TRUST IN A DEAD FROG: A Lesson In DMing from Nightwick

A rough estimation of what Snorly
looked like prior to Session 26. RIP.

One aspect of RPGs as a class of game that intrigues me the most is the sorta "emergent behavior" that can occur as a result of holding firm to the results of dice or PC choice. One of the best examples is the combination of a random encounter roll and encounter reaction check. So maybe a combination is "dragon, green" and "friendly" or "elves" and "automatically attack".

Both provide some exciting options for a DM and PCs to contend with. And while it might be easier to play one as hostile as per alignment the other as friendly for the same reason, holding to the die rolls can take the campaign in surprising directions with very little effort by the DMAnd with today's time constraints and entertainment competition, lowering the effort/energy required to DM is a virtue. Especially as we try to get more people to DM.

In fact, whole sessions can be created just out of letting players live with the choices they have made instead of handwaving something away: 

  • We killed The Butcher in Session 23 gaining this creature's monstrous cleaver (magic axe +2)
  • Then in Session 26 the owner, Snorly the Frogling, was pummeled to death by fungus creatures and we abandoned the cleaver with Snorly's corpse ✣
  • Now in Session 51 we delved the same area again and regained the cleaver

But here's the lesson: Regaining that magic axe was an entire session (51) that the DM really had to do 0 prep for. The party decided, yeah, maybe we shouldn't just be leaving magic weapons around in a hell-haunted monument to hubris.

And was it a breeze because we've all been-there-done-that previously? No. The party made some fantastic rolls- Mechtilde leading with Steel (sword +1) and our other fighters landing heavy blows (Nat 20s!). A lot of magic was exhausted. And there was an ever-present threat of being stabbed in the back by manimals.

All because there was no handwaving to say we grabbed the body or axe in Session 23. It would have been easy and tempting for a DM to do so. We did work hard to get that axe. The takedown of the Butcher was a major accomplishment. Why not let the party keep that "win"?  We chose to run. We chose to leave everything behind. And that "failure", become a new goal and a new pin in the Nightwick map.

And the recovery was challenging. Although most of the party are levels 3 & 4, the second level of Nightwick continues to pose a challenge. In part, again, because the DM is letting the dice do the heavy lifting. Monsters can come in large numbers. We lose initiative a lot resulting in having to endure harrowing damage. But all very rewarding, in my opinion, even if the plan and objective are all known-- to recover an axe we already had gotten once before!

A strong reminder for me to trust in results. Trust in outcomes even if "bad". Trust in (game-appropriate) disappointment- bad rolls, dead PCs, drained levels, and lost magic weapons. It can pay forward in fun sessions requiring 0 prep. And who doesn't want some "free" in this (DM) economy?

We've also lost a sword +1/+3 vs. undead in a roughly similar manner given by Father Christmas. Although it was part of a plan to have 90% of the party make it out alive (Session 41).


  1. Absolutely. 100% This is a great call out--and something that I think is peculiar to megadungeon campaigns. The fact that the environment is persistent means that 30 sessions later you can go back and re-explore sections and reuse the information you learned during your first delve of that area.

    1. I have a post up on my patreon about how to use restocking to make this kind of reuse more rewarding and easier to manage.


  2. Knowing what to handwave and what not to is tricky. I don't want to encourage my players to vocalize every bit of banal minutia their characters get up to, but I do want them to be able to make silly little mistakes. I'm not always happy with the calls I make in the moment.

    Your axe here is a great example of when to resist the urge to handwave.

    1. It is certainly part of the "art" of DMing. I try to find the balance in the context of the situation.

      Would you retrieve your grappling-hook 50' rope after climbing a tower- yes because that is easy to unhook. Would you untie and gather your 50' rope you used to cross a gap? That more complex, might take a long time, and could risk and encounter check-- so i would say unless PCs say they do it-- its left up.

      But yeah, its hard to always call it correctly. And each player has a certain expectation about character competence.