When I wrote Dragonbowl, on top of writing the storyline, I found myself including little bits of advice that DMs might profit from in their bid to extract maximum drama from the adventure.
Perhaps the most interesting was a box out about plot armour. And the reason it’s interesting (for me at least) is because this particular issue speaks to a bigger tension in RPGs: the tension between playing a game and telling a story.
A game that you are guaranteed to win is no fun, while a story that ends half way through (because the players fail or die) is entirely disappointing. How we as DMs deal with that tension is quite a fascinating subject, and one that I’m probably not wholly ready to take on yet… so for now, let me copy and paste the aforementioned box out. Because it contains a few handy ideas you can repurpose to put the wind up your players and ensure they don’t expect to coast through your next combat encounters.
Stripping Players of Plot Armour
There’s often an unspoken understanding, when playing Dungeons & Dragons, that the Dungeon Master won’t throw anything at the party that might kill them. This makes sense: dying isn’t much fun for the players – nor for the DM who has spent hours preparing an adventure, and presumably wants to play it to the end. However, this tacit understanding gives players a sense of invincibility that can diminish the tension a great adventure should contain.
In order to strip your players of their plot armour, here are some tips on how you can make victory at Dragonbowl seem far from assured:
• Give the players an almighty scare in round one. If one or more of the heroes have to cash in on their Resurrection Insurance in the opening bout, this should foster a keen sense of respect for the remainder of the opposition.
• Talk up the opponents. Virtually all of the gladiators competing in the Blood Games are MUCH tougher than their race’s standard stat block, and their huge statures, myriad of scars and martial poise are all things the players would visually pick up on.
• Have the NPCs talk up the players’ opponents, and express concern for the safety of the party.
• Consider metagaming. While I think the best Dungeon Masters play their cards with a straight face, and don’t give ‘out of game’ clues to their party, maybe a little throw away comment like: “Ok, technically these guys are a CR 13 threat, but hey, you’ve done well so far,” might just put the wind up your players.
Arguably the most powerful way you can strip the players of their plot armour, is to set up certain expectations before the adventure. Ask the players beforehand: “The fights in this adventure are really tough. Do you want you to play it on easy mode? Or do you want to play it as written… and maybe risk dying along the way.” They will say the latter. Whether you actually go easy or hard on them or not doesn’t matter. Now that you’ve had the conversation they will at least be entertaining the possibility they can die.
How Do You Deal With Plot Armour?
I’m always keen to hear readers opinions on all my posts… but this one more than most. Has plot armour ever been a problem in your games? How have you countered it? Or do you feel this is a non-issue… you’re telling a story with your players and, while success is a more or less guaranteed, it’s how you get there that makes the game… (that’s one philosophy I’ve heard for example!).
Comments section below 👇
Hello Duncan, I have never tried to put a scare into players because I just think it would backfire. As in, well we beat those guys, lets go take on a dragon!!
I have used all the others though, NPC’s talking about how big and mean someone is, or how many kobolds there are, or a reward poster for 5000 gold to bring someone in, and NPC’s talking about the last FOUR adventurers that tried.
But, I don’t like Metagaming, to the point that I come down hard on any players that do it. So, I figure I shouldn’t do it either, even if it is to the parties benefit.
I read a funny the other day and in it the DM was asking the party members what their characters most important skill was so the DM could customize a little. One said he could walk a wire blindfolded, one said he could take a hit from anyone once and not die, and one said makes good life decisions. Dm says well, that’s not really a skill is it? And all the others piped up and said, “Oh, it is! it is! she is our most important party member!!”.
I figure if I put out enough hints, like “the party sees a skull of a large beast with sabre looking teeth 12″ long and it still has some meat on it, and it appears as though there are enough bones to make 3 or 4 of this size creature”. If they decide to continue on, well, that is their choice.
