On Choice, Consequence and the Right to Fail

Reynard

Legend
NOTE: I am currently running Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus, which inspired this post, but it really isn't D&D specific so I put it here.

When I decided to run BG:DIA it was mostly out of laziness. I had other projects going on and did not think I would have time to properly prepare a weekly game. I generally don't prefer pre-written scenarios, and I definitely like full pre-designed campaigns/adventure paths less. I prefer the flow of the campaign to be looser, with more opportunity to wander off in random directions based on events that occur in play.

On aspect of that that I am beginning to worry about is the idea of how player choice, the consequences of those choices and the prospect of failure interact with running a pre-written campaign. In this case it was a minor thing: the PCs had just arrived in Avernus in the apocalyptic city of Elturel. The saved and spoke with the plot delivery NPC, and then decided to go searching the ruins for loot rather than heading toward the next exclamation point bearing NPC. I didn't have a problem with that (other than it might have shown a distinct lack of urgency on the part of the "heroes") and started rolling for random encounters while they dithered.

Here's what struck me: what if one of those encounters resulted in a TPK? Would the campaign be over? SHOULD the campaign be over?

The players were at a decision point and they chose an option that resulted in increased danger for potentially increased reward. GREAT! That's what D&D is about (among other things). That choice led to consequences that could potentially result in campaign level failure. Given that we chose to play this campaign (and I sunk a chunk of money into it, since I have the physical book and bought it on Fantasy Grounds), it would feel both anticlimactic and real-world irritating if that failure occurred. I might even be inclined to not allow that failure to occur, which itself grates against my every fiber as a GM in that players have agency and their actions determine the flow of the game and the "story" as it were.

Being invested in a pre-written campaign makes me feel like in many cases, those choices are really illusions and my own desire to allow for "logical" (I know) consequences is impinged upon.

Thoughts?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I think this touches on the Achilles heel of that style of adventure. Everyone is invested, failing to finish the adventure feels like not just a failure but a loss. I've seen players make choices based pretty much entirely on wanting to finish the adventure. I've seen the GM start to flail and then give up if the players didn't seem entirely bought in. I've seen the GM melt down as one question brought down all the spurious logic barely holding the whole thing together.

My answer to the stated question I see is that if there's a TPK, then yes, the campaign should be over.
 
I am in kind of the same boat as you vis-à-vis preplanned campaigns and adventure paths. I mostly use bits and pieces of said products as filler content for whatever is going on in the events that the player characters are pursuing.

My own response to a situation like that would be to talk it out with the other players. Describe the situation, as you see it, and ask them how they want to proceed.

If the rest of the players are okay with the potential for a campaign ending outcome, then play that out. If they are not okay with with that, then either work out some other consequence for failure, or if you can't see a way around that, have the players back off from their current course of action and return to the rails, so to speak.
 

MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
I usually try to veer away from a full TPK into other consequences that still allow the game to go on. Capture, being looted, being forced to make a bad deal are options. Sometimes if it looks close to a TPK but the other side isn't looking too good either I might have the monsters propose a sort of truce for both sides to just walk away.

However, this can only feel natural when the enemies are intelligent and willing to let the PCs live to see another day. As I've read through Descent into Avernus I know that the area you're talking about features certain chaotic evil fiends that are known to want to kill and destroy everything. You could maybe have those that succeed their death saves wake up from the aftermath of the fight, the demons having believed that they were already dead. It's a bit of a stretch but the kind of stretch I'm willing to make to keep a game alive.
 

Sadras

Hero
Here's what struck me: what if one of those encounters resulted in a TPK? Would the campaign be over? SHOULD the campaign be over?
For those characters maybe yes x 3.
I use the word maybe because characters could be brought back but not necessarily without certain strings attached and those strings should be deep.
 

Arilyn

Hero
This is not your normal GM style, and obviously your players are willing to go along with the change of using a published adventure. With this in mind, no don't allow a TPK to occur in this particular campaign. On a practical level you have invested money, and won't want that money to go to waste. You also stated that at the moment you haven't the time to create your own campaign. I assume your players have been made aware of this reasoning.

As a skilled GM, your players are still going to have a great time. A TPK will be frustrating for all concerned. In my experience, players don't usually like to return to an adventure path they all just died in, and continue with a whole new group. And you don't want to feel you wasted money.

I wouldn't worry about the players or you feeling that consequences have lost their sting. I'm sure there will be plenty of other setbacks that'll do that for you, while avoiding the TPK.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
Yes, should the players arrange a TPK then it should happen. It' doesn't mean the rest of the campaign can't continue depending on the mood at the table. The players can create new PCs and become the new heroes of the story near the current position.

