Triumph and Calamity. Those are the inspirations for days 24 and 25 of #RPGaDay2019, following Surprise yesterday. And I’m going to take advantage of being a little bit behind to consider them together.
After all, they are flip sides of the same coin. They are both significant events in the story of the campaign. Without the potential for one, you can’t have the other. And they both have an emotional impact on the players.
If there’s no chance of things going horribly wrong, then a triumph isn’t really a major win, more business as usual. And if you don’t have a goal to triumph at, there’s no failure bad enough to be called a calamity.
Of course there are differences, and the amount of emotional impact isn’t always symmetric. Take a TPK (total party kill), for example. Clearly a calamity, huge emotional impact. What’s the goal you’ve failed at? Well, “don’t die”, I suppose. But staying alive is something you hope to do every session, so it’s not as much of a triumph as a TPK is calamity. Although if it was an encounter which could cause a TPK, I suppose “survive this encounter” might feel like a triumph.
There are degrees of both triumph and calamity. The campaign-ending version is (hopefully) rare, although there should probably be multiple possibilities of campaign-ending failure during a campaign, but clearly only one campaign-ending triumph. Ideally the campaign-ending type of calamity should only be able to happen with both stupid play and back luck combined (unless you and your players like the adversarial DMing style…), whereas the campaign-ending triumph should be achievable with decent play regardless of the luck (even if it requires working around bad luck).
On the other hand, you probably want some level of regular run-of-the-mill triumph every session to give the players some buzz. This could be winning a fight, making off with the magic foonargle, getting information out of a stubborn barkeep, or even buying a horse (I did have one session which ended up completely devoted to buying horses and negotiating the price down – the players’ idea, not mine!). The flip side of this may be just a minor inconvenience / disappointment rather than worthy of the term “Calamity”.
Hitting something worthy of the term calamity and handling it in a way that doesn’t cheapen the calamity but makes sure it is an upset or setback rather than the end of the campaign is definitely a triumph for the DM… Failure should definitely have a cost, and the larger the failure the larger the cost, otherwise there’s no triumph in success, but if the cost is the end of everything, that will leave everyone feeling distinctly flat and can ruin a gaming group. Unless it can be a dramatic, heroic failure which would have succeeded if a dice roll had gone a different way, going down in a blaze of glory – that can be the stuff that stories are made of.
So, coming back to that TPK, how could you stop it being campaign-ending?
- one suggestion which I have seen in several places is to have the party taken prisoner / hostage instead. The foes / a passing enemy come across them as they’re bleeding to death, stabilise them, lock them up and try to use them as collateral / food / try to convert them to the cause. They lose various precious items / weapons / dignity, and they have to break out / talk their way out / …
- I have used a reality shift when I realised once it started that the encounter was much harder than I thought, totally out of whack with the characters’ abilities, and that the foes were faster than the characters so they couldn’t even run away. As two of the six characters got taken out in the first round, one of them while trying to run away and so heavily they were 1hp off being killed outright, I frantically started leafing through the Monster Manual looking for something similar but not quite so powerful. Not something to use too often, though, otherwise the players may get blasé and just rely on the DM to save them. I only used it because I was running a BECMI module where the encounter would have been a challenge but survivable, but the corresponding 5e monsters were tougher and faster and I hadn’t properly done the sums, so I reckoned it wasn’t fair to make the players pay for my mistake.
- of course, just because the party is dead doesn’t need to mean the campaign is over. The players have lost what those characters managed to build up, but maybe a new group is pulled together by a sponsor who heard about the failure and had some skin in the game. They can start by finding the remains of the old group and what happened to them, then tracking down where things have been taken, or maybe the sponsor has somehow managed to get the crucial information via another route to pass on to the new party. That turns disaster into a set-back – the characters will certainly have to do some working around / retrieving what was lost, but they have the chance to redeem the overall campaign.
Another suggestion I have seen from several sources to allow for multiple successes and failures is to have some sort of “success meter”. Successes move the party towards their goal, making it easier/more achievable, failures put roadblocks in the way making it harder. For example, they are trying to find information from a village, where the various things they need to find are spread across multiple people. Initially the villagers are neutral to the characters, and their actions can make the villagers more or less sympathetic. Of course, if it’s a realistic village there may be more than one faction, so gaining the trust of one might lose the trust of another, changing the strategy the characters need to adopt to either work with the faction they have gained the trust of or win back the faction they need which they have managed to put off.
I understand 4e had the idea of multiple skill rolls for challenges: if you get 3 successes first you succeed, if you get 3 failures you can’t succeed (for example). I have to admit I haven’t tried this, but it doesn’t feel right to me. Any particular challenge should be at most one skill roll. As The Angry GM says, if it’s reasonable and there’s no time pressure, there’s no real reason to make a roll – the characters would just keep trying until they succeed. If they’re being chased, and it’s the difference between safety and danger, that’s the only time when multiple skills rolls might be appropriate; each failure increases the risk, and the characters need to decide how long they keep trying this approach while the footsteps get louder and louder before just giving up and scarpering…
Ideally the campaign should be a series of successes, partial successes and set-backs. What the characters do next depends on how well this one went (and the last and the one before and …), and any time it didn’t go well the characters have to do extra work to retrieve the situation. And probably succeeded despite the setbacks will feel like a greater Triumph than straightforward success would.
Tomorrow we have “Idea”.