I talked on here a lot about the upcoming Mass Battle in my L5R game. It happened on Friday and, well, it was a very sordid bloody affair. 5/6 of the party ended up in at least the Out condition, the Utaku's horse was ripped out from under her and eaten by goblins, and the youngest PC (character, not player) died pushing herself to Heavily Engaged to try and save/recover said Utaku. To be blunt it was a rough session, especially on myself as the GM (my players seemed to be more ok with it), and today I want to talk about that.
The Worries of a GM
The chief worry I had as a GM is that, ultimately, the battle went about as well as it could have gone. This was a situation where an army of some 5,000+ shadowlands creatures was descending on about 60 people with only a moderately well fortified area to help the sixty out. This was going to be bloody and brutal from the beginning, but as PCs started hitting the +15, +20, and Down and Out wound conditions it started sinking in to me. This battle was going to kill everyone, and it was going well for the PCs.
The doubt creeped in immediately. I had messed up somewhere. I had made the encounter too hard. I had railroaded the PCs into the fight. I had stacked the deck too high in the interest of making for an epic if dangerous last stand, and that deck was now collapsing onto the PCs and crushing them beneath its weight.
The Peril of PC Agency
In truth, and partially why my players were more ok with what was going on with this battle than I was because they remembered the core detail that my anxiety was failing to let me understand. They had chosen to stand their ground. In the time leading up to the fight I had been clear that this was a monstrously large force, that retreat was not a sign of cowardice nor a glory/honor loss in this situation, and that as quick as the Legion was coming to help it would not be there for the beginning of the battle. Knowing all of this the PCs made the informed choice to stand their ground.
Combined this means that, objectively, I can claim to have played this right. I put a large obstacle in the path of the PCs, but I did not control the PCs reaction to that obstacle. When they chose to stand and fight it, the obstacle didn't suddenly shrink in size or scope, it was just as hard and dangerous as advertized.
With this knowledge I can look at some of the rest of what happened and enjoy the narrative implications of what happened. The drama was high. The heroics were fierce. The stakes were extreme. Most importantly, the PCs rose to the challenge and held the line against impossible odds for long enough for the rest of the Legion to arrive. Even if it was done at great cost.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
After the game we had a long conversation at the table. With one PC definitely dead, four PCs in Out (amidst a Shadowlands Force), and only one PC still mobile it would be more than plausible to say that that was the end of these PCs and go on with either new PCs or a new game. We have chosen to go another way.
There will be a price for falling in battle. There will be scars, permanent injuries, and other negative consequences handed out to the people who went to out, but the game will carry on. The group wants to know what happens next. And so we're going to go into that.
One PC has died, and the player is getting the full benefit of karma. The others will have to deal with the loss of a character who was being referred to as "the heart of the group." Things will change, but time will go on, and everyone will have to deal not only with how their life has changed from injuries but also what life will now be like as heroes of the empire who stood against impossible odds and came out the other side still alive.
Time to Prepare
Unfortunately, or fortunately, next session is cancelled as I will be away at GenCon, but that will also give time to prepare what comes next. With what is coming, and what has happened, I want to get the fortunes involved and show the players how their actions matter on the grand scale - that even the Kami care whether they live or die (yes, I'm going for that epic...) - so I may give them all some visions of Yomi/Tengoku to start off. From there, I think some time in Court trying to get more support for the Legion might be a fun, and dangerous, change of pace from the trials of the battlefield.
Hopefuly it'll stay fun.