Correcting Mistakes During Play

Sometimes, regardless of our best intentions, things just go wrong. We can handle our encounters in a meaningful way, but somehow, for whatever reason, we still fail. Today we are going to talk about the most common mistakes . . . well, perhaps mistakes is the wrong word, because this indicates that we have failed in some way, which we haven’t! So instead of calling them mistakes, we’ll stick with the word Problem.


Now sometimes this isn’t our fault. If the players suddenly decide to attack something that they know they can’t handle, chances are they are expecting you to bail them out. If that’s the case, and it was the players decision to force a fight against unbeatable odds, then just go with it. Characters die! That is what makes the game so much fun, however if somebody didn’t show up that day, or if maybe, just maybe, you over estimated the parties abilities then we can fix things during play.

Sometimes we have to cheat. Perhaps secretly lowering monster hit points, or letting the players do more damage then what they really should be entitled too, however there are things that we can do without cheating.

I usually have an NPC who is of a level or two higher then the players, he is kind of a mentor to the party, or they already know him in some way. Maybe he is a ranger or a priest but it is somebody who suddenly appears to even the score, maybe even spooking the bad guys into retreating, but most of the time by just adding an additional character to help stick stuff helps greatly.

Another method that I have used is to allow my villains to become over-competent. They ignore severe strategic threats, and fall for a trick which turns the tides of the battle in the players favor.

Both of these methods are preferred over screwing with dice rolls, after all, if we are going to ignore the gods of the dice then what is the point of rolling them in the first place? Be creative! Maybe a band of monkeys starts pitching coconuts at the badguys, sick of all of their crap and finally rebelling. Maybe gnomes who are in hiding suddenly appear in mass numbers, standing on the side of the players but do nothing, causing the villain to rethink his actions. We can do other things and use these opportunities to advance the story in some direction which maybe we never saw it going before!


A good Dungeon Master hides stuff all over the place, of course we aren’t expecting the players to find all of it! We also have some in random encounters, and there are times when this stuff really adds up and we discover that we’ve given out way to much!

We could always say, “Opps, my bad. I’ve got to take some of your treasure.” But that always seems to go over like a turd in a punch bowl, so we’ve got to think of more colorful ways of doing it.

Robbery is always a possibility, the goal here isn’t to kill the PC’s, it is to take the money and run. Some species of monster are better at this then others, of course we can quickly increase a rivals reputation, or introduce him by having him waiting outside of the dungeon for the PCs to come out so that he can take large items. Of course we need to make sure that the rival has the backup required to take the treasure without much resistance from the players, it should be as hopeless as possible.

Another solution is having them uncover a counterfeiting ring, as it turns out, these coins are just made of iron and painted to look like gold, but the paint chips off. That will relieve them of much of their coin right there! At least all of the crap that they found in the dungeon.

We can also use logic. How did the monsters get this stuff? Chances are that it is all stolen, and once the rightful owners find out that the treasure has been recovered they, particularly elves, believe that it is rightfully theirs. An entire elven brigade is awfully hard to reason with!

Kings and Lords can also demand a cut, walking around with too much treasure is dangerous. Thankfully, for advanced games, we enforce encumbrance rules which not only limits how much a character can haul out of that place, but apply the proper restrictions for being too weighed down.


Coming up with encounters is one of the hardest jobs that we have. There is no rules or magic formulas that tell us what goes were, we just have to learn what works best. Easy random encounters are no big deal, by their own nature they are more often then not, something which is more of an inconvenience then a real threat. The problem arises, however, when our planned encounters are too easy. Player characters can deal with a lot more then we really give them credit for! We send a kracken to destroy their ship because we don’t want them to have it anymore, and the buggers kill our kracken! We put a hill giant in front of the door because we don’t think that they are strong enough to explore beyond it anymore, and they beat up the poor thing and take his loot. Players are unpredictable and a great annoyance, that would make the game much more entertaining for us if they didn’t play in the first place.

Sometimes we just have to let the encounter go, but other times (particularly for big scenes) we can quickly modify it. Badguys should always have a back up plan! So should the DM. It is a wise DM who has little tricks up his sleeves, things which he can throw at the players at a moments notice. The easiest solution is rolling up a random encounter while they are wasting the encounter monsters. The random encounter shows up and drastically changes the overall battle!

We also have the setting itself which we can use. Perhaps changing the playing field, making it more dangerous to everyone. Changing the monsters tactics, or allowing reinforcements to arrive with different weapons, maybe some grenade like weapons? It is much harder to scale a combat up, it really is. I make it sound easy but it isn’t, all of this stuff needs proper planning and if we didn’t write it in there then we’ve got to look it up at the table. Try to design encounters as hard as possible, we can always scale them down. Who is to say that reinforcements have to arrive, they won’t if they aren’t required! It is better that an encounter relies on more then one element.

We also have to know the actual goal of the monsters. Would the monsters find more profit from capturing the party alive and holding them for ransom? If they eat people, do they like them fresh or rotten? What do the badguys get from killing the characters? This might not always be their goal!

If an encounter doesn’t work one way, see if you can figure out an alternative method. Just when the party thinks they’ve got the monsters beat, they realize that it was all just a trap and they find themselves caged with a totally new group goal, ESCAPE! An instant puzzle. It is cool to play dirty, the players will get nothing out of the game if there not challenged and if there are never any unexpected twists in the story. They’ll think that you are an evil genius and you’ll know that you just saved your butt because now you have more time to rethink everything.


Timeshadows said...

The players have it easy: their characters can always run away! GM's, however, have to stand and face the heat. ;)

Syrsuro said...

I just want to disagree with the assertion that having an NPC a couple of levels higher show up and rescue that players is preferable to ... anything.

There are few approaches to correcting an overpowered encounter I find less acceptable than having someone just happen to show up and rescue them, at least more than once anyway.

Imho, nothing makes the players victory feel cheapened more than having someone come bail them out whenever they get into trouble.

At least if you fudge the dice or change some stats behind the screen the players will come away with some sense of accomplishment (especially if they are unaware of the fix).


RipperX said...

Hey there Carl, thanks for reading!

I keep NPCs as backup, but I rarely use them. An extra attack is fine, and I make sure that it is the players that direct traffic. Of course that isn't the only thing that one can do, I suppose that the most appropriate thing that could happen is that the party loses.

If the fight was about getting an object, or taking a specific piece of land, then the enemy wins. Perhaps they could be captured? Of course they could also be left for dead, and THEN the NPC comes along.

PCs don't always win the game. Why celebrate a victory if you always win? As a DM, I have to judge if the players played badly, or if they were completely outclassed by me . . . if I was to blame, then this is when I need to correct the problem, but otherwise I'll just let it go.

Post a Comment


Contact me at

Search This Blog

Blog Archive