Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The TPK that should Have Been

The following sequence arose from events associated with the Campaign Senex, played in succession from February 17 to 24, 2017.

There are many moments when I think I am a very poor DM; when I weaken and do not follow my own precepts, even as I am vigorously flogging those precepts on my blog.  This is just such a time, an occasion where I set up a scene I should not have set up, then bailed the party out of the mess they helped created.  I should not have done that, either.

The scene began when the party entered an abandoned village in Turkey, Pazarli only to meet a single old man who warned them that there was no safe place to stay in the village.  This was the old man's exact words: "Safe? No. Nowhere safe."  He then went on to warn them that there were Turkish Janissaries just beyond the ridge.

This was the error my part.  It was not much of an adventure.  I wanted to get the players into a fight, preferably in the trees outside the village of Pazarli, that could presumably be kept up for a while.  I hoped the players would take the hint and choose to camp in the bushes.  Then, they could run into a small patrol on its way to search the village (they were perpetually searching for this same old man, who I had designated as a wererat), fight them, get some treasure, then wend their way out of the area meeting, occasionally, other soldiers.

If they made friends with the wererat, I supposed, they could find him a helpful ally and scout; but if they did not warm up to him, they could go it alone.  This was my expectation.

Unfortunately, the party was also told there were patrols in the hills. So they took the phrase, "nowhere safe" to mean that they might as well stay in the town as out in the trees.  Moreover, they were tired, they were near to suffering from a long journey (which, too, was part of my plan), and they adopted a helpful, protective demeanor towards the wererat.  This, despite the wererat/grandfather telling them the village had been repeatedly searched, with dogs ~ without, I thought it obvious, finding the old man. Perhaps the party realized this, but it made no difference to their offers to protect the old man nor their decision to settle in the town for the night.

So now the party was exposed, not hidden.  The town was going to fill up with soldiers.  Instead of meeting one patrol in the woods, the party was going to be infested with them.  Sigh.  I sent them conflicting messages and they did not adequately parse their situation. I made it worse by suggesting that the village was not searched every night.

Here I made my second error: I assigned the place the party would rest for the night without drawing a map.  I should have drawn a map.  The party had said they wanted "a single hut."  Anxious to make them feel safe, I put them in a building "recessed back from the main road" ... with a "courtyard outside the residence, a courtyard surrounded by two other buildings with a narrow 8 foot wide lane leading from the road."

Two things.  On my part, I had totally forgotten the party had a horse.  There had been a long recess between games and I simply forgot.  So this was not a good place for them.  The horse was an albatross, that made it difficult for them to sneak out ... which is what I was counting on them to do.  And here is why:

Because I had already intended to have the Turks search the town!  In my head, I had decided on this event when I expected the party to recess to the trees and not stay in the village.  I had to retain that commitment!  I feel very strongly that a good DM, having invented a scenario, must stay true to that scenario, no matter what the party decides to do.  I had settled in my mind that the village was going to be searched that night ... so that was absolutely what was going to happen.

Of course I could have changed that in my mind, and no one would have ever been the wiser. That's one of the deepest, darkest issues with being a DM.  Are you prepared to be true to your first intentions?  OR will you change those intentions willy-nilly, over and over, as the party makes up their mind to do something different. It is a matter of principle.  If you are a DM, and you feel your world can change upon your whim, you will soon be changing it constantly, without rhyme or reason, or consistency, every time the party surprises you.

I don't feel my would can, or should, change because the players make a given decision, whether or not it is one I predict.  BUT ... and I write this with shame ... I did forsake my principles later on, as the reader will see.  And I regret it strongly.  I hope I am never stupid enough to do it again.

I did not forsake my intention at this point, however.  I did have the village searched.  But hold off on that a moment.

I said there was a second thing, apart from my forgetting the party's horse.  The party never questioned the location I chose for them.  They didn't ask for a map, they didn't question the courtyard, they just accepted it.  Okay.  That happens.  I should have made a map and I did feel partly responsible for putting them in a dead end.  On the right is the map I should have given them.

