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.