Thursday, February 19, 2009


Total Party Kill. Just the words together like that harkens to late 80’s/early 90’s sci fi movie techno-thrillers with phrases like MDK - Murder Death Kill or TNP - Take No Prisoners. Cold and scary.

When I was kid, the concept of an entire party of adventurers getting destroyed seemed a bit like an urban legend, and usually a slaughter at the breath weapon of some dragon that was too strong to kill. Back then we didn’t have a term for it.

I personally cannot remember one instance when I witnessed it, but I’m sure I did at some hobby shop or convention game room at some point. But maybe not - I didn’t spend much time at those places once I had my own regular groups and also started getting laid on a regular basis. Having seen it and remembering it would have meant the deaths had meaning, and in my personal games death always had big meaning. Hell, it almost never happens so when it does happen to a player in my game it is bigger than shit.

Am I just too easy-going as a DM? I’m not sure my players would describe me that way, but I’m sure they would say I am a player-friendly DM. In my AD&D games, I have a general rule that no player character will die in their first game – at least by my hand. If they end up into the negatives (as almost always happens in the first game to somebody), I just hold them up at around -5, and when they are healed they have some appropriate set-back (a few games ago a first level fighter got the shit stung out of her by a giant spider. When she got back to the positives in hit points, she had a nice little poison susceptibility). I also tend to molly coddle characters a bit until they hit 3rd level or so, trying to let them expand a bit as a character before they risk true deadly danger.

But we aren’t talking about being a nice guy DM here, we are talking about TPK, which has a tendency to occur at mid to high levels. They don’t always seem to necessarily happen at the climax of an adventure, unless that was the DM’s aim all along.

Columnist Roe Adams described it like this:

"A full TPK (total party kill) is an appalling abandonment of the players to the whims of gaming fate. It is a failure to be worthy of that trust they offered you when they sat down."(Adams III, Roe R. (2003-08-25). "First Night" (in English). RPGA Feature Article - Wizards of the Coast).

Wow. Well, it kind of is on the DM’s head, unless the party makes some foolish mistakes. I imagine it just cannot be helped in some cases. Poor strategy, bad roll, good DM rolls, all kinds of things enter into it. I decided to do a bit of research by starting a thread about it over at It got a big response, with lots of great stories of TPK. Here are a few excerpts from some responses:

… Most more often, one or two characters gets disabled, and the others keep on fighting in an attempt to turn the tide, and one by one they all drop as well…

… the characters completely misread a situation and blunder wildly, causing them all to be taken out of the game. Something like a pit of lava, but the characters somehow get the idea that the pit of lava is a gateway, so they all jump in (and they all die)…

…D&D 3.5 party beset wolves. the players wanted a 'straight up' fight, no DM fudging. nothing behind the screen, all rolls on the table. they lost…

… DnD 2e: Party of 1st-2nd level characters vs. one ghoul. Paralyzed all but the elf due to poor saves and mauled the elf to death. Party assumed to be eaten at leisure…

… Tomb of Horrors front entrance; party vs. a small flock of cocktrice. Failed saves aplenty and ended up with the mage up a tree trying to fend them off with a dagger….

… As GM: 3rd D+D. 5 players (2 totally new). 2nd level PCs, standard orc-ambush turns horribly bad. The scout goes ahead, gets caught in a trap (one he knew was there but wanted to see what happened anyway?). Others rush forward to save him, everybody dies no matter how much I fudge. The longest series of bad rolls ever…

… Cyberpunk 2020: With the smart players dead due to a variety of mishaps (including a headshot from a sniper) the remaining characters smart off to the cops after they get stopped for a traffic violation. After a couple of dead cops and a freeway chase SWAT gets mobilized and toasts the party van with the minigun from a AV-4…

… He wiped out the party at the climax of each of them. Sadly not because of anything the players did wrong but because he liked the whole "you think you've succeeded but you haven't" schtick and was loath to let our characters survive his campaigns. I think he was trying to teach us players something about life. The only lession we learned was how much arbitrary TPKs by a GM piss us off…

In looking at these and many other responses, I’d say the three most common reasons for the phenomenon of TPK are:

3) a miserable, asshole manchild GM with delusions of power who delights in making games shit for players. How do these guys get players coming back?

