Beginning the new campaign with TPK

So the party is sitting around in a tavern, doing not much.  The dwarf trades his lantern for another beer.  They ask if any rewards are being offered for anything. And a woman bursts into the tavern, carrying a bundle. “My baby, they’ve stolen my baby.” she wails. “Don’t let them turn my baby into a goblin!  Please rescue my baby!”  Her bundle turns out to be a crudely-constructed dummy, apparently left by the goblins.

The party leaps into action, ascertaining that the kidnapping took place last night, and that the goblins likely headed back to the old town’s main plaza.

Skara Brae has seen much better times. The northern third of the small city is still patrolled by the Fireguard and, at least during daylight hours, relatively safe. A dozen streets are barricaded against the rest of of the ruined city, which is inhabited by goblins, bandits, and worse.  The old central plaza, once the hub of the city, is now controlled by goblins. So the locals told the party the goblins would likely have taken the babe to the central plaza.  The party immediately set off for the nearest barricade, with plan, “Kill the goblins, rescue the baby.”  They were fairly sure the goblins were actually going to eat it.

I guess this is where things went a little off track. I imagined the party would have questions about the “turning it into a goblin” part, and the implication that at least some goblins were once human.  In my mind I had begun to develop an idea that goblins in Telengard would be something more out of fairy tales and old fantasy literature, rather than the Monster Manual (small orcs/generic bad guys).  Goblins had not appeared at all in the first Telengard campaign, so they were a blank slate. I thought.

In the ‘bad’ part of town, beyond the barricade, the party found an old tavern that showed some signs of life.  The rogue and ranger climbed up to the second floor and entered a window, while the rest of the party waited at the street level, watching the house.  Upstairs, the rogue and ranger found a ghoul, and quickly dispatched it.  I think the fact that I was using a different figure for the ghoul than I usually do threw them off a little and might even have made them more ready to stay and fight it.  But hey, first level, first adventure, I don’t have to tell the players things their PCs just wouldn’t know.  So I used this mini and describedit as ‘pale, with ape-like arms, jagged teeth, and yellow, glowing eyes.’

While the ranger was giving a “thumbs up” to the party from the window, the rogue went to check out another door and out popped another ghoul. The fighting went a lot worse for the party from here on out. The ghoul paralyzed the ranger, and the rest of the party at street level — a cleric, fighter, and dwarf — were surprised by half a dozen goblins who burst out from the building across the street.  The cleric went down almost immediately, and the fighter was reduced to one hit point, as I rolled 19 after 19 on my d20. Things were looking grim.

In fact they never let up.  The dwarf managed to slay the goblins by backing into a narrow alley, but meanwhile the fighter was downed, and upstairs the rogue was paralyzed too. The dwarf managed to staunch the bleeding of the cleric and fighter, and even rushed to rescue the rogue (the ranger had died already), when he too was paralyzed, and things went dark.

TPKs are never* fun, and this is the first time I DMed one.  The party might have done some things differently (not split up, for one thing; asked a few questions about the goblins, for another, as they’d have found out that parlaying and even trading is an option).  The fighter player realized he’d forgotten to add his damage and to-hit bonuses throughout the fight, but honestly with the abysmal rolls on the party’s part, it might not have made much difference.  Really it was the dice more than anything that caused the TPK in my estimation, and while that sucks, I don’t see fudging a whole encounter’s worth of dice  rolls as an option.   If I start that, why bother rolling?  The fact was, the goblins got great to-hit rolls, great morale rolls, and a high damage rolls (several 5’s and 6’s).  Even with max hit points, the PCs were screwed.

But that’s part of the game.  And really if there’s going to be a TPK, the first session is probably the time for it.  The players learn how deadly the game is, and losing newly minted characters is a lot easier than losing mid-level characters you’ve been playing for months.

Anyway the party was reasonably cool with starting new characters.  (I had even planned how defeat by the goblins would lead to the party being captured rather than dead, but defeat by ghouls can only mean one thing…so, TPK)

They agreed to all use something as different as possible from their usual types, which made me wonder if they were expecting another TPK.  I’d feel bad that they made the PCs they wanted to play and now have to play something else…but it was their choice what to make for the second outing. So now the party consists of a Rogue, Assassin, Paladin, Elf, and Barbarian. (Chad who missed this week is playing a bard, which I guess makes him the sole survivor.)

