The gnome NPC just rolled a 1.
Tracking down the source of the rumors led to a paranoid gnome minstrel named BartyÂ who just couldn’t stop telling tales about the true (and imagined) indiscretions of the daughters of the finest families in town.
Barty was causing other problems, too, which is why the PCs felt that had to intervene. Of course the problem was a particularly sticky one: How do you make a gnome shut up?
This was strictly a roleplaying encounter, so even if I believed the thief was in the corner thinking about just slitting the gnome’s throat to be done with the whole affair, the group’s bard seemed to be angling for a musical throwdown at the Leaky Roof inn and tavern.
Sitting in the DM’s chair, I was ready. My dice had been hot all day. I was going to send the bard PC packing. No one was going to show up my cleverly conceived (and fully statted out, I might add) npc gnome.
So I rolled …. a 1.
There it is, staring in my face. Barty the gnome turned from Taylor Hicks to William Hung in a heartbeat. How do I roleplay such a disastrous turn?
I had Barty’s mandolin string break, then failing a followup Will save, became so flustered that instead of trying to replace the string, he frantically tried to tie the two busted parts together. While the bard PC smirked, the PC thief (the one thinking evil thoughts in the back of the room) decided to chuck a tomato at poor Barty. The toss missed, but it was enough to inspire the rest of the crowd to do likewise. Just seconds from his planned triumph, Barty now had to retreat from the stage in the face of a barrage of flying vegetables.
The encounter didn’t go how I had it planned at all. And in the end, it was the PC bard who wowed the crowd — not my gnome npc (though, the PCs would have been, in comparison, far more gracious in defeat, and sympathetic in the eyes of future npc contacts). The gnome, who would have been haughty and arrogant in victory, was sore and humiliated in defeat. The players reveled in their triumph and the encounter turned out to be a fun way to close a session.
The point of my now, rather longwinded tale? Storyteller GMs sometimes will fudge rolls for the sake of the story — ofttimes for the players’ benefit. I’ve done it, and there’s no crime in it.
But sometimes you just need to go with the flow — or the roll — even when it turns up 1. You might be surprised at how rewarding — and fun — failure can be.
I’ve always supported a make your failures as great as your successes policy. Especially if the players get to describe how the failures come about for themselves, or even for the PCs.
Did the players get to see the one on the dice? I’ve often found that tactile recognition of another’s defeat always pleases the players in a very schadenfreude-ish type of way.
Running with the die rolls adds the spice of unpredictability to the mix– it’s great that you had the NPC’s personality nailed down enough to know how insufferable he’d be in victory… and were able to easily improvise his crushing defeat.
Great post. Here is a counterpoint, but it is just because your article got me thinking about the subject.
“Storyteller GMs sometimes will fudge rolls for the sake of the story…”
I would say that many different types of GMs do this, regardless of if they are storytellers or not. Some storyteller style GMs use the dice to enhance the story, and will let that 1 stand and see it as an opportunity to throw in a great twist.
To me it all comes down to what kind of game you are playing (not the system, but the style of play that the group wants). Some games I roll out in the open, others I’m fudging the dice rolls behind a screen, and for some I don’t roll the dice at all. Experimenting with different styles is something that can help a GM find the right mix for their group and the current system being played.
Regardless, your reasoning of how to make the most out of that 1 was great! You didn’t just have the NPC fail, but you actually thought of what a 1 meant for that particular NPC at that particular moment. Well played!
For this campaign, the rolls are partially open. I have to explain. I’m not using a DM screen. We’re gaming at an old poker table with a recessed tray in front of every player. I’m tossing my dice into that tray. So it’s partially obscured to the players, just as their rolls are to me. But if they ask, I will show the roll.
Failure is something that takes awhile to get used to as a player. As a GM, monsters and NPCs fail all the time. But as a player, it is specially hard to accept the character you spend hours developing has just died due to poor random rolls.
In most of our games, one failed roll does not have the ability to kill a player character unless the player has been warned. Once that happens, then the gloves come off.
Example: My team of very desperate Traveller adventurers are in hostile territory in an old beat up ship, and they stumble across a ruin with a concussion missile that would give them the edge in any upcoming ship to ship battle. Problem is that the housing is damaged and the engineer needs to take it apart to make sure all of the systems are working correctly. He really wants to make sure it is operational and get it loaded. I told him that due to the damaged casing and the age of the missile, if he blows the roll really badly, he will set off the missile’s warhead. Trusting his character’s skills, he agrees and rolls the dice. It was a success, and he just smiled. They got their missile.
(One of these days, his dice will fail…)
—-Weâ€™re gaming at an old poker table with a recessed tray in front of every player.—–
That’s a great table!
Re: your post, it’s always fun when things like this happen, both for and against the players. It’s always fun when they happen in a roleplaying situation instead of combat. That you had reactions for the NPC for both success and losing is fantastic. It made their “victory” all the sweeter.
I am a Storyteller GM for sure. The rule of thumb that I use in a situation like this, is that I don’t let the PC’s make a roll (or the NPC make a roll) unless…
1. Something important is on the line. I avoid trivial rolls, and only have the players roll for the important stuff. Trivial things are just covered in story narrative.
2. That I have defined what the consequences for success and failure are for the roll, and that the story can progress with either outcome. This way, I am equally prepared for the outcome when it comes up in the game, I get to enjoy the surprise that comes from the randomness of the die roll, and the story proceeds.
So when the NPC rolls a 1, there is no need to “fudge” the roll.
