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How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?

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.
 

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prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
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

Hero
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

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
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

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
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

satisfied?
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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