How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?

niklinna

Snickers satisfies!
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."
Oh I don't know about that. I briefly joined a Pathfinder 2 group that was doing Age of Ashes. It was brutal! We were on the edge of a TPK with nearly every combat.

Now, two of the other players were playing casters, and they relied on just a couple of their spells, over and over. They didn't even know all their spells by name, much less what the spells actually did! The melee players were a little more on the ball, but even they weren't always doing the PF2-optimal thing. (PF2 really is a different beastie than 5e.)

Even so, I did follow Pathfinder 2 forums during that time, and that adventure path had a...reputation. So I would not just trust that any published adventure path is balanced and winnable. The adventure could be really tough, or the players could be, shall we say, sub-par.

Edit: Fixed a typo.
 
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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.
Hmm, yeah. I don't know.

Probably my first instinct would be to start downgrading the monsters a bit from the published stats. Have them do a bit less damage, and reduce HP some.

Or reduce the number of opponents slightly and then, where appropriate, have the missing monsters show up mid-fight as reinforcements. This would put the action economy more in the PC's favor while adding a bit of a dynamic change to the situation mid-fight.
 

payn

Legend
Oh I don't know about that. I briefly joined a Pathfinder 2 group that was doing Age of Ashes. It was brutal! We were on the edge of a TPK with nearly every combat.

Now, two of the other players were playing casters, and they relied on just a couple of their spells, over and over. They didn't even know all their spells by name, much less what the spells actually did! The melee players were a little more on the ball, but even they weren't always doing the PF2-optimal thing. (PF2 really is a different beastie than 5e.)(

Even so, I did follow Pathfinder 2 forums during that time, and that adventure path had a...reputation. So I would not just trust that any published adventure path is balanced and winnable. The adventure could be really tough, or the players could be, shall we say, sub-par.
Completely true. PF2 runs different than even PF1. It's very easy to drive the difficulty up to 11 and wipe the party. There has been chatter with some of the writers about learning better how the challenge system works and considering that in the AP construction. Less chains and solo extreme fights, and more even level encounters seems to be the ticket.

This reminds me of party make up too. I remember a few PF1 era APs that had encounters that were very difficult if you didnt have a silver weapon. For hundreds of pages in the campaign there was never any reason to get one. Now, all of a sudden, there is a werewolf and the party is ill equipped to deal with it. It didnt make much sense in the fiction and so I just took it out and swapped with something that did make sense. So, sometimes you gotta adapt for the party which the adventure writers cant do with any reasonable foresight.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
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
For some games like Pathfinder 2e, the book makes assumptions that don’t hold universally true. You need to adjust your assumptions and recenter the game’s balance based on what’s actually true for your group.

For example, I had to do this for my group in Pathfinder 2e. They did not meet the system’s tactical expectations, which resulted in a TPK. If I hadn’t adjusted the math for my group, it would have probably happened again.

I don’t think it’s worth sticking to “by the book” when it results in un-fun or pathological outcomes. One of the great things about RPGs over other kinds of games is that can be tailored to one’s group’s tasted and abilities.

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?
How do your descriptions differ? Are you putting more into the description of the skeleton than the ogre? If so, maybe one option could be to use descriptions that make the weaker enemies sound pathetic while saving the weightier ones for stronger foes?

Do you tell them - "hey, this ogre is a potentially deadly encounter" and "this skeleton is a trivial fight."
Yes. This is especially true if the players are new to the system and haven’t developed an intuition regarding what’s dangerous.
 


Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
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."
The characters live in the world and experience it fully, the DM is the window to the players. Love that players are taking horror cues for the skeleton. If they aren't for the ogre, make sure to convey what their charactrers are experiencing. How they have to look up to see it's head, the way they can feel it's footsteps through the ground, it's arm which is broader across than any of your torso's. As DM, sell that the ogre is powerful.
 

Emirikol

Adventurer
Xp for completing milestones rather than killing stuff.
Viable run away rules without "free attacks."
Plots that go beyond combat every session.
Good luck.
 

