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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
- Brave Warrior Heal Thyself
- Improve Your Defenses With Energy Resistance
- Your Best Resource: Healing Surges
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?