Should I have let the party die?

22 posts / 0 new
Last post
So, here's the background.

The party has been looking for a way to kill a specific Lich.
They were told of an ancient weapon that could defeat him.
Eventualy they found that this was hidden in the tomb of a knight who killed this guy the first time when he was still alive. 
In the tomb they found a sword (not magical) with runes on it. 
After translating the runes I told them a name was on the sword (and told them the name).

The party then (unsure if they had really found the weapon) used an oracle ritual to ask questions about what/where this weapon was.
I gave them these responses; 
"It races like wildfire even now through the minds of you and your companions"
"An echo of humanity in one who has long since forgotten" 
"The dead forget, but the living now remember" 

The answer of course, is that the weapon is the lich's true name. They aparently did not realize this.

Shorty after they were confronted by said lich and entered combat.
I had designed the fight so that the lich had some hefty resistances and extra powers that would be removed if they addressed him by his true name.

After 4-5 rounds the party was getting wrecked and they hadn't figured out the weakness.
They tried a few things like trying to hit his magic tome with the sword (and umm, flinging cabbage at him. Don't ask.. I don't know) <.<
I ended up droping some really big OOC hints that eventualy let them figure it out and kill him.

My question. Should I have helped them as I did? Should I have let a TPK happen? I'd normaly think I should do a "defeat them but take them prisoner" or some such, but this guy had just wantonly murdered some random town guards, and would have had no reason not to do the same to the party. The fight left me feeling like I'd cheated to give them a win. What should I have done differently?
If you want your players to "get" something, give them three clues in the fiction. That's usually the number it takes for them to catch on.

If they didn't catch on and got their keisters handed to them, just make it a non-death failure. That will depend on other things in your story and scene, but it's not inconceivable that the lich has other designs than killing such powerful adventurers, even if they're patently bad at solving riddles.

Define your monsters' motivation before play and it will inform you as to what you should do when the time comes.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

Here, Have Some Free Material From Me: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Dark Sun Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Generated D&D 5e PCs

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

I'm not sure I would have said 'of course' there.  Those clues don't really lead me to the answer being his real name.  That's the problem with riddles and puzzles like that; the answer is always obvious to the person formulating them.

I would say the difficulty level between solving and not solving the riddle was too steep; having the battle be more difficult for that lack of information is fine, but not to such a degree that you only provided the party with a single avenue of success.  It's very, well, railroady.  It was at this point that you cheated them of a win, I would say.

As I would consider this a DM error, I would not penalize the PCs with a TPK.  The Lich may have wantonly murdered some random town guards, but they were nobodies.  Here, we have some stout folks who thought they were actually capable of challenging him ... which means they might make good experimental subjects, or he might just enjoy torturing them later to rub their noses in their failure, or he wants to feed them alive to his pet monster, or a number of other reasons why he could take them prisoner instead of killing them on the spot.

An important part of encounter planning is to ask yourself 'what happens if the PCs lose?'  You should have a contingency plan or two in place in case things don't go according to plan.
I should have probibly let them be captured then. 
And yeah, it is railroady, as thats what the party has liked and wanted in the past.

I guess I had expected them to run if they came up against something they didn't know how to kill, rather than fight to the death.
I should have probibly let them be captured then. 
And yeah, it is railroady, as thats what the party has liked and wanted in the past.

I guess I had expected them to run if they came up against something they didn't know how to kill, rather than fight to the death.



Unless you're blatant about it, players will never realize that they're outclassed until it's too late.  Sometimes, you just have to tell them that whatever they're attempting won't work.
My approach is that I take death entirely off the table unless I think the table would find it interesting and appropriate for some or all of the PCs to die.

If the players are digging it and they feel like it's a noble sacrifice, it's probably interesting to them and they'd accept a death, maybe even really appreciate it.

If the players are confused and feel tricked, then it's probably not interesting to them and they probably wouldn't appreciate losing a character or a party.

I don't think you should have told them, but I don't think you should have killed them. I think it should not have been just a straight up kill-or-be-killed confrontation but the PCs trying to prevent project of the lich. Without knowing his name, they'd be unable to stop him and he'd complete his project without killing them, and then laugh and walk away as part of his plan came to fruition. Now the PCs are living in a world where the lich is winning or has accomplished something horrible, and they still don't have the means to beat him.

You didn't give yourself a way out. It was only plausible to kill them unless you did what you did and just gave it away. Neither of those are satisfying. To be clear, failing to kill him and him achieving part of his goal is not satisfying either, but it keeps the story going, maintains the puzzle, and makes it that much more satisfying later when they do figure it out and move to stop him.

Riddles are not to be trifled with unless it really doesn't matter whether they solve them or not. How did they react when you told them the answer? Groans? Questions about how they were supposed to figure that out? I think you would have been better off if you'd told the players the answer and asked them to describe how their characters managed or failed to figure it out.

I should have probibly let them be captured then.

Eh, maybe. Capturing it pretty cliche and sometimes even more annoying than losing a character.

I guess I had expected them to run if they came up against something they didn't know how to kill, rather than fight to the death.

We've discussed that here's before and that just doesn't tend to be the way D&D players operate. Nor do the combat mechanics really facilitate that kind of thing.

Unless you're blatant about it, players will never realize that they're outclassed until it's too late.  Sometimes, you just have to tell them that whatever they're attempting won't work.

Another good reason for focusing on failure that doesn't result in death for the PCs. If they try an fail, even if they fail big, they can learn and try something else in the next encounter.


[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I gave them these responses; 
"It races like wildfire even now through the minds of you and your companions"
"An echo of humanity in one who has long since forgotten" 
"The dead forget, but the living now remember" 

The answer of course, is that the weapon is the lich's true name. They aparently did not realize this.

