I’ve discussed a character’s right to survive in a previous entry. But what about the right to succeed? Generally, the two go hand in hand for most players. It tends to turn many Dungeons & Dragons’ groups into suicide squads with orders to succeed or die trying. In many of my groups, retreat was a rarely-considered option. A fellow DM, on the other hand, mentioned that his players frequently fell back, to regroup and reconsider, whenever the going got tough.
Players can fail at something without dying, though. An escaped mastermind or a ritual that was not stopped in time becomes an obvious springboard for the next adventure. And those things can carry consequences that demonstrate that the characters’ actions play a role in shaping the world. But this doesn’t take player morale into consideration. Note, that’s player morale, not character morale. The actual players around the table can wear down under failure.
Needless to say, this depends a great deal on the players in question and what their expectations are. It is vital in determining those expectations to understand the question: What is a hero? (I’m assuming the campaign is based around the “good guys,” and I’ll save the evil campaign discussion for a later date.) The answers from around the table, including the DM’s answer, points the way to keeping player morale up.
For some players, the hero is the character who proceeds despite adversity. He faces every challenge down, win or lose, and it is that willingness that makes him a hero. The outcome of each showdown does not define him. Getting outsmarted by the villain or retreating from a horde of foes does not nullify the character’s hero status. Instead, getting up and dusting himself off reinforces that status.
For other players, the hero is the character who succeeds despite adversity. It’s a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. She is defined by victory. If she loses to the villain, her hero status is negated. Conflict needs to be regulated with her inevitable victory in mind.
Just as vital as the answer to the question “What is a hero?” is the honesty in that answer. And experience sometimes proves it out better than the vocalized answer. I think most players claim to want to proceed despite adversity. They want to believe that when they are on the ropes they can bounce back. Their player morale is still affected by losses, particularly back-to-back losses, but they press ahead to bolster their heroic status and seek to turn the tide.
Despite the claim of wanting to proceed despite adversity, some players need to succeed despite adversity. An accumulation of failures undermines their heroic nature and just being against the ropes is demoralizing. Where conflict is fun for the previous type of player, fun rests in victory here.
As in all things at the D&D table, the solution rests in the balance point between the DM and the players. Much like polling the players for the level of lethality sought from the game, it’s important to gauge the resilience (or fragility) of the table’s morale. Answers to the “What is a hero?” question are key, but should also be taken with a grain of salt. And it may not be consistent among the players. Just like adjudicating the rules, the DM needs to adjudicate the levels of success.
Obviously, major quests succeed or fail based on the actions of the party overall. But sowing success in the form of easier to defeat monsters at times or simple to unravel schemes on the part of the villains go a long way to bolster flagging morale along the way. Is this “grading on a curve?” I used to think so, but there’s really no point in handing out F’s if the primary goal of the table, fun, isn’t being met. Over the years, my DM style has slowly shifted, and it continues to shift based on my own experiences and those of other DMs, either through play or conversation.
More and more, I find myself adjusting elements on the fly by gauging the players’ reactions as they occur. So long as I apply those adjustments consistently, I feel the role of the DM as arbitrator remains intact. The only place that the illusion of a threat becomes genuinely visible, in the hands of a capable DM, is behind the screen. And if studying the various schools of magic has taught anything, it’s that illusions can prove just as challenging as the dangers they depict.