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.