You’ve heard the phrase before; I’m sure – Deus ex machina (Latin), translation: “god from the machine.” Pejoratively: when an issue is resolved by the intervention of some novel action, object, figure, or ability. Simplified this means if a given situations logical conclusion is found distasteful, deus ex machina will ameliorate the issue.
If you’re looking for an example from literature (don’t worry, I’ll use something you know) you can’t get more blatant than the character of Fizban. The dude is a walking, talking plot device. Fizban might as well be built from the tongue-in-cheek 3.5 NPC class appropriately titled, Deus Ex Machina, which features such ridiculous class abilities as, dramatic reveal and right place, right time.
The point is, deus ex machina is used as a catch-all plot device to move a story forward, and because it’s a literary (I use the word “literary” very loosely here) device there are compatibility issues when it’s transferred over to a RPG. The problem is that literature is a closed system: once the story’s been put on paper there’s no further interaction with the story. This is very unlike RPGs where player action dictates certain aspects of the plot. While the players might not generate the world per se their very existence directly affects the goings on in a campaign. Putting a deus ex machina in a game is roughly the equivalent of your wife asking your opinion on an outfit when the decision has already been made. It’s an insult to players’ abilities when DMs use a deus ex machina, and means the DM has decided to do one of three things:
- Force a plot point on the characters.
- Place the players in an untenable situation that requires intervention.
- Rescue the players from the consequences of their actions.
In the first and second case it’s just bad DMing. If a plot point is so forced that it requires a deus ex machina, then it’s probably not a well-developed point. Also, if you’re deliberately placing players in situations that require DM intervention to resolve problems, then you’ve lost sight of what it means to be a Dungeon Master and become no better than the freaky little worm from the D&D cartoon. By putting them in an impossible situation you’re telling your players, “Look, I can’t trust you to do the right thing, so I’m going to do it for you,” and what you’re saying about yourself is, “I’m not creative enough to make this fun…so look what I can do!” Don’t insult your players by forcing plot points or your imagined awesomeness on them. They’ll respect you more if you just let them die.
In the third case where the DM is rescuing their players from the consequences of their actions, I’m willing to side with the DM and say that their heart’s in the right place. I understand wanting to preserve continuity and narrative flow, but player actions should have consequences. If you’re willing to step in and save your players anytime they misstep then your campaign lacks any real danger. Even worse, if you’ve saved your players previously then you have set them up to expect salvation when they get in a sticky situation. If you decide then to not save your players a second time you afford them the opportunity to resent you. Don’t give your players a reason to resent you, just let them die. They’ll learn from their mistakes and understand that their choices have meaningful consequences.