Jul 24, 2008

A disaster? Or a learning experience?

To break in this blog, let's take a closer look at the title subject...The dreaded TPK. For those of you who are new to this, a TPK is an acronym for Total Party Kill. It is possibly THE worst way for a campaign to end.

Is this a necessarily a BAD thing? What as a DM should/could be done to prevent this? should it be prevented? Whose fault is it?

This is a difficult and multifaceted subject...allow me to shotgun it a bit. Let's start with my personal opinion. I am not an advocate of killing any character THAT DOESN'T DESERVE IT. To clarify, a "good" player that is having fun does not deserve to die. To further clarify, a player that allows any of the situations listed below to occur, earns his or her fate.

Here is a list of what in my experience leads to party wipes:

1.)Poor party planning/preparation. These can include, but aren't limited to:

- A party that allowed it's buffs to expire.
- An exhausted party plowing through "just one more room".
- A series of bad rolls and/or decisions
- Poor tactical planning

2.)Bad DMing...some will nod their heads, some will scoff at the very existence, but it's real. Examples of this can be seen in:

- Poorly designed encounters
- Omniscient BBEG's
- Poor understanding of rules
- Losing situational awareness

3.)Plain bad luck. This is exemplified by:

- A critical hit at the worst possible moment
- A max damage roll
- A fumble at the worst possible moment

So now that we have an (admittedly incomplete) list of examples, what can we do about it? Turns out that the answer to that particular question depends on what side of the table you are on.

As a DM, it comes down to a few simple things:

Know your party - a DM should always have a good picture of his/her party's strengths and weaknesses. It is the latter that needs to be examined most closely. A good example of this is a CR equal encounter with a creature(s) with damage resistance/reduction/immunity to a damage type that the party is heavily invested in. A barbarian with a greataxe is an awesome damage dealer...until he encounters a critter with DR/slashing. Suddenly the game is different, as the damage dealer has been largely nullified. A spellcaster heavy party encountering a large number of spell resistant critters likewise is suddenly at a large disadvantage.

Know your encounters - A DM should know his encounters inside and out. This is a no-brainer, but I have been amazed when playing at a table where the DM is ignorant as to why the party suffers 50% or worse casualties after EVERY FIGHT. This is an indicator that things are not right. Just because the inclusion of a certain type of monster would be thematically cool, doesn't mean that it is appropriate. Dragons tend to define this particular problem. A well run dragon will easily take down a level equivalent party in all but a surprise encounter (RARE!)

Know your players - Some players are simply not very good gamers. They may be playing a character they don't like, wasting the potential that makes their party role an interlocking part of the group. Other times it is a character playing a character all wrong...a healer type cleric who is always running up to the front lines, mace in hand is a good example of this. As a DM, it is your responsibility to make sure all is right in your group. This is not a license to shoehorn players into the roles YOU want them to play, it is a license to make sure a player is playing the character they actually want to play.

As a player, it's just as simple:

Know your DM - If you have a DM that is heavy on the hack and slash, it may behoove you to not invest too heavily in role-playing skills and feats. If this is a problem for you, then you need to bring it up, and request more role playing encounters. Your DM is only as good as his skills + your feedback make him. If nobody mentions that he is "doing it wrong", then obviosly he/she isn't going to start doing it right.

Know your character - Look for glaring weaknesses in your character's design and kit. Good examples of this include:

Making sure you have a variety of different weapons for different situations.
- Checking your spell list and including a variety of different damage types. - Using the most optimal equipment that you can afford. - Know your characters abilities. This includes skills, feats, and spells. This would seem to be a no brainer, but I bet my shorts EVERY DM that reads this article will think of at least one player that slows the game to a screeching halt because they must study their sheet like it is new to them during each round.

As you can see, a TPK can be prevented at several points in an encounter. Unfortunately, when breakdowns occur, they tend to occur quickly, and dramatically - a sort of domino effect. As both a player and DM, I find myself torn on the issue.

As a DM - If my poor planning caused a problem, then that is all me. I have allowed "do overs" before, and while not very satisfying for anyone involved, it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, if the players get wiped despite the mountain of clues, hints, suggestions, and foreshadowing I gave them...they got what they deserved. Some times the bad guys really DO win. The caveat to this, is it requires a deep understanding as to the party's reasoning - i.e. did they REALLY get the hints and clues? In the end, the dice never lie.

As a Player - Wow...we got wiped. It was all that stupid wizards fault! If he hadn't provoked that AoO, he could've fireballed those orcs before they reached the rogue and cleric. Of course, how they knew we were coming is a bit suspect (HEY GUYS! I ROLLED A 4!!) Anyways, I can think of a hundred ways we could have done it better...but we're dead.

So there you have it. One random DM's opinions of the messy premature end that occasionally comes to those in the "kill the monster, take it's treasure" profession. Understand this is a purposely abridged version, as the myriad of causes leading to a party's mass demise are too long to list and analyze in detail. How about you? Thoughts? Opinions? Have you ever been through, or presided over a TPK? How did it come about?


ChattyDM said...

Hey... Nice digs you got here Donny my man! Glad to see you made the jump!

Good luck, it's a lot harder than it looks!

Ahhh the dreaded TPK.

Good analysis of the causes and possible solutions.

I'll add one thing... sometimes, when the signs are there, the whole group will realize that TPK is the only outcome.

When that happens, I strongly suggest that the group entertains the possibility to set aside the rules for a minute and agree to a story reason why the party should escape alive...

This needs a humongous amount of trust in both side of the DM screen, but such discussions could lead the group in a great new direction.

For example, maybe the players could agree to be captured, if the DM commits to make the next adventure about a hard, but achievable break out.

My 2 cents on a fine text!

Good luck.

Donny_the_Dm said...

Congratulations of first post!

And thank you for the praise, with cred like yours, it has some serious meaning.

I hadn't thought of that, one of the hard parts of trying to put it all together is you sometimes leave a lot of stuff out "assuming" it was common knowledge, only to facepalm days later!

I may just have to append it with your insight. Thaks for stopping by!

ChattyDM said...


Here's to many more comments!