The sad, strange and cautionary tale of Mr P and Me


You can never go back.

I joined my current and persistent gaming group in the heady days of the late 70's. I was 14 years' old and answered the call of a poster in our local modelling shop, having become a bit disillusioned with my experience of roleplaying with my school group.

It was a group of actual adults, though I would think of them as quite the youngsters these days. People in their early 20's. It was certainly a learning experience in more ways than just the gaming variety, and I got invites to the kind of parties that I wouldn't want my own 17 year old daughter going to now ;-)

It was a big confidence booster though, being taken in by and receiving the respect of a group of older gamers whose role play was a step up from the very munchkin games I had played in at school.

Time passed, and as with so many hobbyist groups, there were eventual ego contests and fractures and schisms and many people moved on and new players arrived. Two stable figures through these early days of the group became myself and Mr P, whose actual identity will remain anonymous.

Mr P was older than me by 8 years and a founder group member. The group met regularly at his flat. We were the DMs of the group, alternating between us. There was no real campaign as such in those days, just a series of disconnected adventures. Occasionally, a lengthier run of connected ones. There was also a fellow stalwart Mr B, who I think was not a founder member but joined a bit earlier than me; he was a steady familiar face at the game table but he was never a DM and does not really feature in this story as he left the group never to return, many years ago. He found a strange sort of fame in UK gaming circles of the era but that is a tale for another time.

I got on just fine with Mr P and in spite of the age gap there was a rapport between us as Co-DMs that seemed to work well. We were like two halves of a brain. So we were the core of the group through the early 80's until he suddenly met his future wife who immediately moved in with him and within two weeks all gaming had ceased at his abode and we became homeless. We were nomadic for a while alternating between member's domiciles until eventually settling into the cellar of my parents' house (which is my house now, many years later). Mr P did pop along to the sessions outside his home a few times but then stopped coming altogether.

The group however settled and crystallised, with the addition of some new players, into the first semblance of what we are today. There were many line up changes that followed, and changes in venue when circumstances forced us to leave the cellar, but the group found a new core in myself and two other stalwarts who I shared DMing responsibilities with. But I always found myself missing Mr P's particularly imaginative style of DM'ing and adventure writing.

It wasn't the end of the line for our Mr P though as a DM, as eventually he began running a small session again at his own home with a player or two. I went to some of these sessions during the 90's and played in some solid and very reasonable adventures. Sometime in the late 90's he split from his wife and came back to the group for a short while. We were meeting at someone else's place in those years, and for work-related reasons my own attendance was somewhat sporadic so we didn't always overlap. He dropped out of the group again for reasons unknown sometime around '99. He did remarry but I am not sure if that was the reason for his second departure.

From 2000 onwards the D&D campaign we had been running since '94 became something we started to take seriously as the pinnacle of our gaming achievements. Those first 6 years it was a loose, sporadic thing that I think we all assumed would fold up at some point and be replaced, like its every predecessor. But it began to dawn I think that after many learning experiences we had cracked the formula for a campaign that had long term viability. Perhaps it was only at that point that we realised that was what we had always been looking for. Some roleplay gamers who don't find themselves settling on one system or campaign claim that they wouldn't want to, that the idea bores them. I can understand the argument for changing things up now and then, but we have learned to do it within a single overarching framework with multiple parties of characters operating in the same world creating multiple plot threads that interweave. It does mean the system doesn't change, and that may irritate some. Does the truism that as we get older we become less adventurous and stick to what we know we like, also apply to game rule systems? I don't know. My criticisms of D&D 3.5 as a system are numerous, and I have houserule-replaced some of the worst bits, but it still serves us well. If I had more time on my hands, as I did in my younger years as a gamer, I might play other systems for a change now and then. As it is though I really only have time for one system and campaign now.

In the years that came after the campaign deepened and strengthened and high level PCs began to acquire followers who themselves became a new generation of PCs and so on. (The very notion of 'followers' in D&D, a construct that was born with AD&D, has all kinds of interesting potential for psychological deconstruction but I will restrain myself from going off on that tangent here!). We made the leap from 1st to 3rd edition in the early 2000's and that was a difficult time as one or two players reacted badly at first to some of the changes though the system is by now fully accepted by all (though we sometimes add just a few drops of distilled first edition Gygaxian whackiness to liven things up. A touch of Pathfinder too now and then).

Eighteen years after his last appearance with the group, we had an opening at our game table and Mr P happened to contact us to say he was interested in rejoining the group. This to me was a piece of very happy news; it felt like we were getting the band back together at last.

