I know you’ve been there, no doubt many times: a planned encounter, meticulously balanced to allow the party a measure of challenge, but one that you know they should get through reasonably well. And then: amazingly bad dice rolls; the astoundingly poor use of abilities; the splitting of the party at the worst of times; the tenuous bonds of friendship deteriorating as the encounter goes south and the players turn on each other looking for someone to blame. Okay, it’s not always that bad, but sometimes the perfect encounter can be overturned by bad rolls and the party ends up looking like the fantasy equivalent of The Hangover. But that’s not always a bad thing.
I don’t fudge my die rolls. In fact, when I play IRL (as opposed to socially isolated Roll20 as a result of Covid-19, as I do now) I get my players to make every roll (you want to see tension? Watch their faces as one of them rolls the damage for the 7th-level fireball cast against them by that evil mage). As we all know a DM can choose to fudge rolls if they don’t want a TPK on their hands. I choose to let the dice and fate decide—‘raw dice’ as I like to call it. That’s all well and good, but if you have an encounter where everything goes wrong, you find yourself wondering if raw dice policy is the best option. I’ve been very lucky over the years—there has only been two occasions where I’ve had to use a deus ex machina solution to pull a party’s butt out of the fire to prevent a TPK (in my B/X days I just let them all die—suffice to say I’m a more even-handed DM now). I’m not going to rave on about how to avoid TPKs—you can read all about that here.
One of the major benefits I’ve found from raw dice is the sheer feeling of undeniable excitement and tension as the southward encounter plays out. And when the PCs (hopefully) triumph, the feeling of relief, exaltation and exhilaration as the players (and I) celebrate the win and their survival. There’s something about a really difficult encounter that brings out the worst, but ultimately the best, about players and their characters. And it’s those moments that are remembered and talked about for years to come. Long term memories are formed as a result of the depth of positive or traumatic emotion and experience attached to them. And whilst role playing is not real life, the same principles apply.
So if you or your players aren’t feeling that, take them to the edge a little more often. You can fudge your rolls if you like, but sometimes it’s better to let the dice demigods take control.
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