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I am a DM in a homebrew setting (and system) that I made. We recently started the first big quest and it kicked off with them fighting two enemies.

In the fight, they were going to lose, but through the use of clever strategy managed to cause the enemies to use up most of their resources too. They were then saved by an important plot NPC. When this happened, they got extremely angry and claimed that the fight was rigged and their actions didn't matter at all (this wasn't true and I had a plan for them winning the fight). They then said that it should have been a cutscene and now when I give them a fight they sarcastically ask "are we meant to win this?"

What do I do as it's really annoying?

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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify whether I understand correctly: in this fight, you planned the encounter such they couldn't really lose (as in get TPK'd or captured or something), because they either win or get saved by the aforementioned NPC? (and off-topic: are your players regular DougDoug viewers, by any chance? ^^) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10, 2023 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know who DougDoug is, but probably not. And yeah basically (Well, they could have lost and died, but it would be hard) \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you familiar with the concept of Deus Ex Machina? \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes I am as a matter of fact. \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've still taken off the sys-ag tag; that it' snot a published system doesn't make the question inherently about playing/running games independent of system, it just means we don't/won't/can't know the details of this system. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:49

6 Answers 6

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You don't, because the fight was rigged.

In comments PixelMaster asked if the players "couldn't really lose" and your response was "yeah, basically." The party might have won honestly, or your plot-NPC was going to come by and ensure victory--that's rigging the fight.

To be clear: GMs rig fights all the time, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But I think it's important that you be honest with yourself, first, and your players about what happened.

So... what now?

Talk honestly with your players. Something along the lines of

Hey, I'm sorry about that first fight. I hadn't intended it to be so challenging for the party, I'd always intended the NPC to show up (for $reason) but didn't foreshadow it well, and now we've got this untrusting dynamic going on. Maybe you're just joking, but it makes me feel like something's fundamentally not working in this game when combats start with meta-commentary about whether you're supposed to win. Can we take ten minutes just to talk about yours and my expectations for combat, what I can do better, and how you can help me?

And in the future, you'll be a little less clumsy about letting the players see the rigging--it's all good learning experience.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for this answer. I guess I can do that. However, the players aren't just unhappy it was "rigged", but that they think it should have been a cutscene which I just don't get. \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point--I've got a work-thing starting in 2 minutes but I'll come back and augment after that. By which time you'll probably have a better answer from Trish, anyway =) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you a lot :) \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NielIGuess I suspect your players are annoyed that they wasted a bunch of time, effort, and resources trying to win a fight, only to discover that all their efforts were for nothing. Making the fight a cutscene or a narrated background detail would have saved time and allowed them to get to the real gameplay, in which their efforts actually mean something. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 10, 2023 at 22:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NiellGuess: One way to think of it is like if a player is told to roll a skill check for a particular thing, rolls a natural 20, or gets a really high d20 roll (18-19, plus modifiers), and get told that they failed the check. Or alternatively, they get a natural 1 or similarly low roll, and still get full rewards. In those situations, I've seen it recommended to not have them roll if there's a predetermined expected outcome either way (For example; a wizard nat 20'ing versus a barbarian at an arm wrestle through a strength check). \$\endgroup\$ Mar 11, 2023 at 0:26
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In Hindsight

I'm going to start with some advice about what should have happened during the fight that upset your players, not because you can go back in time and fix it, but because it's useful to understand what the players were most likely expecting, before talking about how to solve your current issue.

For anyone who isn't familiar with it, the Deus Ex Machina trope (lit. "God from the machine") refers to when the heroes of a story are saved from an otherwise unwinnable situation by a powerful being whose only purpose in the story is to save them from that unwinnable situation. Given how you say the combat went, it's easy to see why your players felt like the powerful NPC was a Deus ex Machina. They were doing poorly, then with heroic effort, began to recover - only to be saved anyway, reducing all that heroic effort to nothing. That's frustrating as heck!

