My third (and final) college Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign was cobbled together from a mix of homebrew and pre-published material. The bulk of the latter was drawn from the crazy quilt Restless Dead supplement, but I made ample use of Death’s Dark Shadow as well.
Death’s Dark Shadow was a down-to-the-last-floorboard sourcebook covering a remote frontier town, its various residents, and notable nearby locations. It was a bit like AD&D’s old Village of Hommlet module, but with the sprawling uber-dungeon down the road swapped out in favor of sinister secrets and skullduggery involving the locals.
I’ve never been much of a fan of detailed takes on fixed locations in role-playing supplements. Not only do they incentivized pinning down an adventuring party until every last stone is overturned, much of the included material tends to be superfluous in the extreme. Who cares that the village fishwife has a silver goblet worth five gold coins hidden in her straw mattress? If a situation involving it ever comes up, any gamemaster worth a damn should be able to improvise that kind of thing on the spot. I know there are gaming groups out there who do enjoy that level of single-point immersion, but every run I’ve refereed has been blessed (or cursed?) with obsessively wandering souls.
That said, Death’s Dark Shadow was densely packed with interesting bits which could be plucked out and thrown in the path of my group’s wandering heroes. I’ve always been a sucker for a good micro-dungeon, even if the context required a little repurposing to fit into a current campaign, and there’s always room for hidden cultists and treachery hidden behind a tranquil facade.
Unless Joe was also involved, that is.
Joe was a red-haired business major who hailed from Hyde Park or West Roxbury or one of those other southwest Boston neighborhoods I’m not convinced actually exist. He resembled an oversized hobbit, had a blue Member’s Only jacket surgically attached to his torso, and spoke that weird variant of the Boston Irish accent that sounds almost Australian. Like most members of the Sci-Fi Club, Joe wandered into the office one afternoon and just kinda stayed there. Because my WFRP campaign was a big thing in club circles, Joe wanted to be part of it. I wasn’t keen about him joining, as he represented an unknown quantity, but I ended up falling into the same paradox that has governed my social interactions since childhood.
My experiences and upbringing have given me a strong egalitarian streak. I know how painful it feels to be excluded, so I make a point of including others in things, especially folks who strike me as being on the outside looking in. Unfortunately, those noble sentiments often come into conflict with my innate irritability and generally asocial tendencies. It’s the way I’m wired, not any fault of the offending parties (or, at the very least, disproportionate to their actual shortcomings).
My usual response in these situations is to step away and move on, but that couldn’t be done when I was the person running the campaign.
I wasn’t the only person Joe ended up rubbing the wrong way. In the space of just a couple weeks, he ended up alienating every other player in the campaign. None of it was particularly egregious. Most of it was typical gaming smack talk, but delivered incessantly and with the assumption of familiarity Joe hadn’t really earned. It’s one thing to mock a close pal, another to tell a vague acquaintance they suck and follow it up with a laugh that sounded like something that would emerge from a goat’s ass.
Joe brought these antics into the gaming world, mostly through a reflexive contrariness he confused for cleverness. Maybe he thought he was going to throw me for a loop, but the Warhammer rules were unforgiving enough that I didn’t have to go out of my way to push back against him. During one session, he decided that there was something fishy about the inn the other players chose to stay at, and decided to sleep in the rough outside the town. While he was napping, a bunch of snotlings (miniature goblins) stole all his valuables and painted his face with their leavings.
While I was trying to apply not-so-subtle pressure on Joe to mend his disruptive ways, he was finding new and unfortunate ways to piss off every other player in the group. He mocked Lil Bro for playing a “wussy physician,” even though Joe required the most medical treatment out of all the party members. He was convinced the group’s rogue was holding out on him, and would rush into hazard filled rooms to ensure he got his “fair share.” The players were already fairly hapless in their adventuring, and Joe made things ten times worse. Every effort to rein him in failed, and it became clear that — one way or another — Joe’s days with the group were numbered.
Joe’s final adventure involved a beached ship rumored to be carrying an extremely valuable treasure. The party, along with a number of rival adventuring groups, decided to stake a claim for it. Atypical for the players, they were the first folks to discover the wreck’s location. More typically for them, they failed every search check that would’ve clued them in that the treasure had been removed and buried on the beach a mile from the site. Instead, they spent a week of in-game time trying to excavate the buried section of the ship.
Joe was posted on sentry duty in case one of the rival groups happened to crash the party. Worried about not getting his fair share, Joe abandoned his post and walked back to the dig site. He made it a few dozen yards before a mounted member of one of the the rival bands rode up an decapitated him with a single scimitar stroke. I didn’t even have to fudge the dice roll. His last words were “Heh you guys bettah not be boosting the good st-.”
The rest of the group honored his death by leaving his body out for the crabs and gulls to pick over.
I didn’t see much or think much of Joe after he left the campaign. There wasn’t much of a reason to do so. About ten years back I was on campus, looking at the harbor from the balcony behind Wheatley Hall, when I did an abrupt double-take. Further on down the walkway, there was a hobbit-esque dude with beady eyes, red hair, and a blue Member’s Only jacket pacing in circles and animatedly shouting into a cell phone.
I thought “It’s been twenty years. Even I’ve changed my look since then. It can’t be him.”
Then, over the sounds of the surf and the highway, I caught a snatch of the conversation. “…said my name is JOE! JOE [redacted]!”
Two possibilities presented themselves to me. I was watching a for-real, no-fooling ghost or this was the authentic, flesh-and-blood Joe.
I wasn’t sure which prospect was more horrifying, so I fled back into the building before he noticed me.