Have you ever had such a string of improbable events in a game session that you wondered if you would have been better off buying a lottery ticket? Something so unlikely that you thought witness testimony might be required every time you told the tale?

I have!

What do you do when your dice turn on you, luck being the fickle mistress that she is? Can you look back on the event years later with a smile and say that ‘at least today’s bad luck was not as bad’ as it had been on that legendary day of darkness?

Let me share just such a story with you – the tale of woe, what I learned from the event, and how it made me a better player and GM.

Stormy Waters in Seventh Sea

This story occurred about 3 years ago (in 2008) in a Seventh Sea campaign. The basic mechanics for this game are ‘roll a number of d10’s equal to Stat + skill, keep a number of them equal to the stat, and try and achieve or exceed a target number’. Players have the option of increasing the difficulty of the task before them in an attempt to succeed more dramatically – at the risk of achieving an even more spectacular failure.

Our group of intrepid swashbucklers were about to board a pirate ship in the middle of a storm. We had by this point been playing the campaign for a while so our characters were fairly powerful; this should have been a quick-but-fun skirmish that should have had us back in the tavern spinning tails and downing a few ales in short order – but the winds of fate on that particular day decided ‘no, that would be too easy’.

My first roll of the day was to Swing across to the other ship. For a skilled combatant, as my character was, activities like this should be so easy that it was a given. My luck had been running middling-to-excellent for months if not years, so perhaps there was a small element of overconfidence as well.

The first sign of trouble

Maintaining the flavour and style of the game, I opted to make the roll more difficult and show off a little. Heck, I was in the position of rolling 9 dice and keeping 6 of them, and I only needed to get a total of 15, from those six dice – I should have been able to do that with a sword in one hand and pint of brew in the other whilst holding the rope in my character’s teeth!

To my dismay all 9 dice came up ones – a critical failure in anyone’s book. The character flew face first into the mast on the other ship and landed unceremoniously on the deck in a heap.

Next was the roll to get up. Normally an automatic action, but as it was a wet deck in a storm the GM decided that it required a simple roll.

“I won’t get cocky this time,” I told myself; “I will just plain old stand up, and not make a show of it the way I usually do”.

Once again, roll 9 dice keep 6, against a target number of 10. And once again – you guessed it! – the dice came up all 1’s. It was official, luck had deserted me. The GM decided that I went for a bit of tumble after slipping over on the rain-slicked deck, so he rolled for direction and distance and the character and up tumbling into a mob of pirates like a bowling ball, all of us ending up tangled up in messy pile.

To cut a long story short

This kept up throughout the day. The GM was kind enough not to cause anything too terrible to happen to the character but a lot of embarrassment and humiliation was on the menu for the character. Eventually, we won the battle, but by its end I just wanted to curl up in a ball and hope the world would go away.

That day I rolled 235 d10’s. Of those rolls, 232 came up ones, and the 3 remaining rolls were twos.

I had never seen anything like it in my life. We had checked my dice for irregularities and sticky spots and whatever, tried swapping them out for other dice I had in my collection, and even tried rolling someone else’s dice! I’m sure I had better odds of winning the lottery and being hit by a twice by a truck all at the same time. (As a side note, I would be interested in knowing what the odds of such an occurrence would be).

Lessons Learned – As A Player

Now to get into the meat of what I am hoping to get across here, mainly what can a person learn from this unlikely cavalcade of events.
Perseverance. it sounds obvious but when everything seems to be going wrong and there is no relief in sight, sometimes you just have to keep trying to move forward.

Calmness and maturity. It is easy to let anger get to you blow up and throw a tantrum or two. Sometimes it is better to call a 5 -10 minute break, go grab a drink, get some fresh air, and look at the situation anew in a calmer state of mind. What can you do to get things back on track and get back in control of the situation? Mind you, at this point I was thinking “What can I do that does not involve rolling dice?”

Lessons Learned – As A GM

Looking at the situation from the GM’s point of view there was much to learn as well. The biggest lesson I took away from it in this regard was how to take an unusual and unlikely series of events and utilize them to improve the adventure.

I must say that my GM during this whilst enjoying it was a real sport and didn’t use this as a chance to lay in some boot leather whilst I was down. In fact, he took the reins and like a real pro used this freak occurrence to create an exciting and memorable battle out of something that would otherwise have disappeared into obscurity as just another skirmish.

Ultimately, we all play to have fun and it’s to no one’s advantage if a flow of bad luck sucks the fun out of the game. I am not saying ignore the dice or let only good things happen to the players, but even whilst enforcing a failure result the GM can interpret rolls in a way that still keeps proceedings exciting, interesting and fun.

