Monday, August 16, 2010

Anatomy of a TPK (with a bit of history)

I've played role-playing games for a long time. A LOOONG time. I first truly started playing D&D with the Basic and Expert Sets, that my Grandmother purchased for me when they were released in 1981. I was 10 years old at the time. I'd played in a game with my friend Walter's older brother prior to that, that used lumps of lead that were supposed to represent heroes and monsters (miniature sculpting has come a long way in 30 years) that I believe was either OD&D or the original blue book Basic D&D.

Anyway... from age 10 until I was 19, D&D was a staple of childhood. In middle school I 'graduated' to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and while most kids my age were spending allowance and lawn-mowing money on movies, clothes, or sporting goods, I was shelling out $20-$30 a pop for hardback role-playing books.

Once I got to college, AD&D fell to the way side... oh, we still looked at it now and again, especially when Dark Sun came out, but the games that took over were things like Traveller, Bushido, RoleMaster, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2013, Palladium, TMNT, Rifts, GURPS... the college I attended had a huge Role-playing group, and we played every different system we could get our hands on.

After college, I returned briefly to AD&D 2nd edition, playing with my old high school friends, but it wasn't the same. We started an abortive 3.0 campaign, but hated it because the combat was far too tactical, and the character power levels were horridly imbalanced. We jumped ship and played White Wolf games for a couple years, with a Vampire campaign running through the years while Werewolf, Mage, Changeling all never really managed to get anywhere.

After that, role-playing wasn't really a priority. I was playing a lot of other games... Magic the Gathering, Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, board games. Then 4th edition came out, and I wanted to see if they'd fixed my issues with 3rd edition. They had, and I ran a 4th edition campaign for a while, until one of the group moved away.

Then, about a year ago, we started playing Pathfinder with friends, and I was back playing in a constant campaign. A few months ago, our DM started a second group, to play the Kingmaker Adventure Path.

We rolled up characters, and our party was ready to brave frigid temperatures, deep snows, bandits, and a brutal random encounter table to claim a kingdom of our very own. The party was fairly balanced... Paladin, Rogue, Druid, Wizard. We began our adventure, mapping, setting watches at night, picking up quests.

Now, all of this history is a prelude to this statement: in nearly 30 years of roleplaying, I had never once experienced a TPK, a Total Party Kill. I will say there are times I should have been in one, but something always saved our asses. Now, I'm not saying we never had campaign reboots, because we did... but they were never based off a game, that at the end everyone looks up, and the DM says: 'OK, you're all dead. We'll make up new characters and start again.'

A Total Party Kill is not something most DM's strive for. A TPK means someone has just screwed up horribly. Possibly several people. Hopefully, the screw-ups are the players, because at least then they deserved it. I'm going to go over our TPK and analyze it a bit, to see just how many screw-ups were required to get to this place... as well as pick out 'moments of awesome'.

Our party consisted of four level 2 characters:
Kieyanna, a Paladin 2 of Calistria (goddess of lust, gambling, etc) that was houseruled to Chaotic instead of Lawful. Heavy armor, giant sword, and carried a whip for combat maneuvers.

Daehir, a Fighter 1/Rogue 1 with light armor, low strength and hit points, but ridiculous dexterity. (My character) Also of note, I'd contracted lycanthropy in a previous adventure that manifested not only on the full moon, but when I confirmed a critical in combat... if a crit was confirmed, I would have to roll to see if I changed to an enraged hybrid form that attacked the nearest creature, friend or foe, for 2d10 rounds.

Dr. Two-creeks, a Druid 2 with great mental/weak physical stats, with an armored Boar companion (Crixus).

Urtos, a Wizard 2 who was a drunkard, had visions of Kieyanna becoming 'king', and had a combat strategy of 'fall prone, fire force missiles' to avoid combat.

The four of us stumbled across the fort of the bandit known as the Stag Lord. It was dark and quiet, and we began our plans.

The following plans emerged:

1) Set up an ambush in the woods, wait for a bandit party to return/leave, fight them and attempt to capture one or more to interrogate/use as hostages.

2) Set up a distraction, such as a large fire, and draw out a group to see what is going on, so that we could fight them, and capture one or more to interrogate or use as hostages.

3) Note the position of the bandit fort, observe it to try to determine the number of bandits and their habits, return when we are more prepared (read: 3rd level).

4) Use some dust of illusion on Kieyanna to make her great sword look like a bag of gold, her armor to look like tastefully ripped silk clothing showing a LOT of skin. She and Urtos would convince the guards that they were helpless travelers with a lot of loot, so that they would open the gates, then Two-Creeks and Daehir would charge in from where they were hiding off to the side, and we would attack with a full-frontal assault. this plan was even named: Pig in the Poke 2. Urtos, our wizard, had previously used 'Pig in a Poke' as a plan to draw bandits *in* to our fort, this plan was a modification, allowing us to get in to theirs.

Guess which plan got chosen? Yes. Number 4.

Plan fail 1: You chose the wrong plan.
Plan fail 1, subsection A: Picking a plan becuase of a clever name, doesn't make the plan clever.

Once we were sure we were going with this crazy plan, Urtos and Kieyanna moved up the road, while Two-creeks and Daehir snuck off to the side. While Kieyanna and Urtos begged/pleaded, they also failed bluff checks. And as the other two crept up, suddenly Zombies popped up out of the ground and attacked the people off to the side.

