Wrath of God by Quinton Hoover shared per Wizards of the Coast’s Unofficial Fan Content Policy
What is a TPK?
TPK stands for “total party kill.” This is when a scenario (usually combat, although not necessarily) causes the entire adventuring party to die. This normally marks the end of the campaign, absent some narrative intervention by the DM.
Why do TPKs happen?
There’s three reasons why a TPK can happen. Most often, it’s a combination of these factors:
- The DM made the encounter too hard.
- The Players made a tactical blunder.
- The dice did not cooperate.
The first thing is going to happen. Sometimes, combats are supposed to be hard. When you’re running a big set piece, like a boss battle, you can use Schrödinger’s Orcs to keep your thumb on the scale of encounter difficulty. This allows you to run difficult encounters while mitigating the risk of #1.
More importantly, inform the players so that they can prepare accordingly. There are numerous narrative tools you can use to convey that an encounter is hard. Telegraphing significant threats allows your players to approach the scenario with the appropriate caution, mitigating instances of #2 where #1 is already in play.
Sometimes the encounter is tuned appropriately and the communication is on point and the party does all the preparation they need, but fate is not in the dice that day. This can happen quickly, as losing a single combatant can quickly turn into a death spiral in a game where bounded accuracy makes action economy reign supreme. Compounding matters, 5e tends to emphasize narrative attachment to characters more than traditional D&D, pushing players to save their friends over tucking tail when the battle turns south.
In those cases, what do we do?
Players don’t understand what’s going on about half the time.Sly Flourish
As DMs, our informational advantage is greater than the players. We know the opposition’s stats and abilities, how healthy they are, whether reinforcements will arrive, the locations of hidden monsters, the terrain, the timing of environmental effects, etc. With that information, we have a better idea when the player characters are really in trouble!
When the dice aren’t cooperating and you can feel the party’s pulse weaken, TELL THEM:
- “This is looking bad.”
- “You begin to question whether this fight is winnable.”
- “You are losing this combat.”
- “Time to run?”
Don’t be shy. You’ll probably get through all four of these before the players take the hint. You need to beat the drum a few times for the players to pick up on your rhythm. If the PCs turn the scenario around, you can ease back on the hints. If you wind up being wrong, the players feel even more heroic!
Is This Metagaming?
This is metagaming, but it’s not.
Characters also have greater information than the players. Characters are living a shared narrative. Players are each imagining the scenario differently.
If they’re losing the fight, characters know! Give that character knowledge to the players.
If you found this content helpful, please consider supporting the site on the ThinkDM Patreon. Thank you for reading!