TPK Avoided . . . so why am I depressed?

20 January, 2012

So, we were playing Pathfinder last night and we got to the final battle, our four 5th level characters (barbarian, cleric, sorcerer and alchemist) against the Frost Rider -the big bad-, his ghoulish thug and four mephit minions.  The sorcerer is my character, more charming than combative but not useless in a fight.

All dressed up like an open grave

Better off dead?

Things started out rough as we were pummeled by an ice storm and then had to climb out from the snow and ice to close with our enemies.  The barbarian went down paralyzed by the ghoul, the alchemist was entangled by the frost riders horned helm and was being brutally stabbed whenever he used a fire bomb.  Both of them were only not brutally killed because the GM choose not to inflict the damage the villains should have.   The cleric and the sorcerer mopped up the mephits while the alchemist was allowed to burn the Frost Rider to death.  Not sure what happened to the ghoul.  Somehow, were were victorious, but for the life of me, I am not sure how in game we could have survived.

Ultimately, we were just given the win, unearned as it was.  Frankly, the villains were very tough and we had some bad luck (and we utterly failed to prepare for a big combat, foresight not being our strength) so I think we should have been allowed to die.  While I really like my character, our survival here just seemed far too forced.  If there is not a risk of failure, how are the characters heroic?  It just made me depressed.  I have let the GM know that I think we should have been allowed to join the choir invisible.  But I am not sure what to do now.

What are other people’s thoughts here?  Do you think we should have been slaughtered?  Was the GM right to save us from our own bad fortune?

Notes: Photo by Steve Parker and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Addendum (from discussion here and on G+): Honestly, our characters deserved this defeat.  We did not bother to prepare and we used no real tactics.  It is exactly the sort of situation that would kill a group of overconfident adventurers.


  1. If you guys were as unprepared as you say you were and the dice went the wrong way, then the GM should have taken the entire party out. Letting you off the hook and allowing you to live steals the glory from every heroic deed of your past and your future. There’s nothing left for the characters to fear when death is off the table. Sure a character might get crippled or beaten down, but many of those afflictions are temporary compared to the shame of the GM just handing you your life back based on fiat.

    Hopefully, your GM learns the error of his/her ways and provides you with a rockin’ game in the future!

  2. I always prefer a GM who isn’t afraid to let my character suffer the consequences of their actions. I lost a 10th level Paladin in TOE and while it hurt, it was the way the dice rolled. I always hate it when things are fudged to let my character survive. I usually push that silver platter away.

  3. Taken prisoner would have provided both the “satisfaction” of a fair defeat and allowed the story to continue.

    If the Frost Rider just isn’t that kind of villain then yes, you probably should have died. It’s one thing to give the players a break when they did everything right and the dice are giving them the finger. It’s another thing entirely to walk in unprepared, make bad choices, roll bad, and walk out knowing you didn’t really win. That kind of thing can ruin a game as much as anything else. Babysitting the players all the way to victory is as much a loss of player agency as anything else.

  4. The grognard in me says, T-P-K! T-P-K!

    The indie-gamer says, tsk tsk…this is what happens when the consequences of failure are not equally as interesting (read: enjoyable) as the consequences of success. Failure is avoided and success feels unearned…

  5. I just rolled over….

  6. It’s always hard for a DM to kill off an entire party but “saving” them devalues the entire game. I actually wrote an article some time ago that you may be interested in: Dealing With Character Death.

    • Thanks for sharing — I liked that.

      If I TPK’ed a party of characters my players were attached to, I think I would have their corpses resurrected by a powerful evil being who would force them to become his minions, geas-style. There would be some great moral quandary moments where the PC’s had to do evil things in the hope of being able to someday break the geas. Some of the PC’s (knowing my players) would probably be pretty tempted to just go over to the dark side. Then when they finally managed to break their thralldom they would have an awesome nemesis…

      OK I kind of want to do this now.

      Also, we discussed last week bringing an entire party back as ghosts, which could be interesting…

  7. In my personal opinion a good gm doesn’t try to kill characters, on the other hand they should also not be afraid to let them die.

    Overall it just kinda takes away from the fun because you don’t have a reason to fear anything when you know the gm won’t kill you.

  8. Frankly I’ll probably roll up a new character given that I likely would have bled out and died.

  9. I vote for fair rules game. No “reducing” of the villains in favor of the characters. If they die, they die. Don’t twist rules or stats.

  10. I think there is something else worth considering, as opposed to the “Let them die/fudge” analysis. As a DM, I can allow characters to suffer for the choices of their players – provided I have mature players of course.

    However, I think something worth asking is how comfortable was the DM with the encounter? I think that often when these types of “fudge” situations occur it may be a result of the DM being very unsure if the fault is, perhaps his or her own. For example, if I lead the party to believe that defeat of the Frost Rider is within their reach and I discover once the combat has started that I have severely over-powered the encounter, the urge to fudge becomes almost overwhelming.

    So, if the DM is attempting to provide a serious challenge, perhaps a better question might be, “How could the DM have structured this encounter to ensure that it presented the appropriate challenge for the characters?” Perhaps bringing in the thug later in the combat if it is clear that the PCs are doing well. Or perhaps ensuring that there is a healing opportunity after the ice storm.

    This may not have been the case for this situation. But I do think that in many cases, the fudging of a TPK is a product of the DM being uncertain if they badly mangled the build of the encounter and presented a one-sided combat as fair.

    Just as a note, I’m not suggesting that you can’t have seriously unbalanced combats in your world, assuming you are running a sandbox style adventure with fixed encounters. This situation is based on the DM providing the players with all the signs that this is somewhere the characters should be.

  11. At first blush, yes, given the description of the situation the player party should have met a glorious end. My rule of thumb when running games is that I never put the players up against an enemy they cannot defeat…assuming they plan and prepare. If they charge blindly into the enemy without any forethought, then yes, they will die.

    My question, and one I don’t think I have seen mentioned is “Was withdrawal an option?”

    I spend years trying to break my players of this ridiculous, bull-headed notion that the only way to engage is push through the enemies heedless of consequence or injury. In real life, video games, reenacting, paintball and every other tactical simulation I can think of, when engaging a superior force, tactical retreat is a viable and in most cases crucial option. Yet once player characters begin a fight they seem psychologically incapable of breaking off the engagement until either they or the enemy are dead. This, to me, is unrealistic. I guess this is the third option: 1) Player victory, 2) Player destruction, and 3) Player retreat.

    However, having no plan of attack, running headlong into a far more powerful enemy and without a chance to retreat, then yes they should have died.

    • By the time we realized that we were in trouble, retreat was not a possibility as the terrain was against us and the mephits flew, the ghould was as fast as us and the frost rider (mounted on a stag) was much faster. If we would have fallen back initially, that would have worked, but by the time things turned against the characters, it was too late.

      • Then death was you only choice.

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