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Helping The PCs Prosper

   
Helping The PCs Prosper

This is a DM Guide article I posted on my website, and believe it is perhaps my most controversial. I think it could spark some great debate. So here we go:


As a Dungeon Master, you have the power to influence your game in a way that a computer never could. You can tip things in favor of the PCs when they're in a tight spot. You can fudge dice rolls. You could make the monsters make tactless decisions in combat. You can let NPCs offer a cheap or free resurrection.

Why would you want to do such things?

Because the type of Dungeon Master who would kill off a character without regard for how much time and effort was invested in that character, without consideration for the character's value in the ongoing story, without concern for the character's overall impact on the game, is the type of Dungeon Master I would never want to play with. Would you?

If Player A is using a pre-generated character, pays no attention to the plot, cares nothing for roleplaying, and invested zero time in fleshing out his character's personality or appearance, should his character be given equal weight to that of Player B, who spent four hours writing up a character background, actively roleplays his character, is engaged in the storyline, moves the plot along, and converses with NPCs using appropriate medieval language?

I fervently believe he should not.

Before killing off a PC, consider what that character contributes to the game, to the story.

Ask yourself these sorts of questions:

* Do the other players like this character? Do I like this character? Is this character annoying? Is this character detestable? Would everyone be happier if this character was killed off? Would the players cheer upon this character's death?

* Does this character add anything special? What makes this character different from any other level 4 fighter with a bastard sword? Is this character a cliché? In five years, will I remember this character's personality? Can I give an accurate description of this character without using mechanics terms such as Fighter?

* Is this character tied into the plot? Will the story require any rewriting if this character is killed off? Does the character have any unique ties to NPCs?

Work with your players -- your goal should be to be able to respond positively to these questions. Try to tie their characters into the gameworld and the plot, and for those players that go the extra mile, subtly reward them by not leaving their character's ultimate fate to bad luck.


Do I speak heresy? Discuss.

I don't like killing off any player characters, as a DM. However, it happens, sometimes in amusing ways which we all remember forever. But it's so that I don't plan ahead to kill this character and not kill this character. If the dice say my monster just took off his head, so say the dice and the character dies, whether I want it or not, whether it's fleshed out or not.
Whether to kill of a PC or not is not a choice you make, it's an event that usually happens outside of your control. Unless someone did something you really didn't like, I suppose, but that has never happened so far.

I fall somewhere in the middle here.

It's the first round of combat. My guy rolls highest on initiative, charges with his scythe, and rolls a 20. And then confirms. More than the target's max HP+10 right there. That sucks. In that case, I'm liable to fudge the rolls to knock the character down to negatives, but not an outright kill.

That said, the players still need to feel -threatened- and too much fudging would remove that. Access to cheap or free resurrection is just as bad. Furthermore, it can break verisimilitude, especially if it occurs more than once. And furthermore, if the player does something stupid and potentially fatal, one should let the events unfold regardless of how much time the player spent on their character or how important they are to the plot. Actions should have consequences, and if they don't, you'll get PCs acting stupid all the time.

Having circumstances conspire to bring a character back to life without significant loss from the rest of the party can happen, but it has to make sense internally. Maybe that character has connections to nobles who owe them a favor. Perhaps upon resurrection, they are promptly Geased into a service.

There's a balance to be had here. It will vary from group to group. Feeling out where that balance lies is part of the DM's job. Declaring it to always lie in one place does a disservice to the DM and his/her players.

Agreed with pretty much everything you said there, Proven Paradox. The sense of danger should always remain; if the players believe there will be a safety net to catch them when they fall, then they won't take death seriously. "Fudging" should be invisible to players, and any in-game techniques such as a cheap/free resurrection should have in-game explanations, such as a cleric who owed the party a favor or who will perform the ritual in exchange for them undertaking a quest.

If the player is "at fault" -- doing something stupid, fighting to the death instead of accepting to surrender, fighting the ancient dragon despite the warnings they received that it would be suicidal -- then I don't believe leniency is in order.

I believe that a death should be a learning experience for the players. Next time, they'll pay attention to warnings. Next time, they'll twice before trying something stupid. Next time, they'll be more likely to consider surrender or fleeing.

What I realize was not clear in my article was that I was referring mostly to deaths in which the players are not "at fault." There's nothing to learn from the death, because the death wasn't a direct result of something the player chose to do. At the end, I alluded to this by saying "leaving their character's ultimate fate to bad luck."

The main motivation behind writing the article is as follows... Years ago, I had just created a new PC for a campaign, and after a dozen or so posts of fun roleplaying, he entered his first combat encounter. He was killed before his initiative ever came up. A random encounter ambushed the party, attacked my character in the surprise round, and killed him in the first round before my character ever got to act. The DM said he rolled a critical hit, and he felt bad, but he chose to never fudge dice rolls. I don't hate him for it -- we were still chums after that -- but I still think that it was pretty ridiculous.

For me, a character death is a message. Maybe the message is, "don't mess with things that are obviously much higher level than you." Maybe the message is, "next time, escape with your lives while you still have a chance." These types of messages help add a sense of danger to your world.