The first six months of Mr P's return to the group seemed to go OK. I was running adventure scenarios throughout this time. He was keen to learn all there was to learn about 3rd edition and to make and run a character who would fill a role that was presently vacant in the party of higher level PCs. He got into the spirit of things generally and seemed to be fitting in pretty well. He also expressed a wish to do some DMing. I was really very much looking forward to this as I had always enjoyed his adventures in the past and I eagerly anticipated the addition of more variety to the campaign.

He at first asked if he could run something set in another game world of his own devising. However it is the consensus in our group that we always run things that build upon and add to the existing campaign. I identified an area of the map that he could place a scenario in. I also passed him two pre-written low-level scenarios he could run - which I didn't expect him to slavishly follow the text of by any means, but these were written as sequels to an adventure that had already taken place set in that area and so hooked in nicely to what had come before. I fully expected him to change things somewhat, not because I had read them in detail - I hadn't, in fact, other than the introductions - but because I knew he would want to add his own imaginative twists and takes on things.

Prior to this, I had run a very high level adventure for the epic level party in which they had interacted with various interplanar factions. With hindsight I think Mr P saw this as some kind of indication as to the generally expected flavour of the campaign. It certainly wasn't, though; it was a highly unusual adventure. A general rule we have in our campaign is to keep things low level when placing adventures in the rural backyard of the "Home City" of the campaign. High Level adventures and events involving strange magical happenings on a large scale occur far away in more dangerous places, deep in the underdark perhaps or on far-flung planes of existence.

Also with hindsight, I think that during that first six months, a competitive urge had taken root in my old friend's mind; he wanted to create a stir and make a big impact with his DMing stint. This was unfortunate. Here he was still on the learning curve with a new system and a new group of players; yes it had been 'his' group once upon a time, before I even joined, but he had been away eighteen years in which time things had evolved a long way and the group had developed its own unique campaign culture that he was still trying to grasp. Also, during that eighteen years, he had been running adventures for a one-player group. That one player had finally quit, for various reasons, which is why he wanted to rejoin our group.

Mr P was not used to running adventures in a shared multithreaded campaign, he had become used to doing things his own way and not having to think about the wider impacts of any of his actions as a DM. I partly blame myself, for not realising all this before letting him dive off the board at the deep end. I was just thinking about how great it had been back in the Halcyon days of the group and how much fun I was going to have playing in his adventures again. He was a very experienced DM and had been asking all the right questions; I (and other group members) had given him plenty of input and advice. I'd provided him with a sample scenario to run, that could act as guidance on the flavour of what was expected. As another group member at the time put it, "I was really looking forward to some low-level bimbling around" after a few months of very high-powered interactions with superbeings in the previous adventure. Knowing Mr P as I did, I was expecting no small amount of quirky humour and maybe a bit of surreality thrown in. Nothing prepared me for what was about to happen.

To explain what happened, a little more background exposition is needed. In our campaign, we insist on strong separation between player knowledge and PC knowledge. This also applies, by the way, to NPCs. The fact that a DM knows a PC has been doing such and such does not mean their NPCs should have that knowledge, unless there are solid in game reasons why they would know.

We also permit player characters to do evil things, to be evilly aligned, with the simple proviso that they shouldn't do evil to other PCs (without their consent). Sell arms to some bad guys, if you like - as long as they aren't the bad guys your fellow PCs are about to face in the next encounter. There is one instance of a PC selling the other PCs out to the enemy but it didn't end in PC fatalities (nor did they want it to). If it makes for a good story and doesn't aggravate people, then it's OK.

My main campaign PC is a sorceress who is involved in some shady goings-on. Let's call her Ms C. She believes herself to be good-aligned, in the same way that most real-world villains do. I'm enjoying playing her as someone who is on a very, very slow descent into corruption and evil but who deludes herself that her actions are for the greater good, in the long run. She has never really done anything directly evil herself, but sometimes her actions have led to an increase in the woes of others in an indirect way, or have led to the far more rapid corruption of her attendants who are less strong willed than herself in resisting the temptations of beings that she summons and makes use of. Maybe, ultimately, she will come to a realisation of how far she has fallen, and seek redemption. Or maybe she will complete her ultimate descent into darkness and true evil. At this stage I am not sure myself how she will develop in the future. Her fellow high level PCs she adventures with have no idea of all the things she gets up to; but the players do know most of it. We tend to eschew secrecy because secrecy can lead to paranoia that there might be some PC vs PC shenanigans going on; and also if other players witness what is happening they can share in the fun of it.

Ms C had been getting up to something shady up on Hill X. Now, Hill X is, loosely speaking, in the geographic vicinity of the area I gave to Mr P to place his adventure in, though not very close, and far enough away that there was no need for there to be any connection between the two. Ms C just happened to have established a base on Hill X ages ago when she was lower level. It's nothing to do with the scenario I handed to Mr P as adventure guidance.

