Taking a TPK Like a Man

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 8, 2012

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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1 ramanan June 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I think once you step back and realize the story doesn’t (have to) end just because your characters story has come to an end, you will get more enjoyment out of all the ups and downs that come with gaming. I think one reason people get more worked up about character death in 4th edition than they might in previous editions of the game, where is was a bit easier to die, is that making a character in 4th edition is such a slog.

I was part of the TPK you experienced this past week playing D&D Encounters. I think we reacted to the TPK as best we could. People seemed to get more excited about what those still standing were able to accomplish while their comrades dropped. As the tide started to turn I felt the battle got more exciting, not less, even though I had stopped being a part of it.

2 Joe Lastowski June 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm

TPKs are also kind of scary from the DM side. Most players don’t have fun dying, and if your whole table dies, there’s a fair shot that your whole table isn’t having lots of fun (which is the goal of D&D). Outside of specific contexts like Lair Assault or Temple of Elemental Evil, the DM isn’t trying to kill the whole party… so a potential TPK can be a huge deal from a DM’s standpoint, too.

The above-linked article about avoiding the TPK mentions fudging rolls and balancing encounters ahead-of-time, but often I roll in the open for my players, which makes the fudging part hard. And no matter how well-balanced the encounter seems on paper, player decisions and dice rolls can conspire to kill everyone.

To mitigate this, I’ve sometimes tried to let drama save the game’s fun. This is a magical world where resurrection (of heroes, at least) is possible, so death isn’t always the end. Sometimes I’ve asked players what their dying words are, or how they spend their last moments of existence. This sort of “epic death scene” option has given many players the sense that even their death matters to the story (especially if it’s epic enough that NPCs and enemies are affected by it). I’ve also gotten great dramatic use out of familiars/animal companions of dying characters, who will sometimes act out on their own to try one last ditch effort to save their humanoid (even if it’s doomed to failure). If any of that distracts the monsters enough to give one player a chance to escape (and sometimes I’ll even tell the last standing player(s) that they’ve been given one slim chance at getting away), that’ll set the scene so that resurrections can theoretically occur later. If all else fails and it’s a vicious monster that can’t be reasoned with or distracted, I may have it stop to eat the corpses of the couple of downed/dead players so that the others can get away.

And since resurrection is based on a spirit’s willingness/ableness to return, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility to allow a character’s ghost to hang around the party, only seen by a character with training in Religion or the Ghost Eyes feat or something similar.

Techniques like this can save the narrative of the game, and make even the dead players feel like they’re still an important component of the story.

3 Mike Karkabe-Olson June 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Without the threat of death the game eventually ceases to be fun. Granted, finding a balance between how often players face death and how offten things are easy can be difficult, but an occasional death or TPK is necessary. It literally puts the fear of death into players when they play, and it’s that sort of risk that makes the game exciting and rewarding and memorable. Players love to find ways to thwart certain death. I like your comments on game etiquette as well. When a character is down, they should play it that way, and I agree: players should definitely be willing to “take it like a man.” It is just a game after all.

4 Victor Von Dave June 9, 2012 at 2:57 am

I agree with Joe that TPKs can kind of suck from the DM side. When I’m behind the screen I have to continually remind myself that characters can die and the story will still go on (what Ramanan said). Also, just because everyone is knocked unconscious doesn’t mean everyone has to die. If the party are attacked by dire wolves maybe they only drag one of the characters off to eat… or the group of bandits just loots the bodies and leaves the party for dead… or the unconscious prisoners are sold to a nearby cadre of kuo-toan slavers… you get the picture. Think about how many films and books actually *start* this way. It’s easy to see the TPK as a failure, but I also think its a great source drama and motivation for future adventures.

5 Ryan June 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm

I had a situation when I ran Keep on the Shadowfell. The party decided to completely ignore an entire section of the dungeon but had made enough racket to attract the attention of the Hobgoblins in that area.

Even after being attacked from behind once the party still ignored the area after a Hobgoblin managed to escape back to that area. Seeing that Hobgoblins are tactical they waited for the party to enter the Trap room before assauting them again.

If the module hadn’t been clear about the Hobgoblins wanted to capture them I would have had a TPK on my hands. I wouldn’t mind having a TPK but I got to see what such a situation would have had on myself and my players.

I’ve never had a TPK but I’ve had a few close ones running. My player put quite a bit into their characters so I beleive that a situation like that may be difficult them. Still its always a possibility.

6 Eamon June 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Nitpicking (and feel free to delete): I think you mean “quiet”, not “quite”; and taking it like a hero, not just a man.

7 Dinare June 14, 2012 at 12:50 am

The misspellings bug me as well, so you’re not alone with that one(just noticed it’s gone). But I disagree with the “taking it like a hero” part. Hero seems to imply you try and get around the death some way. (at least it does to me)

Great website, I’ve been following it since you posted the first week of “The Elder Elemental Eye.” It has really helped me get a handle on the rules. (I started playing the around the same time I found your site)

8 Necrisha July 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Had a 30 minute TPK in a straight up dungeon crawl. Granted it had more to do with the Pixie Slayer’s dice hating my Half-Elf Swordmage then the first encounter itself, and the guy playing the bard suddenly realizing he had no clue as to how the Skald powers worked.

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