Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Explanation Regarding Recent Posts & TPK!

As some of the more astute of the readers out there have surmised, I've been on the receiving end of considerable acrimony from the players in my Encounter Critical game. First the "Cthulhu Door" incident (it was a gate to Cthulhu's tomb in R'yleh!); than a bunch of new players attempt to roll Darth Viraxis in his citadel for his tie-fighter,phasic sword, and immense riches; and finally the third TPK in a row..due to killer flowers!

And I'm completely full of shit. The "Cthulhu Door" and "Darth Vader's Castle" were purely rhetorical, inspired by James LOTFP's post Here, just me picking the brains of other DM's. The Cthulhu door was based on a catchphrase I use in sandbox/dungeon/adventure design "If a door has a picture of Cthulhu on it and Cthulhu is behind it the players were warned and have nothing to complain about" (...and even an encounter with Cthulhu cultists could go pretty damn deep south!). Basically, if something in a Lovecraft/Clark Ashton Smith/Fritz Lieber/Jack Vance/Metal Hurlant/or any of the other "crucially important influences to the campaign" stories is lethal, anything similar in my own campaign bears the potential of lethality.

After reading the discussion that followed, and the discussion regarding James' post, the Darth Vader castle question was picking other DM's brains regarding the subject of "would you let the players slit their own characters' throats," but phrased in other words.

Now I'm not judging other DMs, every group has their own playstyle, and my campaign is explicitly oldschool Gygaxian deathtrap in nature (ameliorated by the presence of advanced power armor, disintegrators, resurrection technology, etc).


Last game the party of 4 PCs..two beginners and two veterans, were exploring an ancient ruin seeking a hoard of TREASURE! While camping below the ruins for a couple of nights (recovering hp lost to random encounters while seeking the ruins) I described an intense, powerful, sickly floral odor drifting down from the ruins during the night. While exploring the ruins during the day they observed that these ruins were covered with vines bearing massive (watermelon/head sized) closed  blossoms. The party were wary of these blossoms, fearing a Little Shop of Horrors style scene, and steered well clear of them.

They searched the ruins for TREASURE!, eventually encountering two algoids, one of which enraged one of the party with it's mind blast. The enraged PC dropped the 1st-level Sorcerer in the party to negative hit points in the debacle that followed. After the enraged PC recovered from his psychically induced berserkerang, the party decided to camp in the ruins so as to allow the Sorcerer to rest and regain consciousness.

The party found a nice defensible campsite in one of the ruins with excellent sightlines and settled in. Once the suns set I described the floral scent returning, overpowering, making them dizzy, making them gasp. One round of poison saves later and two PCs were on the ground, their lips and tongues swollen, blackened and protruding. The two remaining PCs valiantly pick up their fallen comrades and when they exit their campsite ruin they see that the huge blossoms have opened revealing pulsating fleshy blossoms with writhing pistils, the overpowering sickly smell almost visible as it flows from the unwholesome flowers.

The two PCs, burdened with the bodies of their companions, make a mad, encumbered dash ...deeper into the ruins. Two rounds of poison saves later (the second after the now lone survivor realizes the folly of fleeing deeper into the blossom infested ruins and attempts a proper exit) and it's now officially a TPK.

And when we wound up the night and packed up our cheetos and dice the players thanked me for "Another great session!"

I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that their enthusiasm was sincere...they've always been great sports about catastrophic misfortunes in the campaign (I love these guys!), and hopefully the new player who lost two PCs in the night's adventures will be back for the next session! And fortunately for the party, only two of the deaths were of established, "leveled" characters...there's a bunch more like them!

I don't know if this helps when PCs die, but following the advice of a blog (the name escapes me) I aim to make PC failure/death spectacular. I don't pussyfoot about PC death; I don't wince and apologize; I describe the death situation in glorious, ironic, sardonic detail. I don't revel in it, I don't enjoy killing PCs, but D&D is supposed to be Fun! (without kowtowing to "The Tyranny of Fun") and therefore I try to make PC death Fun! & Spectacular in a Clark Ashton Smith/Metal Hurlant/Weird Tales/Harlan Ellison story/Creepy(Eerie?) Comics fashion. No remorse/No regrets, and the players are usually already rolling 3d6 straight down the line seconds after the demise of their PC...


  1. Quite well, thank you; the pile of shredded character sheets is surprisingly comfortable!

  2. In the end its all about memorable imagery. The only thing anyone will remember about being "let off the hook" is a vague feeling of dirtiness or of having been cheated. Its supposed to be a co-operative fantasy of deadly, violent action in a colourful and compelling environment. If I was a player in the game you cited above I would have felt:

    A- a sense of wonder at the setting.

    B- highly amused by the PCs tragic folly in a deadly situation (which rings very true to me).

    C- that you had kept your end of the bargain honestly depicting the reality of the death-dealing flora.

    I certainly would have been going over the imagery which unfolded as I went to sleep that night. Hell, I might even be conjuring it up myself tonight, and it wasn't my game! If the players don't like the cooking they'll stop coming back to your kitchen. They can hardly complain if they knew what was on the menu...

    Apologies for the dumb metaphors...

  3. As a player, and I do believe I speak for the others, it was a great session. Yes, two well known characters bit it, but, hey, Algol is a tough world, and you never know if safety is behind or in front of you. If I didn't have a taste for danger I wouldn't play Algol. Knowing Blair, my characters hardly trust a cup of tea placed in front of them, so you have to be open-minded with this type of play.

    Plus, playing a game with a promise of safety and hording is boring. I always cringe when I hear of someone saying, "I played Falcor the Ranger for seven years!". In my mind, Falcor should've bit the dust in seven months tops!

  4. Great posting. Even greater reply to the question "how you sleep at night".

    TPKs are not unusal in the campaigns I play as a dungeon master. As you said: when the charakters are properly warned it's all up to them. I don't use deadly traps they couldn't see coming or foes that gave no hint how powerfull they might be.

    In my last Warhammer FRPG campaign the players had learned how deadly fights against orcs can be. When they decided to fight an ogre with his bunch of orcs they knew that they could loose. And they did... in a bloody and brutal way. It was close but it ended in a TPK. One, at least I hope, they won't forget so soon.

  5. I think you gave us plenty of warning, certainly more than the Cthulhu door scenario (which I'm not completely sold on).

    I've been mulling over my discomfort with presenting "save or die" situations to returning characters (I have no sympathy for beginning characters, throw them into the meatgrinder!). As long as players have a chance to respond before the roll happens, all's fair, is my conclusion.

    My Scotsman was doomed from the start, though. I mean, the Bermuda Triangle sends him to Algol and he makes friends with a cactus man, a lizard man, and a piebald black-and-white man. Why wouldn't he talk to a giant maggot with the head of a woman?

    Also, I'd be interested to discuss your thoughts on Gygaxian naturalism in more detail sometime.