Another storyteller here. After a bit of experimentation, I have settled on letting my players tell me what happens when an NPC or monster rolls a 1 in combat. It’s led to much better results. No NPC has rolled a 1 out of combat since this policy was established, but I think I’d probably still hand it to the players, with a couple of exceptions – bluff rolls and that sort of thing, where the players don’t know what the NPC is trying to accomplish, or times when it would have too much of an impact on the story. I can’t think of any examples for the latter, which suggests that it probably won’t come up.
Prior to 4th ed., I ran where if the players rolled a 1 on their attack roll, then rolled a successful to-hit immediately afterwards, they hit either themselves or a party member.
Though this was rather harsh, I applied similar rules to the NPCs, resulting in vast deaths of orcs and goblinkin.
I’ll fudge rolls, but I do it for both players and NPCs. They’re heroes, so I think Lady Luck is practically obligated to intervene on occasion. As long as the (house) rule is applied equally to both sides of the equation, I think it’s probably OK.
That being said, I’ll have to really work on RPing my own 1s better! Thanks for the above story!
I like your flexibility in this situation.
I’m of the opinion that stress can be a source of fun. And what can add more stress to your character’s life than rolling a 1?
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Oh that’s an easy one! Your groups wizard rolling a 20 to hit you when they cast a spell at the Orcs you just happen to be in hand-to-hand combat with. Our party caster has a tendency to crit on his allies…
There’s almost something magic about rolling a 1 — even if it does happen 5% of the time.
@Troy E. Taylor – I don’t think that’s true. For most of my party, 1s and 20s both happen ~2% of the time. For our ranger, they both happen ~10% of the time. And he’s a two-weapon ranger. Yes, that means he fumbles several times an encounter. Eventually, the fighter is going to learn to not get between him and the enemy…
some of my favorite moments in gaming, on both sides of the screen, have been from the bad guys rolling a 1 at a critical moment. from demon lords getting feebleminded to pit fiends getting punked by the ranger.
I love the natural one. I just wrapped up a two year 3E game that saw more than it’s fair share of Big Bads expire to an ill-timed natural one, and it was fun every time.
I loved running a world that wasn’t completely in my control. The players shaped it to an incredible degree, of course, but much of it was also shaped by moments like these.
I know that a lot of gamers think that losing a major villain to a 1 is cheap. Maybe it is. But NPCs are a dime a dozen. You can always rebuild. The lieutenant takes over. The villain confesses everything under a Dominate Person spell and ends up in prison. The dragon’s head is cut off. It might sting for a bit, but it’s always fun to see where that roll of the die has taken the world.
Fumbles provide amazing opportunities for roleplaying creativity, although mine has been stressed at times. My players tend to roll in streaks, except my wife, who rarely rolls anything in the double digits. She’s always good for a few ‘1’s in an adventure, but when others in the group follow suit, it really drags out combat (and threatens the continued well-being of the PCs)! I do my best to come up with unique and entertaining explanations for every ‘1’ rolled, whether it’s in or out of combat. The players actually look forward (and lean forward) to see what I’ll come up with next to rationalize their (or the NPC’s) momentary — or lethal — failure.
I hate to say, “You dropped your weapon” or “You broke your bowstring” every time a PC fumbles, so I try to customize the fumble to the situation. If the ‘1’ occurs on the first attack, I may tell the PC that his sword was fowled by his cape, which he’d neglected to throw back before drawing the blade. If the PC dropped a goblin in a devastating attack the previous round and fumbled his second attack roll on a cleave attempt, I might say that his first victim was still attached, the sword’s tip stuck in its breastbone, spurting blood in the PC’s eyes and causing his swing to go awry. If the next player (a wizard, perhaps?) also fumbles then I might extend the shenanigans by having the impaled goblin slide off the first PC’s sword only to land in the arms of the startled spellcaster!
With a little imagination, the entire combat can become slapstick theater with every emotion heightened as the PCs alternately laugh at their actions and cry at their dwindling hit points. The result can be very cathartic. Just don’t overdo it.
Of course, failures can also lead to interesting roleplaying side treks. Take that inept wizard from the previous example: suppose he fumbled casting a spell and, instead of blaming it on his nerves or some other bizarre happenstance (slipping on blood), I might let him wonder why his spell didn’t go off. After the combat, I might tell him that upon examining his components to see what went wrong, he notices that jade statuette that was the spell’s focus is really a fake, being crafted from cheaper serpentine. Right away, we have grist for a great side adventure as the wizard bows revenge on the unscrupulous jeweler who sold him the bogus jade piece. A further bonus is that the wizard might second guess himself for the rest of the adventure, wondering if any of his other components might be substandard.
Accidents happen. Make the most of it and don’t worry too much if a fumble tilts the adventure in one direction or another. You can always twist the storyline later on to make up for it.
Our most notable critical fumble recently was when a group of Traveller adventurers boarded a hostile vessel and were surrounded by enemy troops rushing into the chamber. The heavily armed player with a plasma rifle fired and rolled a critical fumble.
The GM was gearing up for a nasty battle when he saw the roll and his eyes nearly popped out.
He composed himself and then said:
“The trigger clicks loudly, the weapon chirps a odd warning and then starts to crank out the familiar whine of a pocket nuclear reactor heading for critical overload.”
The player tossed the shrieking weapon to one of the wide-eyed enemy troopers, who in a panic tossed it through a door and hit the close button while everyone else ran out of the room in the opposite direction. The resulting explosion turned what would have been arrogant captors of the player characters to desperate spacers wanting to get any help they could to repair their now badly damaged vessel.
One roll, and we’re done.