In a brief postscript, the party slew six more goblins, the remaining ghoul (I did not have the heart to throw ghouls of the rogue, ranger, and dwarf at them), and a goblin shaman who was in the middle of transforming two children into goblins. Unfortunately the two children were mistaken for goblins in the melee and slain as well.  It was a dark basement, and they were dressed and made up as goblins, so it was an honest mistake.  And hey, now the Paladin has a side quest to seek redemption for the killings.  He hasn’t lost his powers, but being a paladin, he feels compelled to seek some sort of atonement.

Feedback wanted:

GMs: Ever TPK a party in the first session?  Did it torpedo the whole campaign or did they bounce back like my players did?

Players: Would a first-session TPK put you off a DM, a campaign, a rule set?

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*Well, sometimes they can be a little fun.  Once things reach the ”point of no return,’ TPKs can be kind of hilarious.  And once in a while, even at the ‘point of no return,’ luck can still turn things around.  In the last campaign, the magic-user defeated two or three troglodytes in melee, while the fighter and paladin were ‘held’ by the trog shaman’s spells.  That was completely unexpected, hilarious, and the stuff of legends.

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Published in: on January 20, 2012 at 9:00 am  Comments (19)  
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  1. A first session TPK would be less likely to turn me off as I probably have less invested in the character. If it is a new rules system, it would make even more sense for there to have been a screw up on either the players’ part or the DM. So it wouldn’t be too big a deal to me.

    What would turn me off would be a DM, who seeing how it was going kept piling on to ensure a TPK. While I am not a big proponent of “balancing” encounters, I do think one should give PCs a chance to at least run away or get clued in that they are over their heads before it is too late. If they want to ignore clues or behave irrationally, well then that’s their problem.

    • Yeah, I usually err on the side of not telling the players what to do. At one point the rogue was asking about leaping from the second story window, ranger in tow, and I should have encouraged that line of thinking — “fly, you fools!”

  2. TPK’s are part of the game. I’ve ran games that started off with that and it is a learning experience, especially for those players who don’t have any knowledge of how older versions of the game(s) are so much more deadly.

    When I’ve had a TPK there is always little steam lost for a moment because the player is sad about the “missed opportunity” with that character, but they bounce back and after a few minutes (usually) excited about the new character.

    You did point out that low die rolls was a strong factor for the TPK the party’s actions can’t be denied. I don’t know your player history so I’m going on total supposition and my own GMing experience here.. but their reaction of charging in without questioning is more of a 3.x onward course of action rather than an old school one. If this is the case it may be a painful lesson for your players, but a really important one.

    • I would not say anyone charged in anywhere. Sure we got going fast but we had no money or way to get additional gear. We were search for traps and sneaking. Not really reckless at all. In the end the math not the rolls that were really against us. Ghouls are too tough one on one (or even 1.5 to 1.0 as rogues don’t count as fighters in my book). They had a greater chance to hit, and each attack had over 50% of effectively killing with 1 hit. We really didn’t have any resources to manage that would help us get through the fight. The players are really cool about not using player knowledge too. So even though I knew it was a ghoul eating the rogue and ranger, I reacted as if I did not know what was going on. The rogue and ranger didn’t react like they know it could paralyze until it did.

      • Are you complaining about the starting equipment packs? Each PC had 20 GP plus an “equipment pack.” We spent more than a week discussing that, Tom. You were advocating the packs, and I basically copied the example you suggested. Honestly I don’t blame myself that no-one used their money. 🙂

      • I think what you’re saying is: the encounter was too hard and had to end in a TPK. I don’t agree. There were several points where some or all of the party might have survived. For one thing, the ranger & rogue could have fled when they found the first ghoul. I described it as hideous, ape-like, glowing eyes … if I were a first level character, I would have “called for backup”. BTW the ghouls had a +2 to hit and needed to hit ACs 15-17. The PCs had a range of to-hit bonuses, the fighter had +4 to hit, the dwarf +3 or +4, the ranger maybe +1 or +2, the thief I don’t know, +1 maybe. Ghoul AC was 12. With two attacks, it might still have had an edge over any one of the PCs, but against 2 PCs, I don’t think so.

        I don’t how to react to the part about not using player knowledge about what was going on inside. I tend to think it is poor play to use it, and good play not to use it. Part of the game. Not sure I should have done anything to negate the effects of good play (which is what I would be doing if I said: “OK, you guys are being so cool about not acting as you know waht is going on inside, I’m going to let you act as if you know”).

        • No what I am saying is the players understood the game. The monsters had a mathmatical advantage it was not just a fluke roll. Of course we could have run. I should have dragged the outside guys back to town. But I was “overconfident” so not knowing the challenge level inside I went in. After all I about soloed the goblins.

