Player Advice: How to Avoid Looming Disaster

TPKs rarely just happen. Normally, the party gets at least several rounds warning beforeĀ things go horribly wrong. What should they do?

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


I’ve blogged before about TPKs (Total Party Kills) and how a GM should deal with them. What I haven’t done before is talk about how the PCs can avoid such a catastrophic end to their adventuring careers. Assuming the PCs get some warning of their impending doom they can pursue one of four basic strategies:

  • Bribery: If you can’t run away and you don’t want to surrender, bribery is a great choice. Paying your enemies to go away is a time-honoured tactic and there is no reason it won’t work on your foes – particularly if they are not your mortal enemies. Some enemies might covet gold or magic, while others may be satisfied with food. Still others might demand a service of the party for letting them go. All these options are better than dying.
  • Fight On: The party may choose to fight on. If they do so, though, they should fight hard. This means pulling out all those one-shot items saved for an emergency and using them! It’s always better to expend equipment than to actually die – sometimes this gets forgotten (particularly in games which focus on wealth by character level). if you fight hard and you still die, at least you gave it your best shot.
  • Run Away: If things look grim, the party can always run away. Extricating the entire group from combat can be tricky and so everyone needs to be on-board with this strategy. Sometimes, a heroic party member will stay behind to hold off their enemies while the others escape. Alternatively, scattering loot or food behind you as you flee is a good way of slowing down pursuit.
  • Surrender: PCs almost never use this option. Nevertheless, surrender is a viable option if you want to live to fight another day. Sometimes, PCs are reluctant to surrender because subconsciously they know what they do to those falling into their hands! (And hell, the party are good-aligned, imagine what the evil villain will do to them…) PCs that surrender are rarely killed out of hand. Their foes may imprison them for ransom, save them for a starring role in an upcoming religious ceremony or sell them into slavery. Assuming they are not killed outright, PCs that surrender normally have a chance to escape and to turn the tables on their foes before their doom is upon them.

Help Fellow Gamers!

Have you almost had a TPK recently? How did you dodge it? Let us know in the comments below and hopefully you might help other brave adventurers dodge a terrible fate!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

6 thoughts on “Player Advice: How to Avoid Looming Disaster”

  1. Ransom. This was fairly common in early RuneQuest games. Allocate a chunk of money as your ransom, deposit it at a bank and, when about to be defeated, yell, ‘My ransom is XYZgp’ and hope your potential captor speaks the same language.

  2. I love the options you give. I think the best thing players can do to avoid a TPK is to not panic. In the past (25 years ago?) I GMed a party wipe of low-level characters (2nd level average). The group was not out-classed by the band of ghouls they were fighting, they just paniced. They started in a decent defensive position defending the doorway (a natural choke point) of the large room they had taken refuge in. But when one of the warriors at the doorway missed their saving throw & got paralyzed, everyone else refused to step up to plug the hole. They began to panic and stopped moving their characters at all! Just standing there & letting the ghouls into the room (I was literally the only one moving any figures on the battle map for the rest of the fight). They were scattered around a bit but easily could have mounted an assault to drive the ghouls back. They just gave up & stopped trying to move at all. Every player just waited for the monsters to come & attack their characters. It was like the players had been paralyzed! Slowly the characters began to fall, either to damage or by being paralyzed. No one even tried to help each other! It was like “every PC for themselves”, except they didn’t even try to flee, no movement at all as I said. It was as if they all decided to stop trying at the exact same moment. I have never seen anything like it before or since. So my advice is do not panic! Keep trying! Keep moving! Keep thinking! Use some of the options given in the article above!

  3. I ran a game recently where we almost had a TPK. I threw some mutated animal/human hybrids at the party in a Mutants & Masterminds game. The dice just went completely against the party. If you’ve played M&M, you know how quickly a few bad rounds can swing a fight. One by one the party dropped until the last one decided to run and realized that he moved faster then the hybrids and could literally move and attack while they had to double move just to get close to him. The thing is, all of the party members could have done that; but it never occurred to them to not stand toe to tow with the hybrids.

    The moral is: Observe your enemy. Learn their weakness. Adapt.

  4. Arise Thread!

    Once they hit mid levels, I always encourage my players to save one spell/scroll/item that can help them escape. This usually comes in the form of one of the various wall spells (I prefer wall of ice) but the same thing can be accomplished at low levels with burning oil or caltrops. The use of illusion magic is also handy for hiding and escaping. Thus the PC’s can manufacture time to heal and recover or run away if necessary.

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