The Tragedy of Tristan

How in game frustration, and confusing DM decisions led to my real life breakdown


I’ll preface this story by saying that despite the negative events and feelings I’m going to describe, I still consider all of those mentioned below to be close friends. The Game Master, who I will call Jason, was new to GMing and wanted to run a low fantasy Pathfinder game featuring moral ambiguity and permadeath with the goal of adding stakes to our decisions and role-play. I was on board with the other four players and we created characters. I created and played a naive, idealistic paladin seeking out his birth parents, and his connection to a recently conquered kingdom whose king had allegedly gone on a mad killing program against mages. I fully committed to the fact that my character would face a rude awakening from this brutal world, which came as the other players’ characters met grisly, and permanent ends. This led to my paladin, Tristan, developing pronounced Survivor’s Guilt for charging recklessly into fights, or being unable to save other characters from their fate. This made for a dramatic narrative of character development, but this started to affect me negatively out of game. I found myself trying to adjust to a different style of game than I was used to, as we as players started to collectively distrust the world that Jason presented us, to the point where we argued over which non player characters to trust, avoided confrontations and encounters that Jason had planned, and missed out on treasure and magic items as a result. To add insult to injury, our characters had suffered multiple thefts of hard earned gold and items throughout the campaign, leaving us under powered in comparison to player characters in “standard” Pathfinder. Furthermore, our characters frequently disagreed idealistically, or because of friendships and familial bonds with NPCs both benign and antagonistic. Adding to my frustration was the pattern of my friends referring to my long surviving character Tristan as “The Protagonist” of the game, which made me uncomfortable for multiple reasons. The first being that I didn’t want to encourage a cooperative game to become about a single person, and because we were all becoming used to the fact that our characters could easily die to random encounters while traveling from town to town, including Tristan. Further, I didn’t want to become “that guy” who allows his ego to expand and poison the table.   With this combination of “being put on a pedestal”, distrust, uncertainty, lack of direction, and disagreement about how to proceed or what to do, I began to feel guilty and hopeless. I started to worry about growing frustrated and angry with the other players and with Jason, that despite my engagement with the compelling story we were telling and the role-play were having, I wasn’t having fun playing a “hero” who was gradually growing ever more depressed. I wasn’t having fun playing a character who I was rooting for to succeed, to live up to his naive, idealistic dreams of making a difference in an uncaring and hostile world, while simultaneously growing afraid as a player of losing said character I’d become so invested in, that the other players seemed to have become so invested in. And I wasn’t having fun feeling the need to reign in my desire to play a heroic paladin trying to make a difference to align with the desires of the other players’ characters for fear of being responsible for more player character deaths. For context, I was employed at the time at a workplace with not-so-constructive managers and supervisors who gave very poor criticism that left me feeling quite useless about improving my work performance (the common critique being: “you should know enough not to keep making this mistake” when they weren’t making clear to me how I was meant to improve or educate myself to avoid repeating my poor work performance). My point is; I play and run Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder as an escape, as a way to cope with real life uncertainties like this. But now I felt like I was experiencing the same hopelessness and uncertainty in my friend’s game. I battled with the idea of leaving Jason’s game on and off for months, staying on in the hopes of seeing payoff to the plot’s tantalizing unanswered questions, to see a resolution to Tristan’s story, to chase the light that I could see at the end of the tunnel, always just beyond reach. And also because this was a group of close friends. Our party had recently become fugitives after being forced to burn down a plague-ridden city; its population of over 12,000 dwindled to under 500 souls after the supernatural plague ravaged its citizens, and threatened to spread beyond its walls to the rest of the continent (we still joke to this day about the parallels to Arthas Menethil of Warcraft infamy, laughing as we yell “WE MUST PURGE THE CITY!”). We fled as wanted men and women to a crusader city. A fortress of paladins and knights that Tristan had long hoped to visit to join one of their prestigious orders, and potentially find answers to who his parents were. The rest of the party were justifiably afraid of making any approach of the authorities, or of asking too many questions for fear of exposure, followed by capture, and ending with our characters’ permanent, irreversible execution. I was loathe to tread familiar ground of rushing recklessly into a situation leading to more party death. So, I reached out privately to Jason. “If I were to come forward and admit to the Crusader generals about our involvement with the port city’s burning, and explain that we had no other choice in order to prevent it spreading, is it *possible* that our party will receive asylum?” I asked. Jason replied that yes, it was indeed possible to make this confession and secure the safety of the party (at least temporarily). In game, I proposed this idea to the party, stating that, no matter what, Tristan WAS going to go to the authorities to admit what had happened, if for no other reason than that someone with authority had to know that this plague might come back, and that they had to make use of powerful, forbidden pyromancy to combat it. But with the caveat that none of the other party members had to be within the city when he approached the authorities. The rest of the party had mixed reactions, some agreeing with the notion that they were “done running”, and others outright stating how stuipid the idea was because it was “too risky”. We agreed that I would hold off from following through until we had completed a job for a local smithy to recover a lost ore shipment due in from a nearby village. In need of funds, we set out alongside an NPC companion named Emilia, a woman long ago rescued by Tristan. After several days’ travel and a random encounter and successful battle against a gang of ogres, we were in high spirits. I felt for the first time in weeks like we were actually playing heroes who could make a difference.  