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.