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3.5 To TPK or Not to TPK, that is the question...

Greenfield

Adventurer
The campaign I'm playing in is a 3.5 game, but the question is far broader than that.

When is it okay to TPK the group?

My group made some serious tactical errors in the face of a serious enemy, are split up and will most certainly die. We've carried this campaign on for 18 levels and I hate to end it like this, but...

What would you do if your group were in it up to their eyeballs, like mine is?
*
Here are the details:

Party is on the Plane of Fire at the invitation of a decidedly Evil being, an Efreet. Let's call him Fireheart.. He knows that they don't want to work for him, and in the case of the Paladin, can't. His solution was to simply describe his problem as one that they might see as one worth dealing with on its own merits: A group of people forced into slavery by an Efreet.

Fireheart is the rival of the offender, another Efreet we'll call Ignus. They're forbidden to settle their "differences" by violence, direct or indirect. The order was "Not you or any hirelings, minions, followers or agents of any kind." So he's trying to entice a party of adventurers to do his dirty work for him. He can't pay them or offer them any reward, but he has promised that, whether they do this job or not, he'll free any and all slaves held in his estate or on his lands, and will hold no more in the future. He also asked that they "be merciful, when possible", and that they not kill unless truly necessary. In short, he's pushing as many of the Paladin's buttons as he can.

So, the stage is set.

I had a series of encounters laid out, each of them a significant challenge, but likely for the party to overcome each time. They're 18th level and pretty solid kit shickers when they need to be.

The group attempted to scout the area in question, using Wind Walk. (It lets characters turn to clouds of mist and fly at great speed. Transformation takes 30 seconds and the duration is in hours.) Their target is an estate on the Plane of Fire. Visibility is limited to about 120 feet, max, according to the Planar Handbook.

They arrived within sight of a perimeter guard riding some kind of giant lizard, and materialized. I took a quick poll around the table, asking, "What do you intend to do?" I was listening for one phrase: "Take cover and...". Nobody said anything like that. (Note that, having seen him from the air they could have just avoided him, but decided to, well, doesn't matter.

The guard spotted them and turned their way. Half the party retreated to cover, the other half advanced. The advance party said they wanted to meet with the owner of the estate, Ignus. The other half stayed in cover while their friends walked in.

The guard sounded a horn and backup arrived, two more Salamander riding fire drakes. They went to the estate and entered, past some Janni guards.

So they've taken encounter 1 and had it take them to encounter two.

Ignus was sent for and he in turn called in some mortal mercenaries he'd hired for the occasion. That's encounters four and five. (Three is still waiting in the wings.)
Negotiations were initiated, threats were made and challenges issued. Long story short, half the party is about to face three, and possibly four of the challenges I had laid out for them, all at the same time.

Short of a DM intervention, they're gonna get creamed. One, maybe two might escape if they're lucky, but the remaining PC is dead, and they all might be.

The other half of the party tried to infiltrate the estate and locate the prisoners. They encountered a passive defense that does damage as they enter, part three of the "gauntlet" of challenges I'd laid out.

Their way off this plane is about to get killed in the courtyard outside (Cleric with Plane Shift). So no matter what they do in terms of finding and freeing prisoners, they have no way to move them from their protected area (1D10 of Fire per round outside the protected enclosure, downgraded from 3D10), and no way to get them all off-plane in any case.

Now I've always believed that if you can't lose, winning doesn't mean anything, and I've swallowed that stone as often as I've handed it out. Still I hate to end our campaign (18 levels worth so far) this way.

I have a few in-game ways to avert this. They're actually entitled to a Divine Intervention. The Spider Queen, Lloth, had directly intervened against them, and that's "breaking the rules" as far as the gods are concerned. Since she did that it licenses the rival deity, Corellan (sic) to intervene as well. This isn't his cause, but it's an option for me.

Option 2, I can have an extra PC show up and help them clear an immediate hurdle, the likely death of their Paladin. (DM's PC is supposed to be an NPC while he/she runs, so the character is in the game, but not supposed to be in this scene.)

