How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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?
Pick encounters that are less powerful, so when you go all out it's merely a challenge instead of death.
 

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mythago

Adventurer
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.

This is an excellent observation. I joke that no DM is going to be smarter than all the players put together, but it's also true that a combination of 1) a tactically-oriented adventure and rules set and 2) a more tactically oriented or more gaming-experienced GM can lead to bad party outcomes.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
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.
Prepublished content is a good start, but it doesn't (and can't) account for your party's composition. It might still be worth checking the AC and damage of the monsters, just to be sure.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
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.
Do the players you're playing with play 40k or other mini games? In my experience players who play wargames at all are going to out-tactic players who just roleplay. Even combat heavy games like D&D or Pathfinder are nothing like actual skirmish games.
 

UngainlyTitan

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.
Ok! I have read the thread and I have read some of your other threads on D&D modules.

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?
That is too much as you well know or you would not be asking and it is difficult to give advice not having experienced your DM'ing. Though I suppose that could be arrange. So I have had 2 tpk's since started running 5e but many occasion where I had sever party members down. Only 2 though where I pulled my punches.

Now Also mostly run pre-published material; exclusively WoTC 5e stuff and not had these problems. Did not do a lot of prep either.
Do you roll in secret and fudge die rolls?
i roll in secret and generally never fudge. If I do it is not generally in combat but if they have to find the secret door or clue I will let them irrespective of what the module says. I also sometime go easy with traps. I do not want the players checking every square of corridor. They are old player and could easily fall back on that habit.

Do you have the enemies waste actions to gloat and give speeches?
Not usually.
Do you frequently employ deus ex machina events such as "the king's guard comes and saves your party?"
I might if plausible and early in the campaign, never had to though.
Do you use metagame effects such as "if the party all votes to run away, spend a token and you automatically flee."
No to meta game tokens but if they disengage I am inclined to let the, get away.

Do you purposefully nerf the monsters? Cut HP in the middle of the fight? Don't recharge abilities?
I have nerfed monsters in encounter design but not in the actual fight. Nor cut HP to save the party but I have handwaved a grindy fight that the party is going to win. I have not used recharged abilities, both accidently and on purpose.
Do you have the monsters inexplicably run away - even when they have the upper hand?
No.

As I have said, I have run pre-published and I have found that outside of some very low level fights the encounters tend to be in the medium to hard and once the party gets up to level 7 or so the encounters drop to easy to medium.
Low level boss fights tend to be deadly but become merely hard at later levels. This however, is between me and my party.

It would appear that you are much better tactically than your players and you may have to take that into account.
 

Non Optimate Choices made in combat (try to trip or grapple rather than hardest swing).

NPC/Monster motivations that aren't always "Kill Murder Maim"

Monsters and NPCs that run away rather than fighting til the last.

Use encounter building tools to see.

Allow players to rest (not always having a time crunch, save havens, etc).

Less random encounter rolls.

Have monsters and npcs spread out damage rather than hyper focus (which leads to the domino effect)

Allow PCs chances for knowledge about whats coming up so they can prepare and avoid
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
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...
I am in agreement to this being a likely cause. When I'm teaching new players to play D&D, I find I have to really damper my strategic mind during combat. I'll sometimes choose suboptimal actions for the enemies to give the players some breathing room in combat.

@Retreater in your example combat with the ghouls (I think they're ghouls), one option would be to shift the stakes once the champion dropped. One of the ghouls could have tried dragging him away while the other covered. This would have halved the number of attacks heading towards the characters while keeping the combat exciting.

It does seem that the players are making choices based on their characters' personalities (the sorcerer staying at the front, then rolling to see if they would run away) rather than metagame tactics. It might be worth shifting the enemy actions in a similar way?
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
I'll post the most recent one in spoiler tags below.
I want to talk about this.
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.
Don't focus fire outside of boss fights or elite troops. especially if they can drop a character in one round. It makes initiative too powerful and makes for swingy combat. Your are not wargaming, you are trying to make then feel a sense of accomplishment on winning. Of if you do focus fire then do not:
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).
Attack the healed but prone character.
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.
Doesn't matter at this stage.
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.
Seems a bit extreme, they had three bodies to eat? where they really that hungry?
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.
No comment, know nothing about PF2
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
I am in agreement to this being a likely cause. When I'm teaching new players to play D&D, I find I have to really damper my strategic mind during combat. I'll sometimes choose suboptimal actions for the enemies to give the players some breathing room in combat.
agreed
@Retreater in your example combat with the ghouls (I think they're ghouls), one option would be to shift the stakes once the champion dropped. One of the ghouls could have tried dragging him away while the other covered. This would have halved the number of attacks heading towards the characters while keeping the combat exciting.
Excellent suggestion
It does seem that the players are making choices based on their characters' personalities (the sorcerer staying at the front, then rolling to see if they would run away) rather than metagame tactics. It might be worth shifting the enemy actions in a similar way?
I would be inclined to agree.
 

Retreater

Legend
Do the players you're playing with play 40k or other mini games? In my experience players who play wargames at all are going to out-tactic players who just roleplay. Even combat heavy games like D&D or Pathfinder are nothing like actual skirmish games.
Not traditional miniatures-based ones, to my knowledge. I think half the group do play tactical computer games such as X-Com occasionally.
 

