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The Lost GM Scrolls: Harley Stroh on Playing for Keeps

Lost Scrolls

Harley Stroh has been the Dungeon Crawl Classics Line Editor at Goodman Games and also has been integral in the development of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. As anyone who’s sat in for a DCC con demo can attest, Stroh likes to keep things lively at the gaming table. Below, Stroh takes a look back to a game he ran in high school and talks about generating intensity and playing for keeps.

Harley Stroh: Running AD&D, or 3.5 or 4E, I would fudge a lot. But when the chips were down, it was always crucial that the players know that we were playing for keeps, and that it was up to them to be the heroes and save the day. That’s when I would lay down the screen, roll out into the open, and pray that the dice are going to come up on the side of the players.

High school, I’m running a game for my little brother and our friends. We’re playing Greyhawk, AD&D, and the PCs are all 12th level, plus or minus, so they’re feeling pretty good about themselves. Trekking through the Sea of Dust, they find a clay tablet depicting the location of a dead dragon’s lair. Believing the loot to be there for the taking, the PCs saunter on in.

I was reading Ed Greenwood’s Spellfire at the time, so I was enamored with dracoliches. The PCs walk into the lair to discover sure enough, the dragon is dead. It’s also un-dead.

Dragon wins a surprise round and drops a breath weapon. I roll for damage and we’re seeing lots of 8s. PCs roll saving throws and everyone fails but the monk and the paladin. The players start doing the math and it suddenly becomes apparent that the entire party is unconscious or dead, except for my little brother, the paladin, who is at 3 hit points.

Silence. Whoops.

What’s the paladin to do? No way to outrun the dragon, and he certainly can’t waste it in 1 round. The players hold a hushed conference on the far side of the basement. Minutes pass and all I can think is that we’ve invested the last three years in these PCs and I’ve just wasted them.

The players come back. They have a plan.

The screen goes down, we roll initiative out in the open.

Paladin wins by 1.

He triumphantly holds aloft a glowing silver ring. Ring of Wishes, one wish left. He wishes everyone back in time five minutes. The players go nuts, everyone is shouting for joy, and the PC decide to leave the dracolich alone.

These days, with every session of the DCC RPG I run, whether it be at home or at a con, I’m trying generate that same sort of intensity. And with the DCC RPG, it’s dice out in the open, all the time, so my cards are always on the table. Which is gut wrenching, because PCs are going to drop.

Ask me sometime how I made one of my teenage playtesters cry. Ugh. You go to hell for that sort of thing. But of course, that’s exactly what the PCs did to bring her character back from the dead . . .

3 Replies to "The Lost GM Scrolls: Harley Stroh on Playing for Keeps"

John The Philosopher

December 12, 2012 at 3:44pm

Awesome!
Please give us more. Love a good Counter Monkey story.

Amanda Hamon

December 12, 2012 at 7:12pm

Love this! One sentence strikes me as particularly wise: “But when the chips were down, it was always crucial that the players know that we were playing for keeps, and that it was up to them to be the heroes and save the day.”

I’m constantly at odds about fudging for my players. I hate, hate, hate doing it, but I do NOT want my players’ characters to die, especially if they have barely gotten their concepts off the ground. Here’s to keeping the screen down more often, so the stakes — and the heroics — are always high!

Charles Carrier

December 17, 2012 at 5:03pm

Okay, I’ll ask…
How did you make your teenage playtester cry?

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