Dungeons & Dragons Etiquette Part V: The Party Wipe

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Dungeons & Dragons Etiquette Part V: The Party Wipe

Post by ArcticFox »

Ok so it seems the time span between these rants (let's call them what they are) is getting ever longer.

Have a seat, my friends. Let's talk about the most dreaded event in the Dungeons & Dragons game realm: The Party Wipe, or as it's also known, a TPK (Total Party Kill).

Play D&D long enough and you'll see it happen eventually. A combat starts to go badly for the player characters, they start going down, and before you know it, the band of brave, stalwart heroes has been vanquished and killed to the last man. Time to roll up new characters.

A TPK happens for one of three reasons.

1) The Dungeon Master slipped up and made the encounter unreasonably difficult, and the party died. A DM worth their salt will always reflect after the game, and spend a little time thinking about whether the combat, under the circumstances, was too difficult and whether they need to make adjustments for the future. Nobody's perfect, and this can and does happen form time to time. Ad a DM, I myself have wiped out a party more than once because I gave them more than they could handle. It happens. Just be honest about it, make some adjustments, and get back on the horse.

2) The dice just rolled against the party. I'm not a big believer in luck, and random chance doesn't always mean that both sides get about the same results. Sometimes it really does feel like you're cursed when you can't score a critical hit but the enemy seems to get them every other round. Sometimes it really feels like the dice hate you when your D20 decides that, despite all odds, you roll 3 or 4 consecutive '1's when trying to attack the monster. Failing a saving throw in a critical moment, or suddenly taking a lot more damage than you'd normally expect can swing a battle badly against the party, and the result can be a party wipe. It happens sometimes. It isn't anyone's fault, it's just random chance, so all you can do is roll up some new characters.

3) Party foolishness. This is where our rant lies today, friends. This is just a bit of what I heard after last Friday's party wipe:

"This module is too hard!"
This is an old module from the 1980s. It was published in 1985. In 1985, the most experienced Dungeons & Dragons player in the entire world had about 11 years' experience. Such players managed to beat this module. The LEAST experienced D&D player in my game has 20 years in the game. The most experienced, 30+. No. The module isn't too hard. The problem is that the current crop of games have encouraged a mindset that every combat in any game you play must necessarily be evenly balanced and winnable. This is not what roleplaying is. Roleplaying games are as much about knowing when NOT to fight, when to use diplomacy, when to use stealth, when to use guile even more than they are about using combat tactics and strategy. I don't like to run modern content for this reason. In modern D&D modules, every battle is assumed to be winnable by the player characters, and they're never pressed to think of better ways to approach a situation. This is the result. "Enemies are coming after us! Well that's ok, surely there wouldn't be a fight in this module that we can't win, right?"

"We didn't scout the area ahead of time because it usually doesn't matter!"
Well hopefully, neither does fire insurance on your house. You still have it anyway, don't ya?

"It made perfect sense to start that fight under the circumstances!"
Did it? How would you know? None of the players asked me any questions about the environment, nobody scouted the area to see what else was nearby, nobody stopped to consider that the two enemies you could see might indicate the presence of a LOT more. That's like saying it made perfect sense to drive through the intersection without bothering to look to the left and right for traffic, all on the basis that there were no other cars immediately in the intersection.

"You made the fight unwinnable!"
Yes. Yes it was unwinnable. The instant that arrow left the elf's bow I knew the entire company of adventurers was about to die. So what? Does it help for me to tell you that the battle, as presented, was just as it appears in the printed module? No? Well then go back and see the first complaint above.

"We didn't know what other options there were!"
Besides scouting, diplomacy, waiting, spying or the like? Well in fairness, I will take some of the blame here and admit there was a miscommunication between myself and the players over the wider environment where the fight took place. They didn't know where the treeline was because I neglected to tell them. That said... In my defense, in every other encounter similar to this one, the players bombarded me with questions so they'd know the lay of the land and their options. But for whatever reason this time they didn't. Apparently that makes it all my fault the party wiped. :wink:

"There was no cooperation between the characters!"
Yep. But I can't fix that. I can't make you play your characters a certain way. That's all up to you.

(Disclaimer: No, I don't come onto this site just to vent while presenting a smiling face to the players. I have had this conversation with the players and I've typed nothing here that I haven't said to them. I'm just sharing so that others who have had the same experience can commiserate.)

Character death sometimes happens in D&D. If it doesn't, then it's too easy. The drama comes in when all the characters die at once, because instead of just one person feeling annoyed or disappointed or whatever, EVERYBODY feels that way at the same time. It isn't the most fun aspect of the game, but it is necessarily a part of a game where adventurers go out and fight scary monsters. Just roll a new chararacter.
"He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool."
—Brigham Young

"Don't take refuge in the false security of consensus."
—Christopher Hitchens

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