As for ‘it’s how you get there that makes the game’. I kind of disagree. I still believe in rolling for random encounters and going strictly by some of the old rolling charts from AD&D(just pumping up the creatures to 5E if necessary) and even if they encounter something really bad I always try to give them an out, not a win, but a way to survive. But, if they choose not to take it, then TPK it is.
My philosophy is more of a ‘if you had fun getting to the end, whether it was completing the save the world quest or a TPK, if they had fun getting there then that is all that matters. I have had more than one group of players over the years say something like ‘well, maybe we shouldn’t have tried to sneak into the dragons lair at level 4-5, and maybe we should have jumped down that hole in the floor, but even so, we had fun doing it, when can we play again!!’.
Yes, it can cause a lot of extra work for the DM, but seriously, I reuse things all the time and just fit them into whatever campaign I am doing at the moment. I can’t tell you how many times I have reused ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ and just changed things around a little so that it wasn’t recognizable.
A lazy DM, which I am most definitely one of those, can make a campaign in less than 3-4 hours just using recycled one off adventures from years gone by. Maybe a little more if you really want to flesh out a plot and NPC’s and such but still, 1-3 days and I can have a whole world ready to go.
Another thing I do is start out with a basic go save the town/damsel/caravan type in a quickly designed world(I have even done this while sitting at a table with other players because the DM didn’t show up) and see what they do and then tailor the campaign to their decisions or insert a random ‘anything’ that starts another quest and thus gives you time to think it all out in the coming weeks while still playing.
I mention the above just to point out that as long as the players are having fun then that is all that matters because I am such a nerd that I just enjoy making the adventures and the world even if it is ‘off the top of my head’.
Hi Keith, you’re probably right, the metagaming I suggest there is a little sneaky and immersion breaking, and maybe best left aside.
Regarding the “if you had fun getting to the end” point you make, in my experience players don’t really enjoy failing absolutely at the adventure objective, nor TPKing, even if there were plenty of highlights on the way.
What might bring on a TPK? Well, bad decisions is one. But what you, as the DM, consider a bad decision (eg. not to investigate X, Y or Z, and gain the knowledge/item they need to deal with a threat) and what the players consider a bad decision usually differs!
The other typical cause of a TPK is bad luck. And this brings up a Catch-22 for the DM. When a party wins an encounter by the skin of their teeth they’re having the most fun, and will probably praise your work as a DM. But if they die in the same encounter, they will be pissed off that you dealt them such a hard encounter, and they’ll feel that they ‘had no real chance’, even though a single dice roll being different might have made all the difference.
Typically, in this second scenario (that of a combat that could go either way), if a DM is beyond fudging the dice, then they’re rarely beyond suddenly making sub-optimal decisions for the monsters or focusing their fire on NPCs or PCs with full hit points… this behaviour of course helps the party succeed, and is what leads to plot armour.
I must read Keep on the Borderlands… It’s often referenced! I think I’ve played a lot of those classic adventures by proxy as it were… filtered down into other forms. But very few as they were published.
I do a few things.
First, at the outset I warn my players with something I got from Slyflourish, “…Think carefully and be warned. The world is a dangerous place”
Second, if I think the players are being too cavalier about an encounter, I will tell them that they characters recognize this as a much greater threat than they are used too. As DM I’m effectively the eyes and ears of the characters so I feel that is just sharing perceptions rather than forcing thoughts into the characters’ heads. This is like your point about talking up the NPC’s.
Finally, if a PC in my campaign reaches zero hit points and it doesn’t look like healing will be forthcoming I hand them a note that explains that their character’s death or life is up to them. They should make death saves so the party doesn’t know what’s going on, but it is the player’s choice if the character lives or dies. I tell them to keep the dice a secret (even from me) and make up their own minds. This has been very effective in the one campaign where I’ve used it. Those players are also pretty cautious to begin with so it has only come up twice.
