Total Party Kill

Just achieved my first proper TPK. They were literally on the last session of a long adventure, taking them from levels 1-5 and they picked a fight with an Adult Gold Dragon. I tried not to, but one breath weapon insta-killed 4 out 5 characters, including the NPC I’d sent to help them…


Are condolences or congratulations in order?

Since “they picked a fight,” I presume there was an opportunity to avoid the fight. Why didn’t they?

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There’s no helping some people. I hope you enjoyed the warmth, light and crackle of the flames they so richly deserved.


Gold dragons are some of the “good” dragons, though. Are they running evil characters, are they unfamiliar with the usual D&D tenets, or have things changed since I last played (which was admittedly some time ago)?

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It’s a weird feeling right?

My first TPK was the party’s encounter with a mindflayer. To be fair, I’d done a lot to point out how dangerous their intended path was - had a bunch of mindless thralls milling around outside the the house (which they decided to sneak past, ensuring retreat wasn’t really an option) and they’d been warned by multiple NPC’s how dangerous the place was. All to no avail it turned out, they couldn’t resist investigating…

On the one hand ending a campaign thanks to a TPK is a bit disappointing, on the other hand it’s left us with a great story so what can you do?

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My first TPK was on the deck of a sailing ship on the oceans of Venus in 1927. The PCs had control of the deck and the sails, and were sailing whither they listed. The crew were battened belowdecks, and were not satisfied with that arrangement. So they released part of the cargo in the deep of the night, a number of wild animals for the circus, which went out the oar-ports and climbed onto the deck.

I was passing this off as a triviality, but one of the players was concerned about the ammunition, and asked how many cartridges of .30-06 were expended in abating this nuisance. I suggested two cartridges per monster, the player demurred, I mentioned the chance of misses and the toughness of the monsters, the player insisted on playing it out.

Some bad rolls. Some good rolls. Some stupid tactics. Some dumb decisions. Everybody died, two sessions into what was shaping up to be a good campaign. The supply of Earthling explorers on Venus being straitly limited, that was a total campaign kill.


By the way, is there some reason this thread is in “Not games” and not “Role-playing games”?

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Moved it.

I had a near tpk when acting as a LARP monster. The GM had decided that the way out of the final encounter was to sit on the magic throne and be teleported to safety, rather than fight the big tough monster (me). First party member tried this and vanished. Some else asked “where is he?”. I improvised “he has been disintegrated for daring to sit upon the throne of (etc.)”.

The rest of the party believed me, even when it was clear that they couldn’t win the fight.


Basically, this was the first time they’d all played D&D. They had too much of the Final Fantasy ‘you must defeat this monster to complete the level’ mentality. TBF to them, they rolled really badly on some of the ways to avoid a fight (and because of that I was giving them lots of leeway to try again) but they gave up and just went for it.

The confusion in their faces when a 4th level wizard cast sleep, announcing that ‘ill use my top level spell slot to really make sure of this’, rolled really high and didnt even touch the sides against 250+ hit points was hilarious.

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In a computer game or a pre-written adventure, you can put an ability gate on it and say “the party should be level 5 before trying this” or whatever. In a more free-flowing RPG, I think it would be fair to argue that there should be things which are too tough for a low-level party…


I even had the NPC say ‘Save yourselves, I’ll hold it off!’ AND the Dragon had roared ‘Who are you puny mortals to dare attack me!?’ but to no avail…


In the West Marches I have a rule of thumb.

Everyone gets one chance.

This is a world where there are no gates and luckily the current players have already realised they can retreat whenever they want.

A former player decided to start a conflict against a horde of hobgoblins with a pacifist monk.

Miraculously they survived.

They have no chances remaining.


It’s so hard to balance content level with player expectations! I give an especial gravitas to NPCs that will obviously kick the party’s ass, but some players always want to be the ‘baddest ass in the room’. I’ve not DM’d enough to get the TPK - but I hope that I make it obvious enough that certain characters/enemies are far beyond the party’s level. It should even be obvious by the NPCs reactions to the party - weaker enemies should know they are weaker, and be less cocky (especially once the party has some street cred) - stronger enemies know they are stronger, and don’t feel they have to be polite. But some players interpret that as ‘hey this guy is giving me lip I need to take him down a peg’.

It’s a big no no to me when creatures are tougher without any indication in universe. Your party should be visually able to gauge that someone looks different than the scrubs they’ve been fighting - and that’s really on the DM.

You may remember a situation where a lone elf alchemist began to provoke a literal angry riot of probably hundreds of dwarves. I was tempted, sorely, sorely tempted to ask for a dex save from ‘100 hammers being thrown simultaneously at your head’.

A significant number of low-level TPKs are from dragons, I think. Exactly because of ‘Final Fantasy Boss’ syndrome. A friend’s campaign ended in the opening scene when the wizard decided that the ‘battle of two colossal dragons’ was not just an explanatory cutscene for the party to understand why they needed to escape, but an opportunity to ‘kill two dragons at once’.

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But it’ll make a great heavy metal video…

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In my recent Savage Worlds campaign, one of the PCs critically failed her fear check when meeting a dragon and nearly died of a heart attack.* Later, when they had an opportunity to explore a dragon lair, they opted to not do that. In general, my players (each with decades of experience) have a level head when it comes to knowing when an encounter is or isn’t a combat encounter.

(*) The same PC critically failed her fear check during a ghostly encounter at sea and was struck with the Minor Hindrance of phobia of the sea. I think she failed another fear check as well.

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