How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?

Retreater

Legend
Apparently I'm a Killer GM - regardless of the system - it can be Pathfinder, D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Savage Worlds, etc. And this goes across multiple gaming groups with different players, so the only common factor is me.

Some think TPKs are okay and character deaths are good for the story, but in my case it regularly keeps me from being able to finish adventures and ends the majority of my campaigns prematurely - plus the frequency of these events aren't fun for my players (and me as a result).

Those of you who aren't currently averaging a TPK every 12 hours of gameplay, how do you do it?

Do you roll in secret and fudge die rolls?
Do you have the enemies waste actions to gloat and give speeches?
Do you frequently employ deus ex machina events such as "the king's guard comes and saves your party?"
Do you use metagame effects such as "if the party all votes to run away, spend a token and you automatically flee."
Do you purposefully nerf the monsters? Cut HP in the middle of the fight? Don't recharge abilities?
Do you have the monsters inexplicably run away - even when they have the upper hand?
 

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aco175

Legend
Yes to all.

I also plan area for safety in dungeons where PCs can rest or sleep, while having a guard of course. I also give out cool items with powers that can do something that may help in situations like a sword that cast water breathing 1/day.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I generally throw stuff at the PCs, or at least put stuff between them and their goals. Since I'm choosing what to put in, I can choose how lethal it is. That's most of it. It wouldn't work anything like as well in like Call of Cthulhu--but that's a higher-lethality game, anyway.

I'm running D&D 5e, and I basically don't set up high-lethality encounters until the PCs have a couple-three levels, and I'm ... generous ... about starting stats and such. Once they get a few levels, then I start upping the pressure on them.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Yes to all.

I also plan area for safety in dungeons where PCs can rest or sleep, while having a guard of course. I also give out cool items with powers that can do something that may help in situations like a sword that cast water breathing 1/day.
No to all and I don't have the same problems one bit.

@Retreater -- I'm curious why you've only listed fudging mechanics/prep at the point of the encounter and haven't at all considered that the encounter design/adventure design considerations are the problem. As I say above, I will not use any of the ideas you list in my games but I also don't have your problem, and I still have challenging and dangerous encounters that occasionally result in TPKs. You do this by making sure that if you're breaking from a balanced encounter/design expectation that you foreshadow this clearly. And don't always have monsters who's goals are 'reduce PCs to death.' This appears to be a problem with how you think things "ought" to be running headlong into what doing that creates as "is" happening. You need to adjust way further upstream than fudging combat mechanic results.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Do you roll in secret and fudge die rolls?
If my dice are unusually hot, I do start ignoring crits and high-ends of damage. I usually don't have to, but there have been a few moments here and there where a lucky crit on my part was just too harsh for the situation - maybe a couple of times a campaign or so.
Do you have the enemies waste actions to gloat and give speeches?
They can give speeches without wasting actions. But am I always using the most optimal action? Probably not. I'm just trying to use ones that seem OK for the mindset of the enemy.
Do you frequently employ deus ex machina events such as "the king's guard comes and saves your party?"
If they're in a place where that can happen I might do so. But I typically don't.
Do you use metagame effects such as "if the party all votes to run away, spend a token and you automatically flee."
I don't give them tokens to spend, but if I had introduced the idea with some kind of hero point feature, then I certainly would. I might also adjudicate an escape rather than dice it out if everyone was trying to do so and came up with a reasonable plan to accomplish it, token or not.
Do you purposefully nerf the monsters? Cut HP in the middle of the fight? Don't recharge abilities?
Pfft. I have a hard enough time remembering to try to recharge abilities. But if I have a recharge on 5-6 ability that I am just recharging and recharging and recharging, then, yeah, I may skip it. It's not expected to recharge every round and if it is, that's uncanny luck on my part screwing my players like rolling too many crits.
Do you have the monsters inexplicably run away - even when they have the upper hand?
Depends on the monster. When is the best time to run away? For some of the more bestial/predatory kind, it's when the monster is a bit hurt but isn't too hardly pressed! The PCs aren't going to pursue a monster that's outclassing them and the monster is going to be more interested in survival and easy wins than risking its own survival.
 

mythago

Adventurer
As the GM, you're setting up the scenario that is leading to frequent TPKs. That's what you need to fix, rather than after-the-fact solutions like fudging dice rolls.

Are you appropriately calibrating the planned encounters to the player skill and PC levels?
Are your adventures always centered around frequent, deadly combat?
Do your players have the ability to plan for and mitigate the dangers of combat?
What is the goal of the big fights that are TPKs - do you always structure them as bitter fights to the death between the PCs and your NPCs?

I'd also ask yourself: what is your internal reaction if the players don't get wiped? Are you happy for them? Or do you feel like they somehow 'beat' the encounter? Do you feel like you as a GM 'lost' or that your NPCs got beaten?
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
You put this in general RPGs, so I'm going to give a few examples.

