"A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face, Jack.""Yeah, and a wise man has enough sense to get out of the rain."
There's only so much space in adventure games for wise men. Truth is, unforseen and unpleasant consequences, handled adroitly, result in great triumphs and riches. Don't we know this? Or is it just that we're so certain of our inability to handle things adroitly?
Enough about that. We can take it up in the comments section. Instead, let's examine the three choices presented at the end of the last post. These were not my choices; they were the choices the party settled on:
"The party can simply slink away ... but of course, that's the coward's route and even the most boorish of gamers don't like that label. They can own up ... but, again, Medieval game world, not a liberal mindset among authorities. That's one to hesitate on. Option three? Go back and fix it themselves. Except that now, with evil bad things running all over the neighbourhood, could be there are too many for a party of 1st levels to handle."
I must definitely counsel against 'fessing up. No, no, no. Through humanity's pre-Liberal history, execution was popular because it ensured the criminal would never commit the crime again. There wasn't much worry about punishment as deterrant: no need to deter anyone, we have a sharp axe and we can keep going as long as the executioner's arm doesn't get tired. This mindset remained firmly in place up until someone invented a beheading machine that never got tired, thereafter enabling a resounding experiment in the effectiveness of murder as social reform. Since my world happens long before 1789, let it be understood that the best minds believe firmly that executing the party for "waking up evil" would be authority's first order of business before going off and ridding the evil. After all, we can't have this bunch of boobs waking up some other evil in another place while we're resolving their first blunder.
Personally, I like that my game world's politics and ethics practices a very non-Liberal mindset. This encourages the players to pursue a lack of ethics freely, if they wish ("everyone else is doing it"), while positively forcing them to live in an alien culture. The more alien I can make the game world — and retain it's familiarity — the better. I frankly think it helps to remind people that "complaining about the feels" wasn't always an option on the table. The game as "safe space" is NOT my goal. My goal is the world as fucking decadent unreasoning nightmare hellscape ... mixed with good people who yes, will offer you a cheerful dinner if you're a traveller and you knock politely. Because it's nice.
Option two, then. Slinking away is wholly practical. There's a lot of world, communication is very bad everywhere and starting fresh is always, always, always possible. The 17th century is very local. But ... if you don't stand up to this thing here, you're just going to have to stand up to something else, somewhere else. The reason why we used to use the phrase, "A coward dies a thousand deaths," arises from the coward seeing death around every corner, in every face, behind every door and yes, in a gold ring laying on the floor. Sensible players always recognise that in reality, there's no actual place to run that isn't the same as here. So if we must die, doing it here wears out fewer shoes.
That leaves option three, and the core of this post. The party feels they have to do something, but the problem seems insurmountable. What now?
DMing the problem according to my model means letting the players run their show. If we put the emphasis on the right syllable, then, the title of the post goes ... let THEM do it. This is not the DM's problem. When the players turn to me and ask, "How do we do this?"
— I'm free to answer, "I have no idea. I'm creating a river in Bulgaria. Let me know when you figure it out."
Of course, we're not exempt from describing the world, so we can do that. In the scenario I was running for the players, the killings produced a traditional local response: find out what the evil is, track it down and kill it. Evidence of this movement appeared everywhere. The town called for volunteers, the local nobility was called in, spellcasters interviewed survivors, etcetera. The players were perfectly free to "join up" with the search parties — which they eventually did, temporarily — or sit back and watch the show. Eventually, they decided to leave word of their guilt second hand, so they wouldn't be subject to immediate punishment, telling the Stavangers where to search.
The party headed back to Mimmarudla. They fought some bad guys on the way — "froglings," based on "killer frogs" from the old Monster Manual, but toughed up — and then searched around the original entrance before discovering a second entrance which the froglings had opened. This led them into a secondary dungeon, which they barely survived, finding a passage to the sea at the bottom and escaping. None of them were sailors and they got lost at sea ... but the Stavangers showed up and slaughtered all the inhabitants in the upper dungeon. Then the party were rescued, forgiven for their mistakes and proclaimed heroes.
What was my part, and what was the players' part?
The players chose to send the message. That wasn't me. I gave them someone to send the message to, but it was up to them to come up with the idea. I'd written the idea off by the time they'd made that choice, but I looked at how the Stavanger's would view such a message, told in just that way, and it seemed like a safe bet for the party.
They chose to go back to Mimmarudla. The first entrance was overrun with creatures and no safe, but they made up their mind to search around. So I invented a second entrance because that seemed like something an underground bunch of humanoids would do. Any prairie dog knows one hole isn't enough.
