Embracing TPKs

Dungeonsmaster has an interesting post on avoiding TPKs.

It’s solid advice – build fair encounters; know when to fudge; etc. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering whether player death — even TPK — is necessarily something to be avoided.

One of my most fun D&D experiences recently was as a player in a near-total party kill. We were fighting an encounter we knew was a little too hard for us; and we chose to roll into it when our resources were low, rather than returning to town and resting. Our DM rolled his dice out in the open; if he was fudging in other ways, we didn’t notice.

It was a close battle. At the end, only our fighter and the enemy boss were left alive. Once he was bloodied, our fighter ran away.

It might be possible for the surviving fighter to slink back and get our bodies for resurrection, but a nice bit of improvisation from the (dead) party cleric provided better closure than that. “I go before my deity, the Raven Queen,” he said, “and tell her about all the blasphemies committed by the atheistic ardent.” [My character, also dead]. “The Raven Queen has the ardent broken upon a wheel of pain for all eternity.”

I joined the improvisation: “Every 1000 years, the Raven Queen visits my character to taunt him as he is being tortured. Every time, my ardent tells the Raven Queen, ‘I still don’t believe you exist.'”

That story pretty much precludes my ardent from ever returning, but not every death needs to be reversible. Similarly, not every fight needs to lead to victory. In this case, we joined battle knowing that we might lose – and we lost. And it was fun.

Instead of avoiding all TPKs, I’d say the DM should make an effort to avoid bad TPKs. Bad TPKs are:

  • meaningless. Death at the hands of a major villain may be a tragedy, but a tragedy is still a valid and satisfying story. Death at the hands of some rats in a random encounter may feel like a frustrating negation of story.
  • surprising. One of the keys to a fun TPK is that the players know what they’re getting into. In my recent near-TPK, we had warning that the battle was going to be a tough one. We chose to enter the battle because we wanted to take our characters to the limit and see what they were capable of. We could have avoided the battle and come back better-prepared, but we decided to take an extra risk.
  • at the beginning of the session. An early TPK is the worst kind. Just as you fire someone on Friday, you should TPK a party towards the end of the scheduled gaming session. If a party is wiped out early on, what do they do for the rest of the session? Roll up new characters? Play Settlers of Catan? Go home early? These are all likely to be disappointing options. Therefore, TPKs should be avoided, if possible, until the last hour or so of the session.

4 Responses to “Embracing TPKs”

  1. Rory Madden says:

    Good Points, Paul!

    Timing a TPK doesn’t sound very easy :). In my experience a TPK doesn’t usually happen until a while into a fight. Also, fights in D&D (in my experience) tend to take most of a session anyway!

    I do think a total party kill should always be a possibility in a climactic fight, though one that is usually distant. In a world where resurrection is fairly common, the TPK is the ultimate death for a character, and I think that possibility really helps up the stakes in a combat!

    Interestingly, I think a TPK is only, say, half as likely as a combat that results in 1 or 2 deaths. The reasons are simple:

    -Most PCs don’t run from a combat that is going badly: It doesn’t feel heroic, for one thing. Also, sometimes a fight is so close that players choose to fight to the bitter end rather than retreat when victory is (almost) upon them!

    -Healing matters more than hit points: When a party is down to just hit points with ALL healing and temp HP expended, they’re basically waiting to die. One of the big strengths players have over monsters is their vast reserves of healing: second winds, minor action heals, and a score of items and abilities. Their hit points are actually fairly small in comparison to the healing they can supplement themselves with. Once these resources are expended, the hit point buffer just isn’t that great, so players start dropping like flies.

    -One Death puts the burden on other party members: When a player character dies, the weight falls on the rest of the party to take more hits and do more damage. Thus, there is a domino effect where one dead party member leads to another, then another, and so on. The archer in the back might go 10 combats without taking any damage, but that’s because there are several more tasty targets in the foreground; take those away and he drops like a stone, his hit point buffer quickly exhausted!

  2. Baf says:

    I remember a satisfying TPK: that of the Evil Party. We had been playing these characters’ badness to the hilt, and when they perished, we knew that they completely deserved it. It wasn’t even a meaningful and deliberate TPK — it essentially came down to a series of stupid decisions. But that just made them deserve it even more.

  3. Paul says:

    Yeah, in our 3e evil campaign, my evil monk was the only survivor, but she was trapped in a deadly tower on a deserted island. The monk had happened upon a good NPC cleric, who presumably knew the create food and water spells. Therefore they probably survived until a) they decided to leave the room and brave some Wandering Monster rolls or b) killed each other due to alignment incompatibility.

  4. Claire Claire says:

    I agree that TPK should always be a possibility! When I’m playing D&D I have a bizarre simulationist need for it to be “real”–as I’ve said before, if there’s a lot of fudging, I feel like we “really” died and what the DM told us was just the Disney version. On the other hand, I really, really, really dread dying in D&D! and I also am fine with the DM constructing fair encounters, while in “real life” sometimes a dragon is just going to come and eat you. I guess I’m okay with the idea that the heroes are so amazing that they could conceivably kill anything that exists in the world, EXCEPT FOR dragons that never come out of their caves unless provoked by well-informed adventurers who know what they’re getting themselves into.

    Didn’t someone technically survive that evil campaign? They were just trapped in the tower for all time, but they had create food and water so it was okay?

Leave a Reply