So, there were communications issues ... and as the scene continued, knowing what I knew, I began to be concerned that I was overstepping my bounds.  This concern settled in to affect my choices as DM, as to how to present the situation for the party.  I did not want to trap the party in the courtyard, like the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I wanted there to still be a chance that they could get out alive ~ and towards that end, I began looking for a means to save them.

continued elsewhere...

The continuation of this post can be found on the Tao's Master Class blog, along with the other two deconstructive posts I have written, which can be read on the Tao of D&D blog here and here.

You can, if you wish, pledge $3 to my Patreon account and see all material to date when March comes, or you can use the sidebar to dedicate $3 to me right now, which will bring you on board with all those who have already supported me in March.


  1. Thank you for posting this. This scenario has been bugging me ever since you ran it because it seemed like the party had been "lead" into a no win situation. If they surrender, they die. If they fight, they die. No opportunity to flee (until the rats). It felt very uncharacteristic of you as a DM. Now that I can see what happened, it all makes a lot more sense.

  2. I believe my first Patreon contribution should come in today. Can you please give me access to the master class blog?

  3. I know, Maxwell. I will have to wait until I have confirmation from Patreon. That is usually this evening or tomorrow morning.

  4. Would you consider enabling comments on the Master Class blog? Or would you prefer to have comments here, even if they're about content below the break? Sorry if this was covered already.

  5. I'm anxious not to muddy the water on the masterclass blog. And I'm not interested in policing the blog, either. I'm good with comments being posted here and spoilers are perfectly fine (it will encourage people to go the extra step).

  6. Oh, good...I'm not a pledged Patreon, but I still wanted to comment on the first part of this post (assuming that's all right). The dilemma you encountered is not (I believe) an uncommon one and goes hand-in-hand with your prior post about engendering trust between the DM and the DM's players.

    Of course it is imperative to stick to your original intentions, come hell or high-water...if you don't, how can your campaign be viewed as anything more than arbitrary (and, more or less, the same as the campaign of the DM that "fudges" dice rolls)? And, yet, when you've accidentally engineered a death trap THROUGH YOUR OWN FAULT (rather than that of the PCs), how can you stand by and allow everything to come crashing down? How can your players have trust in you when you seem to have set up a sadistic, no-win scenario?

    [by the way, I would be interested in knowing when it was that you realized the "errors" you list...upon reflection after the session? Or during actual play?]

    I have to admit, it's one of the reasons I continue (on occasion) to make use of pre-written adventure "modules:" not only are they an easy convenience, but (if there happened to be any complaints with how things went down) I could always point to them as an example of my impartial objectivity...I was just running someone else's scenario, after all.

    But even with engendered trust, even with NO MISTAKES ON THE PART OF THE DM, how are the players to know that their TPK was a consequence of the dangers of the scenario and not just a matter of them "being screwed" on a whim? I do have an idea that could be a possible solution, though it is a bit of a departure from how D&D is usually played these days (because it involves allowing players to look behind the "DM's curtain"). But without trust, how can the game be played at its highest level? What is it we want to service here?

    Anyway...I'll have to get on you Patreon one of these days.
    ; )

  7. If, at the top of the adventure, I had said there was an army of orcs, being opposed by an army of goblins, the party might have taken the situation more seriously. But because the situation involved a human kingdom-running army, searching for human rebels, there was no real sense of danger.

    To answer your question, JB, the "uh oh" moment arrived when the players decided to stay in town, though they were told it was absolutely, completely, not safe. I suppose I should have had a neon sign rise from the ground, with a klaxon, going, DANGER! DANGER! every few seconds, and they would have gotten the point. But not wishing to be that heavy handed, I did, as you say, enable them to walk right into a kill box and stay there. I even helped them build the box.

