5E How hard is it to accidentally have a TPK?

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
The key word being accidentally.

I frequently read here about DMs not wanting to risk something for fear of TPKing a party. But I'm starting to wonder about how reasonable (in 5e especially) that fear is?

As the DM we continuously control the threat level. For example if the party is out for the count the victors can truss them up and keep them for a tasty snack later (offering the opportunity for escape, revenge or whatever).

If the monster is too deadly for them then they're probably more of a nuisance than a threat and the monster could choose to make an example of one of the party, leaving the others to deal with bring that character back to health.

So is it easy to accidentally have a TPK? Or does it require a DM to ignore the warning signs?
 

CapnZapp

Hero
On first level, very easy.

On high levels, it can still happen, assuming the encounter is "special" somehow. What I mean by that is that half a dozen heavies just bashing the heroes can't cause accidental TPKs, but at that level there are save or suck abilities; you could have an encounter where the heroes must do something (and the players simply not getting it): pull this lever or the Volcano of Doom explodes!

So, no. I encourage the thread to stay well clear of the badwrongfun part of the pool, where we assume TPKs happen when warning signs are "ignored"...
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
The key word being accidentally.
Eh.....

Responses-

1. There is no such thing as an accident.

2. There is a fine line between a DM adjusting the threat level "continuously" and a DM operating as a Deus ex machina to ensure that the players never face any actual threats, which leads to no real stakes and the occasional Monty Haul campaign.

3. Never underestimate the creative ability of players to snatch a TPK from the jaws of victory.

It's like anything else; it depends. (Almost) no DM wants a TPK. Even the most sadistic DMs understand that a TPK means (possibly) hurt feelings, the occasional drunken brawl, and, of course, the time that a new campaign and rolling new players will take. That's a serious commitment.

It's a fairness issue; on the one hand, no player wants to think that the DM is "loading the dice," or "loading the game," or "loading the econunters," against them. But to completely avoid, in all circumstances, a TPK, you would have to argue that the DM must load the dice and the game and the encounters for the players.

That's why being a good DM is more of an art than a science. It depends on the table. There might be tables where the (willing) suspension of disbelief is such that the players believe that there is real tension even though the DM is constantly scheming to keep them alive, and therefore, there are no "accidental" TPKs. On the other hand, that doesn't work at all tables, and it's possible that the DM plays it straight, the players have an off day (or are very, very creative in a bad way), and there is an "accidental" TPK.

YMMV.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I think the answer is "all of them". I mean, does anyone actually plan a TPK? So I'd think they all are accidents. Even if the DM has an encounter where he or she knows has a high risk of TPK, the players control their own choices. Not every encounter is meant to be fought, and running away is a perfectly viable solution at times. So as to how hard is it? Totally dependent on your players and their choices.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
So, no. I encourage the thread to stay well clear of the badwrongfun part of the pool, where we assume TPKs happen when warning signs are "ignored"...
Agreed this is more about, if I do go outside of the challenge guidelines am I fooling myself into thinking that I can manage the threat in the moment (i.e. the warning signs are available if I choose to see them)? Or am I risking things getting wildly out of hand and boom the party is dead?
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
3. Never underestimate the creative ability of players to snatch a TPK from the jaws of victory.
Oh absolutely just the other night I had the monsters heading away from the party as the PCs had found a secret door to escape their tight predicament and wound up behind the monsters. I thought they'd look on that as a lucky break. No. It was fireball time and back into the fray. (and it had been a long while since they'd rested...)
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I think the answer is "all of them". I mean, does anyone actually plan a TPK? So I'd think they all are accidents. Even if the DM has an encounter where he or she knows has a high risk of TPK, the players control their own choices. Not every encounter is meant to be fought, and running away is a perfectly viable solution at times. So as to how hard is it? Totally dependent on your players and their choices.
Yeah - perhaps this was not worded well. I didn't mean to be rude :) I was just curious as to how easy it is and I agree it's totally situationally dependent and probably my question is answered...

"It all depends"
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Yeah - perhaps this was not worded well. I didn't mean to be rude :) I was just curious as to how easy it is and I agree it's totally situationally dependent and probably my question is answered...

"It all depends"
OH, you weren't rude at all. NO need to apologize for that.
 
If the party doesn't have access to Teleport or equivalent, then a TPK can happen pretty much anytime; the core ingredients are the monsters doing too much damage, the players not eliminating monsters fast enough (for whatever reason) and the party's Cleric or other healer going down. Once the party has the ability to escape from a fight in one round, with Teleport or the like, then their chances of having a TPK go down to 'very unlikely'.

As to how likely one will happen by accident, which I interpret as 'when you're not expecting the fight to be very dangerous', then that is more of a dice thing than anything. If the players decide to chance it against a Basilisk, and then all fluff their saves, that'll be a TPK or close to one, despite being a fairly easy fight in general. Huge AoE attacks are the real culprits I think, such as a Cone of Cold from a Mage, since they can make the entire party more fragile to then be brought to 0 in quick succession.