2) An encounter that is just too much for the groups power level (usually they have the option to run away, but do not.). A creature, like a ghoul or carrion crawler, that can paralyze multiple times, are common things I have heard killed low level parties.

1) A fair encounter, but the players roll terrible and the GM rolls great. Seems to be the single most common thing. More often than not, the players also have a chance to escape things, but often don’t realize how bad things are until too late. Things just happen too fast for them.

Is it best for the GM to fudge and save them? Very often I have heard of the GM just saying “ok, instead of killed you are all captured.” Or, amazingly and it happens more often than you think, the GM starts the entire scenario from scratch and let’s the party have another go at it.

Yeah, I have fudged once or twice, but in very minor ways, and never to save a character. Having said that, a side of me is a die roll purist. If you fudge things too much, you take away a lot of the chance aspect of the game, and as part of that you lose some of the life simulation aspect.

I thought about the whole Total Party Kill concept a lot in the last week, because the party in my AD&D game may be facing the possibility. A first in my games.

You see, in The Rainbow Mounds cavern, a PC hobbit cleric is tied up in a cave with a couple of old enemies, an orc troop leader, and a half elf enchantress, have her at their mercy. The enchantress (a high level illusionist) goes into her private room to freshen her make-up so she will look nice for the nasty things she is going to do to the hobbit. When she and her two charmed fighting men step away, the Orcs offer to let the hobbit go if she helps them “kill the bitch.” She is untied, gets her gear on, and the enchantress steps out with her men. The fight is on! Well, I stopped it there, because things were not going quite how I planned, and wanted to get back to it next time.

You see, the hobbit and the orcs are not much of a match for the Enchantress. As a high level illusionist, she is capable of some powerful things. Luckily, the hobbits friends are charging through the cavern system, knowing of her trouble and coming to save her. I have a certain time-frame, and the party has wasted a bit of time, including doing things like stopping to body search the few orcs they kill on the way, just for handfuls of silver. They know this hobbit chick is in need of help, but they will get there at best around 8 or 9 rounds after the fight has started, when my original “run like hell to help her” timeframe would have had them show up a round or two into the fight.

So what do I do? Fudge? Let them just show up on time, or delay them to show them the consequences of picking up chump change when a friend is in trouble. They will have a chance against the enchantress, but not as good if the hobbit and the orcs are dead when they get there and can’t assist them in the fight.

I think I’m going to let the chips fall where they may. And doing that, I may just be looking at the first TPK in my games.

Monday, February 16, 2009

GM Responsibilities

(Somebody talked about what are the duties of a DM on a chat today, and I thought this might be a good place to post my answer as well)

Fun for All

It may not be the GM's job to make sure everyone has a good time, but he should do his best to tweak things if somebody who normally would be having fun is suddenly bored or frustrated. Sometimes there is nothing you can do because of their mood or the circumstances of the scenario or task resolution, but you do your best. For everyone’s enjoyment, looking at the DM like the head chef, and the players as assistant chefs, is a good way to look at it. It’s all on the GM’s head, but everyone should be involved in making it fun. This is why a regular, tight knit group is best in my humble opinion.


The poor beleaguered GM, who is not only coming up with all the world/scenario prep, and maybe even doing all the scheduling footwork, must also be committed more than anyone else. It won't happen without him (unless it is one of those groups where people take turns as GM). School, work, and non-game related life-things are stuff the GM has to take more time from than anyone else in order to have any kind of regular play (even once a month). From 30 years of personal experience, I have found that the DM (at least in my case) has more going on in their life than the typical player who complains about the time commitment to gaming. I have found this particularly frustrating, because I probability put about 2 hours work into every one hour of session (and that is low-balling it).


At my game last week, a couple players were into rolling minor skill stuff (musical instruments, "noticing" type rolls) without asking or declaring it. I’m trying to role play NPC’s and describe things, and all this rolling is going on. Just "roll" then, "Oh I got a good roll on my mandolin." No big deal, but a pet peeve of mine. Don't roll unless I ask or I am at least watching. So when other players were rattling dice in their hand waiting on their turn in combat, I would snap "Don't roll unless I tell you!" then I had to apologize when I saw they were cowed a bit by it. So even after 30 years, a hard day at work can take away some of my game session patience later (I am still not used to running games on a weeknight). For me, this is important and I have to keep it in mind. It's easy to offend when you are in charge. And maybe doing a little drinking…


GM is boss (one reason GM's should try to have the game at their place). What he says goes. Fuck you, rules lawyer - this is my world! I think most players want a game where everyone gets fairly even time to do their thing, and that all the other players are kept in check the same way they are. And if the session is getting “sloppy,” it is the GM’s duty to tighten things up and get on with solid gameplay.

