As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the GM for our Pathfinder campaign, the “Second Darkness” Adventure Path. During a recent session (the summary of which can be found HERE), the party fought its way through the Academy of Arts, following clues that seemed to hint that two of the allies that had joined them in the assault had been taken prisoner by the drow who have been laying siege to the city of Celwynvian for as long as anyone can remember.
All roads (and blood trails) led the PCs here. “Here” being the room with a portal leading to a place called the Armageddon Echo, a pocket dimension of sorts created from the Shadowrealm. The drow had retreated to the Echo a number of times in the past but had closed the portal behind them before their pursuers could follow.
This time, the portal was still open. It was also being guarded by a very large, very dangerous demon that the drow had summoned to prevent anyone from following through the portal before it could close.
The plan, of course, was for the PCs to defeat the demon and follow the drow. In fact, there was an entire section in the Adventure Path book devoted to the Armageddon Echo. But, as is often the case regardless of the RPG you’re playing, no plan survives first contact with the players.
Through a mix of tough opposition and the RNG gods doing what they do when dice are rolled, one player character was killed and another ended up petrified before the demon was finally killed. One of the PCs intelligent familiars had also been petrified. There were still four PCs remaining, as well as one NPC who had arrived on the scene to aid them. Instead of charging through the portal, they decided to let it close and retreat with their fallen party members.
For some reason, I had not considered that option. I decided to dangle a carrot in front of them and had them all roll a perception check. The player with the highest roll caught a glimpse through the flickering portal of one of their allies being dragged away in chains. Would they choose not to go through the portal, knowing that their elven allies were definitely being held captive by their hated foe? The PC chose not to tell the rest of the party what he had seen, and they let the portal close.
It was unexpected but given the circumstances not all that surprising. Once the session was over, I realized that it was also my fault.
In the Adventure Path, the portal guardian had originally been a drow “pain taster” barbarian. I didn’t feel like that was enough for a couple of reasons. One, the PCs hadn’t really faced very many demons despite numerous indications that the city of Celwynvian was crawling with them. Two, if they really wanted to slow down or stop the PCs, the drow would have left someone a little more dangerous than a single drow (granted, the creature’s Challenge Rating or CR was equal to the party level but still).
Story-wise, the demon made sense. Campaign-wise, it didn’t. At least, not with the demon I chose. I had wanted to challenge the party when I should have simply slowed them down. Had I left the barbarian in place, the encounter would have lasted maybe two rounds. The PCs would have taken minimal damage, and after spending some quality time with their wand of Cure Light Wounds they would have been back up to full strength. There would have been zero hesitation in charging through the portal.
However, the challenge should have been saved for encounters within the Echo. Because I jumped the gun with the danger, there was a very good chance that the PCs might not be in a position to continue the way the Adventure was planned. That was the case here, and the party retreated rather than advanced.
There would be other options for the plot to continue as intended, but that would be a decision I would leave up to the players.
As Game Masters, we like to challenge our players. But not every situation needs to be a life for death situation. When designing an encounter, always consider the best and worst-case scenario. Well, almost the worst case. The worst case would be a TPK and the villains breaking into a happy dance over the PCs corpses. An option to be considered during a boss fight, but not so much during the road to the boss fight.
The best-case scenario for an encounter would be for the PCs to one-shot their opposition and continue on their path to glory without even breaking stride. That one, or degrees of it, should be expected most of the time.
The “almost worst-case”? Consider if the PCs roll poorly in the encounter. Are there mechanics involved that could take a player character out of commission (like petrification)? What if the creature involved scores critical hits on a single target and kills them? If there’s a possibility that some of the PCs might not survive the encounter, consider how the party might react to that. Can they immediately recover, burning resources but keeping them moving forward? Or will they be forced to retreat and regroup? If so, are there repercussions to hesitating?
Hope for the best, but don’t forget to plan for the worst. Or almost worst.