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As a general rule, I try not to fudge the rules unless it hurts my players' fun not to do so.

In the final encounter of my last scenario, an NPC I had written as a hook into the next adventure was killed outright by a specter's Life Drain. When asked if that NPC was dead (during combat) I responded in the affirmative. He failed his CON save, and his max HP was lowered to 0 by the damage.

Albeit selfishly, I began rolling death saves for the NPC behind the curtain. One of my veteran players was confused after a previously-dead NPC stabilized and was able to talk with them once healed. We ended up in a drawn-out OOC discussion, and clearly he was unsatisfied. He seemed to think I overstepped my bounds as a DM, and I think he may be right.

Did I "cheat" my PCs with what seemed like a harmless fudge?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Was the specter that killed the NPC a PC? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Oct 12 '17 at 0:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan No, that's not really within the scope of my game. I think for a PC to create a Specter character you would need to follow the Creating a Race or Subrace section on p 285 of the DMG. \$\endgroup\$ – MonkeyKB Oct 12 '17 at 2:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ (I only ask because I'm trying to imagine the chain of events: Plot Hook (an NPC ) is killed by Specter (also an NPC) and a player—out of character—asks, "Is Plot Hook dead?" and you—as DM—respond, "Yes, he failed his Con save and had his maximum hp reduced to 0." Then the fudging began. Is that accurate?) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Oct 12 '17 at 4:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did not describe the method by which he died, and since the PCs were standing roughly 20 feet away from the NPC who was killed I merely described the visual element of the attack and the apparent result. \$\endgroup\$ – MonkeyKB Oct 12 '17 at 4:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ RE: "…I merely described the visual element of the attack and the apparent result." How descriptive was the apparent result? I mean, there's a difference between He looks dead to you and Plot Hook's doomed shriek fills the air, then he's on his knees, whimpering, light draining from eyes, skin stretching taut against his skull, limbs twisting and cracking. Then, with a sudden and final thud, Plot Hook collapses face first into the dirt, his body's natural rhythms ceasing. You've seen door nails with more life in them than Plot Hook. Can you see what I'm asking here? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Oct 12 '17 at 6:07
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Did you overstep your bounds as a DM?

No, the DMG (p.4) specifically gives you the power to do what you did:

As a storyteller, the DM helps the other players visualize what's happening around them, improvising when the adventurers do something or go somewhere unexpected. And as a referee, the DM interprets the rules and decides when to abide by them and when to change them.

Just because you can doesn't mean you should ...

A DM should think carefully if, when and how they will exercise this power. You "cheated" (which is OK) but it made one of your players feel "cheated" (which isn't OK).

Your reason for doing so was ... not a good one ...

You screwed up. Not by letting the NPC die; by making that NPC the sole link to the next adventure.

You need to implement the three clue rule, the player's should always have at least three ways of progressing the story. Why three? Because one they won't find (or accidentally kill), another they will misinterpret and the third will, hopefully, send them on their way.

... and the way you did it was ... clunky.

There are so many better ways that this could have been handled including:

  • The three clue rule.
  • The conspiracy: the NPC is part of a larger conspiracy - all the NPCs in the conspiracy know "the hook".
  • The diary: This NPC keeps a diary and "the hook" is written in it, maybe in code.
  • OOC honesty: "I screwed up, this dead NPC knows something you need to know. Are you OK if I just tell you what it was?"
  • Heat of Battle: "You asked if he was dead in the heat of battle - he looked dead but you didn't use an action to investigate so it turns out he was just unconscious."
  • Failure is an Option: See here. Its OK for the PCs not to "win", its OK for the evil boss to achieve their goals and make the world a worse place for the PCs - that just incentivises the players to try harder next time. However, its only OK if the players failed because of their own decisions - they killed the NPC secret keeper, and burned his diary, and never found the secret room with the sign saying "This way to the next adventure --->" all of which you put there because of the three clue rule.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ A month late, but I will always +1 the three clue rule when relevant. Also, in a setting where Speak to Dead is a thing, a dead NPC is still a valid source of information :) \$\endgroup\$ – gaynorvader Nov 29 '17 at 10:18
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The first thing I learned as a new DM was that it doesn't really matter what the rules actually are, as long as everyone's on the same page. I heavily homebrew everything about our 5e games to the point that a lot of it is unrecognizable in the rulebook.

My players know this; we've had several discussions about how we're not married to the rules, and we're more interested in having fun with the game than following the book to a T. We've thrown a lot of rules out the window and I've made on-the-fly calls for situations where I didn't like what the book was offering me. And it works for us!

Part of the key here is communication; they know that I'm not necessarily following the rules they know from the book. However (and this is the other key part) they trust me. We've established that I have the ability to make up rules as I see fit. They also know that a) those rules apply to both player characters, monsters and NPCs alike, and b) if they genuinely have a problem with a ruling I'm open to discussion.

Essentially, the important part is to establish consistant rules, stick to them, and leave yourself open to criticism/change if the changes to the rules aren't working for you or your players. Also be willing to admit if you make a mistake! Often players appreciate you being up front and will be okay with a small bit of retcon to fix the problem.

It's the consistancy that makes this system work; if this NPC is marked dead but is making saving throws, every NPC should be making saving throws unless there's a compelling reason otherwise. In your case I might have made an effort to make it more obvious that the NPC was attempting to stablize (potentially difficult to show without metagaming, but possible) so that my players had a chance to realize that this was something that's possible in my world.

Your players see only what you show them, and it's easy for them to feel cheated if you change the rules behind the scenes and then surprise them with it. I don't believe there's anything wrong with fudging the rules to bring the NPC back to life. The issue is that you blindsided your players with the change. Admit you made a mistake pronouncing them dead, apologize (briefly) and establish that going forward either a) this was a one-time thing as that NPC shouldn't have died, or b) NPCs will always have the ability to recover so they know to look out for it.

TL;DR: You made a small consistancy error and your player felt blindsided and probably lashed out because of that. It's not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things; apologize, establish what your reality is now, and make your best effort to telegraph appropriately going forward. There's no harm in fudging the rules as long as everyone's aware that you can/will fudge when it's in the players'/story's/characters' best interests.

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There's nothing wrong with fudging the rules, though I generally try not to. I don't have an issue with letting an NPC survive a theoretically fatal life drain. Partly this is just my style -- I don't feel bound to the rules that tightly. Unless I directly say "and that life drain reduces his maximum to zero, so he's automatically dead forever!" the players should never really have a clue about the actual mechanics of it.

But, as a GM, I'm human. Sometimes I make mistakes. If I say a guy is dead and then realize he needs to not be dead, I'll acknowledge that it was a mistake.

  • "Oh -- I'm sorry. I meant he was down, not like dead-dead."

  • "I just realized did the math wrong, he's down but not actually dead."

  • "Yeah, sorry, he was actually only mostly dead."

Obviously you wanna do that sooner than later, as soon as you realize it's an issue.

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