Thursday, June 18, 2009

TPK - A Way Of Life

It’s interesting how early game experiences shape our expectations of gaming.

You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble a bit (or not…I guess that’s your call). I’ve been reading tearful stories of TPKs lately that fail to resonate quite the same as they seem to for the DMs posting them. To me, TPKs and botched adventures, just seem to be the way Old School D&D plays.

Back in the day, it was very rare for my regular gaming group to ever complete an adventure. Often, the group would consist of only 2-4 players (besides me as the ol’ DM) with 3 being average and 4 being exceptional. Besides being low in party strength, as a young and dumb DM (have I mentioned the pitfalls of being self-taught? Oh, yeah) I completely neglected to re-scale encounters for my players. If an adventure was for 6-8 players of levels 5-10 and they were under-staffed, I might let them carry an extra level or two, or add just enough NPCs to bring the party up to the “minimum required.” But in my naiveté, I figured adventure modules had certainly been scaled correctly and play-tested thoroughly.

In my own adventures, I often included monsters and treasures simply on the basis of “this looks cool” or “they haven’t seen THIS guy before!”

So having parties wiped out, or the majority of players wiped out while the rest run scurrying for the dungeon entrance…well, that was pretty usual. Basically, PCs in my campaigns were the pro-football (NFL) players of their world…they got paid well, they were incredible shape, but they took a tremendous beating every week…and their career (i.e. life expectancy) was often cut short.

Let me give you a fairly common early “adventure.” Three PCs, all in the 4-7 range, are playing X1: The Isle of Dread. If memory serves, this was very soon after actually opening and reading the Cook Expert set…none of us were really “expert” at this point. Quite possibly the characters were created specifically for the adventure or had been “artificially advanced” to the necessary level (i.e. 4) to play the module.

They manage to get a boat, get to the island, meet with the natives…and then just outside the villagers’ giant gate, encounter a wandering Cyclops. Now, here’s what I remember as “facts:”

- I actually rolled a wandering monster encounter
- I love the Cyclops…it was my favorite critter in the Expert set, hands down.

I seem to recall actually rolling the Cyclops, but it is just as likely that I fudged the type of monster once I rolled the encounter (there being no Cyclops “numbered encounter” and my aforementioned love of the monster). Regardless, the players encountered ONE CYCLOPS outside the Gates of Tanroa, and the PCs bravely engaged the monster before the walls with the villagers looking down.

I say “bravely” until the first PC got killed, probably with one shot, maybe two. The Cyclops of D&D is basically a big giant (13HD, equal to a Cloud Giant, and it does 3-30 damage with a blow). I’m pretty sure the thief died first (average hit points for a 6th level thief would be 15…about equal to the damage a Cyclops dishes out every round). After that the fighter and the dwarf ran like hell towards the beach and their boat (anchored just off-shore).

The Cyclops chased ‘em down, and tagged the fighter from behind. Realizing she was probably going to die, she decided to turn and fight to the last. She went down one hit later. The dwarf was still struggling through the shallow water (in armor) trying to get back to the boat when the Cyclops came up and stomped him flat.

Fairly anti-climactic? I don’t know. We all had a blast and the players enjoyed it enough that they wanted to come back and play again (which they did). They didn’t get a chance to encounter some of the cooler encounters of the interior (I think they hit a couple of the coastal ones while circling the island), but X1 doesn’t have any real objective to it…you get a map to a mysterious island. You hear rumors of possible treasure including a giant, black pearl…that’s really all the incentive they needed!

Even with TPKs, we’d often bring all the players back in the next session. If the end of the last session found the characters lost in the cavernous bowels of Tsojcanth, the next session might start, “so having escaped Tsojcanth, you’re on your way to blah-blah-blah.” If everyone’s favorite character had died, we would talk in between sessions about how he (or she) may have been brought back or raised between adventures (“well the clerics of so-and-so owe you this favor, and their agents recovered your bodies…”).

New characters were created and tried out like new outfits. The ones that worked would stick around for multiple adventures; the ones that weren’t were discarded once they’d been used up. At least we did in the early days of my first campaign. Later on, after we’d bothered to study up on the rules, we paid much more attention to “the numbers” (Constitution limits, XP, cash supply, encumbrance, etc.). But our expectations of play had already been set by those early explorations of what the D&D game was all about: kicking ass, and getting your ass handed to you.

Later on, this created tremendous empathy for characters with whom we actually had attachment…because we knew they could die at any time. We were working without a net, so to speak…there would be neither mercy nor quarter given by the DMs, and the scale of the game was haphazard at the best of times. Even though the DMs got better at gauging challenge levels, there was no expectation of character survivability or mission success.

Because of this our games eventually stopped being about “adventures” and became about the characters themselves, their interactions with each other, their dominions, their impact on the game world. In my opinion, this made for a much richer role-playing experience.


  1. That scene with the cyclops sounds classic. Player hubris, showing off for the "primitives" quickly turning into "holy crap we're all gonna die". The choice to turn and die with honor or get stepped on in the shallows. Even the thief dyeing right off. It's all to sterotype and sounds like awesome fun. Cause you know until the very last moment that dwarf thought "maybe, just maybe I'll get away" and the player (and DM and everyone else) had no idea if they would or not. Everyone had to wait with bated breath for the final round's actions.

    So very much unlike characters who can't die cause of Action Points, Fate Stones, DM fait, etc. Which in comparison is like watching crappy action TV were good guys will all live, will solve all the problems, etc. For a few, very good, shows it's interesting to watch exactly how they do that. At least for a couple seasons until even they get boring.

    I as a player would love a DM to run it like you did. As a DM I hope I could do as well as you remember doing.

    I am so sold on character death right now...

  2. I posted the TPK that you linked to not as a tearful story, but as a glorious battle tale. It was awesome and was the inspiration for our next party that has been more successful in that dungeon. Well, except for the fighters, we went through a lot of them...

  3. Apologies for the embellishment...I didn't mean to imply your team was a bunch of cry-babies!
    : )