It's always a bad thing when we're lowered to telling war stories.
Almost two months ago I wrote a post called 'Breaking Death.' I thought, selfishly, that some readers might be interested in what is happening with that party . . . and along the way I can talk about a sandbox, about making conflict and just generally anything else that seems interesting.
Now, to refresh, the party's mage, Demifee, died. With details that can be read on the link above, the mage was raised (not in the usual way) with the stipulation that the mage had one game year (from Dec 29, 1650) to return four holy symbols back to their proper place. If this was not done, the player's character would irrevocably die and be cast quite definitely into the fiery pit.
So, a quest. Do or die. What is my responsibility as DM? Upon what circumstances does that responsibility rest?
It is important to recognize that I did not compel the quest. I let it be known that the player's 'permanent' death happened in unusual circumstances, and that therefore something could be done if the player's wished. The players considered their options, considered whether they wished to take the steps necessary to bring back the mage. Which they then decided to do. Free action, decided upon freely. Consequences to follow.
Every time the players follow through with the decision (the mage now being alive and fully able to act) to return the items, they are effectively restating their resolve. It may look like I'm holding a gun to the mage's head, but the mage was in fact already dead. If I kill the mage because the party fails, they are precisely at the point where they started.
However rough the process is, then, the players have already committed. They are still free to pull out at any time, accept the consequences and move on. Are there good reasons for doing that? Yes.
I run a world where the players typically have more than one character once they have been playing about six months. The player operating the mage also has a 4th level druid. If this druid progresses to 5th level, this druid will also gain a hench - thus the mage can be made to stand down, accept fate, pass over everything the mage possesses and the player will still possess two characters.
Because the player does not depend upon their mage for everything (and won't be slapped down to first level if the mage dies or stands down), I am free to play with the mage's survival in ways that I might not otherwise. By this I mean that I can put the player (and by extension, the party) into situations where they should feel considerable ambiguity about their actions.
For example, they have just recently returned the first holy symbol. This was a six-pointed star, the apparent Hebrew symbol. Only, it wasn't. Sometimes, I really enjoy fitting real-world groups or ideas into my world - this was a terrific opportunity for that.
In the 1st century, there was a group called the Ebionites. To simplify wikipedia, these were 'Christians' who were determined to continue following the mosaic law of their preceeding Jewish roots. In effect, they wished to straddle the two religions - but what they managed to do was to get themselves so hated by both Christians and Jews that their marginalization became inevitable. By the 5th century, they were basically gone. (wikipedia gives examples to show otherwise, but for my world I chose to dismiss those as rogue Ebionite cults who ceased to be the 'true' believers).
So, armed with this little detail about history, I envisioned a singular tomb in the mountain wilds overlooking south Gazira (Jazira), where the party found the "last of the Ebionites." The party, remember, is in the year 1650. The last Ebionite dies sometime (I'm arguing) around 525. So how does the party return the holy symbol (the Star of Michael, I called it) to its rightful religion?
Well, I made the last Ebionite a mummy. Embalmed by a gnostic in 525, following Egyptian practices, so that one day the Star of Michael could be found and ultimately returned - whereupon the mummy's power would be vastly increased by the possession of said item.
The party descended into the tomb and found a dozen somewhat focused slaves praying to the mummy, "sustained" by the process of praying so that centuries could pass without them aging, sleeping or needing to eat. I love D&D. This allowed the party to get all the information they needed before actually handing over the item . . . making it perfectly clear that if the mage were going to be preserved, the mummy would be given all kinds of wonderful power.
The dilemma was thoroughly effective. A debate raged over whether or not anyone could think of a third option, but I kept the details simple and pretty tight. No one liked handing over the item. Imhotep from Sommer's Mummy franchise came up a good deal. The party got pretty excited over something that didn't actually require a combat.
So they asked the minions to raise the mummy, which they did. Then the party made save and the 6th level fighter ran, Demifee ran and the 5th level cleric ran. This left the 7th level thief and a 2nd level fighter (henchman) to fight the mummy - if the plan of "Give the mummy the item and then kill it" has occurred to the readers. It occurred to the players - who, given that the party was running out of the tomb felt they ought to ditch that plan. And yes, I know, they're supposed to be paralyzed, but this simply fit the situation better; it was a Christian mummy. Perhaps they're different.
The thief very quietly handed over the star and left. One down, four to go. And if the mummy terrorizes the middle east, well . . . the party decided they saw that as more of a YP than a MP.
After all, the party is bound for Egypt to get rid of an ankh.
A clarification. This is a different campaign than the one that featured the combat pic and the video from this post. The combat features the younger party, including my daughter, which I ran on the 21st. They will run again on April 4th. The party described above ran last on the 14th; they will run again this Saturday, the 28th.