Gameplay: Surviving The Impossible

Image by Carolina Cesario from Exploring Eberron

Typically, I only answer questions that are posed by my Patreon supporters. However, I do occasionally read the Eberron forum on Reddit, and a question caught my eye. A DM explained that his players—who were playing fourth level characters—had chosen to split up while in the Mournland, planning to individually make their way back across thirty miles of Mournland and meet up on the other side of the mist. The DM had explained just how dangerous this was, but the players were committed to the action. The DM was asking for ideas on how to handle this, noting that they didn’t want to have the characters die here, even though it’s essentially a suicidal action. I’m addressing this here because there is a larger principle at play, which is what to do when your players are determined to do something that should be impossible. This is the story the players want to experience. The DM doesn’t want to just shut it down. They don’t want to just say “Mists fall, everybody dies.” But is the DM required to now create interesting encounters for each individual character while also ensuring that these encounters won’t just kill them (which, in the Mournland, should be a very real threat)? If not, what do they do?

At MY table, what I would do is to make this a challenge for the players. First, I’d say “You’ve chosen to do something incredibly foolhardy. You’ve separated in one of the most dangerous places in Eberron, a region brimming with supernatural threats and with very little safe food or water. You’re a hero, and somehow you will survive this. But how? How does your character survive this impossible journey?

RPGs are collaborative stories, and that means you can ask the players to share the creative burden. You know that you don’t want the adventurers to die, even though in all likelihood they should. So ask them to explain how they manage to do the impossible. How do they think their character could survive this? As DM, I would work with them to temper their answer, especially as I know more about the world than they do. If they say “I find an airship and fly it” and aren’t Lyrandar, I’ll note that this isn’t how airships work… but I’d see if I could work with them to come up with an alternative that fit the general idea of this story, while also being actually plausible. Maybe they just find a lost skystaff (Broom of Flying). Maybe they find an experimental Cannith vehicle and manage to make it work just long enough to get them through the mists. Beyond this, while I won’t shut a player’s idea down completely, I will QUESTION ideas and help them refine them. In the vehicle example, if the character is an artificer, of course they can jumpstart an experimental vehicle. But if they’re a fighter with a low Intelligence and no Arcana or Land Vehicles proficiency, I would point that out and say “How is YOUR CHARACTER going to accomplish this?” If they can come up with a good answer, great! If not, perhaps we can evolve the idea into something else. The point is that we all know they WILL succeed; we’re just trying to create a satisfying story about how they do it.

However, after all this I’d ask a second question. “You have survived the unimaginable journey, but you can’t do something that dangerous without consequences. The Mournland is full of deadly supernatural threats. It can also mutate or transform creatures in strange ways. You have a scar from this experience—a permanent, lingering reminder of this journey. What is it?

This could be something obvious and dramatic—the adventurer’s skin turns purple; their hair now moves on its own, like a medusa’s mane—or it could be a more mundane scar or a lingering fear of shellfish. If I was playing an artificer in this scenario, I might suggest that I lost a limb but managed to fashion a prosthetic out of things I found on the way, and go forward with a sentimental (and literal) attachment to this odd prosthetic. As with the previous question, I’d work with each player to hone their answer. This shouldn’t be something that imposes a permanent, ongoing penalty on the character—but it should be something that may prove an inconvenience at times, something that draws comment or attention, something that reminds them of the time they did something suicidally stupid but managed to survive. Going forward, I might continue to expand on this with Flashbacks. When the players encounter a mysterious symbol, I might say “Bob, you ran into this symbol when you were crossing the Mournland alone. Where did you see it?” We all know the adventurers survived a long, grueling trek across the Mournland; but we also know that we didn’t cover it in detail, and perhaps there could be more to the story!

Adding Depth and Danger

The approach I describe above is intended to fast forward through the difficult situation. The characters will carry scars of their journey, but there’s no chance that they will fail—and because of this, I won’t actually require any sort of skill check. We’re agreeing from the start that it WILL work, we’re just sorting out the details. But perhaps you DO want a chance of failure. In this case, I’d take an approach much like I described in the Travel By Montage article. I wouldn’t actually develop full encounters and combats; instead, I’d take turns posing characters with specific challenges. For example…

  • You’re traveling along an old road. Up ahead, you see the severed arm of a warforged colossus. Somehow, it’s still active; it’s pulling itself across the landscape, crushing everything it encounters. It’s headed directly for you; how will you avoid it?
  • You reach a wide river; the bridge is broken. There’s a powerful current, and there’s threads of red flowing through the water, like veins of blood. You could follow the bank until you find another bridge, but that could take you many miles off your course and will be exhausting; what do you do?
  • It begins to rain. The liquid glows with green light, and burns your armor and clothing. How will you survive this acid rain?
  • You find the rest of your adventuring party! After celebrating this reunion, you continue your journey… but slowly you realize that these aren’t actually your friends. You don’t know if they’re doppelgangers, illusions, or something else—but they aren’t your companions, and you feel danger in the air. How will you deal with this?
  • Though you haven’t seen the sun since you entered the Mournland, it’s clear that night is falling; the gray light is fading. Will you try to continue through the darkness? If not, how will you find shelter?