If the message is, "any of your characters can die at any given time, and there's nothing you can do about it," as was the case with my unfortunate PC, then I think that's a terrible message to send. It's not adding a sense of danger, but a sense of paranoia. Which, I suppose, works fine if you're running that Paranoia RPG dealie

Ah, well I'd be in the heresy camp, for the most part at least. You see I like the random element in my gaming, I think it adds danger and makes progressing with a character a more rewarding achievement. And in my experience when I am allowed to live, I know it, and it does detract from the game, and yes a great many DMs do it, and for me at least it always does lessen the experience.

Now sure the dieing in a random encounter thing before getting to strut your characters stuff is infuriating, but personally I want that sense of life and death in every combat. Although I would say that as a rule most creatures with high damage rates and high crit modifiers tend not to get surprise rounds, unless the party screws up. It also sounds like your DM does not show rolls, I do, so I am definitely locked into my rolls for good or for bad. Though I will admit I would have been sorely tempted to write in a cleric with close wounds in that situation if I could get away with it without straining credulity too much.

And I dislike the argument that a PC should be at fault in some manner in order to die, I love save or dies for example they should be few and far between, but when they do come up it's both terrifying and exhilarating to watch the fate of your beloved character hang upon a single die roll. And while I would like to think that a single crit would not outright kill a PC - with the possible exception of d4 hd characters - from most encounters in a BBEG encounter with a melee type I have no problem doing so.

My favorite character of all time was for the record killed by a deer while out hunting 4th level bard, I am still bitter that the DM used buffalo stats, but he did die. The worst thing was that the only reason the character went hunting was because the DM had found a new hunting events table and I said I would try it out since the other characters in the party had survival skills too high to fail. He offered to take it back, but I refused because I would have always known and it would have tainted an otherwise wonderful character. It may seem silly, but if I knew a crit should have killed my character it would stay with me and spoil the character.

Now I do tend to encourage the employment of certain items and spells that make deaths less likely, Amulets of Tears, the Close Wounds Spell, Revivify, etc. And if character appropriate I would certainly consider some form of resurrection if it made sense and the player was prepared to pay a price for it.

That's a very insightful perspective, Baldursgoat. I had forgotten about the "hardcore" folk like yourself. I call them "hardcore" because I make the analogy to the "hardcore" mode of Diablo II -- it was a game mode for players that really enjoyed the thrill of knowing there's no safety blanket to catch you if you fall, so to speak.

I wonder; do you consider yourself to be a minority? Because if, as you said, most DMs do fudge rolls to let characters live, then that means they are catering to those individuals unlike yourself.

I'm wondering if it would be most fair for the DM to be upfront at the start of a campaign and ask his players their thoughts on the matter. He could then let the dice determine everything for the "hardcore" players, and interfere, if necessary, for others.

Also, Baldursgoat, how do you then feel about occasional "easier" resurrections? The thrill of facing death is still present, and you still have to worry about your comrades retrieving your corpse and your gear (and avoiding a Total Party Kill). But if you do die, you then find yourselves indebted to a cleric who offered his services for free, provided your party then undertakes a quest for him.

Hmmm, not sure, I think DMs fudging versus not fudging is about 50/50 in my experience, and I count a few here who did not admit to it. But I've also known DMs who will adjust a foes power down in combat, or make deliberately foolish moves. Now I will occasionally have an enemy make a tactically unwise decision, but it would have to be justified in some way, generally by the NPCs personality, but I mean DMs doing things that don't seem to make sense tactically or for the character. Overall I am probably in the minority, but it's a sliding scale and as such is difficult to quantify.

As for DMs giving a heads up before hand I think it is a good idea, I generally try to make it known that I do not pull punches often run tough encounters and that as such a degree of optimization is suggested. If a DM flat out said he would fudge dice rolls I would certainly count it against the game, though it would not be a deal breaker.

I'm not keen on the idea of easy resurrections, they border on being too easy for me already. I don't mind the characters being indebted to some organization for reviving a PC, but I will make them pay for it if I use this method, in one of my campaigns this proved integral to the story and worked very well. I especially enjoyed the point where the others PCs tried to give the character back, rather than sacrifice their magic items to give Obad-hai, the god in question, the power to fend off the evil demi-god who has been siphoning off his power. Of course there items were restored to them two encounters later, but evil git that I am I made it abundantly clear that they would not be.

I also love reincarnate, it's very interesting and has great RP potential, I remember fondly the goliath barbarian who got reincarnated into a Troglodyte, a wonderful side quest into the Underdark later we discovered that the great Sorcerer Shazdramus is nothing but a fraud, and thus cannot polymorph any object our pal back, but we find that the, uh ,what were they called again they're in a monster manual, batmen basically - I want to say Deru? - have a perfume which can permanently remove vile odors replacing them with a pleasant clean scent.