It exposes one the serious weak points of AP play though. There are touchpoints that need to occur to remain close enough to the rails the designers placed for play to rationally continue. A TPK will generally force the group away from those touchpoints. Even if new PCs are created and a new team formed it is hard to set up the situation the move the new group back to the touchpoints. McGuffins need to get reclaimed. Relationships and previous encounters are gone. Knowledge needs to be reacquired.

I understand the DM's or table's desire to limit consequence to support the purchased adventure. I just never want it to affect a game I'm playing. If there is a such a playthrough map, let's just skip all the dangerous bits and such and jump through the story.
 
@Reynard I have a pretty similar outlook and style preference. When I've run published material in 5E, it's largely been adapted to fit my game. My most recent example was Tomb of Annihilation, and the experience was mixed enough to make me decide to only run my own material going forward.

The way I would handle the situation you've described would be:
  • Allow the PCs to die, and then have the players make new characters from Elturel who can pick up the torch, so to speak. Maybe the players will realize this particular adventure calls for PCs that are more heroic in nature, rather than self serving.
  • Tweak the area to which they're going so that the likelihood of a TPK is less. Maybe create a situation there where they can do some kind of good, and be rewarded for it. Maybe there is someone to rescue and that person can provide some potions or other reward to help them. This may get the players in the mindset of trying to do good.
  • Allow things to go the way they go, but don't kill the PCs if they all lose to the monsters. Maybe they're left for dead, maybe they're captured. Maybe one or two of them are captured, and you can have one or two players make a new character to replace those captured, and then the PCs can stage a rescue.
  • Introduce some looming event (if there's not one already in place) that puts pressure on the PCs to act quickly. Something that says "there's no time for looting, we need to get this thing done". I would suggest perhaps allowing them to loot after the fact, if the circumstances allow; you don't want to take away any say they have, just want to prompt them toward the pertinent goals set up by the fiction.
  • If you're more used to letting the players really dictate the pace and focus of play, then really just use the book as a starting point, and let them do whatever they want. Have the NPCs react accordingly. If the PCs see being in Avernus as an opportunity rather than as some calamity to be corrected, then look for how it can be an opportunity for them. Lean in to what the players have indicated they want. The game will not go as expected according to the book, but if everyone has fun and you craft a good game, then mission accomplished. Don't be a slave to what's in the book just because it's there and you bought it. This is tough, and I struggle with it myself which is why I decided not to use published adventures, but it's something to consider.
  • If all else fails, and none of the above options will work, then talk about it with your players. I think a lot of the WotC published material for 5E assumes heroic PCs, so I'd explain that and ask them that they perhaps shift their thinking a bit.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Here's what struck me: what if one of those encounters resulted in a TPK? Would the campaign be over? SHOULD the campaign be over?
I want to turn this back around because I'm feeling like I don't understand the dilemma that you're facing:

What would happen if they instead followed the story path where it was leading them and then there was a TPK there? Would the campaign be over? Should it be over? Would you feel the same way about this issue?

I guess for my table - the published scenario for us is a framework that we're hanging our own gameplay on. If the players go off on a red herring path that I'm improvising and die it's no different than if they follow the tracks that the folks who wrote the adventure laid down and die. Either way they're dead and the story that we're playing will dictate whether or not they roll up new characters and we start the scenario again with the bad guys having advanced their plot in a meaningful way, roll up new characters and hit the reset button to start it again, or decide that the scenario was a waste of money because it couldn't keep our attention in the first place and it instead goes into the pile of "books to mine for stuff instead of use as written" and we move onto something else (that latter one has happened a few times - most recently not with a TPK but with Hoard of the Dragon Queen where I ended it early because the main story just wasn't keeping the players' attention - it was the wrong group to run it with. But the book still has useful maps that I've used in scenarios since then, so it's not a total waste.)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Here's what struck me: what if one of those encounters resulted in a TPK? Would the campaign be over? SHOULD the campaign be over?
Define "campaign".

If everyone dies, and no power happens to be invested in that group of characters enough to scrape them off the pavement... then, that group of characters is dead. If a campaign is, "group of characters doing stuff" then yeah, that campaign is over.

If a campaign is more in the early sense of "the GM running stuff in this world" then the players make more PCs, they get engaged with the content in some way, and the campaign continues.

In general, "is the campaign over?" is not a meaningful question for me. The campaign is not a unit I am concerned about. My friends and I are going to play something - the question is what.
 
I prefer running and playing with games with a meaningful chance of failure including but limited to death.

With younger players I walked it back a little bit but I never remove failure completely. they may not be able to fail the overall Arc but they could still fail individual tasks.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I find that a TPK both exceedingly rare and is almost always because of player choices both in engaging and again in not retreating. (Or is at low level and the dice gods are laughing.)

You mention that without mentioning character death, so I assume that they have ways to deal with that at their current level. So we're only looking at an actual TPK.

