Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.
Jonathon D. asks:
Angry, I know that someone of your boundless intellect could never make a mistake, but if you do, and you think it made your players have a worse time, would you tell them about it? “Pull back the screen” so to speak, and say “Hey guys, I accidentally made a fight too hard, sorry about that”. If you do make a mistake like this, do you make a change while GMing to try and fix it?
Hello Jonathon D.! Thanks for the straightforward e-mail with a new, brief question and a simple attribution. Yes, I know I keep harping on this, but there’s an important f$&%ing point here. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve now got so many questions, it would take over year of doing this column five times a week to work through them all. Because everyone wants a piece of my genius. And people keep asking me why I haven’t answered their question yet or why I choose the questions I do. Well, one of my criteria is “can I highlight a single paragraph and hit cut-and-paste?” Seriously. If you want your question answered, give me a simple attribution and a short, simple question.
And that’s why you win, JonnyD. Can I call you that?
This question is actually very interesting to me because it SEEMS straightforward and simple enough and the answer SEEMS obvious and I COULD answer it in one paragraph if I didn’t stop to think through the implications about combat and difficulty and the way GMs handle things and whose responsibility it is to do what at the game. So, first, I’m going to answer the actual question you tried to ask. And then, I’m going to answer the problem in your brain (and every GM’s brain) that is creating the need for the question.
First of all, JD, how do you handle a mistake. Everyone except me makes mistakes. And some people make a LOT of mistakes. And how you handle mistakes in your game says a lot about how you prioritize the different aspects of the game. Once upon a time, I was a thespian. I did some drama in high school and college. And every so often, while you were doing a play, someone would f$&% up a line or miss a cue or something. And THAT is when you got tested. See, the audience doesn’t KNOW you f$&%ed up unless they either (a) have the show memorized, which most of them don’t or (b) everyone on stage freezes up or stammers and stutters or says something stupid like “didn’t you mean to say something about coffee being for closers?” You learned to cover up for each other’s mistakes. Like, maybe you realize that your actor pal forgot to yell at the dude getting the coffee so you say loudly, “hey, Jack Lemmon, can you grab me a cup of coffee while you’re there?” And that suddenly reminds Kevin Spacey that he’s supposed to be yelling about coffee.
That hides the mistake from the audience. And if you’re good at thinking on your feet, you can do it. As a GM, you’re going to have to eventually get good at thinking on your feet, even if you’re sitting down, so you might as well learn to hide your mistakes.
But that assumes the most important thing in your game is a good narrative. See, you can bury lots of mistakes “behind the screen” as it were. If the wrong NPC is involved in a scene or you forget to give the PCs information, you can change things in the background. Come up with a reason for the NPC to be there and change their role in future scenes. Have the PCs gain the information in some other way. Whatever. Even mechanical failures can be buried “behind the screen.” You can fudge hit points on a creature, change stats, or invent entire mechanical effects out of thin air. “Oh, yeah, you didn’t get the bonus there because those creatures negate divine magic because of the curses they emanate. It wasn’t just me f$&%ing up, nosiree. In point of fact, sometimes, those mistakes lead to interesting new ideas.”
But, that’s on the narrative side. That’s keeping the game moving and keeping everyone in the game. That’s not letting them see the seams in the world or the zippers in the costumes. That’s treating the players like an audience.
The flip side though is that your players are also players. They aren’t just an audience. And they make decisions based on everything you do. So, they might stop using divine magic in the presence of those creatures or they might not realize that they shouldn’t drink coffee in front of Kevin Spacey. They will assume they can one-shot the Pterodactylions of Felinosaurial Peak because you reduced their hit points to cover a major problem. And when things STOP working that way the next time because you were just covering a f$&% up, you’re going to break the strategic, tactical, and figuring-things-out parts of their brains. And that isn’t JUST about combat mechanics. Because, remember, they are building up a view of how the world works in ALL respects based on what happens. Kevin Spacey’s personality traits are as much a part of their strategic planning as the hit points of bizarre flying lizard cats.
The gamey side of the RPG benefits from you NOT hiding your mistakes. From saying, flat out, “I f$&%ed up how that spell works” OR “those pterodactylions are too powerful and I need to rework their stats.” But doing that pulls a drag chute on your game and reminds the players that you can f$&% up anything and the world is really a bunch of fuzzy felt bits stitched together.
So, there’s no one BEST APPROACH to handling mistakes. Can the world handle the mistake if the mistake becomes a permanent part of the world? Can you cover the mistake without breaking anything? Is the mistake going to change the way the game works or the way the players make decisions to an intolerable degree? And the one question every GM forgets: does this mistake actually matter?
