Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Total Buzz Kill? - Part Two

The next TPK was more painful, and involved a fair bit of subsequent player discussion and navel gazing. This game, let’s call it Game 2, is an ultra-traditional D&D game using 4th Edition, including pretty much every supplement, a horde of miniatures, and players who exclusively play D&D – and some who have done so for several decades.

In Game 2, we were at the beginning of what, by all accounts, was to be an extensive campaign, involving much preparation and thought on the part of the GM. We had generated our own characters and had them injected, almost at random, into the adventure. Regrettably, neither players nor characters had much communication about our end goals, and this was to prove our undoing.

After 6 sessions of exploration of a wilderness environment and associated town (including a mini-dungeon) we asked for, and were given, a task by the local lord. This was to investigate the increased instance of attacks on the road leading to the town, and report back what was going on. Subsequent investigation revealed that; while there had been attacks on the road previously, these had recently escalated in terms of violence, coinciding with a powerful magical flux we had previously experienced.

We wandered out to investigate, and were attacked. We defeated our would-be ambushers and took one captive. After a session of interrogation we established that the local eco-system had been upset when spell-casting Bugbears had moved into a local keep, moving out the incumbent hobgoblins, who had in turn displaced the local goblins, which had in turn caused trouble with a tribe of Kobolds. The Bugbears were primarily responsible for attacking travelers on the road, and all the other factional races wanted them dealt with. We negotiated with the bugbears, and scouted the keep, noting the extremely difficult nature of any frontal assault.

Now, here’s where we came unstuck. As it turned out, the characters had very different reasons for taking this job. One character wanted to get paid by the lord and was ready to go back to town. Another wanted to find a way home, and several were of the view that we had not adequately obtained an accurate picture of the environment. My own character was a do-gooder Paladin who was aiming to resolve the issue with a minimum of bloodshed, and was keen to arrange some level of negotiation before employing force or giving the local lord an excuse to do the same.

The players weren’t exactly on the same page either. My filthy hobo paladin of the god of the homeless wasn’t winning me any friends with the party, who thought I was failing to act as a suitable negotiator and utilise my high charisma score. Our priest wasn’t big on voluntarily healing people, and the others had some issues as well. It’s fair to say that players who had an eye on ‘party roles’ as set out in the book were increasingly displeased with our failure to fulfill our anticipated roles to maximize our potential.

What transpired was that, we believed that the Hobgoblins would support us while it looked like we were going to tackle their enemies the Bugbears. Mistake. Two characters who had scouting abilities (rogue and ranger) went to do some further scouting while the rest went to speak with the kobolds in the hope they might reveal a secret entrance to the fortress.

The bugbears played along, then once they had the scouts alone, killed them one at a time with overwhelming force. When the rest of the group returned they supplied a poison wineskin, but when that failed, attacked us in force, killing us after a dozen or so rounds of massed combat. It should be noted that this fight wasn’t a walk-over and we did manage to drop the bugbear chieftain before being defeated.

So, did we set ourselves up for this outcome? The Dungeon Masters Guide provides the following advice:

Let the characters face the consequences of their stupid actions, but make sure you give enough cues for the players to recognize stupid actions, and give the players every opportunity to take back rash decisions.” – DMG 4th Ed, p30

I’m not a big fan of the language, but that aside, had we engaged in rash or stupid actions? I cannot second guess the GM but it felt to me like he/she was sensing the frustration of certain elements of the group at our un-tactical approach and rather than be direct out of game, and discuss the kind of game he/she wanted to facilitate, he/she instead set a steep grading curve and let the chips fall where they may. As he/she said afterwards, had we actually managed to survive the bugbear ambush, we might have been spurred to find this kind of change in-character.

As it was, only one of us elected to keep the same character for the next session (beginning as captives), and the game took a brief hiatus. The GM may justify the encounter on the basis that we acted ‘stupidly’ in a dangerous tactical environment, and our defeat was the result of our own decisions (had we not split up we might have survived the ambush), which ties in nicely with another gem of advice from the DMG:

The best way to avoid hard feelings connected to character death is to be fair and to make sure the players know you’re being fair.” – DMG 4th Ed, p30

To my mind, we had already twisted our characters disparate motivations to pander to the GM’s set-up, and the actions of the bugbears did not seem especially rational. However, beyond that, it raises the question of what the GM should be trying to achieve. Is it a ‘fair’ outcome, or a fun one?

As a postscript; subsequent sessions of the campaign have seen a considerable degree of GM innovation (considering the context) and attempts to provide interesting and unifying motivations for PC's. More than half the party has succumbed to the ‘Indiana Jones effect’ aligning new character motivations and min/maxing to guarantee every possible advantage in what is clearly largely an exercise in absurd tactical simulation. So perhaps the TPK served a useful purpose, along the lines of: what doesn't break up a gaming group, only makes it stronger...


  1. Ouch. That sounds... bad. FWIW I don't think that the decisions made by the player were all that "un-tactical". Seeking allies against a superior force is a sensible course. It sounds more like the GM had decided to punish the players heavily for wandering off course of what he or she thought should be an "obvious" path.

    In any case, once the decision was made to try and ally with the goblins and kobolds, the GM still had plenty of opportunity to enact the advice in the DMG, rather than committing to a path of TPK. For example, did the scouts notice the goblins duplicity? This seems like a perfect place for a skill challenge to me. It would essentiialy "punish" the PCs for making the wrong decision by creating a greater chance of risk. However, implicit in the skill challenge design is making failure fun and allow the story to progress.