Pathfinder 2 has very tight encounter math, though does assume that there's a reasonable amount of system mastery on the player side. But if what is supposed to be two separate encounters run into one (say an alarm is raised) than it can be quite deadly. Being aware that the system can't handle add-ons to combats is a big deal.

5e D&D is considered by some to be "easy mode" when run as the DMG suggests. Read the rules and recommendations for encounter building as well as number of rests and follow them.

There are games like Savage Worlds that I am lead to understand can be very swingy, so bad luck will be the determinator at times. So either make encounters survivable even if luck swings the wrong way, or if that's no good change systems.

No major system out there is designed around TPKs every 12 hours, so none require fudging or any of the other solutions you are mentioning when run by the guidelines presented in the rules.
 
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Retreater

Legend
@Retreater -- I'm curious why you've only listed fudging mechanics/prep at the point of the encounter and haven't at all considered that the encounter design/adventure design considerations are the problem.
I think it's because "by the book" the encounter should be balanced and winnable - at least based on the guidelines of the system. Or you figure that if the party is outmatched, that they will be able to regroup or change tactics. And sometimes you do want tougher encounters, but it's hard when as a DM you describe a single skeleton and it sounds terrible and frightening, but the 3rd level ogre doesn't sound as terrible. And how do you convey that to the players? Do you tell them - "hey, this ogre is a potentially deadly encounter" and "this skeleton is a trivial fight."
 

Retreater

Legend
Are you appropriately calibrating the planned encounters to the player skill and PC levels?
Are your adventures always centered around frequent, deadly combat?
Do your players have the ability to plan for and mitigate the dangers of combat?
What is the goal of the big fights that are TPKs - do you always structure them as bitter fights to the death between the PCs and your NPCs?
I have been running standard, pre-published adventures, as they were written. And they frequently end in TPKs after a couple sessions.
I think it's time to start writing my own adventures again. When I write my own, things are never this deadly.
Yep, they usually have several rounds to prep and the ability to run away before the encounter starts.
Oh, it's not just the "big fights" - these are just random side fights that aren't important to the story at all.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think it's because "by the book" the encounter should be balanced and winnable - at least based on the guidelines of the system. Or you figure that if the party is outmatched, that they will be able to regroup or change tactics. And sometimes you do want tougher encounters, but it's hard when as a DM you describe a single skeleton and it sounds terrible and frightening, but the 3rd level ogre doesn't sound as terrible. And how do you convey that to the players? Do you tell them - "hey, this ogre is a potentially deadly encounter" and "this skeleton is a trivial fight."
To be blunt, this reads like "I'm not the one at fault, it's the system" and that follows with your initial list of breaking the system in combat to prevent this outcome. But, here's the thing, plenty of other people are using these exact same systems and not getting your result. Time to take an honest and hard look at what it is you're doing. This issue is very much entirely on the GM's side of the screen.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
It is perhaps worth pointing out that the published adventure/s would also be "on the GM's side of the screen." I've never had great success and/or fun with published adventures, so ... maybe there's just a bad interaction between how published adventures are put together--at least at the beginning/s--and how you run, and how your players play.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I have been running standard, pre-published adventures, as they were written. And they frequently end in TPKs after a couple sessions.
I think it's time to start writing my own adventures again. When I write my own, things are never this deadly.
Yep, they usually have several rounds to prep and the ability to run away before the encounter starts.
Oh, it's not just the "big fights" - these are just random side fights that aren't important to the story at all.
Is it your perception that your players generally make weak characters, roll poorly, and/or use really bad tactics?
 

mythago

Adventurer
I have been running standard, pre-published adventures, as they were written. And they frequently end in TPKs after a couple sessions.
I think it's time to start writing my own adventures again. When I write my own, things are never this deadly.
Yep, they usually have several rounds to prep and the ability to run away before the encounter starts.
Oh, it's not just the "big fights" - these are just random side fights that aren't important to the story at all.

Nothing wrong with writing your own adventures, but it sounds like there may be a disconnect in the way you are applying the pre-gen adventures to the player groups. It could be less experienced players or bad die rolls, but the fact that it keeps happening across multiple systems and with multiple player groups implies that there is a mismatch in the level of player ability or PC skills and the adventure itself. (Is this happening with pre-gen characters too?)

Also, of course, not all pre-gen adventures are equally good or equally well playtested.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I know "talk with your players" is old advice, but it's repeated often for a reason.

This really seems like a communication problem between the GM and players. Maybe the players don't understand all their options during combat? Or maybe they don't trust that the GM will let them run away, regroup, etc.

With new groups I will ask them to vote on a danger level of the campaign. 1 means no risk of death, 2 means some risk of death (but I will give them obvious clues when they are entering dangerous situations), and 3 means bring it on.

