Thursday, October 21, 2010

[D&D] My Favorite D&D Campaign

What do you get when you mix a bunch of young college students that included hard-core nerds (me, mostly), burnouts, gear-heads, an athlete and an anti-social Dungeon Master with a volatile temper? You get the greatest campaign ever.

Most of the credit for the game - nearly all of it, in fact - must go to the DM, Paul Baker. Paul was a giant of a man, but also an extremely talented artist with an incredible imagination. His masterpiece campaign featured a Demi-God named Aknaton who was that world's equivalent of Tolkein's Sauron - a malevolent, nearly-omnipotent force of evil. But Aknaton was more than just a super-powerful character. He knew things. I remember once that Paul told me "Aknaton knows things I don't even know." And he always seemed to be one step ahead of us. With good reason, as it turned out.

I remember our party vividly. I remember I was playing a magic-hating barbarian. In the old first-edition D&D rules, barbarians had quite a few special abilities, but one major trade-off was that they hated all magic and would neither use magical items nor tolerate spells being cast upon them. We also had a warrior who had an intelligence of around 3. There were also a cavalier (a knight) and a paladin (a holy warrior) who were fairly powerful, but were balanced by being forced to be brave at all times. At least, that's how it was supposed to work. More on that in a bit. Finally, we had a druid/ranger and a mage. There was also a dwarf for a brief time, but his player was an ass and we mocked him mercilessly until he either quit or Paul kicked him out. I can't recall which.

Anyway, Paul was a pretty hard DM, and he routinely threw stuff at us that we couldn't handle. Our two knights were supposed to face all challenges head-on, regardless of the odds, because they were brave and fearless. Except the two players were craven cowards. They didn't want their characters to get killed, and adopted the motto, "I may be brave, but I'm not stupid" as an excuse to run away like little girls. This literally went on for months while the rest of the party became more and more exasperated with them. Eventually Tim, who played the idiot warrior, boldly retreated from a particular battle, crying, "I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid!" The two knights never did seem to catch on to why everyone else was howling with laughter.

But the party was essentially doomed from the start, as my magic-hating barbarian learned when I found an excuse to attack the group's mage. You see, Aknaton had a very distinctive (and Tolkein-esque) characteristic - he was well-known for having a third eye prominently on his forehead. In our scuffle, my barbarian knocked off the mage's large, floppy hat to reveal... dun dun dun!... a third eye! That's right, the reason our greatest enemy was always a step ahead of us was because he was the future incarnation of our own party mage, come back in time in the fullness of his power to both take over the world and ensure his own survival as a mere fledgling.

Now, I'm often an ass and I was even worse when I was a teenager, and quite frankly Paul was twice the ass that I was. His temper, pouting and general grumpiness were legendary. Most of the other players were adept at laying low and not setting him off, but I suspect (though I don't really remember) that I probably took a perverse joy in pissing him off. I know I definitely did it on purpose at least once, actually taunting him into a frothing, sputtering rage. Over the phone of course - Paul was at least twice as big as I was and could easily have crushed me like a bug. The upshot of all this childishness (from both of us) was that I was frequently dis-invited or not invited to join his games. I missed big chunks of the campaign. I know that my barbarian died fairly early on and I didn't play for quite some time - I don't recall whether that was because I was annoyed at dying or if Paul didn't ask me back. I did return with a priest character, but I managed to annoy my own party sufficiently that they actually killed me. I still maintain that that wasn't entirely my fault, but I've also said for years that I have an uncanny ability to piss people off.

Anyway, I didn't get to enjoy vast swaths of Paul's campaign, but I was there enough to know that it was absolutely epic in scope and scale. There were battles with demon lords, princes of hell and the very gods themselves - many of whom didn't survive. There was travel through the multiverse, the planes of existence and time itself. There were betrayals and daring rescues, and weapons of unthinkable, even inconceivable power. All in an effort to defeat a force of evil who literally knew everything the party would do before they did it, because he remembered it happening to him in his own past.

Topping it all off were Paul's drawings and paintings, which brought the whole game very much to life. It was inspiring to have a portrait of your character, or to see a painting of one of the game's major characters in their full regalia of mystical armor and weapons. But oh how thrilling - how utterly gut-wrenching - it was to see another painting of that same supremely powerful character battered, broken and dead at the hands of the party's enemies. Paul's artwork was truly the equal of his talent as a game-designer. He was a lousy DM, really - he constantly overwhelmed the players and would frequently get furious with them if they weren't smart enough to figure out one of his impossible puzzles or mysteries - but as a creator of adventure he was unsurpassed.

I don't know what's become of Paul in the, oh, almost twenty years since I last saw him. He could certainly be making good money as an artist if he ever applied himself, but I'm not sure whether he has. His name's a little too common to have any real chance of finding him online. I hope he's doing well, though, because for as rocky as the experience was for me, I still hold his Aknaton campaign as the grandest D&D game I ever played in.

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