Making Better Lives Through Genuine Threats Of Death

This is every DM you’ve ever played under. Look how happy he is!

Though I’ve started to find my voice in recent months as a Dungeon Master, there is still a lot of undiscovered ground for me to cover. How to come up with names on the fly that don’t end in “eeberbeeb”. How to keep one lonely alligator tear from rolling down my cheek as my best laid plans are turned to slag. And, of course, how to kill the entire party. That’s right. I’m a TPK virgin.

In fairness, I can’t recall ever having been part of a real TPK before as a player. My DM’s could bring us all down, but they could never quite bring themselves to put us completely out of our misery. I can remember one time that our DM made a tunnel collapse after a big boss fight, rocks actually did fall and kill everyone, and I can’t remember if we flipped out on our DM or if we just all looked completely despondent. Whatever it was, I just remember moving on and being somewhat bewildered after we did not, in fact, go to meet all our respective gods. Metaphysically speaking, of course. Our bodies were kind of… well, entombed in thousands of tons of rock.

I used to look back on this incident and think he was too easy on us. Our death happened. He should have let it. I understand much better why he did it now that I’m the one with all the rocks. Well, maybe I wouldn’t go that far. I think, rather, that I have a better understanding what was behind that look on his face when that last saving throw was a 3.

Nobody Is Sure Who Caused The Train Wreck, But It Is Fascinating To Watch

There have been a couple times in my current campaign when I was moderately certain that the PC’s were going to die. The one that really sticks out in my mind was during our Plants vs Zombies session a couple months back. I sent out wave after wave of zombies from a mysterious dark portal and gave the PC’s what I thought was plenty of time to figure out the puzzle of how to make them go away. I thought they would understand they would die if the 5 of them tried to take on a hundred zombies, and this would be a game of survival with the eventual puzzle-solution. They did not understand, and they waded right in, and they actually did fairly well except that they were quickly outnumbered 10-to-1, then 15-to-1, then…. well, you get the idea.

This also happened to be during my very first days of deliberately trying not to railroad my players, and to let them do what they will. 2 rounds into them engaging the horde directly, I’m starting to get nervous, but hopeful someone will catch on to the PvZ puzzle and end it. 4 rounds in, people are getting beaten up badly, they’ve set a barn (and lots of zombies) on fire, and nobody is talking about retreating. The next round, they’re all within spitting distance of 0 hp. They hightail it just in time to a (temporarily) safe distance.

I almost wept with relief.

The entire time, the little voice in my head is screaming at me to put them out of harm’s way. The hints I wanted to drop started out invisible to the naked eye, but they were the size of yachts by that fourth round. Ettin yachts. I wanted an NPC to spill the beans. I wanted to fudge die rolls. I may have even briefly considered Pelor wiping out the entire field of zombies with a Real Genius-style laser from his holy SR-71 Blackbird. But I’m glad I didn’t.

We’re Only Enemies In Our Imaginations, Where I Have Godlike Powers And You Survive By My Will Alone

They went on to figure everything out and saved the day. Am I glad they survived? Of course. But they live or die by their own actions, or at least as close an approximation as I can give while still keeping everything fun and exciting.  That whole “fun and exciting” bit is a lot more complicated than it seems. I could keep them alive no matter what, and they could always go through the campaign knowing that they would prevail. That would certainly keep tempers and hurt feelings down, but it’s been my experience that there’s no sense of accomplishment, no edge-of-your-seat feeling with a die roll whose result holds the fate of the universe.

Then again, just letting a PC die because your dice are rolling really hot and his aren’t seems kind of empty, too. Unexpected PC death always feels more tragic to me, like their story was supposed to end differently. This isn’t real life, after all. Especially considering that I tend to think of the DM’s role as both arbiter and entertainer, killing off a player’s beloved PC seems somewhat anathematic — and yet I still have to provide the facility for that PC to really live. This is entirely too heavy for me. I need to think about beholder farts or something.

I really don’t understand how DMs don’t go completely insane. I am constantly rooting for my players, and yet just this past session I dropped the F-bomb when one of my monsters missed their attack roll. I’ve seen every last one of the DMs I’ve ever played under do this at some point. Some were of the power-mad neckbeardian variety and actually wanted the party to die, but even the player-centric PC-friendly ones did it too. I was definitely not expecting said F-bombs to emerge from my mouth. Over this, anyway.

