Tonight's session of my D&D campaign fills me with a heady mixture of anticipation and fear. Anticipation because tonight is the big payoff, the throwdown with the Big Bad. Our own little Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny, as it were. Will our heroes prove victorious, or will Oerth overflow with a diabolic horde summoned by the forces of the despicable Red Claw Cult? Truly, this has been one of the most epic plot arcs I've ever run, right up there with the Return of Doctor Wu in my old Bandit Kingdoms campaign. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!
But I'm also a tad bit scared, because the party's safety net is looking pretty threadbare. The previous two (three?) sessions were a nonstop orgy of violence, with no opportunities to rest and recover. The final dustup will be tough, even for a full-up party. All the players will need to have their A game on tonight or the whole thing could end up a Total Party Kill. As a DM, I try to remain calm and aloof. I don't go gunning for the PCs. The same can't be said about the evil bastards lurking on the other side of those massive enruned stone doors. They're not gonna let four or five rat-soup-eating, no-business motherfuckers ruin their evil master plan. Not without a helluva fight, at least. These guys will pull ever lowdown dirty trick in the book to keep the party from stopping them.
It ought to be glorious. But times like this really underline the inherent conflict in my approach to Dungeon Mastering. On the one hand I am totally rooting for the party. I want the good guys to win and the players to go home happy. On the other hand I can't reach a satisfactory payoff without doing my darnest to make life hell on the PCs. And there's no better way of making a win credible than by setting up tough opposition and letting the dice fall where they may. The problem with this approach is that sometimes the whole thing goes down the toliet. I don't allow do-overs. If the dice go sour or the PCs screw up, then they're dead. We may joke about it, but if they all die Thor isn't going to materialize and give the party some 1-ups to finish the job.
But even if every member of the party croaks, we will honor the dead as heroes. For ten levels they have fought tirelessly to stop the Red Claws. And I can think of no better way for a PC to check out than with his hands clutched around the throat of his greatest enemy.
...that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.