False TPKs

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

This selection comes from B2 The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax (page 14):

RANSOMING PRISONERS: Organized tribes can optionally be allowed to take player characters prisoner, freeing one to return to the KEEP in order to bring a ransom back to free the captives. Set the sums low – 10 to 100 gold pieces (or a magic item which the ransoming monsters would find useful) per prisoner. If the ransom is paid, allow the characters to go free. Then, without telling the players, assume that this success brought fame to the capturing monsters, so their numbers will be increased by 2-12 additional members, and the tribe will also be very careful to watch for a return of the adventurers seeking revenge for their humiliating captivity. The period of extra alertness will last for 1-4 weeks; the increase in numbers is permanent.

I am not in favor of all combats being deadly, even when the conflict is with agents of chaos. Cultists need live sacrifices, brigands need information about future targets, and everyone could reasonably desire gold from ransoms. Maybe live human is a goblin delicacy. But more important than narrative or naturalistic justifications, games where loosing a fight does not always mean a total party kill are more interesting and varied.

However, this must be handled carefully. I strive to be an impartial referee, so unless there has been some very dramatic development during the course of a fight, I default to assuming that monsters are using deadly force. In other words, the key to fair play is deciding beforehand what the priorities of the opponents are. I also try to seed the environment with clues where appropriate so that skillful play and engagement with the setting can be rewarded. I never want “waking up captured” to be used to save a party of adventurers. The monsters are either seeking to kill or capture, and I will try to play them appropriately based on their priorities. Some way of tying this to the encounter reaction roll might be reasonable too, for cases where preplanning (random encounters, limited time) are not possible.

Because I believe in giving players information about the consequences of their actions, I would also try to make sure that the players understand what was going on. Otherwise, how can they make informed decisions in the future? Perhaps the tribe starts putting up recruiting posters advertising the fact that they defeated the fearsome adventuring party. Much referee advice suggests that players should learn from their experiences, but if there is no way for the players to connect cause to effect, they are more likely to just assume that developments are by referee fiat or based on dice. Many players by default assume that the referee just does whatever they hell they feel like at any given time (“rocks fall, everyone dies”), so I believe it is worthwhile to spend extra effort countering this assumption.

6 thoughts on “False TPKs

  1. Desert Scribe

    There are a couple of ways to handle the capture of party members with and without house rules:

    First, even by the book there are nonlethal traps, like the pit trap with the trap door that closes or nets to immobilize a party. There is also the event in which the party is severely outmatched and told to “surrender or die”–or if a fight is going badly characters can always surrender and plead for mercy (which monsters should grant unless the adventurers have been showing no quarter themselves).

    Second, you could adopt a house rule like the Hill Cantons “Death or Dismemberment Table” for when a character’s hit points reach zero. Just allow for the possibility of unconsciousness for several turns and waking up with 1 hp. Since D&D combat and hit points are abstract, this seems like a fair way to present the possibility of being defeated yet not killed.

    1. Brendan

      I run B/X with save versus death ray at 0 HP for dying. If the save is made, the PC was knocked unconscious rather than killed. However, monsters would still need a reason not to kill all the unconscious PCs after a fight (assuming all PCs were killed, knocked unconscious, or fled). I imagine in some cases they would not be noticed (and would wake up on the battlefield later, using a mechanic like this). But it seems reasonable that many monsters would finish the job (eat them, make sure they are dead, whatever). So I need some methods to decide impartially what the monsters might do. I mean, I don’t always want the orcs (or whatever) to let the PCs go.

  2. Peter

    For B2 and situations like it, just add “The humanoids in the caves like to take prisoners for ransom” or “The humanoids will accept real surrender and sell you back to the Keep” to the rumor table. Or have some hirelings at the Keep tell them that automatically – “Oh, raiding the caves? Only fair, they raid us for prisoners. Hire me, I was a prisoner of the orcs twice and got ransomed back.”

    As for letting them know about the recruits, well, have their captors tell them. “Bwahahaha, you am stupid! Now we sell you to Keep for 50 gp. Now everyone know we am great! more orcs am come here and join Yellow Eyesnot tribe! You come back soon foolish man!”

  3. John Bell

    One thing I’ve started to look for in almost any combat system that I’ll use these days is a way to incapacitate opponents that doesn’t involve killing them. I even changed my Swords and Wizardry combat rules to make that happen (PCs don’t auto-die at 0 HP). I try to avoid parallel subsystems like subdual damage in D&D 3.x and make it another step on the way to death. I find that doing this allows the PCs to deal with opponents in ways other than just murdering them, and as you noted, it allows me to have the PCs be defeated without an instant TPK.


Leave a Reply