Dungeon Master Definition (Part II): Ambushes & Destiny

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.

Download Merchant Ambush in PDF (1MB)

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!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

14 thoughts on “Dungeon Master Definition (Part II): Ambushes & Destiny”

  1. Everything Burns! I remember that cookout,,,errrr I mean ambush… Fire resistance FTW! I recall Jerrod, ah yes, good example of what not to do in combat dear kiddies!

  2. I agree with the final thought.

    As a DM, one needs to remember not to restrict the PCs. If they want to be able to keep the ambush from happening, then let them.

    However, a Red-Shirt character HAS to die. It’s in the rules (honest!). Perhaps after stopping the ambush, the caravan makes it to the next town only to have that town become under siege on their arrival, with Red-Shirt as the first victim.

  3. I would regard railroading the NPC death as described to be moderately poor DMing. I don’t see the benefit to the game of forcing such outcomes. If I want an NPC to die I will do it “off stage”. In the presence of the PCs there is No Fate But What They Make.

  4. Brannon, I think you described the balance I was talking about. An ambush is supposed to be a surprise, and the party was not surprised in the least by the attack.

    S’mon, thank you for the feedback. My only counter is that I had very specific reasons for creating the Redshirt NPC and killing him off. It was not on a whim, and it is not a device I would employ very often (if ever again with my group). I think I’d be more in the wrong – if there is such a thing while DMing – if I created this encounter just for my own entertainment without considering the affect on the party. I figured I would get an emotional reaction from some PCs in the group, and that did happen. But the Sarah Connor “No Fate But What We Make” line is something to always keep in mind.

    Morgoth, I believe you were prone in a cart and standing just long enough to fire a spell each round. 😉

  5. I won’t go so far as to say it’s poor DMing, but i wouldn’t force the death of Jerrod Redshirt unless it was vital to the story at hand. Jerrod Redshirt should die – Edith Keeler MUST die!

    It seems to me you set up a great opportunity for rich DMing. You set up the mission and the (somewhat inexperienced) NPCs that were to come along. One of your players, the cleric, felt a connection to Jerrod and promised to protect him. Now, rather than a straight-forward slug-fest with bandits, you have an added layer – the opportunity to make the cleric keep good on his promise.

    Whenever possible, i would have put Jerrod in danger, forcing the cleric to bail him out. If the cleric fails to help in time, Jerrod might die. Then i’d up the ante (if the opportunity presented itself) and force the cleric to choose between helping Jerrod or helping one of the his long-term companions. Jerrod’s death might wind up the direct result of the cleric player’s choice.

    In the end, i think it’s better to force a situation that involves a player choice than to simply force an outcome.

    1. Extending the relationship with Jerrod could have been an interesting choice. Forcing the Cleric to choose between helping an NPC and helping his companions seems to be a way to take things forward.

      At a previous point in the campaign, the Cleric stepped in to allow a combatant NPC to escape instead of sending her to jail or outright killing her. That relationship developed over numerous sessions, and that character MAY be returning in the future. I did not plan for her demise one way or the other, and let the actions of the party drive the narrative. (I know my players read this, so I have to keep some things a surprise)

  6. First, apologies for posting on topics that are over a year old, but, well, I’ve just discovered the site, so I have catching up to do…that and DM stories on how to handle tha’game are timeless.

    I think whether or not the killing Jarrod was a bad-DM-no-cookie moment depends on the outcome of the game session. Beyond the cliche (but true) ‘if everyone had fun, then it was a success’ foundation, if the players notice that their characters have absolutely no chance of succeeding ‘simply’ because the DM has deemed it fate (regardless of what the reason is for invoking fate) then that’s bad. 4th wall broken and all that. But if the players don’t notice, if they accept it in-character as well as out then that’s a success.

    The corresponding player said, “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.” So his first sentence seems to imply that he was unaware of ‘fate’ being involved. But the second sentence seems to imply that the root of the issue was he was aware of the unalterable fate of poor Jarrod.

