I never thought it would happen to me but my players found a way to end my campaign ten sessions early. Let me back up…
I have been a Game Master for about 10 years and playing in RPGs for the past 20, so know that this wasn’t a new GM fluke when I tell you this story. The game was Pathfinder and the players were a rag tag group of heroes set on surviving an island they just landed on. There was a Dwarf Ranger, a Human Sorcerer, a Half-Elf Monk, a Human Rogue, and a Half-Elf Cleric. Through a series of misunderstandings the players helped finish a ritual that set the goddess of madness and monsters, Lamashtu, free upon the world.
Upon regaining her freedom she set to work gathering an army to over take the world. In addition she also passed out cool party favors in the form of a plague. The plague spread swiftly. All of the kingdom’s Priest, Clerics, and Druids worked night and day attempting to stem the tide of it without success.
The players learned that to kill Lamashtu they would need to get a few magical items: a crimson dagger called the Red Lust, a black falchion called the Chilled Heart, and a book called the Tome of Torog. They had acquired the Chilled Heart and the Tome of Torog but while trying to acquire the Red Lust they had lost the Chilled Heart to Lamashtu, along with the lives of the Ranger, the Monk, and the Cleric.
The party was reduced to just the Sorcerer and the Rogue. They were soon joined by a Barbarian, a Cleric, and an Alchemist to continue their quest. Along the way they had acquired a bevy of cursed items… one of which was the Bag of Devouring.
“What is a Bag of Devouring,” you may ask? A Bag of Devouring is a cursed item that acts like a Bag of Holding until you reach your hand in to pull something out. When it detects flesh it tries to swallow its victim whole in one round. If it succeeds you’ll have a 50/50 shot of wishing the victim back to life on your plane of existence, but if you fail it becomes impossible to resurrect the victim with mortal magic. It’s a nice learning tool that I have used in the past to teach players to investigate their magic items carefully. Rarely have I had to devour a character. Normally it makes a failing grab check, the players see the gnashing teeth, and learn a lesson: “Your GM is a jerk.”
The characters knew they weren’t strong enough to challenge Lamashtu in a fight so their next step was to get help. They were given the choice between beseeching the goddess Desna into helping them or going to the High Demon Pazuzu. They opted for the demon. Go figure.
I had designed Pazuzu to be a roguish devil. I know it deviates from the lore but, hey it’s my story. Pazuzu’s lair was a large city deep under ground called Brimstone and at the center of his city was his casino/home. To gain an audience with him they needed to complete some quest to build their reputation. They did so and in the process learned that Pazuzu’s second in command had made a deal with Lamashtu to help her kill Pazuzu and take his power.
At this point they had enough clout to get an audience with Pazuzu so the players headed off to warn him. They successfully gained entrance and started to warn Pazuzu of the treachery in his house only to have Lamashtu burst through the door with the Chilled Heart in hand. Pazuzu agrees to help the players stop Lamashtu if they give him rights to some land in the Great Desert. The players agreed to his terms. I had written Pazuzu and Lamashtu as old lovers, more akin to a very old spiteful married couple. Think Hemingwy and Gellhorn. So it’s not out of character for him to swagger up and passionately embraces her, thus distracting Lamashtu from the fight. Her undead minions fan out to take down the players.
At this point I expect the players to grab the Chilled Heart and make a run for it. I had planned to have them gather an army to protect the last bastion of hope, the City of Light, and face Lamashtu on a giant, wildly cinematic battlefield. I thought this was going to take several sessions to do. I could already see them riding out to meet Lamashtu on the field of battle and put an end to her once and for all… but that’s not what happened.
So Pazuzu has Lamashtu in a passionate embrace. The Alchemist turns to me and says, “Can I drink my potion of Greater Jump?”
“Sure,” I respond.
“I’m gonna pull it over her head!”
“Give me a Grapple check.”
The player rolled and failed. Lamashtu’s hand shot up, grabbing the bag and turning it back on the player. Now both he and Lamashtu are locked in a battle over the Bag of Devouring. She was easily winning of course and now was just toying with him.
All of a sudden half the group sprung from the table and huddled up. I knew something was amiss when they sat down with large toothy grins on their face. Or maybe that’s just the way I’m remembering it.
The Wizard turned to me and said he cast Enlarge Person on the Barbarian. The Cleric joined in and also cast Bull’s Strength on the Barbarian. To top it off the Barbarian goes into a full Rage. His strength is now in the low 30s. He lumbered over to Lamashtu and grabbed the bag and began forcing it down on her head. He made his grapple check and, of course, hit a natural 20. The room erupted in screams and cheers. I had them confirm the crit and it was successful. There is no way to deprive them of this, I thought. They worked together and out-smarted me.
So I let it happen. Lamashtu was sucked into the bag. Her undead minions were quickly dealt with but the bag began to rumble and crack. The Wizard piped up, “I want to teleport to the volcano we passed getting here.” I inform them that can do this but whomever goes to volcano won’t be coming back. The blast would be too great for them to survive and teleport back. The Cleric agreed to lay his life down for the greater good. The Wizard teleported the Cleric to the volcano and then teleported back alone. And with that the Cleric tossed the bag into the volcano, Lamashtu’s undead army rotted and fell away, and the plague disappeared. Thus ending the campaign.
I can’t begrudge them the ending they got. Granted it screws up my story and renders days of work and planning useless but that’s not what RPGs are about. The day the GM puts his enjoyment and story above that of the player enjoyment is the day he needs to hang up his dice bag. Game Mastering and most roleplaying games are about a shared storytelling experience.
Sure, I could have railroaded them into the ending I wanted but it wouldn’t have been THEIR ending. The players worked together to solve a problem, the dice were with them, and they had a great time. That’s what really matters, that they had a great time.
The lesson I want to leave you with is that no matter how much you plan and scheme, the players could always go left instead of right. So don’t fight it. Say “Yes and…” and keep on gaming.
Even if they are campaign-ending Munchkins.