It was a regular Monday night game in the pub's back room. I was running Dark Conspiracy, and for a few sessions the PCs had been trying to find out why an ecoterrorist group was involved with the distribution of a new illegal drug. I'd decided that this evening would be the climactic session - tracking down the villain and bearding him in his lair.
First, there were the usual problems, with players arriving late. Once we finally got started, nothing seemed to go right. First of all, the PCs picked the wrong suspect as the villain; I'd deliberately left an obvious trail pointing at him, and a less-obvious one at the real target. One of the PCs started to trail him, on his own, without any direct communication with the rest of the group.
Now, I'd already established that these ecoterrorists were not pleasant people. Most of the same PCs had been on a transatlantic aircraft which some extreme members of their group had hijacked and planned to use to set off a nuclear weapon over Paris. Moreover, they could easily have discovered (had they looked a little harder) that the man they were trailing had a background in intelligence operations. Naturally, he spotted the tail (somewhat helped by the player's repeated fumbles). He was on the new drug (fed to him by the real villain to keep him tractable), so a little paranoid and twitchy. He also had access to a pack of trained thugs. I couldn't see a way out of it - he set some of them to kill the tail.
They waited until he was on a deserted street, then shot out the back window of his car and threw an incendiary grenade through the hole. The player managed to fumble his driving roll (to stop safely and throw himself out), rolled the car, and was trapped inside when the grenade went off.
This was about three-quarters of the way through the session. I had a couple of character sheets around, and one of them had previously been associated with the party, so I gave it to the player. But the player was certainly annoyed at having lost his main character, and the mood spread to the rest of the group.
They finally got on the track of the right guy (with some pretty heavy-handed hints), and raced up to his Scottish castle, going for a frontal assault. By this stage, I really didn't want any more PC deaths, so I erred the other way and made the assault far too easy (just the single bad guy there). Even so, he managed to wound two of the characters, and a third decided to wander off and explore the cellars (and hasn't been heard from since). The remainder raced for the villain's lair, nearly died from the single grenade he threw at them, and poured in unaimed automatic weapons fire until nothing was moving. Of course he'd escaped! But by this stage, no-one, including myself, seemed to feel like pursuing the matter any further.
So, what went wrong? I'm hesitant to put the blame on the unlucky player - we all have nights of bad dice-rolling. But if the PCs had done more research...; perhaps things might have gone differently. Perhaps the task was too hard, though I have my doubts.
I haven't killed a PC since that time, although killing situations rarely arise in my games. I don't set up PC deaths in advance, since I like characters to succeed or fail by their own efforts - but this also means I can't talk it over with the player beforehand, and find out how he might feel about it.
Roger Burton West