See, whether you fix the mistake by hiding it behind the screen or whether you stop the game and fix it, you’re still slamming the breaks on the game and f$&%ing things up. It’s just a matter of whether you’re doing it to yourself or to the players. And a lot of mistakes don’t really matter. Players get trained by repetition. If you screw something up a little bit one time, it probably isn’t worth doing ANYTHING about it. Just let it go. If the design of your creature is a little off, you can tweak it next time and players probably won’t notice a slight change in AC or attack bonuses. Always consider whether the mistake is noticeable and how much of an impact it has on the game before you start worrying about it. A LOT of mistakes can be ignored, fixed later, and never get noticed.
So, now let’s talk about the controversial part. See, Jay Dizzle, you chose a very interesting example. “What if the GM makes a combat too hard; how do you fix that?” There’s this really interesting assumption at the heart of that that says “it is the responsible of the GM to never make an encounter too difficult for the PCs to handle.” And there’s a LOT bound up in that issue that isn’t immediately obvious.
Okay, so let’s start with the idea of balanced encounters. D&D gives a lot of guidelines for exactly what level of threat is okay to throw at PCs. And it presents them as “that is the way you make an adventure.” But, what’s funny is that it represents a major tonal shift in D&D. And that it’s actually, when you get down to it, a little bit railroady. And “railroady” is a term that I am personally very careful about throwing around. Most GMs and players use the world “railroad” like a comma. Not me. Because I want it to mean something.
So, you have a combat scene in your game, right? You design it and you expect your players to fight it and win. Nothing wrong with that expectation, right? Combat is fun. And losing combat means all the PCs die and the game is over, right? So what else is there? You can’t set the PCs up to LOSE a combat. You have to build combats they can WIN. Or else they end up dead.
But in that little paragraph – the one that SEEMS perfectly logical – there’s a very interesting assumption being made. One that didn’t USED TO get made. There is an assumption that because you – the GM – have decided there shall be a combat, a combat there shall be. The battle isn’t optional. And even if you think “well, if the players come up with something clever to avoid the fight, I’d let that work,” your brain is still dodging a pretty serious issue. Because your mindset is “this is a fight. If the players somehow cleverly avoid the fight, I will allow them to do so. But otherwise, they have to win the fight. The consequences for losing are death.”
Now, I agree that if you get into a battle, it’s a life or death situation. But the battle itself isn’t optional unless the players somehow break the rules. The thing is that combat – battle – is a method of resolving a conflict. The PCs want one thing, the enemy wants something else, and they settle it with violence. But it is only one method. Avoidance, negotiation, bribery, intimidation, reasoning, ambush, and assassination are all equally valid methods of resolving a conflict.
But something sort of odd happened. Somewhere late in AD&D 2E, the idea that combat was a TYPE of encounter and not a method for resolving any encounter, got sort of ingrained in the game. When you designed an encounter, you designed it as a combat encounter. And so, a fight would break out. And the players would have the fight. And once that became a decision the GM or adventure designer made and not one the players made, it became necessary to create all these rules about game balance. The GM had to be able to tell the difference between a fight the players could win and one they couldn’t. And the GM sure as hell better stick only to the ones they could win.
Now, you might say “but the players never run away or surrender or negotiate or flee anyway, so giving the option is pointless.” But the problem is, if you exclusively present them with fights that are just about an even match for them (with some variance for difficulty), you train them to fight every battle you present them with. Basically, you teach the players that combat isn’t optional. And so they never take the option to flee or surrender or reason or anything else. And then you conclude that, because they never exercise those options, those options are unnecessary. It becomes a weird self-perpetuating problem.
Now, what’s really interesting is that there is a lot more to this tonal shift than just “the players are never going to run so balance every combat and here’s how that works.” For example, in earlier editions of D&D, there were a couple of explicit mechanics that have gradually vanished.
First of all, there was this idea of reaction rolls. When the PCs blundered on some creature in the wild or in a dungeon or whatever, assuming there was no EXPLICIT reason for it to become a battle, the GM could use a reaction roll to determine how the creature started off the encounter. Maybe it WOULD just leap at the PCs and try to kill them. Or it might be cautious. Or it might be threatening without being hostile. Or it might be scared. Or it might even be friendly. Or it might just flee.
Second of all, there was a morale system built into the game. That is, creatures generally didn’t fight to the death. Once things went to s$&%, a lot of creatures would turn their thoughts to survival. They might flee, they might surrender, they might retreat, they might beg, they might give up, whatever. But when their morale broke, they switched from murder to survival.
By that same token, there were also rules built into the game for evasion and pursuit. And this is a big one to lose. A good GM can handle reactions and morale if he’s making smart choices for his creatures based on what those creatures would actually do. That stuff can be driven by the GM simply role-playing the creatures and understanding their motives. But evasion and pursuit gave guidelines for how PCs and creatures could escape from one another or chase one another. The problem with modern D&D is that there is just no good way to handle retreat, evasion, and pursuit. If you keep the game in the tactical timeframe and work with movement speeds, it is literally impossible to retreat from a fight ever. And even if you do manage to clear the battlefield, everything comes down to a simple speed comparison. And since the speeds in D&D are pretty granular and almost everything moves at exactly the same speed (30’), it’s sort of useless. And if you are wearing armor, you’re never getting away.