        • I didn’t recognize it as a ghoul until you said something, Mike. No “stench of death”, etc. Not that that has anything to do with it. The first one went down easy. The second one, not so much. Just the way the dice bounce. I missed what 4 attacks in a row? Richard missed several as well. I was thinking that the party (for whatever reason) wanted to go about this stealthily. Calling for backup sorta blows that.

          Looking at it objectively, we did the one thing that first level old-school characters should rarely, if ever, do. We went toe-to-toe.

          • Would you believe, he didn’t stink because he was taking a bath? No? Yeah, I did forget to put in anything about his odor, which surely would have helped.

            I think it was mostly dice too, really. Neither of you rolled double digits against the second guy in 4-5 rounds of combat.

    • I’ve found that getting players to roll up 2 or 3 characters up front and then choose one to start with helps soften the blow of character death and gets people into more of a troupe-playing mode, so if one PC dies mid-session they’re happier to take over one of the extras, and more willing to try out the possibilities of the full palette of character options out there.

      • Yeah I tend to give each PC a hireling or NPC redshirt that can soften the blow of death for them so they have SOMETHING to do while they are rolling up a new character.

        While I haven’t tried it yet there is also the Dungeon Crawl Classic idea of the funnel approach. Have each player w/ 5 or more level 0 chars and letting the chips fall where they may.

    • In what way would such a lesson be important?

  3. Might put me off the DM. Wouldn’t put me off the campaign. Definitely puts me off the ruleset. But then, I don’t roll in the old-skool style. I get invested in a character within a couple minutes of making it, and I want to go be that person for a while, so a TPK (or most PC death) works against what I enjoy.

    Sounds like a good session, though. Ghouls are always a high-octane choice for low-level D&D

  4. My current theory: the first several sessions of the campaign should be TPKs. Soon, the PCs toughen up and get the hang of the game.

  5. As a GM: I’m not sure. I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever officiated an (accidental) TPK, before. I have a vague recollection of a Sci Fi game ending in a party shootout amongst itself…but that’s hardly my fault. I might have done one in high school, but the memory is too foggy. Then again, I’m usually a pretty forgiving high-flying GM. I don’t find the metaphor of making it though the tough early levels to be compelling in the medium.

    As a Player: It depends on the game system. If its something like an earlier edition of D&D, then its just par for the course. You just can’t have people walking around that vulnerable and have it any other way. Now if we were playing one of the more modern systems, then yes, it would definitely put me off either the GM or the campaign. You have to really really try and cause a TPK in most of the modern systems. The odds of an accidental TPK in 4e are so small its absurd. Most of the indie games I’ve read/played/ran make it seem pretty unlikely, as well.

  6. I always find these conversations interesting because almost any player I hope would agree there needs to be a level of risk. However defining that level is what varies drastically. Frequent TPK’s to me don’t teach the players anything other than to grab a farming tool and just not adventure. Hell even farm animals could kill ya I guess. It is all a perspective thing and something I have been trying to work on as I game with our group. I honestly don’t put much if any investment into characters I roll up anymore. Then if they die no big deal hand me another sheet of paper DM. 🙂

    • Well I guess you can develop an investment in the character over time, and once you’re 2nd or 3rd level, the likelihood of TPKs diminish because you have enough hit points to have a bad round and still be able to escape/flee if necessary.

      Gary Gygax famously said a character’s “background” is what happens from level 1-6. I think the trend in RPGs has been to create more and more ‘background’ right from the start, at level one.

      In all honesty I’m not sure there WAS a “lesson” form the TPK last time… I really can’t point to any big mistakes, maybe a few sub-optimal decisions once combat started, but really it was dice more than anything. And if I’m gonna roll dice, I think I have to accept what they show, or else why bother rolling…

      • I think I can agree with those points. I’ve just come to enjoy getting together with the guys and have some gaming fun regardless of the outcome of the characters we may be playing on any given week. I think our group has always been more of a play it how it lands than fudging. At least since I’ve joined. It was new for me and took me about two years to get used to. LOL

        Previously I had only played the sweeping campaigns where players did end up with armies or castles or whatever high level reward one’s class had available. In those campaigns we were encouraged to be more heroic than smart/tactical on a sliding scale. It was just a different gaming environment that’s all. Not saying one way is better than another. Just to to accept what the overall style of a group is or find yourself a different one. Since I can play just about any game with your guys it doesn’t really matter to me. I enjoy getting together no matter what we end up playing. To me that is a lot more difficult to find then a group that plays a specific style. If you can get along with an entire group that is definitely rare. haha

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