Running persistent D&D campaigns is the bread and butter of a game master. A consistent group of players, a world that grows and changes around them, a series of horrible in-jokes that no-one else will ever understand.
Like an old owl well.
But long running campaigns can get exhausting, with all of their high stakes and meaningful story beats.
Sometimes you just want to play some D&D.
Sometimes you want a one-shot.
I've run a lot of one-shots and I've written a few myself. In fact, sometimes my wife and I write special Christmas one-shots for our primary D&D group as a bit of a break from the normal campaign.
And that's where this story comes in.
He Knows When You've Been Bad or Good
The diminutive little creature blinked in confusion, steam still rising from its skin as it sloughed off the last of the pastry shell. It was no more than a few feet high and had a distinctly perplexed expression on its face.
It took an unsteady step forward and a huge pale blue hand reached out and steadied it, moving up to tenderly pat its head.
The creatures' eyes focused on the hand, then moved up the arm connected to it until they reached a smiling face, unadulterated happiness and pride crinkling the corners of its huge eyes.
"It's okay little one, I know it's all very confusing, but everything will make sense in time" the giantess whispered.
She handed the little elf some brightly coloured clothes, perfectly sized, and then picked it up and placed it softly on the ground.
"Now, off you go." she said. "There's work to be done and your brothers and sisters need your help"
His brothers and sisters welcomed him with open arms, celebrating their new sibling with just a much happiness and revelry as always.
He was assigned to one of the stations in the factory and learned quickly what to do. A nut here, a bolt there. A tightening with the screwdriver here, a quick tap with the hammer there. It was simple work and it brought him joy to do it, to watch the little mechanical creations take shape as they rolled along the conveyor belt.
His existence was straightforward. Uncomplicated. Comfortable.
Sometimes he watched the giant, tinkering and experimenting on the raised platform in the middle of the factory and wondered.
What unknowable plans existed in his head?
What wondrous creations lived there?
What motivated a god such as him?
The giantess came often, bringing platters of baked goods to her mate and they would laugh and dance and sing and the elves would join in, the noise of the factory temporarily abating to make way for the merriment.
Then, it was back to work, with a spring in everyone's step, their hearts full of joy.
Curiosity overtook the elf one day as he spotted a rarely open door. Frigid air streamed through the gaping portal, cutting through his colourful but thin clothes.
He climbed the oversized steps beyond, eventually exiting out into a balcony high above. From here he could see the forest to the west and the vast frosty plains that stretched out to the north.
The giant was standing on the balcony, lost in thought.
He was focused on a mountain far in the distance, black smoke billowing angrily from its peak.
He looked worried.
The elf left his master to his brooding and quietly crept back down the stairs, into the warmth and safety of the chambers beyond.
He had work to do after all, and the concerns of a such a being were well beyond anything he could help with.
The pack of elves tittered quietly to themselves as they shoved their brother forward. Toward the stable.
The elf glanced back nervously, fear building in his tiny heart.
He had tended the reindeer many times. They were gentle creatures, happy to be groomed and cleaned, fed and watered. It was one of his favourite duties.
But he had never gone to the lone stable at the end of the cavern.
No elf had.
He crept forward, furtively searching for something. He had lost his hammer and the other elves through that it might be in the general vicinity, but of course they had no idea how it had gotten here.
He had his suspicions.
Still, he needed that hammer to work. He had used it so much that it was almost a part of him, and he wouldn't let something as simple as fear stop him from getting it back.
Then, a glint in the gloom, just in front of the stable door.
Moving as slowly as he possibly could, he inched towards it, trying not to disturb the creature within. As he reached forward, fingertips brushing against the hard wooden haft, there was a thunderous boom and his heart almost exploded in his chest.
But it didn't come from the stable.
It came from the entrance to the cavern and as he peered down the tunnel, he saw a dark shadow as tall as his master striding through the dust and debris.
