Avoiding The Total Party Kill

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on June 15, 2010

The party is in the middle of combat and the plan of attack quickly falls apart. Within rounds the party finds themselves with several PCs making death saves. Things have gone from bad to worse and a total party kill is looking imminent. Options begin running through your head, do you go down swinging? Is it still possible to defeat the encounter? Is retreat the best option? If you do retreat what about your already fallen companions?

No matter the cause of a total party kill, it can have devastating consequences on your campaign or adventure session. From derailed campaigns, frustrated players and torn up character sheets every TPK is going to have it’s own ramifications. The key to avoiding these difficult situations is to avoid the total party kill in the first place.

The DM and the players both have responsibilities to ensure that this campaign ending event not come to pass.

The DM

To the DM falls the responsibility of designing the encounters, ensuring that they are balanced and fair. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be challenging, but that challenge should be tempered with fairness. The PCs should have a reasonable chance at being able to defeating their opponents. Of course certain sets of circumstance will eventually dictate that the TPK might come to pass. As the DM the question you need to ask yourself is how do you want to handle this eventuality.

Fudging Rolls

As the DM sometimes you see the TPK coming. You know how many hit points the monsters have remaining and what powers are at their disposal. You also have the knowledge of what kind of resources the PCs still have at their disposal. In short, you know when the writing is on the wall a round or two before the players do.

At this point you have a choice to make. You can let things play out. Perhaps the players dice will get hot and yours will get cold or you can force the issue. We’ve discussed fudging dice rolls as a DM in previous articles about cheating. I’m not going to rehash that debate here, but it is a question you need to ask yourself. Should you tinker with the outcome or let the dice fall where they may?

Balanced Encounters

If you deliberately created an encounter that the PCs can’t defeat but they decided to engage the NPC anyway, you now find yourself in an awkward situation. The PCs assume the encounter is one that they can defeat, yet you know they are walking into certain defeat. Do you modify the encounter to make it winnable? If you do what are the long term repercussions to the campaign if this NPC dies? Or do you stick to the original design and hope the PCs realize how grave their situation is and flee? For more on this read our article on Fighting An Opponent You Can’t Beat.

Encounter design and balance is one of the key functions of the DM. You may create a situation or encounter that you want the PCs to experience as a skill challenge but they miss your verbal cues and decide to engage in combat. At this point you need to decide how to handle the situation.

Finally, you do want to ensure that your combat challenges are indeed challenging, but not to the point of threatening to kill the PCs every single encounter. It can be a fine balance to walk, but well worth it.

The Players

As a player you don’t have a lot of say about when a TPK may occur. You don’t have any foreknowledge about the encounters you’ll be facing. To you falls the task of preparation. From power selection to magic items every choice you make as a player will determine how well you are able to survive any given encounter. As your PC advances through the tiers of play, death will become less and less of a threat.

However, in the heroic and early paragon tier death is very much a reality that you may need to contend with. Cold dice, poor decisions, splitting your fire or just not playing smart can result in a serious case of dead. Of course when the entire party ends up dead there is no coming back.

Learn When To Run

Sometimes the encounter is a little tougher than you anticipated, either because you misplayed it or through design. PCs need to know when to run. This is something that everyone playing Season 2 of D&D Encounters, set in Dark Sun, learned after the first session. No one likes to flee an encounter, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valour and ducking out of an encounter before things go from bad to worse is the wisest course of action. Knowing when to run can be a tough call and it can have repercussions on a campaign, but those consequences aren’t as bad as a having a TPK occur.

Be Prepared

As a player your job is to be prepared for any encounter that the DM might through at you. This means the appropriate selection of powers and items. There are a few resources here at Dungeon’s Master that you may want to use to help with your research:

These three articles can get you thinking about the types of decisions to make when equipping your PC. I use the following guideline, every PC I create should have one way of healing himself beyond his second wind. My current PC has three not including healing potions. Of course this PC adventures in a party without a Leader so the extra options are required.

Sort Out The Healing

Whether it is your normal gaming group or a pickup LFR game at your FLGS make sure that you understand how your Leader will be handling healing. What, you think Leaders should just heal you? Read the following article on Leaders, I’m Your Cleric, Not Your Bitch for some extra insight into the mentality of some healers.

