How Do You Stop TPKs/Killer GM Habits?

Retreater

Legend
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.
Yes, it's wild how frequently often Crits come from creatures that are only 1 level higher. And the crits are so much worse than they are in other recent editions.
 

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I had to do just this myself when I went from 4e to 5e. In 4e, to muster any sort of decent challenge to a high level party, I had get really mean. And even then, sometimes they'd still trounce what I threw at them. When 5e came out, at first I didn't adjust my adventure planning. I figured a good encounter was one where someone was making death saves at some point during it (my players would've rightfully disagreed). Eventually I figured it out by just talking to them.

I looked at what I was doing and probably cut most of my encounters' budgets in half. Until I had a better grasp of the system, I religiously stuck to the encounter budgets in the DMG and kept most of them at easy and medium, save for the really big boss fights. I also hit a hard restart and started a new campaign rather than try to salvage the bitter taste of the old one.
 

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
Oh, I remember this pair from The Show Must Go On. We were quite beaten up when our party met them and our GM was clearly concerned for us. Definitely one of the nastier fights in the adventure path. Definitely has a TPK potential. I'll note some of the mitigating factors that we employed, and specifically how our GM helped us

The group got reports of unnatural smells coming from the nearby cemetery.

We had more than just reports. Maybe we had explored options, but we definitely knew there was something nasty around. We nearly decided to call it a day and rest overnight and come back the following day, but we pressed on. Our GM did stress that something nasty was out there -- that may have been him warning about a clearly dangerous enemy

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.
This is a good opportunity to help the players learn how to handle encounters. In PF2 it feels like a good way to approach every encounter is as if you were playing a sandbox OSR game; first work out how dangerous the enemy is. As a GM, one suggestion is you prompt the players to make monster knowledge checks. If they make a check at any level of success, they'll realize this is a dangerous fight.

Another tactical suggestion to make to the party is NOT TO APPROACH AN UNKNOWN THREAT. It's like watching a person go down into a cellar in a horror film; it's just not good. I'd suggest saying things like "Are you sure you want to get close to these strange creatures?". It's a terrible idea to roll initiative when all the enemies are in striking range of one character. You might even tell the champion that their training says it's tactically unsound

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

They're +12 vs the champions likely 19AC, doing ~10 points damage (since the worms are inhabiting a body, they can't use their stronger bite attack). So it should need 4 successful hits, with crits counting as 2. So I guess he lasted two rounds and was a tad unlucky. Also surprised the cleric didn't heal him.


- 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.

However he does do d6 damage to both opponents! Every time the dying condition is removed, each opponent takes a d6. We triggered this at least three times -- and 6d6 is not to be sneezed at at level 2!

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).

This is another point to stress to players. If they are out of Hero Points, describe them as feeling that any unlucky blow might kill them -- because it might! In this case, the champion would use it to survive, and additionally do d6 to each enemy

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.
As a GM, if you see your players going into a Severe fight, and none of them have any hero points left, I'd straight out warn them OOC that they are risking a TPK.

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Having said that, these monsters have one feature that you thankfully did not invoke -- their ability to cast harm as a 3rd level spell. That should really only be available to 5th level casters! Cast as a full round action, it will heal each of them 3d8 and harm all party members within 30' for 3d8. This is just way too powerful and I assume is an error. It should really be at level 2 for 2d8 and then just makes them very nasty.

Our group came in pretty low on resources, but we did learn about them early on and hit them with some targeted attacks. Our GM used their harm as a one-action effect (attacking with melee twice) which was nasty enough. We survived by backing off so they had to waste actions closing and using ranged weapons and spells. That and the damage done to them by removing dying conditions was enough to win, but it could easily have been much nastier.

The next time we fought them, we went in with extreme prejudice and burnt resources to kill them fast. They are really nasty.
 
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TwoSix

Unserious gamer
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.
Yea, but having one character not drop (and the tank, to boot) at the beginning of round 1 is a huge difference. Every time I've had or been close to a TPK, it's because of an early run of bad luck that puts down a character early.

And, to be honest, the party's tactics were also pretty bad. They were in an outside graveyard, they suspected bad guys after the initial confrontation, and then they strolled up drawing their weapons like they're a gang in West Side Story. If any enemy tells you to get lost, you back up, buff, and then either ambush or engage from range.
 

Hex08

Adventurer
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?
I've had TPKs but they are few and far between (years and years).
If I have poorly designed an encounter then I'll do the things you mention but in general I just try and keep the encounters balanced. Most encounters, in my games, a should be challenging but not unfair to the characters and survivable, there should be a smaller number of easy fights and a small number of really challenging ones where character death may well be the likely outcome (but not TPK deadly).
 

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