The Total Party Kill I Remember Best

I occasionally think of myself as a “Killer DM” – you’ll find it on my profile at RPG Geek, for instance. However, when you get down to it, I don’t kill that many player characters. The fact is, I’m far more interested in seeing how the story plays out, and it’s hard to have a story when everyone’s dead.

Thus, upon hearing my players last night planning to continue exploring the goblin cave despite some of the first-level party being wounded and no-one in the party having healing magic left, I stepped in and suggested they might want to rest. I didn’t enforce it, but the party (luckily) saw the light and went to rest.

However, when a player persists in Really Foolish Behaviour and ignores all the signals, I can get quite annoyed and the gloves come off.

I’ve had about three or four Total Party Kills (that is, a situation where every character in the party dies) in my Dungeon Mastering career. The most memorable of these came in the early days of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons – about 2001. The group had wandered away from the main storyline I’d designed, and I was filling in with a prewritten adventure. The climax of the adventure came as these low-level characters faced an ettin in the dungeon. As I recall, the original plan for the adventure was that the adventurers were meant to talk to the ettin instead of fighting it. However, this didn’t go as planned.

The players were smart enough to realise that fighting an ettin was going to be dangerous, so they came up with a plan: One of the adventurers would engage the ettin in melee while everyone else stood back and launched missile weapons at it.

They hadn’t taken into account one thing, though: Under the rules at the time, if you had an ally in melee with your target, your ranged attacks suffered a -4 penalty on the attack roll unless you had special training (a feat) which no-one had. That’s a significant penalty. The ettin was also gaining an Armour Class bonus due to the cover the ally was providing. So, this meant the ally in melee was the only one with a realistic chance of hitting. Unfortunately, the ettin had a far more realistic chance of hitting and dealing damage, and so shortly after this strategy was put into effect, the ettin hit and slew the adventurer unlucky enough to be in melee.

This is the point at which I, as a player, would run away, realising that we didn’t have a chance. This is not what this group did.

A second character ran up to melee the ettin while the rest launched missile weapons at the ettin. We got the same result. A lot of missed ranged attacks, and one dead adventurer.

You can see what happens next, don’t you? They didn’t run away. A third character, and then a fourth, charged into melee!

Shortly thereafter, only one adventurer was left alive. He was at range, and had a good chance to escape. (I tend to let characters escape when they run; it enables intelligent play). Instead, he chose to run into melee with the ettin, and I shortly thereafter achieved a TPK.

There’s a form of mass-madness that overcomes players at time, where they’re convinced that despite the odds, they’ll be able to succeed. Sometimes we, as DMs, can point out that there are better strategies. However, when the party insists – and keeps insisting – that they deserve a TPK, it isn’t our place to argue with them, but just to give them what they want.

As it happened, there was one player who missed that session. He returned the next week, to discover everyone sitting there with new characters. He was a little surprised!

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3 Responses to The Total Party Kill I Remember Best

  1. Callan says:

    Sunk cost fallacy? Like a gambler trying to make back the money they lost, the party tries to make back the members who died? Or like suicide by cop, suicide by Ettin? The character just can’t stand to go back without the others?

  2. A low-level prewritten 3E adventure where you talk to an Ettin…This wasn’t, perchance, The Ettin’s Riddle was it?

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