Dragons: A Soar Spot." Paul is a sharp observer whose opinion I respect, so I'd like to repeat his comments and my replies here, then enlarge on them just a bit.
Paul: "I think if I found myself DMing a situation like this and the PCs were clueless what to do, that I’d say “Look, two people are down and dying. Going by the book, the dragon can simply chase you down if you run. So, you can either die and roll up new characters, or you lose and you accept the results I impose on you.” Then I’d give them a few options, such as equipment ruined, nearby town laid waste, lost in a forest/cavern the dragon can’t enter, and/or now in service to the dragon."
Me: "The time to have a conversation with players about their options is before the fight begins, not when they’re running around on fire. ... Players push ahead with foolish ideas because they interpret a DM’s silence to be a sign that everything is going according to script. They assume that the DM won’t let them do anything lethally foolish. If they’re lining up to do something that looks lethally foolish and the DM isn’t stopping them, then it must be OK. They could even be excused for thinking this way if it’s always been true in the past."
Paul: I can’t agree. The DM (if not the rules of the game) has to allow for situations in which the PCs find themselves in over their heads either though bad choices (sometimes uncharitably called “stupidity”) or through bad dice rolls (which, if the PCs didn’t plan for them, is just another form of bad choice). One way, of course, is just to have the TPK and make new characters who somehow now know to make different choices. Another way is to allow the PCs to choose death or concessions. That the DM will be offering that choice can be mentioned up front, but the choice itself can’t be offered until it comes up."
Me: "A TPK should be the DM’s last resort. I’m not one who goes around yelling 'lop off their heads' if the players make a mistake. There are all sorts of creative alternatives to TPKs, most of which are better in terms of dramatic effect and player satisfaction than a party wipe.*
"Where we might differ is in how severe the consequences of foolishness ought to be. I'm willing to be pretty harsh. As a DM, I'm flexible enough to make a 180-degree turn in the story if the characters' actions merit that type of setback. Even if the PCs don't die, I have no problem saying 'you messed up; the princess is dead, the villain got away, the dragon burned the village to the ground, and if the king, the villain, or the villagers ever get their hands on you, you'll curse your mother for giving you life. She may be disowning you as we speak'.
"My experience is that a lot of DMs won't go that far because they've put a lot of work into building an adventure and they don't want to see it 'wrecked' by PC failure. I see every possible outcome as legitimate. The DM needs to be creative when the party gets into trouble--probably more so than at any other time--but he also needs to retain his impartiality, possibly more so than at any other time."
I bolded that bit about legitimacy because to me, it's the crux of the matter. Fantasy heroes do things that are inherently risky. The risk of failure--not necessarily death--is the source of in-game tension. The chips need to fall where they may, in both triumph and defeat. Both outcomes are valid. The players, not the GM, should determine which is achieved.
The GM should not interpret the failure of the heroes to achieve their goal as a failure on his part to create a "good" adventure. He certainly should analyze what he did and how he did it, just as he should after every adventure, and learn from it. But PCs can fail for a thousand reasons, only a few of which are the GM's fault. In fact, failure is a better springboard for further adventure than success is. The GM should grab that opportunity and run with, not try to mitigate it.
* Future note: I wrote a long blog about TPK alternatives that will appear in the summer print edition of KQ.
"A TPK should be the DM’s last resort."ReplyDelete
A TPK has nothing whatsoever to do with the DM.
It has to do with player choices. The DM doesn't 'do' a TPK to the players. Their bad choices result in that as a consequence.
Actually, upon a re-read, I think you two might be agreeing with each other.
That probably was poor word choice on my part. What I should have stated was, a TPK is not the only, and often not the best, way to crush characters that get themselves into serious trouble. A TPK simply draws a curtain on everything and shuts it all down. It can be better to keep the action going with the characters alive but in an even deeper hole than before. I'm not a fan of shielding players from their own choices (though I do think it's wise to warn them when they seem to be walking into doom with their eyes clamped shut, as noted above). I am a fan of keeping things going, especially when that means doubling down on the characters' troubles.Delete
No, the DM has full control over what the PCs choices result in. If he or she doesn't want the PCs' failure to result in death then, assuming the players don't want that either, there are other things that can occur, depending on how prepared the DM is. This DOESN'T mean letting them off the hook; consequences can and should be imposed, but those consequences never have to be lethal.Delete
I'm not sure a TPK has to draws a curtain on everything and shut it all down. I think that depends on the place the PCs occupy in the game. For example, in the classic dungeon crawl, you could just assemble another group of PCs in the tavern, and off you go. It's more like two expeditions are being played during one session rather than only one. In a higher level game, more political perhaps, you could drop new PCs right into the wreckage of old party. Maybe they are even associated with the previous enemies!Delete
Really, I think there is a division here between games that are about what is going on in the setting and games that are about the actions of a particular group of PCs. In the first, a TPK is no big deal. In the second, it is more consequential.
You're exactly right. If everyone at the table is on board with character death and characters are cheerfully replaced then no problem. Across decades of play and a wide range of players, I have not found that character death tends to be disruptive, boring, and give rise to negative emotions around the table, except on the rare occassions that the death is exciting and glorious. I've fielded lots of questions from DMs who don't want to kill their PCs but want to make them FEEL like they could be killed, and without fudging dice there's just no way to do that. I will not fudge the dice, but I also don't want to kill the PCs of players who don't want them to die, so the only option, as I see it, is to take death off the table and replace it with non-lethal consequences. These have the added benefit of generally requiring more creativity from me, of being more interesting than death, and of allowing the PCs to rectify their mistakes.Delete
The dungeon master has total control over the environment and the monsters, over the power of the monsters, their tactics and attitude. Not a few dungeon masters punish players because their world views do not agree. Dungeon masters will change how stealth works suddenly so that a player is caught easily; they will make monsters faster so that the players cannot escape; higher level to prevent the players from messing up the dungeon master's pet towns, non-player characters or railroads. There are countless other examples of the evils of an adversarial dungeon master.Delete
Why do bad things happen to stupid players?ReplyDelete
I actually haven't come across that many stupid players. Mainly because I run a fairly hard game and they brighten up or they die. And if they do brighten up I give them a piece of chocolate. Well, not exactly, but I give them a modicum of praise and help to make their victory come alive with a bit of flavor text, a handful of gold and a bit or bob of magic. I want my players to earn their victories and I try to help them appreciate the magnitude (at times) of the opponents who were arrayed against them. Helping the players out seems to veer into the realm of story-telling and I have always followed Gygax's advice in that regard.
