Design & Development09/23/2005


Undercover at Gen Con, Part 2



We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, we continue with Dave Noonan's design side.


Design goes incognito – more incognito than usual, anyway.

Last time, in the design-side of the column, we talked about some of the insights I gleaned from watching people play D&D at Gen Con this summer. When I went to Indianapolis, I had a list of specific things I wanted to watch. I wanted to see how boxed text in adventures was working. And, I wanted to watch a TPK (Total Party Kill) without being involved as a player or DM.

TPKs happen with relative rarity in my games, but they do happen. Whether I’m the DM or the player, I’m often scratching my head afterward trying to identify the critical point where things went from bad to worse or figuring out the tactic that would have saved us. But it’s often difficult to analyze a TPK properly because you’re either too busy dying (if you’re a player) or too busy killing PCs (if you’re the DM). So I wanted to watch a TPK without actually having any in-game duties to distract me.

Over the course of Gen Con, I saw four functional TPKs (leaving aside intentionally unfair situations like the Dungeon Delve we ran in our booth). In two, every last PC died. In the other two, one PC was able to flee but had no chance at recovering the bodies of his compatriots or otherwise continuing the adventure.

Here’s a brief summary of the four TPKs:

  • Hezrou takes down the party's cleric fast – and thus eliminates the party’s only countermeasure for its twin sickening effects: unholy blight and its natural stench.
  • Improved invisibility on a lich wizard with enough mobility to make the “which square is he in?” guessing game last indefinitely. The lich was twice able to dispel effects that would negate the invisibility advantage.
  • A mind flayer necromancer leading a pack of wights. The wights are immune to the mind blast, and the negative levels eventually make it hard for even strong-willed PCs to resist the mind flayer’s psionics.
  • PCs beat a clay golem in a tough fight, but then die horribly to the spiked chains of the NPC fighter/rogues in the next room.

The Dynamics of the TPK

All four TPKs shared a very gradual pacing. In all four cases, the TPK happened in “just another room in the dungeon.” It wasn’t a climatic encounter where the PCs knew going in that their lives were at risk. In at least two of the cases, the encounter level was within one of the party’s average level. The PCs’ tactical situation became worse very gradually – and it wasn’t until long after they’d crossed some sort of “TPK event horizon” that they realized how dire their situation was.

It was bad when the hezrou bit the cleric down to –2 hit points, but the rest of the PCs knew that she’d stabilized and were proud of themselves for drawing the demon away from her prone form. The discussion around the table was very casual: “Whew, it’s a good thing the ranger can use your wand of cure moderate wounds. We’ll get to you soon.”

It was bad when the wizard tanked the spell resistance roll against the mind flayer, but the player said, “Don’t worry; I’ve got another one for next round.” One negative level later, that spell was crossed off the list without comment.

Often we imagine TPKs happening when a second monster bursts through a door to ruin the odds or a big crit takes down a PC. But the TPKs I saw didn’t have obvious turning points like that. The building blocks of the TPKs were small, unfortunate events. Individually, you grit your teeth at that natural 1 or that lucky monster save and move on. But when those small events accumulate and stack atop each other, you get into TPK territory without realizing it.

If there’s a “fun” part of TPKs, it’s when the PCs finally realize how bad their situation is, and “overcoming the challenge” takes a back seat to “getting out alive.” Of the four groups, one descended into a pretty ugly, recrimination-fueled argument. (Hey, it happens.) The other three groups gradually pulled together, and there was escalating grim tension at the table that seemed, in a weird way, enjoyable for the players. They might not have liked their dire situation, but they clearly relished the challenge of eking out every possible advantage in an effort to save their skin.

Something On This Sheet Has Got to Save Me

The four TPKs I witnessed had twenty-one total players. I think every single one of them did the same thing when they realized the chips were down and the next round might be their last: They started studying their character sheets.

They’d flip their character sheets over to scrutinize the equipment list on the back, they’d pore over every uncast spell, and they’d look at every skill, whether they had ranks in it or not. I imagined them working their way down the list, thinking, “Will Appraise save me? No. Will Bluff save me…?”

A character sheet is an idiosyncratic thing, and almost every player uses a different format to track a character’s statistics. It’s natural to focus on the tangible list of your character’s abilities when your character’s life might depend on it. But in some cases, the players spent all their time deciphering their own handwriting and trying to recalculate their saving throws after protection from evil, prayer and bard’s inspire courage. They could have spent that time thinking tactically about their situation, not engaged in a computational exercise or a word search.

In at least one case, a hard-to-read character sheet might just have turned a tough fight into a TPK. In the battle with the hezrou, one player missed that his character had a potion of neutralize poison. It’s a little counterintuitive, but the hezrou’s stench is technically a poison, so that player could have been immune to nausea (failed save) or sickening (made save). If that character could have stood toe-to-toe with the hezrou and made full attacks every round, the momentum might have shifted to the players’ favor. In another TPK, the druid started spontaneously summoning animals, but then spent so much time looking up the relevant stats in the Monster Manual that he couldn’t do anything else without slowing the whole table to a crawl. It was all he could do to manage his menagerie from round to round.