The elf crouched behind a bulging leather sack, shivering with terror.
Invaders raged through the warehouse.
Great black dogs stalked through the rows of crates, stopping only long enough to vomit fire onto anything made of wood. He could see some of his brothers and sisters trying to fight the flames, but the dogs showed them no mercy.
In the centre of the cavern, a huge figure clad in blackened armour circled his master. Its hair was fire, skin the colour of charcoal, and he wielded a two-handed hammer almost as large as himself.
The fiery giant bellowed as he struck again and again, thunderous hit after thunderous hit pounding into the shield his master was using to protect himself.
But the fight was not entirely one-sided.
His master struck back with his mace, crushing blows that cratered and shattered the soot-stained armour. He summoned glacial winds, whipping them around and sucking the heat from both the infernal creature and the fires his hellhounds were gleefully starting.
The enormous hammer came down again and his master brought the shield up to deflect it, hopeful for a decisive counterblow, but it was not to be.
The shield shattered under the impact and the blue-skinned giant, his kind and gentle master, the bringer of joy and happiness, was driven to his knees.
Another titanic blow from the side and the giants arm bent at an unnatural angle as he roared in pain, mace dropping from his now useless hand.
The invaders face twisted in glee, pure malice in his eyes.
He raised the hammer above his head one last time, and brought it down for the killing stroke. Unyielding metal met fragile bone with a sickening crunch and the invader roared triumphantly.
An even louder scream of anguish drowned him out though, as a flurry of ice and snow forced him and his hellhounds back. His goal accomplished, he let himself be pushed out of the cavern, calling the hounds behind him.
The giantess kneeled beside the shattered remnants of her husband, lifting his lifeless corpse to her chest and sobbed uncontrollably as the elf looked on from behind the sack.
Knowing that there was nothing he could have done.
The corpse of the giant lay on the great ritual stone in the centre of the room.
The elves had moved quickly, relocating the body under the direction of the giantess before the tears had even dried on her face. Now, they stood in a great circle around the stone, watching intently.
The giantess stood in front of a roaring fire, gently cradling a scarlet hat made of felt, trimmed with white fur.
She placed it onto the rune-inscribed stone reverently, and then stepped back and took a deep breath.
A wave of energy pulsed through the chamber as she gathered her power. Her arms moved in great sweeping arcs, hands forming into complicated arcane shapes as she wove the spell of indescribable intensity.
The pressure in the room reached its crescendo and there was a thunderous crack as the ritual stone broke under the force of the incantation.
The body was gone.
The hat was not.
The giantess staggered forward, her energy spent, and dropped to her knees in front of the shattered stone.
She reached forward and picked up the hat, then made to put it on her head.
Before she could, the elf dived forward and snatched it out of her hand. He had watched his master die in front of him and could not risk the same happening to his creator.
"Not you" he said quietly as he placed the hat on his own head.
He stiffened immediately and looked out into the room with new eyes, rime already forming across his skin.
A deep voice boomed impossibly from the frozen shell that was once the elf.
"Ho Ho Ho"
So Be Good For Goodness Sake
All of that is backstory for the Christmas one-shot that I ran with my primary D&D group a few years ago.
In the one-shot, the players were summoned by the giantess and essentially tasked with finding an appropriately durable host for the hat that housed the soul of the giant.
By the way, their names were Mareth and Sinter Klaus respectively.
I thought it would be a fun little distraction, a temporary interruption to the normal campaign with a Christmassy note to it. The players would come in, find a host, bring it back, get some special rewards and all would be well.
Of course, it didn't go at all how I thought it would, which is the magic of D&D.
In fact, it actually killed that campaign entirely, scattering the player characters to the winds when they failed to save Christmas in that universe.
You might think that's a bad outcome, but to me, that's the perfect example of emergent gameplay. Failure is fun, even though it might not feel like it at the time.
The hat and Sinter have returned a few times in subsequent Christmas one-shots and I regret nothing.