When the Dice Turn Against You

The Scenario

In my last session of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG I ran, what I thought was going to be a fun encounter almost turned into a TPK. With that said, it was still a fun encounter, just much more deadly than I had thought it would be.

I am running the group through Sepulcher of the Mountain God from Purple Duck Games. It is a fun little module and I worked it into the Sunken City campaign by staging a little “favor” the two wizards owed their patron. The patron did not really give them much of a choice about it.

We started last night’s session off with the group plunging deeper into a set of caverns. One character got caught up in a nasty trap, but the group recovered and continued on. While investigating a precipice they were ambushed by several creatures. The creatures had surprise and then won initiative. That right there should have been a sign that things were about to head south quickly.

In addition to the creatures winning init and effectively getting two attacks in a row, my dice rolls were on fire. I don’t think I ever rolled much below a 17 and when I did it was a 14 or so against a low AC wizard. Before the party ever really had a chance to act, three of the characters were bleeding out on the ground. None of the enemy combatants were down.

When the PCs did get their chance to act, they couldn’t roll above a 5 or 6 it seemed. Certainly not high enough to actually hit one of the creatures. The next round was another round of my rolls being high and theirs being low, though not quite as bad, they still couldn’t take any of the creatures out.

The group started getting desperate and several heroic attempts were made through lots of Luck being spent and wizards spellburning their lives away. I was nearly ready to have the creatures do something unusual flee into a pit, as if they were just passing “through” the party, but my players are hardcore and wanted the dice to fall where they may.

So we did. The wizard managed to get a nice Invoke Patron off which helped get another combatant on the field and draw some of the attacks. Then he enlarged it the next round which also helped. The others took advantage of the newfound cover and the party did turn the tide.

In Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG there is a “recover the body” rule that allows a body to be “rolled over” up to an hour after they fell. The character makes a luck check and if successful it turns out they were only knocked out. They awake with one hit point and lose a point from a physical ability score determined at random.

Each of the three characters made their Luck check, so in the end it worked out okay. The party was pretty beat up and did end up spending a good amount of time resting to recover some health, spellburn damage, and spells.

The Thoughts

I am not a judge or GM that is necessarily afraid of killing characters. I am probably softer than I was in my initial comeback to gaming, but I certainly like for their to be risk for characters and for them to feel like they earned something. As it turns out my players for this particular campaign are pretty content to let the dice fall where they may – even if it means a TPK at the hands of an encounter that really was not intended to be a pinnacle encounter of the adventure.

During the game I think this is what made me hesitant as it looked like this encounter was going to be a TPK. It wasn’t that the characters had made bad decisions that led to this. It was that bad luck moment where their dice went cold and mine went hot.

The combination of those two things can be a deadly turn of events for characters and campaigns. It was that combination that made me feel a little guilty for how things looked to be headed. Who wants to see their characters die at the hands of a few 2HD chumps?

As it turns out, the remaining characters were able to regroup and pull things back out of the fire. They saw my hesitation as judge, but acknowledged to let the dice fall as they may.  I did that. The creatures kept up with their attack and by the end the heroes were once again victorious. And I think by the end they felt like they had really earned that victory.

From here on out I know with this particular group that they want no holds barred. I think that is great and I am happy to run that game for them. I am not sure all groups would have been okay with how things were headed and might have wanted some GM fiat to bail them out. Not my DCC RPG group, which is probably why we are playing DCC RPG.

What would you have done?

So what would you have done? Killing a party is well and good, but when that bad luck combo of the player’s dice going cold while the judge’s dice go hot? Does that make you think of altering the creatures’ actions a bit or would you have stuck with it?

How about as a player in that situation? Would you have preferred the judge intervene a little bit or would you have wanted to roll with it like the group I run for on my Tuesday night game?

10 thoughts on “When the Dice Turn Against You

  1. I think you did the right thing by taking the temperature at the table. If one of the players is really invested in their PC and will be devastated if they die, some fiat could come in to play. But since this group has a true DCCRPG attitude, it makes victory all the sweeter! (Or serves as a cautionary tale if things don’t recover)

  2. Playing on the virtual table top, where it’s not easy to hide die rolls, can make this a tricky spot for GMs to be in. In some games/campaigns, it makes more sense for the GM to adjust encounters to keep that right level of suspense / excitement. I think DCC should pull no punches. In this case the players managed to pull victory by tapping _all_ their resources and playing very strategically.

  3. TPKs can be particularly rough when a group is really invested in a campaign. It’s hard to recapture the momentum with a whole new set of characters. My Kingmaker game never recovered after a near TPK from a random encounter, the circumstances of which were almost exactly the same as described in the blog. Only one character survived. I’d like to think I’d continue to let the dice fall where they will, but I’m not quite as confident now that I actually would.

    • Heh, yeah! I remember the first campaign I ran coming back to gaming. Very, very lethal. And the silliness was when we realized none of the characters in the existing party had actually been present when the task at hand was decided!

      I think that is a risk of some of the AP’s and there is more pressure to *not* have a TPK. Because a group sat down to play a whole arc which implies some continuity. Character death is fine by me during the course of a game. But recovering from a TPK can certainly hurt a long running arc.

      In the DCC RPG game it isn’t like I have a huge arc planned out. I sort of go where the characters take me, adding some events along the way. So if everyone had TPK’ed we could have easily decided to either all start back over or come up with some other arrangement without destroying a campaign arc that was supposed to take 9 months to a year to complete.

  4. GMs don’t TPK players. Dice TPK players.

    I’m a firm believer in letting the dice fall as they may. Even as a player, I feel the same way. I’m attached to my characters, sure, but if I find myself in a situation where it all goes pear-shaped, and I’ve failed to think of a Plan B (and Plan C), then that’s on me as well. In many ways, this is sort of a learning experience. Nothing like a TPK to focus the mind during the next session.

    • Very true! I do think character death needs to be a risk. To me it helps keep the game fun. If I know the GM is going to pull punches all the time, then I start to feel like their is no risk at all. I’d rather go into encounters not knowing for sure whether my character will make it. Or to have that risk to encourage smart play.

  5. During a failed rescue mission, my players had managed to spring the orc’s prisoner, who was an incapacitated high level fighter. When it became absolutely clear that they weren’t going to be able to fight their way out, I let the prisoner ‘come to’, borrowing some weapons and help them carve their way out of the dungeon.

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