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Troy’s Crock Pot: A Little Thing Called the TPK

What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.

Death-proofed PCs

Everything I’d heard about Fourth Edition D&D was how hard it was to kill first-level characters — they’re resilient, they’re loaded with offensive capabilities and they’ve got a batch of hit points. If that’s true, they’re probably Troy-proof. It’s unlikely I’ll kill a single PC when I take a turn behind the DM screen for a crack at the new game.

Well, that’s what I told myself.

My hobgoblin longbow is awesome

I see no reason why a second hobgoblin archer should gain a +2 attack bonus on an identical target if his fellow archer scores a hit — but that’s the rule. To all the PCs I skewered this way, I’m sorry.

To Kill a Marking Bird

I kind of like this marking ability, but for the life of me I can’t keep the marked opponents clear from the unmarked ones — and we’re using minis! (That’s because I love minis!) First thing Wizards of the Coast needs to do is produce a game aid — some kind of disk or chit — that lets me indicate which minis are marked. And they need to do it fast. (Otherwise, I may be forced to house rule marking to games rule oblivion.) I want to avoid conversations like: 

PC: This one’s the one I marked with my paladin’s Divine Challenge.

DM: You mean that one over there. 

PC: No, no, this one over here.

DM: I could’ve sworn you said that other one, instead. 

PC: No, I was clearly pointing at this one. 

DM: Whatever …. he’s marked. And he will attack the wizard.

PC: For attacking someone else, he takes damage. That should be enough to kill him.

DM:  You’re right. He’s dead. And that means this entire exchange was for nothing. Who’s turn is it next?

Spending Your XP budget

I built every encounter according to Encounter Components formula on pages 56-57 in the DMG. No more Challenge Ratings, just figure out the XP for a typical encounter appropriate to five PCs of that level and plug in the monsters until you reach your target. Easy as pie. In fact, this system makes designing encounters go very quick.

So what happens when the PCs forge ahead, and the monsters from the first encounter sorta get rolled into the batch of monsters lined up for the second encounter?  You get a giant melee on the first floor of the watchtower against which first-level characters are clearly overmatched.

It was a slaughter, plainly put. The hobgoblin soldier, his goblin minions and the goblin sharpshooters proved to be too much. Heck, the hobgoblin archers from the first encounter really didn’t even enter the fray — and the minions were too busy fighting over the dead tiefling’s backpack like some strange “Dora The Explorer” episode (Backpack! Backpack!) to be a factor, either. 

Total Party Kill. Right out of the gate. And I played fair, darnit!

Clearly some adjustments are in order.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: A Little Thing Called the TPK"

#1 Comment By Jonathan Drain On June 26, 2008 @ 3:33 am

This is something I’ve heard; trying to push ahead and fight multiple groups at once is more deadly now.

A level 1 encounter is 500XP, or five standard monsters. Ten standard monsters is 1000XP, a level 5 encounter. In other words, the game fully expects that “pushing ahead” will get you swiftly killed.

The solution is not to push ahead when you’re currently facing a credible threat and don’t know what might be through the next door.

#2 Comment By Rafe On June 26, 2008 @ 5:41 am

Go buy a stack of wafer-thin foam, multi-coloured. Cut them into 1″ squares (and a few 2″x2″ ones for large critters) and hand them out to the PCs. Give each PC a different colour, plus 1 black square and 1 red square. The black indicates hurt, the red indicates bloodied. The other squares are for marking, divine challenge, hunter’s quarry, warlock curse, etc.

It cost my DM $10 for a stack (which is all he needed). Got them at Wal-Mart, I think. Works like a breeze.

#3 Comment By samhaine On June 26, 2008 @ 6:17 am

I bought a bunch of colored paperclips and bent them into circles: a bunch of red for Bloodied and then a few of each other color for marks. They’re pretty easy to toss over the target even when it’s in the middle of a melee, though they’re less than ideal if you need to remove one specific one on a target that’s Bloodied and marked by several people (a defender mark, warlock curse, hunter quarry, etc.).

