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...