Avoiding TPKs

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:

  1. The DM made the encounter too hard.
  2. The Players made a tactical blunder.
  3. 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?

Share Information

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.

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6 thoughts on “Avoiding TPKs

  1. This is some good stuff.

    I think there’s something else here that needs to be addressed though, in 5e, you really can’t run away.

    You could Disengage, and move your 30 ft. Most monsters can them move 30 ft, and take the Attack action. This just means that you die while running.

    You could Dash, and move 2x30ft. The monster reacts with an Opportunity Attack, then Dashes themselves.

    Which means that if the Monster Know What They’re Doing, and they’re bloodthirsty, you need some significant shenanigans to get the players out alive, and that feels a little heavy handed.

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    1. There’s opportunity to use spells, special features, or tactics to delay the chase. This mimics reality, in that when a force wants to retreat they must create the space to do so first.

      Also, as Think DM says, if the DM says “you might want to run away” they aren’t indicating that they are going to kill you by stabbing you in the back. They’re indicating that flight or surrender are the non-TPK options.

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      1. Second part first, yes, but it can be really heavy handed depending on the fight. For just a quick example fast zombie would strike me as a very hard encounter to create an opening in a smooth way. They’re bloodthirsty, they’re not going to stop, and they’re close enough that you’re really pegged as their next meal rather than someone “off screen”. I try to DM as a bit of an impartial adjudicator (and always worry I lean too much into wanting the players to succeed). Maybe I have too much of those older editions clouding my view, but I also want my players, who see their own dice rolls, and sometimes see mine, to feel like it’s a cohesive experience. I don’t think either of the groups I DM for would really appreciate too heavy handed a move in these situations. They’re more hardcore than I am.

        I think the players coming up with creative ways to solve it is the best case there, but I think there could be just a little something more for that. Getting a bonus to Dash based on your Dex, or getting a number of Dashes equal to your Con modifier, where you have an idea of what will work and what won’t work would be helpful instead of it being so impossible in the base rules. Something like that would give the players an idea of how deep to get themselves into situation, because they have an idea of how hard it is to get out.

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  2. TPK’s happen because this is a game where adventure failure only occurs when all the player characters die.
    TPK is a feature of Dungeons and Dragons, not a mistake by the players or a badly designed encounter that proved to be too difficult for the party to handle.
    TPK’s are an extension of the rules of the game followed to their conclusion.

    The aberration is the long running string of adventures that form a campaign where players play and advance a single character from one game session to the next game session to push a long running narrative to its conclusion. All this mambi-pambi talk about the TPK killing the fun because it cuts the story short is really where the problem is because Dnd was not designed to be a drawn out story driven narrative RPG.

    Dnd was not designed with the intention of telling the life story of a group of individual adventurers. It was designed for a group of friends to sit down and quickly build unique game pieces with stats to move around a map created by the dungeon master in a single night of play. Where a TPK is far less disasters, because the characters can just role up new characters and try again, with increased knowledge of dangerous areas of the map, until the session is over. The same way that most war games where played at that time. That is why TSR Dnd dungeons feel so brutal and short. They realized they were a game meant to be played for a single night of fun, much the same way that the WotC Dnd Board games are meant to be played.

    Wizards of the Coast has since ramshackle bolted this story driven, long running narrative story game mechanics onto an otherwise fast paced war game, creating some Frankenstein monstrosity, where mechanics of the original game “get in the way” of the desired narrative experience most people want to play today.

    I have a simple fix for people that don’t like TPK mechanics. Get rid of them. Instead of players dying when hit points reach 0, use HP as a mechanic that is a pool of points, which when exhausted, causes a semi-permanent character descriptor change, like horribly scared or one-armed, and then have their HP replenish to full. Then only allow characters to die when it would be beneficial to the narrative of the campaign, so they can have a conversation with a celestial or demonic entity, have the campaign take place in the outer planes, or just because you need the players to find their way to a chapel which can resurrect the deceased character.

    Notice the way to deal with TPK, so that TPK doesn’t get in the way of your precious narrative, is to essentially give the characters infinite HP. People tend to create house rules for everything they don’t enjoy. TPK is just the result of war game mechanics being carried out to their conclusion. If you don’t like those mechanics, which can result in a TPK, then give WotC another pass on their poorly designed Frankenstein narrative driven RPG, and change the mechanics yourself.

    Otherwise you can just get your friends to play a different game.

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