… And so on. For each question, I’d require the character to propose an ability check; for each one they failed, I’d impose a consequence. This could be one or more levels of exhaustion, with the threat of death if exhaustion gets too high; so taking the river crossing, they could accept an automatic level of exhaustion to find another bridge, or attempt the crossing with the risk of more severe consequences on failure. Alternately, I could impose a scar for each failure. The point is that the characters are directly using their character abilities and that there is a chance of failure, but that I’m not going to take the time to fully develop each of these as tactical encounters; we’re essentially summarizing their success or failure. Looking to the “Imposter” example, the adventurer might decide to fight them; I’d still likely pick a skill to reflect their chance of success (Athletics for the strong fighter, Stealth or Acrobatics for the swift rogue) rather than play out the scene.

Even here, it’s potentially a lot of work for me to come up with those questions… and also, if the characters are all separated, it’s a lot of time for players to be waiting for their turn to come around. With that in mind, even here, I’d start off by providing a solid set of challenges so people understand the nature of the region. But at that point, if I feel my players would enjoy it (becuase not all would, and that’s fine!) I might ask the other players to propose challenges for their fellow players. What do they think Bob might encounter in the Mournland? As before, I might refine an idea to fit the lore of the world, or even to tie into other things I have planned; but I can work with the players to develop the story rather than making it up entirely on my own.

In conclusion, as a DM, don’t be afraid to call on your players to share the narrative workload! If the players do something foolish and you don’t want them to die, you can ask them to explain how they get away with it.

Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters; this support is the only thing that makes these articles possible. So if you want to see more articles—or if you have questions you want to ask!—check it out.

11 thoughts on “Gameplay: Surviving The Impossible

  1. Collaborative storytelling is I think one of the key things to a truly amazing tabletop experience. Getting the party to help craft answers that suit THEM to resolve what is otherwise “exciting on screen, tedious over hours of rolling” conflict leads not only to investment but to getting rid of those very boring middle sections where one player might be fighting a bunch of mutant dogs for 40 minutes of table time . . . and five other players check their phones

    • I really need to do more of it. Especially when running D&D, which doesn’t have collaborative mechanics built-in, I tend to forget and I feel like it makes the players too reactive. Like you said, collaboration builds investment and engagement.

  2. Well said, thank you! Your examples remind me of a player idea this weekend that created a new time-management guideline for me as a DM, “a YES can be slow, a NO must be fast”.
    That is; if a character has an idea, and they want to try it, the longer they wait to share it or receive the DM response, the more success the DM has to allow for.

    It can be nuanced, complicated success with consequences, but if a player invested time in the idea and the DM made them wait (unintentionally or otherwise) then their effort needs to be incorporated into the story. In practical terms this means if a player waited 2 hours of game time to try something desperate and outside the-rules-as-written, it’s the DM’s job to make it part of the story, not tell the player their time was wasted.

  3. I find this topic really interesting, and one where the answer the DM comes up with is heavily dependent upon playstyle. While I agree that these are valid approaches for the mechanics presented in 5e and the most common playstyles in use today, I think that areas like the Mournland are ripe for dipping into the mechanics and playstyle from the earliest iterations of D&D.

    The so-called “Classic” playstyle was very much a survival horror game. Death was frequent and often ignominious, supported by a very fast character generation system. However, the conventions of play supported attempts by player characters to cheat death by achieving their objectives (read, “acquiring loot”) while avoiding combat, or taking steps to tilt combat in their favour.

    Using the Classic playstyle in this situation, the DM would have already created a random encounter table for the region of the Mournland, and determined how often it would be checked. She would not change that just because the players made a foolish decision; in this playstyle the DM was supposed to be a neutral arbiter of the game, and is often referred to as the “referee”. So the two separate parties would independently face the same risk that the combined party formerly faced.