... What should I have done differently?

You probably shouldn't have assumed that they would get that. Also, instead of the OOC hints, you could've maybe:
1) let them roll insight.
2) let them roll history
3) had the lich react to the inscription in a revealing way ("The inscription on the weapon glows, and the lich says 'Fools, using my true name against me has only made your deaths longer!'")
4) Had a friendly sage figure it out for them
5) made the lich defeatable without the true name (then maybe use the true name to find or destroy his phylactory).

Why was his name engraved in the knight's sword?  I mean, I know why you put it there - you wanted them to weaken him by saying his name, but why did the knight have some dude's name engraved in his sword?
"When Friday comes, we'll all call rats fish." D&D Outsider
Your question boils down to, "I included a riddle in my game, and neither the PCs nor the players figured it out. Should I have let them all die?"

No, no you should not have. This is why riddles can be so tricky to use. 

"Not only are you wrong, but I even created an Excel spreadsheet to show you how wrong you are." --James Wyatt, May 2006

Dilige, et quod vis fac

Your question boils down to, "I included a riddle in my game, and neither the PCs nor the players figured it out. Should I have let them all die?"

No, no you should not have. This is why riddles can be so tricky to use. 

Agreed.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Why was his name engraved in the knight's sword?  I mean, I know why you put it there - you wanted them to weaken him by saying his name, but why did the knight have some dude's name engraved in his sword?



It was there because the knight killed the lich the first time (when he was just an evil wizard), and put it there to be used against him.


I think I'll avoid riddles in the future. The players still had fun with it, and did enjoy the fight. It just didn't work from my perspective.

Why was his name engraved in the knight's sword?  I mean, I know why you put it there - you wanted them to weaken him by saying his name, but why did the knight have some dude's name engraved in his sword?

It was there because the knight killed the lich the first time (when he was just an evil wizard), and put it there to be used against him.

I think I'll avoid riddles in the future. The players still had fun with it, and did enjoy the fight. It just didn't work from my perspective.

If you do use them, just be prepared to drop them if the PCs don't get it.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I think I'll avoid riddles in the future.

No need to make such a drastic adjustment. Riddles have been a lot of fun at my table, and it's a classic trope in fantasy adventure. I usually have 3 clues available. In theory they could be tied to insight checks, but I usually just give them (one at a time) and credit the player(s) with the highest passive insight. As someone else pointed out, the answer is easy when you know it, which is why when I look for riddles and only use ones I can solve on my own.

Reading your riddle, I would have have thought it was the name of the knight, as, well, it makes sense. Otherwise, maybe a diety. The lich's name would have been a distant third, or fifth, or more.

The rule of three is good... if you are decent at making riddles. But, we all mess up on occassion, so, if the riddle is an important quest milestone, there needs to be an option for the players to force their way through it. This is something that's somewhat costly, and so should not be the first recourse to solving the riddle, but should be presented soon after the riddle is introduced, so the players know it's an option should they get stumped.

Also, when they solve the riddle, something should happen to indicate that it's been solved (or, even better, when they haven't solved it, something should be telling them that it remains unsolved).
Reading your riddle, I would have have thought it was the name of the knight, as, well, it makes sense.

Oh, man. If I were running this, the knight would turn out to be the lich.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Oh, man. If I were running this, the knight would turn out to be the lich.


...and the sword the phylactery!
Oh, man. If I were running this, the knight would turn out to be the lich.

...and the sword the phylactery!

... and he lost it years ago, so he started the rumor that it was the only way to defeat him so that it would be brought to him.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Oh, man. If I were running this, the knight would turn out to be the lich.

...and the sword the phylactery!

... and he lost it years ago, so he started the rumor that it was the only way to defeat him so that it would be brought to him.

..and what's funny is that he's not lying; the sword is in fact the only way to defeat him, what with it being his phylactery and all.

@mikemearls The office is basically empty this week, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for low shenanigans

@mikemearls In essence, all those arguments I lost are being unlost. Won, if you will. We're doing it MY way, baby.

@biotech66 aren't you the boss anyway? isn't "DO IT OR I FIRE YOU!" still an option?

@mikemearls I think Perkins would throat punch me if I ever tried that. And I'd give him a glowing quarterly review for it.

Oh, man. If I were running this, the knight would turn out to be the lich.

...and the sword the phylactery!

... and he lost it years ago, so he started the rumor that it was the only way to defeat him so that it would be brought to him.

..and what's funny is that he's not lying; the sword is in fact the only way to defeat him, what with it being his phylactery and all.

The best lies are true.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

The best lies are true.




I like the thought that if the players still didn't figure all that out, and they struck him down with the sword, he'd melodramatically fake his death, and come back sometime later to continue his plans elsewhere, unhindered by PCs assuming he's dead.
The best lies are true.

I like the thought that if the players still didn't figure all that out, and they struck him down with the sword, he'd melodramatically fake his death, and come back sometime later to continue his plans elsewhere, unhindered by PCs assuming he's dead.

Nice. Now. that's what I call an "alternate failure condition."

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

One of the most important things I've learned through being a GM is that the outcome of an encounter is not always what I predicted or hoped it would be.  You need to cover multiple bases, otherwise you won't be prepared when the players do something spontaneous.

Also, with mini-games such as riddles, you have to understand that none of the players have a 20 intelligence, but their character might.  Next time, instead of trying to make the players guess, make it a knowledge skill challenge for the players; for each success, they understand a piece of the riddle.  

And if they horribly fail the skill check, Monster Knowledge should be enough for the players to realize they're going up against a badass monster with lots of resistances.