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Lessons Learned: A Wizard's Choice

In the world of Dungeons and Dragons, death is the threat that gives our decisions stakes, it makes our decisions in play feel real, consequential. As a player, I've never experienced the finality of death in-game, and as a Dungeon Master, I strive to empower my players with the tools to avoid such a fate. However, in a recent session of my community game, fate had other plans. A young player, deeply invested in their character, faced a situation where death was unavoidable. This experience revealed not only the raw power of the game but also the profound commitment that young adults bring to their characters. It served as a poignant reminder of the lessons that can be learned through the lens of life and death in this fantastical world.

My young player was a wizard, and coveted the role for its potential for creative and powerful magic. He eagerly embraced this role – driven by a desire to deal the most damage in the most inventive ways. While I typically commend such creativity, this player's ambitions took a darker turn. His sole focus – it seemed – was combat and killing, rather than the nuances of storytelling and character development. This became evident in one of his earliest encounters, where he brazenly attacked a guard I had described as lawful good and “merely doing his job to protect others.”

This incident served as a stark reminder of the importance of balance in the game. While combat can be thrilling and engaging, it should not overshadow the rich tapestry of storytelling and moral choices that make Dungeons and Dragons so compelling. This young player's actions highlight the need for guidance and mentorship, especially for those new to the game, to ensure that they understand the impact of their choices on the world around them.

As the level one wizard attacked, despite my attempts to dissuade him, I was faced with the prospect of a senseless player death. I chose to narrate the guard's good nature and reluctance to engage in combat with a much lower-level character. This decision not only spared the wizard's life but also provided a valuable lesson in empathy and moral decision-making. What was particularly striking about this encounter was the immediate shift in the player's attitude when confronted with the guard's kindness. The player quickly changed his approach, adopting a more friendly demeanor and avoiding further conflict. 

This experience served as a powerful example of how storytelling and narrative can influence player behavior, providing them with an opportunity to practice prosocial behaviors and consider the consequences of their actions. Over the next few sessions, his violent tendencies began to shift towards cooperation and helpfulness over the course of several sessions.

However, in a recent encounter where I had the players come up on two dire moose (homebrew) mid-combat with each other, the wizard’s story took a surprising turn. After the fierce battle that left one moose standing, wounded but victorious, the players were faced with a choice: cooperate with the wounded animal or walk away. The mood was somber as I narrated that the surviving moose was, in fact, the mother of a calf hidden until the battle's end.

While the other players seemed eager to help the wounded moose, the wizard shocked me with his reaction. Laughing, he exclaimed that he wanted to "slap the moose and run away!" This unexpected outburst was a stark reminder that he was; after all, here for violence and combat. I tried to shrug it off and tell him “Don’t worry, the moose knows you’re joking” to which he replied he was not joking. I was surprised, but was forced to play out the natural consequences of what I considered were violent actions for the sake of violence.

What followed was a series of dexterity saves and missed spell attacks that culminated in the wizard dying at the hands of a moose that had been stricken when there was no need for it and after the other party members had rolled a natural 20 to befriend the beast. 

The table was silent as the wizard, cinematically, succeeded two death saves and failed two more before rolling his final failure just as the session was hitting the last minute of scheduled time. I could feel the ceiling sink as my young player sunk into his chair. I tried to leverage this experience to explain how his actions – actions that were, quite frankly, needlessly rude – resulted in his death in a way only fantasy can, but it did little to comfort him as he teared up on his way out the door. 

The young player showed remarkable growth in our next session; however, as he arrived with a new character idea and admitted immediately that his last character (the Wizard) was "100% a jerk". I'm not sure what this new character, a half-orc fighter, will bring to the table, but I'm excited to see more growth as this player learns to maneuver the natural consequences of aggressive and rude behaviors and learns to engage with his fantasy world (and his real world) with a little more empathy and kindness!

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