“Silver” Can Be As Good As “Gold”

I STARTED PLAYING Advanced Dungeons & Dungeons (in its first edition) in 1982, as a high school kid, and soon took over as the Dungeon Master for our little group when the regular DM quit. Far from feeling like I had been “stuck with the job,” I relished it, writing modules, building worlds, and running games for dozens of players and scores of player-characters over many years.

There were lots of good times, but the high point for me, beginning about 1989, was what I came to call the “Ariel & Company” saga. Going on for about five years (IIRC), this campaign was based around a core of PCs:

  • Ariel Calenyrn, the leader of the group, a wood elf druidess played by my wife, Joni;
  • Ariel’s adoptive sister Minya Finalda, a half-elf/half-dryad bard, also played by Joni;
  • Roary Tolman, a halfling thief-acrobat played by my friend and future Jungle Guide Patrick Eibel; and,
  • Wulfgar (no, not that one), a human barbarian (later barbarian cleric) played by my friend Brian.

From the start, there were other players and PCs, and over the years, they came and went (and some returned before leaving for good). There were so many, in fact, that, 30 years later, I have no recollection of certain ones, even after reading through my notes from back then (what character was “Lofwyr,” and who played him?)           

“The Golden Age”

The core group of Ariel, Minya, Roary, Wulfgar, as well as the rotating cast of other PCs, traveled across my gaming world (and to other ones), having epic adventures involving ancient ruins and sprawling cities; hated villains and beloved comrades; political intrigue and war; massive battles and immensely powerful monsters.

About half of my WIP campaign world map

Casualties were high: Wulfgar was actually Brian’s third character for the campaign. He had grown disinterested in the first, and the second had been killed by orcs. The core characters and some of the other long-time PCs suffered death on more than one occasion, but magic always brought them back.

This was the “golden age” of my time as a DM. Most of the players were sharp and imaginative, good tacticians and problem-solvers, and excellent roleplayers. They were enthusiastic: we often had marathon gaming sessions at my house, lasting twelve hours or more, only taking breaks for Joni and me to walk our dogs, while Generous Joe’s Deli delivered dinner.

Best cheese steaks ever!

Players/PCs got along very well, working together as a team under Joni/Ariel’s leadership. She always had a plan, and the party always prevailed. Almost always, anyway. 

I would like to tell you that against impossible odds, Ariel & Company saved the world in grand fashion from an overwhelmingly evil menace, and retired to lives of peace and quiet, living happily ever after. What actually happened was that while on a quest to recover pieces of the Rod of Seven Parts, they ran into a cobra dragon named Deathvenom.

At this point, the PCs were high level, and very powerful. Nevertheless (or perhaps, because of that), the players didn’t approach the fight with their usual preparation and intensity. They underestimated Deathvenom, who was a badass capable of killing a PC each round. Before they knew what had happened, the players suffered a total party kill.

The Aftermath of “Ariel & Co.”

My group continued with different characters and adventures. New players joined, and we tried novel approaches, such as a Celtic campaign inspired by the film Braveheart. Then we did a campaign in the style of ancient Greece, complete with meddling gods, and monsters from classic mythology.

It was fun…for a while

But nothing stuck. Nothing else we did in those months and years after the end of Ariel and her friends matched the exploits—or the interest—of the fallen heroes.

Brian moved to another state; Joni and I also moved, about an hour away from where we used to live. In 1998, I started a new job that became crazy busy for a very long time, and that was the end of DMing and D&D for me.

In 2005, after life settled down, I dabbled with 3rd Edition D&D, running a few adventures for Joni, but I didn’t care for the new version of the game: it didn’t feel like D&D to me.

I started a 1e AD&D campaign in 2010 for Joni, my daughters Beth and Ally-Jane, our niece and nephew Natasha and Matthew, and Pat and his wife Pippa. But it died out after a few sessions, with all of us losing interest.

It did, however, have dinosaurs–lots of dinosaurs–so there was that going for it

In 2015, our daughters’ friends in the neighborhood wanted to learn to play, so we did some adventures. My pal Andy and my wife Joni were the grownups with the unenviable task of herding teenagers Dylan and Nate (Andy’s sons), Jade (our other neighbors’ daughter), and Ally-Jane. It didn’t last long—high school has lots of distractions—but it laid the seeds for what was to come next.                     

A New (and “Crimson”) Dawn

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in 2020, when everyone was locked down with nowhere to go, D&D became a thing—big time. So it was in our neighborhood, too. Sent home from college, Dylan asked me if we could play, using the characters he and the others had run five years before. Nate, Jade, and Andy were all for it, too. Joni and Ally-Jane agreed to rejoin. The band was getting back together.  

Given how every attempt to rekindle my game had fizzled, I was dubious, but willing to give it my best shot. I wanted to playtest the variant version of 1e AD&D that I had been noodling with, and I wanted to recapture that “Ariel & Company” magic.

To that end, I set the new campaign a year before the other group’s TPK, in the same location of my game world. I dug out the old maps and my handwritten notes from 30 years before, which I had been keeping in a box in the garage, and set the stage.

Where most of the action has played out, this far

So that everyone would know what to expect, I told them that the campaign would have the same sort of vibe as the Game of Thrones TV show, minus the rape and gratuitous murder. That is, lots of NPCs; lots of places; lots of names and history; and lots of events happening in the background, some of which might affect the PCs—or they might affect.

Dylan and Nate were hardcore videogamers, but I warned them that this was not going to be like that. Or as I said:

“This is a real world, with ongoing stories already in motion, and your actions have consequences. Don’t think that just because you come across something, it must be okay for you to get involved with, otherwise I wouldn’t have told you about it. If you go to a certain area and hear about a dragon that kills anyone who disturbs its lair, don’t be mad with me if your characters get eaten when they pick a fight with the dragon. The NPCs you should have listened to told you not to do that.”       