Option 3: I can declare that, since the party is split, so is the time line. The vaporous half could have gotten there sooner, realized that they couldn't enter that way, and suggest that they rejoin their comrads. That way I'll at least heal the party split.

So there are ways out without it being too outrageous (okay time warps and deific intervention are pretty outrageous, but they're actually within story continuity.)

The question is, what would you do?
 

ad_hoc

Adventurer
Whenever they all die.

A TPK is a glorious end to a campaign. Well, at least to the party.

If a TPK can't happen (no individual character death is even worse) then people will play accordingly. There won't be as much attention. The game will likely be about out shining other party members rather than everyone coming together to try to survive. The party will try to avoid combat and the choice to push on to complete the adventure or abandon and go rest will be a tough one.

In other words, no risk no accomplishment.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
You provide a lot of good detail, but honestly it's hard to say what the "right" thing to do here is because there are so many factors to consider. That said, here are my general thoughts as to this issue:

First, almost every time I thought the party in any edition of D&D was doomed, they managed to pull off a victory without any intervention on my part. I'm not saying that's what will happen here, but it's happened enough times for me over the years that I generally ignore that little voice that warns me about this. And though it's been a while since I've played D&D 3.Xe, 18th-level PCs have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. I would not count them out just yet, especially if your players are using optimized characters and solid tactics.

Further, I consider any situation in which the PCs find themselves to be fair only if I have have given them enough information to take into full account the situation and make informed decisions. So, yeah, they can definitely walk into an "unwinnable" situation if they want. But it's on me to make sure they know it's "unwinnable." If I didn't do that, then that's my mistake and then I'll have to consider ways to correct it. To that end, only you can say which of the suggestions you made as to the "outs" works best in context. My only point is that I wouldn't provide any additional outs or make any changes if I felt the situation was fair. And, again, "fair" means they made a decision knowing what it could lead to and I wasn't obfuscating the dangers, not that it conforms to some notion of challenge rating or difficulty level.

Finally, I am of the opinion that even if a party is destroyed and ultimately and entirely killed, it really doesn't matter as long as everyone had a good time playing and helped contribute to an exciting, memorable story. Failure can still be fun for the players, even if it totally sucks for the characters. If you think that some element of your setup, description, or design will make it so that is not true, then it's time to make some changes. Otherwise, play on and let things fall where it may. Some stories end in tragedy and that's okay.
 

Hawk Diesel

Explorer
One way to handle it is to let them die. Then, after that, ask them if they wanna try to replay the encounter (like a save point), move on to a new game, or create new adventurers to pick up where the previous adventurers left off.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
This is a terrible situation... that the players have completely caused to fall upon themselves. They went in with no plan, since half the party wanted to negotiate and the other half wanted to fight/infiltrate. They could have bypassed the guard, but chose not to, since they could have probably explored the majority of the place with minimal effort under Wind Walk.

For those inside, I'd let the chips fall as they may. "If he dies, he dies." At that level, every character probably has an escape plan (or should), and if they don't/can't, that's really on them. Something to consider, however, is that Ignus might like the idea of powerful slaves under his control, ordering the party taken alive (at least stabilized), and held hostage for the others to rescue. He might even try to interrogate them, using them against Fireheart politically (as they really were doing his work).

Those outside/infiltrating don't necessarily have to suffer the same fate. Assuming they don't rescue the cleric (or the cleric just dies), they might find a portal out of the Plane of Fire to... somewhere else. I'd suggest the Ethereal Plane, where they have to wander to find their way home, possibly finding alternate worlds first. This punishes them for the loss of the cleric without completely hosing them for another player's poor life choice.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
It depends largely on the group. You can always just change your plans and make it an easier fight - if it hasn't happened yet it's not real.

Can you make this a scenario where they go out with a blaze of glory? Or at least a memorable ending?

I've had a few TPKs over the years, it does end the story. Sometimes that's okay, sometimes I've regretted it. Now if I think that's going to happen I ask myself how people will tell stories. Good stories where we laugh about it? Or grim stories.
 

