or high water.

As the day wore on and games at other tables wrapped up, I noticed that quite a few players weren’t leaving after their games ended, but were rather milling around in a slowly growing circle of onlookers around our table. Charlie’s descriptions were so fluid and vivid, her wicked NPCs so engaging, and our tale so epic that people got caught up in it. And they were quiet! Completely engrossed — and I found it all terrifying.

I had barely become used to leading the party in our little group of 4-5 (depending on the week). Now there were like 15, 20 gamers just ringing the table and intently listening to our tale. However, I was kind of “trapped” — the only real choices were to either suck it up and keep going or run screaming from the room. I reluctantly chose the former.

After maybe 30 minutes of ersatz performance, my paladin and three other PCs remained. Our fifth had been literally pulled in half by a mated pair of giant ravens, and it was too late for a convenient new character. He was just dead (though never left the table, as he wanted to see the finale). We were now the only game still running, and everyone else had either left the room or joined the audience.

With barely a moment’s respite from attack, we discovered the clearing in which the heart of the wood tree grew, a massive and mighty oak now twisted and bent by corruption. It was ringed by a nearly impenetrable ‘wall’ of other trees, with only a single way in or out. The necromancer and his most elite skeletal warriors were hot on our heels, and would catch us before we could reach the clearing.

The other PCs turned their backs to me to face the onslaught. They unanimously agreed to hold their ground so my paladin could have a chance to make it. After a quick but solemn farewell I charged for the clearing, cutting down anything that got in my way as the necromancer and his undead swarmed over the others. The battle was savage, and we lost a man. Then another. The necromancer spurred his undead mount towards the clearing as the final other PC went down beneath skeletal claws.

I was alone and in single-digit hit points as I reached the tree on foot. The necromancer rode up behind me — I had time only for a single action: bury the seed from the amulet around my neck, or turn to battle the bastard. To that point in my life I had never been the sole focus of attention from so many people, but I managed to croak out, “I ignore the necromancer, tear the amulet from around my neck, and plunge the seed into the earth of the clearing.”

The necromancer summoned a jagged bone lance as he rode, made an attack roll, and hit me for a massive boatload of damage that I simply couldn’t take. Charlie related that the lance impaled entirely through my paladin’s back and pinned his corpse to the ground just as he covered over the seed with a final pat of earth, and then continued (paraphrasing):

“The necromancer rides past you, satisfied to see that the last of the king’s minions has been defeated and can now be added to his unholy army. The burying of the seed causes no change at all, and it seems momentarily that the oracles were wrong… until the holy blood of the righteous paladin begins to seep into the earth of the clearing.”

Beginning in the clearing but emanating through the entire forest in waves, the mighty trees, once gnarled and rotten, again stood tall with gleaming white bark. The streams again sparkled and bubbled, and all undead and otherwise fell creatures were destroyed. The necromancer screamed with fury and pain as the forest itself, the branches and the vines, tore him from his undead mount as it fell to ash around him. While he struggled against being bound, saplings and other plants grew up from the forest floor and through his body until every trace of him was gone, his evil swallowed by the holiness of the forest.

And then, as our tale ended… the smiling onlookers broke into spontaneous applause before breaking off into clusters and leaving the room, many muttering back and forth about the game they had just watched.

It was a magical experience. A seminal turning point, really, completely opening up the possibilities of gaming to me in a way I had never fully experienced. Up to that point, I already really liked RPGs; but ever since that day, I have been addicted to chasing that dragon of emotional engagement, those rare moments when a game transcends, like a novel you lose all track of time while reading, and fictional people and events can prompt very real emotional responses.

And I owe it all to a single game from a random DM named Charlie 30 years ago.

If you showed up for a D&D game at the U-Mass Science Fiction Society (UMSFS) in 1985-86 but left because the DM was a woman — you missed one hell of a story.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Absolutely awesome…definitely scratched my nostalgia itch. I had a similar experience with a DM who ran a 1st Ed AD&D using David Eddings the Belgariad as his campaign setting (he even did an excellent job of hand-drawing the map shown in the books) back in the mid 1980’s…hmmm…that would be a great setting for a GURPS Fantasy campaign, come to think of it…

  2. A fellow UMass Amherst alumni! I was there a few years later but had a similar seminal experience, but in the dorms of Orchard Hill. A GM ran an open world that at times had 20-30 participating players. The game was built around a castle ruin inherited by one of the players. The place attracted adventurers and others to help clear the lands and restore the castle. Various subgroups would assemble for missions, both official and covert. The GM ran 3-4 sessions of varying lengths a week. It was a massive multiplayer RPG mixed with D&D mixed with Game of Thrones. And it was glorious.

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