Rodney at Rising Phoenix Games is hosting the last RPG Blog Carnival for 2020 and he has selected «When the bad guys win» as the topic. In his introductory post, he mentions great trials and horrific encounters, wondering what really happens when that happens. And given a very recent T.P.K. on one of my campaigns, I’ll be sharing with you some expectations and solutions to whenever you have to deal with an event like that. I’ll start summarizing what the campaign was about, continue with the events leading to the T.P.K., and finish with how I dealt with it in order to inspire you.
The Horror Begins
Based on the storyline of MtG’s Innistrad set, the campaign starts in a village from which one just can’t get out. When trying to traverse the forests around it, one ends where started. In this town, everyone seems to have a dark side, but after a short exploration under the local chapel, just a handful of suspects remained as confirmed by a dead follower of the Silver Flame investigating mysterious events. Our heroes’ investigation gets pressure when they find out about a Red Moon coming in just a few days.
This eldritch event, which happens every thirteen years, is being used by a trio of witches to lure one child out of the town and into the forest, where they harvest them to empower a foul ritual with the goal of turning the forest into their own piece of the Shadowfell. With a pack of werewolves around town and a chapel full of children to take one from, our heroes deduce that one of the witches is impersonating an ally, and just right after the battle, they are able to spot a clue: the temple’s acolyte is pinpointed as one of the witches because of a very high roll on an Insight check.
Things could go two ways from there: knowing she is guilty, they could find evidence to let the town run and get justice or they could serve it themselves. It goes without saying, this last choice was not precisely the right one. The campaign was planned with some monster-of-the-week as the adventurers collected proof about the witch (as well as got some XP), but they decided to face the enemy right there, just after a very tough previous encounter against a pack of werewolves.
In the Darkest Hour
The campaign was also planned as a metaphor of media accountability and its use by dictatorships. The witch, posing as the town’s religious leader, would try to blame the curse of the Red Moon on the heroes as they gathered as few allies still believing them into finding evidence that would unite the town instead of dividing them in two bands. Unfortunately, when just suspecting the cleric was not what she claimed, they decided to confront her after facing those lycanthropes. Being at her full capability and they being very low on resources (both hit points and spell slots), the battle lasted very few rounds.
What to do as the DM? You can pull a miracle from behind your screen and fudge the numbers, but that would totally diminish the importance and climax of the campaign (or at least, of its first act: did you think that discovering one of three witches was the end of it?). I’ve never been fond of fudging: I only do it when a critical hit by a monster would drop a hero to 0 hit points. So I just endured the sad consequences on the players: your characters have failed. The witch wins.
Villains 1, heroes 0.
So… what to do now? It doesn’t make much sense to pursue a solved mystery, even if the whole campaign was designed to slowly giving hints and evidence around the culprit. What you will do next is totally up to you and your players, of course. A few years ago I read in a forum some basic options, which I wrote down in a notebook (I wish I had the source to credit):
- Campaign ends in failure: roll new characters and enjoy the next campaign.
- Roll new characters and pick up from where old characters left off.
But we also have two differnet approaches in case your players are really invested in their characters and the campaign:
- Have a powerful ally resurrect them (which is not only kinda boring, but also the example given if you look for «Deus Ex Machina» in the dictionary)
- Have them play new characters which only mission is to recover the previous characters bodies so someone can resurrect them.
These two options were showing somewhere I wanted to go to with my players, but not precisely. As they had identified already the mastermind behind the villainous plot, just finding proof could turn monotonous or even make them feel thay were not making a difference at stopping her altogether. So I devised a point in between.
Villains 1, heroes 0… but that’s just the half-time.
When a new day starts
So what did I do? I told my players the story behind the plot. Three sisters are looking to make a deal with a devil in order to transform their village into an enchanted forest they could rule forever. Inside the campaign, their characters were done, but one of them had kept a diary which was mysteriously delivered to the authorities of the Church with a cryptic note: «What happened to Hanweir?». Months have passed: the journal and the note were not considered serious until someone noticed that the location referenced in the texts was not in any map… any recent map. It was like the village had vanished decades ago, during the Last War. And after all, there are still two sisters who remain unaccounted for.
In essence, what I did is to apply the three C’s Dan Brown teach us about in his «Writing Thrillers» Masterclass:
- keep my players invested in finding out what really happened and who sent the journal and the note (the «contract«)
- advance the timeline, to increase the feeling in my players that the original plot may have already come to fruition (the «clock«).
- add an additional layer of frosting to my campaign cake with additional mysteries that would allow me to recycle elements from the original cake: the region where old maps showed the now-missing Hanweir has nowadays four different settlements… all around a big forest (the «crucible«).
So, all in all, villains winning doesn’t mean your characters lost. Look for the unexpected twist, re-plan ahead and jump-start a sequel or a prequel if you want. As with all other things related to Dungeons & Dragons, the (im)possibilities are endless! Always keep in mind that…
…»the horror begins in the darkest hour before dawn, when a new day starts.»