A very Gygaxian TPK

It has been a while since we had a proper TPK in the online Coup campaign. Maybe this is the first? We have had deaths, sure.

The campaign has split into two online branches; the main branch adventures in the Gnarley woods under one game master, and when they are unavailable, we have been playing adventures of Frida the witch to find Doraldina (art assembled by Eero Tuovinen), the oracle of Zagyg, who could tell where a captured elven princess might be found. This all is taking place in Castle Greyhawk, an interpretation of Gygax’s venerable megadungeon. Some of the upper areas are by Gygax, the lower areas by another author, as far as I know. At the moment we are solidly in the upper, Gygaxian areas.

We have had several close calls in the dungeons. Going only with a group of four or so characters, two at second level and others at first, is not safe when there are ten frogmen, sneaky giant spiders and hostile gnolls living in the random encounter tables. The dungeon has essentially no treasure, so we do not have the means to easily hire the ten or so hirelings with spears that would be ideal, so we go without. We have finally found the oracle, though one character was killed by gnolls (and the player made a new one and rejoined the party).

The oracle is bound into an anachronistic gambling game of the type a mad archmage would enjoy: put a gold piece in and a random effect comes out; sometimes nothing, often a few gold pieces, sometimes an answer to the question posed. We have gotten the answers we were after and have gotten gold pieces (and thereby trivial amounts of experience points) out, too. Fridswid, being good-hearted, also wants to know how to release the oracle, who is supposed to be a real person cruelly imprisoned and bound by the creepy, old and lecherous magic user. A random second level spell comes out; mirror image, nice but useless, but a warning that the thing can be dangerous and spit out random second level spells. We can probably take one of those, sure, (there is a risk someone dies, but not a huge one) and this being on the upper levels of the dungeon, the threat level seems reasonable.

The player most eager to play, a new one, does not wait for the others, but pays to the oracle again and again. A random sixth (!) level spell; death spell. Outright kills 4d20 characters of first or second level in a large area, no save or anything. There goes the party.

The relatively new player is sorry and miffed; others are okay, which we repeatedly confirmed with the new player who was quite surprised by everyone just dying like that. Frida had a bunch of campaign positioning and some experience, too. She was the only one actively going for rescuing Sarana and next we would have had a nice opportunity to tangle with a dragon in the astral space, but no, not this time, say the dice and our risk-taking. Saad Man, with more experience (and a more experienced player) had a nice devil face shield that had saved us several times already, and was on the brink of third level; but not this time, either. And one player managed to lose two characters a session, which is always an achievement.

I am not sure there is much more to say; that loss can happen, and we can see where it came from, is what keeps the game real and the achievements worth anything, but it is certainly not what one wants to happen during any given session. Had we been a bit more awake, we would at least have split the party so that only a single character or a few would have been messing with the oracle. This was our greatest blunder here, but easy to make when the session is getting close to the end and the risk is unknown, just vaguely guessed at.

4 responses to “A very Gygaxian TPK”

  1. Replacements

    So what are the parameters of a new character coming in to replace a deceased one? Do they join just out of the ether or does the DM provide some context for the character's arrival? Are they brand new characters at 1st level or do they have some experience.

    That oracle machine sounds fun. And deadly.

    • The first priority is that

      The first priority is that players always have the right to play.

      The second priority is that we do not want to disrupt the tactical or the strategic context.

      So what happens generally, and what happened here, is that the player makes a new character (or digs one up from their stable) and they join in when the others are not in the middle of a fight or similar. Some player, or why not the game master, might offer some context as to why they are there, but this is not a high priority for us. The characters build up campaign positioning through play if they survive; for now, and with a new character, we would rather continue player than hear about their backstory. But a sentence or two are completely fine, and even encouraged.

      There might be some situations where introducing a character would break the scenario that has been established; maybe the characters are imprisoned or otherwise can not really get reinforcements. In such cases we would figure out how to still respect the player's right to play while also respecting the situation. These are not too frequent.

      Also, the player has the right to play, but not the right to play whichever character. When the group was on a mountain with a handful of hirelings and a couple of local guides, and half of the player characters retreated to take one character to safety, those players made new characters primarily from amoung the hirelings and guides – ranger, forester soldier, that type of thing. Also, when one of my characters died in a dungeon, I got to play the vaunted dungeon badger for the rest of the session.

      All characters start with zero experience and practically all characters start at first level. Starting at another level might be possible due to fictional circumstance; maybe you take over your henchman that is higher level, for example. But no unearned experience, ever. Experience is a scoring device.

  2. Death is a possibility if you

    Death is a possibility if you accept an emerging experience that random elements contribute to yield. Such circumstances could happen and are part of the game —  as you said, sych circumstances make the game meaningful.

    I'm curious about how the new player has felt after the accident. Sad? Concerned? Surprised?

    And what about you as a referee? Why do you feel that you shouldn't see such events happening? You have acted as a fair referee — that is a prerequisite of this flavour of dungeon-crawling games focused on loot and resource management.

    Had we been a bit more awake, we would at least have split the party so that only a single character or a few would have been messing with the oracle. This was our greatest blunder here, but easy to make when the session is getting close to the end and the risk is unknown, just vaguely guessed at.

    Here you find what I regard the most interesting part of this game in comparison of other ways to play RPGs: not only the character improves, but the players together with them. A 1st level character manouvered by an expert player is more effective than a naive player manouvering a 8th level character in a reckless way. This is extremely positive: players'll avoid next time to make such a mistake!

    • (I was a player here, not the

      (I was a player here, not the referee.)

      The newish player (with on the order of five to ten partial sessions of experience by this point, I guess) was mostly for those of us who missed our established characters.

      The referee, too, was not happy, mostly because the establihsed and experienced characters died, and we are playing to see what high level, even name level, D&D (of this particular wargamey type) is like; thus we are a few experienced characters farther from the goal, again. I think «not happy» is a completely usual emotional state one can experience when playing a roleplaying game, so no problem here.

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