    Also, there is a lot of flexibility for that last fight with the Bugbears. I would be interested to get some of the stats, as in 4e its very easy to eyeball whether it is stacked for a TPK or not. If it was, I have to ask what was the point of playing out an entire combat? Just say the PCs die and be done with it.

    "The players weren’t exactly on the same page either. My filthy hobo paladin of the god of the homeless wasn’t winning me any friends with the party, who thought I was failing to act as a suitable negotiator and utilise my high charisma score. Our priest wasn’t big on voluntarily healing people, and the others had some issues as well. It’s fair to say that players who had an eye on ‘party roles’ as set out in the book were increasingly displeased with our failure to fulfill our anticipated roles to maximize our potential."

    To be honest, that sounds like every game of D&D I have played where a player doesn't play their PC to the group's maximum benefit :)

    Finally FWIW roles only apply to combat. As such, roles don't apply to a PC's place in the group in a wider sense. That remains over to the players to decide through roleplaying.

  2. Then again with advice like this in the DMG for 1e, its not surprising we have these issues:


    Strong steps short of expulsion can be an extra random monster die, obviously rolled, the attack of an ethereal mummy (which always strikes by surprise, naturally), points of damage from "blue bolts from the heavens" striking the offender's head, or the permanent loss of a point of charisma (appropriately) from the character belonging to the offender."

  3. Nice find on the quote! Talk about reinforcing the weenie DM archetype!

    As for the detail of this TPK, it really wasn't 4th ed specific, the same GM has done the same thing in every previous edition of the game.

    FWIW we were second level characters with a Human Rogue, Elf Ranger, Goliath barbarian, Dwarf Paladin, Dragonborn Wizard and Human Cleric (pretty much a UN type of party).

    I wasn't privy to how the scouts were killed as this was done 1-1 with the DM. The Hobgoblins we fought had 2 major heros wit magic and the ability to instantly deploy minions, half a dozen non-minion supporters and about a dozen minions in 3 waves. I think the DM said it was balanced against a fourth level party of 4, we were a second level party of 4 without our scouts.

    I reterospect I don't thinka perception check would have been out of line to sense tension, given it seems unlikely that hobgoblins are consumate actors.

    That said the DM has sent out a bunch of info the day before the game providing some details on the races, apparently this said that hobgoblins are renown for respecting strength and otherwise thoroughly distrustful. So perhaps he was trying to provide a clue out of game because of dissatisfaction with the skill challenge system?

  4. Cool. I can't really make much of the statistical data. A 4th level encounter is tough but doable for a 2nd level group, though the removal of strikers will have an impact (though less so if minions are used).

    My comment about the skill challenge system probably needs further explanation. Though the mechanics are not new, I find that they help focus the DM on providing for a dynamic challenge with failure that is fun. As such, their use allows for GMs to propose some hefty problems but in a way that tends to be more healthy than imposing it by fiat or one or two rolls.

    This may start getting a bit indie, but if the GM was convinced that the players actions deserved death, then this can be communicated through the setting up of the skill challenge. This gives prior warning to the players and allows them to focus appropriately on how they propose to avoid it. That way the sudden consequences don't seem like a surprise and if a TPK did happen it seems more like a result of a group agreed process than something inexplicable and out of the blue.

    I guess what I am saying is that SC can be useful in establishing greater group communication and trust, especially on important stoty points and junctions of this type. Like the PTA system, I have found that it has made me as a GM more willing to create bigger issues and consequences for my players in a healthy way as a result.

  5. To tease out that example a bit more:

    DM: "So you are splitting the party and sending two PCs with the hobgoblins."

    Players: "Yes!"

    DM: "I should pretty much kill then both right now for such a stupid idea."

    Players of 2 PCs: "Man what! Why?"

    DM: "Cause the hobgoblins are a treacherous race, and you have handed yourselves to them."

    Players: "..."

    DM: "OK. Here's how we roll. This is going to be a Skill Challenge. The two PCs try to escape their fate. In any case, the hobgoblins are going to bring the bugbears down on you. The question is whether it will be 4 or 6 of you. If you fail, the two PCs will be captured and the rest of the party will be forced to battle the bugbears by themselves. Those 2 PCs' fate will hang in the balance as they will be held hostage in case the attack fails."

    Players: "OK. But if we succeed?"

    DM: " If you succeed, the 2 PCs notice the hobgoblins betrayal before they get it off and escape back to the PCs in time to warn them."

    Players: "Cool."

    DM: "To add some more detail, for every failure that the 2 PCs get, they loose 1d4 healing surges to reflect damage they take in the escape."

    Players: "Ouch!"

    DM: "I will let the skills that can be used roll from the narration. This is fairly significant, so let's say 10 successes before 3 failures."

    DM: "So the 2 PCs head off into the forest with the hobgoblins. They are soon out of sight of the others. The 2 PCs can't help but notice the hobgoblins chattering to each other in Goblin. Neither of you speak goblin, do you?."

    This could have lead to the same result that you had i.e. a TPK. However, by establishing a process that everyone can contribute to, it softens the impact by removing the feeling that it is either unexpected or as a result from 1 person's expectations.

    I also note that the other 4 players could add to the Skill Challenge, with flashbacks and cut scenes that may suit the narrative, such as one PC describing how he had been teaching one of the 2 PCs goblin hand signals. As the Skill Challenge is a balanced process within itself, i.e. the risk built in to the roll, the GM can be relaxed about this kind of narrative freedom as the mechanical impact is balanced.

  6. Hey thanks man, that's an awesome example.
    I'll post it on the group forum and let you know how it goes down.

  7. No probs. It was written rather quickly to make a point. I am happy to expand on it or answer questions.