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Tabletop Takeaways: Shadow of a Doubt

Welcome to the first installment of Tabletop Takeaways! This is a series of reflective articles about lessons I’ve learned from my vantage point in the Gamemaster (GM) chair. Each article, I’ll set the stage and then explain my main takeaway from the session, to hopefully help give you some tips to use at your tables!

Every week I’ll reference a specific session that I summarize after we play. You can find that article over at origamigoblin.com, but I’ll link the articles so you have a point of reference. Either way, all of our recaps are over there, as we play through Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords campaign.

As always, there may be some slight Runelords spoilers below, so tread lightly!

Incorporeal Punishment

In our 22nd session of the campaign, the party was still reeling from the loss of two of their own. Silas and Niko, two members of the original party, had been slain in a goblin stronghold. This was their first foray back to the scene of the crime, with their replacements in tow: an indifferent witch named Theo, and a boisterous swashbuckler named Barnaby.

We’re going to focus on Barnaby in this tale. You see, the party descends back into the stronghold and comes across a bunch of incorporeal shadows. Now, for those of you familiar with Pathfinder or other roleplaying games, these are incorporeal creatures. They’re absolutely brutal to fight against for a low-level party.

Here’s a link to the statblock for the shadows. Basically what ended up happening, is that the party was severely ill-equipped to fight these shadows. They needed magic weapons to really punch a hole in their ghostly defenses, and Barnaby was the man for the job.

Unfortunately, Barnaby is swarmed by these things, which are dishing out their strength damage. And when I say “dishing out,” I mean that they were laying it on thicker than a 7-layer salad. Barnaby falls unconscious due to the damage.

The party somehow scrapes through by picking up Barnaby’s scimitar and funneling the shadows down a neighboring hallway. It’s really rough, and I remember thinking how close to death this BRAND NEW CHARACTER came.

If you read the statblock closely, you’ll notice a caveat about the Shadow’s Strength damage. If a creature ever takes enough Strength damage from a Shadow to equal their Strength score, they die. Boom, instantly.

This is where I messed up. You see, Barnaby fit that condition based on the Strength damage that he took. After being there for a week and a half, my brother should have lost his second character.

But, I didn’t realize my mistake until the next week, because I was so wrapped up about reading the rules for Strength damage, that I thought he just went unconscious. I forgot about the Shadow’s unique ability that would take precedence here.

The Takeaway

The next week, there are two ways that you can go as a GM: you can retcon, and retroactively fix the mistake you made. In this case, I would have ruled that Barnaby died and that his shadow rose 1d4 rounds later to assault the party, which was already depleted from the fight.

The second option is to let it play out. Let Barnaby get revived, if the party has the means, and keep my hand off the figurative chess piece. That’s the route I ended up going.

When you’re a GM, there’s a really fine line between wanting to always get the rules correct and making sure that the table has fun. If I had remembered the Shadow rule at the time, I certainly would have had Barnaby permanently die, and actually probably would have led to a Total Party Kill (TPK).

However, since this was a whole week later, way too much time had passed for me to retroactively ‘fix’ the situation. What’s done was done, and I wasn’t about to go back and start off a session by saying, “Oh by the way, Barnaby’s actually dead.”

That’s no fun for anyone.

Looking back 120 weeks later, Barnaby is still alive and well. He’s a critical-hitting powerhouse, with a Dexterity score that’s through the roof. The party still leans on him for heavy damage output, and he’s a joy of a character. There have been so many great roleplaying sequences, flashbacks, and story developments that have come out of this character, that it’s impossible to think what the story would be like without him.

My point is this: you’re not going to get all of the rules right. That goes for any tabletop game; there are simply too many. Do the best in the moment to get them right and look up the actual rules after the fact so that maybe you’ll get them right in the future.

But always remember that the point of the game is to have fun, and making a rules correction after an entire week isn’t a good look. Did I bring up the rule to the players? Of course I did! They know that technically speaking, Barnaby has been on borrowed time for two RL years.

And I’m totally okay with that.


Thanks for joining me at the table for Tabletop Takeaways! You can always read more campaign journal entries at Origami Goblin, or check out all of the other great GM tips on Nerds on Earth!