Last week a guy posted (at that he was having trouble because of people playing on laptops during his game (a seven hour game with kids running around the place - ugh). He wondered the best way to go about getting them to stop. What a weak GM! You put the work into it, and it should be as close to your vision as possible. So stick to how you want it, even if it isn't your house. "Hey man, I really put a lot of work into this, and the laptops bug me and are taking away from my enjoyment. Please, let's put them away during sessions, or this just isn't going to work for me".

GM must be strong, like bull! So be committed, be patient, be in control, and be strong!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"My favorite D&D module was a Runequest adventure” - Apple Lane

As a kid hanging out at the local game shop in Santa Monica, I played a lot of Runequest. I maybe ran a handful of games for friends outside the shop, but I never really got a campaign going.

As an adventure pack, Apple Lane (by Greg Stafford, first printed in 1978) provided some outstanding encounters, NPC’s, and situations. In the sleepy orchard town of Apple Lane, Your first encounter may just be getting mugged by a Trollkin (as humorously portrayed on the cover). Trollkin haunt the area outside of town, but small raids have been made in the last few weeks on homes around the town fringes. Lead by a big Trollkin named White Eye, the little pests have been a nuisance, even going so far as to kill a little old lady.

The Tin Inn is the focal center of town, and here is where you are likely to meet Gringle, a Rune Lord who has settled down to run a pawnshop in town. Gringle will hire you to guard his shop while he and his assistant, Duck John, are out of town for the night. A tribe of Baboons (who can speak in Runequest) have threatened to attack the shop, and a harrowing night fighting them off will be the first real adventure scenario in town. Included are schematics for the three levels of the shop, and entrance points for the Baboons to break in are indicated.

The major adventure is to go to an area called The Rainbow Mounds and get a bounty on White Eye offered by the sheriff. In addition to the Trollkin, a once great race have devolved into The Newtlings, froglike beings who live in the waterways of the Mounds. These creatures worship an idol in their main cave, and if the party finds the missing piece of the idol (hidden amongst the warrens of the large rock lizards who also inhabit the caverns), the person who places the piece upon the idol will be crowned King of the Newtlings. This kingship comes with little in the way of power or treasure, but it is a cool way to cap off an adventure.

The Rainbow Mounds is really a great dungeon setting. In addition to the main water cavern and some underground rushing rapids and waterfalls, special rooms include a classic D&D style mushroom chamber, and an alter to the Dark Gods of the Trollkin. It’s just a series of caves, but they are set-up really well, and provide multiple pathways for the players to choose.

I liked the setting so much, that after getting the book I almost immediately modified things to use it for D&D. I changed some names, such as Lemon Tree instead of Apple Lane, and turned the Trollkins and Baboons into orcs, but most other things I kept the same. Gringle, however, became a high level wizard, and his assistant Duck John became Hobbit John.

Over the decades I used the setting several times. White Eye having been killed several times, and the Newtling idol found and a king crowned again and again, was a bit of a stretch. But the problem got solved when I decided that the Newtlings had a curse on them that kept the idol pieces and White Eye in a constant loop. No matter what happened, an idol piece would eventually be lost and found, and no matter how many times White Eye was killed he would return to menace anyone who came to the Mounds.

A group of characters are in the Rainbow Mounds right now during my current AD&D campaign (continuing tonight!), and the party includes Kayla, a hobbit who has been there before, and personally killed White Eye in that past adventure. In a game in the late 90’s she came to Lemon Tree, adventured in the Rainbow Mounds, killed the orcs, and eventually married Hobbit John. She has recently returned to find White Eye alive, the Newtlings again waiting for a new ruler, and a disturbing fact: having been to the Mounds multiple times, she risks become part of the curse cycle of the Mounds herself!

So, I very much recommending getting a copy of Apple Lane and modify it for use in your D&D games. It is really a fairly simple but elegant setting, and it can be adjusted for various character levels. It actually is a great place to start new characters in, and if you poke around online you can find fan-support for it, including great alternate maps (even a 3D one) for the areas included in the module.