Is it possible to lose at Dungeons & Dragons?

There was only so much that could be done about the slime.  We did what we could to scrape it off our barbarian and thief.  The barbarian himself smashed a lantern over his head to burn it off.  But alas, within mere moments, they were gone.  Dead.  Transformed into slime themselves.

And so, the druid, cleric, and fighter–our lieutenant–made the long walk back to the inn in Saltmarsh.  And that was the end of the story.  Period.  The module was over, the enemy undefeated.  We had failed.

Seriously. ALWAYS LOOK UP.

We’ve probably all heard the anecdote about a parent walking in on a D&D game and asking, “Who’s winning?”  The players all groan with the son or daughter responding, “Nobody wins, Mom!”  The parent then leaves the room confused, but glad their child isn’t out doing worse things with worse friends.

But the other night, when we completed The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, I busted out laughing and said, “We just lost D&D!”  So what exactly happened last Friday?  How did we lose in the game of D&D?

A problem for DMs to deal with

I’m learning that some AD&D modules (The Village of Hommlet and Saltmarsh, in particular) have points at which players can make the wrong decision.  And if they make that wrong decision, the module concludes.  The players have failed to achieve their goal.  In Hommlet, the players all perish.  That’s easy to deal with, because you can simply roll up new characters and pick up where you left off.

It’s not so simple in Saltmarsh.  If the players make the wrong choice, the bad guys leave town.  And it’s hard to beat the bad guys, when they’re gone!  The module is over.  Do not pass go–do not collect $200–do not move on to module U2!  And we made the wrong decision.

When players make poor decisions like this, it puts the Game Master in a difficult spot.  Does she stay true to the module?  Does he let the players fail?  Or maybe retcon the decision and give them a second chance?  Beyond these questions, should modules even be written this way, where a binary choice can be so damning to the characters and the story?

As someone who “lost” The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh–as someone who went away disappointed not to experience the end of the module–yet as someone who was happy with how the story ended, let me share my thoughts on what you as a DM can do to prepare for these moments if and when they come:

Decide what kind of DM you’re going to be

On page 9 of the AD&D DMG, Gygax makes a distinction between two different schools of thought, when it comes to fantasy-type games: “the realism-simulation school and…the game school.”  Gygax then proceeds by saying that AD&D is “assuredly an adherent of the latter school…not stress[ing] any realism…[or] attempt[ing] to simulate anything.”  But then, he goes to great lengths in his book to simulate his understanding of reality!  In truth, Gygax belonged to the old-school wargamers of his day and he could never escape a sense of simulating reality in his games.

So the question for you as a DM is this: how much do you want to simulate reality versus how much do you just want to play a fun game?  While I realize this is a largely artificial choice–you need not choose between them both–it’s an important question to ask when you’re faced with a situation like the one we faced last Friday.

In the real world, choices have consequences.  And sometimes those consequences are dire, life-altering, and immutable.  Meanwhile, in the game world, if player choices have no consequences, what happens?  So many negative things: players begin to act without thinking of the repercussions. There’s no danger, no fear…no fun!  Without consequences for actions, gameplay loses its purpose.  So you have to decide how effecting player choices will be.  How much will player choices affect the future of your campaign?

You have to decide what kind of DM you’re going to be.  Will you allow player decisions to totally unhinge the story?  Will you allow them to fail?  And if they do, how can you still make that fun?  These are important questions to ask.

Find a solution that agrees with your DM style

I fully support the decision our DM made to end the module.  Why?  I play a lot of RPGs and they usually end very happily.  The good guys win and the player characters are happy.  Not at the end of this adventure!  Two parties members perished and the trail of clues dried up.  The end.

Now, you might not be interested in a module that ended that way.  But for me, I felt like I learned a lot as a player.  I learned to be more cautious about green slime.  And I thought it was interesting to have characters end without victory.  Of course, I hope to play that character again one day and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects him.  Maybe I’m weird, but that’s just me.