But so what? So what if the assumption is that all combats are winnable and therefore players fight all the fights so you therefore only design fights that are an even match for the PCs? Combat is fun. Winning is fun. Why would the players ever want to avoid a combat or surrender or retreat?
Now, right here is when some dips$&%s like to fall back on the “realism” thing. This is where morons shriek about a world that levels up with the characters and only presents them obstacles they can beat is “unrealistic” and “breaks immersion.” And I’m not going to do any of that. Because that’s all bulls$&%. It’s not a good reason to do something or not do something in a game. It’s vapid drivel. Because there’s no reason the game can’t work that way. The game is not about realism and immersion is a word that people need to throat-punched for using because they don’t know what it means.
But there are some actual real reasons to fear that whole “combat will happen when the GM says it will and every combat is ‘winnable’ within acceptable difficulty tolerances.” It sets a really precedent.
First of all, it leads to questions like “if I fail to balance a monster or combat properly, how do I save the lives of my PCs from my stupid mistake.” See, the REAL assumption at the core of that question is the same assumption that makes bike helmet laws and seatbelt laws kind of stupid. Those laws are designed to protect people who are too dumb to protect their own lives. What that question REALLY translates to is “if I screw up balancing a monster or combat, my players are dumb enough to fight to the death if I don’t stop them somehow; how do I stop them?” And THAT is a sign of a major agency problem. Because your game has become one of those old Zelda dungeon rooms that locks all the doors until you kill all the monsters. Except the doors are psychological. And you recognize it. You know the PCs will not preserve themselves until the situation is SO DIRE that they no longer have the option to save themselves. If even then. Because, paradoxically, the worse a fight goes, the more resolved the players become NOT to retreat.
As soon as someone goes down – even if the players are not at a level where resurrection is a viable option – the players generally think “well, NOW we have to win!”
The players are behaving as if they don’t have agency because they have learned that they don’t, even if they do. And when the game takes agency from the players, that’s a railroad. It’s just a subtle, sneaky, invisible railroad.
The second problem though, the worse one, comes from the fact that just because a fight is winnable, that doesn’t mean the PCs will win. In the end, a battle is a combination of dozens of decisions and die rolls. A few too many bad decisions and die rolls in the mix can spell disaster. And that’s not even considering the fact that the PCs usually go through several battles with gradually depleting resources. Figure that in, and a few too many bad dice rolls and bad decisions at 8 AM in fight one can kill the PCs at 2 PM in fight number four.
But because the players are metaphorically locked into each battle by all of these subtle assumptions and machinations, they won’t retreat even then. They just won’t. They don’t sensibly switch to self-preservation. They don’t live to fight another die.
Now, I know none of this is what you asked about. But it’s a good thing to think about because you ARE taking responsible for saving the lives of PCs too stupid to save themselves. Sure, when you screw up, it sure feels like you should save them. But why aren’t they saving themselves. After all, inside the game, they can’t tell whether YOU screwed up or THEY screwed up. The difference between “the GM f$&%ed up the combat balance” and “the PCs f$&%ed up the resource management” and “the dice sure hate us today” is invisible to the players. They can’t tell the difference between any of those. So jumping in and saving them from ONE THIRD of those situations is asking them to sit around waiting for a rescue that isn’t going to come the rest of the time.
My advice: first of all, don’t train your players to assume all combats are mandatory and balanced. Right off the bat, put them in an escapable situation that will kill them if they try to beat it. And tell, very clearly, with your narrator powers that that is what’s happening. “The creature hits you, hard! You survive that blow, but another one could kill you.” “You manage to graze the creature, but it seems unphased by your attack. You’re clearly outmatched.” “The creature is fast and it seems tireless. You’re wearing out. This thing is far more powerful than you and your allies.” Keep working s$&% into the narration that tells the players they are f$&%ed if they don’t get out. And then let them get out. ONE situation like that is usually enough to teach them to be smart. Then, maybe they come back with more power. Or maybe they find another way around. Or maybe they ignore the threat. Make it an optional threat, by the way.
Once you break them of that habit, then you don’t have to protect them when you screw up. You screw up, let it stand, and let the players get themselves out. Sure, you might have made a too-powerful foe, but that’s the world. The players have to figure out a way around it. It’s not your problem.
In addition, combat becomes a choice. And then you can do interesting things with that choice. What happens when the PCs are attacked by a group of, say, normal human bandits trying to feed themselves who are very obviously no match for the PCs? Do the PCs murder the bandits? How do the PCs get past that very high level threat that stands between them and their goals if a straight-up fight will get them killed? Even if ninety percent of your fights are winnable and balanced, that other ten percent makes combat a choice. And that’s what an RPG is all about.