#4 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 26, 2008 @ 6:43 am

The early buzz suggested to me, as well, that 4E PCs would be harder to kill. The experience of Worldwide D&D Game Day seemed to prove otherwise. Our group finished the adventure, but we were apparently in rare company. There was a young DM in a Slytherin T-shirt who seemed -really- happy about the TPK she was in the middle of scoring…

#5 Comment By Ish On June 26, 2008 @ 8:13 am

I use paper or cardboard tokens (which I prefer for monsters over miniatures) and too mark them, I use colored paperclips.

Fighter A marks “red,” Fighter B marks “green,” and the Warlork marks “yellow.” Make every player keep a clip attached to the character sheet (or better still, try to match a PC’s mini with the color. Red tunic on the paladin? Red clips!)

Given how easy the internet makes it to find pictures of various monsters, and how ubiquitous color printers are these days, I’ve never been able to understand why peopel freak out about the need for minis.

#6 Comment By itliaf On June 26, 2008 @ 9:47 am

While I was not able to kill anybody, my first total party knockout was surprisingly easy. Granted it was the second 4e encounter ever for a few of my players. The problem with bleeding encounters together seems inherent to the system, since the design assumes the party walks into their second encounter of the day with roughly 90% of the capabilities they had in the first. The question is, do you make it clear to the players that they best stick to the encounter area at a time, or let them learn the hard way?

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 26, 2008 @ 9:48 am

Jonathan said: The solution is not to push ahead when you’re currently facing a credible threat and don’t know what might be through the next door.

I’ll pass that along to the party’s rogue. 😉 He’s the one who pushed through to the next encounter.

Rafe said: Go buy a stack of wafer-thin foam, multi-coloured. Cut them into 1″ squares (and a few 2″x2″ ones for large critters) and hand them out to the PCs.

What a simple, but elegant solution. I’ll have to try it.

Ish said: Given how easy the internet makes it to find pictures of various monsters, and how ubiquitous color printers are these days, I’ve never been able to understand why peopel freak out about the need for minis.

My love for minis is irrational, I know. But it’s there all the same. But I’m old school. I love to paint the metal (lead if I can get it … just kidding there). There’s something about the tactile nature of a three-dimension representation of a monster or character in skirmish combat. It really adds something.

It’s also a toy. And you know gamers and their toys …

Itliaf says: The question is, do you make it clear to the players that they best stick to the encounter area at a time, or let them learn the hard way?

I’m hoping that the first TPK taught that lesson. If the second TPK doesn’t clue them in, I might have that conversation then.

It’s like the old table rule about splitting the party. Sure, it’s OK to split the party. Nothing in the rules speaks against it. And sometimes it can make for some interesting parallel encounters. But mostly, what happens now is that when someone suggests they split up, a chorus replies in unison: “Don’t split the party!”

Experience is a great teacher.

#8 Comment By brcarl On June 26, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

This marking thing seems ripe for being handled on-line via the promised D&D Insider-exclusive Game Board (or whatever they’re calling it).

Sadly, that solution will only work if you have either a) a LAN-party style table where everyone has laptops, or b) one of those fancy (expensive!) projector set-ups. 🙁

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 26, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

I think of that foam material as “craft foam,” but I don’t know if it has an official name. We buy ours at a craft store, and it’s cheap as well as easy to cut and work with. I’d never considered using it for marks, etc. but that’s a great idea — especially making it square, since it will automatically be visible under a circular mini base.

I also dig the idea of colored paperclip hoops. Nearly every mini has something projecting from it you can dangle a hoop on, and you wouldn’t have to move any figures to get at it (like you would to slide something under a mini).

The commercial solution is magnetic, stackable markers from [1]. They’re nice (I’ve fiddled with them at GenCon), but both craft foam and paperclips will be a lot cheaper. 😉

#10 Comment By Micah On June 27, 2008 @ 11:56 am

I had a lot of trouble keeping all the modifiers, marked characters, and such straight from round to round. Most effects seem to only last one round, but there sure are a lot of effects.