Dylan took the lead of this motley bunch who are very much cut from the same cloth as the Guardians of the Galaxy. The group started with:

  • Brynjolf, a former paladin turned “con man” thief, played by Dylan;
  • Alkaois, a human fighter who is Nate’s take on Kratos from God Of War;
  • Scarlet Shiv, a female half-elf assassin, played by Jade;
  • Alphonse, Andy’s high elf cleric, the glue that holds the party together;
  • Ziah, Joni’s female human warrior of Arabic origin, who wields two scimitars; and,
  • Vladlena, Ally-Jane’s female gnome illusionist.

When Ally-Jane went off to grad school in 2021, her character “retired” to a life of academia at the University of Ceolbyrr. The party was then joined by:

And more recently by:

  • Droppa Druce, a wood elf druid, also played by Steve;
  • Bocephus, a wood elf ranger played by Andy; and,
  • Salvatino, a half-elf thief played by Jade’s boyfriend John.

As you can see, it’s a big party (10 PCs), and some of the players are fond of coming up with goofy names for their characters. I run a serious campaign—you will find no NPCs with joke names—but I’m all about letting the players do what they want with their characters.

Everyone started off at 1st level, and now, the earlier PCs are all mid-level (7th to 8th), as is “Dr. Thunder.” Ogie is the equivalent (5th level fighter/4th level magic-user), and the other three, who joined recently, are 2nd-3rd level.

Doubling down on the goofy name thing, the group calls themselves “The Crimson Dawn” (yeah, really), and they’ve already made a reputation for themselves. They’ve also made powerful enemies: they have not one, but two of the mightiest sorcerers in the world trying to kill them, for different reasons.

They got all three weapons from here but earned the enmity of Keraptis

As players, this bunch is not very skilled. I constantly have to tell them how to roll initiative, and how to roll “to hit” in combat. I’ve stopped reminding them of abilities and magic items that their characters have: after three years, they should know this by now.

They don’t always know what they’re doing or what they should be doing. They often vacillate between being overly-cautious, or biting off way more than they can chew. Despite this, not one of the PCs has died yet (as of this writing). They are, by far, the luckiest players I have ever had: the dice love them (as a group, that is. Jade often has terrible rolls). On more than one occasion, I’ve told them that they are more lucky than good, which they accepted with laughs and good grace.

They are also not big into role-playing. For the most part, each person just plays their character’s personality as themselves in a fantasy setting. Which is okay: some of the old crew used to go a little overboard on the Method acting….

I will say, though, that the new gamers are fun. They have the same enthusiasm as my former players (and the “kids” are roughly the same ages that those guys and girls were back then). Because of schedules, we can’t do marathons, but we get together on week nights during school breaks. The fact that all of us (except John) live on the same street helps. They always enjoy themselves, and they often surprise me with what they come up with.  

“The Silver Age”

The current campaign has organically developed a very grounded, realistic, mercenary feel, akin to the classic Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. The PCs aren’t worried so much about saving the world or righting wrongs as they are about where their next bag of gold is coming from.

Which is not to say that they’re jerks or murder hobos: they’ve stuck their necks out before for NPCs in a bad situation, and they’re unswervingly loyal to each other. It’s just that they usually need a very good monetary reason to undertake any action. They’re not the type to get into a fight because someone looked at them funny, or to go poking around some dark, dangerous place just “because it’s there.”

Currently, the PCs are on their way into the deep and forbidding desert to find a lost ruin…unless they come across a more lucrative, less dangerous opportunity before then

Running these new characters in the same time and place as the old characters has been easy and energizing for me as a DM. My descriptions of places and events are very vivid and engaging because I’m so familiar with them. I slip right back into the role of old NPCs. I’m also able to explore and expand on campaign elements that only got touched on 30 years ago. 

And yes, the new PCs have met the old ones, with me doing my best impersonations of how the previous gamers played their characters. At this stage in their adventuring careers, Ariel & Company are wealthier, more powerful, and much more well-known, beloved by the common people for their heroism and generosity. They’re the Avengers to the new kids’ Guardians of the Galaxy. No, I haven’t told my players what happens concerning a certain cobra dragon.

I didn’t expect this campaign to have any legs, but here it is three years later, and we’re going stronger than ever. We just played the other night, with the group defeating a band of robbers (including a fearsome half-ogre warrior who nearly killed Alkaois in a single round) in a short but bloody back-alley fight in a squalid city.

The thieves that the party didn’t kill got turned over to the city watch for the reward, but not before the PCs looted their stuff and made themselves comfy in the thieves’ own house. The party may or may not continue with the expedition they had been on, seeing as how the NPC financing it got eaten by a froghemoth in this session. At the very least, they’ll spend a few days in town, trying to side-hustle some more cash. Maybe another trip to the gambling dens is in order….

So, though this current campaign is set in the same time and place as the old one, it’s certainly not a rehash, for many reasons. It’s much less skilled, much less “heroic,” a bit sloppy, and certainly not “epic.” This is the “silver age” of my time as a DM. But it’s just as much fun, and I hope it goes on for many more years. In this case, “silver” is as good as “gold.”

And who knows? Maybe this bunch will get to live happily ever after.

Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. The Fighting Tigers of Veda appear in his latest novel, Stray Cats, which you can find here.

Check him out on kentonkilgore.com, and follow Kenton on Facebook for frequent posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. You can also catch him on Instagram, and find his books in softcover and for Kindle on Amazon.