10 Trivial Choices to Death


We sadly had the first death in my Adventures in Shadow campaign recently (in 017: Death in the Darkness). Brave Toliyrath—wizard about town and one-time rope merchant—was crushed and burnt to death by a crystal ooze in the sunken tunnels below the ruined village of Greystone. His death was entirely avoidable and pointless.

For me as a GM it sucks when PCs die—particularly in what was a “non-essential” encounter. I use a GM screen and I could have fudged the dice rolls, but I didn’t. That’s because I didn’t want to cheat the players. As the GM, I owe it to my players to be as impartial as possible. Without the risk of death, the whole game becomes a little bit pointless in my opinion.

(As an aside, have you ever noticed how when a GM fudges dice rolls on the players’ behalf he isn’t cheating? For more on this subject, check out To Cheat or Not to Cheat—that is the Question).

No single event or catastrophic choice led to Toliyrath’s death. Rather, his death was the culmination of a slow series of minor, but poor, choices made over the session. Taken on their own any one or two of the decisions would not have had a disastrous effect on the party. However, because Toliyrath’s demise slowly crept up on the party no one (including me) realised the danger until it was much, much too late. Behold:

  1. Two of our players couldn’t make it to the session, and we only had the character sheet available for one of the characters (a druid with an animal companion). Thus, the party was a man down and one player was essentially running three members of the party (two of which were unfamiliar to him).

  2. Another player has retired from the group because he wants to join the army cadets and one of the cadet’s meeting nights clashes with gaming night. Thus, the party was also missing its main damage dealer.

  3. The party had just returned from a previous foray in which two of them were cursed and two of them were afflicted with filth fever. While one of the curses had been lifted before the party returned to Greystone one PC remained cursed and two were still suffering from filth fever.

  4. When they returned to Greystone, one of the party—Jeremiah the rogue—volunteered to stay with Luestiss for a week as part payment for a darkwood figurehead the sea dryad possessed. Thus, the party lost (temporarily) another member.

  5. The much depleted party then decided to explore two partially flooded tunnels. They set off with the wizard in the front rank of the party, so he could concentrate on detect magic.

  6. On encountering the crystal ooze the party spotted and identified the creature, and learnt much about it—including it was a good swimmer.

  7. The party decided to fight the creature in the water by slowly backing off and using missile fire to harry the creature.

  8. Several of the party started backing off while two of the PCs pointed out they didn’t have missile weapons.

  9. The front rank didn’t move.

  10. The GM rolled excellent damage dice. (To be fair, this isn’t a choice it just made things much, much worse).

I read an old, but interesting, post on Wizard’s website the other day which mentioned the Event Horizon of a TPK—the event horizon being the point at which a TPK is inescapable. In this instance, it’s hard to identify an actual Toliyrath’s Death Event Horizon. I think the best contender for such an event horizon was the point (sadly in the first round of combat just after decision #9) when the crystal ooze grappled and paralysed Toliyrath. At that point, it became a race between the ooze’s damage output and the party’s damage and healing output. Sadly, the ooze won.

The point of this article is that death and disaster are rarely the result of a single bad decision. Instead they creep up on the party and the GM like a thief in the night. While you can’t remove all bad decisions and mis-calculations from your delve you can be aware of the cumulative effect of many small such decisions and work to mitigate them as much as possible.

Have You Suffered Death By 1,000 Cuts?

Have you experienced or witnessed a similar death or disaster? Let me know, in the comments below.