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Player Despair and Deus ex machina

A discussion on player despair and calculating challenges at the table

You can see in it their eyes. One of your players has given up all hope. They’ve run the calculations and they know that their player character is GOING to die!

So, Game Master? What do you do now?

Part of your duty as a GM is to create sufficient challenge for the group of players so that there is effort in the obstacles that they face. If things are always too easy then the RPG will become trite and boring.

However if you pull off a Total Party Kill (TPK) for all of the PC’s then you’ve done something wrong! Killing off the whole group is a very effective way to terminate an RPG campaign. Only the most masochistic or desperate players will return to your table after a TPK!

Mind you, sometimes you get a collection of imbeciles who do EVERYTHING wrong and as a GM it’s your duty to teach these newbs some valuable life lessons. (Real world example: Bears are NOT huggable. They will kill you! No I’m NOT kidding).

But lets steer this discussion away from those extremes. You have a good group of players. You have a good idea of the capabilities of the characters and you put together a challenge.

Things aren’t going to be a cake walk this time! Oh no!

You present the scenario and things look bad.

And then it gets a little worse. Not much but, oh my the stakes are higher!

And then the “Big Bad” pulls out a surprise!

And you realize that one of the players puts the math together an in their mind the odds are too great.

“Game over man. GAME OVER!” (Pvt Hudson: “Aliens”)

Now what?

I’ve been in this situation on both sides of the GM screen, being the player who is in despair and the GM with the forlorn player.

What about Deus ex machina?

What is Deus ex machina?

Translated from ancient Greek it means “God is a machine” and it was introduced as a theatrical device for Greek Drama. The common Drama involves protagonists who face an ever escalating series of misfortunes and in spite of all of their vain efforts, they find themselves incapable of securing their own salvation.

Inevitable doom grasps at the sorry heroes and nothing can save them! Nothing will save them!

And then a Greek God would be hoisted onto the stage via a crane and intercede on behalf of the beleaguered protagonists, just in time to make everything right. Literally Deus ex machina!

While the Greek Dramas which employ the Deus ex machina theatrical device do so with good purpose they do so to point out how sometimes we can’t affect our own salvation (and metaphorically they’re teaching the point for exalted purposes). We also need to prepare to face our own Kobiashi Maru situations (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan circa 1982) from time to time. Sometime in real life failure is the only option!

But for RPG’s that’s a weak and disappointing device to pull!

As a Player Character you are supposed to be the hero! You’re supposed to be the solution!

And it sucks to be the PC’s only to have Elminster or Gandalf to show up in the nick of time and to pull the PC’s out of the fire!

In an RPG when the GM ‘saves’ the PC’s from inevitable doom, it robs the players from a sense of accomplishment. And the players will sense that loss.

It may not be as painful as being robbed at gunpoint for their wallet or a full on mugging, but it’s a type of larceny.

Do don’t go down that road. Your players will blame you. You’ll game on, but your campaign will be diminished.

So put your own “Elminster” back on the shelf.

And leave ‘em there.

Pull your punches?

You may need to do this but if you do so you must be subtle.

Avoid overt acts of stupidity by the enemy.

Don’t fudge rolls on behalf of the PC’s.

Things like that will be sensed and your players and they will think less of you. It may be a third degree misdemeanor instead of a felony but it’s still larceny.

You could double down and show these wimps. That’s right! You sorry saps are scared of twenty orcs? Try forty! Not forty total. Forty more! Yeah!


The players are in despair already. No need to pile on any more.

Maybe you can keep additional forces from entering the fray. The players don’t know about the forces waiting in the wings so . . . leave them there.

But here’s the cold hard reality. This is the answer:

Do nothing different.

You know your players and their characters.

You have run the calculations. You’ve planned the scenario. You know that they can beat this.

So let them.

Don’t pull punches.

Don’t change anything.

Don’t soften up.

They will win.

It may be close, (because you planned for it to be close).

PC’s may go down.

Some may die.

But they’ll win.

(Unless you really miscalculated in which case it IS your fault).

In the end, when the PC’s pull off the impossible they will exalt in their victory.

Legends will be born!

In decades to come, the players will continue to recount the awesome success stories.

Even those epic deaths, those selfless sacrifices for the rest of the team, will be held up and lauded with joy.

That’s right.

Don’t let up. Don’t relent.

Let them win!