Lessons learned at the table
A friend died the other night.
For a change—and a rather nice one—it wasn’t a real-world friend. I’m at that age where death is no longer just something that happens to older generations, and my friend group has lost two in recent years—one to a heart attack, one to suicide, both seemingly out of nowhere. We still feel their absence at movie nights, conventions, and even just making inside jokes we know originated with them.
The friend who died the other night, fortunately, was a fictional character in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Moreover, she was an NPC—or, at least, she was at this point. Her name was Theramina Thistlenatch. Yes, you read that right. Our gnome bard had an absolute field day.
Our campaign is something of a pick-up from a previous one, ended due to players moving out of country or falling out with each other. To bring its remaining player into a new game with the rest of us, our DM used the now playerless characters as a narrative bridge. They’d all go at some point and leave us to our own adventures—but Theramina, a Halfling ranger whose player had moved to Australia, eventually became all but a full party member.
At some point, we were told, she would have to go—it was just a matter of how to write her out. The DM joked that he was attempting to kill her off, but refused to fudge his dice rolls to do so.
Our main battle during our second session was a brutal test for our level two characters. Our group faced off first against two heavily armed brigands, with me—as the party cleric—having to fall back and do some healing just to keep us afloat. We hadn’t even made it to the main event—the brigands’ leader and his pet cave cricket—before our DM got his wish. One of the guards rolled a natural 20 to strike Theramina with a battle axe, dealing a deadly critical hit. Someone else got one last hit on the guard, and the pair of them fell into a heap on the ground.
At first, I thought we might all jokingly applaud him for finally managing to get our story set straight. But that wasn’t what happened.
The rest of the session that night involved dealing with Theramina’s death—bringing her back to the village, deciding who would tell her old friends, what the funeral would be. All of it. To be fair, I’ve known the DM for going on 20 years now. I knew he wouldn’t cut corners on a story like this.
Each of us had to metaphorically look someone who knew this character in the eye and tell them what happened. Each of us was asked to be present at a wake, then a funeral. And then we were all asked to make plans for the next day. There way no shying away from any of it, and it’s one of the roughest things I’ve ever had to do. And, really, I’m glad we did.
I got a special request from the DM to play a cleric. I come from an Orthodox Christian family, and he wanted someone who understood the concept of religious faith enough to play with it in a fictional setting. This also meant my character—Goldy Stonesthrow, a Halfling “fresh out of nun school”—got the brunt of the reactions. If she can heal wounds, then why couldn’t she fix this? Why is this thing in particular impossible to undo, even for someone who can do great things through faith? I ask myself that a lot in the real world, too.
People who don’t regularly play tabletop games—and maybe a few who do—are probably thinking this is pretty damn heavy for a game where you use math to beat up monsters. Isn’t this supposed to be escapism? If your friend group has had to deal with losing members, shouldn’t this be the exact sort of thing you’re avoiding right now? I don’t necessarily think so.
Fiction of any kind can be escapism. But it can also serve as a way to experience difficult things safely. Horror lets us engage with things that scare us, for example, satisfying our curiosity without risking our well-being. Romance lets us live vicariously through the protagonists—and, occasionally, lets us witness how to cope with a relationship on the rocks without actually being in one.
Obviously, DMs should always make sure everyone is on board for more serious content. Some players may genuinely not want that sort of deep engagement, based on their own personal issues. Satine Phoenix of Geek & Sundry covers player boundaries—and what to do if you inadvertently cross one—as part of the channel’s GM Tips series. The idea is to make sure no one is plunged into a situation that is psychologically off-limits to them.
With that in mind, there’s a difference between topics that are completely off-limits and topics that are emotionally difficult. Even knowing that our DM was attempting to strip out the previous campaign’s elements once we were all in place, it was a tough end of session, with everyone reacting somewhat differently.
Our half-elf ranger Mae—a new player who created a character essentially identical to herself so she could get into the swing of gaming—became distant, uncomfortable with the proceedings largely because they involved people she had only met two days ago in game time. She did as little as was necessary for respect, then stepped away.
Ol, a mysterious character covered in bandages—we still know nothing about him—was part of the original campaign. He knew Theramina when she was played by her original creator. Despite those characters apparently only knowing each other for a few weeks in-game, there was clearly still a greater tie. He knew the proper way to break the news to fellow party members, and how to divide up the funereal workload based on everyone’s skill sets.
I can only speak for myself regarding how close my character’s reactions were to mine in similar situations. There was a desire to allow Theramina’s friends to share the news with each other rather than hearing it from a relative stranger. There was a mix of sadness, offset by taking any opportunity to brighten the mood. And there was a lot of asking “why,” questioning my own beliefs at a time when they’re supposed to be of the most comfort.
We often try to bury the mourning process beneath the requirements of daily life. We can’t properly mourn because life goes on—our job doesn’t offer adequate bereavement leave, or it does but we still have things to do. We feel we can’t afford to break down because, well, someone has to handle the funeral. We don’t want to feel pain because we should be able to get on with things. We’re afraid to open ourselves up to grieving a loss because that means acknowledging that the death really happened.
But a group of people around a coffee table attending the fictional funeral of a fictional character doesn’t have to balance grief with work. No one’s really making arrangements, no one has to fly home for the funeral, no one has to worry about being “the strong one” beyond being faithful to their character. Everyone can feel how they feel in a safe microcosm, then hang it up afterwards, knowing that they will not be bringing the grief or responsibility home with them.
A few minutes in-game isn’t going to solve every difficult real-life issue. After we finished our session, we still had to go out into the world and continue to deal with real grief in all its agony. But experiencing something so painful in reality in a fictional world, even more so than seeing it on screen or reading it in a book, is something you take with you too. Friends in real life aren’t struck down by orcs or dark magic—but the ways we deal with loss, those are the same at the table and beyond.