I was running Trial of the Beast in Paizo’s Carrion Crown adventure path for some friends. The characters were working toward the endgame of that particular adventure when they encountered a rope bridge.
This particular bridge was a rickety suspension bridge that spanned a 200-foot drop to the river below. Like the stone bridges elsewhere in Schloss Caromarc, it lacked any sort of handrails (apparently the homeowner had some psychotic aversion to handrails). It swayed in the wind, required a DC 10 Acrobatics check to cross safely, and featured a summon monster trap in the center to summon an Erinyes if anyone tried to cross.
I’m sure that the idea was for the encounter to be a challenging fight, with the Erinyes sniping at them with her bow while they tried to cross this treacherous rope bridge. In practice though, the rogue’s checks were sufficient to disarm the trap almost before he knew it was there, and it looked as though the party would bypass the encounter with no trouble.
Alas, DC 10 proved too high for the cleric and the barbarian alike. Two hundred vertical feet later, the cleric’s unconscious body slipped beneath the river’s surface under the weight of his plate armor, while the barbarian struggled in vain against the current which drew him inexorably toward the 50-foot waterfall just downstream. The rogue, a kenku with the ability to fly, joined them on the following round in an ill-advised attempt to save the cleric’s life. Instead, he discovered that the current was too much for him, even without the extra weight of his armored companion. In the end, the rogue swam just well enough to endure the falls and drift downriver until the current lessened, the barbarian’s unconscious body washed ashore by GM fiat (his regular player was absent that night and I won’t kill a PC whose player is absent), and the cleric’s body was never recovered.
The arcanist, who could only watch in frustration while his friends died, walked away and didn’t come back.
What’s the point of this tale? Hazards can be hazardous.
One of the things I like best about roleplaying games like Pathfinder is that there is a clear and present danger: not only can your character die, but he or she can die stupidly if you do something stupid. Unfortunately, this goes hand in hand with one of the things I like least about the game: your character can die because of a single bad die roll. I won’t get into a discussion about monsters that have save-or-die effects right now, but this is where hazards like the bridge can be hazardous to the game itself, not just the characters in it. If a hazard can end the characters with one stupid die roll, then it doesn’t belong in a heroic game.
This is not to say that the bridge had no place in the game. The same goes for the 200-foot drop. For the barbarian and the rogue, this was an awesome thing to have happen. The barbarian plummeted into the river because of an unlucky roll, then fought the current valiantly for several rounds before succumbing. The rouge acted to help his friends—entering danger knowingly and heroically to wrestle with the angel of death before emerging alive, if not successful. Even in the case of the cleric—who failed a single skill check, fell 200-feet to sustain enough damage to render him unconscious, and died of drowning the following round—it’s not a big problem.
The problem was that a single, trivial challenge brought the campaign to a halt.
It’s difficult to say what can, or even should be done about this. As I see it, the principle goal of writing adventures for games like Pathfinder is to challenge the players without bringing the game to such an abrupt end.