This particular combat was not going well for the Party. Through a combination of bad rolls and some questionable tactical decisions, the Trolls were going to eat these adventurers for lunch right in front of the fortress that they had spent such a long time trying to get to. It was going to be a total party kill (TPK) that was going to send the players back to the character creation board. And I didn’t go through with it.
I held off, made them give me all their bonus tokens (we call them “Benny’s”) and bribe me with a poem and some art and then weakened the encounter enough that they could muddle though. The next day after the session I looked at the encounter just to make sure that I hadn’t made it too hard for them and everything seemed to be in order. I also looked at the players actions and saw that they had made some glaring errors in not focusing the trolls down one at a time but instead spreading out the damage. Heck, I could even see an argument that if they still had all those bonus tokens, they were not using it to give them the edge they needed in combat!
The DM who is writing this article would say that if everything were as it should be, the party should have been killed. He would also probably say that if there is no chance of losing, no chance of player death, then all your really doing is playing to a power fantasy. He might also point out that I have long railed against the idea of power fantasies and that by my actions I am a hypocrite. DM me is awfully judgmental.
So, with that being said, let me present my defense for why I let this poor group of adventurers live. And it has nothing to do with the bribes that were offered (although the poem was very nice).
The Players Themselves (Context)
This group is not a veteran batch of players, knowledgeable of rules and strategy. For the most part this is their first time playing an ongoing DnD campaign over a fairly long period of time. And because of that they do forget abilities and different things they can do from time to time. I think that if I were to expect them to play at a super high knowledge level it might make the game less fun and more frustrating as they worry about what they are missing and if they haven’t got this or that ability and how it interacts with other abilities. They are delightful people who have been interested more in “what’s cool” as opposed to “what’s optimized for my build” and I think that cuts them a break. I will also say that afterwards like a good teacher I went through what they did wrong and then warned them that the next time we were in a space like that it would mean the party would die. It was a teachable moment!
Ok, I admit it. Part of the reason I was willing to give them a pass was because of the work that I had done beforehand planning the next section of their adventure. I hate to say it, but really that death would have meant me saying goodbye to several hours of material and writing and thinking about the world. Seemed like a waste to just let it go and while I KNOW that DM me is saying “Just keep the material and re-use it with another group” (he really is a bit preachy). But I built it for THIS group and wanted to see how the characters they were playing now interacted with it, not some shiny new characters with different backgrounds and personalities.
Now this will probably get me in trouble, but it just didn’t seem fun to kill the party at that particular moment. If I killed the party I would have been faced (metaphorically, we’re online) with a bunch of sad pandas who were watching their first characters die an ignoble death. There should be tension and drama and some fights should feel like your back’s up against the wall and you might not pull through, but this just didn’t feel like one of them. I made the call.
Now. I will say that there wasn’t just a free pass. Besides the various creative things promised to me I only weakened the fight, the two characters who were down still had to make their death saves. And they still would have died if they had failed them. Lucky for them they managed to stabilize. So there was tension and a quote of “this wasn’t the fun evening I thought I was going to have with my friends”.
So, there you have it, my defense for my decision. You may not agree with it and I wouldn’t blame you, but I feel like I made the right call in the moment. Whether or not the players will become reckless and brazen in their confidence that I’ll pull my punches is yet to be seen. And if they do that look for an article entitled “Don’t give an inch they will take a mile”.
As always look for the Mimics.
Written by DMO