Though I’ve started to find my voice in recent months as a Dungeon Master, there is still a lot of undiscovered ground for me to cover. How to come up with names on the fly that don’t end in “eeberbeeb”. How to keep one lonely alligator tear from rolling down my cheek as my best laid plans are turned to slag. And, of course, how to kill the entire party. That’s right. I’m a TPK virgin.
In fairness, I can’t recall ever having been part of a real TPK before as a player. My DM’s could bring us all down, but they could never quite bring themselves to put us completely out of our misery. I can remember one time that our DM made a tunnel collapse after a big boss fight, rocks actually did fall and kill everyone, and I can’t remember if we flipped out on our DM or if we just all looked completely despondent. Whatever it was, I just remember moving on and being somewhat bewildered after we did not, in fact, go to meet all our respective gods. Metaphysically speaking, of course. Our bodies were kind of… well, entombed in thousands of tons of rock.
I used to look back on this incident and think he was too easy on us. Our death happened. He should have let it. I understand much better why he did it now that I’m the one with all the rocks. Well, maybe I wouldn’t go that far. I think, rather, that I have a better understanding what was behind that look on his face when that last saving throw was a 3.
Nobody Is Sure Who Caused The Train Wreck, But It Is Fascinating To Watch
There have been a couple times in my current campaign when I was moderately certain that the PC’s were going to die. The one that really sticks out in my mind was during our Plants vs Zombies session a couple months back. I sent out wave after wave of zombies from a mysterious dark portal and gave the PC’s what I thought was plenty of time to figure out the puzzle of how to make them go away. I thought they would understand they would die if the 5 of them tried to take on a hundred zombies, and this would be a game of survival with the eventual puzzle-solution. They did not understand, and they waded right in, and they actually did fairly well except that they were quickly outnumbered 10-to-1, then 15-to-1, then…. well, you get the idea.
This also happened to be during my very first days of deliberately trying not to railroad my players, and to let them do what they will. 2 rounds into them engaging the horde directly, I’m starting to get nervous, but hopeful someone will catch on to the PvZ puzzle and end it. 4 rounds in, people are getting beaten up badly, they’ve set a barn (and lots of zombies) on fire, and nobody is talking about retreating. The next round, they’re all within spitting distance of 0 hp. They hightail it just in time to a (temporarily) safe distance.
I almost wept with relief.
The entire time, the little voice in my head is screaming at me to put them out of harm’s way. The hints I wanted to drop started out invisible to the naked eye, but they were the size of yachts by that fourth round. Ettin yachts. I wanted an NPC to spill the beans. I wanted to fudge die rolls. I may have even briefly considered Pelor wiping out the entire field of zombies with a Real Genius-style laser from his holy SR-71 Blackbird. But I’m glad I didn’t.
We’re Only Enemies In Our Imaginations, Where I Have Godlike Powers And You Survive By My Will Alone
They went on to figure everything out and saved the day. Am I glad they survived? Of course. But they live or die by their own actions, or at least as close an approximation as I can give while still keeping everything fun and exciting. That whole “fun and exciting” bit is a lot more complicated than it seems. I could keep them alive no matter what, and they could always go through the campaign knowing that they would prevail. That would certainly keep tempers and hurt feelings down, but it’s been my experience that there’s no sense of accomplishment, no edge-of-your-seat feeling with a die roll whose result holds the fate of the universe.
Then again, just letting a PC die because your dice are rolling really hot and his aren’t seems kind of empty, too. Unexpected PC death always feels more tragic to me, like their story was supposed to end differently. This isn’t real life, after all. Especially considering that I tend to think of the DM’s role as both arbiter and entertainer, killing off a player’s beloved PC seems somewhat anathematic — and yet I still have to provide the facility for that PC to really live. This is entirely too heavy for me. I need to think about beholder farts or something.
I really don’t understand how DMs don’t go completely insane. I am constantly rooting for my players, and yet just this past session I dropped the F-bomb when one of my monsters missed their attack roll. I’ve seen every last one of the DMs I’ve ever played under do this at some point. Some were of the power-mad neckbeardian variety and actually wanted the party to die, but even the player-centric PC-friendly ones did it too. I was definitely not expecting said F-bombs to emerge from my mouth. Over this, anyway.
Just Lie Back And Think Of Uthgar
I’ve absolutely no idea what to do when the day I have to perform my first TPK arrives. I suspect I’m going to have all of about 30 seconds warning to examine the existential quandary of whether these characters have achieved their potential and if the campaign would be better served by their living and mitigating the risk of having my friends mad at me and never wanting to come over again to play D&D and if I want to bail them out and how and just maybe I’ll be able to get a good start on a nice massive heart attack.
Maybe I need to approach this like the other important first times in my life. Nearly universally, it was scary and kind of thrilling. Also, I was generally incompetent and a bunch of stuff happened I never ever want to tell my parents about. Those all seemed to work out OK. Maybe mass-murdering the wish-fulfilling alter egos of all my friends under hundreds of tons of rock will too.