Final Showdown

Tonight’s adventure was all about the battle between the characters and the forces of evil (represented by Vlaxxinaar and Veznor). Lia’s mentioned before that sometimes I toot my own horn: so be warned, this may be one of those times! Nonetheless, I’m extremely proud at how this plot has evolved out of nothing—literally. It began as the D&D Basic Game: Wizards of the Coast’s poorly constructed one level dungeon with a black dragon in the last room (who has no reason to be there; check the Monster Manual for black dragon habitats). Oh, and a flimsy plot about a missing alchemist (who I’m sure the writer intended to be human).

Now the party is tracking down both of them: Vlaxxinaar, the juvenile black dragon with a plan bigger than that time Raistlin Majere wanted to become a god, and Veznor, an orc cleric of Grummsh (who in turn worships Vlaxxinaar as if he were a deity). Finally, their plans are beginning to take shape. Both waited patiently for the party to find their way outside Zytha Avriel—the endless dungeon—and open the Gate as was foretold they would. Once that occurred, one pissed-off orc and one dragon with a grudge attacked en masse. The battle lasted the entire game session (as was assumed; we worked hard to get all seven players to the table so that no one would miss the showdown).

In the end, Beau—Will’s dashing halfling paladin on his trusty riding dog—poised himself over Veznor, ready to deliver the killing blow: a critical hit that would have surely landed the orc cleric square in the negatives. Rather than allow the players the satisfaction of dealing the blow and seeing a long-time enemy killed, I use one of the new Action Dice rules I provided to the players last week:

7. Save an NPC from Death or Capture: At the moment of an NPC’s death or at any time during or after an NPC’s capture, the DM may spend 3 action dice to cause the NPC to cheat fate, escaping by a contrivance of the DM’s creation. For example, a distraction, an escape route, luck, a teleportation magic item, and so on. When an NPC is saved in this manner, XP is rewarded as if he were defeated.

When this seemingly innocuous rule was penned up, I knew it would be used for the big baddies—for the good of the story. I haven’t met a player yet that didn’t appreciate immersive storytelling. Sometimes the best scenes of a movie are when a villain you particularly enjoy seeing get the best of the heroes finds a way to escape. What Firefly fan wouldn’t want to see Jubal Early get another crack at the crew of Serenity? Unfortunately, I misjudged that situation; there were some frowns at the prospect of Veznor and Vlaxxinaar getting away. What went wrong?

A DM’s job is to run the game; when everyone gathers around the table to play, he’s in charge. That doesn’t mean he can tell people what to do outside the boundaries of the game, but it does mean that he’s the final arbiter of the rules within the game. Good players will always recognize that he has ultimate authority over the game mechanics, even superseding something in a published rulebook. Good DMs know not to change or overturn a published rule without a good, logical justification so that the players don’t rebel. Because of this, many DMs fudge dice rolls when things go south for the players, add phantom hit points to monsters in order to make battles tougher, or lower DCs for finding treasure and secret doors when the DM wants them to be found.

Deus ex machina is a tricky thing. Everyone gathers around the table to create a story together; the DM and the players have to work together for this to occur. Yet without knowing it, things happen behind that screen that makes the game better for all involved. The moment a player learns that you fudged a roll or allowed a monster to survive for the good of the story, the game seems less realistic, the story phony, and the level of fun drops.

I have a strict non-interference policy with die rolls and monster stats. I want it to be realistic for the players. I want them to feel the risk that their characters would feel in the heat of combat. I’m not a fan of “DM cheating.” Number 7 from the Action Dice document was an attempt to add structure to the ability of a DM to cheat. In the end, I agreed with the players: it did take away from the combat. What’s to stop me from never allowing them the satisfaction of killing the bad guy?

What they may not know is, a DM doesn’t need action dice to do that. A quick true resurrection spell cast by the gods makes short work of a dead bad guy. Nonetheless, if I were in the players’ shoes, I’d feel as they did. I’d feel robbed and cheated somehow—even if it made the story better. From now on, I’m going back to my non-interference policy and removing number 7 from the Action Dice document. If I want opponents to live longer, I’d better start playing them smarter!

Be sure and check out the pictures from our session.