Friday Favourite: Taking a TPK Like a Man

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 6, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From June 8, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Taking a TPK Like a Man.

It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens it really sucks – a Total Party Kill or TPK. In 4e it’s incredibly hard for DMs to kill just one character in a party. I’ve seen plenty of PCs fall unconscious but usually the leader has them back in action before they even need to make a death save or an adjacent ally makes a Heal check and triggers their second wind. Worse case scenario they stay down until the encounter is over and then they get the benefits of a short rest. Before you know it they’re on their feet and ready to face more monsters. The only way to guarantee that characters die is for the DM to wipe out everyone with a TPK. After all, if no one’s left to face the remaining monsters once the last guy falls unconscious it stands to reason that those same monsters will take necessary steps to ensure you don’t get back up… ever.

Because the TPK is (or should be) a rarity in D&D it’s understandable that many players are not really sure what do to when they see the writing on the wall. I realized this when we were face-to-face with an inevitable TPK just this week during D&D Encounters. Players can react very different to this situation so I felt it was a good idea to document so ground rules and suggested behaviours that all players should be mindful of when their PC falls unconscious, or worse yet, is just one of the dominos falling in the impending TPK.

Keep Quiet

Your character is unconscious. He can’t talk and he can’t move. All he can do is bleed all over the place and wait for help from an ally or the grim reaper. As a player you should try to keep quiet when your character is down. Now I’m not saying that you can’t talk (although that would make for an interesting situation), but don’t feel that you need to try and still be a part of the action.

When my PC is conscious I’ll make suggestions when players seem unsure of what to do or offer assistance when asked. My feeling is that my character knows them and their abilities well enough that he could shout out something like “Charge the monster on the left he looks hurt (bloodied)” or “Use Beguiling Strands on the group of skeletons (minions).” If my PC is unconscious I shouldn’t necessarily be making these suggestions.

One thing that I believe players whose character are down can and should do is offer assistance when interpreting rules, noting ongoing effect, reminding PCs to make saves, and so on. Basically anything that is related to the mechanics of the game. Your character is down but your D&D knowledge is still at the table so be helpful and use it.

Don’t Beg

When you fall unconscious let the party know that you’re down. If you’re in a zone or taking ongoing damage make sure they’re aware of that too. Make sure you’ve painted a very clear picture of the situation so the party can decide if healing you is the number one priority. I like to remind the party of what I can offer to the fight if I can get back in it (e.g., I have a daily power and an action point that I can use as soon as I’m up, or I have healing powers that I can use once I’m conscious to help other fallen comrades). Once they’re aware of the situation and make a decision that’s it. If they heal you then you’re up and back in the fight. If they don’t that’s just too friggin’ bad. If consensus is to let you keep bleeding out while they keep fighting the monsters then you just have to live with it (or I guess die with it is more accurate). At the beginning of each player’s turn don’t keep telling them that you’re down or beg them to heal you. They know you’re down and will act as they deem appropriate for their character. The more you whine about it the less likely they are to heal you because now you’re just being annoying.

Learn From Your Mistakes

“If only I’d…” is the way everyone begins a story about a TPK. It’s rare that the party says “We did everything right and still got killed.” There are always powers held in reserve that never get used. The lesson here is that you can’t use them if you’re dead. The biggest regret I hear from players who have suffered a TPK is that their character still had an action point when they died. Use them! What are you waiting for?

This is exactly what happened to me when we suffered our recent TPK. I finished my turn in a zone that caused damage at the end of my turn. I had an action point but didn’t want to waste it on a move action (after all, I was playing a striker and I wanted to use it to make an additional attack). I decided to hold the action point, stay in the zone, and take the damage. Initially this wasn’t a problem. But when a group of monsters jumped me and knocked my unconscious before I could act again I found myself taking more damage from the zone. Two rounds later I was dead before anyone could reach me because of the stupid zone. If I’d used my action point to move I’d have still been unconscious but I wouldn’t have taken the extra damage from the zone. I’d have kept making death saves and possibly been revived a few rounds later, instead my reluctance to use the action point led to my PC’s eventual death and that of the rest of the party. I guarantee I won’t make that mistake again.

If you’re fortunate enough to never experience a TPK then many of the things raised in this article will never affect you (lucky you!), but for the majority of other players who have known the pain of a TPK or will some day experience the loss of the entire party remember these pointers. Losing a character to a TPK isn’t the worst thing that can happen at the gaming table, but how you behave during and after is right up there. When you’re facing the death of a character or the entire party, face it like a man: keep quiet, don’t beg, and learn from you mistakes.

Have you experienced a TPK? Did you take it like a man or were you one of the whiners who kept begging for help? Was your character’s death or the TPK in any way related to your reluctance to use a daily power or action point? What other recommendations would you make for players facing an inevitable TPK?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian Criswell June 6, 2014 at 11:47 am

Gee, we are being morbid lately. Retreat, TPK, TPK. :)

2 Vobekhan June 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm

With regard 4e specifically I’d say always remember to use your second wind, it wont do you any good if your laying bleeding out and your buddies are tied up in combat.

In D&D in general, never be afraid to flee! If running away isnt an option try and make sure your armoured warriors take the front and hopefully your healers can keep pumping them full of cures before everyone dies.

3 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

@Brian Criswell
When I pick the articles to re-run as Friday Favourites I try to address things that have happened recently in my games. I wanted to address TPKs both last Friday and this Friday as this season of D&D Encounters has been so deadly for so many. I’ll make sure to run something a bit more upbeat and happier next Friday.

Read this to hold you over until then. :)
What do PCs do for Fun?

4 Dan June 6, 2014 at 10:55 pm

I’ve never had a tpk (outside of a safe tournament setting where we got pulled when we dropped below 0), and for that I’ve been grateful. When I do fall unconcious (which in the 3.5 game has not been uncommon due to my recent character builds), I try to keep quiet, but I do feel like there are certain things a character would know or tactics that a hardened warrior would be familiar with that the player doesn’t think of. In these cases I am torn as to whether to suggest tactical advice or to remain quiet and hope that the other concious characters can still plan.
Another part of the reason I rationalize tactical advice is that in combat, giving tactical advice is not assumed to be given character to character, but intuitive, as a trained combatant knows how he can best be used, but a player isn’t a trained combatant.
As for dealing with the aftermath, learning from mistakes is always a necessity, and tpks make for interesting stories, that can be used as stories for others to learn from.

5 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 13, 2014 at 9:39 am

@Brian Criswell
This week’s Friday Favourite is Embracing the Silly Aspects of Fantasy Gaming. I think that’s about as far away from TPKs and death as we can get. Enjoy!

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