Behind the Screen: Suspending the rules for reasons of plot…

2008 March 13
by Dante

One of the other difficulties with running a campaign with high level player characters is how to control plot related elements when those characters can make saves or take actions that would fundamentally disrupt your encounters.

The Arguments

In our current campaign, there have been a few times when effects occur to our players that they did not get a saving throw for. A specific instance of this was when our party encountered an evil goddess who froze them in their tracks in order to give a chilling speech about how the party fouled up her best laid plans and they would pay dearly…. essentially a slight plot advancement wrapped in some color.

Most of our players didn’t seem to mind not getting a saving throw to be frozen in place, however you will find that all groups contain That One Person that wanted an opportunity to try the throw anyway. I feel like those people are perfectly justified in wanting the saving throw, however in this particular case I was able to explain it away due to the fact it was a lesser goddess that they encountered.

That begs the question: how do you handle this when lesser characters or forces are involved that the players should get a saving throw for, but in succeeding could handicap or seriously disrupt your plans for the session on that given night?

A Solution in Pieces

In the vein of full disclosure, I will go ahead and state out loud that I don’t have a solution for this problem, and I consider it one of the fundamental difficulties of playing a high or epic level campaign. It seems under the current rule system, you can no longer necessarily revert back to some classic D&D encounters that the players could easily dissuade with their skills. You lose some of the ability to tell a story in a cutscene fashion, or using underpowered, crafty NPCs to add some interest.

I say this because as a DM I really don’t like overly suspending the rules in cases where they are warranted. For example, if a nimble thief picks Bat Loaf’s pocket and he is dexterous enough to give chase and catch him instead of leading you into the Elite Thieves Guild plotline you had laid out, that kind’ve rules out being able to do that without submitting yourself to a “shoot off the cuff” night.

When you’re dealing in a mode of co-DMing like we are, the difficulty of just ad-libbing like mad on the spot becomes more great since both DMs should have some say in how things progress in a given situation (at least, that is how we’ve been running it to this point).

I know there are seasoned professionals in our midst that do well in a high or epic level setting, so please give me a temporary +2 to WIS here!

4 Responses leave one →
  1. thanuir permalink
    March 14, 2008

    The best solution is to not build plots so that they rely on anyone failing or succeeding at a given roll. Like, taking the thief example, if the pickpocket is caught, the players have just gained extra information and can better prepare for encountering the other guild members. If the murder the poor bastard, they just gained the hatred of someone important in the guild, who just happened to be a friend, relative or lover of said pickpocket.

    Whatever the characters do, they encounter the guild, but the approach they take and the rolls that succeed tell how favourable the conditions are.

    Second option is something used in some superhero game (IIRC): When you break the rules to let an NPC get away or make a stirring speech or whatever, give the players whose characters are involved (or all players) an action point or few. This makes the situation explicit (no fudging necessary) and doesn’t bother most players very much, since they get AP that can be later used to, say, fight the same BBEG. A win-win situation, basically.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    March 14, 2008

    I think part of the problem is that the first instinct when introducing any plot element is to treat High/Epic level characters as if they were low level peons. Let’s face it, any character that has been able to survive long enough to reach 15+ level deserves to be treated with a little respect. Gods, demigods and elite NPCs should be cautious when dealing with PCs of such caliber. Attacking them directly or trying to steal from them would be the height of foolishness.

    If the lesser god’s attempt at freezing them in place backfires, it deserves the beating it’s about to get. If the elite thief gets caught too early, that’s just too bad for him.

    In both cases, we’re talking about a powerful entity or organization with vast resources. You could always overwhelm the PCs with numbers or “well thought out” plans.

    Alternatively, if the intent is to merely lead the PCs in a particular direction, perhaps simplicity is the way to go. Have a minion of the lesser god attempt to approach the party peacefully in order to deliver a message from it’s master. Think of the scene in LotR where the Mouth of Sauron delivers a message to Aragorn.

    I agree that there is a need to deliver plot advancement in a way that motivates the players. However, I think that’s doable without suspending the rules.

  3. Vanir permalink
    March 14, 2008

    There is always the option of putting a really high DC on the save, not telling the players what it is, and acting like nothing unusual ever happened.

    Oh wait, you’re my DM. Forget I said anything. 🙂

  4. Anonymous permalink
    March 19, 2008

    I usually have my players roll most of their saves, and many of skill check at me ‘behind the curtain’, they don’t see the result of the role. Sometimes I have them role for no reason. I only tell them the effect, if any on the character. I haven’t had to use this to bend the rules yet, but if I needed to I might.

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