How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?


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Retreater

Legend
What was your champion doing (action-wise) versus the one in the party?
I had a fighter, wizard, cleric, and rogue (compared to the actual group's champion, sorcerer, cleric, and rogue) with a basic selection of spells. It's all I had time to do for the brief test I ran.
The fighter raised his shield and attacked with a longsword for his other two actions - I did that each turn. On one hit he did a shield block. All of that would've been possible with the champion in the actual game.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
The fighter raised his shield and attacked with a longsword for his other two actions - I did that each turn. On one hit he did a shield block. All of that would've been possible with the champion in the actual game.
Which suggests the champion wasn’t doing that. 😉

If that’s true, and the other thread (about retrying encounters) was about this TPK, it might be worth actually doing the do-over. However, use it as a teaching moment. I played in a PF2 one-shot (Sundered Waves) at Origins this year, and the GM did that. During combat, the GM would explain tactics and how PF2 worked differently from other games. I really liked it as a way to show off the tactical element that didn’t involve brutally murdering the PCs.

For example, if the party engaged at 40 feet instead of getting closer (which I assumed they did), that would force the enemies to burn two actions to close. If anyone is attacking three times, they should definitely not do that. Point out how they can use Steps to burn enemy actions and reduce damage, especially if the enemy can easily hit them. Maybe the players will hate it. If they do, then maybe they don’t care about the tactical element, and you need to adjust the encounter balance accordingly (fewer creatures, fewer severe encounters, etc).
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Honestly, I recommend following PF2's instructions when it comes to how to treat Adversaries and what to do when players opt to have their characters run.

Choosing Adversaries' Actions said:
Players often coordinate and plan to be as efficient as possible, but their adversaries might not. As the GM, you’re roleplaying these foes, and you decide their tactics.

Most creatures have a basic grasp of simple tactics like flanking or focusing on a single target. But you should remember that they also react based on emotions and make mistakes—perhaps even more than the player characters do.

When selecting targets or choosing which abilities to use, rely on the adversaries’ knowledge of the situation, not your own. You might know that the cleric has a high Will save modifier, but a monster might still try to use a fear ability on her. That doesn’t mean you should play adversaries as complete fools; they can learn from their mistakes, make sound plans, and even research the player characters in advance.

Adversaries usually don’t attack a character who’s knocked out. Even if a creature knows a fallen character might come back into the fight, only the most vicious creatures focus on helpless foes rather than the more immediate threats around them.

Running adversaries is a mix of being true to the creature and doing what’s best for the drama of the game. Think of your encounter like a fight scene in a movie or novel. If the fighter taunts a fire giant to draw its attention away from the fragile wizard, the tactically sound decision is for the giant to keep pummeling the wizard. But is that the best choice for the scene? Perhaps everyone will have more fun if the giant redirects its ire to the infuriating fighter.

Fleeing Enemies said:
Fleeing enemies can be a problem. Player characters often want to pursue foes that flee because they think an enemy might return as a threat later on. Avoid playing this out move by move, as it can easily bog down the game. If every adversary is fleeing, forgo initiative order and give each PC the option to pursue any one fleeing foe. Each PC can declare one-action, spell, or other ability to use to try to keep up. Then, compare the PC’s Speed to that of the target, assess how much the pursuer’s chosen spell or ability would help, and factor in any abilities the quarry has that would aid escape.

If you determine that the pursuer catches up, go back into combat with the original initiative order. If not, the quarry escapes for now.

If the PCs decide to flee, it’s usually best to let them do so. Pick a particular location and allow them to escape once they all reach it. However, if they’re encumbered or otherwise slowed down, or if enemies have higher Speeds and a strong motive to pursue, you might impose consequences upon PCs who flee.

In general, it's important to remember that any game's encounter guidelines are going to have a baseline assumption of skill at the game. It's important to consider where your play group is on that score when planning encounters and especially with how skillfully you play the opposition. This can be a particularly strong influence on PF2 (since it's a game with a considerable difference between its skill floor and skill ceiling) but is an issue in any traditional game. It's usually best to meet your players where they are and progressively increase difficulty as their skill at the game increases.
 

Allow me to offer an alternative perspective. Don't fight your killer tendencies; embrace them. You should stream your games and promote yourself as the deadliest DM in the world!

"Come watch the Retreater Stream! The Dark Souls of Dungeon Masters! Slaughterer of over a hundred characters! A TPK every month! Behold as optimizers and muchkins alike fall to his devious play style!"

You would certainly stand out in a staturated market.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Allow me to offer an alternative perspective. Don't fight your killer tendencies; embrace them. You should stream your games and promote yourself as the deadliest DM in the world!

"Come watch the Retreater Stream! The Dark Souls of Dungeon Masters! Slaughterer of over a hundred characters! A TPK every month! Behold as optimizers and muchkins alike fall to his devious play style!"