Plan fail 2: The bluff didn't work.

Plan fail 3: The situation has changed, your ambushers have been ambushed instead.

At this point, the rational solution would be to chalk this up as a big fail and run away. But no. We decided to fight it out...

The guards began taking shots at us all from the wall with bows. Urtos ran off to get out of the line of fire... bringing up more zombies. Kieyanna decided to keep to the plan, and climbed the gate (making an amazing climb roll) and flipped over the other side.

Two-creeks and Daehir got peppered with arrows and charged by Zombies. We used up some healing magic and an entangle trying to control the zombies while Kieyanna, on the other side of the wall (still looking like a ravished woman) tried once more to convince the bandits to open up.

Urtos ran to the gates, fleeing the zombies, Kieyanna gave up diplomacy and started cutting bandits in half with a greatsword enchanted to look like a bag of gold, and Daehir took this opportunity to confirm two criticals with his rapier and kukri and start howling at the moon.

Moment of Awesome: Kieyanna slicing two bandits in half in two attacks with max-damage rolls.

Plan fail 4: We've split the party.

The next round, Daehir spends a full round action wolfing out into a hybrid form, Kieyanna opens the gates, and Urtos and Two-creeks run inside, while the zombies are stuck in the entangle. As they get into the gates, it is noted that there are a couple of 'named' bad guys and 5 more goons. And they're calling for more help.

Plan fail 5: in the face of overwhelming odds, consider flight.

Daehir rages and transforms, and rips through three (injured) zombies in one round, Urtos catches 5 bandits in a color spray, Two-creeks and Crixus go after the named guy...

Plan fail 6: if you are spending a lot of resources just to get to 'fair fight' then  you should reconsider your actions.

 Moment of Awesome: the guards on the wall seeing Daehir transform and shred multiple zombies.

In the fort, we're attacked by a series of important bad guys... the Stag Lord himself, and two more named bad guys, as well as an owlbear. The goons are going down quickly, but the wizard and druid are out of offensive spells. Daehir runs, in hybrid form, and attempts to leap the wall (Side note: that's cinematic awesomeness, and I'm still upset that I wasn't able to do it even with a natural 20. Not that I rolled a natural 20. But even if I had, it would have failed.)

Plan fail 7: if you've run out of limited-use abilities, and haven't engaged the boss yet, RUN AWAY.

Things go south pretty fast here... Daehir manages to climb the wall, and is a whirlwind of destruction, ripping through goons and one of the named guys... but is sitting at 1 hp while raging. And wasted a round going after the boar, because it was closest after I ripped a goon in half. Kieyanna, once facing named guys, stopped rolling natural 20s and max damage. She's still up despite fighting multiple foes because of lay on hands.

Plan fail 8: when you're out of healing magic, and everyone is in single-digit hit points, you really should disengage.

We focus on the owl bear, and hurt it badly, but it's still got Kieyanna. Then, Kieyanna stops trying to get away, and instead PUNCHES the owlbear. Natural 20, confirmed critical, max damage. She punches the owl bear to death. TO DEATH. Unfortunately, the bad guys drop Daehir to negatives, Two-Creeks to zero, and Urtos to 'oh crap I think he's dead'.  Kieyanna and the boar are still up, and luckily the Boar's command was to 'defend Kieyanna', and she's toe-to-toe with the Stag Lord and the boar is on the Barbarian Combat lasts for several rounds of whiffing, as Kieyanna and the Boar are rolling horribly, and the bad guys can't get past their ridiculous armor classes. During this time, Two-creeks wanders around at zero, no healing, looking for potions or wands, or something to get one person back in the fight. failing to find anything on the corpses, she goes deep into the fort and into a basement...

Plan fail 9: don't go into a basement, all alone, at zero hit points.


While Daehir and Urtos bleed to death, Kieyanna finally managed to kill the Stag Lord! Unfortunately, the Barbarian killed Crixus, and Two-creeks, in the basement, just got attacked by a rabid Wolverine and mauled to death.

At this time... with 3/4 of the party dying, Kieyanna at 3 hit points, everyone was dead except for the Wolverine and the Barbarian... I wondered, at this point, if our DM would have him give up, since his leader was dead.

No such luck, combat continues and one round later, Kieyanna is dead.

Plan fail 10: don't count on your DM to save you after you've shown repeatedly that you're unwilling to be reasonable.

We looked up. the battle had taken hours. We'd used every spell. Every potion. We'd all fought tooth and nail through our last hit point. Despite going with a horrible plan, and even worse tactics, the dice were stupidly kind to us through a ridiculous fight... until the very end, when Kieyanna couldn't roll over a 4 to save her life (literally).

It was one of the most epic role-playing combats I've ever had. And we were *second level*. At the end of it, I was a little sad... I'd liked Daehir, and really wanted to see what it would be like to play a Werewolf.

Looking back, it's easy to see that we could have recovered at several points... as soon as the bluff failed, as soon as the zombies popped up... those were the key spots that could have saved us all. Toward the end, we probably were going to have some casualties, no matter what.

Instead, we got slaughtered. We were stupid, but it was glorious.

Note: pictures to come. Probably.

1 comment:

  1. I imagine that if Quentin Tarantino ever made an RPG type film it might end like this.