Does your party have a priority list on who should be healed first or is it first bloodied first served? Having these questions sorted out can help you establish tactics that can keep all of you alive.

Total Party Kills don’t happen often, but they can be devastating to a campaign. Unlike World of Warcraft, you can’t just gather up your raiding party and attempt the dungeon again. In D&D when the whole party dies, well the whole party is dead.

What experience has your party had with the dreaded TPK? As the DM have you ever presided over a session that saw the entire party die? How did the players respond and what happened to your campaign?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Siskoid June 15, 2010 at 9:50 am

Good tips. I’ve only ever run one session that resulted in a TPK. It was Weird War II one-shot, and in one shots, character deaths are fine and not devastating. However, it was the first and only time a story could not reach a resolution. Usually in my deadlier one-shots, at least one character would make it to the end and the group could feel a sense of victory even if they were not actually alive to see it.

In my case, it was totally a case of player ineptitude. Many rookies (only one veteran player), a few of them doing silly things and not helping in combat situations. Even my usual fudging could not help them, nor, in the final analysis, did they deserve it. We laugh about it today, so nobody burned out over it, at least!
Siskoid´s last blog post ..RPG Campaign(s): Eternal Champions

2 Lahrs June 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Outside of Encounters, all of my sessions rely heavily on role playing, so a TPK is an even bigger threat as it can usually derail a story. The dilemma which comes to me as the DM, is do I save the party with fudged rolls, or do I let them TPK just to show how dangerous the game can be. D&D should be fun, and dying sucks, but if someone knows they could never die, they may start playing recklessly or at the minimum lose any feel of tension and adventure.

Our last TPK happened (somewhat) more than a year ago, but I had prepared in advance for the situation. Like you said, the DM will most likely see the TPK before the PCs do, and when I saw it was going to happen, I ended the combat right then and there with two players severely bloodied but still standing. I explained I was tired and I was just ending the inevitable early so I could get some rest before work the next day. I drove the point home by telling them they needed to bring new characters the next week.

Needless to say, they were not thrilled; nobody likes to see their character die, especially seven months into a campaign. But, after two sessions of role playing with the new characters, their story just happened to intersect with the old story, in fact, right in the middle of the battle with two remaining severely bloodied PC’s. It was definitely deus ex machina, but they were allowed to role play the scenario and save their own characters, plus the PC’s now had five new NPC’s (the newer characters) that they could interact with. The TPK (almost) added some great flavor to the game and in the end was worth it.

I found this was a way to roll with the punches and give them a onetime get out of jail free card. I even overheard them after the session mention that was their only free shot, so the danger still remains.

Not sure what I will do about the next TPK though, we have come close, but they always manage to survive.

3 Wimwick June 15, 2010 at 1:08 pm

@ Siskoid
Most TPKs that I’ve experienced also occurred when I was a rookie. Of course I also think that earlier editions of D&D were potentially deadlier.

@ Lahrs
The get out of jail free card is an interesting idea. I find that once a party has one or two member die that everyone starts taking things a little bit more seriously.

4 Siskoid June 15, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I’ve never suffered or hosted a TPK in AD&D 2nd or GURPS. Mine occured on a very pulpy game. They’d have been dead a lot earlier if they’d played that way with one of those systems.
Siskoid´s last blog post ..RPG Campaign(s): Eternal Champions

5 Dungeon Newbie June 16, 2010 at 4:41 am

I saw a match where the PCs were easily defeating the monsters, which they thought was strange considering the sadistic DM… then a bunch of invisible chokers came in, armed with paralysis and pin powers. TPK almost instantly.

