Victory. Elusive for some, inevitable for others. It’s the ultimate goal, even for those who don’t acknowledge it. But what does it mean? What defines victory for a bold group of adventurers seeking fame and fortune while risking life and limb in one deadly encounter after the next?
Is it fame? It’s possible. It’s certainly rewarding to be recognized for your accomplishments, even if that recognition comes courtesy of imaginary people in an imaginary land. Fortune? The quest for treasure and magical might can be compelling. Advancement? For some, XP is the best reward.
Or is it something that transcends these classic definitions of victory in D&D? Is it something more nebulous and ephemeral? Clearly, there is no single definition, and I would contend that in some encounters—perhaps the best encounters—different players come away feeling uncertain about whether they’ve experienced victory at all.
Victory often has a bitter cost, something literature and film realize to great effect. One of my favorite examples comes from a novel I try to re-read at least every few years, The Count of Monte Cristo. (If you’ve never read it, and worse, if you’ve only ever seen the 2002 version of the film, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.) In the book, Edmond Dantès, our protagonist, is betrayed by his closest “friends.” He spends the rest of the book seeking revenge on those who wronged him. His pursuit of justice becomes so absolute, so singleminded, that he is almost consumed. Without spoiling the book, in the end, he finds his victory, but it isn’t what (or how) he thought it would be.
Another great (and nerdier) example comes at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Han is frozen in carbonite and shipped off to Jabba. Luke is almost dead, nearly broken from his encounter with Vader, and sans a hand. But the Rebellion survives to fight another day. So victory, if not at hand (so to speak), remains possible.
D&D adventures, in contrast, often have very black and white resolutions. When an outcome is bittersweet, it’s often accidental. In a recent game I ran, the characters were struck with a beat-stick combination of poor tactics and worse dice. One character was dead, two others had accumulated two death saves, and the remaining two characters had a combined 5 hit points. Standing in for the monsters were one bloodied elemental and two mezzodemons, one unbloodied. The situation looked grim. I may have pulled some punches toward the end and offered the characters—those still standing—an alternative out. I don’t believe in punishing a group for what amounts to poor luck.
After their near escape, as the survivors both thanked their lucky stars and mourned a fallen comrade, I heard two distinct reactions. From one of the two players with a surviving character, a sigh of relief and a statement that he felt they’d done well, given the circumstances. From the other, an outright statement of failure. “We lost someone and we had to flee. We failed!” A sense of victory. A sense of defeat.
As for me? Victory. I felt satisfied, as if I’d just settled in to a gluttony-induced, post-Thanksgiving food coma. I loved that the players were conflicted about the outcome. I love that, despite some of their misgivings, they walked away still thinking about the session. I can’t wait to run an adventure like this again, or to play in one.
The idea of sacrifice to gain victory is nothing new, yet it feels strangely absent in D&D adventures. It doesn’t need to be. I’m not advocating adventures that, say, require a character’s death. I just believe that the game has a place for more . . . thoughtful outcomes.
How about you? Share your stories of bittersweet victory, whether planned or not at firstname.lastname@example.org, or over on the D&D Insider community page. Tell us about the times you had to pay a cost for victory in your campaigns, or when you ran a game as DM and imposed a price for your characters’ success. We’d love to hear from you!