This doesn't apply to every type of RPG, but just like how movies can be a slog when there's just way too much samey action, and it's the buildup to the main fight—all that juicy tension and dread—that makes a story sing, I think some games can lean on anticipation more than constant combat.

If you can pull off that sort of tension-building in an interesting way, then it could solve a couple problems you might be having:

-If threats are telegraphed and discussed way in advance, the PCs should have a better sense of the odds they're up against if or when they fight something. Maybe they've heard about people going up against a specific band of ogres and getting slaughtered, or that there are too many skeletons in a given area to fight head on. If enemies are just various bags of inscrutable numbers, and it's assumed you should always fight-to-the-death through them, then PCs don't really have much of a choice regarding what to do about them, even if they understood the threat level.

-It can be understood, and even stated outright by you, that this is not an MMO where you're grinding easy targets for XP. Like in lots of genre movies, combat is deadly stuff, where fighting is a last resort, and if it can't be avoided you should either be trying to get the upper hand (an ambush, exploiting a weakness, etc.) or fighting to get away our through, not just to stand over your slaughtered enemies. Granted, it takes some GMing finesse to make sure fights have interesting dimensions or stakes beyond kill-or-be-killed, but you've GMed long enough to handle that, especially if players realize they aren't just doing a slaughter simulator.
 

mythago

Adventurer
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?

The original post stated that this was happening with "multiple gaming groups with different players" and across many different systems. That does suggest that the GM is the common element, at least when running premade adventures (as was later clarified).

"Placing blame" isn't the right framing here. It's not that this is a bad GM who should feel bad; this is an ongoing problem that seems to be GM-related and that the GM is trying to resolve.
 

Retreater

Legend
@Retreater would you be up for describing a TPK that didn't seem "deserved?" I am really curious about what's happening, if it's occurring across multiple groups and rulesets.
I'll post the most recent one in spoiler tags below.
The group got reports of unnatural smells coming from the nearby cemetery. They enter the cemetery and see two figures digging up graves. The two claim to be grave diggers and tell the party to keep their distance. The party notices the figures are in an older part of the cemetery - not where new burials are taking place. They also notice an awkward gait and decide to approach, thinking the figures are either graverobbers or perhaps undead feasting on the bodies.
There is some distance between the party and their opponents, about 40 feet. The party continues to approach even though the figures tell them to get lost. The party decides to begin reading weapons/shields and casting spells. Initiative is rolled. The creatures win the initiative and charge at the frontline warrior - a champion (aka paladin) who already has her shield raised. Standing next to the champion is the sorcerer - who had been doing all the talking for the party but decided to approach in tandem with the champion. Monsters quickly overwhelm by focusing attacks on the champion - the sorcerer scurries away and attempt to cast some spells, but they're just not terribly effective against these creatures.
The cleric comes up and becomes new frontline. He's now facing down one opponent while the other is chasing down the sorcerer. Cleric casts heal on the fallen champion, gets a lousy roll and heals to 9 hp. The champion is wounded 1 but is preparing to stand and attack, getting the attention of the creature attacking the sorcerer. The creature turns and hits the champion with a critical hit, instantly dropping him to Dying 3 (one more failed save and it's perma-death).
During this time the party's rogue has been darting in and out of combat, trying to get flanks. He's been whittling down both creatures, but it's not enough. Thinking he can "finish off" one of the creatures, he stays put for an extra attack. He misses, but the creature responds with a critical strike, dropping the rogue. The cleric, overwhelmed by both creatures, now drops.
The sorcerer decides to take an action to see "how close" the creatures are to death. I didn't give exact numbers - but it was 10 hp and 8 hp (out of 55 hp starting, I think). He decides to use his remaining 2 actions to bolt for it - but his legs are short and slow. Still easily within the range of the monsters (who are described as ravenous who don't like letting prey escape), he is within two moves of the creature, who comes up, hits him with a critical. TPK.
If you are familiar with the PF2e encounter math, these were two CR3 creatures against a 4-person level 2 party - with full HP (but down some spells). It is considered a "Severe" encounter, but was presented in the adventure as a regular encounter that is not telegraphed to the party, not a boss fight (in fact 17% of the encounters in this adventure are "Severe"), and is assumed to be a part of a regular adventuring day.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I have been running standard, pre-published adventures, as they were written. And they frequently end in TPKs after a couple sessions.
Well, while they're ending in TPKs for you I would posit that's not the case for most other DMs running those same modules; and you seem (by many previous posts of yours) to know what you're doing as a DM.