Your players were most likely expecting one of two scenarios:

  1. A fight intended to be unwinnable no matter what they did (in which case their complaint about it being a cutscene is warranted, if harsh)
  2. A fight intended to be difficult but winnable with clever tactics and heroic efforts, which is the kind of thing many people play combat-based TTRPGs for

They thought they were getting 2, and were probably feeling pretty good about themselves - but the abrupt arrival of the powerful NPC turned the situation into 1 instead, yanking the rug out from under them just when they were starting to get excited.

So - again, in hindsight - what you should have done was let them win the fight. I don't often advocate for GM fudging, but this would have been a good place for a bit of judicious behind-the-scenes adjustment. Your players were being clever! They were feeling heroic! That's a great chance to boost everyone's fun by rewarding them with a victory despite what your secret GM numbers say.

Only then, after the PCs won, your important plot NPC would arrive. Perhaps the NPC rushed there after seeing the fight from a distance, and is surprised to find it over; you can take this opportunity to have the NPC compliment the PCs on defeating such a difficult foe. If you need the NPC to demonstrate combat prowess, you could add a short cutscene / narration afterward that allowed the NPC to show off. But in general, having an NPC save the PCs, especially when the PCs are legitimately succeeding(1) on their own, is going to upset your players.

What Now?

Your players clearly don't trust you, but their reaction seems extreme. So your first task is to do some self-reflection. Have you used a Deus ex Machina in other games you've run? Have you done anything else that takes away or diminishes the PCs' accomplishments? I'd strongly recommend looking at this question and the linked questions, and the topic of GM railroading in general, to see whether anything resonates. If so, you'll need to address that with yourself before moving on to step 2.

Step 2 is to talk to your players. Let them know that you understand why they're frustrated about that fight. If you got any useful insights from your self-reflection about railroading, this is a good time to admit them. If you didn't, consider asking your players if they often feel railroaded, and see how their answers line up with your own assessment. Tell them (and mean it!) that you are committed to doing better.

Step 3 is, well, to do better. You have to earn back your players' trust by showing that you'll make sure their victories are acknowledged. Check your future plans for possible Deus ex Machina situations, and rewrite any you find. During sessions, take a few extra seconds to compliment players on cool things they did that turned the tide of the battle. If your homebrew system has anything like Pathfinder 2's Hero Points, those are an excellent mechanism for this. Otherwise, it can be as simple as adding things into your narration like, "Because of Player A's idea with the barrels, Enemy 1 is stuck and has to do this suboptimal thing instead of their original plan".

It's going to take time, and it's going to be hard. Check in with your players regularly to make sure they're having fun and whether there's anything they'd like to see more or less of (this is a good thing to do all the time as a GM anyway). You may slip up, which is fine! We're human, we slip up. :) If you do, acknowledge it to your players as soon as you realize it, and then work harder to not slip again. Over time, you should be able to win back your players' trust by demonstrating that you understand why they're upset and committing to not making the same mistake again.


(1) You noted in a comment that while the PCs had made the enemies use most of their resources, they were themselves "running on empty and in bad shape" and weren't actually succeeding. And in your question, you say you had plans for if they won, but you also planned for them to be saved. It sounds like the fight was intentionally overwhelmingly difficult to the point that even with a heroic effort and clever strategy, the PCs stood next to no real chance of winning, and that the purpose of the fight and its difficulty was specifically to have the heroes be saved by your NPC. This contradiction is a very good thing for you to think over during the self-reflection step.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ About them succeeding, they weren't in fact. They had managed to get the enemies to use most of their resources, but they were also running on empty and being in bad shape. \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ However, I do see your point on what I should have done differently. \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like most of this answer and upvoted. But I disagree with "perhaps even mentioning they considered intervening but it was clear the heroes had everything under control,". That could easily lead to questions about why the NPC didn't intervene anyway. After all, in fiction even if not necessarily mechanically, There was a risk of the PCs dying or at least burning up limited resources and the NPC intervening could have helped with that. I would just have the NPC show up afterwards. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10, 2023 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman Agreed, it’s much better for them to show up afterwards, or literally at the absolute last moment (right as the PCs drop the final enemy). Maybe have them be impressed that the PCs survived, possibly have them visibly relieved that the PCs are fine, but never go with the ‘Would have helped, but you looked like you were doing fine.’ trope unless you intend for the NPC to be in conflict with the characters to some extent or it’s a case like an honor duel where the NPC intervening would be even more contentious for story reasons. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 11, 2023 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Okay, I dropped the part about the NPC's commentary - it definitely wasn't coming across like I meant! @NielIGuess I also updated the answer to take into account your comments about how the PCs were really doing in the fight. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Mar 11, 2023 at 1:20
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The Deus Ex Machina is the problem