Like I was actually playing Pathfinder and having fun with friends rather than descending into a hopeless void. We found the smithy’s cart by the side of the road, its wheels splintered, smears of blood staining the remaining timbers alongside tatters of torn clothing, with only traces of the ore that was to be delivered. We also discovered tracks hinting at an attack by insect like monsters somewhere between the size of a wolf and a bear. With a few successful knowledge checks, we determined that the likely culprits were rust monsters; Insect like predators that dug through the earth for ore, but would also hunt live prey to absorb trace metals in their blood. We followed their trail through the woods to an abandoned quarry and stood at the lip overlooking the descent. Now, I was feeling confident that we could handle 3 or 4 such creatures. We were a party of five level 6 adventurers with an NPC aiding us. We would probably lose some of our gear, sure, but we could win, and we’d accomplish a job and get some reward upon returning to the fortress. Nothing could be gained by playing cautiously and fearfully like we had through the majority of the campaign. And I was tired of waiting, and worse, agonizing with and against the other players over every risk, or outright avoiding encounters and the following rewards that Jason had been expecting to give us. I was tired of losing to my own fear and insecurity. I tossed a metal shield into the quarry with a clang! expecting the rust eaters to emerge and take the bait. 3 wolf sized, chitin plated insects scrambled from the dirt, their antennae testing the air as a larger specimen emerged. Jason set up his initiative tracker, labelling this larger prize beast as a “rust lord”. I pondered over this for only a moment, deciding that it was just a slightly larger and stronger version of a rust monster, and that we could still win this. After all, at least some of them would take the metallic bait I had tossed down. As one mass, they ignored the shield and tunnelled into the walls of the quarry, straight for us. We braced ourselves as they sprang on us, holding our own for one round, and then another, we engaged the alpha. Another character, a fighter, swung at the rust lord and hit… Before his weapon dissolved to the hilt in seconds. This caught me completely by surprise; the rust monster I was familiar with only ate weapons when it attacked and hit, not when an attacker struck it with a weapon attack. Furthermore, the rest of the pack were scoring hits on our party, chewing through armor and hit points simultaneously. Our optimistic outlook of victory shifted to fear of losing multiple party members in the space of 2 rounds because I had once again rushed in. At this point, I was at a loss. Weren’t we supposed to fight these things? Wasn’t that Jason’s intention? Wasn’t this an encounter he had planned for us? Wasn’t this something we could win? In desperation and frustration, I used a hero point, asking for a direct clue: “Is this a fight we can win?” I asked. Jason looked over the battlemat, then looked up at me, and said; “This is not a fight that you can currently win. No.” On my next turn I cut at the straps of my hard earned scale mail, hoping it would distract the beasts, and declared that I was making a full withdrawal from the fight. “We’ve got to run!” Tristan shouted. The rest of the party followed suit, losing several pieces of valuable gear to save their lives. After the party had fled back to the road with their lives, several of my companions rounded on me; accusing me of recklessness, demanding to know what I was thinking, shouting how stupid I had been to rush into another fight that could have killed us. I was quietly answered that I thought it had been the right thing to do, avoiding the eyes of the other players as they continued to demand answers. I was suddenly feeling like I was back at work, with my supervisors demanding answers, and criticizing my work performance. “We have to return to the fortress. We can’t stay out here. We’re vulnerable without armor. We have to regroup.” I whispered, trying to stay calm, trying to see a way forward as an all too familiar panic and hopelessness was starting to engulf me. The remaining 30 minutes of that session was a blur of back and forth between the rest of the party about what to do, with Jason, through Emilia, challenging us to stay and finish the job, to lay a trap for the rust monsters amidst the trees where they wouldn’t be able to dig through the roots, a suggestion that triggered feelings of confusion and anger in me: How could Jason expect us to stay and fight after that experience? How could he expect us to survive? Were we somehow meant to have figured out that rust monsters couldn’t dig through tree roots on our own?” I stayed silent for fear that I would either rage at everyone present or burst into tears. The next day, I announced in messenger that I was leaving the game. I have stayed in contact with the group and run games for them, and continue to hear about the group’s progress through Jason’s campaign. He later explained to everyone that he had expected us to embrace a style of game emulating The Witcher series, emphasizing study and research about encounters before forming plans and heading in, a fact that came as a surprise to me, as I had assumed we had been playing something more akin to Dragon Age Origins. This has left me with an anger that I cant shake even to this day; “why couldn’t you have told us this at the game’s start?” The other players have continued to keep me abreast of the developments in the game’s story: including the success of Tristan’s plan to come forward, earning safety for the party within the crusader fortress. But also of Tristan’s murder at the hands of one of the party members, who, to make a long story short, had received orders to kill him as vengeance for the burning of the plagued city. So even if I were ever brave enough, and ever had the opportunity to return to the game, I would now never be able to continue Tristan’s story after putting so much time, thought, and care into his character, his development, and his survival. It was over. And I wasn’t even there to see it end. I’ve tried as much as possible to seperate myself from that experience; to remind myself that the in game experience is seperate from who I am, that the criticism I received was meant to be in-character drama that was not meant to be directed at me. My friends have been supportive after telling them this, they miss me at the table, and I’m still friends with everyone outside the game, and I want to keep gaming with them. It left feeling like I’m trying to recover from a breakup in a relationship lasting years, strange as that may sound. Since typing up this essay several weeks ago, I shared it with my group of friends, including Jason. All of them understood where I was coming from, expressing a mix of frustration and guilt about my leaving, about how preventable it was to avoid the turmoil, and how they wish they had known or acted better. I still consider them friends, as they do me, and I feel relieved after having opened up to them about my point of view, even if I still feel sour about the permanent “off screen” (from my perspective) death of my character.   Even now I’m struggling to move on from those negative feelings, trying to see the positive aspects of that time spent, and focus on the positive aspects of the friendship I still have with this group.



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