I don’t normally see death as a player failure. When you start waving swords around then people are going to get hurt. One lucky strike can take someones’ head off and occaisionally it wll be yours. That is just the nature of combat and random dice rolls.
I am also not a fan of skewing dice rolls in the players favour or rerolling unfortuneate results. Earlier this week in my post on player death I was saying how my face to face group have a sponsor capable of life giving and it may be necessary to give out a rune of life giving in the future. If there was not sponsor then it is still possible to give out a prepared vial of a life giving herb. That gives the GM the option for the vial to ‘spoil’ if he or she wants to remove it from the game later. I would rather kill and raise a character so they know they are mortal then to make them invulnerable because no one hits them once they are down to their last five hit points.
So despite all the signs that it is not a good idea, the party charge into the mess hall and are suddenly out numbered five to one by off duty knights. The party have a round or twos grace while people trip over benches as they jump to their feet and try and draw swords and others rush to weapons racks and start handing out the spears. By round three the guards are getting organised and the party have taken down two or three of them but there are now twenty armed and angry guards encircling them.
This is an epic player failure but what do you do?
- kill the party
- all the knights fumble every attacl for the next five rounds taking half of themselves out of the combat
- Capture the party and throw them in the cells.
I would be tempted to go for 3 above. Beat them to a pulp, take the kit and throw them in the cells. Any amount of time you want can have passed between the end of the beating and the party waking up which allows you to update the situation and reset the objectives. Maybe the party has now alerted the villain that the authorities are on the him, maybe the party has been missed and a rescue has been mounted, who knows.
I always develop just enough to a plot line to cover what happens if the party are captured for just such a situation. In the last adventure I ran the party were invading a Drow outpost. The Drow were using slave labour and if the party were captured then they would have been thrown in with the slaves. As the party are all spell users they would not have been completely helpless but also would have had willing allies prepared to assist in an escape and tools such as picks and shovels to use as improvised weapons. There was even a priest amongst the slaves who could have helped heal more serious wounds.
Success was not a foregone conclusion.
As it was the party pulled off their plan and rescued the slaves themselves but the point is that I was perfectly prepared to let the party fail but the story continue. Success was not a foregone conclusion.
I am certain that successes that have been hard fought and well earned are sweeter and more meaningful than those handed to you on a plate. I also hope my players feel the same way.