    Perhaps it's a "session zero" mandate. Dear players. If you play in this world, and you don't recognize that travelling in a strange place is itself an extremely vulnerable situation, since you don't really know the customs, the people, the places of danger and so on. Please treat every strange place as the potential site of some deadly plague, and please listen very very closely to anything I tell you. Because if you futz and hem and haw and relax, then yes, I will, absolutely, brutally, kill you all.

    No because I'm a dick screwing you on a whim; but because this is the 17th century. Before human rights, civilized democratic government, the age of reason, Victorian politeness, common tourism and welcoming, open-armed foreign countries. Just saying.

  8. In your breakdown, you lamented the fascination with armour that parties seem to universally have. This is a predictable artefact of the D&D combat system, where armour is the only variable under player control for protecting their character in combat (i.e. modifying their hard-to-hit). Looking back, I see that we talked about this on my blog some years ago,

    It's still something worth thinking about, in my opinion. I don't think we can have a system that strongly incentivizes wearing armour and then complain that the party always wants to wear armour, even when it doesn't make much sense. The D&D combat system has stood the test of time, but it is a bizarre, nonsensical mess and that occasionally comes out in little things like this.

    On the topic of the party's response to the atmosphere of danger you were trying to create, I have seen the same careless attitude towards risky situations in players. I wonder how much of it has to do with video games, where the trend for some time has been decreasing difficulty to the point where it is unusual for an average player to die or lose any significant amount of unsaved progress. I would imagine that most people who play pen and paper games also play computer RPGs, so this is likely a factor. Even games like Dark Souls, which are known for being especially difficult, rarely punish you too severely for dying. You don't have to restart the game.

    Or perhaps it's movies, where James Bond always makes some slick getaway as bullets ricochet all around him (instead of being ventilated), or the lone swordsman fights off a dozen or so mook guards and rappels out a window on a tapestry or some such nonsense, instead of getting surrounded and cut to ribbons.

    I'm not sure there's much precedent out there for the kind of dangerous environment we try to create in our games. It must take some getting used to for players, and, as you allude in the title of your post, killing them all when they screw up is probably the only way for them to learn that there is real danger. They can and will die if they're not careful.

  9. I understand your position, Charles ~ but I feel strongly that blaming the D&D combat system is highly misplaced and entirely forced.

    Look carefully at your statement: "... a system that strongly incentivizes wearing armor and then complains that the party always wants to wear armor ..."

    To this I want to ask the question, how does the incentive translate into some sort of player character "right" to wear armor? Of course armor is highly incentivized. I see absolutely no special privilege that has ever been written that because something really sweet exists that it is therefore unfair or nonsensical that sometimes, due to TIME, CIRCUMSTANCE or a desire to SURVIVE, that armor might have to be abandoned or foregone. To argue the opposite, that players should NEVER be forced to fight a combat without armor, when they have armor, is stupid.

    Are players going to carp? Yes. Are they going to whine and bitch like snotty schoolboys because there isn't time to wear their precious armor, or because some situation forces them to leave their armor, their animals or any other precious equipment behind because the time has come to bite down hard or die? Fuck yes. But what should we do? Pamper them? Pat them on their infant heads and say, "Don't worry little Johnnie, the big, bad DM won't make you give up your armor or fight without it."

    NO. And that's a lesson here. Because that's what I did do, because I felt bad. I felt I owed them the chance to put on their armor. And I shouldn't have. After the choices they made, I should have killed them.


    Just like Nature would have.

  10. Sorry, I know that's not exactly your whole point, Charles. For me, I'm just less concerned to know why players choose to respond to the issue; whether it's because they're media-fed or just plain lazy isn't important to me.

    Nor can I be concerned that we create a kind of "dangerous" that doesn't exist in video games. I like that D&D is rough and tumble. I don't feel that killing players is a way to "learn them" ... it ought to just be a logical consequence for a failure to adapt and survive. And we ought to look at it in those terms.

  11. >To this I want to ask the question, how does the incentive translate into some sort of player character "right" to wear armor?

