by Christopher Robin Negelein
GMing advice goes in and out of fashion. One of the longest bits still in vogue is to roll only when it is suitably dramatic or there is a legitimate risk. Crossing a quiet street doesn't warrant a spin of the icosahedron, but trying to cross a highway full of speeding cars? Get ready to roll.
Some games now let you judge the amount of legitimate danger to the amount of dice you roll, calling them mini-battles or training montages giving a GM a tool when they feel the urge to address something but not spend two hours of combat to deal with it. Taking out a room of mooks who don't pose a real threat, but could whittle the heroes down a little bit. And of course we've all seen the where a new GM goes backwards, asking for a skill check or roll, hoping it is a substitute for drama and then comes up with bizarre repercussions.
But the trucker for new GMs is not so much when to start, but maybe when to stop.
Perhaps the PCs are grappling with a creature, like literal grappling/wrestling with the monster, or the party is shuffling down a very narrow path on a cliff, or just simply no one can make a damn perception check to see the bright red clue just under that overstuffed couch. (I mean, really guys, it. was. right. there!- Sorry.)
These are times when a GM can easily make the call to do the first dice roll, and if they fail (or succeed) make another roll for the "next section" of narrow path or the final escape of the monster's clutches. But what if the PC fail or mostly fail again and again and again. Or worse yet, the system is predicated on partial successes like Power by the Apocalypse and situation becomes the sort of yo-yo between almost wrapping up the threat and almost falling right back into the vat of acid.
Plan B: Moving on, really.
I'll just get the disclaimers out of the way, I'm not advocating to NOT roll the dice in the first place or never give a complete fail state to the game, but there are more than binary sort alternatives. Slight spoiler, if you read my Edge of Mists adventure, there's a death defying fight where a player can fall off an airship ... to entangle in the cargo netting on the side.
They are penalized a turn, essentially time, as they climb back up but they aren't dead for falling completely out of the ship and they aren't forced to make more Dex saves to get back into the ship -- because that would be boring and annoying. And having two "-ings" like that in your night's entertainment is not good.
So if you can, have a plan B as a safety net, not so much for the PCs hit points, but to avoid the cycle of multiple rolls without a definitive outcome. Some may erroneously say that combat fits into this category, but thanks to mechanics like hit points player can see their repeated efforts are inching them closer a resolution. In fact, I think that's why damaging conditions are a less popular option. Three or Four damaging conditions don't create as much of a perception of progress as does taking 15 points of damage from a 100 hit point creature. Mind you I didn't say damaging conditions were ineffective, just that some players can't see that effectiveness as much as others.
So if, as a GM, you have the thought, "When is this going to end?!" your players are probably thinking the same thing. If you are stuck for an idea, chose or roll below.
Plan B ideas:
- d6 Result
- 1 A shorter fall than expected, (damage instead of death)
- 2 Reduced difficulty skill checks as the finish line comes into sight
- 3 The task takes more time than expected
- 4 The opposition gets an warning or heads up
- 5 Bad guy reinforcements show up at the location
- 6 Resources are lost to give an helping hand
Also there's no dishonor in simply saying out loud, "The dice have failed us. I vote that we put them in dice time out to teach them a lesson. Amy, your character takes 1d4 lower back pain damage as you move the couch to get that sidah#$%@~ clue!"
Just my 2 cents, take them or leave them as you wish!
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