What Ms C is doing on Hill X, is actually a matter between myself, and another one of our campaign DMs, let's call him Mr D. All the players knew about it and joked about how people in the nearby towns would react if they only knew what she was doing on Hill X.

But there was an understanding that Mr D had some future campaign plot planned around Ms C's activities on Hill X, so Mr D definitely made it clear to Mr P: leave Hill X alone, Hill X is mine. My future plot thread. Leave. It. Alone.

The characters entering Mr P's scenario were mostly the lowest level followers of the highest level campaign PCs. As such, everything would have been fine if they had run into challenges that didn't seem seriously above their pay grade. If it looked like a case of the latter, well some of them had ways and means to pass an alert up the chain of command. So it was pretty important that Mr P should realise that these were not an isolated group of helpless 1st level characters unconnected to any larger organisation. So he shouldn't do anything to spook them too badly, if he wanted to avoid interventions from outside.

So, anyway, enough background. Session One was great, everything seemed to go without a hitch. The PCs were introduced, they travelled to the area where the action was set, did some poking around, a little low level combat action occurred. My character killed a giant centipede and it was the first time in ages I'd experienced the visceral thrill of RP'ing someone not very good at anything just duffing up a minor monster with a normal weapon, in a life or death struggle.

I noticed that the adventure hook seemed a bit divergent from the scenario I had passed on to Mr P but was not overly concerned, because as already stated I fully expected him to change things up more than a little. There were some interesting quirky ideas in there, everything I had hoped for. But the session ended with a very weird, high profile and difficult to explain phenomenon, that was sure to attract a lot of attention; I was suitably puzzled but this wasn't unexpected in a Mr P adventure. I was a little concerned that this event might, in principle, draw the attention of more powerful characters who Mr P would not want stomping around his low level adventure. But that aside, things seemed to be going well.

Session Two - was one of the most harrowing sessions of my roleplay experience. It was probably worse in terms of how it shook me up, than the first Session Two I ever experienced in 1977 at the age of 12 when my first ever character was killed by a giant rat. Bearing in mind the things I have stated above about our campaign culture, which I thought Mr P had taken on board and understood; literally everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. So badly sideways you wouldn't believe. Only an actual TPK on top of it all could have made matters worse. Or maybe it would have made them better.

I will state this as succinctly as I can. In Session Two, it emerged that Mr P probably hadn't even looked at the pre-written scenario I had handed him for guidance. The PCs ran into a Being that was clearly of a power level Way Above Their Pay Grade.

The Being explained to the PCs that the weird phenomenon they had experienced in Session One, presaged the literal End of their World. "I am a being that exists outside of time, and have certain knowledge of the past, present and future of your plane of existence. The certain end of your world will occur in 15 years' time. Actually, it was going to be 45 years' time, but yesterday you accidentally did something inadvertently that brought it forwards by 30 years. I can't tell you everything, but what I can tell you is that it involves something the famous sorceress Ms C is getting up to on that there Hill X yonder."

The player characters absolutely lost their shit, went to Def Con One and started looking for ways to get an alert to their high level boss characters by the fastest means at their disposal. Because why wouldn't they? The Being had performed acts that seemed to refute the likelihood they were a charlatan.

I think we were all stunned at what had happened, but we did not have a chance to share our thoughts about it until after the session.

Mr D urged me to intervene with a friendly word in Mr P's ear right away, and actually wanted me to declare a retcon on the whole session. I found myself in a very awkward situation, though. Yes, I am for better or worse the primary campaign referee and the last word on matters. However, there was a conflict of interest because my own character was involved, and I didn't want to be seen to be pulling my jackboots on and overruling Mr P because his scenario was making difficulties for my own character, and there was always the very real possibility that the whole thing was intended as an elaborate con trick to be eventually exposed, which a heavy-handed intervention would ruin. I still had a degree of hope and trust that Mr P would see to it that things worked out in the end.

This hope turned out to be misplaced. In several weeks that followed, a running defensive battle was waged by Mr P, who doubled down on his crazy apocalypse plotline and kept pushing the angle that this was all very much for real, while at the same time fighting to plausibly keep the higher level characters from intervening in a credible end-of-the-world threat happening just down the coast from their home city. For my part, my character Ms C began fighting to limit the damage caused to the secrecy of her activities by omniscient NPCs showing up and outing her; in other words, she was dragged into the supposedly low level scenario, and really against her will to be honest as she had better things to do with her time. And Mr P fought back against this and began making quite adverserial DMing judgement calls.