I find it rare enough that I wouldn't care to protect against it. If the characters are intentionally treasure hunting that is their choice and I won't undermine it and remove their agency.

At the same time I would hope the players will recognize that there are times to run, but that's because as a DM I've trained them already that not all fights are beatable. If the adventure (and book adventures might be like this) have instead trained them that all fights are winnable that's a really worry.

EDIT: What I didn't address was the sunk costs of the book, both physical and digital. Resources put into a campaign, be it effort and time, or money, are things we are willing to invest for the fun. I don't see subverting the play of any campaign to protect those resources. If the characters can't "lose", it leaches the meaning and turns it into a participation trophy. (Note: characters losing/winning is not players winning - that's about having fun.)
 
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jsaving

Adventurer
I might even be inclined to not allow that failure to occur, which itself grates against my every fiber as a GM in that players have agency and their actions determine the flow of the game and the "story" as it were.
These are the kinds of situations that test whether we mean what we say, when we say players have agency and their actions should determine the flow of the game. Holding to that principle when it is hard is much tougher than professing it when it is easy, for any number of reasons.
 

Reynard

Legend
I want to turn this back around because I'm feeling like I don't understand the dilemma that you're facing:

What would happen if they instead followed the story path where it was leading them and then there was a TPK there? Would the campaign be over? Should it be over? Would you feel the same way about this issue?
I didn't mean to imply that only the going off script might cause a TPK, or that only an off script TPK would be an issue. What I meant to convey was that in the style of game that is a contained campaign (to maybe explain a little for @Umbran ) it seems like the consequences of failure ramp up and I personally feel some pressure to mitigate those failures -- which I wouldn't in a different style of game -- which means that player agency is impacted.

It isn't likely that 5th level D&D characters will suffer a TPK from a random encounter while looting Elturel for spare potions, but it is a possibility. Normally, I would be fine with that possibility, because, as Umbran suggests, a "campaign" is usually about something bigger than the specific PC group out on an adventure. But in the case of a pre-designed story starring the PCs (which adventure paths like Avernus are) the party on the adventure IS the campaign.

I am likely overthinking it just because it's an unusual style of play for me. Frankly, I would have jumped the rails already except that the players all signed up for Avernus. I can (and am!) changing elements of the adventure as we play, but the throughline is what everyone bought into, so I feel some pressure.
 

Big Bucky

Explorer
Obviously you bring them back as slaves to a devil in Avernus lol

but really when you all agree to use a purchased adventure there is implicit consensus that they will follow that adventure path. Otherwise you just wasted a good amount of money. They have to trade some player agency for an interesting plot line.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Obviously you bring them back as slaves to a devil in Avernus lol

but really when you all agree to use a purchased adventure there is implicit consensus that they will follow that adventure path. Otherwise you just wasted a good amount of money. They have to trade some player agency for an interesting plot line.
Yes, this is how I feel, and there can still be plenty of tension and setbacks. And if TPKs are normally on the table, but are taken off for one arc, because of practical considerations, I think the players are still going to have a lot of fun and meaningful challenges.

Kill em' all next time around! 😂
 

S'mon

Legend
I allow the TPK, then typically continue the campaign later (anything from next week to years later) with a different PC group. Which may have the same or different players.

It's more common in my non-AP campaigns, but I had a TPK at the end of book 1 of Rise of the Runelords. I had Sandpoint burned to the ground then continued with new PCs, players and rules system a couple years later. In the example I'd impose a negative consequence & likely have the same players roll up new PCs to continue.
 

Reynard

Legend
I don't want it to sound like I think a TPK is the only definition of failure based on choices. What I am really talking about is how choice and consequence interact with any failure that creates undo problems with the coherence of the game.

To use a very basic example: the PCs walk into town in search of a clue to the next stage of the adventure. There is one NPC in town that has that information. Because they are a bunch of murder hobos, they kill that NPC and steal his boots before they realize he is the one with the important information.

There are a few basic ways to deal with that choice. First and most obvious is to let the consequences stand. The PCs have gated off the rest of the adventure, and maybe after doing some investigation they learn their mistake. Now they have to figure out how to go forward, maybe going so far as to getting the murder victim raised so they can get the clue. This is, broadly speaking, the way I would normally handle such a situation. The players created this mess, so they can deal with it. Unfortunately, as much as it might lead to interesting play (where are we going to find a cleric that can raise this guy?) it might just as easily end the adventure right there, which is a drag.

Another solution I see as a common suggestion is to just transfer the information to a different NPC. After all, the murder hobos did not know what their victim knew, so they'll never be the wiser. While this maintains the forward momentum of the adventure, it gets very close to railroading for me. If the adventure goes forward no matter what the players choose, what they choose doesn't matter. Plus, it seems to absolve them of consequences for their behavior. I am generally disinclined toward a solution like this.
 

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