From my experience of parties going down the toilet - though I've only had one TPK so far, which was against Aeresi in Princes of the Apocalypse - it doesn't take that long. Once one person goes down, and the bad guys start focus-firing on the rest, the scales can very quickly tip from 'dangerous' to 'find 4d6'.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
My advice is not to worry about it. Just figure out a plan for what to do after it happens (e.g. backup characters that are easily tapped in).

A TPK should mostly be a situation where it's a mistake the players made, combined with some measure of bad luck. If you're telegraphing threats and difficulty appropriately, what happens after that is up to the players and dice. If they choose to fight to their own deaths, that's on them. A fair-minded player will see that when the dust settles.

If you're going outside the recommended XP/CR guidelines, I suggest changing the stakes to something other than life and death. The monster or PCs need to achieve some goal - those are the stakes now. Losing some hit points might be involved in the doing, but any character death as a result is generally unlikely. Changing the stakes from life and death to something else you can win or lose maintains the challenge and allows you to play around with the difficulty without necessarily risking a TPK.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
On a side note, a TPK isn't necessarily this horrible thing that should never happen. It does happen, and is part of the game. Pretty much all of the TSR editions said right up front that PC death was a thing that will happen at some point, and it provided an opportunity to play something else, and it's certainly not the end of the world. IMO, if you play the game with no real risk of PC death, then all you have is a shared story so why roll the dice to begin with? Obviously YMMV
 
1. I would hope all TPKs are accidental as opposed to intentional. Because an intentional TPK speaks to a serious problem with the DM or group or both.
2. As for accidental TPKs, I think they largely occur because of miscalculation. Miscalculation by the players includes a) a poor decision to fight a monster (just because Smaug is on the mountain doesn't mean you need to march up there); b). bad tactics (jumping into the lake to fight the water weirds is not always the best strategy); c) failure to run. Miscalculation by the DM includes: a) misjudging the strength of an encounter; b) a failure to predict the effect of terrain on an encounter.

Another cause of TPKs is just bad luck. If you keep missing and the monster keeps saving there's not much you can do, except run.

I think it is fair and necessary to design encounters where the very real probability of a TPK exists --but it should not be the intention of the encounter. Risk is essential to the viability of the game. High risk, high reward.

On a side note, I wonder how many people would agree with the following proposition: A TPK is often more likely than is a single character death in 5e. As a DM, I have found this to be true. In my experiences with other systems, especially 1e and its retro clones, a single character death is more likely than a TPK. The opposite seems true in 5e.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
On a side note, a TPK isn't necessarily this horrible thing that should never happen. It does happen, and is part of the game. Pretty much all of the TSR editions said right up front that PC death was a thing that will happen at some point, and it provided an opportunity to play something else, and it's certainly not the end of the world. IMO, if you play the game with no real risk of PC death, then all you have is a shared story so why roll the dice to begin with? Obviously YMMV
My concern is from the DMs side. If the PCs decide to embrace death in order to accomplish their goal then that's one thing. A DM inflicting death for no larger story purpose than simply because the PCs got out of their depth doesn't seem particularly interesting.

My players are quite invested in their characters so killing them would be a big deal at this point. They could tolerate a heroic death, but being splatted like flies? That would go down badly. :)
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
1. I would hope all TPKs are accidental as opposed to intentional. Because an intentional TPK speaks to a serious problem with the DM or group or both.
2. As for accidental TPKs, I think they largely occur because of miscalculation. Miscalculation by the players includes a) a poor decision to fight a monster (just because Smaug is on the mountain doesn't mean you need to march up there); b). bad tactics (jumping into the lake to fight the water weirds is not always the best strategy); c) failure to run. Miscalculation by the DM includes: a) misjudging the strength of an encounter; b) a failure to predict the effect of terrain on an encounter.

Another cause of TPKs is just bad luck. If you keep missing and the monster keeps saving there's not much you can do, except run.

I think it is fair and necessary to design encounters where the very real probability of a TPK exists --but it should not be the intention of the encounter. Risk is essential to the viability of the game. High risk, high reward.
I agree with all of this

On a side note, I wonder how many people would agree with the following proposition: A TPK is often more likely than is a single character death in 5e. As a DM, I have found this to be true. In my experiences with other systems, especially 1e and its retro clones, a single character death is more likely than a TPK. The opposite seems true in 5e.
It's the same for me. Singular deaths far outweigh TPKs in all editions. I've never seen a TPK in 5e yet, but I have seen character deaths (My own PCs being two of them :) )

My concern is from the DMs side. If the PCs decide to embrace death in order to accomplish their goal then that's one thing. A DM inflicting death for no larger story purpose than simply because the PCs got out of their depth doesn't seem particularly interesting.
The thing is, the DM doesn't inflict death for any story reason. It's a risk, and if it happens it happens. The DM is a referee, and doesn't push or prevent TPKs; he or she only runs the NPCs up to the best of their ability. If the PCs made poor decisions, and PC death occurs, then that's the price of making poor decisions and hopefully they learn from that next time

My players are quite invested in their characters so killing them would be a big deal at this point. They could tolerate a heroic death, but being splatted like flies? That would go down badly. :)
One of the things about D&D (and this is actually mentioned in the 1e books), is that by the time players become invested in their PCs, they have options to mitigate PC death. Usually raise dead spells or whatnot.

