Roleplayer #24, June 1991

Cheating the Reaper

The Deus ex Machina in GURPS Cliffhangers Adventures

by Scott Paul Maykrantz

The Deus ex Machina, or "God in the Machine," is one of the most exciting aspects of GURPS Cliffhangers adventures. The Deus ex Machina is a miraculous event that saves the heroes from certain doom. Also known as "cheating the Grim Reaper," it was the standard means of surviving the cliffhanger at the end of the serialized movies of the 1930s.

For example, the PCs might be thrown from a ship in a storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They struggle to stay afloat, but the huge waves make survival impossible. They are going to die. In other genres, the players would start thinking about designing some new characters. But, in Cliffhangers, the PCs wake up on the beach of a tropical island, bruised and lost . . . but alive.

Or suppose one of the PC heroes fails to escape the master villain's deathtrap – he has been strapped to a wooden table, a giant rotary saw slowly cutting its way toward his helpless body. He is exhausted from his recent fight with the villain's pet gorilla and cannot break his bonds. He doesn't have a chance.

Suddenly, the gorilla charges into the room, delirious with anger, bent on killing its foe. In its initial attack, the beast accidentally rips our hero's bonds asunder, allowing him to roll off the table at the last second, narrowly escaping the saw. Our hero is now free from the deathtrap, but now he has to fight the berserk gorilla. Fortunately, he still has his knife hidden in his boot . . .

The Deus ex Machina isn't applicable unless the characters are moments from death and have no way of saving themselves. So the GM rescues them. Some GMs would do this in any genre, especially in a "cinematic" game, but in a Cliffhangers game it's obligatory! In fact, in a Cliffhangers game, the GM can indulge his imagination, creating deathtraps that would be unfair in any other game. But here it's all right. The GM giveth and the GM taketh away, and the characters, to a certain extent, are along for the ride.

Out of the Frying Pan . . .

In most cases, the characters must pay the price for the Deus ex Machina. The seafarers miraculously survived being thrown into a stormy sea, but now they are hungry, injured, and lost on an uncharted island populated by cannibals! The hero escaped the deathtrap, but now he has to fight the gorilla again.

In this way, the Deus ex Machina is a sort of "out of the frying pan, into the fire" plot device. The players can hardly complain, however, because their characters did escape certain doom. Any alternative is preferable. But the players should enjoy the new challenges the Deus ex Machina brings. If the bottom line of the adventure is action, all new predicaments will be eagerly accepted.

Justifying the Intervention

The players will enjoy the GM's intervention most if it is completely off-the-wall (points for wild invention), or if it seems as though he planned it all along.

The Deus ex Machina is most believable when it logically follows from a previous part of the adventure. The example with the gorilla works because the hero fought the beast before – it's not illogical that the gorilla would return for revenge. If the hero had never encountered the gorilla before, or even heard of it, this would seem a lot more strained.

Thus, it is best to leave some minor plot threads dangling. Don't let the players learn about every aspect of a gadget (or magic artifact) they have found – a new function can be introduced later as a Deus ex Machina.

Another good technique for a "natural" Deus ex Machina is to relate it to a character advantages. Appropriate advantages are those that naturally offer assistance from outside sources, including Patron, Ally, Clerical Investment, Unusual Background and Wealth. For example, a character who is dying after being poisoned could be saved by an Ally who miraculously found the antidote in a thug's pocket. A hero who is attacked by a powerful demon may suddenly discover that he is immune to the creature's power because of his Clerical Investment. And a gadgeteer can come up with the perfect Gizmo to save himself at the last second (see p. C63).

And the GM can occasionally introduce a deliberate mystery, with no explanation . . . yet. As they march through the jungle, the explorers might see some strange, dark shapes in the trees overhead. Are these just the shad-ows of the leaves . . . or something else? If the heroes get into a sticky situation and need a Deus ex Machina to survive, the shapes could be revealed to be a race of man-apes who save the heroes – they were the shapes in the trees, watching the heroes' progress through their jungle home. Of course, now you have to explain why the apes saved them . . .

Preserving the Plot

The Deus ex Machina is also very useful for keeping the heroes on the right track. By improvising some disaster and then saving them in a strange way, the GM can steer them in the right direction and preserve the plot of the adventure.

Suppose the PCs are in New York and they misinterpret a clue. If they had read the clue correctly, they would have left for the Everglades. But instead, they think they should go to Egypt! Now the adventure's plot line is in jeopardy.

To get them on the right track, they could be captured by the master villain's thugs before they leave the Big Apple, knocked out, and thrown in steel barrels. The barrels are placed on board an old freighter and then dumped overboard off the Eastern seaboard. The Deus ex Machina saves the PCs (and your carefully-crafted adventure plot) when fishermen in southern Florida tug the barrels out of the water in their nets – the barrels were sealed so tightly, they floated just below the waves all the way to Florida and prevented the unconscious heroes from drowning!

In a Cliffhangers campaign, this sort of blatant manipulation is forgivable. And it's better than wasting all of the work of preparing the adventure when the players start chasing shadows.


Another good Deus ex Machina involves something the PCs thought they saw. But they were wrong . . .

The classic example, of course, is "I thought you were dead!" Hostile NPCs should often survive their encounters with the PCs, or at least die off-screen – so maybe they didn't die. That leaves them available to use either as a recurring villain or, through a twist of fate, as a rescuer.

Another example: Suppose the heroes find the artifact they are searching for. Then they are captured by the primitives who worship the sacred item. The heroes can't get away. The primitives raise their spears, a heartbeat away from killing our heroes.

They need the Deus ex Machina. In this case, the heroes thought they grabbed the right artifact, but it's really just a clay facsimile – perhaps left by the villain, who already took the real one! Just before the heroes are killed, the chief shrieks in alarm. The artifact crumbles in his hands! The heroes can either escape in the confusion, or ally themselves with the tribe to hunt the true thief.

The Resurrection Factor

One of the best uses of the Deus ex Machina is to simply let the player characters die . . . and then they wake up.

They may be in unfamiliar surroundings, alive but lost. They survived, but they aren't sure how. Now they must figure out exactly what happened, including where they are now and how much time has passed. Throw in a few clues (their surroundings, bruises, etc.) so the investigation can begin immediately.

This method is very dramatic when used as a cliffhanger at the end of a gaming session. The PCs are in a hopeless situation. The GM closes the book. The game is over. But don't let the players start designing new characters yet – when they arrive for the next session, they discover that their characters actually survived! The adventure continues.

Don't Overdo It

You don't have to use the Deus ex Machina. In fact, if the players expect, you shouldn't use it.

Another reason to use the Deus ex Machina sparingly is to keep it fresh and unexpected. The players should sweat out their predicaments, and do their best to save themselves. If they simply wait for you to save them, the adventure will lose its challenge.

Miracle Rescues in Other Genres

Of course, the GM can use the Deus ex Machina in any campaign. But it's not as much fun elsewhere; it shouldn't show up as regularly.

Why not? Because the nature of Cliffhangers requires spoiling the players a little, letting them get away with more because pulp heroes could survive just about anything. In addition, pulp adventures thrive on outrageous twists of logic and reality. With gadgets, monsters, lost worlds, and a steady stream of masterminds plotting to take over (or destroy) the world, a miraculous survival from certain doom is comparatively normal.

However, a casual miracle will be appreciated by the players in any campaign, especially if the player characters have been adventuring for a long time. Perhaps the gods themselves love heroes!

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