Kannik

Adventurer
"Know thy players." As a DM who a) enjoys playing strictly tactical games for fun, and b) runs games for various types of groups, that's been the key for me, to ensure I know the party and the players and to tailor the encounters for them. For those groups who are not into richly layered combats, with intricate tactics and with equally intricately crafted characters, I need to review the party's offensive and defensive capabilities, both from a raw character perspective while also further adjusting based on how well the players will employ them.

I also need to watch out for myself, for I know I have a tendency to "fear" making the encounter too easy and thus boring... which can lead me to ramp things up most unnecessarily. :p

I also tend to run quite a few premade adventures, so prior to the session I'll compare the opponent's stats to the party's abilities and adjust as needed to find that good balance. (For example, as a baseline I'll aim for the players hitting about 75% of the time, adjusting for 'tankier' or other types of opponents.)

Another trick I use is to ensure every opponent has an ability or two that is really flavourful and unusual (so that they stand out) and that presents a strong tactical advantage (whether that be damage or effects or positioning or whatever). I employ them towards the start of the encounter to bring that flavour to bear and to have the party react. If the characters are doing really well, I may unleash them again, but if the party is struggling I'll hold them off or do a lesser version of them.

And as others have mentioned, playing the opponents with respect to their narrative background is also important, ie, not all of them (unlike us the DM) may be perfect tacticians, or are thinking straight (or at all), or they may have other goals, or be weak in morale, or etc.

As a starting point it might be worthwhile to simply eliminate one or two of the opponents from the premade adventures you're running to see how that effects things. If it seems to right the balance, then it could be the mismatch between DM and player capabilities in the tactical arena (again, not a matter of right/wrong or good/bad, just preferences and experience). From there you could, if you want, start to find the ways to tweak the opponents so that the same number can be in the combat while still providing an appropriate challenge for the party. :)
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
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.
Are you using group initiative for the monsters or individual initiative? The recommendation in the CRB is individual initiative for monsters unless it’s not practical because having all the monsters go at once can be really deadly for the PCs (for those not familiar with PF2). Also, did the champion not use Shield Block to mitigate the damage?
 

Retreater

Legend
Are you using group initiative for the monsters or individual initiative? The recommendation in the CRB is individual initiative for monsters unless it’s not practical because having all the monsters go at once can be really deadly for the PCs (for those not familiar with PF2). Also, did the champion not use Shield Block to mitigate the damage?
Individual initiative. They both just happened to beat the rest of the party.
Champion didn't use Shield Block because he had used his (glance of redemption)? champion reaction.
 

Retreater

Legend
To test the encounter, I just played through the same fight with the pregenerated iconics at 2nd level, down some spells and without additional gear. I handedly defeated the monsters with minimal damage to the party in about 3 rounds.
So if I had been trying out the encounters beforehand. It seemed fair to me, but I know in hindsight it was a TPK. I must have a really bad challenge detector.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
To test the encounter, I just played through the same fight with the pregenerated iconics at 2nd level, down some spells and without additional gear. I handedly defeated the monsters with minimal damage to the party in about 3 rounds.
So if I had been trying out the encounters beforehand. It seemed fair to me, but I know in hindsight it was a TPK. I must have a really bad challenge detector.
Or you just play the tactics much better than your players tend to. I would be inclined to agree with the other folks in this thread who've suggested changing the encounters before they come up, rather than trying to fudge them in play. It'll be more work for you, alas.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
To test the encounter, I just played through the same fight with the pregenerated iconics at 2nd level, down some spells and without additional gear. I handedly defeated the monsters with minimal damage to the party in about 3 rounds.
So if I had been trying out the encounters beforehand. It seemed fair to me, but I know in hindsight it was a TPK. I must have a really bad challenge detector.
What monsters did the encounter use? People are speculating ghouls, but those are 1st level creatures in PF2. Elite ghasts? Binumirs?
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Prepublished content is a good start, but it doesn't (and can't) account for your party's composition. It might still be worth checking the AC and damage of the monsters, just to be sure.
That and you aren't obligated to run encounters as written. If he's getting TPKs off of the standard published encounters, remove some of the monsters. If there are 3 trolls and 6 orcs, run 2 trolls and 5 orcs or something.
 

Retreater

Legend
What monsters did the encounter use? People are speculating ghouls, but those are 1st level creatures in PF2. Elite ghasts? Binumirs?
I think they originated in that specific adventure, but I'll link to the stat block from Archives of Nethys in the spoilers...
 

Retreater

Legend
Or you just play the tactics much better than your players tend to. I would be inclined to agree with the other folks in this thread who've suggested changing the encounters before they come up, rather than trying to fudge them in play. It'll be more work for you, alas.
Yeah, I don't feel like I did it a lot differently than the party actually did. Had Frontline tank guy, rogue darting around doing sneak attacks.
For the difference I had some different spells prepared. I had the cleric cast Bless at the start of the fight. The wizard did a Magic Missile, Burning Hands, and Electric Arc, which helped the damage output slightly.
A lot of the differences came down to die rolls for the monsters not getting Crit after Crit. And then presenting a second target with the cleric coming up to join the Frontline.
 

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