It's probably one of the reasons why old school players take a philosophy of not not planning out their PCs way in advance, but letting in game experiences shape the direction of PC advancement, while 3e players seem to take more of an approach of planning out their PCs way in advance before fighting their first orc.
 

Dausuul

Legend
The key word being accidentally.

I frequently read here about DMs not wanting to risk something for fear of TPKing a party. But I'm starting to wonder about how reasonable (in 5e especially) that fear is?

As the DM we continuously control the threat level. For example if the party is out for the count the victors can truss them up and keep them for a tasty snack later (offering the opportunity for escape, revenge or whatever).

If the monster is too deadly for them then they're probably more of a nuisance than a threat and the monster could choose to make an example of one of the party, leaving the others to deal with bring that character back to health.

So is it easy to accidentally have a TPK? Or does it require a DM to ignore the warning signs?
It's not really about whether we can prevent a TPK. Of course we can, always. It's about whether we can do it without an obvious deus ex machina.

Intelligent monsters might take the PCs prisoner, sure. But a horde of zombies? A hydra? Not so much. In these cases it's very hard to save the party without it being really dang obvious what you're doing. As a player, I'd rather have my PC die honestly than be saved by blatant DM fiat.

My solution is to rely on the players. Facing imminent demise, they turn into a font of loony escape plans. All I have to do is be generous about letting them work.

Sent from my 0PM92 using EN World mobile app
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
My concern is from the DMs side. If the PCs decide to embrace death in order to accomplish their goal then that's one thing. A DM inflicting death for no larger story purpose than simply because the PCs got out of their depth doesn't seem particularly interesting.

My players are quite invested in their characters so killing them would be a big deal at this point. They could tolerate a heroic death, but being splatted like flies? That would go down badly. :)
DMs don't inflict death. They present challenges. Those challenges have difficulty and stakes. The DM can mess with the difficulty and the stakes and should be telegraphing both in my view. If the DM has done that much, the rest is on the players. They can choose to engage, avoid, engage then escape, etc. They have a lot of options to avoid TPK. If they don't avail themselves of that, it can hardly be the DM inflicting death. It's the players inviting it.

If they are so invested in their characters, then the responsible thing for them to do in my opinion is to make a plan for death. Do they have access to revivify? Raise dead? If not, why not (barring level)? Do they have a strategy for extracting themselves from a no-win situation? Again, if not, why not? Their character's lives and deaths are their responsibility, not yours. If these are things the players don't think about or talk about among each other, perhaps you can facilitate that conversation.

But otherwise, don't sweat it, I say.
 

Horwath

Adventurer
Most of the time TPK comes from players "metagaming" the idea: DM wouldn't make the encounter that we have no chance to win.

Well, yes he would!

You just have to appraise the situation and see if you have the chance in that. Just to keep you in check so you don't think that you control the town or city at 7th level.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Most of the time TPK comes from players "metagaming" the idea: DM wouldn't make the encounter that we have no chance to win.
.
Excellent point. I'm not sure exactly when it started (probably 3e, but definitely stressed in 4e), but the strive for balanced encounters led to this mindset. Players assumed they would have X amount of encounters and spend Y amount of resources on each one. So I can see why if a TPK happened, the players would think it's somehow unfair.

We all have personal tastes, but mine is more old school, where encounters are built based on what makes sense in the game world. Sometimes they are easy. Sometimes they are balanced. Sometimes they are way too hard. The point is that you never knew for sure, so you as a player stayed on your toes and did research and planning and took a cautious approach. Do I burn my fireball here, not knowing if I have seven more encounters before I get a chance to rest?

I like that unpredictability in my games. It makes them feel more real and alive, rather than just a process to slog through (like grinding in a video game).
 

hawkeyefan

Adventurer
I think that it would be incredibly difficult to actually achieve a true TPK accidentally, meaning that all party members die in the encounter. With the Death Saving Throw mechanic, it's actually pretty tough to kill a PC, let alone all of them. Especially since, once the last one goes down, you can simply end the scene and then decide as the DM what happens. Maybe any currently surviving PCs are captured or left for dead or whatever. Maybe some friendly NPCs arrive to help them. So there seems to be a lot of DM decision involved that would make an accidental TPK very unlikely.

The math for Death Saves is on the PCs' side, so you have to expect that most PCs will survive that process. Yes, they can get failed saves as a result of damage, but then that kind of goes against the "accidental' aspect that we're talking about.

Honestly, I'd say it's almost impossible for a true TPK to happen accidentally. There are just too many points in the process where the DM's desires enter the equation.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Honestly, I'd say it's almost impossible for a true TPK to happen accidentally. There are just too many points in the process where the DM's desires enter the equation.
That's my impression too. That DMs have a lot of leeway to "manage" the situation if that is their desire.
 

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