Greenfield

Adventurer
We rotate the DM duties. The previous DM had a deity step onto the field. She killed our heavy hitter and blasted the party with a Disjunction. Somehow we escaped.

He declared that we wouldn't lose all of our gear, but instead had us roll a D6 to see how many items we lost.

In short, he pulled out the biggest guns in the game and loaded them full of ping-pong balls.

We actually complained and he changed it. We had to roll Saves for pretty much everything.

So I'm not about to wimp out on them, after saying it was wrong for the last DM to wimp out on me.

I might try to find a way, within the context of the scene, but I'm not going to break out the ping-pong balls for them. If you can't lose, winning doesn't mean anything.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Surely by 18th level at least one of the PCs has some sort of get-out-of-jail card up its sleeve, hm? A device of inter-planar travel? A Wish on a scroll; or - at 18th level - the ability to hard-cast a Wish? Some forgotten save-your-butt blessing from some powerful being they aided a long time ago? The ability to hide in perfect concealment for long enough to be able to sneak away later after everyone else (on all sides) has either died or left the area?

Because all it takes is for one character to survive and >boom!< no TPK; and that one character can then do whatever's required to get the rest back to functionality.
 

Harzel

Explorer
Based on what you've said, it's hard to see how this bunch got to level 18. They blew off their scouting mission, split the party, walked into the center of the BBEG's lair without eliminating any of his minions and then became belligerent. I can perhaps, at a stretch, see everything except that last step as a plan gone wrong. But that last step really sounds like they don't know what they are up against. Do the players realize yet that they are in trouble?

In line with what @iserith said about fairness - did they say anything to indicate that they had a misconception about Ignus' strength, or believed that he could easily be intimidated?
 

ccs

39th lv DM
Whenever the dice roll that way.

When the fighting starts? Roll all the dice in the open & take whatever results occur.
 

dave2008

Adventurer
TPK, always TPK ;)

Seriously though. Just let the dice fall where they fall. Unless there is more to the encounter then what you described, I bet they can escape as long as they quickly realize that is their goal. I would emphasize how dangerous the situation is and hopefully they take the bait and it it becomes and frantic fight/chase/escape scene. If not, then maybe it is a glorious death scene for one or all.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Based on what you've said, it's hard to see how this bunch got to level 18. They blew off their scouting mission, split the party, walked into the center of the BBEG's lair without eliminating any of his minions and then became belligerent. I can perhaps, at a stretch, see everything except that last step as a plan gone wrong. But that last step really sounds like they don't know what they are up against. Do the players realize yet that they are in trouble?

In line with what @iserith said about fairness - did they say anything to indicate that they had a misconception about Ignus' strength, or believed that he could easily be intimidated?
I too fail to see how they made it this far... if they can't even agree on a plan, let the dice decide!
 
They're forbidden to settle their "differences" by violence, direct or indirect. The order was "Not you or any hirelings, minions, followers or agents of any kind." So he's trying to entice a party of adventurers to do his dirty work for him. He can't pay them or offer them any reward, but he has promised that, whether they do this job or not, he'll free any and all slaves held in his estate or on his lands, and will hold no more in the future.

...

The guard sounded a horn and backup arrived, two more Salamander riding fire drakes. They went to the estate and entered, past some Janni guards.

So they've taken encounter 1 and had it take them to encounter two.

Ignus was sent for and he in turn called in some mortal mercenaries he'd hired for the occasion. That's encounters four and five. (Three is still waiting in the wings.)
Negotiations were initiated, threats were made and challenges issued. Long story short, half the party is about to face three, and possibly four of the challenges I had laid out for them, all at the same time.

Short of a DM intervention, they're gonna get creamed.

I obviously haven't been in the game the whole time to know all the details, and maybe I'm misreading the situation, but it sounds to me like at least this half of the party is operating under a well-earned assumption that Ignus won't attack them until they draw first blood.

