Monday, April 1, 2013

A Dungeon Master's Guilt.

Since our last gaming session on Saturday (Swords & Wizardry), I have been haunted by a feeling of guilt at the way I handled the evening's penultimate encounter.

The party of (6) 1st level adventurers had pushed far into the Barrowmaze. They had lost one member already, the thief, in a zombie infested pit trap. They (conveniently) found another a few rooms later, hiding in a corner alcove, the last survivor of a group of tomb robbers.

They were farther in than they probably should have been, and had battled 8 groups of undead, mongrels, and centipedes, with almost no loot found. They kept saying "1 more room, just 1 more".

Finally, they ran into a pair of ghouls. The ghouls scythed through them, paralyzing 4, and killing the thief outright (again). The ghouls were almost dead, but it was 2 ghouls against a druid armed with a spear.

At this point, a TPK seemed inevitable. You could read it on everyone's faces, including mine. I roll combat dice in public, and the ghouls where just wearing them out with good rolls.

I started scrambling, torn between letting the scenario play itself out, or trying to find a way to allow a believable heroic moment to happen. Since switching from Pathfinder to Swords & Wizardry I have been boasting about how difficult it is, how the referee is neutral, and how the players have to play smart or die.

But here we all were, two sessions into a new campaign, and the come-to-Jesus moment had arrived.

I suggested to the Druid (a new player - female- never played D&D before and only 20 years old) that if she ran she could probably escape, as the ravenous ghouls were likely to stay with their kills and start feasting. With 5 on the ground, they would not chase one druid.

Run she did, and the ghouls started eating the dead thief, (conveniently) saving the paralyzed 4 members of the party for later. This gave the Druid a choice...come back and be a hero (and probably die)...or get the hell out. She came back with her spear, and engaged one. I let her fight them one at a time as the one not engaged was assumed to be gorging on the dead thief. She killed the first one with a single hit (no fudge) and then engaged the second. This one she slew as well, straight up, and was able to resuscitate and save the other four members.

The players expressed a shocked and tired relief. Everyone seemed to sense that the DM had let them out of that one (or at least, I imagined they felt that way). If I were truly playing the ghouls as a neutral, they would have killed them all I think.

The old school DM in me feels guilt at "massaging" the end of the encounter to allow for their heroics. I'm afraid it might compromise the integrity of the game I am trying to run. I guess I will know based on the next few sessions. Maybe I tell them not to expect such things in the future....or maybe I just keep my mouth shut and get over it already. We all had a great time.


  1. I don't think that was a bad fudge. Yeah, you went a bit in the direction of the players by letting the other ghouls be preoccupied, but then, the trolls in "the Hobbit" argued about what to do with dwarves too, rather than just killing them out of hand.

    There'll be other fights :)

  2. I struggle with this as well. I spent years being trained to fudge dice rolls and to protect the PCs at all costs. I recently started to roll dice in "public". I found that combat, once boring as sin, suddenly became terrifying. I still felt a strong pull to cheat again, to hand wave, to do anything but let the game play out. I'm not always successful at this. But when I am, the experiences are fantastic for both me and the players. No one has every walked out of a game upset to the point of never playing again. If anything, they thirst for a another chance to "beat the house."

  3. i mean, being old school does not equates with being sadistic.

  4. Welcome to "Dice Fudgers Anonymous". Our membership consists of almost all GMs out there. :)

    I have som much trouble with this, especially with wandering monster checks and other single die rolls that have a massive impact on the flow of the game. But I'm trying...

    A tip; talk about it with your players. Don't let it be the elephant in the room. Tell them exactly what you've written above and try to get their input and a sense of how they felt. No one is expecting you to be infallible.

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  6. The fact that it was ghouls particularly made your idea work. They're hungry, and they've got five tasty bodies all lined up already, why put themselves at risk chasing down one skinny druid who probably tastes like soil and leaf matter? :-)

  7. Thanks for all the comments guys. I feel better about it already!

  8. There is no place for heroics in Barrowmaze lol

    I kill pc groups like that regularly.

    If they SAW ghouls and didn't run they have nobody to blame but themselves lol.