But you, O valiant Dungeon Master, must determine what you will do if you find yourself in this circumstance.  Here are some options for you:

  1. End the module, as our DM did.
  2. Allow the players to roll up another party that interrupts the enemies before they could depart.
  3. Allow the players to roll up new characters and start the module from scratch.
  4. Simply rewind and let the players make a different choice.
  5. Violate the module’s statements about the players failing and just make it work.

If this were any other RPG system, I’d probably go with option #5.  But in AD&D, I feel like the system begs you to end the module.  It’s supposed to be a ruthless, difficult, complicated game.  And I’ve embraced that.

But what about you?  What would you do in the same circumstance as a DM?  Are there other options I haven’t considered?  I’m happy with how it ended, but would you?

Meanwhile, it doesn’t look I’ll be playing U2 any time soon…

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19 thoughts on “Is it possible to lose at Dungeons & Dragons?

  1. I think you need to take into consideration the players personalities. While I’m always one who DMs with the mentality of “every action there is a reaction”, I also believe that the DM Guide is .. a guide. The modules are there not to railroad a game, but to guide it into certain conclusions. However, you should consider your audience.

    For example: My boys and I started playing a campaign I’m writing for them. It was day one, session one. They’ve played the kids D&D module before (Heroes of Hesiod) so they knew the basics. I start them off waking up in town, the buildings around them on fire. Raging inferno fire. In the town square there is a goblin and a kobold arguing. I ask them what they want to do.

    My older son (10) wants to grab a flaming branch and throw it at them. I explain, “everything is on fire, are you sure?” So I have him roll a straight wisdom to see which one would be the best .. and he bombs the roll. So he ended up taking fire damage. And nearly killed himself with his very first action.

    Now, I could have just let him burn alive. “Well, you’re on fire and will be taking damage until you put yourself out” but I decided it would be better to let him learn a lesson. And he just took some damage. Luckily he also had a potion of healing on him (one of the starting things I gave them) so he got some back. But he learned.

    So, can you lose at D&D? Well, sure I guess. If the module is written that it’s a win or lose, then I guess. But .. do you really lose? You may not succeed on a quest, but unless the game forever ends at that point, you don’t lose. In life, just because you lose a job, or fail at a project, you don’t lose life. And D&D is kind of a fantasy life simulator, right?

    I .. may have gone off on a tangent.

    • MadCleric says:

      Not a tangent at all! I think your thoughts are helpful and get back to what Gygax said in the DMG about simulation vs. game. And, fwiw, well done with your son. A wise play, in my book.

  2. Beoric says:

    Um,,, if you got as far as the green slime I don’t see how you didn’t learn enough to trigger part 2 of the module.

    But leaving that aside, if you really did screw up, as long as there are PCs still alive the module may be over but the PCs careers are not.

    The PCs can canvass the town and the countryside for clues as to who was in there, what they were doing, and where they may have gone, and find other clues to lead them to part 2 of the module, or the next module in the series. As long as they have clever ideas that might work, and are not just spinning their wheels, the DM doesn’t need to “call” the adventure.

    Failing all of that, they can move on to other adventures, while the villains grow in power and come back to threaten the PCs at a later date. What you call “failure”, I call “recurring villain”.

    So I guess I would choose #5. But I am not sure that doing so is a “violation” of the module, because that is not how these modules were supposed to be used. The DM is supposed to tailor the module to the needs of his own campaign. And as UK1 suggests, it is the DM’s job to figure out how to deal with unexpected events (keeping in mind that UK1 does not actually stipulate a failure state – your DM inferred that).

    • MadCleric says:

      Well, like I said, #5 would usually be my approach. However, we got to the slime and then turned around and left, leaving evidence that we had been there. So the bandits/pirates/whatever they were would have seen and then fled the scene. That’s why our DM deemed it a failure.

    • martywalser says:

      I’m all for the recurring villain theme. I’ve run many adventures where the bad guys escaped, and either been woven back into the campaign later, or they succeeded in whatever scheme they were working and moved on to the next thing. The PCs can try to pursue that plot thread further, or move on as well depending upon the player’s desires.