And so I'm going to turn this around and look at the players.

What are they doing that turns normally-winnable encounters into disaster? Further, what are they doing that's turning a simple defeat into a TPK?

--- Do the players/PCs have any sense of strategy and tactics, or do they just wade in face first and hope for the best?
--- Do any of the players ever have their PC(s) bail out and hide or flee when things start seriously going south, such that at least someone survives and the story/party/game can continue?
--- Before leaving town, do the players/PCs make sure they have a well-rounded party and-or do they recruit NPC adventurers to fill gaps in their lineup? (corollary: do you-as-DM allow and maybe even encourage this?)
--- Metagame: do your players just assume that every fight is winnable?

All of these are player-side issues that can only really be solved by player-side fixes.(other, perhaps, than the NPC adventurer piece). My suggestion is to somehow get them looking in the mirror if you can, and figure out where they're going wrong.
 

Argyle King

Legend
The original post stated that this was happening with "multiple gaming groups with different players" and across many different systems. That does suggest that the GM is the common element, at least when running premade adventures (as was later clarified).

"Placing blame" isn't the right framing here. It's not that this is a bad GM who should feel bad; this is an ongoing problem that seems to be GM-related and that the GM is trying to resolve.

Thank you for pointing that out. Somehow, I missed that.

I'm not sure how to address the OP without more information. If written adventures are being followed for multiple systems, I would expect D&D adventures to typically skew toward being easier.

I don't know enough about the other systems involved to comment.
 

Retreater

Legend
--- Do the players/PCs have any sense of strategy and tactics, or do they just wade in face first and hope for the best?
Usually face-first, or they go with a standard "this is the tank - he takes the damage" approach to every fight.
Once the tank goes down, they don't really have a Plan B.

--- Do any of the players ever have their PC(s) bail out and hide or flee when things start seriously going south, such that at least someone survives and the story/party/game can continue?
Ok, in the most recent example, one character did try to flee. The player left it up to a random die roll to see if he was going to bolt or fight to the death. He also spent a few of his actions trying to determine what to do and only partly committed to fleeing.
I could have saved him - but his character was also the least involved in the encounter, doing the least, taking the least risk, kind of being dead weight, and didn't particularly like his character to boot. So I thought it would be better to just kill the entire party instead of 75% of it, since it was in keeping with the descriptions of the creatures anyway.
--- Before leaving town, do the players/PCs make sure they have a well-rounded party and-or do they recruit NPC adventurers to fill gaps in their lineup? (corollary: do you-as-DM allow and maybe even encourage this?)
They see "well-rounded" as "if we have a rogue/cleric/fighter/wizard type of party, we have all the bases covered." I don't think that's completely accurate, but it seems like most groups I DM have this mentality.
When I've offered NPCs they're almost universally ignored. Either they're not trusted or the party doesn't want to share the glory/treasure. And the players might think of it as a bigger group slows down gameplay.

--- Metagame: do your players just assume that every fight is winnable?
I think so. They consider that as the hallmark of a well-balanced and well-designed game.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Run opponents as smart and as tactical as they are - but no smarter. A beast may go for the closest opponent, or the one that hurt them last, or the same one they were biting. People who have not trained as soldiers might fight smart but not take advantage of focus fire or other sqaud tactics.

Run foes as brave as they are - but no braver. Foes can break and run when appropriate; there's very few were they would fight to the death. An animal defending their young may, but one just looking for a meal would more likely cut and run. Bandits might run or surrender.

Run foes with their own goals. Often their goal isn't to kill. The animal defending their young may have fury, but won't pursue if the party leaves. Guards would more likely knock you out. Some just want to hold you off so they can get away, especially if they see you are more powerful than them.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
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?
Yikes, a TPK every 12 hours?! And I thought my games were lethal!

I agree with @Morrus - it sounds like you aren't using appropriate monsters or encounters.