"In my adventures there are deadly opponents and traps. If the characters fail to do the correct thing they die--sort of like what happens when actually risking one's life...
"The adventure is the thing, not "a story." If you want stories, go read a book, If you want derring-do, play a real RPG and then tell the story of the adventure you barely survived afterwards..."
It's not "helping them out." They can still fail, and fail badly. They can even die, if /they/ want, but otherwise they're just put in an arbitrarily bad spot.Delete
Arbitrary depends on how you are DMing an adventure. A good DM is never arbitrary but if players want to try something stupid (and that means taking in information provided by the DM, such as Dragon in the cave, and still going ahead and attacking a Dragon when they can't possibly succeed) then they only have themselves to blame. Stepping in, either with a sudden in game warning or out of game talking to about the possibilities of failure, is simply a great way to break the mood of the game and turn the role of DM to story teller. Perhaps another example, the PC's scout out a bandit camp. They spy two dozen bandits. They can't possibly take on that many bandits but decide to anyway. The best way as DM to help these players is to let them face the consequences for their own stupidity. It isn't arbitrary, deciding to help them out is arbitrary. I don't script things for players. I don't provide safe areas so that they can't get hurt. I try and provide an intresting and exciting and consistent campaign that is filled with danger and adversity. Players die, even smart ones. Stupid players die much quicker and much more often.Delete
"Arbitrarily" here means "unrestrained" as in "how bad a spot they're in is not limited in how horrible it can be." Since, by the rules, their characters would simply have died, if I offer them consequences instead I can make the deal as bad (and interesting) as I want.Delete
You're still assuming that "they can't succeed" means "they die," and that offering them consequences instead of killing them is "helping them out." It doesn't and it's not. They're not going to be better off, except that they're alive to try to rectify their mistakes and recover from the consequences. And, they can always choose to just die, if they want.
Players fail, even smart ones. My players have achieved only partial victories in our last several sessions. But not one of them has died.
Well they won't have died, will they, as every time the game says that they should die, you give them some alternatives which are less severe instead. They'll have cottoned on pretty quick to the low risk style of game you run and have adjusted their play style accordingly: they'll continue to do daft things but at higher and higher levels. There's nothing wrong with this because that is the type of game that you wish to run.Delete
Myself, I like to open up escape avenues for players when things go badly wrong, but if they die in those avenues then so be it. For example, they could die from a poisoned wound while squeezing through a crack in the rocks, or being too slow to get away from the bandits down the side street, or perhaps choosing to disappear into the sewers too late in the day to truly escape. It's dramatic and it's memorable...
In my campaigns, the players are big movers of the plot, but they are not /protected/ by it.
I agree that every possible outcome is legitimate.
Death, however, is different.
It doesn't NEED to be, what with resurrection magic, journeys to the underworld, or simply making a new character, but it often is. It only "works," that I've seen, when everyone is in on it, and I've never found it to be helpful to out-of-game relationships to couple "dead" with "stupid," as some do. So, for me, death is off the table, unless the player makes that choice. Sometimes I will present the choice as "you can die and maybe still succeed, or you can live and definitely fail." If the failure's not meaningful to them, fine, they live and I get to try again. If it is, they get a glorious death.
There's something massive that you are missing here. The first time that somebody dies to a pit trap, they remember forever to be very wary of traps. The first time that someone is torn to pieces by a wolf pack, every time the party heres wolves howling at night, they remember to set a watch. The first time that a thief robs a merchant and is caught by the town guard and run through... you start to get the picture. The players begin to knuckle down and take things seriously when their characters can die. They start to plan, put together strategies and work together against opponents that they believe are powerful and - heaven forbid - actually learn that combat may not be the default solution to every problem.Delete
I'm not missing that, I'm just pointing out that they can learn the same thing even if the failure they experience is non-lethal. On top of that, the /characters/ get to learn the lesson, not just the players. Finally, when failure is interesting the game tends to be more enjoyable and less of a slog. Death /can/ be interesting, it just tends not to be.Delete
You are still missing it. Non lethal outcomes significantly reduce the danger in any situation. Less danger = less risk = more risk taking. This is intuitively obvious and it does play out this way at the table, too. Put yourself in the position of a would be hero for a moment. If the poison bite of the spider can kill you, instantly, this is a huge risk compared to if the spider can merely tie you up and you'll be rescued by somebody else in 1d4 days time. One is a lethal outcome and the other is not. This completely changes the approach to an encounter with a giant spider in a player's mind and in a character's (if he had one). It doesn't take long for a player to realise he might as well go and attack the spider, because, what the hell, he's not really in danger by doing so.Delete
There's a very, very big difference between the death of a low-level character and a high-level character. You can't talk about character death as a single concept. It's like losing $10 in an internet scam, or losing $10,000 in an internet scam. One you shrug off as a learning experience; the other tears up your life and makes you want to kill someone. They're superficially similar but not at all the same.ReplyDelete