Sometimes adventurers make mistakes, and sometimes these mistakes can get them killed. Should DMs pull their punches for the sake of the campaign, or stick to their guns and provide the players with natural consequences to their actions?
This is a matter of eternal debate among DMs across the world, and like so many other aspects of D&D the ideal answer is going to vary from table to table and possibly even night to night.
It’s also one that has varied considerably over the history of the D&D and roleplaying in general. In the early, wargames-inspired editions of the game the DM’s role was that of an adjudicator and referee, applying the rules of the module or scenario without favour.
More recently – especially in the wake of narrative-led actual play campaigns like Acquisitions Incorporated and Critical Role – more and more are seeing themselves as much more of a storyteller. If the rules dictate that things would go against what’s best for the narrative, then they can be safely ignored.
In all honesty, having the entire party incinerated by a Red Dragon is something all but the most psychotic DMs probably want to avoid. Nobody likes seeing the shared world you’ve built come crashing down so spectacularly, especially if the actual conclusion lacks any major drama beyond ‘rocks fall, everyone dies.’
However, this doesn’t mean that the party should be invulnerable superbeings, immune to any consequences of their actions and always assured of getting a fair fight.
Power Work: Disaster
Early on in a 5E campaign run by my good friend Tom (@MagicMo89 on Twitter), the party was in the midst of a daring heist on a magical armory when we made a rather major mistake. For reasons involving poor communication and a trigger-happy Rogue, we ended up setting off every alarm in the building and summoning a horde of angry guards.
Most prominent among the defenders was a Wizard responsible for warding the building. The DM had already dropped a couple of hints that he was exceptionally powerful and not someone we should tangle with, and the reason for this became clear when he dropped a Chain Lightning spell on us in the second round of combat.
The party was fifth or sixth level at the time and the spell absolutely destroyed us. Two adventurers – both of whom somehow made the save and hadn’t yet been damaged – managed to barely stay on our feet, but the rest were toasted. Our loyal Bard was killed outright and for a few desperate moments it looked like most of the others would go the same way.
We managed to escape the carnage without losing anyone else – it turns out that even high-level Wizards don’t fare too well if you force them into close combat – but it was a mess. Though the mission was technically a success our cover was thoroughly blown, we had to abandon some powerful magic items and one of the party was reduced to ash.
And it was one of the most memorable sessions we’ve ever had.
It would have been easy for the DM to scale the difficulty back to something more level-appropriate once things started going bad. He could have reduced the Wizard’s stats, had him ‘forget’ to use his more powerful abilities or fudged the damage on the deadly Chain Lightning.
However, the fact that he didn’t tip things too much in our favour – that he let the consequences of our mistake play out naturally – provided a few important lessons to the party.
The most important of these is that our mistakes could have real and devastating results. We weren’t always guaranteed a fair fight with perfectly balanced foes. We weren’t above the reach of our foes. We weren’t invulnerable just because we were tied up in the plot. And, most importantly, we weren’t the most powerful things out there.
Iron Fist, Velvet Glove
One important thing to note about the above shenanigans is that we did manage to escape it with most of the party still breathing. We had nine levels of hell beaten out of us, but at least lived to fight another day and continue the narrative.
While the DM made sure to play things tough, he also give us just enough room to avoid the dreaded TPK. He didn’t pull his punches, but he could have very easily made them a little harder if he wanted to. A second Wizard, another wave a guards or even just another high-level spell would all have been fair, given the consequences. And yet they would have almost certainly ground the party down to dust.
This is the balance that – at least in my opinion – DMs should be aiming for. Actions should have consequences, but those consequences don’t always have to be lethal.
If the adventurers ignore their allies’ advice to target the powerful crime lord from the shadows and get themselves caught in a broad daylight assault you can destroy their lair, torture their friends and drive them out of town.
If the Rogue tried to pickpocket the king while being presented with a medal, throw him in prison for the next few sessions and cut their support from the local guards.
And remember that even if you don’t want a TPK, you can easily kill off just a single, beloved character instead – my advice is to always go for the Cleric.