They chose to go into the entrance. I set them up several encounters in a row: giant frogs, stirges and eventually a very strong dog-humanoid that nearly causes a TPK. The party did not turn back. They kept going. When they came to an option of going upwards or downwards — the former requiring that they overcome a wizard locked door, which they could have done with a ring they'd found on the froglings earlier — they chose to go down instead. I had decided before the choice that "down" had a way out, if they were brave enough to go out in a sailing boat they couldn't operate. They were brave enough.
So the party had lots of chances to retreat, and they didn't. They'd made up their own minds and they followed through with their plan. They nearly died but they pushed through. Seems to me that one of their number did die, or got very close, I think it was Embla. They didn't get greedy. They didn't bite off too much. They acted like adventurers. They deserved a reward for that.
Afterwards, one of the players took the position that I'd engineered the whole thing myself. That I'd "manipulated" the party, creating the situation from the beginning so that the players had no choice except to follow the footsteps I put down. It's easy to see things that way. It's easy to perceive, once all is set and done, that the ending had been the most obvious solution all along.
Case in point, Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. I assume none of you have read the book, but yes, spoilers follow.
At the end of the book, Charles St. Evremonde, also Charles Darnay, is sentenced to die by guillotine during the post-revolution in France, for the crime of being nobility. At the last moment, a look-alike Englishman by the name of Sydney Carton willingly takes his place, so that Charles can escape and marry Lucie, his love. At first glance, and especially for those who have not read the book or are not good readers, this seems like a cheap plot convenience and is described by many as such. Dickens himself included a passage by Carton in the book itself, in which the resemblance is mocked. Indeed, the sequence is mostly all that anyone remembers of the book, "proving" obviously that Dickens had written himself into a corner that he could only get out from by employing this cheap chicanery.
The book is not about either Darnay or Carton. It's not about the French Revolution or "two cities." Like all great books, it's about the reader ... but it's completely missed in that the reader has no idea that he or she is the subject of every book, just as you, Dear Reader, are the subject of this post.
Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, the storyline investigates the subject material of resurrection ... namely, everyone's. The poor are resurrected by the revolution, Dr. Manette is resurrected from the tomb in which he's lived as a prisoner, the knowledge Manette has, locked in his silenced mind, is resurrected and used as the thing that ultimately sentences Darnay to death, though it's not Darnay that's committed the crime but Darnay's father ... whose actions are resurrected in order to bring about Darnay's sentence. Carton is a drunkard and a person of no worth, whose friends "resurrect" bodies from graves in order to sell them as cadavers. Over and over and over, the book repeatedly addresses the subject of resurrection from every angle, as something which we yearn for but cannot have, or have every reason to fear, because of the consequences of that resurrection happening.
The end is not Carton's demise so that Darnay can live. The end, if one reads the book, is Sidney Carton's resurrection. He climbs the platform and sees himself — for now Carton is Darnay, ready for beheading, and Darnay is Carton,
"... a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his."
Carton had no chance of making something of his life, but now he sees Darnay making something of Carton's life, and it fills Carton with joy. He looks around at the horror, the cruelty, the barbarism,
"... The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out."
Resurrection. He sees resurrection. His resurrection. And yours.
It should be noticed that I don't quote the famous last line of the novel, because that last line is always quoted out of context. There are two pages that build to that last line, which explain that last line ... but readers so often skim and skip, and fail to see all there is to see.
I apologise for the departure, but I wish to convey the manner in which humans "miss" things, including their own actions. D&D is thick with it. The DM has such a remarkable amount of power, that players have a tendency to perceive that everything bad that happens must be the fault of the DM ... and that therefore, everything good that happens must also be the DM's doing. However much we strive to wash ourselves out of the framework, the players are ready to put us back there because all too often they are unready to see themselves as capable and able directors of the game.
Players must be willing to put themselves "out there," to step up to the plate and swing. And to make that work, the DM must throw good balls as well as bad ... every one designed to be a strike, but every one able to be a home run.
The ball before it leaves the pitcher's hand has every nuance of being an "unpleasant" possibility ... but we don't know if it is or not for SURE until the player swings.
Like Carton, the player has to look past the two-dimensional construction of the situation appearing so "obvious" and recognising that beneath appearances, there are chances and opportunities, ways of looking at things, that surpass the common constructions of human achievement.
The simplicity of the dungeon-structured game has blinded players. It's taught them that the procedure is exactly that which is expected. But once we separate ourselves from that structure, once we let the players choose their own way of handling problems, the bets are off. Hitting the ball is less about "knowing how" and more about gumption and resolve.
Sadly, even when a player has it, they've been trained to suppose it must have been me.
Players do shake that off, once they've played enough D&D. Once they've had a chance to make their own decisions. And once they have ... oh, it's not possible to go back. No. No, it's really not.