You have explained that the fight was set up in such a way that the players either will win on their own or that they lose and get rescued. The latter is a Deus Ex Machina. And here lies the problem: A Deus Ex Machina is almost always unsatisfactory and extremely hard to pull off.

I suggest listening to the Overly Sarcastic Productions discussion of the trope. 15 minutes well spent. The gist is, a Deus Ex Machina breaks so many conventions of storytelling, that makes it hard to pull off in a manner that does not upset a reader, listener or participant in a story. It's just... "And now you are saved!" Even Aristotle criticizes it in a fashion that should be internalized by every GM:

It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus ex Machina.1

To prevent the Deus Ex Machina to be unsatisfactory, one of the key ways is to make it part of the plot. That is easier said than done because you need to give enough foreshadowing that such a thing can or might happen but it can't be too much to make it expected to happen at a specific moment.

Let me grab an example of an event that doesn't count as a Deus Ex Machina using LotR as an example: The Arrival of Gandalph with the Riders of Rohan. Yes, it is unexpected that Gandalf leads them and that they arrive at that very moment, but the reader knows that part of the riders was not in Helm's deep, and that people were hoping for that relief strike.

On the flip side, the Eagles that carry Frodo back from the volcano, those are a real Deus Ex Machina, and they are never explained why they were not used to get him to Mordor in the first place, making them leave a very stale aftertaste.

What Deus Ex Machina works for Running RPGs?

Let's follow OSP's classification of Dei Ex Machinae and see which can work:

Negative Foreshadowing

When the DEM contradicts the plot so far, it makes the story stale and bad, they need extreme cleanup work after... let's just say: Don't Do It deep in the plot. Don't contradict your plot to solve a problem. In my years as a player and GM, it rarely worked out that players found it interesting when the whole world they thought was working in one way was wrong in a crucial aspect. That's a little too general. Or to be more precise: it can work out, but only in a very specific way.

I have seen this type of foreshadowing work really well and actually outshine other ways, when the game is all about the discovery that came with the Deus Ex Machina. Like, it turns out that there actually are Great Old Monsters (like in Call of Cthulhu), you are actually superpowered (like you play Exalted, but all characters start as humans), or the world the players play in turns out to be nothing like expected. However, on a technicality, those cases actually have Meta-Foreshadowing from the game system you play, so technically those are low foreshadowing.

No Foreshadowing

The ideal, like from the greek drama. It is not contradicting... but pulling it off is tricky. As you portrayed, you ended up here. The NPC was not shown before, but it can be justified in hindsight. You need to explain later why the whole thing happened now, but it doesn't change the fact that you struck them with DEM and it feels cheap to them.

Low Foreshadowing

This works if prepared well. Players know that something will save their bacon when the proverbial excrement hits the fan, and so they delve into it in Exalted, trying to make that moment of becoming an Exalted really exciting.

High Foreshadowing

This is like... a magic artifact that could solve a boss battle. The players in my Year of the Griffon game got their fingers on the horn to blow in the moment of utmost dire need, to call a literal godly being to a fight. They turned the prelude to that fight, which was a cutscene between a pair of otherworldly combatants, into their final stand, in which their only goal was to actually sound the horn three times in succession. Everybody knew what would happen when the third sound came, but that actually was what made it memorable for the players.

The Eagles from LotR are technically here because they are mentioned a couple of times, but they also make an example of bad execution. We don't know why they were not used to fly them in, or why they only were used on the way out.