Just Lie Back And Think Of Uthgar

I’ve absolutely no idea what to do when the day I have to perform my first TPK arrives. I suspect I’m going to have all of about 30 seconds warning to examine the existential quandary of whether these characters have achieved their potential and if the campaign would be better served by their living and mitigating the risk of having my friends mad at me and never wanting to come over again to play D&D and if I want to bail them out and how and just maybe I’ll be able to get a good start on a nice massive heart attack.

Maybe I need to approach this like the other important first times in my life. Nearly universally, it was scary and kind of thrilling. Also, I was generally incompetent and a bunch of stuff happened I never ever want to tell my parents about. Those all seemed to work out OK. Maybe mass-murdering the wish-fulfilling alter egos of all my friends under hundreds of tons of rock will too.


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  1. Rooting for the players… by my reckoning, you’ve definitely got the right attitude. But as far as that DM insanity you’re sensing – It’s called The Balance. As DMs, we must somehow strive eternally to create challenges which CAN kill a party, but not necessarily WILL kill a party. Sometimes that Balance is as thin as a knife’s edge, and maintaining the Balance always depends on how the players handle the combat – if they get sloppy or stupid, well that’s when they fall off the edge (TPK). As far as DMs pulling the “curses foiled again” routine, well that depends on the DM. Some DMs have a hard time distancing themselves from a really cool NPC or monster or encounter they designed. Others get a small vicarious thrill from mauling the players. As for me, I curse when my dice rolls and monsters conspire to FAIL to challenge the party, when I spent all that time crafting an encounter specifically to be challenging! I usually just add another monster (arriving tardily in round 2 or 3 after taking care of business in the bushes or something), but sometimes you just have to roll your eyes, and accept that your characters smoked your “deadly” encounter. As far as your first TPK… don’t let it bother you. It’s going to happen, so give the characters your best poker face when it does and leave there fate a mystery. You have “god-like powers”, so there’s reason you can’t save the party if you want to, and you have until next session to decide if you want to implement a really cool plot line to bring them back!

  2. I have a tendency to pull back a bit when they’re nigh dead. To attack the character who is less close to death. I want them to win. But if I’m not willing to destroy them there’s no point. If they can’t lose then it doesn’t matter when they win.

  3. Nice article. Without the threat of death/losing, what is the point in playing? I sometimes get more lax in my monsters’ tactics if I see the PCs are in trouble. Or if there seems to be a legitimate “out” for why the PCs would be left alive (i.e. slavery or capture), I’ll often take it, but other than that I consider death fair game. If it makes more sense that they should die, I definitely let it happen.

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    It’s fun to play the killer DM when you aren’t actually being one. Actually as a DM I get the most upset when something cool as a setpiece doesn’t go off. Like a monster that has a special attack that they can only use a target with a specific condition and the players keep saving before the special attack can go off.

    I’ve only had one TPK. It was a drow fortress and the players had been quite effective at reducing the defenders, but not very subtle. So the drow pulled back to one location. I gave the party a lot of clues – like guard stations that seem to have been recently evacuated, mess halls with hot food left on the table and the party heard a lot of figures as they approached the final chamber. I think the final battle would have been tough, but possible. Except that the players couldn’t roll for beans. For the first three rounds the party couldn’t make an attack roll while the bad guys were rolling fairly well. Sadly the party’s tactics ended up making it hard for them to retreat.

    I felt really bad, but the players accepted it. They took a risk, they went on despite clues, and failed. Character death is part of the process, and occasionally everybody dies and evil wins.

  5. I like TPKs in two different moments. The first is when you are deliberately playing a challenge. Maybe a tournament, maybe Lair Assault, maybe a one-shot where the theme is likely doom (for example, Last Stand at Camp Starfall, ahem.).

    The second is when it is earned. When it feels like it adds to the story. This can happen in any campaign, any time, but ideally when there are big foes, the combat is critical to the story arc, and/or the party made deliberate decisions to pursue a risky strategy for some cause in which they believe. When those situations are in play I’ll gladly deliver a well-earned TPK. I don’t fabricate it, but I’ll not pull punches at all. Too often the party enters the dungeon and stops the ritual just as it would do something terrible. If it really is a big deal, then death should be possible. And if it goes that way, it goes that way. I like these TPKs because from their ashes come better story. Chapter 2, with new PCs, can visit that failure and build upon it. The ritual went off. The world changed for worse. Things need to be rectified. Vile got stronger and the next failure could strip away so much that the new (and old) PCs hold dear.

    In between is that moment when a combat just ends up harder than envisioned. Bad dice, bad balance, who knows! In these cases I’ll pull punches, especially because I’m a tactical DM and I tend to make fights harder than they would be on paper. I’ll hint at a strategy, consider softening a blow, give the party a chance to get back in. But I never deliver them from danger to safety. The party has to earn that or the game is too predictable. It is ok to know that your DM will help you a bit, not ok to think the game is not threatening. A TPK might become several PC deaths, and that’s still a big moment for the party.

