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Divine Intervention

Friday night. Tonight is the finale of my first, true campaign. Over the course of the epic, thirty-one session adventure, my group saved an entire island from the rampage of a dragon-worshiping orc horde, reforged a legendary pair of phylactery-crushing gauntlets, and convinced the original antagonist of the campaign to become their devout ally. Tonight, their airship flies to a climactic battle between the armies of the lich trio, deemed the Dread Admirals, and the rebels of their conquered archipelago. However, after discussing the possibility of going after the phylacteries of the Dread Admirals as the battle rages, the party changes course. They turn their airship toward the lair of the Dread Admirals, a cove-fortress named Agsur Golad. The Dread Admirals, they decide, are going to die tonight. Their phylacteries are going to be destroyed, or the entirety of the archipelago of Altarin, the group’s home, will lose the war and submit to liches’ rule.

However, as the dungeon master, I know this is a fatal move, a campaign-ending decision. My group is unable to fight liches, their undead minions, and a surprise zombie dragon at their current level. I know that they are going to die on the doorstep of the liches’ domain, thus ending the campaign and the adventuring careers of their level sixteen characters.

Therefore, instead of letting them die, however heroic it would be, forcing them off their current path or adjusting the stats of the enemies, I make an on the spot decision to intervene.

Throughout the campaign, the group performed a plethora of heroic acts, saved a myriad of goodly folk, and vanquished a considerable amount of evil from the world. In particular, they had served a priest of Lagaria, the goddess of life and health. Thus, I decide that the goddess intervenes in their mortal affairs, an incredibly rare act in my world. She blesses the heroes, commends them for their bravery, and wishes them luck on what she believes will be their final adventure, before granting them immense power.

Each member of the party feels their proficiency grow. The barbarian’s muscles bulge with divine might. The druid’s mind opens up to a vast amount of lost nature magic. The ranger’s prowess with bow and blade becomes even greater. The sorcerer’s untapped potential finally unlocks. With Lagaria’s divine blessing, they become level twenty adventurers, ready to face the Dread Admirals.

As a preface: This type of dungeon mastering style might not be for you, and that’s perfectly fine! Everyone has their own style of play. No one style is perfect, no one style is the objective best.

Some DMs would’ve let the party try to infiltrate the lich trio’s stronghold at their current level and die. However, I didn't want that to happen. The campaign was near its conclusion, and I didn’t want to railroad them away from Agsur Golad or let them die attempting to reach the liches’ phylacteries. If the group was killed there, they wouldn’t have wanted to continue.

Therefore, I interfered. I gave them a chance. You can disagree with my decision, you can say that I was breaking the rules of D&D, and I certainly was! However, I was there and witnessed the joy of my players when the goddess came to them. They were ecstatic and surprised because I’ve never done that before.

That moment was the first occurrence of the infamous deus ex machina in the entire campaign, the first time the proverbial D&D god threw the players a bone. There’s the first lesson: Don’t overuse any of the advice I’m about to relay to you; it must be used sparingly to be effective!

Today we’re discussing how and when you should interfere with the narrative, either by assisting your players narratively or messing with the dice.

Let us begin.

Assistance from the Divine

When my group decided to turn their airship toward the Dread Admiral’s fortress, where they knew the liches’ phylacteries were hidden, I knew I had to make an incredibly important, split-second choice.

Do I somehow force them to the giant battle I had planned, in the skies above a toppling wizard’s spire built from the depths of the ocean?

Do I extend the campaign by attacking their airship with the minions of the Dread Admirals?

Or do I allow their plan to work? The last thing the Dread Admirals are expecting is an infiltration into their fortress. They’ve strangled the life from the region and knew the party was on their way to Azudon’s Reach. What the villains didn’t know is that the party were aware of the locations of the Dread Admirals’ phylacteries, and they had the means to destroy them.

My rule is to always allow the group’s plans to have a chance of success, but I usually don’t directly interfere with either side (success or failure). Yet, in this case, I knew they would fail horribly, and this failure would end the campaign on a negative note. 

I’m a proponent of having fun at the table. Thus, I knew I had to do something if I was going to allow this plan to have a chance of working.

That’s where divine intervention plays a part.

I only use divine intervention when the fate of the campaign and the players fun is at stake, and I never use it to give the players an assured victory or success. That would take away all of the suspense and the drama of the adventure. So far in my DMing career, I’ve only had to do it twice, and both times it was necessary.

I’m advising that you do the same. If the fate of your campaign and your player’s fun is at stake, I’d interfere with some grand deus ex machina. Again, do this sparingly, if at all.

This advice works on a group by group basis. Some groups will hate this type of play, despite how you integrate the intervention into the story, knowing the DM is directly helping them. Others will adore the assistance. If you think you have to pull this move, try and read what type of group you’re playing with.

Now, onto an even more controversial topic.

Twisting Fate

Moving away from today’s primary piece of advice, let’s discuss the ever-present and ever-debatable dice-fudging debacle. Should you foil fate’s plans and change the number on the die being rolled, ever?

My answer? Sometimes. Vague, I know. Allow me to explain.

Fate and its plans are enormous aspects of D&D. Taking them away removes a pillar of the roleplaying game. But, if you do so tactfully, it can help the player’s experience more than hinder it. In fact, as the dungeon master, you can utilize the dice to make your campaign far more dramatic and entertaining. Again, this must be used sparingly, if at all, and it depends on your group!

I live and die by a simple rule: The player’s enjoyment is greater than the campaign’s story, which is greater than the game’s rules.

I find rather than explaining this, examples work far better.

What if a terrifying red dragon is breathing fiery hell upon the PCs, a few of them are low on hit points, and you roll near max damage? You know this amount of damage will cause ¾ of your group to go unconscious. What do you do? This completely depends on your DMing style. Do you think the story will benefit by the party losing this battle? Do you have a contingency plan? Will all the PCs die here, and is everyone okay with that? What if you want the battle to continue, to give your party another chance? Then simply fudge the dice.

What if your group is finally facing the big bad evil antagonist of your campaign, and you can’t roll above a three? Do you let fate decide the battle completely, or do you fudge the dice a little to make the fight interesting? Again, it depends on your DMing style...

...and your ability to trick your players.

Fudging the dice is okay in some situations, but you must not let your players know that you’re twisting fate behind the screen. You need to understand the type of people you’re playing with. Will they be upset if they discover you’re doing this for the betterment of the campaign, or will they understand your reasoning?

Fudging the dice can make the campaign more exciting and dramatic, but it must be used sparingly.

In Summary

Today’s topic was quite controversial, and I’m sure I’ll receive some amount of criticism for advising dungeon masters to directly intervene in the world and fudge dice, but I stand by my words. Remember:
  1. Intervening is sometimes necessary to save a campaign from a bad decision or two. Don’t be afraid to help your players out if one of their mistakes risks sucking the fun out of the campaign.
  2. Fudging the dice is okay, but you need to do so subtly.
  3. Both of these divine interventions must be used sparingly, else you risk interfering with one of D&D’s core concepts: The integration of fate.
Well, that’s it for this week, folks. I hope you enjoyed, and I’d love to hear your opinions on this topic here, on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit. Constructive discussions are beneficial for everyone!

Next week, we’ll be discussing session zeroes. Specifically, why they’re important and how to successfully run one.

Until then, farewell, fellow adventurers and dungeon masters!

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