I was starting to get used to this at high levels in 3.5, but it’s there right at the beginning for 4e. I found it very daunting. I suppose it doesn’t get worse as characters level though, since most high level effects still only last a round. Contrast that to 3.5 where in any high level battle you’ve got a dozen or more long-lasting effects that factor into every roll.

#11 Comment By drow On June 27, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

find a hardware store, buy some 1″ wooden dowel, slice into thin disks, and paint them in pretty colours.

my FLGS sells these for a couple of dimes. i’ve been using them already in my 3e game to mark flying characters, burning monsters, and so forth.

#12 Comment By megasycophant On June 30, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

try skinny colored postits. if necessary, write details on them. if you’re miserly, get larger ones and cut them yourself (I’d recommend a papercutter)

#13 Comment By darkinertia On July 1, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

I folded index cards in half and wrote all the status effects (dazed, stunned, weakened, etc.) and their game mechanics on each card. When a player is affected by a power that would affect them with one of these debuffs, I pass them the card and they stand it up in front of them. I also attach a paper clip to the card to indicate when the effect fades (yellow = save ends, green = end of monster’s next turn, etc.). When the effect fades, they hand the card back to me.

#14 Comment By Hautamaki On July 7, 2008 @ 5:15 am

Our party hasn’t really come that close to TPK yet. So far, in about 6 serious encounters, we’ve only had one guy knocked unconscious. But then again, our party plays the encounters really cautiously and smart, and definitely doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. I think one of the ideas of 4e was to bring more intelligence and strategy to the battles. Parties that play smart, use their abilities wisely, come up with good plans, and never bite off more than they can chew without an excellent plan or at least an escape route will probably never get into danger unless the DM is trying to kill them.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 7, 2008 @ 8:47 am

We came perilously close to a TPK in our first 4e game this past weekend. Poor planning led us to roll three encounters into one — one of which was a boss fight — thus creating a 6th level encounter for 1st level characters.

Towards the end of the fight, we had the cleric and rogue dying, the warlock at 1 hp, the fighter (me) at about 15 hp and a boss who hadn’t been bloodied yet. Both surviving PCs had spent our Second Winds and all our daily and encounter powers, and our one healing potion was gone.

A string of bad boss rolls, followed by a stabilization of one PC and the the NPC rolling a 20 and popping back up after I went down, enabled the warlock and the rogue to train the boss around the map while plinking away at him.

It was the most tense and closest combat I’ve ever played, and one of the most fun overall — made all the more fun because we shouldn’t have lived and we did. 😉

#16 Comment By jr37 On July 21, 2008 @ 8:39 am

I ran the little adventure included at the back of the DMG for my group. Final encounter: A dragon (albeit a little one), encounter level 3… theoretically less challenging than the encounter level 4 fight that had preceded it. Played the dragon in combat by the adventure’s recommendations, TPK in two rounds. Six first level characters, all dead, very unhappy party.
Fine, let’s rewind. I ignored the adventure’s recommendations on the dragon’s strategy, played him intentionally ‘not-too-bright’.
Six characters dead, five rounds. Party most unhappy, DM not happy. All went and made themselves good stout drinks. A strong bourbon’s worth of calm later, I was ready to try yet again.
Wimped out the stupid dragon, made him even stupider, forgot half his attacks, fudged damage on the rest.
Dragon dead, two characters left standing, declared moral victory over whomever wrote the blasted adventure and closed up the session before it started to resemble a land war in Southeast Asia.

#17 Comment By John G. On March 22, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

Regarding “easy ways to ‘mark’ NPCs”: Many of my 4E-playing friends use the plastic rings from jugs of milk or juice ( the plastic that is left over when you twist off the cap).

They’re free and easy to use: just drop them on the mini like a hula hoop. Of course, it gets quite entertaining when the NPC has 3 or more effects on it…

#18 Comment By gugliacci On March 21, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

Beer bottle caps seem to make perfect mini markers, as the circular bases fit exactly inside one turned upside-down. My guys drink different enough beers that we’ll have a few colors if we need to mark more than one condition. And there seem to always be plenty lying around, for some reason…

#19 Comment By AsenRG On March 14, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

TPK, never got what’s the big deal.