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.
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:
- End the module, as our DM did.
- Allow the players to roll up another party that interrupts the enemies before they could depart.
- Allow the players to roll up new characters and start the module from scratch.
- Simply rewind and let the players make a different choice.
- 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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