How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?

niklinna

učim hrvatski
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

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

Hero
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.
 

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