Good, yes, setting expectations at the outset is a good way to let players know they can’t rush in on every threat… offering a little “I tried to tell you” moment (or get out clause) for us DMs, that maybe gets the players considering their own actions rather than being peeved they’ve been dealt too great a threat.
Your second point reminds of a tricky situation I had once: the star player of the party was intent on saving his Divine Smites for a final boss encounter, and not taking a gynosphinx seriously. In the end, I wimped out and didn’t use the gynosphinx to its optimal ability – she would have killed the party, as they weren’t using their full resources – as I didn’t want the adventure to end in a damp squib there and then. Your tactic here might have helped!
Very interesting third point. My guess is that none have chosen death using this system?
Correct. They’ve not chosen death yet and I’m actually glad of it. Both times were more about accidental swingy dice than about player mistakes or bad choices.
I should have mentioned that I’ve told both players that my system may not be so lenient the same next time…
Frederick Dale Coen
Last night, the 5th level adventurers rowed a raft across a lake filled with known Drowned Dead, and whose waters were known to be Tainted (think “irradiated”). Sure enough, they were set upon, with some creatures trying to pull them in, and others trying to swamp/capsize the raft. Some key decisions and a clutch nat-20 on a spell, and they defeated the encounter without even a wound, and no one went swimming.
Upon landing, they found evidence an entire village of hobgoblins and goblins had been slain outside the tower’s doors. (Hmm… all those Drowned Dead in the lake perhaps?) Just setting foot on the island revealed it was strongly Tainted, and that their magical protections were eroding (starting the “clock” on the explroation).
The doors were locked, they couldn’t figure out the magical passcode, and rocks thrown at the tower were vaporized by a burst of electricity on contact. Eventually, a tower guardian golem was deployed to face them. I described it as having minor dings and dents, a few long scratches like it had been “keyed”, and a couple light scorch marks. It was dragging its left leg; an iron javelin was sticking out of its knee joint.
The first attack, I described how it attempted to brush aside the dodging battlemaster, and threw its metal spear at the warlock. It’s shoulder joint was glitchy, and the throw seemed to uncharacteristically lack accuracy and power… which still hit, and did 16 damage! The slam against the battlemaster rolled a 26 to hit… but due to dodging, got a 9 and missed; I described him as having angled his shield perfectly, deflecting the attack… but that he still felt the weight of the blow, and would *not* want to get hit by this thing solidly. It resisted the attacks of the spellcasters – I described spells bending aside from the guardian at the last second – and the rogue’s crossbow bolts struck directly, then skidded aside (resist damage). The warlock’s eldritch blasts did exactly nothing = Force Immunity (which was a story clue for later).
What was the point of this story? The guardian was CR 5, but it had strong defenses, and buffed damage (3d8+6 on the slam, 2d6+7 and reach and throwing with the spear; +9 to hit), and over 100 hp. I gave many clues that this thing was dangerous and powerful. Two hits could kill anyone in the party. I played up this description… but I also gimped *this* guardian a little, due to its earlier battles with the goblins. Undamaged versions lie within the tower!
Unfortunately for me and my “put fear into them!” plan, the PCs actually defeated the guardian without taking a second hit, through wise play and some luck. I thought they now considered the guardian golem too weak. But when the rogue scaled the tower to get into a damaged area, and a second – undamaged! – golem rose up out of the floor to challenge her… she freaked and ran down the side of the tower, accepting the rope burns to get away fast!
In the past, I have sicced a dragon on a PC that insisted in walking through the forest calling “here, dragon dragon dragon….”. I have used “redshirts” and “toss the Worf” tropes to illustrate a foe’s power before it attacks the PCs. *Rarely* I will narrate a fearsome monster hitting one of the PCs – no dice rolled – and causing massive damage; generally, the foe then departs, to be encountered later, but (hopefully) having put fear into their hearts!
Hi Frederick, this great food for thought and actually probably the best way to generate some fear in encounters: using great narrative description! Having read your comment, I will make an effort to improve in this regard.