The problematic area I suppose is the relatively low levels where resurrections are out of reach, I probably would not consider having a character of 4th level or lower revived, and i always want to make resurrections of anykind a very big deal.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Baldursgoat
Hmmm, not sure, I think DMs fudging versus not fudging is about 50/50 in my experience, and I count a few here who did not admit to it. But I've also known DMs who will adjust a foes power down in combat, or make deliberately foolish moves. Now I will occasionally have an enemy make a tactically unwise decision, but it would have to be justified in some way, generally by the NPCs personality, but I mean DMs doing things that don't seem to make sense tactically or for the character. Overall I am probably in the minority, but it's a sliding scale and as such is difficult to quantify.
My preferred method of "interference" is not fudging dice rolls, but in making the enemy avoid performing an action that would outright kill a character. Could be a tactically unwise decision -- I try to play enemies to their intelligence scores. Or maybe that enemy will avoid dealing the killing blow in order to cast a buffing/healing spell or activate some other ability, giving allies a chance to heal the character.

When I would fudge dice, 90% of my fudging was in 3rd edition, when characters were bleeding to death. The 10% chance to stabilize each round was something I would roll, and not my players, and let's just say that it ended up being closer to 20-50% chance of stabilization, depending on how far along into the negatives they were. The other type of fudging I would do is, if a character was so low on hitpoints than an attack would outright kill them, I would "lower" the dice roll until the damage brought them to -8 or -9, allowing allies a round to make a heal check to stabilize. Or, I would make the attack outright miss, if I feared a TPK was near.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Baldursgoat
As for DMs giving a heads up before hand I think it is a good idea, I generally try to make it known that I do not pull punches often run tough encounters and that as such a degree of optimization is suggested. If a DM flat out said he would fudge dice rolls I would certainly count it against the game, though it would not be a deal breaker.
One other thing that I'd like to note is that although I did tend to fudge, 95% of it went unnoticed to my players. Overall, I kept my players pretty terrified of death by giving them the impression that I was ruthless, even though in reality, I'm a big softy. For this reason, I don't think DMs should tell players ahead of time that they will fudge (unless the players directly ask), but they should tell the players if they absolutely won't fudge. Recently, I started up a campaign in which I make all my dice rolls public -- so the players know I can't fudge the dice.

In the rare instance when I've been asked, in private, "so, when my character was about to die there... You cheated to make him live, right?" I just lie. "You're lucky that I have terrible luck with dice, otherwise you'd be rolling up a new character right now." Not only am I denying that I fudged, but I'm implying that I actually wanted the character to die. I can't say I feel good about lying, but the warm fuzzy feeling of, "oh the DM saved my character, how nice," turns into a chilling realization of what could have easily happened.

I'd sometimes also make a big show of pretending to be astonished/disappointed by how unlucky my rolls were by sighing, rolling my eyes, shaking my head, or muttering a comment, and sometimes going so far as to actually "plant" a low dice roll behind my screen, then pull up my screen to reveal the "bad roll" to my players as though to say, "you don't believe that I rolled a 1? Well here it is." If you have two d20s, then the players won't know which you rolled, and by pointing at the "1", they won't even consider the fact that you may have rolled the other -- magicians call it misdirection In pbp, I once took a screenshot of a particularly terrible roll as "proof," but it was either a quick Photoshop or a screenshot of a different roll, can't remember.

During the 5% of the time that my "fudging" (be it with dice, un-tactical decisions, or cheap res) could not go unnoticed, the players thought of it more as, "wow, I can't believe he's giving us a chance. We gotta be super-careful from now on, because he won't cut us slack again..." Sometimes I'll say as much: "I'm letting you off with a cheap resurrection this time, since you can't afford it, but next time, you'll have to sell your magic weapons if you have to in order to come up with the cash. I recommend you start setting aside cash for a party Resurrection Fund."

Quote:
Originally Posted by Baldursgoat
I'm not keen on the idea of easy resurrections, they border on being too easy for me already. (...) The problematic area I suppose is the relatively low levels where resurrections are out of reach, I probably would not consider having a character of 4th level or lower revived, and i always want to make resurrections of anykind a very big deal.
Also, just a clarification that I mean "killing off a character," and not just "killing a character." So this applies mainly to the lower levels, when resurrection is rarely an option and players are likely to roll up a new character instead. If resurrection is easy and affordable, then the odds of me "cheating" diminish tremendously.

I do like the reincarnation idea, and wish I would have had players more receptive to the idea, heh.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Baldursgoat View Post
Ah, well I'd be in the heresy camp, for the most part at least.
Nice to know that Goat, I won't feel bad now when your character dies horribly on a single dice throw.

I'm definitly in the same camp though. I only get a kick out of overcomming an encounter/challange if there is a real risk of failing. I also prefer death to have real consequences - no cheap or easy ress's here. I make all combat rolls public so there is no chance to fudge things if the PCs do anything crazy (or just get a run of bad luck).

I think the real trick is to get your encounters right, which of course, can be a bit of a black art.

On the subject of easy resurrections, this was the basis of an entire campaign setting I played in once. Any sentient creature that died came back at sunrise the next day, all their memories, minus a small chunk of XP. The only way to die was of old age, or to totally destroy the body by infusing it with a certain kind of magical energy.

While this worked in our favour, it also made it impossible to kill anything, as it'd come back if we waited too long. Still, it led to some hilarious instances, such as when our party's bard composed and sang, ICly, a ballad called "The Man I Killed Thrice."




 

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