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!).
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