Fate’s Fell Hand is a non-map-based adventure that still has a cool location, with interesting monsters and NPCs to slay, and an “escape room” format where the characters try to find enough magic cards before the time is up. I found this one complicated to run, requiring careful study and consideration, not a grab-and-play adventure, but the premise was pretty cool and I was sucked into the possibilities of the pocket dimension (I was inspired by PJ Farmer’s “World of Tiers” books I was reading when I got this). In the end, our party of hardened monster-slayers missed the two coolest encounters (spoiler: the basements.) In particular, they refused to go down the narrow shaft that required them to take off their armor, sensing a trap and fully aware that Goodman Games adventures are not necessarily written for players to survive every encounter.
I have been cultivating an atmosphere in which everyone believes they could die. Certainly, the greatest achievement of the Dark Master is the advent of the 0 level funnel, which desensitizes the players, and more importantly the Judge, to character death. But that’s just the first adventure. In our games, players run two leveled characters each, so, like in the funnel, they can die and still be in the game. I can no longer imagine a game with only one character per player: No judge would allow you to die unless you were being annoying and they wanted you out of the game. Another convention that has my players convinced they might die is keeping a “Hall of Heroes” file where all their dead 0 levels reside. Dead characters are not thrown away. Instead, every time someone dies, I play bagpipe music on my phone, note the cause of death on the sheet, and place it ceremoniously into the Hall of Heroes where they will await the end of time. We currently have 27 souls in this file, mostly 0 levels, but repeating this little ritual has us prepared psychologically for the inevitable character death. And finally, there’s the Goodman Gospel of rolling dice publicly so that the Judge (the big softie) can’t fudge the results. I also like to give weight to dice rolls by announcing the target number and consequence; For example, if Curwen is hit and I’m about to roll damage, I ask him first how many Hit Points he has left (say, 4hp) and announce the damage roll (1d6+1). At this point, everyone leans in because Curwen’s fate is unfolding in front of them. He will only live on a 1 or 2. There is tension in this roll, and everyone is fully engaged for one lovely moment. That’s my favorite part of the game, but if the players feel like they can never really die, then the dice mean nothing and the drama is lost.
In our game this time, no leveled characters died. It almost never happens. (There is only one 1st level in the Hall of Heroes). But my players believe they can die, so they refused to take off their armor to climb down that narrow shaft. I was a little bummed that they missed a cool encounter (spoiler: demonic flies), but I’m pleased to see my players believe their choices matter. They act as if their fates are in their own (fell) hands. So I’m stoked on that.