Conclusion?

How well a DEM comes over is very dependent on the surroundings. You fell for one of the many traps of it, the players felt cheated and that the whole thing was rigged... because as nitsua60 pointed out: it was. The only thing you can do now is Damage Control. Talk to your players, figure out what went wrong, and try to better yourself. Apologize. And then, get back into the fight and try to become the best GM you can.

In my experience, a good Deus Ex Machina that makes players happy does not fully solve the problem itself. It helps in solving the problem, and at times, triggering it becomes a problem in itself! Because of this, I tend to lean on the helper Deus Ex Machina (Chekov's Gun style). Instead of having the NPC wipe the enemy, it could have just bolstered the numbers or given a little boost - or just a short distraction for the enemy, and it would have massively shifted how the scene felt.

Players rarely think they are in an actually impossible situation unless they are really deep in the hole. That makes pulling on that for a good Deus Ex Machina quite harder, making it nigh impossible to pull off a solving Deus Ex Machina without getting the player upset.


1 - Aristotle: Poetics, Part 15(B): The Unraveling of the Plot

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. Gandalf coming in with the Rohirrim works so well because it's High Foreshadowing done perfectly: Gandalf tells Aragorn - on screen - "Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east." before they separate; Aragorn (and, critically, the audience) know that he's planning on bringing the DEM then. The tension isn't "can the defenders at Helm's Deep defeat the orcs?" (because we know they can't), but "will the Rohirrim heed the call?" and "can the defenders hold out until the Rohirrim arrive?". Which is why the horn example works: it's the same tension change. \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would contend in that case Gandalf and the Rohirrim don't count as a Deus ex Machina. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Mar 10, 2023 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o the Rohirrim are the DEM, not Gandalf. Gandalf was expected, but the riders? nope! When I read the book the first time, I expected something like him bringing in the Eagles, but no, he brought in the cavalry.. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Mar 10, 2023 at 17:52
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Storytelling isn't rigging

Nitsua60's answer covers the importance of being on the same page with the players, but as part of that conversation I would also talk to them about storytelling vs combat simulation.

In many systems, the focus is on storytelling with the combat playing a minor part. In many others, the combat is the focus. And at many tables, those are sometimes swapped. That isn't to say that there are mismatched games to tables, but more that tables find the fun they want to play regardless of the system's demands.

Cut Scenes vs Played Scenes

You've pointed out that your players feel that this should have been a cutscene. That in itself isn't necessarily wrong, but it does bring up another aspect of the storytelling discussion to be had above.

One way to look at cutscenes is that the DM alone is storytelling and that played scenes create a group storytelling experience. If the players are interested in impacting the scene, and you are interested in letting them potentially make changes to your plans, then the group as a whole gets to create the story in realtime. But for this to work, they need to feel like their actions impact the world, both positively and negatively, and that you can be on your toes enough to improvise alterations to your plan with the new input from your players.

For me, that's really the bar I achieve for. I'm not saying it's easy or that it won't be a longterm work in progress, but if everyone is invested then that can really increase the phone.

Rails aren't bad

But that's not the only choice - and if the players aren't as interested in the shared and would like more of an on-the-rails, then you can absolutely listen to that and adjust.

But you do need to determine if that's the fun that you want to have. If it's not, then talking to your table about what will scratch everyone's itch is really a must-have conversation.

Questions for your discussion

Some questions you can bring up for yourself and your table:

  1. Do you prefer combat to roleplaying or vice versa?
  2. If you DON'T get any of the other choice, will that make the game less enjoyable for you?
  3. If you DO get some of the other choice, will that make the game less enjoyable for you?

Finding the sweet spot will likely take some time unless everyone is immediately on the same page - and that's okay. We get better at playing games over time as we learn more about what we want in them and for ourselves.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The players are more combat focused than story focuses so I guess that we weren't on the same page there. \$\endgroup\$
    – NielIGuess
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:00
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It sounds like you and the group have fundamentally different expectations of game-play; start by addressing these.