I didn’t get the redshirts and toss the worf references though!
Frederick Dale Coen
Sorry, both were Star Trek references.
In the Original Series (James Kirk / William Shatner), the “away team” always had main characters, and security personnel (and the Security Deparment always wore red tunics – perhaps to hide the blood). When a monster, hazard, or otherwise “Bad Thing” happened… it happened to the unnamed security guy – the redshirt! [This was *such* a trope that when the next series came out, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, staring Patrick Stewart as Jean Luc Picard, the Security Division was intentionally put in yellow tunics, while the Command Crew wore red. Security Guy #3 always died anyway though!)
In Star Trek: the Next Generation, the Enterprise now had a Klingon crew member, Worf. Klingons are powerful warrior aliens, with redundant organs, adrenaline surges, and a penchant for hand-to-hand (for honor’s sake). So to show a new alien was powerful, poor Worf got tossed across the bridge/room/scene when he tried to engage with it. “Toss the Worf”!
Ha, good to know!
I almost feel as if we need to take your nerd card and put you on probationary status for not knowing the red shirt reference.
Hey, it’s in the title… “Hipsters” & Dragons!
I was busy pretending to be cool during my 20s and 30s…
Full nerd status still pending!
Hi Duncan, I definitely agree that this is an important topic to get right with a group which I unfortunately during my first time dming leant the hard way. Playing without these sorts of measures can definitely be a problem especially when in cases such as my first game some players are very accustomed to more of an on rails story experience where death is (bar jumping straight off a cliff) impossible.
I’ve found that at least in my experience having the discussion beforehand seems to be the best option as it both allows the group to agree upon whether or not they want to play a though campaign and importantly gives them the expectation that there is a good chance they will need a back-up character which is a helpful fun/time saver.
As for meta gaming I feel as though that really should be saved as a worst case senario but sometimes mistakes from either the dm, player or both can lead to a misscomunication which realistically in the sake of fairness and fun should be clarified rather than let be.
Hey Brodie, thanks for sharing your experience.
I really like the idea of the PCs already having a back-up character rolled up! That dramatically changes expectations, and the players might even enjoy seeing their first character suffer a gruesome death, and play along, knowing they have another they want to bring to the table.
Frederick Dale Coen
In Dark Sun, each player had a “Stable” of 4 characters (no requirements for them to be related or tied to each other in any way). Any given adventure you could have any of them participate; when your active PC leveled up, so did another in the Stable. (Generous DMs might let them all level up.) If one died, you just used another from the Stable. Numerous ways to handle the dead character; we ruled that the dead character “used up the slot” until one of your other characters leveled up. At that point, “enough time had passed” to recruit a new character to the cause!
Gregory G. Bishop
I am a fan of the all guard party method. Kill the characters right away. Multiple times. THEN let them proceed with whatever is left. Just warn them ahead of time “this campaign is quite likely to kill your character”. Play with someone you don’t like too much.
We have 20 characters and usually 2 on each adventure so if one dies they still have one. We have some monsters that are too powerful that they have to avoid. If they lose both characters they can pick up a low level NPC.
In the game where I play – as opposed to the one where I DM, the PCs really do have plot armor (1 Fate Point / level) – we the players have established a “base”, where our main characters have mostly retired. And they now hire other heroes to patrol the conquered lands, maintain security in the area, etc. We’ve become quest-givers! The point here, though, is the adventurers “in the area” are all the alternate and ideas we’ve wanted to play. My 9th level sorcerer is running the communication and teleport network right now, while I play a paladin off hunting a dragon in the mountains. And a polearm-master monk idea I had is holding down the fort we took from goblins a year ago. And…
When our town was attacked by the mentioned dragon, I played the NPC cleric, another player played his retired bearbarian, another played his new Ancients barbarian, and another played a rogue idea he wanted to try.
We never have multiple characters on any given adventure, though.