On Choice, Consequence and the Right to Fail

Reynard

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.
This gets into that definition of "campaign" @Umbran was talking about. I don't consider new players with new PCs years later in a different game system to be the "same campaign." There's no real continuity between them, except for the GM.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Yeah. Putting aside my distaste for published big adventures, I think there's a good case for keeping things going, even if the players fail out one way or another. Either pick up where they failed out, with characters of an appropriate level, or start over. Y'all bought in, literally and metaphorically; might as well give it more than the one chance.
 

Celebrim

Legend
If you suffer a TPK, as a DM you can handle it in one of several ways. Two ways that appeal to me are:

a) If it happens early enough, simply declare that the party never was the protagonists of the story, and that in fact what they've witnessed is just that interlude at the front of the story where the doomed mooks suffer a terrible fate in order to show the reader how real the danger is. Roll up a new party and start over, if needed with a slightly altered insertion point to the story. Hopefully the new party will make better choices.

b) If it happens late enough in the campaign, declare that the bad guys won and start a new campaign in the aftermath of the bad guys victory.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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
Why?

So, you have a group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you bought. All the PCs die.

Contrast with the same group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you made up. All the PCs die.

Why does one have more consequences than the other? I mean, they're all dead, either way, right? Is there some other meaningful consequence here?
 
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.
I think in the example you give, you have to look at it a few different ways. Okay, that NPC had the information.....is there anyone else who would conceivably have it? Or some other means the PCs may find it? I usually never allow for their to be only one path to proceed. Maybe this guy would have been the easiest way to find out, but there's someone else who knows....but that person's in prison. So how do the PCs deal with that?

I don't think that the dichotomy you've suggested really needs to exist. Let the consequences stand, but allow for alternate methods. Maybe the PCs have just made their job harder.

Generally speaking, I look at such "chokepoints" as something to avoid. Always give more than one route to success, and you won't really have to work about subverting agency.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Why?

So, you have a group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you bought. All the PCs die.

Contrast with the same group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you made up. All the PCs die.

Why does one have more consequences than the other? I mean, they're all dead, either way, right? Is there some other meaningful consequence here?
I think it's just the money spent on a hard cover book. Seems a waste if it gets shelved because party died early. Danger that wind is taken out of players' sails, so might not be eager to try again with new group. Or they might, in which case, no problem. But I've seen groups lose interest in an AP that they TPKed in.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Why?

So, you have a group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you bought. All the PCs die.

Contrast with the same group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you made up. All the PCs die.

Why does one have more consequences than the other? I mean, they're all dead, either way, right? Is there some other meaningful consequence here?
Speaking about my experiences, playing some of Paizo's APs. There's a feeling, at least in my Pathfinder group, that success = finishing the AP. So, we play in such a way as to not put that at risk. I think the GM runs the game with that in mind; I know he's been editing the AP we've been working on for the past few years (we're grinding slowly). At some point, there's enough investment in it that there's a real reluctance to just write it off. In some ways, it feels different than a homebrew adventure, where if the party crashes and burns you can start another campaign, maybe bounce it off the end of the previous one. I think that's harder to do from inside one of the big hardcover adventure books.

I might not have explained that well.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think it's just the money spent on a hard cover book.
So... the adventure costs maybe $50?

How long did they play before they all died? An hour, maybe two? Let's say two, for the sake of argument.

A 2-hour movie ticket costs you roughly $10. For five people, going out to the movie for entertainment would be... $50.

So, the perspective - having them all play for 2 hours and then die... is like you took your friends out to the movies. Maybe it wasn't a great movie? Still, you're not lamenting too much, "Oh, my god, the consequences of choosing a crummy movie!"

Viewed this way, it doesn't seem like a great consequence. At worst, you are down some money and a few hours of time, that were probably enjoyable in their way anyhow.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
So... the adventure costs maybe $50?

How long did they play before they all died? An hour, maybe two? Let's say two, for the sake of argument.

A 2-hour movie ticket costs you roughly $10. For five people, going out to the movie for entertainment would be... $50.