I'll admit that 3 is my personal preference as a DM, but my last group voted for 2. So if they were in a really dangerous situation, I'd either warn them, or soften the enemy strategies, or provide an obvious line of escape (like the enemy offering to negotiate).
 

Retreater

Legend
Is it your perception that your players generally make weak characters, roll poorly, and/or use really bad tactics?
Not necessarily. I wouldn't say that every round is spent doing the most optimized thing. And maybe the characters aren't mix-maxed to perfection. But I think it should be "doable" with their level of skill and character abilities.
And also, this is something I've noticed in games and player groups across the board. So it's something I'm doing wrong more than any blame I'm putting on them. I just can't figure it out.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I know "talk with your players" is old advice, but it's repeated often for a reason.

This really seems like a communication problem between the GM and players. Maybe the players don't understand all their options during combat? Or maybe they don't trust that the GM will let them run away, regroup, etc.

With new groups I will ask them to vote on a danger level of the campaign. 1 means no risk of death, 2 means some risk of death (but I will give them obvious clues when they are entering dangerous situations), and 3 means bring it on.

I'll admit that 3 is my personal preference as a DM, but my last group voted for 2. So if they were in a really dangerous situation, I'd either warn them, or soften the enemy strategies, or provide an obvious line of escape (like the enemy offering to negotiate).
This is a good idea. If you run long-ish campaigns, it might also be a good idea to see if the players still want whatever danger level they signed on for at the beginning.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Are the TPKs frequently occurring with the same group?

I see a lot of people immediately jumping to placing blame on the GM. Is it possible that a particular group works poorly as a team?
 

payn

Legend
First suggestion is adjust your style. I think it takes a delicate GM hand to run a long plot based campaign. Running published adventures is not easy, despite the notion that they do the work for you. No published adventure can account for GM and player playstyle. You have to adapt the material. That means changing some of the fiction so that important clues are not left out. Also, certain encounters need to be adjusted because of poor placement or use. This means adventure material and system.
  • Understand the system and how it plays. There is always growing pains on both sides of the screen.
  • Do your homework. Read the adventure material well in advance. Be prepared for the entire session and don't wing it.
  • Check the community on their thoughts. Folks are happy to share what works for them and what doesn't.
  • Give the players tools to save their bacon. Hero Points or whatever meta currency. (This isnt all or nothing you can dial it to taste)
  • When things go south, try to adapt. If the players get shellacked by Goblins, don't let them walk into a second buzzsaw. Give them a chance to recoup. On the flip side, if an encounter goes down like a glass jaw, add something to spice it up. Dont be afraid to improvise and change up the material. (This is also not an all or nothing suggestion. Could simply be in case of emergency tool.)
The better you get as GM the less you should need to do these things.

Second suggestion is to lean into the game part of the RPG. Your style might just be that the game is utmost important. Your role is simply to be impartial. You set up a fair, yet difficult adventure for the players. It is their job to survive and thrive the adventure. It is your job to explain that no holds are barred and the dice fall where they may. That winning is always an option, but not always likely.
  • Avoid long plot based adventures. Stick to sandboxes and/or one shot episodic adventures.
  • Understand the system and how its meant to be played. Communicate it!
  • Avoid systems with complicated chargen.
  • Signpost your adventures. Dont leave a sign laying on the ground covered in mud that says "dragon this way!" and hope the PCs find it.
I believe you have an easier time with your own adventures because they are all you. The plot makes sense because you came up with it. You know how to run the encounters because you chose them. You grok how its supposed to work because you chose the system. Nothing wrong with any of this, but if you want to deliver a fun published adventure experience, you need to realize it takes a combination of you and the material. Dive in and live it. Make it you, or else you are just phoning in somebody else's work. That's my advice on adventure material for you.
 

niklinna

Snickers satisfies!
I haven't seen or participated in any of your sessions, so I don't really know what to offer in round-by-round adjustments, but here are some other things I haven't seen suggested yet:
  • Review each encounter in the published material for difficulty, and think about how your current group might handle it. Maybe the encounter math doesn't work for your groups. Adjust the encounter difficulty to fit your group.
  • Go over the characters your players roll up, make sure they will have some combat effectiveness. This is baked in to some games (or some classes), but not others.
  • Note what your players do in any encounter, and compare it to what you would have done in their shoes. Maybe you have bad luck with players not being skilled at combat, and they need to learn more effective approaches. After a fight that goes badly, tell them what they might have done that would have worked better. Or, during a fight, even, maybe suggest actions for them (give them at least two options so it looks less like you're spoon-feeding :) ).
  • Get a group that's willing to actually repeat encounters to try different strategies and tactics. Either advise them to do something different each time, or prompt them to use more/less control, more/less focused fire, retreat when defeat looks likely, and so on.
Edit: Fixed a typo.
 
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