Topic: Total Party Kill
The Scene: The DM and players sit quietly at a game table strewn with crushed soda cans, broken pencils, and shredded character sheets.
DM: I'm curious -- at exactly what point did you guys realize that you needed to take that blue dragon seriously? I mean, how many deaths does it take to recognize that you're fighting the boss monster?
Players (in unison): Bite me.
Andy: So-called "boss monster" encounters are a staple of D&D. Whether you're battling a vampire archmage surrounded by minions or a lone great wyrm red dragon, nothing gets the blood pumping faster than an all-out, no-holds-barred, nothing-left-in-the-tank slugfest.
But while these encounters are often the most entertaining, they're also the most likely to garner the ultimate negative result: the total party kill (or TPK if, like "The Dude," brevity is your thing). Even though the DM may not have overestimated his characters' abilities, if the players don't recognize the threat in a timely manner, the fight may get a lot uglier than intended.
Sure, an occasional PC biting the dust isn't the end of the world -- and may in fact make the encounter more memorable -- but ultimately, D&D is a game that the players are supposed to win. When they don't, you're not only left with disappointed (and surprised) players, but also with a potentially wrecked campaign (and maybe even lost friends).
In an effort to help you avoid that calamity, we'll perform a post-mortem examination of a botched "boss monster" encounter from my own campaign, talking about how both the DM and the players might have improved the experience, as well as how we turned the near-TPK into a positive (and interesting) part of the campaign's story arc.
Now if only I could think of such an encounter . . .
Greg: The skies were angry that day, my friend. We had gathered to finish cleaning out the forge underneath Helmsport, when the multitude of passageways and rivulets met up into a larger passage that beckoned our attention.
The room beyond was large, we could tell that. But darkness stretched out farther than our light sources could pierce. We started scrambling along a 10-foot wide "beach," not wanting to venture into murky waters that probably held the sewage run-off of the entire city.
Then we heard a voice. Or maybe there wasn't a voice, just a stinging cone of acid (players don't like to remember the low points of their careers). We were ambushed, spread thin along the edge of the room with little mobility.
The black dragon was upon us.
Andy: Man, elephants have nothing on the memories of shafted players. That was what, five years ago?
The encounter Greg has dredged up from the depths of the past was based on room 52 from Forge of Fury, the second in D&D's series of "Adventure Path" modules from early 3rd Edition. Since the PCs had advanced well beyond the intended levels of the adventure, I bumped up Nightscale from young (then CR 4, adjusted to CR 5 in version 3.5 of the Monster Manual) to a CR 9 or 10. As I remember, the characters were all 7th or 8th level, so this seemed like a reasonable challenge for a "boss" encounter. It'd be tough, but winnable, right?
As it turns out, not so much.
Greg: Yeah, not so much. We were a confident group of experienced players who worked pretty well together. But we failed to realize how much geography has to do with success on the battlefield. The element of surprise belonged to the dragon, sure. But after a round, things should even out . . . it's not like it's getting two turns to our one for very long. What really honked us good was the underground lake the beast had made into its lair.
Our line got stretched, and the far flank was compromised when Alarion the paladin was caught in base-to-base contact with the dragon. Even though he was the most powerful character in the party, he was no match.
Then Seth the wizard disappeared, caught on the wrong side of the room. The rest of us could see the writing (in blood and itty-bitty Alarion bits) on the wall -- time to cut and run.
(For a synopsis of how this encounter played out in real life, check it out)
We were bushwhacked -- a promising day of adventuring ripped apart like so many paladin victuals. Where did we go wrong? Did we miss a sign that said you had to be at least this tall to enter the room? Sure, a giant pile of bones by the edge of the water might have tipped us off not to go too deep into the chamber. But this dragon was on us like a bulldog on a pork chop.
Did we have any acid protection available? Not with the cleric absent, and the rogue/wizard focusing more on stealth and summoning than buffing his allies. Water breathing? Nobody prepares that for a spur-of-the-moment casting. Once you know you're going pearl-diving, you break out the calculator, start dividing the duration among your party, and figure out how many third-level spell slots need to be committed.
Andy: In hindsight, I can see that the room's layout could hardly have been designed better for a savvy black dragon . . . or worse for a group of unprepared PCs. Though the watery environment was hardly a surprise -- they'd been wading through rivers for a couple of sessions -- most characters will go to almost any length to avoid shelling out hard-earned gold for items that will help them deal with environmental hazards. Scrolls and potions ofwater breathing or water walk are pretty easy to come by, but they always seem to fall to the bottom of the to-do list.