So, the perspective - having them all play for 2 hours and then die... is like you took your friends out to the movies. Maybe it wasn't a great movie? Still, you're not lamenting too much, "Oh, my god, the consequences of choosing a crummy movie!"

Viewed this way, it doesn't seem like a great consequence. At worst, you are down some money and a few hours of time, that were probably enjoyable in their way anyhow.
So, what about if the group has been grinding away for a few years of real-world time? At this point I think most of my Pathfinder group would be ... irked? Disappointed? Angry? Something in that area ... if we stumbled into a TPK, or even just something that left us unable to finish the AP.

Myself, I wouldn't feel bad at all, but I've been tired of the thing for a while, now.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So, what about if the group has been grinding away for a few years of real-world time?
If I'm working for a couple years on a campaign and its plots, and my character dies without resolving those plots, yes, I am irked... But I am irked whether or not it was published or homebrew content. I am irked because the story reached an unsatisfactory, anticlimactic end, not because the adventure happened to be published and bought.

I am not saying TPKs don't suck. I am questioning how the published nature of the adventure makes a difference in it sucking.
 

Reynard

Legend
Why?

So, you have a group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you bought. All the PCs die.

Contrast with the same group of players - they are engaged with an adventure you made up. All the PCs die.

Why does one have more consequences than the other? I mean, they're all dead, either way, right? Is there some other meaningful consequence here?
Well, in my particular case, if it was in a game that was a homebrew, they wouldn't really be engaged in an adventure I wrote, because I don't do that. I tend to create situations and have PCs do whatever they want and do my best to respond with fun and internally consistent material. So if they TPK, they are just one more group of would be heroes mouldering at the bottom of a kobold pit (or whatever) in a broader world full of such stories.

Again, this is personal bias, but when I am running a big fat zero-to-hero module, it doesn't feel like that. They are the stars of Descent into Avernus and so them failing has much larger repercussions for the game.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So if they TPK, they are just one more group of would be heroes mouldering at the bottom of a kobold pit (or whatever) in a broader world full of such stories.
Well, you might compare that to:

1) Going to the DMs Guild and buying $50 of miscellaneous modules of no particular connection or import - they seem cool enough and are level-appropriate.

2) Say you do put together a grand campaign scheme, a plot arc with some BBEG at the end.

How do you (admittedly hypothetically) feel in each case if the players TPK?
 

jsaving

Adventurer
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.
Choosing to run one of the few APs where TPKs are a real possibility is a bold move, for sure. And seeking to avoid a logical consequence of that choice because it might interfere with the way you envision the campaign unfolding in the future is a desire with which many DMs would sympathize. But it's hard to square that with a mindset in which player (or DM) agency is especially important.

One possible approach you could take would be to have a constructive conversation with your players about precisely this issue. Lay out in general terms where you see the campaign proceeding, how this particular AP could jeopardize that, and give everyone an opportunity to reassess whether it's the right AP to run at this point in time. No wrong answers, no judgment, just an honest discussion about the possibility you and they may have erred by opting for this AP.
 
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Arilyn

Hero
So... the adventure costs maybe $50?

How long did they play before they all died? An hour, maybe two? Let's say two, for the sake of argument.

A 2-hour movie ticket costs you roughly $10. For five people, going out to the movie for entertainment would be... $50.

So, the perspective - having them all play for 2 hours and then die... is like you took your friends out to the movies. Maybe it wasn't a great movie? Still, you're not lamenting too much, "Oh, my god, the consequences of choosing a crummy movie!"

Viewed this way, it doesn't seem like a great consequence. At worst, you are down some money and a few hours of time, that were probably enjoyable in their way anyhow.
Well, in Canada it costs substantially more. 🙄

But, it was deliberately bought by OP as an unusual situation, as Reynard usually does own adventures, that aren't all scripted out. In this case, I think it's fine to take TPKs off the table, otherwise the whole point of buying the adventure may get flushed. Changing your style for one campaign doesn't seem like a game killer. Lots of GMs never even allow TPKs. As I said earlier, I think players will still have a great experience, and no money wasted.
 

Reynard

Legend
Well, you might compare that to:

1) Going to the DMs Guild and buying $50 of miscellaneous modules of no particular connection or import - they seem cool enough and are level-appropriate.