Eventually, and with heavy heart, I and the other players conceded that we needed to have The Chat. There was no opportunity to do this outside of session time, so it would have to happen at the start of a session. I was pushed to the front to do the dirty work of opening the discussion. "We need to have a word about the current adventure, which has generated some...concerns."

I tried to open up the discussion as carefully and sensitively as I could. But Mr P's reaction was worse than expected, with him almost immediately and resentfully offering his departure from the group if people weren't happy with the adventure. This went completely against the grain of what he had said when he first took control of the DM's chair - "Please give me lots of feedback and let me know if there is anything you aren't happy with". It seemed that he was happy to invite feedback, not so happy to actually receive it.

We made it clear that we all enjoyed many of the individual situations he was running and the colourful NPC banter but were not happy with him suddenly deciding he had the right to declare an apocalypse in 15 years' time and outing Ms C / Hill X. We also made it clear that he needed to be much more aware of the interconnectedness of things in the campaign and that he needed to dial back the power level of beings and phenomena he was placing in a location in the middle of civilised lands where they certainly wouldn't be ignored by everyone in the vicinity except a small band of plucky low level PCs.

After that, there was some improvement, he did dial back on the apocalypse plot line somewhat but was still a bit of a bull in a china shop with regards to the established foundations of the campaign. He seemed hell bent on killing off certain established regional NPCs and replacing them with his own interplanar migrant NPCs. Under other circumstances this might have made for an interesting storyline, but Mr P had just been given a brief to run a self contained low level affair and it was felt that he didn't really have the right, after a relatively brief time back in the group, to go around smashing things up.

The whole thing started to feel more and more like a coup attempt, on multiple levels. This impression was cemented towards the end of his DMing tenure. We had agreed prior to his stint that he would run adventures for these low level characters until they reached 5th level. We were getting close to that point, and some people had discussed with me how they wanted me to step in early, take over and bring things to a halt. I insisted we let Mr P keep running until we reached his target of level 5. But then he started throwing out the idea to the players that he could, if people wanted, retain the DMs chair for longer and keep going up to level 10. Some players said they wouldn't mind this, out of politeness. Others murmured a maybe. But out of session time, I was approached by some saying they would be quitting soon if he kept going.

Things came to an abrupt head when a subset of the player characters found themselves being pressured by a newly installed and highly untrusted authority figure (who may have assassinated their predecessor), to place themselves in a situation of immediate danger to their lives from enemies who were beyond their ability to handle in order to "flush them out". They were being asked to be bait in a trap by someone who actually had potential motive to eliminate them. Instead, they elected to jump on the next boat that came into port and get the hell out of there. This wrecked Mr P's plan for the next session, and it was mutually agreed that that was a good place to bring that story thread to a halt.

Afterwards, I had a small DMs conference between myself, Mr P and Mr D. We offered praise for the aspects of Mr P's DMing that had been enjoyable, but pointed up areas where we saw scope for improvement. I could tell that my old friend Mr P absolutely hated every second of his campaign tenure being judged and assessed by two other DMs. I tried to make it clear, that we were not judging him as a DM in general, but judging the specifics of the way he had interacted with our long established campaign world. I said that really it would have been better to give him a blank slate region of the campaign map. It was he that had requested the use of a well established area, and I should have refused that request until he had acquired more DMing experience specific to our campaign. I proposed finding a means to have the story continue on a distant island, with the PCs being steered into travelling there.

But Mr P's pride was wounded. I took control of the DMs chair again, and Mr P did come along to some more sessions afterwards. But I think his enthusiasm had taken a bit of a dent, he viewed things a bit more cynically and his attendance became sporadic. Eventually he dropped out altogether, citing health reasons. I'm not denying he did have a long term health condition, it's the same one my father had; I'm not belittling the challenge of living with such a condition but he was in its very early stages, or appeared to be. My suspicion is that in fact he managed to find a new player or two to run a game for in his own home, unburdened by worries about integrating his adventures into a complex pre-existing campaign, or having to sanity check his ideas with other DMs. At least, I hope that's what happened and that he found other ways to keep gaming, having decided that he couldn't adapt to our ways of doing things.

I am rather saddened at the way things turned out. I guess my high hopes for Mr P being able to moderate his DMing style to meet the expectations of the group, established over many years of play, were driven by my nostalgia for the group's formative years in the late 70's and the rapport we enjoyed back then as the Co-DMs of the group. But, as they say, you can never go back.

The interconnected campaign world sounds like an interesting and exciting challenge for a DM. I've always used the line that the role of the GM is to give the players what they want, but surprise them with how it happens. He tried to "jump the shark," and you guys made the best of a bad situation. You can't stick your foot in the same river twice. Nostalgia is more a delusion than an illusion.

I'd love to get together for a game the next time I'm on your side of the "pond."