In Part I earlier in the week I discussed recent communications with other gamers on Twitter, which led me to question the role of a Dungeon Master. I wanted to use an encounter I created last year as an illustration of some of the issues at work regarding the DM’s role in a campaign. I also wanted to present reactions to the encounter from one of the PCs in my group.
In this set of encounters, the party was charged with protecting a shipment as it moved from one town to the other. If you would like to see the encounter, then please download the file above. To provide some background on the design of this encounter, I had previously implemented the Sly Flourish Song of Power suggestion in our campaign. The players made song selections, and the Cleric in our group chose an instrumental tune from the original Star Trek series. (Check it out - a menacing Cleric song choice, if you ask me!) I knew our Cleric was a Star Trek fan, and I wanted to play around with the Redshirt character as the party escorted the shipment between towns.
I only dropped one or two hints in my description of events, and mentioned – casually, I thought – that Jerrod, one of the NPCs traveling with the shipment, was wearing a red cloak. I cannot recall exactly who, but someone in the group joked (out of character) about the connection and said something like, “Oh, he’s going to die.” Everyone laughed, but our Cleric indicated to Jerrod (in character) that the party would protect the shipment and their lives.
Only problem for our Cleric - red-cloaked Jerrod was going to die. I had numerous ideas for how Jerrod would die, but regardless of the PCs’ interventions, he was not going to make it through the encounter. The party was going to be ambushed between the towns, and Jerrod would fall in combat at some point. As the encounter played out, our Cleric tried to stay close to Jerrod, but he got separated during a round in combat. Once poor Jerrod was left alone in one of the wagons, phase two of the bandits’ trap kicked in and a fiery cart trundled down the hill and slammed into the wagon with Jerrod inside. I thought it was a fairly epic death scene for him.
The players cleaned up the bandits and eventually won the day, saving a good majority of the shipment from the resulting fire. But the Cleric in our group was really dissatisfied and bummed out the rest of the night. He had wanted to protect Jerrod, and even though he was aware of the Redshirt foreshadowing, he wasn’t able to keep him alive. At the time, I was somewhat pleased that I created a scenario that resulted in some real emotion from the player/PC. However, I return to that encounter now to discuss the DM’s role in allowing PCs to dictate the campaign.
First, I planned for a few things that evening. I knew the party was going to be offered to transport a shipment. I assumed they would take the opportunity because the shipment was going back to their “hometown.” I planned for the wagons to be ambushed; there wasn’t a thing the party could have done to prevent the ambush from happening. And last, Jerrod “Redshirt” was going to perish in some spectacular fashion.
Based on my conversations earlier in the week, I’m wondering if any or all of this planning was “wrong.” Should I have railroaded the PCs into these outcomes even if they were aware that an ambush was coming and one NPC was quite likely to die? I checked in recently with our Cleric to see if he recalled the encounter. It was something we talked about in the weeks that followed, but it has not been mentioned for a while. He wrote the following to me:
Yes, I remember.
First I seem to remember making a joke about the “red shirt.” (the movie Galaxy Quest) Also, we all seemed to recognize the ambush, both as players and characters, but that seemed to be the fight for the evening (as players) and no way around. Fight here and now, or later and make you redo the scene, but that’s not a problem.
As the party cleric I see it as my responsibility to make sure that all the PCs survive the encounter and secondarily that allied NPCs survive as well. I was annoyed with myself that I let Jerrod get killed, perhaps if I should have insisted he stay closer to the main group. And I was frustrated that such a large initial attack was beyond my character’s abilities to overcome to do that. I think Sampson bought it too, though I don’t remember without digging through notes.) But its all in good fun.
A few things stand out to me from the feedback from the player. First, he was quite aware that he was being railroaded into the ambush or “the fight of the evening,” and that he did not see any other way to accomplish the goal of getting the shipment from one town to the other. Second, he spoke about his identity as the party’s Cleric, and how frustrating the loss of the NPC, Jerrod, was for him. He added that regardless of these issues, the game was still enjoyable.
Looking back, would I do things the same way? Yes and no.
I think it was a good thing that the situation with Jerrod created a connection between the player and his PC. He was emotionally invested in the outcome, and it led to some quality roleplaying during that and future evenings. It has also provided me with a variety of plot ideas for future quests and missions for the character. For example, what is another NPC (maybe even wearing a red cloak) joins the party on a mission. Would the Cleric work even harder to ensure the NPC survives and be invested in the story? The NPC, Jerrod, had a destiny, and the party could not have affected that outcome. I believe it’s within the DM’s rights and responsibilities to make such a call and implement that path. And I think it is acceptable to script that the PCs will fail in some fashion during the campaign.
However, I would now allow for more flexibility in terms of how the party escorts the shipment. Perhaps they could search for a back road or scout ahead to get a jump on the bandits. Perhaps they plan for a decoy wagon to lure the bandits into their own ambush. During that evening, I did not give the players much chance to improvise; once they took the mission and set out, they were led directly to the ambush site through some story elements.
The encounter took place sometime last year, and I now have more confidence in playing things a bit more loosely each session. I would likely leave more options for the players to approach the task of moving from one town to the other instead of placing them on the “main road” between the towns. I had the ambush encounter lined up and ready to go for that evening, and I wanted to use that encounter because I did not yet have other story elements prepared for when they reached their hometown once again. Now, I believe I could improvise without the same level of anxiety.
And I return now to the role and definition of the DM – is this an example of poor DMing? Would you use this as an example of how NOT to run your campaign?
Perhaps some of you feel that way. There is a balance to be found between pre-planned encounters and improvisation by the players and DM. I enjoyed the Redshirt NPC in my campaign, and he served exactly the purpose I wanted him to serve in the world. The outcome did not make the Cleric in our group happy, but he still enjoyed the gaming experience. I would perhaps approach and design the ambush in a different way to make it more dynamic and flexible, but Jerrod still dies.
Oh yes, he still dies big time!