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Rant:
The Most Exciting Role-Playing Game of My Life

The most exciting role-playing game of my life was a game in a Pirates of the Caribbean style setting (18th century, British colonies) using the RuneQuest game system. My character, John Drake, was maxed out as a sword-fighter. His three highest skills were Cutlass, Buckler and Dodge. This meant that in a single combat round he could attack with his cutlass, parry a blow with his buckler, and dodge an attack.

By the misfortunes of chance, Drake took two wounds to the left leg early in the game. This left his left leg useless. To get around at all he hand to walk on a crutch held in his left hand. Like this he could only move at one-third speed, and he couldn't dodge or use his buckler. My character, carefully designed to be able to use three skills every combat round, was reduced to using only one: he could either attack or parry with his cutlass.

Moving so slowly, Drake volunteered to stay behind and guard a vital bridge. His companions left him with two loaded pistols and then went ahead on the mission. Once they had gone, fiendish French reinforcements came up behind and wanted to cross the bridge. Drake drew his first pistol and shot. The French drew their pistols and shot. Drake drew his second pistol and shot. Every pistol shot missed, because pistols were very inaccurate except at extreme close range. Then the French drew their swords and advanced across the bridge. It was so narrow they had to cross in single file.

Drake stood firm at the bridge's end, determined to do them as much damage as he could before the inevitably killed him. Each combat round he could only attack or parry with his cutlass. I decided that parrying was just delaying the inevitable, so I would attack every round. Drake had only 2 Hit Points left, so almost any blow would kill him. I was working on the assumption that the first hit I took would end it for me.

Drake's Cutlass skill was 80%, so I hoped to inflict some casualties before they killed me, but I just didn't see how I could kill five of them without taking at least one blow. I saw it as simply a matter of time. And so the rolling began, with me attacking every combat round and the one man in front of me attacking every combat round. Each time I rolled, I expected it to be my last. I kept thinking, 'Surely my luck can't hold - this round the fatal blow must fall.' Then after I had killed two of them, another member of my party came back and saved me. The relief and elation were amazing.

What made that game so intensely exciting was that I really thought Drake was going to die, and I was on the edge of my seat with tension at every die roll the GM made. (He made them all in the open, so I could see there was no fudging to let me live.) I thought Drake was nobly sacrificing himself for the good of the mission. That is heroic gaming.

If Drake had had so many Hit Points that the French had been no real threat to him, or if he had had Luck Points to let him re-roll bad rolls and save himself, or if he had had some magical power to protect him from harm, the game simply wouldn't have been exciting. And it wouldn't have been heroic. Excitement results from PCs being at risk; heroism results from willingly taking those risks.