The Total Party Kill is the one thing players, and usually Game Masters, want to avoid, yet it happens so often you’d think people actually enjoyed getting fried by dragons. Usually it’s a very sudden event, and almost completely unexpected. Someone tanks a save, or whatever it may be, and before you know it, six stalwart heroes are being mashed into jam for the next orcs’ tea party. What went wrong?
Dave Noonan, back in the days of 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, suggested that lack of communication between players is one of the big issues. “When times get tough at the game table,’ Noonan said, “It’s easy to stay focused on your character and lose awareness of what your comrades are doing.”
Noonan noticed that players, when faced with a significant threat, stopped thinking like a team and started reacting like individuals. As a team, a group might realize that a fight’s too tough, and decide to withdraw. But each of those individuals has a character sheet, with a long list of combat abilities and spells. It proved too tempting to study that character sheet, looking for a way out that wasn’t there. Players would say they wanted the group to retreat, then engage in combat themselves, or start spellcasting, hoping for a good roll.
Funny thing: every single player I’ve ever met has worked out, in advance, how fantastically awesome their character will be, if they roll a critical success. That’s partly because every player thinks they’ll be the one to roll that critical success, right when they need it the most. Just like diehard gamblers, they think critical failure is something that happens to other people, not to them.
In a TPK situation, the chance to retreat is usually a fleeting thing. Before too many rounds go by, the enemy might have blocked the escape route, or knocked out one too many important characters; the cleric, say, with all the healing magic. Then it’s too late. All that’s left is to order the pizza and start the post-game argument.
On the other hand, if the players – or even just one player – step up and devise a plan for getting the whole group out, the TPK problem might never come up. Assign one player the task of picking up the unconscious or critically wounded, assign a couple others the task of securing the exit, and then tactically retrograde as fast as your feet will let you. Job done!
That’s in situations where the combat system is crunchy, with lots of add-ons and modifiers. Call of Cthulhu used to be famous for its TPK situations, and its mechanics about as crunch-free as can be, while still using dice. There’s no leveling system, so the 10 to 15 hit points you start the game with are the only ones you will ever have. There’s a percentage chance to hit, a chance to critical succeed or fail, and a damage roll, but the system lacks many significant combat modifiers and situational adjustments that Dungeons and Dragons players would be familiar with. What counts as a TPK situation in that system?
Let me just give you the brief low-down on one such situation, from the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. Very mild spoiler warning, but really, we aren’t talking plot here. The situation is described as:
Present at the ritual will be twelve priests, including [powerful and important NPC] and [equally powerful and important NPC], nearly 800 cultists … and 100 [powerful monsters]. The rest of the [friendly NPCs the group will have encountered previously] will be there, as sacrifices. The din and screams will be loud and sustained. Eventually, at the height of the ceremony, the enemy will summon up a godlike creature capable of demolishing a city.
Now, if your first thought is, ‘Attack! ATTACK! ATTACK!’ there’s clearly a disconnect going on here. If ever there is a moment for stealth and caution, it’s when you’re facing off against a battalion strength group of dangerous people backed up by another small army of monsters. Yet I have seen otherwise rational players, without any special equipment beyond a few sticks of dynamite and a couple rifles, happily charge in without a moment’s thought. Tell you what I rarely see: I’ve rarely seen those same rational players get together, as a group, and plan out what the group was going to do about the problem.
I get that everybody wants to be the hero. I really, really do, but there is such a thing as overwhelming odds. Bilbo Baggins, when meeting Smaug for the first time, doesn’t rush up and try to kick the old wyrm in whatever passes for its genitals, hoping for a critical success. Maybe that’s one of the bonus scenes on the DVD; I’m not in a hurry to watch it. In the book, Bilbo’s more sensible than that. He hides, and schemes, and bluffs, because he knows that, if he puts even one foot wrong, there isn’t a Reflex save high enough to save him from becoming a charcoal briquette.
So far I’ve been talking about the player’s side of the equation. What about that sinister fiend behind the screen? How much responsibility does the Game Master have for the TPK?
As Wizards of the Coast designer Andy Collins once pointed out, “It's no challenge for the DM to kill off the whole party; the challenge is in creating encounters that are just tough enough to put a scare into the PCs without actually killing them all off.” Sometimes, particularly for novices, finding that balance is a tricky business, and it doesn’t help that some monsters are well over the top to begin with. However there’s no advice anyone can give to help you there, beyond ‘be careful’; finding that balance is a skill that only comes with time and practice.
That said, there is one way that better communication between GM and player can help avoid a TPK. The players don’t always know when a monster is going to test their limits, and that’s sometimes because the description the GM’s given so far is insufficient. If the group’s about to march into a boss encounter, the group needs to be aware of that fact, and that means clearly signposting the threat. It might be plenty of corpses lying around, or scorch marks where the deadly trap’s exploded several times before. Maybe the Doppleganger’s impersonation of an ally is just a little bit off, or that doorway just radiates evil. But there has to be that one clue, or warning sign, that things are about to get very nasty, to put the group on alert.
This goes back to something I’ve said before: the GM should always be open in all of her dealings with the group, because even perceived unfairness can ruin the session, if not the campaign. This doesn’t mean the GM can’t be clever; it means the GM has to always be seen as a fair arbiter. Therefore the group gets one warning, whether it’s as cheesy as a talking skull on a stick, or as menacing as a fresh bloodstain on the dungeon floor. What the group does with that warning is out of the GM’s hands. The heroes want to be mashed into jam? Fine. Let ‘em get squished, and maybe next time they’ll be more careful.
This isn’t a time to get hung up on ability checks either. Just give out the necessary information; don’t make them roll for it. A failed Spot check might put the group on alert, but it lacks drama. Suddenly realizing that all the birds and wildlife in the forest have gone quiet, fearful of some large predator, is drama personified.