Even more importantly, there weren't enough clues as to the level of risk that faced the PCs. While it's reasonable for any party to be careful when walking along a slimy ledge above a dark subterranean lake, you're not necessarily thinking that the lake hides the toughest monster you're going to face in the entire dungeon. They had no reason to prep themselves against a black dragon's strengths (acid breath weapon, high Armor Class, great mobility, and stealth).
Perhaps worst of all, though, was that in order to fight the dragon, the PCs had to put themselves into positions that virtually eliminated any reasonable chance of teamwork. After all, once you've been conveniently lined up for that breath weapon, the last thing you're going to do is stick together. Since you don't want to give the dragon time to plan between attacks, you feel compelled to fight it on its own terms . . . that is, in the water. And believe me, there's nothing sadder than watching a spindly little spellcaster dog-paddle through a pitch-black lake while he wonders when the dragon's gonna drag him under, Jaws-style.
But all that's meaningless now -- the encounter was over, and I had to deal with a bunch of players whose attitudes ranged from frustrated to morose to outright angry.
Greg: We were angry for getting whipped so badly. We were sad that Alarion was dead. We felt guilty for leaving Seth behind. Revenge was in order. But could we risk it?
That's a silly question. Of course we could. We hadn't fought a dragon of this size before, so naturally we were overwhelmed. How do we hit it? What if it catches us all in its breath again? A return-trip TPK wasn't nearly the risk once we did research and a bit of scrying.
Preparation's a topic for another day, though. This time, we're focusing on what happened the first go at it. We failed, somewhere between "tragically" and "spectacularly" on the spectrum of failure. Creatures of habit, players need to be shaken up once in awhile ('cause, you know, growth is good and all that). The dragon shook us up, but it also gave us a very personal goal to follow. Loot's nice, but who can remember where they got that cloak of Charisma +2 back in the day? Give me motivation. And it's hard to beat revenge as a reason to get up out of bed in the morning.
Andy: All that made for a very "motivated" group of players the next time we gathered around the table. Perhaps as expected, the battle proved as one-sided as it had before, but with the opposite result.
Greg: Thanks, lower water!
Andy: More important than mere victory, though, was that by kicking the dragon to the curb, the players turned what could have been a hugely negative moment -- one that, in a group less tightly knit than ours, might have created lasting damage to the campaign -- into one of the crowning achievements of the PCs.
And, as it turned out, the encounter also provided one of the players with an excellent opportunity to change characters. No, not the player of the dead paladin (he was already on his second character of the campaign), but rather the player of Seth,the rogue/wizard. Longing to play a pure spellcaster (rather than a multiclassed character), the player saw the debacle as the perfect point in the story for the troubled Seth to "disappear" and be replaced by a more traditional arcanist. Not only did this result in a happier player, but it also introduced some lingering story elements that would continue to play out for the remainder of the campaign.
As a DM, one of the best lessons I learned from this encounter was to make sure that every encounter (particularly the really tough ones) have an "out" for the players. In most cases, the out is just a path of retreat, but in some cases it might be a good reason for the villains to keep unconscious or captured PCs alive. In the dragon's case, I decided that the fast-talking Seth wouldn't have too much difficulty convincing the dragon that his stories of the surface world were worth a few days of extended lifespan.
Regardless, the out should not only be recognized easily by the PCs, but they should also know when to take it before it's too late. If the only escape is a secret door, they might not even know it's there, but just as bad is the encounter that ends before the PCs even know they're outmatched. With Nightscale, I got a bit lucky on the second point -- the dragon preferred to attack only when its breath weapon was available, which gave the party a round or two to gauge the encounter's difficulty between assaults, and it wasn't interested in chasing them down the hall as they fled.
That brings up another good tip: Don't punish PCs for fleeing when they should. If players don't see an upside to running away -- whether that's because the monsters just chase 'em down and kill 'em anyway, or because the monsters always pack up their loot and leave before the PCs return -- they'll quickly learn to fight until the bitter end because hey, why not? You've already embarrassed the players by "winning" the encounter, so there's no reason to rub their noses in it.
Greg: Fleeing might be the hardest thing for a character to do. Where's the heroism in that? But learn the lesson before it's too late. Players, talk out a basic escape plan ("Quin, you're responsible for Jarvis . . . Thorgrimm, you watch out for Duran") and don't be afraid to use it. Hoping for that natural 20/max damage critical won't save you. Good planning -- and a little humility -- will.
About the Author
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?
As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D, Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.
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