I had a very fun moment in my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign on Tuesday.
The characters are 8th level and exploring the temple itself. They managed to infiltrate the earth temple by posing as mercenaries for hire and, perhaps unwisely, launched an attack while surrounded by bad guys. They managed to slay the priest, but they had an ogre, many gnolls, and a troll to contend with.
In fact, while the heroes held their own for a few rounds, soon they were on the brink of defeat. A few lucky spear attacks from a pair of gnolls left the warden unconscious. Meanwhile, the nasty troll had retreated, healed all of its wounds, and returned to dish out some more punishment.
The party was on the verge of a TPK. Things were grim.
Now, at this point every DM has felt the urge to fudge a die roll. The campaign has been a lot of fun, the PCs have good personalities and back stories, and it's the kind of game that has taken on a life of its own. It's been satisfying. Why let that end because of a few die rolls?
IMO, there's a very good reason to respect the dice: What does victory mean if I, as DM, just handed it to the players? Many of the most exciting parts of D&D come down to pulling off a victory against long odds, or a series of die rolls that turn certain doom into success.
It's a tough call, but it's one I didn't have to worry about in this campaign. Through a combination of dumb luck and maybe clever thinking, I did something that I think worked out well for this campaign: I built in fudge insurance.
One of the characters, a cleric of Boccob named Cornelius, owns a book that's possessed by... something. It's a spirit, probably evil, maybe demonic. When he found the book, it unleashed a horde of demons, one of which dragged him to the lands of Iuz where he was tortured and imprisoned. When he was later rescued, he made sure to grab the book.
Later, the PCs found out that the book is connected to the temple. On top of that, they found a similar book in the library of a long-abandoned wizard's enclave. That copy combined with Cornelius's book, seemingly awakening an intellect within it.
Sometimes, that fell mind whispers to Cornelius. It offers him great power. In particular, whenever the PCs are in trouble it reminds him that it is there, ready to lend him aid.
So far, Cornelius has resisted. Last session, though, with the warden face down in a pool of his own blood and a freshly regenerated troll bearing down on the group, he gave in. With a gesture, he conjured a blast of flames that turned the troll into ash and bones.
The party survived the near TPK, but now Cornelius owes the book something. On top of that, the rest of the party isn't exactly happy that for a brief moment, Cornelius growled like a demon and summoned the fires of the Abyss to blast an uninjured troll to ash.
While the party avoided a TPK, they may have stumbled upon something much, much worse. In essence, I put the decision to fudge the encounter into the characters' hands, and tied their decision to a very important part of the campaign. We'll see in the future if the Cornelius and his friends are happy that they avoided certain defeat...