You would certainly stand out in a staturated market.
A GM I know was rubbing a modern zombie game, and the players forced her to promise to kill off at least one character each session. If no one died during the session, then a random character would get mobbed by zombies right at the end.
 

bloodtide

Adventurer
As a Killer DM myself I do it the hard way: Cull the masses of Players until I find the rare ones that can play my game style.

This can take a bit of time, but soon enough you will have a pool of players that will have characters that know how to survive.

Right off the top, you need to get rid of the distracted players, casual players, and the rules culeless players. You will see a huge improvement right there.

Then go from there.
 

Retreater

Legend
Allow me to offer an alternative perspective. Don't fight your killer tendencies; embrace them. You should stream your games and promote yourself as the deadliest DM in the world!

"Come watch the Retreater Stream! The Dark Souls of Dungeon Masters! Slaughterer of over a hundred characters! A TPK every month! Behold as optimizers and muchkins alike fall to his devious play style!"

You would certainly stand out in a staturated market.
I think it's more of a challenge to keep characters alive at this point.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I think it's more of a challenge to keep characters alive at this point.
When I was young, I used to min/max the system like crazy. It was enjoyable. And I created characters way out of wack with the other players. Then I got more experience DMing and saw what it was like when one character was a lot more or a lot less powerful then the group in terms of challenges. So now when I play I aim to optimize around the average of the group +10%. Maybe +20% if I'm doing a support character or tank who lets others shine. Not because I couldn't create a more powerful character, but because that's where I have the most fun.

One bit that could explain it all is the players you have are not at the same level as you in terms of system mastery - at the very least how to run their characters in combat, and perhaps they aren't even as good at creating tight characters as the generic replacement - the premades you ran in a sample combat.

If that's the case, you may have a lot more fun tailoring to their level. And definitely using it as a teaching experience, to raise them up.

This doesn't even need to be everyone - from your description of the sorcerer it may even be that you effectively have a smaller party than the number of bodies, if some people are just generally ineffective or don't engage their role well.
 

Retreater

Legend
We did the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and I didn't tone it down. They did fine - had only one scary fight. But I guess something changed between using the pregens in that adventure and starting a "real Adventure Path" with their own characters.
I need to work on assessing what caused other TPKs with other groups in other systems and see if it's all similar reasons.
 

We did the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and I didn't tone it down. They did fine - had only one scary fight. But I guess something changed between using the pregens in that adventure and starting a "real Adventure Path" with their own characters.
I need to work on assessing what caused other TPKs with other groups in other systems and see if it's all similar reasons.
Still think you should stream/record your games. Twitch chat will point out the mistakes you or your players are making instantly.
 

MGibster

Legend
I'm known as a killer GM, and even I rarely ever have a TPK. If you frequently experience TPKs, it's likely because your encounters are too tough. Just dial it back a little and see how the group does. On the flip side, on occasion I've seen encounters that were more difficult than they should have been because the players didn't use all the resources available to them. So maybe that's contributing to the problem.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
I'm known as a killer GM, and even I rarely ever have a TPK. If you frequently experience TPKs, it's likely because your encounters are too tough. Just dial it back a little and see how the group does. On the flip side, on occasion I've seen encounters that were more difficult than they should have been because the players didn't use all the resources available to them. So maybe that's contributing to the problem.
Or the encounters have monsters that are swingy in damage output. The fight you described and retested seems like that, considering they dropped the champion in one round. Dropped the rogue to point he was one save from death. You admitted to an unusual run of criticals.
 

I use level appropriate encounters, and sometimes slightly above level appropriate, based on the strength of the party.

I use foreshadowing, so my players can judge what they're up against, and how to respond.

I set up encounters in a way that allows for multiple strategies.

I purposefully insert elements into my encounters that allow my players to even the playing field. Such as a chandelier that can be dropped on monsters, a nearby cannon that can be put into action, a boiler that can be detonated, a gate that can be dropped.

I design my encounters so that there are options to take cover, or to reach higher ground. Or alternate routes to outflank enemies.

I don't hold any punches as soon as my players are level 3+. I never fudge.

I've never had a TPK.
 