    However, they were not necessarily doomed, they could save themselves through clever and creative play. Not all encounters were combat encounters; the monsters’ reactions to PCs were randomly determined (and likely could be influenced by PC actions such as adopting disguises), and favoured parleying over immediate attack. Encounter distance was also randomly determined (a base 60-240 yards apart in 1e outdoor settings, with modifiers for terrain), and I know 1e (and likely other editions, but I don’t remember) had developed mechanics for running away. Moreover, bribery (giving up your loot!) and even surrender were also valid options for avoiding death. And if the players managed to lure a dragon into an abandoned mine and collapse it, there was no need to roll to hit or for damage, the players were assumed to have won the battle.

    In this playstyle, players getting “off-track” was seen as an opportunity for more adventure, and the mechanics supported the DM in improvising content. And there could be very valid reasons why a party might want to pursue two objectives at the same time in different places, and take the risk of splitting the party. They would just have to be that much more careful in how they played. If they survived they might be well rewarded; more dangerous creatures tended to have better loot and more of it, and splitting the party would give them twice as many chances to obtain it.

    In fact, balancing the amount of risk you were willing to take in order to seek greater rewards was a big part of the game. But for that “push you luck” style of play to work the risk had to be real, and if the combination of player choice and the decision of the dice led to character death, that is what had to happen.

    • Indeed, I am developing my own approach to the Mournland with this very much in mind. Not quite the B/X approach or OSR, but really leaning into the idea that the Mournland is a dungeon, and an unforgiving one at that to encourage players to push their luck.

      Keith’s approach is a good one for a specific type of heroic gameplay, but I want the Mournland to evoke more of the uncaring nature of (pulp) cosmic horror, where even high-level characters can die in the mud.

      Now all I need is a good mechanic for rewarding them for looting the place to encourage them to take risks. My current players are very risk-averse, so I think it’s going to be a version of gold for XP.

      • I sometimes use GP=XP in my 4e game. I reduce XP from combat to 20% of normal, and then hand out enough gold to make up the missing experience at a 1:1 basis. I used to sweat over wealth per level, but I ended up finding that nothing broke, at least in Heroic tier. In 5e where gold is just a counter, it would be even easier.

        Can I also suggest you allow narrative action resolution as a supplement to skill checks? I let my players do things like find and remove traps by describing how they search or try to circumvent the trap, which can obviate or at least grant a bonus for skill checks. Basically you treat traps and the like like a puzzle, with the dice as a safety net if they get stumped. Especially with cautious players, you get this nice back and forth between players and DM as they seek information and try various things, and you respond.

        BTW, All Dead Generations is a great site for discussing how to import Classic mechanics and procedures into a 5e game.

  4. Don’t be afraid to have them take on a character flaw, to reflect being harrowed by the ordeal. Despite the name ‘flaw’, it really provides a role play tool with the ability to generate Inspiration.

  5. Love this. I love doing this to resolve events that I either don’t feel like plotting out and running the minutia of or it doesn’t make sense to. I really wish 5e would introduce more guidelines to resolve long events that you don’t want to do action by action.

    I like to end events like these with a (I believe powered by apocalypse roll) 2d6 + relevant stat roll to determine lasting effects. Roll less than 7 then a bad lasting outcome like you mentioned (lost arm, scars etc). 10+ something positive from the experience (the time spent in the mournland has effected your body or mind in a beneficial way). 7-9 varies depending on the circumstances could be one good and one bad or one bad but is purely cosmetic with no lasting effects.

  6. Very interesting discussion. Since I’ve migrated to narrative systems (PbtA-style), I found such situations easier to resolved. I think I’d require a roll for the whole montage, but first brainstorm with my players the risks, rewards and interesting complications coming as the stakes of the roll. The common structure being as follows: list, say, 4 positive outcomes (or non-negative, such as “you don’t attract the enmity of the Lord of Blades”), then roll. On a 10+ pick three, on a 7-9 pick one, on a 6- the GM chooses for you. Non-negative outcomes are crucial as they establish the risks if you don’t pick them.

  7. It really all comes down to what the players expect when they come to the table. Collaborative storytelling is not just about empowering players. Ultimately it is about making the amount of effort needed at the table fair. I think many older GMs took a different approach where the roles were clearly delineated largely because the GM did the lion’s share of the work to bring the game to the table and thus expected to have narrative control (largely because it would fall to them to find solutions outside the prepared narrative).
    Collaborative storytelling equalizes the workload to an extent; it is an agreement by all around the table that they all need to pitch in and that if you want to build your own story, you need to be prepared for it instead of expecting someone else to pull through for you. It also of course needs to be supported by systems that can attach some level of gaming to what could otherwise change into unstructured storytelling (which is perfectly fine, it’s just not what D&D is).

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