It might have been more accurate to call this editorial, "When your group tries to jump the shark but doesn't make it."
I might catch some flak for this one, but recent events compel me to talk about something that every DM has to contend with: party suckitude.
First, no offense to my players or anyone who's had a rough day in the dungeon. The best groups have off sessions. Sometimes they forget to use their encounter or daily powers. Sometimes they spread their attacks too thin. Sometimes they race around an encounter area like poodles on a 24-hour caffeine bender.
Sometimes, they do all of the above, and then some.
You know where this is going. What do you do when your group just shanks it? Sucks rocks? Can't pull it together? They can't blame it on the dice this time. They're not coordinating, communicating, or thinking tactically.
This happened to me recently. I'm running my group through "The Shadow Rift of Umbraforge" from Dungeon #158, and the group is at the third encounter under The Happy Beggar -- the one with all the wraiths. It's a tough encounter, I'll be the first to admit. It comes right after a fight against the shadar-kai witch, dark creepers, and shadow hounds, which is no walk in the park, either. But wraiths are insubstantial, which means they take only half damage, and they regenerate 5 hp a round.
As soon as the fight started, the mistakes started piling up. One defender charged a wraith near the portal. The second defender charged … a different wraith. The rogue charged a third. If you do the math on expected damage for a 4th-level PC, you'll find that half damage is around 5 or 6 points -- about what a wraith regenerates. Against regenerating monsters, spreading out your attacks is a losing game.
The mistakes didn't stop there. The party striker got distracted by a dark creeper skulking in the corner, so one of the best characters for hurting regenerating foes wasn't attacking the wraiths at all. And that dark creeper wasn't even attacking anyone. It was after something the PCs had and was trying to figure out who was carrying it.
What's a DM to do? Some might "punish" their players by letting the dice fall where they may. That's not my style, especially when the group is having a bad night. I think the DM's first job is to make the game fun for everyone, even if that means compensating for the players. That's right, I cheated … in their favor. I dropped the wraiths' regeneration to 2. I put a secret button on the portal which created a radiant energy zone that shut down their regeneration altogether. I made some gentle tactical suggestions. Finally, I left a clear line of escape open.
It's important to keep some contingency plans for these occasions in your DMing pocket for when things go south -- really south. A TPK, as much as we toss the event around in gloating terms, isn't good for anyone. You lose campaign story continuity. Everyone is bummed. You might even lose players.
We'll see what happens. The session ended mid-fight, with lots of anxious and frustrated faces. I hope they pull it out, or at least run away to try the encounter again later. Most of all, I hope that next month, I'm not writing about how to jump start a campaign after a TPK. What about your campaigns? Got any stories of encounters gone horribly awry? Send them in to email@example.com.