When the Bad Guys Win is the December 2020 RPG Blog Carnival theme kindly hosted by Rising Phoenix Games.
Losing is a quintessential part of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey in fiction.
It's right there at the bottom of the circle. Our hero must enter the Abyss or face a challenge in which he metaphorically is destroyed and reborn a hero. It's something that every hero must go through.
Some Cinematic Bad Guy Wins Scenarios
Judge Dredd (1995) - The bad guys win when Dredd is framed for the murder of journalist Vartis Hammond and his wife Lilly. Incontravercial forensic evidence in the form of DNA encoded bullets is presented giving Dredd the death penalty. Judge Fargo steps down and in his final act as Chief Justice commutes the sentence to life imprisonment in the Aspen Penal Colony. He is on his way to the Abyss before a chain of events is set in motion by the notorious cursed earth cannibals the Angel Gang.
The Lord of The Rings - There are quite a few moments during LoTR that are bad guy win scenarios but the one that always springs to mind is when Boromir falls to the
The Empire Strikes Back (1982) - Things look pretty bleak at the end of Empire. Han is frozen in carbonite and on his way to Jabba the Hutt. Luke has lost a hand and found out that his father is Darth Vader. Lando has lost Cloud City and the rebel fleet are on the run. Does it get any worse?
Rookie GM Mistakes
One of the worst mistakes you can make as a GM is to reveal your bad guy too soon. Your heroes need to get a few wins under their belts against minions, they need to foil some minor schemes to bring them to the attention of the big bad. They need to be filled with a false sense of their own abilities and greatness before you drop the hammer on them.
The hero's journey circle above is divided into two halves, the upper being the known world, the world that the heroes have familiarity and can exert some control over. The second half is the unknown representing the world that the big bad has demense over. The conflict with the threshold guardians is a pivotal moment in this crossing over to the unknown world where things are not in their control.
But hold on we aren't ready just yet. You need to put their backs up against the wall, you need to take them to the edge.
NPCs are Destined to Die for a Reason
I always recommend having at least one NPC in a party for a number of reasons such as channeling DM hints, filling skills gaps or for introducing plot or story knowledge. I particularly like using the NPC as a patron or leader who joins the party on their quest.
However, one of their greatest uses is to be a casualty of war. Having a beloved NPC die can be a pivotal moment in a story which makes it real for the players. This is particularly effective if the NPC performed a vital function in the group, such as the healer or their guide. Making the players genuinely feel a sense of loss is just one of the ways you can ramp up their stress levels and make their futures seem genuinely uncertain and perilous.
Death and Rebirth
We've all been there rolling our death saves whilst the rest of the party finish off the ork horde. How many times have you been healed from near death and just carried on as normal?
This is a great opportunity for the GM to impart some wisdom or knowledge to the "dead" player which will give them an advantage in the final battle. How many times have you watched a death dream sequence? It's a popular trope for a reason.
Thanks of course go to Of Dice and Dragons for continuing to promote the RPG Blog Carnival. This is my 6th entry and you can read the rest by clicking the RPG Blog Carnival tag below.