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

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
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

Not your screen monkey (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

Hero
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.
 

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