The lesson I learned was this: If you want to avoid suffering a TPK, take better care of your character sheet. Treat it like the dashboard and controls that you use to drive your character around. You don’t want to be the driver who can’t find the headlight switch when you head into a dark, curving tunnel. You want to be the driver that flicks a switch without disrupting your concentration on the larger task.

Specifically, set up your character sheet to eliminate computational exercises and word searches. If you have a bard in your group, go ahead and pre-calculate what your attacks are when inspire courage is active. If you’re a spellcaster, write down the page numbers of the spells in your repertoire.

Tangent Alert!: A few years ago, we used our two-way mirror room here at Wizards to observe a D&D group at play and time how long certain game activities took. One of the lessons our stopwatches taught us was that it usually takes about thirty seconds for a proficient player to find the relevant reference in a rulebook. But if they have a page number ahead of time, they cut that time in half.

And just as important, try to trim away information that isn’t relevant to your decision-making. For example, you care deeply that your Reflex save is +11. But in a fight, it doesn’t matter that +5 of that is from your class, +4 is from your Dexterity, and +2 is from your cloak of resistance. Get that extraneous stuff out of the way, and you’re clearing away the weeds that might obscure the text that’ll save your life. Yes, in 1 fight out of 50 you’ll take Dexterity damage or have your cloak’s magic suppressed, and you’ll need to understand your Reflex save breakdown. But set up your character sheet for the other 49 fights, and you’ll get more analysis time and less paralysis time.

Aren’t We Supposed To Be Retreating?

Another thing I noticed is that lack of communication among the players was really the monster that earned the TPK, not the rogues or the mind flayer. One of the things that D&D demands of its players is that they shift their focus from the individual to the group and back again. But when times get tough at the game table, it’s easy to stay focused on your character and lose awareness of what your comrades are doing.

This isn’t selfishness – the players involved genuinely want everyone to do well, and most are willing to accept extra risk to help the party prosper. It’s more a question of focus; each player is so involved in maximizing his or her PC’s effectiveness on a round-by-round basis that they lose track of the big picture. It’s easy to spend a minute figuring out the perfect math for that Power Attack, rather than really watching what your compatriots are doing.

By the fifth round, the group fighting the mind flayer and wights realized that they were in big trouble. Remarkably, only one of them was stunned, and that was a halfling that anyone else in the party could have carried away like luggage. One player suggested, “We need to get out of here,” and everyone nodded assent. Then that player fired arrows into the nearest wight. The next player moved to a third PC and cast a cure spell. Then someone moved next to the halfling, but cast scorching ray rather than grab the stunned ally.

See where I’m going with this? As a group, everyone agreed that retreat was the smart plan, but everyone was so busy covering the retreat, healing the wounded, and otherwise doing useful things that no one actually ran away. Over the next two rounds, no one took more than a single move toward the exit. Then a mind blast stunned half of them, and group retreat was no longer in the cards.

Bad party communication was also a factor in the fighter/rogue TPK. You’ve got to respect the flanking versatility of rogues with spiked chains, but this was not a particularly tough fight. This was a TPK because no one in the group realized that everyone else was badly wounded after the clay golem. This group had two clerics and a druid, so they were used to getting lots of healing mojo.

But the clay golem in the previous encounter had the cursed wound special ability that renders magical healing difficult – and in this case, impossible. Everyone was keeping track of their own hit points, but not their comrades’ hit points. I’m pretty sure that when they kicked in the next door, every player was thinking the same thing: “I’m a little weak, so I better be cautious, but everyone else is OK.” Had they actually compared hit point totals, they’d have beat a hasty retreat back to town, not tried “just one more encounter.”

Interested to share own your experiences with a TPK -- either on the inflicting or the receiving end? We've set up the following message board thread. And, as always, please feel free to write in directly using dndcolumn@wizards.com

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker (male human, CR 1/8): I first picked up a d20 somewhere in the early eighties, and I often tell the story of my intro to D&D. I was in elementary school, and a friend received the now famous "red box" set as a gift from his parents. I was instantly hooked, and soon became a regular haunt of the one hobby bookshop here in Renton, WA. Fast forward through some-teen years of gaming (with occasional interruptions for things like school), and just out of college I land a job as editorial assistant for Dragon Magazine. The eight years since that entrance to the gaming industry have included a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon, freelance design credits such as Hammer & Helm, and Unearthed Arcana.

In the middle of 2003, I left the helm of Dragon for a chance to do full-time design in Wizards' R&D group, and was lucky enough to work on books like Complete Adventurer and the DMG II. I clearly liked to talk too much to remain on the design team, so I moved over to manage the relatively new development team for RPGs and D&D Minis.

It's easily the best job in the whole world, but even so, I swear that as soon as I level up I'm taking the Talk Less in Class feat.

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Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at: dndcolumn@wizards.com.

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