    Oh, it doesn't translate into any kind of "right", of course. I'm not suggesting they should be allowed to do so when it doesn't make sense. I'm suggesting that the system is designed in a nonsensical way that makes them feel like they need it *because it's their only means of control*.

    A fighter should be able to snatch up their sword and be able to competently defend themselves, but in D&D, your weapon has no effect whatsoever on your defensive ability. Armour is the only control over their defense the player has, so of course they're going to cling to it. They have nothing else, unlike in real life, where you defend yourself with your sword and armour is a safety net to protect you if you screw up.

    >But what should we do? Pamper them?

    No, not at all. But the system could be designed without incentives to odd behaviour. The players are trying to wring out every advantage they can. D&D makes armour a critical part of combat, especially so in your system with stunning, getting hit is a much bigger problem than in "stock" D&D combat.

    The system can be set up differently so that the incentive isn't there. No incentive, no problematic behaviour. The players shouldn't feel like they *need* their armour to survive.

    Also, piecemeal armour does nothing in D&D, which is odd. Grabbing a sword and throwing on a helmet is a reasonable thing to do when woken in the night. Spending fifteen minutes with your squire buckling on your plate is not. But the first gives you no benefit in D&D combat, while the second gives you a huge benefit.

    The players will always seek advantage, an edge, and they'll seek *control*. As game designers, we can align those incentives with what we want to see. But I don't understand complaining when the players follow the incentives built into the system.

    > For me, I'm just less concerned to know why players choose to respond to the issue; whether it's because they're media-fed or just plain lazy isn't important to me.

    I'm not interested in the question for its own merits either, but just for any light it would shed on solutions. Anyway, just spitballing. You got me thinking about the issue.

    >Nor can I be concerned that we create a kind of "dangerous" that doesn't exist in video games. I like that D&D is rough and tumble. I don't feel that killing players is a way to "learn them" ... it ought to just be a logical consequence for a failure to adapt and survive. And we ought to look at it in those terms.

    Totally agree. That's what I was getting at, perhaps not as clearly as possible.

  12. Regarding defense, I guess it depends on how you look at hit points. I've written a description of hit points as something that expands and deepens, so that as one levels, "damage" does less and less actual physical effect. I see this as an improvement in "defending oneself" as one increases with experience.

    Too, a defender without armor is still 45% invulnerable to the attacks of a 1 hit die creature (a THAC0 of 20 means that a 9 or less misses AC 10). That IS the defense the weapon provides.

    To my mind, the mechanics you say aren't there, are there.

  13. I should also point out that I created the "stun lock" feature into my games, which enables a more powerful combatant to stop the opponent from talking at all. Now, I realize that doesn't affect typical campaigns, but the example in the posts IS affected by that rule; these players had been familiar with my stun lock rule for literally years.

  14. I wrote a new post better describing my take on this, Charles.

  15. Hello, I was wondering if I had to do something in particular to get access to the patreon only part of these posts? It looks like my payment went through at the start of the month.

  16. My notes say you were added, Dirk. However, it's not a friendly process (10 year old application technology). I've added you again: try it now.

  17. I think a lot of the analysis and comments regarding the quality of the play here are overlooking two pretty big points: 1, during actual play "nowhere safe" was interpreted as meaning the region, not just the town. Alexis himself admits to this and seems to acknowledge it as valid given the context. 2, the players literally asked for an isolated cottage, not to be boxed in an alley, and this was overlooked. It was never challenged by the players and it probably should have been. These were errors/ omissions indicating a general lack of focus, commitment and communication.

    I played in this scenario and from my perspective it was a microcosm of what was going wrong with the campaign at the time: poor communication between players, between players and DM and not enough focus from all participants on the game. This isn't an indictment of anybody, but an observation on everybody who participated.

    Running and playing the game well demands more than just passing attention. All participants were distracted with other things as this game was being played out, nobody was keeping one another honest nor really helping one another out with understanding what was happening. We were not playing well together, DM and players all. Focus, commitment and communication; the best sessions have all three. You can get by when one or even two are lacking. Going without all three predicts failure.


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