    In all of this I try to honor my role in things. As DM I’m trying to craft a story and run a fun game. Death helps establish challenge and highlight the drama taking place. It heightens why things matter: because life is precious and danger always present. Make your time memorable, heroes, for the path to victory is never certain.

  6. Gargs454 says:

    The one thing to keep in mind if you are concerned about a tpk is that defeat for the PCs does not need to mean a tpk. It could just be a total party capture instead. Of course, this has a lot to do with who the PCs are fighting. Intelligent monsters are more likely to capture the PCs to use as part of a ritual sacrifice, torture for information, or just to ransom back to the forces of good. A marauding bulette on the other hand is likely to simply enjoy his juicy meal.

    All that being said, I have probably been a tad too easy on my players over the years. I’ve only had one actual tpk (though have had a couple fights where 3 of 5 were killed) and in that particular battle, they were fighting a creature that was working with Orcus and creating a town full of undead. The creature was being particularly blasphemous toward the Raven Queen, so I had her intervene on the party’s behalf. Of course, her assistance didn’t come free and the party is now indebted to her, which can make for good story lines int he future.

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    Negating a TPK is something of a slippery slope. It runs a couple of risks – first that there’s no real risk of death. You need to balance that versus the want to keep the story going. The second is the cliches on being captured. Are the PC’s going to be poorly searched and left in a cellblock with one sleeping guard? Are they going to be put in an exceedingly slow deathtrap? Are we suddenly in an Austin Powers movie? If your game has silly elements that might be okay, but it’s a little hokey for a serious game.

    The issue of being saved by a higher power brings up a little deus ex machina. But I like the idea that it’s not a nice god and this is going to cost them. I’d play up how the Raven Queen holds the papers on their lives.

    Of course there’s also pre-negating a TPK. How bad are things for the bad guys? If they aren’t hurt much there’s not much you can do, but if they are hurting there’s a bit of room to play with things. I remember one potential TPK at low level. Most of the party was down, and the two left up were hurting pretty bad. But the enemies were down to one shaman and a couple warriors. All three were bloodied. So the shaman called for a mutual retreat – the PC’s would take their fallen and go, and the kobolds would take their fallen and go. The kobolds would probably have won, but the shaman valued his own skin too much to risk it.

  8. Gargs454 says:

    @Philo: The mutual retreat example is a great one as it certainly comes off a realistic and it helps to save the party’s bacon — assuming that the players are willing to agree. It seems too often though players will fight to the last drop so to speak, but that is a different issue.

    As for the intervention of a god, I do agree with you that it runs a risk of deus ex machina. Its certainly not something that I would do ordinarily as you certainly run the risks you mentioned above. If used too often the party stops fearing death and stops thinking they actually have control, etc. The main reason I had the RQ intervene was due to the fact that the fight ended up being a lot harder than I anticipated and a tpk due to DM error is something that is a bit harder for me to swallow. Granted, in that battle there were two notable mistakes made by the party, but the fight was also a lot deadlier than I had anticipated due to “lucky” die rolls, etc. As an example, the ranger managed to be killed outright a little under halfway through the first round, which of course, only made the rest of the fight deadlier.

    As for capturing the PCs, I agree that it can be tricky as well. Certainly the idea of the party being captured is almost as cliche as “Okay, your brand new level 1 characters are all sitting around a table in a bar when . . . ” to start a campaign. I think it again comes down to the idea of “everything or anything in moderation.” Having the party be captured once, or even twice, during a campaign is workable. If its happening every level, then yeah you’re likely to have issues. I do think that if you are going to have the party captured, you should definitely go all out and have them completely stripped of gear, etc. You then do at least have a ready made adventure as they try to escape and collect gear to fight with and ultimately reclaim their gear that was taken. That’s a potentially great adventure if done once in a campaign, not so great if done more than that.

    I suppose one alternative take on the captured party would be to use it as an opportunity to allow the players to play alternate characters for a couple of sessions, and have those characters come to the party’s rescue. This way at least its a different take on the “escape” cliche and it keeps the players in the role of the heroes as opposed to having a group of NPCs show up in the nick of time. Plus, it gives the players an opportunity to try out different characters for a few sessions.


  1. […] world of running games, but even moreso in the transparency he brings to his post-game show.  One particular column struck me, because he was recounting experiences that he had in a game that I was running for him. […]

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