Perhaps you have accidentally put your Player Characters against an enemy that’s too big a challenge for them, the dice are just trying to kill them, or your players are making very dumb decisions. Fear not: The odds may be against them but you, the GM, is (secretly) on their side. Remember you can do anything… you just need to make it believable.
Keep a cool demeanor and pretend everything is going as expected, even if it has totally fallen apart. Pretend you’d love to kill all their characters (even if it’s your worst nightmare); it will keep them on their toes. When you save them from certain death they will feel like heroes who just beat the odds. They will never realise that you are actually the hero (but that is as it should be).
Here are a few suggestions on how to save the PCs from certain death:
FUDGE THE DICE
Yeah, I know GMs *never* do this but maybe the bad guys keep rolling 1’s all of a sudden? They can’t see what’s going on behind your GM screen. (Don’t make it too obvious).
The DMG says it’s up to the GM to adjudicate the affect of critical successes or failures. So if your players rolls 1’s I’d suggest making the outcome comical rather than catastrophic. E.g. “You swing your sword but miss; the power of your swing makes you spin around in a little pirouette. Roll again to see if you pull it of elegantly. [FAILS] You spin uncontrollably flailing your arms like a clown. You feel a bit dizzy.”
One thing you might want to bear in mind is that swinging weapons around takes a bit of room, so one way you can interpret a critical failure is the PCs weapon collides with a wall, a piece of furniture, or a precious vase. E.g: “Your swing accidentally connects with a bar stool. If you’re aim was to kill the stool you did a good job. You get the nick-name ‘Stool Slayer.'”
TOTAL PARTY K.O.
Try to knock them out rather than kill them. Don’t have insta-kill traps or incurable poisons – ‘deadly’ traps that leave them (luckily) a hairsbreadth from death are fine, as are ‘deadly’, but curable, poisons.
A knock out is still a defeat, but one they can recover from. If a character goes down it is often a prompt for the party to grab their (unconscious) body RUN AWAY. But they may fight on until the whole party is down.
If you want to be nice to them have a friendly NPC drag them off to a nearby temple to get healed up.
If you’re mean like me then have them wake in a dungeon awaiting torture or the monsters larder waiting to be eaten. They now have to figure out how to escape (the evil, overpowered thingy that KOed them is conveniently absent). Or some weak dungeon denizens may have dragged them off to loot their (presumed dead) bodies. Invent something appropriate to your scenario.
Your players might be smart enough to realise they can’t beat the encounter and run for it. Your encounter is now an exciting chase scene with lots of cat and mouse. Maybe they find a secret passage (not on your GM map? Get a pencil and add it in!) to bypass the creature, hide in for a bit or escape to safety. Your Players will feel super smart for out-foxing the monster(s).
The enemy has a weak spot. Give the players a perception/spot check to see it (if they all roll badly give bonuses based on who’s closest or the number of rounds in combat). Hitting this weak spot does extra damage or, if you want to end things quickly, an instant kill.
Something starts to vibrate in the presence of the enemy. Maybe it’s one of the PCs weapons or an unidentified object in their pack. Whatever it is it has unknown magical properties that conveniently helps the PCs fight the bad guy(s).
Perhaps it weaken the enemy, shoots lightning or teleports the PCs away from danger. Make something up. If you want to make things more tense have some glowing runes mysteriously appear and the players have to work out the right command word.
If you only want them to use this magical dohicky/plot device for this one encounter have it disintegrate after use. Alternatively the item could be part of the terrain and immovable. Those glowing runes could appear on a wall. Maybe they do different things and the players have to run around touching them to figure out which is useful. Or the first one they touch kills the monster. Whatever.
IT’S A TRAP
Did the player’s encounter a nasty trap earlier? Give them an intelligence check to remember it. Say something like “You believe if you lured the monster into that trap you could kill it.” Hopefully they’ll run with it.
If there isn’t a pre-existing trap you can utilise maybe they spot a weakness in the floor or an unstable pillar. Unless things are really dire you probably don’t want the trap to kill the monster(s), just have it incapacitate or weaken them the PCs can finish the job more easily.
NPC SAVIOUR (AKA GANDALF)
Yes, Gandalf. Well, you don’t call him Gandalf obviously but he serves the same purpose. He turns up, cries “This foe is beyond any of you, RUN!!” You can have this NPC do the whole Gandalf bit i.e. he’s obviously way more powerful than the PCs and he fights the foe to the death.
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OR the big bad evil whatever kills Gandalf but lives to fight another day, so the PCs can get revenge (when they’ve levelled up). This works especially well if ‘Gandalf’ is an NPC they have previously met and become attached to. You could even have a touching death scene.
I recommend the NPC doesn’t survive because you want your PCs to realise what could have happened to them. Also… the PCs are the heroes. NPCs can’t go around stealing their thunder.
NPC RESCUER (AKA GOLLUM)
Unlike ‘Gandalf’ this NPC is weak and cowardly; he will not fight the Big Bad Evil Guy. Gollum (or whatever you call him) is a sneaky type and knows the area well. He can lead the PCs to safety, helping them to RUN AWAY via the secret passage, telling them about the WEAK SPOT, TRAP or MAGICAL DOHICKY. Essentially, if your hints aren’t working, this character can step in and be more blatant.
Want to have some fun? Perhaps Gollum isn’t as benign as he seems and has an ulterior motive for helping. E.g. He wants something belonging to the Big Bad Evil Guy (which the PCs will ultimately carry away as loot).
Did you use any of these methods to save your Player Characters from certain doom? How did they go? Have any methods of your own? Tell me your D&D stories in the comments!