GM Excuses VI: Win or Lose, Still Fun

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GM Excuses, Part VI

lightsaberFollowing along Writing Excuses‘ master class in writing, we get to a very interesting discussion on the magical 1%. As in Star Wars, the Jedi are the 1%, all that matters to the plot. And then comes Han Solo. Great stuff, have a listen.

The homework is going to have to be reskinned:

Writing Prompt: Think about the last time you lost at a game. What was the process of thought that led to your loss? Now, replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of the story, except the story isn’t about games.

What a wonderful fiction prompt, but for a RPG adventure, how can we use it? The last game I lost was Carcassonne, a Euro Game. Hmm, how to create an adventure out of my blunders in cathedral and farm placement…

What are some of the reasons I like Euro games? They are fun even if you lose. The entire time you are playing, you’re usually make progress, building things, and racking up points. Even if someone edged you out, you were building your own empire.

Now, let’s apply that to an adventure. While RPG players can always lose, they don’t usually lose while making progress, getting stuff accomplished. They walk in a door, find something awful, roll badly, make bad choices, and either flee or reacquaint themselves with the character creation rules.

Adventure Writing Prompt: Create a scenario where the players can make progress, accomplish great things, have a good time doing it, and still lose. 

keyThe goal is create a key out of parts found inside an underground temple, rescuing prisoners and destroying evil shrines along the way. Then take the key to the final encounter and unlock the imprisoned avatar of good. So, besides ending up on the sacrificial altar, how can they lose? They can lose to a second adventuring group that finds it’s own key and rescues the avatar, putting the PCs in second place. “Nice try…” But the big rewards are for first place.

Let’s make three keys that will work, bronze, iron, and steel, each made of three parts. The temple is an inverted pyramid. The fourth, lowest level, holds the door to the imprisoned avatar. The third level has three chambers, each of which has key pieces of different colors. The second has six chambers, three with different colored key pieces. The top level has nine chambers, three with key pieces. Frightful guardians, prisoners, and evil shrines are scattered throughout.

Bishop Beesir is the patron, and sets the two teams in motion. The NPC team, the “Silver Shadows” includes NPCs the PCs have run into before, either as rivals or allies. There are two known entrances, the front door and side entrance. The PCs pick their entrance. The clock is ticking, as the avatar can’t survive much longer in it’s extra-dimensional prison.

While it may be possible to get to the goal in four encounters, the evil complex is warded against abilities that show either party what is where without looking. It’s not wise to skip freeing prisoners and destroying shrines, because these actions give the avatar respite. Sprinkle clues to the keys among shrines and prisoners.

To keep things abstract, we’ll measure time in encounters the PCs face. All things being equal, the Silver Shadows will free the avatar in 10 encounters.

Headwinds: If the PCs are racing to an easy win when they hit the third level, they find the Silver Shadows have already looted a key piece they are looking for. The PCs will have to find the other group and arrange a trade, or switch to another color key.

If the PCs are lagging behind, one of the surplus key pieces they have picked up is needed by the Silver Shadows. The NPCs backtrack and find the PCs, offering a trade. This adds 1d3 to the number of encounters the NPCs need to win.

Treachery: If the PCs attack the Silver Shadows to rob them of their keys, they hear a thunderclap as their deeds feed the evil complex, adding to the difficulity of all future encounters. Plus they find themselves applauded by an evil priestess who offers them a deal if they bring her Bishop Beesir in chains.


A nice change of pace adventure. What about you, can you think of an adventure where the players would feel like they are doing good, even if they “lose” in the end?

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4 thoughts on “GM Excuses VI: Win or Lose, Still Fun

  1. This is a very dangerous gambit to use as a DM, as players are either a highly competitive sort that feel like the DM is intentionally screwing them, or a narrative player who feels their player agency was taken and had a reward they thought they earned stolen from them at the last second.

    You GOTTA know your players to see if they’re okay with a scenario where they won’t come out the winner, and if even one isn’t on board don’t go with it. You don’t want the drama.

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    1. Good point. I’m sure it would be dangerous in some groups. It is important that players know there is a chance of success as well as failure.

      One way to defuse the drama would be to be transparent about the progress of the Silver Shadows. Not only will it seem more fair, but it could increase the “ticking clock” effect.

      I’ve seen (and bought!) a ton of scenarios with the “second party” as a threat to the PC’s success. Most of the time, they were just there as a spur for the PCs to go faster. In this case, I wanted the NPCs to be a real threat.

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