I talk a lot on here about how RPGs can be problematic for cinematic action or the kind of high tension narrative drama you can get in other mediums. However, the last session of my L5R game showed me that that also is not always the case. Sometimes what happens at the table, especially when you factor in the personal involvement of the players, can make for much higher amounts of tension, and a lingering unsureness of if you made the right decision.
Cutting To The Chase
Cutting to the chase, a PC died in my last session of L5R. It is still up in the air if this is a permanent death (there are means of bringing the person back that could be in play) but for the session itself that isn't important. So how did the PC die? Well, the they had the unfortunate situation of eating a full string damage combo that over killed them by more than 100 damage. Why was this dramatic? That round, the monster that dropped the PC got around to its turn about 3 wounds over it's "runaway" threshold.
That isn't the full story though. See, that round one of the other PCs had been close enough to help but hesitated on charging the monster because they were trying to get an unconscious person to safety. When their turn came up the PC wrestled with whether it was better to get the objective further away, or to turn and fight the giant monster that was engaged with two other PCs. They opted to save the unconscious NPC. That round the monster killed a PC. The next round the monster K.O'd a second PC, and that player who had hesitated before launched in on the attack....and didn't just chase the monster away, they flat out murdered it.
Where Is The Blame?
Whenever a PC dies in one of my games I find myself reviewing the situation and wondering where the blame lies. Does it lie with the PCs for engaging in a situation when they didn't need to, or when it wasn't strategically viable? Does it lie with the GM for forcing a bad encounter, not representing options, or just dropping an encounter too powerful for the PCs to have a chance? Or, as can often be the case, does it lie with the dice?
I tend to default to blaming myself. This isn't always the case, but it is where I start. I am not opposed to PCs dying in my game, but if they die I don't want it to be because I put them in an impossible situation. My players tend to do the opposite and put the blame on themselves. Whether this is justified or not, I take it as a compliment because it means that my players trust me to not force them into situations and to always have a way out for them in the cards.
Frequently though the blame lies with the dice. This is especially true in L5R. You think a triple damage crit is huge in D&D? Try having a 1k1 damage roll (1d10) do over 180 damage to someone. Uncommon? Definitely, but I don't know a GM who has run L5R for more than four years that hasn't one shot someone with a low damage attack. It's called "a goblin with a rock" because frequently it is a goblin throwing a rock that magically one shots a samurai (frequently a Hida Bushi tanky character in my experience.)
Bad Rolls Wipe Groups
This is the reality of playing table top RPGs. No matter how good your planning is, no matter how smart your PCs are, a session will come where the dice are just going to take over. Sometimes this happens in the PCs favor. They roll crit after crit and the next thing you know the big boss fight that was supposed to be super epic and awesome to cap off an adventure arc is over in three seconds with the PCs wondering what all the fuss was about. However, the rest of the time when the dice manifest this much influence it works the other way around. The PCs get hammered. Bodies start to drop. By the time the players recognize that they need to get the hell out it is too late. They're trapped by turn order, unable to react quickly to what they see going south. When it's over all your PCs are on the floor and everyone is left wondering what the hell just happened.
Handling The Aftermath
In the event of a massive wipe, especially if it looks like it left a bad taste in someone's mouth, is to talk it out. If you, as the GM, feel bad about it then talk about it with one - or more - of your players. Go over what happened, why it happened, and get their view on it. You might be surprised as to what insight your players have. Often we are horrible at giving an objective view of what we ourselves did, but can help with others. Other times you may be shocked to find that your player(s) knew exactly what they were getting in to.
Either way, try to find what happened. Did someone make a bad decision? Did someone have a bad roll? Were the dice exceptionally one sided that round/session/day/week? Once you know what happened you can fix it. If the monster was impossible, then that is something the GM needs to work on. If it was the PC's fault, then that is for them. If it was dice...well, sometimes that happens.
Sometimes PCs Die
The end lesson is that sometimes PCs die. Run games for long enough and it will happen. Play games for long enough and it will happen to you. If you can, learn from it.