Thursday, June 4, 2015

LET YOUR VILLAINS DIE IN WINDOW SILLS

The title of this post refers to an event in one of my own campaigns where the key villain perished after feebly trying to flee out a window sill from the party. His death was anticlimactic and slightly embarrassing. Ten years or so before that campaign, this wouldn't have occurred because I would have fudged the dice to make him live a little longer, to make the fight a little more exciting and dramatic. But I got bored with that approach and decided to just let dice fall where they may. When it happened I was disappointed with the outcome and thought my players would agree. I was surprised by one of my player's reactions. 

He told me after the game how great it was that I let them get a victory they deserved and he appreciated me not doing anything behind the screen to enhance the NPC's performance. That the NPC died as he was running away and climbing out a window made it pretty obvious to the player that I wasn't controlling the pace in a deliberate way but allowing things to play out by the dice. The player mentioned it several times in the years that followed as an example of one of the aspects of my GMing he liked. 

I realized an important thing: isn't at all necessary for villains to make it to some kind of in-game third act and have the final fight play out like the end of a Rocky film. The villains are not there to serve the ego of the game master or to enable an adventure that plays like a movie script. You can't control pacing in a game with dice without either fudging or building a system rigged to produce those kinds of results. The one thing you can't control in an adventure game that uses dice to determine success and failure, is the outcome. Fighting that fact can make you miserable. If the dice say your most evil and glorious NPC dies clambering through a window, let him die. If they say he wins, let him win. 

This doesn't mean you can't try to make encounters with bad guys more exciting by introducing villains capable of posing serious challenge to the party. On the prep side, that is something I embrace. But once the game starts, even the toughest foe can get unlucky. A simple series of bad rolls and that big encounter you were planning could topple in the first few rounds. When this happens you should never fix it during play by fudging. That cheats the players of the victory they rightly deserve. If you do need to fix it (for example the villain perished early because you did a bad job of assigning her abilities or stats) then fix it on the preparation end, not the play end. 

This happened to me quite recently (HERE). In that instance the villain who had loomed over the campaign to this point died rather quickly when she ambushed the PCs with her minions. This outcome was entirely my own fault as a GM. At first, because we are actively play testing the system (and it isn't 100% complete), I thought the outcome was a product of the game itself. But when I examined the situation, it occurred to me I hadn't really compared the Qi level of the party with those they were fighting. For the encounter to be a serious challenge, the villain would have needed another minion or two of comparable strength to the party. They were so close in power level to the players that meant a swingy combat was likely. And the players had a pretty decent magic sword that gave them enough of an edge to put things on their side. 

Had I fudged in that moment though, I think it would have cheapened the outcome. As much as I would have loved to have that combat be longer and more thrilling, forcing it to be so would have weakened the campaign in the long run. Don't get me wrong, this was not the outcome I had hoped for. I wanted something much more climactic. But I am not writing a movie script. I am running a game and if I shift things during play to make them more climactic that cheapens the experience for me. 

And this has happened plenty of times to me in the past. Of course that is balanced out by many combats that are naturally more drawn out and evenly paced. What I've learned though is if you allow some villains to fall like the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Arc when the dice say that happens, the players tend to trust your judgment. It also makes combat genuinely exciting because this principle swings the other way and players know they are not protected from the dice either. 

2 comments:

  1. Agree, agree, 1,000 times agree.

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  2. "this principle swings the other way and players know they are not protected from the dice either." Well said! I play a lot of DCC, and this type of thing happens often. It's tempting to fudge in order to draw out the drama, but for every big bad boss that gets "one-shotted" by some super spell-burned luck-boosted sleep, command, or magic missile spell, there is that introductory "warm up" encounter that almost becomes (or results in) a TPK.

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