2) Say you do put together a grand campaign scheme, a plot arc with some BBEG at the end.

How do you (admittedly hypothetically) feel in each case if the players TPK?
1) Individual modules are great (assuming they are not too railroady). They are essentially the same as me setting up situations and/or creating adventure locales, and I will populate the sandbox with pre-written material that I carefully curate (mostly stealing bits like maps, NPCs and encounters). So a TPK here is no different than my usual mode of play.

2) Usually a grand plot begins to emerge over time, based on what the characters do and how their adventures shake out. So if there is a big plot, it is usually tightly linked to the PCs, their goals and the circles in which they travel. That makes the prospect of the TPK problematic and, frankly, if I feel the game is maturing toward a player-centric climax, I tend to kids glove it until we get there, just because everyone at the table is invested in how it turns out. That's a little different than my current situation since the big central plot of Avernus did not grow organically out of play. (Not that it couldn't if a GM chose to run it that way, but in this case I said "We're going to play this!" and everything from chargen and session 0 on has been in service to that.)
 
I'm fine with failure due to character choice, but not failure by dice. I don't like killing PCs in situations where they don't choose to die. I'll always allow an option for a baddie to capture the party or get called away and leave them for dead.

I ignore death saving throws.
 

Reynard

Legend
I'm fine with failure due to character choice, but not failure by dice. I don't like killing PCs in situations where they don't choose to die. I'll always allow an option for a baddie to capture the party or get called away and leave them for dead.

I ignore death saving throws.
Interesting. I think the dice are the ONLY thing that should kill a PC. I mean, theoretically I support "I choose to die" type scenarios by the players but I have seen it so rarely it isn't really a concern.

Even when players make bad decisions, they still have a chance due to the dice. And, even when they do everything right, the dice can still get them. I love that.
 

S'mon

Legend
This gets into that definition of "campaign" @Umbran was talking about. I don't consider new players with new PCs years later in a different game system to be the "same campaign." There's no real continuity between them, except for the GM.
OK, I would "continue the Adventure Path in a new campaign" :)

In my Runelords example, campaign #1 that ended in TPK at ca 3rd level was in 1e AD&D. Campaign #2 that combined the rest of Runelords with Shattered Star in the same continuity was in 5e, has gone 1-20 since 2015, and is currently on hiatus with the Shattered Star AP 1-6 completed and Runelords Book #6 still to run.

When my Loudwater campaign in 4e had a session 1 TPK, the players were back next session with new PCs; definitely felt like same campaign.
 
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Reynard

Legend
OK, I would "continue the Adventure Path in a new campaign" :)

In my Runelords example, campaign #1 that ended in TPK at ca 3rd level was in 1e AD&D. Campaign #2 that combined Runelords with Shattered Star was in 5e, has gone 1-20 since 2015, and is currently on hiatus with the Shattered Star AP 1-6 completed and Runelords Book #6 still to run.
I should note that I totally believe you can switch games, players and adventures and still have the same campaign under certain circumstances.

I am still running an AD&D 2E campaign that started in 1996 that became a 3e campaign and later a Mutants and Masterminds campaign when the setting progressed into the modern era, and is now transitioning to Hero 5e campaign so we don't have to change systems as we explore other eras. Only 2 "original" players remain but of the 20 or so people that have played the campaign at some point, 5 are veterans of at least 20 years. The continuity that makes it "a campaign" is the setting itself and the various player characters' lasting impacts on the setting.
 
Interesting. I think the dice are the ONLY thing that should kill a PC. I mean, theoretically I support "I choose to die" type scenarios by the players but I have seen it so rarely it isn't really a concern.

Even when players make bad decisions, they still have a chance due to the dice. And, even when they do everything right, the dice can still get them. I love that.
Like, Luke Skywalker goes to confront Vader? Okay, he's putting himself in knowing peril appropriate to a climax.

He gets into a speeder chase with some storm troopers? He can lose and have a negative consequence, but can't die.

Vader shows up out of nowhere? The rules should make running away a viable option.
 

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