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I've gotten into a situation in my Pathfinder game where I will certainly kill my entire party (perhaps excepting one or two who can flee quickly) if I let the situation play out. We arrived in this situation since I underestimated a monster, and it quickly proved both more powerful and more resilient than I expected to be. Because this was my mistake and not either the players or luck I don't intend to kill the players, but there is no obvious way out, and I'd rather not resort to obvious Divine Intervention or other Deus Ex Machina.

How can I get my players out of a bad situation without leaving a sore spot in the story? What techniques can I use at the table to make this less painful for the GM and the players?


Specific Background:

The party was returning from adventure where they lost one of their members to bad luck and bad tactics. They were traveling through a forest where they met a Gatekeeper druid (new party member) being chased by some evil fey which they destroy. He tells them he was chased away from a gate to the bad part of Thelanis by the fey, and agrees to help them find their way. They decide to help him close the gate because it's a good thing to do. They kill the minor fey and plants guarding the gate, but I threw in a WitchFire (Pathfinder Bestiary 2, CR9, Incorporeal Undead) disguised as a captured nymph. The WitchFire quickly downed the fighter and took out one of the sorcerers as well (no one died yet). The next obvious target would be the cleric, but I'm fairly sure attacking him would lead to the demise of the party. When I threw in the Witchfire it was largely off the cuff ("Won't this be cool!") and I underestimated both it's offense, and the party's unpreparedness for incorporeal undead.

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Related to : Total Party Kill - What do I do as a GM?, but not the same, as in this situation the problem was the GM's fault. –  C. Ross Mar 6 '12 at 14:51
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Revenants, revenants everywhere. –  Khaal Mar 6 '12 at 15:17
    
+1 for the use of d.e.m.! –  DForck42 Mar 6 '12 at 16:23
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@LordScree Or with Vampires involved, undead. –  C. Ross Mar 8 '12 at 13:30
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The first time I had this problem, I had thrown a troll at a group of level 3's. His regeneration and sheer brute-hood all but killed them. So, I nerfed him. All his attacks started dealing less damage, and he started taking more, with me playing it off like the thing had just gotten really lucky. I'm not sure if anyone has suggested this yet, or if it's even a good answer, but that's how I did it, and everyone had fun. –  Zach Dec 1 '12 at 9:04
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10 Answers

A witchfire sometimes spawns upon the death of a hag, when one of these savage crones dies with some terrible plot unfinished or simply proves too maliciously tenacious to succumb to death’s grasp. (Source)

You say "TPK"; I say you have just been handed the perfect opportunity to invent a terrible unfinished plot that just so happens to require the PC's being alive and held as captives.

If it helps, cackle evilly and break out the A-Team quotes when you take down the last PC. The players don't need to know you made this all up since the previous session.

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+1, Great idea! (Note: the witchfire only needs to hold enough PCs captive in order to (believe it can) compel the rest to do the Witchfire's bidding.) –  Ichoran Mar 7 '12 at 8:08
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+1 for solving the problem in context, and using the official documentation to do so. –  Joshua Drake Mar 7 '12 at 14:10
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Similar to the Barrow Wight from lord of the rings, it defeats the hobbits but instead of killing them straight away it takes them back to its Barrow. You could do something similar to that (but without Tom Bombadil shudder) –  Macona Mar 8 '12 at 9:50
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Out of game

How about saying: "Guys, I messed up and that monster is way too hard. How about we re-wind the session till just before the combat and start with the same monster but correctly stated this time?" ...

In game

There are no mistakes, just opportunities.

Kill them. Now, they are all ghosts -- apart the one(s) that escaped and they have to re-claim their bodies. Why, maybe that +1 sword/staff/shield/gizmo that they picked up is in fact a gate to the undead realms and has summoned them across? Maybe the monster sole purpose is to create ghost (why? Who set that up?). Make their death part of the story. But make sure there is a point and a price. Weave the error into your story and make it a more enjoyable game for all.

A bit of both...

Of course, asking they players which option they prefer (clearly without spoiling things) is maybe the more mature way of doing handling it.

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This is an interesting problem, that I've run into a few times but haven't solved yet. Here's some of my observations on it, in case they help.

The first thing to understand is that you can't do this without Deus Ex Machina. The "rules" that are established in most campaigns are that antagonists will press an advantage as long as they have the upper hand, and that characters below zero hit points who are left unattended perish. Any sudden deviation from that expected model will be Deus Ex Machina, by definition.

What's needed here is a way to make the DEM grate a bit less on the players.

Telling the Players

Your first consideration is whether or not to tell the rest of the group what happened. If you do, I'd recommend just asking to rewind time and start the encounter over (in a more balanced form). This erases it from the "story," and puts a more mechanical spin on the "saving." However, some groups are very set against this. It also means you have to redesign encounter components that rely on trickery.

If you don't think you're going to get a lot of mileage out of admitting your mistake to the group, or if you're dead set on digging yourself out of the problem in a continuous narrative, keep your mouth shut. Telling the players that you're actively working to save them does nothing more than shine a colossal spotlight on your DEM, making its faults stand out.

Obvious Outs

Sometimes you get very lucky, and the creature in question has a known "out" for overly tough encounters (such as dragging victims back to a cave to be dined on later). It doesn't happen often, but it's worth checking on. It'll still feel like DEM, but at least you'll have something in print to say "no, really guys. That's how it's supposed to work."

