There I was. In the heart of the sorcerer’s ruined keep, mere feet from the fiend. Wounded, he smiled triumphantly at our little band of would-be heroes. We’d come so far, besting trap and beast, and nearly struck him down. But he’d turned the tables: a desperate spell had paid off and held us paralyzed, weapons frozen mid-swing, unable to stop him from completing his ritual. Soon, the portal before us would open, unleashing armies from a far-off nation the likes of which these peaceful lands had never seen and could not hope to withstand. We’d failed, and the country would burn.
Or had we?
Through stubbornness or simple luck, I’d resisted the spell. I stood now in mock stillness among my incapacitated friends, waiting for my chance. Our last chance. As the mage turned his back on us, I leapt into action. Knife flashing, I rolled to confirm the hit. Everyone held their breath as the 20-sided die clattered across the table.
For those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, two occurrences cause more excitement than any other: a natural twenty – which in many games indicates an automatic success no matter the odds – and a natural one, which is exactly the opposite.
Groans and disbelieving laughs erupted simultaneously. “The weight of the moment gets to you,” the GM intones, “the dagger slips from your grasp and clatters across the stone floor.”
Alerted, the sorcerer spun and hit me with a blast of magic, sending me tumbling hard down the steps. Dazed, I could only look in dismay as the completed ritual snapped the portal into existence.
No thunder of steel boots greeted us, no bellowed orders. A single, stooped figure appeared in the gateway.
“Kal?” called a hesitant voice.
“Valerie,” came the mage’s wearied response. The two embraced, and around them streamed a procession of ragged figures. Not soldiers.
These are the moments I play for. The highs and lows, the twenties and the ones. The surprises. The plans that come together against all odds or come apart spectacularly. Stakes and uncertainty I’ve never found in any other medium. Video-game veterans come to tabletop and discover an appetite for storytelling they never knew they had. Storytellers realize the nature of the dice breathes new life and spontaneity into their character arcs. Because that’s what systems like Pathfinder and D&D are: bands of people coming together to tell grand, unpredictable stories.
Had all gone according to plan, my blow would have struck true. The "evil" sorcerer falls, the land safe once more. And thousands of miles across the sea, a band of refugees would wait desperately for a rescue that was no longer coming, with enemies closing in.
Instead, hundreds of lives were saved, including those of the mage’s wife and child. Language barriers and miscommunications eventually overcome, we reconciled and found shelter for his people. In the end, Kal would become a staunch ally and asset in the trials ahead. All because of one failed, five-percent shot at a roll.
So if you've ever considered giving tabletop RPGs a chance – or if I’ve piqued your interest here – take my advice and do it. Find a group or start your own. Most resources are available online, and many are free. Whether you’re a gamer or just love a good yarn, you’ll quickly find yourself at home, building stories to be fondly recounted for years to come.
And when it looks like the dice have forsaken you, remember: Nothing sparks engaging adventures and compelling characters like a little failure.
A great resource for newcomers: http://learntabletoprpgs.com/
A steadfast avatar of failed potential, Sian took up writing when he discovered he didn't have the attention span to stick with anything else. A one-time optimist with a penchant for games of every description, he now sails the internet on a constant quest to slay his own towering cynicism.