If you’ve ever watched the TV show Daredevil, you know the basic plot. But on of the hero’s traits that stands out to me the most is his ability to stand back up after he falls down (or in the show’s case, gets knocked, stomped, punched, pushed, thrown, shot, or tripped). More than his super-senses, ninja/parkour kung-funess, or Catholic guilt, his ability to keep going is what drives the show and makes you cheer.
(I love Daredevil, and I highly recommend it, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about).
One of the biggest struggles of RPGs (and in particular being a game master) is the challenge. How far do players want to be pushed? How far can you push them? When do they break? Where does it stop being fun, and start being frustrating? Getting knocked down, and standing back up to kick the villain in the teeth is a hell of a lot of fun, and an exceptionally rewarding experience for both the players, and the GM.
But it’s a hard experience to deliver. It’s easy to misstep.
In the last 2 weeks, I’ve TPK’d (total party killed) both my weekly RPG groups. The most essential item to understand, is the value I place on motivated, exciting, cinematic, and narrative games. Stats, HP, positioning and what weapon you use, are less important to me than fun, drama, and elation. I haven’t had an accidental TPK in almost a decade.
The first TPK, was due to the players’ decisions, and that’s life. Sometimes players won’t listen when the GM warns them they can’t win, and this is a fight that ends badly. Sometimes they vent themselves into space, despite numerous hints that this is a bad idea.
Sometimes the GM screws it up. That was my second TPK. I lead the players through an encounter that was designed to be world building, and inspire questions (with the advent of some setting breaking rules, unique enemies, and their first foray into ancient magicks best left forgotten). I casually put stats to the encounter with unique enemies.
Due to a spat of both exceptionally lucky dice (mine), and exceptionally unlucky dice (the players), suddenly the encounter went sideways. At first it was a lark and a table joke, but after about five minutes, the dire straits the party had entered into was clear. Clearly, I was not at my best with the session, or I’d have not made an error like I did. It’s a mistake that feels like it violates the trust placed in the gamemaster.
It’s a hard thing to assign blame on. The dice were unlucky for the players, and lucky for me, but I didn’t roll them behind the screen I normally use, because I had built a 3D battlefield, so the players could envision the story better. I’m not normally a minis or terrain GM, but I have been trying to stretch myself, so I made the effort. It seems to have cost me.
I didn’t step in when things went south. Since my rolls were public, as were the players, I had painted myself into a corner with the dice, and suddenly I didn’t have an out.
One feels like Fortunato in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” as the dice and your mistakes play the role of Montresor and seem to box you in.
To my players credit, they were excellent sports, and laughed and no one was mad. But, I haven’t accidentally killed a character unless it was narrative driven and appropriate.
It’s an odd feeling.
One I’m not sure I’m at ease with.
Where did I misstep? Did I misstep?
Where should I have stopped pushing and let them stand up?
Now, the questions of where we go from here remain, lingering with the group long after the food is eaten, the crumbs are cleaned, the dice and character sheets stored.
Things to muse on, and take into account as I attempt to improve as a game master and designer. In the end, I realize that mistakes happen, it’s just a game, and no one is mad, hurt or upset (not even me), and all is well.
But it’s an interesting study of what goes wrong, and how one can avoid, build around, or mitigate such occurrences.
Do I stand back up? Do I push the campaign forward, or do I throw in my proverbial towel, and say consequences are such, the story is done, and it’d break the verisimilitude of the story and campaign to force it? There’s a lot of places to go from here, and I don’t think a single one is wrong. Just have to find the right one for the group affected, and work to rebuild that trust and continue on.
After all, if it’s not fun, what’s the point of playing imagination?