MGibster

Legend
Or the encounters have monsters that are swingy in damage output. The fight you described and retested seems like that, considering they dropped the champion in one round. Dropped the rogue to point he was one save from death. You admitted to an unusual run of criticals.
That's another reason. While running a game of Deadlands (Savage Worlds), I almost had a TPK because my dice were so hot. I was rolling high to hit the PCs and then rolling incredibly well for damage, and by the end of the fight only one PC was left standing and they had used almost all of their resources just to survive. But that was a fluke and doesn't happen with such regularity.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
That's another reason. While running a game of Deadlands (Savage Worlds), I almost had a TPK because my dice were so hot. I was rolling high to hit the PCs and then rolling incredibly well for damage, and by the end of the fight only one PC was left standing and they had used almost all of their resources just to survive. But that was a fluke and doesn't happen with such regularity.
Part of my ongoing experience as a GM is that my dice luck tends to be both bad and shockingly streaky. Most of the time, what I'm running tends to be derpy and incompetent ... then my dice decide THE STARS ARE RIGHT AND ALL THE PCS MUST DIE NOW.
 

Retreater

Legend
So I tried a second simulation of the combat - this time with carbon copies of the actual characters the players used. I handedly defeated the encounter in a little over 4 turns. Half the party (the sorcerer and rogue) were unscathed in the battle. The champion did drop at one point, but was quickly healed and returned to the fight. All-in-all, the cleric spent two 1st level spells and his focus spell, and the sorcerer spent one 1st level spell and his focus spell. No one needed to use a Hero Point.
I did this using the same basic tactics that the used. The only differences were that the rogue never stayed next to an enemy (after making his strike, he always backed away) and the cleric decided to step forward and engage the enemies earlier in the combat, which helped take some attention away from the champion.
Other than that, the enemies didn't win initiative over the entire party in this simulation, and I don't recall them landing a single critical hit. So I don't know if the dice were that "on fire" for me when I GMed last week - but is that enough to make me a Killer GM every 3 or so sessions?
And this wasn't a case of the party "barely" won - it was a resounding victory. It doesn't seem like in a system like Pathfinder 2e (or even D&D 5e) that this would be within the margins of error.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
So I tried a second simulation of the combat - this time with carbon copies of the actual characters the players used. I handedly defeated the encounter in a little over 4 turns. Half the party (the sorcerer and rogue) were unscathed in the battle. The champion did drop at one point, but was quickly healed and returned to the fight. All-in-all, the cleric spent two 1st level spells and his focus spell, and the sorcerer spent one 1st level spell and his focus spell. No one needed to use a Hero Point.
I did this using the same basic tactics that the used. The only differences were that the rogue never stayed next to an enemy (after making his strike, he always backed away) and the cleric decided to step forward and engage the enemies earlier in the combat, which helped take some attention away from the champion.
Other than that, the enemies didn't win initiative over the entire party in this simulation, and I don't recall them landing a single critical hit. So I don't know if the dice were that "on fire" for me when I GMed last week - but is that enough to make me a Killer GM every 3 or so sessions?
should not be
And this wasn't a case of the party "barely" won - it was a resounding victory. It doesn't seem like in a system like Pathfinder 2e (or even D&D 5e) that this would be within the margins of error.
It probably is, so we are back to you are tactically better then your players. Run dumber monsters or soften the encounters and strong foreshadow the tough fight. To the point of telling them outright (Maybe make them roll a knowledge check).
 

payn

Legend
So I tried a second simulation of the combat - this time with carbon copies of the actual characters the players used. I handedly defeated the encounter in a little over 4 turns. Half the party (the sorcerer and rogue) were unscathed in the battle. The champion did drop at one point, but was quickly healed and returned to the fight. All-in-all, the cleric spent two 1st level spells and his focus spell, and the sorcerer spent one 1st level spell and his focus spell. No one needed to use a Hero Point.
I did this using the same basic tactics that the used. The only differences were that the rogue never stayed next to an enemy (after making his strike, he always backed away) and the cleric decided to step forward and engage the enemies earlier in the combat, which helped take some attention away from the champion.
Other than that, the enemies didn't win initiative over the entire party in this simulation, and I don't recall them landing a single critical hit. So I don't know if the dice were that "on fire" for me when I GMed last week - but is that enough to make me a Killer GM every 3 or so sessions?
And this wasn't a case of the party "barely" won - it was a resounding victory. It doesn't seem like in a system like Pathfinder 2e (or even D&D 5e) that this would be within the margins of error.
Look at the numbers of sever/extreme encounters. They are almost always decided by crit or no crit of the enemy. This level of fight is very swingy in the NPC favor. A single crit doesn't make a TPK happen, but it certainly will put the PCs on their heels. It can just continue to go downhill from there.
 

pnewman

Adventurer
I tailor how cunningly the monsters fight by how Intelligent and Wise the monsters are. AKA - Animals are hungry and will concentrate on killing a single target so they can drag it away and eat it; Orcs will charge you and hit you and not be good at knowing when to run; Elves have a specific plan to mess you up, and can change it on the fly, and know when to run; and if I'm playing a SuperGenius creature like a Lich I'll have the PC's pass me their character sheets for a quick look before or even during the fight, because it's just that clever and might well have been Scrying on them ahead of time.
 

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