personalThis one's for Joseph.

The following tragic tale concerns a character that I have been playing in my weekly Dungeons and Dragons game. Because I recognize that not everyone is familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, I have made the story customizable:

Dungeons and Dragons is what's known as a tabletop roleplaying game, and is one of the first and most popular tabletop games ever made. Think of it like improv theater, only with an overarching dramatic plotline instead of little comedy bits, and with multi-sided dice instead of some guy drawing random nouns out of a hat. Basically, it amounts to a group of friends coming together (in my case, every week) and telling a story together. So, whenever I mention Joseph and his activities, keep in mind that this is a fictional character whose skin I've been inhabiting for months now.

As for the world in which D&D takes place, it's a mishmash of fantasy settings, borrowing heavily from Tolkien. Elves and gnomes walk side-by-side with humans, magic in various forms is plentiful, and there are plenty of monsters to defeat and adventures to be had.

Got it? Good.

Now, in Dungeons and Dragons, there's these magical creatures called blink dogs - they're basically wild golden retrievers that can teleport.

The character I had made was a feral boy, abandoned in the wild and raised by blink dogs. As a result, he had very poor social skills, a crazy unarmed agile fighting style, instincts that allowed him to survive in the wilderness, a very strong (if entirely inappropriate) code of moral behaviour... and the ability to teleport up to 30 feet at will.

And before all you amateur linguists jump down my throat, blink dogs are described as having their own primitive language, so he would be able to learn a language later in life, thank you very much.

At the start of the game, this feral boy had already been found and introduced to society by one of the other characters (a guy named Hyde, played by my buddy Jordan). Hyde gave his wild protegé the name Joseph and taught him to speak Common, wear pants, and tolerate other cultures. Joseph looked up to Hyde as his Alpha and father figure, and basically would go along with everything he said.


Traveling with us, there was a holy elven knight named Dio, a cranky halfling policewoman named Jackie, and a gnomish soldier named Melbourne.

At the start of the game, we were in this little middle-of-nowhere town that happened to be in between a huge evil monster army and some significant point B. We defended it to the best of our respective abilities, but it eventually wound up as a forsaken vampire pit, and our little group wound up on the road with a mission to undertake that would, eventually, remedy matters. That, really, was the general feel of the entire campaign - that we were in the middle of larger political machinations that we could only remotely influence by taking orders from higher-level characters.

Jackie, along with a masked halfling named Redhound, was unfortunately, kidnapped by the vampires, and we didn't see her for a while until she fought her way back to us with a talking sword. Hyde actually died in battle, but we were able to resurrect him.

As the game progressed, a clear central supervillain emerged, an undead chap who called himself Wiseman. Of course, before his supervillain status was clear, Joseph actually met Wiseman and engaged him in dialogue. That was the way with Joseph - his personal code required him to give people the benefit of the doubt. If some emaciated dude with a shrivelled arm says he wants to talk, Joseph would be all too willing to sit down and have a chat.

Wiseman gave Joseph a book that, unfortunately, he then passed on to Dio, who got infected with dark energy and a connection to an evil god named Shar. And, of course, as is the way of such things, this curse only got stronger and more deadly with time. Simultaneously, Jackie was having to deal with her talking sword being evil and also growing more powerful the more things she killed with it.

Conflicts escalated, Wiseman grew in power, Melbourne died, Redhound was bodily sent to another plane, we met up with a wizard named Selden and a thief named Sangnoire, and a city got eaten. The characters got used to being used as a patchwork SWAT team by higher powers in situations they didn't fully understand - Joseph, perhaps, more than the others, as he was already used to being thrust into situations he didn't fully understand and taking orders. Par for the course for D&D, really.

Inevitably, though, it all went south.

In D&D, there's this race of subterranean dark elves called drow. Nasty guys, all of them - kidnapping, torturing, spider-worshipping types.

We were sent to find and rescue a high-level operative from whatever crisis she had gotten into - turned out to be drow. Lots of drow.

We had been fighting our way through a deep series of tunnels, and an inconclusive encounter with a particularly unhinged drow wizard had left us down two people, with another two dangerously weakened. The time came to decide whether we were proceeding forward or retreating.

A tactical error was made. Joseph was sent ahead with a ring of invisibility to scout.

Naturally, the drow queen had some sort of gigantic spider-demon as a pet that happened to be able to see invisible things.

And, as Joseph was running away from this, he encountered the aforementioned crazy wizard. Surrounded with a gigantic spider-demon behind him and a delusional mage in front, Joseph did something he'd never done before.

He lied.

Now, to appreciate the significance of this, consider that this was months into the campaign, both in real-time and in game-time, and this was the first time Joseph had ever spoken anything other than complete, unvarnished truth. To the good guys, to the bad guys, anything. Joseph did not have a single duplicitous bone in his body.

And thus, of course, the lie failed utterly, and he wound up continuing to run for his life.

Which was all well and good up until Joseph returned to where the rest of his group was waiting for him to report back. Joseph, being naturally fleet of foot, could have continued to outrun the giant beast. His friends, however, could not. And thus, they stood and fought.

And got utterly pulped.

As he was being torn to shreds, Joseph yelled out "It wants me! You guys run!". And thus Jackie alone managed to get to safety, splattered with the blood of her comrades.

Now, while the higher-powers-send-you-on-missions structure of game can be limiting in some aspects, it is also useful for situations like this. The powers that be were able to magically reconstitute Joseph (and, apparently, only Joseph) from the splatters of blood on Jackie. Hyde and Selden, however, were written off as unrecoverable.

Joseph, of course, went through a period of deep guilt and depression. Not only had he broken his personal code of behaviour in a futile attempt to save his own skin, but his carelessness had gotten his his friends (including his Alpha!) killed. And there he sat, resurrected, not due to any particular skill or merit of his own, but due to the fact that he had apparently bled more than other, more deserving warriors.

