Yesterday I died. Literally.
And by literally I don’t mean actually or figuratively, but truly literally, as in literal, literature, as in a sense of story–a living story that’s now, abruptly, quite dead.
Since the start of 2017 I’ve been a part of a tabletop gaming group of friends that I’ve made since moving to Milwaukee. We’re not exactly playing Dungeons & Dragons (who knew tabletop came in so many varieties?), but it’s a similar high-fantasy excursion. And on January 23, I drafted my first character: Cord. Torben Cord.
He was a half-elf rogue with a painful past and the burgeoning traits of a true warrior for social change (at least in the elfish community from which he was exiled, for obvious reasons if you’ve ever played Tales of Symphonia or read the Lord of the Rings, which were, in part, an inspiration). On a couple occasions, I even penned out some of his backstory–and I had plans and ideas for so much more.
Then, more than three months invested into Torben, yesterday, he died.
Rolled over by a Large Gelatinous Cube.
It is, perhaps, the most authentically tabletop way to die.
Initially my mind raced with regrets–if I had chosen to heal myself entirely half an hour before rather than holding onto it for a more critical moment, if I had remembered long movements could provoke an attack of opportunity–but the game, like life, has no re-dos.
So I died.
Trust me, my friend, I’ve killed hundreds of characters before–part of writing a mythos necessitates it, and as a whole, death is an important element in any story. But this death was different. This death was my character, but not my choice.
I felt a lot like mourning Torben’s death last night, felt kinda dejected even as I began the work of drafting a new character to bring into the fold next game night (because dead doesn’t mean done, or in the words of our dungeon master, “I want you to play any character you want, except the one that just died”), almost at times like crying.
It was, in a lot of ways, one final straw: This past week has been mostly rain, and my students are struggling to learn the material as I struggle to teach it in some other way, and my students are performing poorly on pre-assessments for the AP exam that’s in less than two weeks, and I’m what feels like weeks behind on at least three different grad school assignments, and I only just barely submitted all my AmeriCorps requirements on time this weekend, and since last week I’ve had a sinus infection that won’t really clear up no matter how much it seems to before it comes back, and then, on top of all that, I died. I died a laughable death, prompted by not one but two self-made mistakes.
Kinda like salt in the wound, feeling just as cliched.
I was, however, reminded of death–of Death–in the purest form for which I’ve ever known it: card 13 in the tarot’s major arcana.
But Death isn’t really death. Death is transformation. Death is rebirth.
Torben Cord, a great guy, getting recognized more and more for his work these days, Torben Cord was too much like me. The novice. The I’m-gonna-play-it-cool-and-go-slow sort of guy because that’s all he knew. (I mean, he knew a lot, but that was his first impression.) And yes, it’s true I had a lot of stories planned for him, and perhaps someday, in an alternate reality in which Torben hadn’t moved so far and provoked an attack of opportunity (or in the reality in which he had, in fact, healed himself fully) I’ll continue his story, but for now, for today, for the rest of this campaign, Torben is dead.
Death, however, is rebirth. Death is the student who failed today’s exam but studies harder and comes back to take it tomorrow and pass. Death is the student who transferred from our school, who was in my class too briefly but still left an impact, who is, today, making wiser choices than he made here. Death is the player who nervously dipped his toes into the water but now stands reborn, slightly wiser and more willing to step out of his monochrome type casting and into a more colorful, more bombastic role.
I have, in my head, imaginings of myself as portrayed in any number of my fantasy worlds, and also in a slightly alternate reality in which all the magic I write about lives inherently, if hidden, in the world which we all know. In this parallel plane, sometimes I glimpse myself enshrouded in flames. It is not the building I’m in or my surroundings on fire, but me–and this is not a flame of turmoil, but an eruption. My body becomes the fire. My spirit expands in holy conflagration, consuming all in its path–no, becoming one with all beings around me as the physical becomes the ethereal voice of a single flame.
And then I’m rushing to teach my next class, grade the next paper, write the next grad school assignment. But there is, in this psyche, something deeper, something more profound, something more powerful itching to get out–but today, I am a candle flame, not a wildfire.
The new character I’m crafting aims to capture some of this wild essence and shape it into the role I want to play: it is, after all, a tabletop RPG, and it’s just a game like any other unless you bring in the role-playing. Every night is like a campfire round of storytelling, each person in tandem adding onto an evolving world, bringing flesh to a skeleton outline of what’s to come, developing our character as we foster our friendship.
Torben, half-elf rogue, stuck to the shadows.
Ashelund, druid, moves with nature, riffling with energy and burning passions.
Literally. There’s gotta be fire in him somewhere. It goes with the analogy.
Torben was too serious and stoic. Ashelund is playful, witty, maybe even spontaneous.
So yesterday I died, but today I’m gathering my embers and coming back from the ashes.