Take a moment to hear of the life and death of a hero.
In a few sessions in a B/X-adjacent gaming group, tough old school with many house rules and strict resource management, my character was lucky enough to serve side by side with a memorable man, a grizzled cleric portrayed competently and convincingly by a player who was quick to help others with gaming procedure and contributed great ideas, with a gift to explain issues clearly, but who was also very reluctant to speak about himself or his character outside of actual play.
His character fit the bill, very quiet, but when he said anything it had meaning.
It was an open table and I was not there for quite some time. And then one day it happened that I learned to my regret that his character, Kovaljav the Cleric, had died. Cause to regret, but it was an outstanding character, so chances were good that the actual death had happened in meaningful circumstances.
I asked what had happened and got no answer, but I had expected no less. I knew from experience that neither player nor GM would come forward to recount the tale in any more words than “he died” or “it was in a fight”; as the player as mentioned tends to the monosyllabic, and the GM is a very procedural guy who gives clear and powerful descriptions, but is very definitely not the storytelling type. His adventure log simply lists names, locations, deaths and XP numbers, and maybe a sentence or two about the mission and outcome – very like the old tomes of Rythlondar, from the early days of the Hobby.
I asked who else was present in that game, and Kovaljav’s player was kind enough to, characteristically, drop one single word: one name, the name of a character. And that character’s player was kind enough to sit down with me at the proverbial campfire to recount the fall of one of the great names of that table.
Who he was
Kovaljav the Cleric, when my character met him, was haunted by his personal demons. He was the sole survivor of a delving party that got wiped out, and the fact that he used to be their leader only added to his massive survivor’s guilt. Hints were dropped about the massive failure that killed the men and women who followed him, but he himself never said much about it. Stoically he just insisted that it was all his fault and he was therefore unfit to lead.
That was not necessarily true, though, for despite his insistence on being a follower, he was always a cornerstone of the party. He stepped in when there was danger, he drew enemy fire to protect weaker party members, and because he was so much longer in the game than anyone else he was also the highest level spellcaster and had serious impact in fights.
He was also the voice of reason when a group lost sight of their goal, and the one to keep them together when they started to frazzle and split parties.
In other words, he was the big silent hero type.
How he died
At the time of his demise he was already at level 5, and had survived at least two more party wipeouts, so he was stronger and more emotionally scarred than ever.
Once more he was out with a party, once more he refused to lead, and once more he went into the breach first.
“Yes, I was there,” said Uther, my informer, and he added, in a tone fitting to Kovaljav himself: “Of all the people to come to about this… because see, I do feel that it was ultimately I who got him killed.”
Hamlet of Dread
He went on to say it was actually a two-part story, because one delve laid the foundation to Kovaljav’s ultimate end in the next.
Like so many of these delves it all started in a village, and the part was asked to take care of a haunted hamlet where people had died and those sent to investigate failed to return. The party felt this was a small time job, but they took it to collect some goodwill with the locals.
Upon arriving in the hamlet they saw it had a temple and went in to check it out, because if there is mystery, a temple is often a good place to start looking for clues. Uther explained that he remained outside, because at the last moment he had a bad feeling about that temple. He elected to stand guard outside, to make sure nothing untoward snuck up on the others while they were inside. The majority of the party went in to traverse a narrow corridor, when the doors suddenly closed behind them and sealed them in. They were attacked at once, but not by normal foes, but by incorporeal wraiths, a hard enemy to fight.
Uther said that he attacked the door to break it open and allow the others to get out of there, but by the time he managed to break it down, the damage was done: They had suffered terribly and Kovaljav himself had, typical for him, drawn the enemies to himself, and so he had been level-drained no less than three times, reducing the powerful fighter for the faith to a second level character.
Defeated and depleted, the party pulled out and returned home to lick their wounds; alas, level drains don’t heal. And so it was that Kovaljav’s next adventure saw him in the same reduced state in which he had stumbled out of that fateful temple.
Forest of Violence
This time the party took on a more predictable and killable foe: bandits! A gang of bandits harassed a trade road, and the group went out to restore peace and order to the land.
Uther was elected leader of this mission, and he was once more worried about safety. A pattern emerges: Uther is the cautious type next to the brooding Vicar.
They combed the hills for tracks but found nothing, so when night fell they picked a camp site in forested area protected from view. Alas, spotted they already were. They made plans to ambush the bandits on the next day, unaware that the bandits were already plotting to get them long before that. Of course, they were not careless: They thought it might be possible that the bandits would roam the land, so they set up guards for the night.
Alas, the berserker bandits were already in position, and the camp was suddenly swarmed by around 30 attackers who overpowered the few guards with ease. Some of the party had already gone to bed, and while they struggled to crawl out of their bedrolls and find their armor they were already getting stabbed and hacked down.
Chaos reigned as every man fought for himself and some of the party decided to charge the bandits instead of forming a defensive circle around the wagon, which meant that the battlefield broke up into several smaller combats.
Uther said that he himself had ordered Kovaljav and another man called James to sleep in the wagon to keep that safe. Those two were suddenly alone, and swarmed by so many foes, the wagon itself became a deathtrap. While James struggled to throw off the shackles of Morpheus, Kovaljev was already attacked within the wagon and therefore with restricted movement.
By his own telling, Uther attempted to heroically draw the berserkers away from the weaker party members, and led five of them away on a merry chase so the actual enemy fighting force was smaller.
But: “Thirty of them versus like nine of us , they also had two captains and the drop on us. It was a massacre, James and Kov died heroically, Uther lost his right arm and got crushed ribs, but managed to crawl out of there under cover of darkness. About 90% of the rest of the party got slaughtered in that night.”
Spinning a yarn
I was right. Just as expected: Like his life, his death was wrapped in a story worth the telling. So I sit down with you here to spin the yarn, so the name of the hero Kovaljav fades not into the fog of forgetting.