When we finished the last session of my regular Thursday 5e game, the party was stranded in a mountain range. One of their number dead at the hands of a giant.
That character was the one leading them on the trail of an unknown entity. They were also the only one with the means to teleport the party out of the mountains should things get bad.
So now, the remaining three members are trapped in unfamiliar surroundings, most of their equipment stripped from them and without any real understanding of where they are or where they’re going.
If I had imposed this challenge on them, it would have been tedious and irritating, but they’re here as a direct result of their choices. And that makes it fun and exciting.
So what were those choices? Understanding that points to how we as GMs can better enable players to influence the story and generate excitement at the table.
The sequence starts two sessions before, with two of the party members under arrest in the town’s guard house for the party’s crimes (causing an incursion of creatures from the abyssal plane, resulting in widespread mayhem and destruction). Their bags, weapons and tools were stripped from them and they were being grilled by the guard commander.
The rogue took an opportunity to sprint to the window, hands bound, and dive through it. He fell from the first floor and landed on the ground. The peace domain Cleric used the ability Emboldening Bond beforehand so that when the rogue landed on the ground and took damage, the Cleric landed next to him.
They chose to forsake their gear and instead run away and assess opportunities to get it back later. Then followed an escape through the streets where the party reconvened, arbitrated by a skill challenge. They found their way to a building which had a tunnel leading out of the town beneath it and used this to put the heat behind them. The tunnel led to a beach cave filled with what looked like the trappings of a smuggling operation and a set of footprints leading Eastwards along the shore.
At this point the party had myriad options. They could have returned to safety using Teleportation Circle and picked up any number of plot threads previously sewn for them.
They chose to follow the footprints to the mountain range at the other end of the beach. They then chose to extend their travel past the requisite eight hours and entered the mountains under a forced march. This day of travel resulted in levels of exhaustion for everyone, three for the Cleric.
The same happened the following day and when the party bedded down in the mountains for a second time, the Cleric was back to three levels of exhaustion, the Sorcerer and Rogue to one. The random encounter dice came up with a pair of giants during the second watch of the night. These hulking creatures came barreling down the side of a nearly mountain, embroiled in a deadly fight. The Sorcerer who was on watch chose to run down to the creatures without first waking her companions in order to cast her new spell Dominate Monster.
She arrived on the scene to witness one giant kill the other and immediately failed in the casting of the spell.
The alive and very angry giant turned on her and within moments had reduced her to a single hit point. Having cast fly on herself, the Sorcerer fled but was hit mid-air by an opportunity attack.
She crashed to earth unconscious and failed a death save from the falling damage.
The rest of the party were awake at this point from the commotion and charged down the mountainside to enter the fray with the giant. The Cleric began making his way towards the Sorcerer to heal her and found his limbs wouldn’t move the way he intended – his three levels of exhaustion had halved his movement speed.
The result: The Sorcerer failed two further death saving throws on consecutive turns and burst into flames as the wild magic left her body (a pretty apt roll on the wild magic table). The party slew the giant and lamented the loss of their friend and guide and that they had left the diamonds required to revive her in the guard house in town.
The obvious choice to point to here as the cause of the events was the one of the Sorcerer to go after the giant alone. But I think every one of the choices described above came together to create a unique set of circumstances.
The big one for me is the choice to continue travelling at a forced march. It was the Cleric’s exhaustion which changed the situation from what the Sorcerer was used to. This choice took away the Sorcerer’s perceived safety net. Normally, as long as the Cleric was up, the group were invincible. The Sorcerer’s player was in a very reckless mood this session, mirroring the character’s demeanour – they always want to go after trouble and test boundaries of their abilities and prowess. They didn’t expect it would result in their character’s death, because they’re normally buffered from this by the rest of the party. But given their intent, and the events which had gone before, the death felt apt, right, true to character.
We’ve been playing this campaign for two years and so I have a good idea of the players’ mood and how it affects the game – this is crucial. I think there are multiple points which could be pointed to as being a bit harsh in my rulings, but given the players’ knowledge and understanding, I stand by my response to how they acted. By allowing the players’ choices to have consequences, we entered a situation which I as a GM could never get away with putting my players into without serious complaint.
The first major benefit to the campaign from this set back is that the reality of the world has been given new depth. It increased their immersion in our shared reality, and I think their excitement has everything to do with this. There was no tedium, no annoyance at me as the GM for having caused this misery, because it was all part of a living, breathing world. They brought this on themselves. They poked our fantasy world and it bit back.
The second benefit is it gives the players pause to consider that there are problems that they will face which can’t be solved by their character’s abilities. They need to be savvy in the way they approach the game, work together and learn from experience if they’re going to succeed. I think that allows us all to get the most out of the game. Simply rolling dice to see if you win or lose is terribly boring. But having to think outside the box and describe your character’s actions – their thought process – makes the whole thing come alive.
Lastly, I’ve gained a new perspective on the place that random encounters have in game play. I’ve always shied away from them as they seem pointless, detracting from the story – but this experience shows me that the opposite can be true. They can add to the story. I think there’s a separate rant about that for another time.
The key take away from this session for me is to give nuanced and simple consequences to the players choices. Some times these will be positive and work in the party’s long term favour. And like in the example here, some times they will compound into a death spiral. It’s important to know when to dial up the danger in response to the players, and when to ensure that the complications are minimal. So for me, this spells the end of any mollycoddling. I’m wont to hand wave a lot of stuff like this and err of the side of the players, but I’m going to be very careful to do so in future and instead err on the side of realism. The party loved this session, even felt like they deserved the outcome and that it just creates an interesting challenge to start from next time.
Actions have consequences.
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