Character Deaths and TPKs in Dungeons and Dragons

During my recent Friday 2nd Edition D&D game one of the PCs died through no fault of his own.

He died because a different party member went off on their own to explore the dungeon solo. This is an inherently deadly problem. What if you run into something that you cannot handle on your own?

The kind of monster that can potentially kill a character with only 2 or 3 hits, and is pretty good at hitting.

This is what happened on Friday.

  1. While one PC was changing into new plate mail armour (which takes about 10 rounds to do) the party cleric went off to explore on their own in a haunted keep.
  2. They encountered a ghost, one of the biggest monsters within the keep, which ages a target 10 to 40 years per successful hit. (A character hit multiple times can potentially die from old age.)
  3. After they heard screaming, the party rushed to help the cleric... but one of their best fighters was still changing into his new armour.
  4. The disorganized party isn't able to work effectively because they were not prepared for this fight. They are split even when they do leap into action.
  5. The cleric cast Sanctuary, effectively protecting themselves from the ghost.
  6. The ghost proceeded to attack one of the bigger fighters in the party who was closest. They scored two hits, aging the fighter for 40 years each time.
  7. The biggest fighter died at the age of 105 years old, going from age 25 to 105 in mere minutes.
  8. The party later defeated the ghost, but they have suffered a horrific and unnecessary loss.

The ghost encounter is meant to be a hard battle, but if the entire party is present and prepared they should suffer minimal damage / aging.

But when you add splitting the party to the mix, suddenly that encounter becomes deadly.

Hence the saying (and the song):

"Never split the party."

The same player unfortunately bore the brunt of a similar incident a month ago when the party failed to navigate a lava fissure. They were using a safety rope, with someone with an 18 Strength holding the rope... But they character jumping over the lava fissure failed their jump check, and the PC holding the safety rope failed their Strength check to hold the rope. The chances of them both failing was one in 200, so highly unlikely (0.5%), but when it comes to deadly hazards people should be far more cautious.

Ask yourself, would YOU get on an airplane that has a 0.5% chance of crashing and killing you? Of course not. It is an unnecessary risk. But in Dungeons and Dragons players often assume they will be just fine and that the odds are in their favour, which it was, but eventually your luck can run out.

Now there are other ways the party could have have solved this particular terrain hazard.

  1. Tie the rope to a door handle. A solid door would bear the weight of the person jumping no problem.
  2. Build a bridge over the lava fissure. (I ran this dungeon once before and this is what the other party did. They used wood from broken wine barrels to build a bridge.)
  3. Solve the problem using magic. Possibly by using a spell like Stone Shape or something similar to build a bridge.
  4. Any number of other methods.

But these things happen sometimes when adventuring parties take unnecessary risks.

I am reminded of a different game from about a decade ago when the party was climbing an icy mountain, and they split the party and tried climbing it using different routes up the mountain occupied by baddies. So not only were they dealing with dangerous icy falls, there were enemies attacking them, and they split the party. Three characters died that day because they didn't take precautions (using ropes/etc) and they split the party. It was nearly a party wipe.

What I have learned however is that when you run a deadly campaign it brings out the problem solving in the group where every hazard and obstacle is dealt with more finesse, and splitting the party eventually becomes a rarity. Sometimes there are hiccups when the party makes a mistake...

Like failing to rest before running into a boss fight, and that can lead to PCs dying or even a TPK (the failing to rest example I am thinking of did lead to a TPK). When a party gets a chance to rest, and they're not in a hurry, they should always rest - even within a dungeon. Especially before a boss fight.

The failing to rest before a boss fight thing could always happen again too. All it takes is for the majority of the party to say "Yeah, let's keep going. We don't need to rest right now."

That is one of those mistakes players will make when they're low on hit points, low on spells, but they are not taking the danger seriously. Possibly because they've never had a TPK before.

For those who don't know a TPK stands for Total Party Kill. Everyone dies.

TPKs are very rare.

In order for a TPK to happen the DM needs to be running a deadly campaign (not pulling any punches or bending the rules to make sure the PCs survive) and the party needs to collectively make a huge mistake. Eg. Not resting to recuperate, rushing into a den of vampires unprepared, attacking something they know is too big for them to handle, etc.

So I think the party needs to have a chat about this issue. Everyone knows I run a deadly campaign, but now that they know that and have seen 2 character deaths in one month they need to start planning out their actions more carefully.

That doesn't mean they cannot take unnecessary risks, but there are such a thing as mitigating those risks. Eg. If the cleric hadn't wandered off, that would have been a much better solution. Alternatively, if the cleric really wanted to go off on their own they should have cast Sanctuary first... But even then that would be putting themselves at risk for traps or other hazards, and was not a guaranteed protection against monsters.

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