It sounds like you're striving to tell an epic story with harrowing and difficult encounters. This isn't a bad thing, and sometimes the dice might cut that kind of thing short.

Having a method to save the party in your back pocket (and thus keep the game going) is a fairly standard tactic. It sounds like they disapprove of the method more than the fact that it happens, because even the the murderiest of hobos understands that a TPK situation either invokes Deus ex, or it invokes game over, and that's a choice everyone needs to be on the same page about when it happens or no one will ever have fun.

The antagonistic nature of their responses to the tactic (or its method), suggests to me that your players are more of the adversarial type.

This is not inherently wrong, but this mindset rarely makes for a fun game if all involved parties (including the DM) aren't in on it. They aren't here for a co-op story, they're here to 'win' by killing the dragon, rescuing the prince/ss, and saving the day- or taming the dragon, kidnapping the prince/ss, and using them to become ruler. In this scenario, whenever you 'save' the party, you should do it through methods other than an NPC that saves them.

The shift should be subtle; fudge a roll on the attack, spontaneously decide the monster has half as much HP as it did before, or have an enemy in a clearly superior situation do villain things, like gloat and waste time monologuing. The key to this type of playgroup is to leave them feeling like they own the outcome, good or bad.

There is another possibility; that you have a group of gamers who are down for the ride of your story but have a stack of character sheets already audited and approved by the DM b/c characters die, and they're ready for the ride of the story being entirely controlled by the dice.

These players are ready for the TPK, and may even look forward to having the story to tell. Let them wipe; then cut back to the tavern a week or so later, highlighting the setting with the desperate quest-giver moving on to the NEXT group of adventurers who happen to meet there...

Oh look, you've already got sheets ready? Fantastic.

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What is winning?

In the fight, they were going to lose, but through the use of clever strategy managed to cause the enemies to use up most of their resources too [..] saved by an important plot NPC [..] I had a plan for them winning the fight

It sounds like the possible outcomes for the encounter were:

  1. The party strategy is not so good so they don't make much of an impact to the enemies. Eventually they are overwhelmed and the NPC saves them.
  2. The party fights in a clever way and the exhaust many resources of the enemy. Eventually they are overwhelmed and the NPC saves them.
  3. The party absolutely nails the fight, possibly has some lucky rolls and they actually win.

My impression is that (3) was an exceptional circumstance and the most likely outcome was either 1+2 (hence having the NPC on standby). In that case, I'd strongly suggest that win should be reframed as "we force the enemies to waste resources until the NPC arrives" and the party should be aware of that (instead of thinking they're fighting to kill all the enemies).

Why?

Strategy is definitely a concern, as they party would fight differently if they're aware that they need to inflict costs (eg dispatching the weaker mobs while banishing the boss vs the opposite). But more importantly, motivation.

Consider the Battle of Helm's Deep in the Lord of the Rings

Théoden fell into despair [..] Aragorn sent word to evacuate the caves. At this point, Gimli noted that the sun was rising, and Aragorn remembered Gandalf telling him that he would arrive at dawn on the fifth day, and convinced Théoden to ride out with him. Gimli sounded the horn of Helm Hammerhand and what remained of the Rohirrim and Elves, along with Aragorn and Legolas, mounted on their horses and charged the Uruks just as they broke through the door

Now that's epic! But if Aragorn didn't know that Gandalf is coming, he'd be evacuating the caves instead of charging. If he was forced by the DM to charge, he would feel that it's a desperate, unfair situation, and when he failed to kill all the orcs and was saved by Gandalf, he would feel cheated.

Of course, sometimes, this is something that is worth putting on the table - having a fight where the party realises that they are out of their league - but it's hard to get right.

Now what?

It's fine if things don't work out from time to time. Getting better aligned with the player's expectation is important here, perhaps it's worth having a discussion around it. Eg, is the expectation that they kill/incapacitate the enemies in every encounter? How should encounters that don't focus on that be framed, do they want you to outright tell them the objectives / emphasise that they can run away etc? Once that's established, regaining mutual trust will follow - although there might still be a jest about this from time to time.

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