On reflection

Looking back on the events, I find that I’m not upset by the story at all.

In fact I am quite happy about this dismal run of luck – something that seems to repeat itself every three or four months to a lesser extent. It made the game the game more interesting at the time, it made me a better player and GM, and it created an amusing memory for both myself and the others who were there to share in it.

It also helped the GM, who was having problems finding ways to challenge us and who usually spent more time bashing his head against the table while we accomplished the impossible. Instead he spent a large part of the session almost laughing himself to death and to this day still wears a smirk on his face when the anecdote gets brought up, usually at times when I’m rolling well.

Ultimately, I think this ramble of mine can be boiled down into this, you can always turn what should be a bad gaming session into something that is fun and exciting as well as a learning experience. You just have to look for the opportunities to do so.

Witness Statement

I was there on the day. The other players were laughing almost as hard as Ian M, the GM, was. Although initially upset and even angry, even Ian G began to see the funny side of events as improbability was stacked on unlikelihood to form a monument to the whims of chance. The rolls described by Ian were as he has reported them, above, both in number and in result. They were all rolled publicly, in fact after the first few they were the centre of attention for the entire table.

Nor is this the first time either of us have seen improbable results of a similar sort, though of lesser magnitude. I have seen a player roll 43 one-hundreds in a row on d-percentiles. Ian’s seen another player roll 40-odd d20s getting a 20 almost every time, interrupted by the occasional 19,18, or 17.

Mike Bourke

Ian M’s Reply

It is written, some days you are the windshield and some days you are the bug. That is pretty much what happened here.

Ian G’s runs of luck (and, in this instance, un-luck) could be more than amazing. But, I respectfully take issue with his saying that I bashed my head against the desk whenever this group managed the impossible. I distinctly recall only ever doing that a few ….well, maybe several …..OK, a number of times – and always as the result of Ian G’s character taking what should have been a straightforward roll for some minor activity like sneaking or diplomacy, and somehow generating near-Ghodlike results.

Still, he does say nice things about me, so I guess I’ll let that pass.

So, where does my GMing come into this? To start with, understand that the ‘7th Sea’ RPG is a very forgiving system that lends itself very well to ‘seat-of-the-pants, roll-yer-dice-and-pray’ refereeing (which I like). To that end, when Players roll very well, I don’t just say “You do XXXX damage” or “You easily dodge the bullet.” A much more vivid description is called for.

For VERY good rolls, I might even ask the Player what he would LIKE to have happen (Ian G got a lot of practice at this), which would then be taken under consideration when I provided the results.

For those incredibly BAD rolls (like here), it is more complicated. Some GMs would have taken the opportunity to chop Ian G’s Character into minestrone. But my own GMing approach (complemented by ‘7th Sea’) is that Characters (usually) do not die – unless they do something unforgivably stupid. You cannot have decent swashbuckling without comedy and that is what I go for.

Rather than a Character getting killed or permanently maimed by a run of sheer bad luck, something more… “interesting” happens. “You leap… and totally miss the window ledge, smack your face into the wall, and tumble thirty feet into the cobbled street below. Luckily, that big heap of manure was there to break most of your fall…”

I Have no specific system for this; I just take a look at the general circumstances and ask myself what COULD happen. My Players love it, and the results of these fumbles are as much a part of group folklore as what happens when things go right. If not more so.

Admittedly, I was more than a little suspicious of the sort of results Ian G frequently got. Enough to rule that all dice rolls (not just his, mind you) had to be witnessed by either me or at least two other Players. It didn’t help. Finally, I just learned to go with it by keeping skill resolutions well-compartmented –for example, he might make a massive roll to figure out that an NPC was definitely hiding something, but that didn’t mean he automatically knew what it was.

That Ian G always did his best to NOT overshadow fellow party members helped immensely – everybody got to do kewl stuff and have fun, and that is what RPGing is all about, really.

About The Authors

Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he has GM’d but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales of the floating Vagabond, Legend of the five rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, GURPS, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many many more. Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design and is currently eyeing the idea of module design. Ian has a number of guest posts coming up here at Campaign Mastery over the next few months.

Ian Mackinder has been gaming for longer than he cares to remember – almost as long as Mike Bourke has. He usually has a campaign underway, but is just as comfortable as a player. In his many years as a GM, he has run Star Trek, Traveller, 7th Sea, a Klingons campaign, and many others, often for years at a stretch. You can read more about him at his ‘About Me’ Page. Ian has popped up here at Campaign Mastery a time or two previously, posting a comment in response to Mike’s post ‘My Biggest Mistakes: Magneto’s Maze – My B. A. Felton Moment‘ for example.

Mike is very happy to call both these guys friends.

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