First, Fireheart has sent them on the quest. By promising a reward, he's entered into a contract with the party. So clearly, they are under the directive of protection until they break it.

Second, the reason the number of enemies has escalated so much is that they were simply allowed to walk past the guards. If I were in that half of the party, I would assume that if I wasn't supposed to be allowed inside, the guards would at least try and stop me. By letting the party inside and parlaying with Ignus, the assumption is that they won't be attacked if they don't start a fight.

So, the easy solution for that half group is to simply end negotiations and leave, and plan another scheme from outside. You've given them penty of reason to expect they will be allowed to walk free. If you stop them from doing so, the TPK is on you. If they make the unfortunate decision to attack head on against those odds, then the TPK is on them.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
TPK is on the table. Even if I talk about ways it may not, they are "may" only.

First, is the goal of the guards to respond with lethal force. I know this is D&D, but who are those guys guarding against? They may want to take prisoners, and having the other half out to try to break them out is both dangerous (penalizing them for their bad choices) and a more interesting story.

Second, at 18th level death is pretty temporary as long as one survives to get some True Res cast (assuming no bodies). That's only stopped by a full TPK. Anything else is recoverable form and not the end of the campaign.

Three, you could be nice with having reinforcements showing up. But think REALLY hard - it will be seen as deux ex machina protecting the party.

Four, Ignus may wear them down and then offer that instead of killing them, he'd let them go if they perform a service. He's got this rival, Fireheart, who is an evil Efreet that he can't go after directly...

Five, you could have something else happening at the same time that upsets everything. It needs to suck for the players so it's not seen as deux ex machina of saving them from death. Perhaps whomever has the power to enforce a deal on Fireheart and Ignus shows up, and wants the players as his own playthings since Fireheart is breaking the terms of the deal. So the players have a choice to do something for this new, more powerful being - but one who might not be evil.
 

Greenfield

Adventurer
I obviously haven't been in the game the whole time to know all the details, and maybe I'm misreading the situation, but it sounds to me like at least this half of the party is operating under a well-earned assumption that Ignus won't attack them until they draw first blood.
Absolutely correct. He asked them if Fireheart had sent them and they assured him that he hadn't.

First, Fireheart has sent them on the quest. By promising a reward, he's entered into a contract with the party. So clearly, they are under the directive of protection until they break it.
Except that he made it abundantly clear that he wasn't offering them any reward or repayment. A few favors are owed to him, and he went out of his way to state that he couldn't pay anyone, offer favors nor forgive favors owed. Further, the party's current leader is a Paladin of Freedom who can't work for him, and has to fight with himself not to just kill the Efreet where he stands.

Second, the reason the number of enemies has escalated so much is that they were simply allowed to walk past the guards. If I were in that half of the party, I would assume that if I wasn't supposed to be allowed inside, the guards would at least try and stop me. By letting the party inside and parlaying with Ignus, the assumption is that they won't be attacked if they don't start a fight.

So, the easy solution for that half group is to simply end negotiations and leave, and plan another scheme from outside. You've given them penty of reason to expect they will be allowed to walk free. If you stop them from doing so, the TPK is on you. If they make the unfortunate decision to attack head on against those odds, then the TPK is on them.
The Paladin told Ignus that he wanted to discuss the freeing of slaves (a real sore point for the Paladin of Freedom.) When asked what he offered in return the Paladin responded, "Your life". It just got worse from there.

One of the mercenaries knew the Paladin from their younger days, and though they never liked each other, he asked the Paladin if he preferred tournament rules or battlefield. The Paladin replied "battlefield". So the two are facing off for a lance-charge on horseback. The other knight may be an evil son of a birch tree, but he still has a knightly code of honor, and offered to meet the Paladin under those terms.

We stopped the game for lack of time just before rolling Initiative.

The Paladin discovered, too late, that his Paladin's mount, being Celestial, doesn't have any fire resistance, while the other man's mount does. His will be taking a D10 of damage per round, which may put the Paladin at a disadvantage. He said he was going to dismiss the mount, which places him as an armored knight, afoot in a "rough terrain" landscape (1/2 speed) against a mounted knight with a lance, and a mount that isn't hindered by the terrain.