    To do it the same way again, I would make sure I outright lied to the players saying something like; “the bandit’s fiery trap comes rolling towards Jarrod’s wagon. It makes an attack against Jarrod and…oh, Player 2, you’re in the way there…against Reflix…[roll behind screen but deciding the attack with hit Jarrod at his Reflex +1] ohh, hit Jarrod with an 15. Player 2, what’s your Reflex?” Of course you may have done this, or something similar.

    Personally, I prefer a bit more chaos to my ‘fate.’ In the case of Jarrod, if I had several plot points all designed to come into play on the outset of his death (which is sounds like you did), then I would have stacked the deck against Jarrod, but left the possibility that the PCs change fate. The reason to keep the possibility open is because often the PCs will be able to tell the difference between fate not being on their side vs. sealed fates. And it’s all about the PCs having choices (whether real or imagined).

    As for the railroading the shipment delivery…I don’t think there’s really an issue here (though only based on the info in this article, of course). If the shipment needs to be in Poormina on day X or within Y days, then odds are taking the wagons off road will slow them down more than speed them up. But even then, if the players want their characters to convince Oloven that the best way to go is to take the wagons on a different route (or they have horses that can carry the whole shipment and ditch the wagons)…let them and then slow them down with rain, wandering monsters, strange signs, seductive gypsies…so that the bandits can have time to realize the shipment isn’t coming, follow the trail, catch up, and deal Jarrod his proper fate…if the PCs don’t get lucky that is. 🙂

    1. No need to apologize! It’s always fun to get a comment on an “old” article.

      I do not believe I have run scenarios where a specific NPC’s fate was sealed in the same way. If my last article on curses demonstrated anything, then it’s my willingness to go with player responses and allow them to shape the story. I think there is a proper give and take there, and I continue to strive for it. For example, altering the story to each player’s suggestion or theory about why things are happening in the world can be a dangerous thing. I think the narrative will break down after a time.

      It’s a fun challenge to create possible plotlines and then adjust as the players “stomp” through the world. 🙂

  7. 🙂 I run into the opposite quite a bit. I set up some elaborate plot for the adventure, half way through the players start discussing in character what is going on and they get on the right track, but then they point out a glaring plot hole something like, “It couldn’t have been the beggar that burgled the store…it had been raining all night, the alley he lives in is nothing but mud and there was no mud in the shop (it having been closed for the past few days).” At which point I either have to backtrack and say “no, there was some mud,” or find some item, action, reason why the beggar didn’t leave tracks other than “I forgot about the rain,” heh.

    I like the idea of PCs’ fading strength in control over the shared-story/world which is strongest at the character itself and fades quickly from there. It’s like the altar in the previous article. The player(s) investigate it because they think it’s important and therefore it is. Are any NPCs watching them investigate it, what would that indicate to the NPCs/bad guys? But even then just the word ‘altar’, what it is signifying points to something that’s important to the culture that created it; a central religious object used for prayers and sacrifices. Was it consecrated to a god, is it still considered consecrated, is there lingering physical evidence as to what exactly it was used for, etc. Even if the current owners/residents of the structure that houses the altar just walk by it every day as they go on to their own business…the altar says something about those who were there before them, which gives depth to the world and plants seeds for other adventures down the line…all without having to alter the altar to the players’ preconceptions.

    But I think occasionally altering things here and there to fit the players’ assumptions helps the players feel validated and grounded in the world…a kind of socialization xp reward 🙂

  8. I know this is a very old post but I just found your site and I feel this article is very compelling. Did you ever consider brining Jerrod back as a villan who blames the PC Cleric for not protecting him?

    1. I had not thought of that angle as the adventure continued to move along and they ended up in other locations. However, that would have been really fun! Thanks for the suggestion.

Leave a Reply to Steven Edgar Quillen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s