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Oops Moments: You’re Not Actually Dead (Feb. 2007)

Treasure Tables is in reruns [1] from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month [2], and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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The PCs are fighting a tough, dramatic battle. Their foes are pulling no punches, and an ogre’s lucky critical kills one of the PCs, the fighter.

The battle continues, and a couple of rounds later you realize that you made a mistake: you forgot a modifier, and if you’d remembered it that ogre wouldn’t have hit the fighter, and she wouldn’t have died.

Oops. Now what? Here are five simple ways to fix this mistake.

1. Let it ride. Everyone — players and GMs alike — makes mistakes at the table from time to time. The downside here is that assuming it’s not easy (or even impossible) to bring back dead PCs in your game of choice, this is a small mistake that will have a large impact on the game. This won’t sit well with most groups, and the fighter’s player is probably going to be bummed (rightly so).

2. Correct the mistake. The fighter is back in action, just as if the ogre’s blow never hit. Nothing else changes — they still missed the last couple of rounds, etc. This is a good balance between acknowledging that mistakes do happen and accounting for how important this one turned out to be. The best solution overall, and likely to be a good fit for most groups.

3. Retcon the end result. The fighter isn’t actually dead, she’s just unconscious — out of the action, but not permanently out of commission. Like the second option, this one reflects the fact that mistakes happen, but keeps this particular mistake from derailing the game. It could be pretty boring for the fighter’s player, though.

4. Roll back the fight. Ignore everything that’s happened since the PC went down, rewind to the point where the ogre hit (now, missed), and then continue. This can get finicky in RPGs with lots of status changes, modifiers and other factors that change during combat, but sometimes it can be the fairest approach.

5. Restart the whole battle. Scratch everything that’s happened since the fight began and play the battle over again. This is the tidiest solution, but can be pretty unsatisfying for players who did cool things the first time around and (due to changed circumstances or bad rolls) don’t get to do them again.

How else could you handle this oops moment? And do you agree that #2 (correcting the mistake) is the best approach?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post [3], and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums [4]?