You see why I say he's going to get creamed. His honor won't let him retreat, and it wouldn't do him any good even if he did.

BTW: I effectively neutralized the party Rogue by having the bad guys' Bard (Rogue in disguise) call her aside and ask if she has any good stories. Their "Bard", like the party Rogue, is female. She's "sparkley" as a Bard should be, and is so bouncy and happy it's hard not to like her. (She works at that.) "Oooh, this is going to make such a great story!"

So the party's Rogue present, but too far away to help and far too far away to escape with them if the Cleric (only other PC present) decides to Plane Shift away with the Paladin. And with a bit of role playing I've managed to split the already split party even further.

Rules note: In 3.5 a Rogue of a certain level keeps her Dex even when flat footed, and can't be flanked. Only a Rogue of at least four levels higher can get a Sneak against her from a flank.

improved Feint, on the other hand, is none of those things, and denies the target their Dex. The player may believe that she's immune to Sneak attacks. She isn't, and could fall in one or two such strikes.

It's gonna be ugly.
 

Greenfield

Adventurer
Based on what you've said, it's hard to see how this bunch got to level 18...
I have to admit this is the worst brain fortification I've ever seen at my table.

Maybe they're just assuming that I'll make it a cake walk, that I'll pull the punch.

The adversary is Lawful Evil, and has no reason to let these adventurers walk away. Not when he has such an advantage.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
TPK TPK I LIKE Them! I LOVE THEM! I WANT MORE OF THEM.... Ok. As long as one or two pcs have the option to run away, I have no problem taking the pain to the group. Now if they choose not to run away, their bad luck.
 

Greenfield

Adventurer
First, is the goal of the guards to respond with lethal force. I know this is D&D, but who are those guys guarding against? They may want to take prisoners, and having the other half out to try to break them out is both dangerous (penalizing them for their bad choices) and a more interesting story.
The guards were hired in case Fireheart disregards the Sultan's orders and attacks.

Second, at 18th level death is pretty temporary as long as one survives to get some True Res cast (assuming no bodies). That's only stopped by a full TPK. Anything else is recoverable form and not the end of the campaign.
You need at least a pinch of dust from the body to do a res or True Res.

Three, you could be nice with having reinforcements showing up. But think REALLY hard - it will be seen as deux ex machina protecting the party.
Yeah, that would be a really obvious bag of marshmallows. Like I said, if you pull out the big guns, don't load them with ping-pong balls.

Four, Ignus may wear them down and then offer that instead of killing them, he'd let them go if they perform a service. He's got this rival, Fireheart, who is an evil Efreet that he can't go after directly...
But at that point they would be in his (Ignus) employ, or qualify as minions.

Five, you could have something else happening at the same time that upsets everything. It needs to suck for the players so it's not seen as deux ex machina of saving them from death. Perhaps whomever has the power to enforce a deal on Fireheart and Ignus shows up, and wants the players as his own playthings since Fireheart is breaking the terms of the deal. So the players have a choice to do something for this new, more powerful being - but one who might not be evil.
This has possibilities. Intervention would have to wait until the first blow is struck, which is what would violate the rules laid down by the great Sultan.

Still, that's a blatant deux ex machina, which I really don't want to do.

Decisions, decisions...
 
The Paladin told Ignus that he wanted to discuss the freeing of slaves (a real sore point for the Paladin of Freedom.) When asked what he offered in return the Paladin responded, "Your life". It just got worse from there. ...

The Paladin discovered, too late, that his Paladin's mount, being Celestial, doesn't have any fire resistance, while the other man's mount does.
Ah, I see. This is one of those classic "lawful stupid" paladins.

The nice way out would be to have Ignus send what's left of the paladin back to any members of the party present, and ask them in they want to join their friend of leave. Let them decide for themselves if they want to end it or not.
 

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