As those two players were busy drafting new characters, the surviving party members were given a new mission - to seek out the Well of Change which would allow Dio to shake off the evil grip Shar held on his soul.

The Well of Change was an isolated pool in the middle of the desert that held tremendous power - once you enter, you experience a life-changing event (usually, as per fantasy tradition, a duel with the manifestation of your evil self), and then emerge as a different, more perfected person.

Dio went in and had a nicely epic confrontation with a version of himself that had embraced Shar. Lots of swordplay and magic and suchlike. Came out sparkly clean, stronger and wiser than ever.

Jackie went in, but left the evil sword outside. She got to fight an evil version of herself (in hell!) - primarily through snide dialogue. During the confrontation, Evil Jackie summoned up Redhound, who we had lost earlier. Good Jackie managed to convince Redhound to be on her side, and thus defeated her evil self. When she came out of the pool, Redhound came out with her.

Now, understand, before this, I really had no intention of having Joseph enter the pool. I was quite happy with the character - he was unique, fun to play, and reasonably effective in combat. However, I knew that, once Joseph saw that the Well of Change could bring back lost comrades, there was really only one course of action.

And thus, Joseph dove in headfirst.

Both he and I were expecting to have to fight an evil version of Joseph in a limited, gladiatorial setting. And thus, Joseph was confused to find himself in the midst of a blink dog den - indeed, among the very pack that raised him.

The dialogue that followed was as depressingly guilt-ridden as it was surreal. The blink dogs questioned (in their simplistic, barking language) why Joseph had abandoned their ways. Joseph tried, haltingly, to explain the complicated situation that excused his behaviour, but, in the end, admitted that he had done wrong and that it was his responsibility to make things right. Upon hearing this, the vision of his pack faded into dust.

Joseph stepped out into the sunlight and wandered for a while. He came upon a cottage in the woods, and knocked at the door. The man who answered looked suspiciously like Joseph.

Joseph asked if the man was an evil version of himself. The man was justifiably confused and said that no, he was but a simple woodcutter whose wife had just had a baby. Joseph apologized for the intrusion, and sat around for a while, waiting for the evil version of himself to arrive.

Just as he was about to leave and look for his evil self elsewhere, armed riders came out of nowhere and set fire to the cottage. As the woodcutter burst out the door, they cut him down. Joseph tried valiantly to stop the assault, but he passed through the riders as though they were ghosts. He tried to put out the fire, and was similarly ineffectual. The woman ran out of the flaming house, carrying the infant, and was hacked to pieces as well. Joseph grabbed the baby (the one thing he could touch), and began to run for civilization.

It should be noted, at this juncture, that while all the other players knew what was going on, I totally didn't see it coming.

Faced with intangible evil, Joseph knew his first priority should be to save the life of the orphaned child. He ran until he came to a town, knocked on the door of the first good looking temple he saw (as it happened, a temple of Tymora, goddess of luck), and handed the baby to the priest who answered the door. He turned around and tried to beat up the murderers who had torched the cottage, but, mysteriously, he couldn't find them any more.

Obviously, as it turned out, the baby was a young Joseph, and I had just managed to save myself from being ever raised by blink dogs at all.

Years passed. Joseph, apparently divorced from reality, watched his younger self grow up under different guardians, learning different skills, under a different name. He found that this child was the only thing left that he could influence, so he did his best to teach his juvenile double everything he knew about fighting, the struggle against evil, and what it was to be good.

There is, however, just no substitute for being feral.

The guy who emerged from the Well of Change was almost as different from Joseph as humanly possible.

Jerry Divine!

Taller. Skinnier. Paler. Younger-looking. Impeccable white robes, in place of tattered second-hand pants. Devoutly religious, instead of indecisively agnostic. Thick, heavy, metallic boots instead of bare feet. Exuberant, over-the-top, Kramer-esque mannerisms in place of awkward shyness.

The dialogue that followed was something like this:

"Ugh... where am I? Who the hell are you people?"
"Greetings. I am Ungladio McLongElfName, this is Jacqueline and Sangnoire. Might I ask who you are?"
"Ungladio... Ungladio... Dio? Shiny man? Oh, man! So this is the Well of Change! Oh! Yeah, Joseph told me about this!"
"Yeah, yeah, Joseph was my imaginary friend growing up. Little doggy man guy. I guess you guys knew him too. Oh, man! I can't believe it's you guys! Name's Jerry. Jerry Divine. Cleric of Tymora. Say, have ya heard the word of Tymora? Heck of a deity, let me tell you. Heck of a deity. Hey, isn't there supposed to be some guy named Hyde who comes out of the pool behind me? Yeah? No? Oh well. So hey, what are we doing?"
"Oh gods, Joseph lost!"

It was confirmed that Joseph was now Jerry, and this would never be reversed (I used the phrase "not even dead"). Furthermore, as a result, Hyde was, somewhere, restored to life (though he was no longer with our group). Now, I had already said my goodbyes to Joseph when he was masticated by the spider demon, so in a way, this was easy for me. But, the whole time I was playing Jerry Divine (who, it should be noted, very often refers to himself in the third person), I was laughing to keep from crying. Jerry's entire personality, so opposite from Joseph, was like a tasteless hijacker joke made on September twelfth.

In the end, though, Joseph's sacrifice was emblematic of his character, and extremely evocative. Though very tragic, it was the sort of scene that would have stood out as particularly well-written and heart-wrenching if presented in a work of fiction. It was thus, I feel, good roleplaying.

Greater love hath no man than this, that he give up whether or not he even existed for his friends.

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