6 Keject June 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I think I have experienced a total party kill on five separate occasions, all of them were with the same dm, in DnD 3.5. The first three were against a boss that could split himself into four pieces. The party rolled initiative before teleporting in to fight and the boss beat us. So we got nuked with four fireballs and only two of the six of us survived to fight the four bosses (my fighter died from the spells right off the bat.) so the DM shrugged and had us fight the fight again (we were late in the campaign and the players would have quite the game rather than roll a new party.) the same thing happened, except half of the six lived to be killed by the boss. So the next week we played the same fight again. With one more tpk from the boss just killing us all.
The other two were when one of the player decided that he would like to pick up and old character from a previous campaign (that had happened before the current one in the history of the game world) and the DM let him build himself as a boss he was a 3.5 cleric and so has save or die spells. His only words of regret after the two tpk were “I thought you guys had better saves.”
The lesson I took away from the problems that I saw in this campaign one in which my 3.5 fighter died over twenty five times over the span of twenty one levels was this. The DM liked the story he had planned and the none player characters (NPCs) better than he liked the Players of the game he was running. Don’t do this. DnD is fun when you play heroes that have choices. It is a lot less fun when the DM railroads characters into playing the lackeys of an NPC that clearly has more power prestige and potential then the characters being played by real people.
If anyone at your table says the words “but if he’s here, why does he need us?” you’re probably doing something horribly wrong.
Reasons for our deaths aside I see the value in the save point system. If the party wipes for whatever reason if they don’t want to sacrifice the character they have worked so hard to build and get attached to I think it is wrong for the DM to TAKE that character away. You can just start the fight over, the frustration of watching their characters die is often motivation enough to try to not die again.
DMs on the other hand shouldn’t use this as a cheap excuse to not do the work required to run a masterfully balanced fight that the players are proud they survived. TPK means the DM failed as well.

7 Greg June 17, 2010 at 11:24 pm

You are missing one of the best strategies:

Remember, just because the party goes down doesn’t mean they have to die. Sometimes it serves the antagonists objectives to revive the characters. If the characters go down, it’s possible for them to wake up a few hours later in a jail cell… or a stew pot.

You can’t play this card all the time, but when appropriate, its a very effective way of upping the stakes without ruining the game.

8 mbeacom June 29, 2010 at 4:47 pm

I’ve not hosted a TPK, nor been involved in one as a player. As a player, I’ve always had at least one voice in the group who was quick to suggest that we flee and lick our wounds. Sometimes, we ignored it and push onward, but always having that as an option means that if anyone else in the group begins to get “that feeling”, no one feels bad about retreat, since its been discussed so many times. It gets to the point that your group is comfortable with it as an option.

As a DM, i’m not afraid to force a retreat. If the combat is designed to push the group to the limit, then thats an outcome that is possible from the first initiate roll. I’m usually pretty good at giving my players clues that combat is not going to get any better and that they better rethink their strategy. Generally this takes the form of monsters mocking them, or in how I describe the combat, making it sound very one-sided. They usually get the hint that they need to get the heck outta there before things get worse.

I’ve actually been play testing a scenario in my head, now that I’ve read several articles on this site about TPK, character death, and such.

I’ve got a game upcoming where the PCs will be interacting with a sage, getting information about a dungeon before they visit it. One of the better outcomes I had planned for the encounter would be if the players are able to convince the sage to go into a trance and “visit” the dungeon so she can describe it to them, even draw portions on a map. I’ve got a handout planned for if the party succeeds.

Then I started thinking about TPK and how I wanted to implement one somehow in this adventure. Then I got to thinking, what if the sage was able to transmit the PCs consciousness into another group of adventurers who had already visited the dungeon……and failed (although the players won’t know they have failed at the time of the transfer).

Once they get to this point in the encounter, I would have the sage cast a spell and make the players “gaze into the crystal ball….etc”. Then I would hand out player character sheets for an adventure party I had pre-genned just for this situation. These pre-genned characters would have some high end magic items that will eventually serve as part of the loot for the final battle. The players would essentially teleport to the dungeon entrance and get to slog it out as new characters. Then when they get to the final boss, they would TPK and revert back to their original characters having intimate knowledge of the dungeon. I would then hand them the map since they had already been there. Not only that, but they would know that the corpses of the other adventure team were there waiting for them with those magical items they had gotten a taste for. I’m still working on the details but I think something like this would be a viable way to introduce a TPK without completely derailing the story.

9 Galadare November 27, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I ran a session that turned TPK not too long ago. The heroes were chasing one of the main villain’s lieutenants. They followed him into his inner sanctum where they fell to a couple of ill informed decisions laced with bad luck.

I tallied it up as a win for the villain. The kingdom the heroes served fell and the focus shifted to a neighboring kingdom that was next on the villain’s todo list. I was able to recycle some NPCs when the new kingdom discovered the threat and decided that prudent countermeasures included stiffening the resistance movement in the original kingdom.

Eventually, the new party went after the lieutenant that slaughteres the old party, but this time the encounter ended with sweet, sweet revenge.

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