      If the players still show an interest, I will make up whatever scheme might be next for the bad guys. If they don’t show any interest, I’ll usually fade that group of bad guys into the background (maybe another group of adventurers got involved).

  3. Having just looked at the module, I can’t how this is a loss. While the big bad from part one was not defeated, they were driven off and the plot of part one resolved. Having carried out even this small effort, I cannot see why the option to move onto part two would not be given to the players after some R&R.

  4. Jeff says:

    For the most part, the Rebels lost in “Empire Strikes Back” and everybody seems to agree that it is the greatest “Star Wars” movie of all time. And yet it went right into the plot of “Return of the Jedi”, so I don’t know how you can call not beating the bad guys on the first try “losing at D&D”. Did the Rebels “lose at Star Wars”? A good GM will figure out how the PCs “failing” at the module affects the greater world, and from that come new opportunities for the PCs to have more adventures and maybe even get revenge! Truly it is only “losing D&D” if your players didn’t have fun, or, perhaps, if the group never plays again. There’s always more story, more modules, more things to do, more adventures to have. When my players fail, they always “fail forward”- whatever happens, something else comes of it that brings with it new opportunities for adventure.

    • MadCleric says:

      I’d agree wholeheartedly. The only real problem is that this was a temporary gaming group already. But we’re all long-time friends and were happy to part on those terms…

      But we’re already talking about a character reunion in U2….

  5. You cannot lose a module, you just end a Chapter of the ongoing story. Sometimes the heroes take hard losses, but they should learn from them and fight another day. You may have experienced some setbacks but that is not losing. The DM should allow your friends with fallen comrades to make new characters, come up with a story of how they meet the remaining party members, and now the new party with something to prove goes on the hunt for these villains who are feeling victorious. Events like this “setback” have spawned entire campaign arcs for my players with minor villains becoming major behind the scenes villains, vendettas are created, nemesis form, so many stories can spawn from an impactful event such as this.

  6. I agree with the above posters who don’t think this is an “ending” or a “loss.” The villains might move on, and the heroes might move on, but as both the heroes and villains are out there in the world, there is a chance for them to interact again.

    This takes the supposition that this is part of a campaign, and not a one-shot. If it’s a one-shot, then I suppose it could qualify as a “loss.” If it’s part of an ongoing campaign, then it’s just another twist that the DM has to work with.

  7. This is why I am bad at running modules. If my PCs had fallen off the rails, I would have either given them other clues to use or used the other information in the modue to run other adventures, I agree with a response from John Simson to your Face Book post, “The only way not to win is not to play.” A party defeat or even a TPK is not a loss in the game, if the people playing it enjoyed it. Lossin D&D games only happens when you quit playing, everythng else is challenges to be over come. Number 5 is the best option that you offered.

    Thanks for a great post and a good discussion.

  8. Jeff R. Leason says:

    A good GM should be able to write his/her own adventures and not rely on published modules. If this isn’t an option, it is up to the GM to read the module BEFORE s/he runs it and change it accordingly. There are different caliber GMs AND players; a fact that needs to be considered BEFORE gameplay.

  9. MadCleric says:

    Thanks everybody for your great thoughts. I can assure you that this gaming group walked away from the module in a happy mood. It may not be the typical ending to one of our campaigns…but! Two of us are expecting children in the very near future, so we knew it was to be a short-term campaign. It ended the way it did, but already we’re discussing picking back up in a few months with U2. It will be interesting to see how the characters respond to coming across these bandits again….

  10. Green slime, I saw them back in the 80’s wow what a show.
    I DM for a crew of people each Friday and have had a TPK, some judges take pride in the fact they wiped a whole table, and depending on size of said table get accolades -Now presenting the award for most adventurers lost- sometimes feelings get hurt and can ruin the game for younger people and kids. Stands to reason why anyone would play a game that isn’t fun. Be a beneficent DM and fudge a thing or two. Although traps are set to kill, Grues are out to hunt. Be mindful players that we’ren’t out to get you, it’s a wicked world we live in.

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