First, use an online tool to get a suitable number of monsters, based on Challenge Rating. I like this one, but there are many others.

Then double-check the monsters' Armor Class. The average AC of all monsters should be roughly the same as the average attack bonus of the party plus ten. So if everyone is attacking at +5 or +6, the monsters should all have an AC of 15 or 16...the higher their AC, the harder the encounter is going to be.

Finally, check the monsters' damage output. Add up all of the party's hit points; call this number "X." Then add up the average damage of the monsters' attacks (the numbers in parenthesis); call this number "Y." For a normal encounter, X should be about 10-12 times larger than Y. The closer those numbers are together, the faster you'll get a TPK.

There are other things you can check as well, but these three things can be done quickly and easily with practice.
 

payn

Legend
Thank you for pointing that out. Somehow, I missed that.

I'm not sure how to address the OP without more information. If written adventures are being followed for multiple systems, I would expect D&D adventures to typically skew toward being easier.

I don't know enough about the other systems involved to comment.
Some of this is PF2. The early APs had some pretty bad encounter sets. In PF2 the conventionally tactical RPG player is going to get smoked. You really need to know hit and run and spell selection. Usually the weakest spells with the most inconvenient riders are the way to go. Hit and run against the monsters and paper cut them to death. Hope to god they don't catch you because if they do they have a very high chance of scoring a critical and killing the PC(s).
 

Retreater

Legend
Yikes, a TPK every 12 hours?! And I thought my games were lethal!

I agree with @Morrus - it sounds like you aren't using appropriate monsters or encounters.
I'm using pre-published, official content.
Mostly this is Paizo's stuff while running PF2e, but I still get a lot of TPKs with D&D 5e content.
 

payn

Legend
In videogame terms it sounds like you prefer normal/hard mode to easy mode, which might be where your players are at.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
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.
Lots of folks are diving into the most recent TPK that you talked about and published adventures and whatnot, but I'm curious about the broader across games and groups idea that you mention here. With the exception of Call of Cthulhu[*] it seems like the rest of these are games where the tactical wargame element is pronounced.

So I'm going to suggest that the "problem" might be that you might be much better at tactical skirmish wargaming than your player groups are. Which isn't a problem when you're playing a wargame but can be a problem when you're playing a combat heavy RPG where the players are either not interested in getting better at wargaming or not capable of getting better at wargaming no matter what they do. The balance of power in an RPG is heavily tilted towards the GM, so if the GM is also a better tactician than the players and doesn't do something to balance things out, you're going to pummel your players eventually.

Now some folks will suggest fudging dice rolls and wasting actions and what not, but if you are the kind of GM who doesn't normally do these things then they probably will feel off to you and at some point you'll stop doing them and then accidentally crush the players yet again. So I'd suggest instead handicapping yourself by "nerfing" the monsters. Reduce their HP by 10-20% and/or their damage by a similar amount. Give them a -1 to 2 penalty to hit. Lower their AC. Reduce their movement. Remove a particularly powerful special ability entirely. Etc. Basically do some things to make the combat part of the game more challenging for you.

Don't think of it as going easy on the players and "fudging" things though - down that path lies self recrimination and a belief that you're playing the game wrong if you don't go all out on them. Think of it as leveling the playing field to give them the game that the devs tried to build. There isn't a game with tactical combat in it that can handle a mismatch in skill level between the GM and the players when it's the GM that is the tactician in the group. And none of them really even try - I think they assume a general equality around the table (and honestly when things aren't roughly even I'm usually in the opposite camp where one player on the other side can outclass me tactically - which is easier to deal with).

[*] TPKs in Call of Cthulhu are only a problem if they're boring. I usually call a CoC TPK a "good way to end a campaign" if they're suitably dramatic.

EDIT: And @payn basically said what I said except in a single sentence. Good job me...
 

Retreater

Legend
So I'm going to suggest that the "problem" might be that you might be much better at tactical skirmish wargaming than your player groups are.
I haven't thought of it this way. I usually get schooled in tactical miniature games like 40K. But maybe the experience is different when I'm a DM.
 

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