Death is Only the Beginning

Continuing the campaign after the point of death (as suggested by Sardathrion) can work really well. In this case the DEM is a necessary contrivance to get access to a novel campaign, a price many players are willing to pay.

The problem is that you're effectively starting a new campaign from scratch. Everything that's been prepared so far is put on the back-burner while the players deal with their after life.

The other issue you need to deal with is establishing whether the players are exploring this new world, or working to get back to the old one.

This was actually the basis of one of my favorite D&D campaigns to play in. The players wiped fairly early on, and "woke up" standing in line to the afterlife. Players being players, everyone escaped the line, met up, and continued the campaign (which now had a Planescape focus).

Introduce New Plot Points

You can introduce new characters or plot points by having them interrupt the fight (either the monsters leave to pursue them, or a new character arrives to chase the bad guys off).

But to be honest, I haven't seen this go very well in an RPG. It's quick and dirty, and feels like it. As a player, I'm not really in the mood for more exposition at this point because I'm too busy recovering from "losing." It usually just ends up linking the NPC/plot point to the negative feelings of the defeat.

Speculation

I suspect, but haven't had a chance to try this out, that adding difficulty to the DEM would do a great deal to help distract the players from being rescued.

Consider the standard "captured instead of killed" scenario:

DM: You're locked in the dungeon! What now?

P: I dunno. Try some stuff half-heartedly.

DM: Either that worked, or something improbably busts you out!

P: Cool. I overcome the sleeping and poorly armed guard.

DM: You're standing in a room with a cupboard.

P: Does it have all my stuff in it?

DM: ...Yes.

P: Time to move on with the campaign?

DM: ...Yes.

But what if escaping wasn't easy? What if, instead of just being a quick way of getting back on track, it was an adventure in its own right?

Say, instead, that the players wake up without their gear, at low hit points, trussed up and waiting to be slaughtered in an undead abattoir. There's a knife or two just out of reach, but it's a really hard escape artist or strength check to get at it. Give the players the opportunity to sacrifice some of their already low hitpoints for a bonus on a roll (to represent straining at the ropes), but make them decide to do it before the roll is made.

From there, it's sneaking out. Give them a series of encounters and encourage them to use stealth. Don't just let them roll out, force them to eliminate some of the patrols. Give the players a rudimentary back-stab ability if there isn't already one in the party. Make the combats attract adds if they last too long.

Finally, make the reacquisition of gear a choice. Even though they have to take it (a mid-high-level character without gear might as well pack it in in Pathfinder), the discussion will help with the illusion of choice. Put a hard encounter on top of the gear (either skill or combat, or both). Make it feel like that stuff is guarded.

From there, the players escape and continue on with their storyline. Probably picking up some ghost touch weapons on the way out.

The important thing here is for it to be difficult. Ideally you want single-instance death to be possible, while a party wipe is unlikely (you'll probably have to shift numbers around as you run the adventure).

The goal is to create something more interesting and memorable than the misbalanced encounter, with a focus on player agency and participation.

So all you have to do is write a novel, difficult-but-not-too-difficult adventure between the wipe and the next session, play-test it (because it won't conform to standard adventure guidelines), balance it, and run it. ...I think.

Good luck!

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+1. Now I want to engineer a TPK just so I can try out some of the captured-instead-of-killed ideas you mentioned. –  GMJoe Mar 7 '12 at 6:03
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You don't. But you can allow player Agency by letting it happen.

As discussed in chat, you cannot change things behind the scenes without violating facts already revealed to the players. They know that the creature can kill them, that it's dropped 1-2 of them, and that only the cleric can hurt it.

This is the point marked "oops." (One that I've been at entirely too many times.)

You need to present the players with two options:

Retcon until before the battle

If players choose to retcon, narrate or replay the battle with the captured nymph being exactly what it/she seems to be. This will present a significantly easier battle to the players, but if they make this decision then they are completely within their rights (and expectations) to streamroll the battle. They know that you didn't plan for this battle to happen this way, and they can say "no, we don't want the story ending with a TPK (or almost total). Especially as some of the characters are effectively wearing "no-rez bracelets" this is a way of going "oops."

Allow the players to choose the battle

This is slightly counter-intuitive. But this is the "what happenes, happened" camp. The story has gone this way, and the players may choose to see what happens. Of course, the intelligent undead should be the "Gloaty" variety. Specifically, it should offer them repeated chances to serve it, or otherwise exchange their lives for their loyalty.

Now, you mention that some of your players may be fanatics who choose the "we will never surrender" camp. But that is their choice and must be respected. The players will derive greater satisfaction from the world supporting their choices than continued character survival. It is important to make the "late" characters a vivid memorial in the world. Let the new PCs see marks of their old lives everywhere and to see how their legacy has continued. But above all, preserve their choice.

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+1 - I've been that paladin. Recently, in fact. I was kind of bummed out to not have the character killed. If you put something overpowered up against the party, give 'em a chance or three to walk away. If a certain character (or even the party) doesn't take it, then do the deed. –  Pat Ludwig Mar 6 '12 at 20:59
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So have I, in fact :) One of my worst memories is having an overly elaborate and doomed to failure plan succeed because plot. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 6 '12 at 21:06
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I'm not sure I agree with "You don't". The question states without an obvious D.E.M. I think there several possible ways out of that for the GM without it being too blatant to the players. –  GodEater Mar 7 '12 at 16:43
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Yes, but all of the DEMs out there remove agency, and therefore all have the same effect: to ruin play. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 7 '12 at 16:54
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I don't know that I really agree. Player agency has already been removed in that the players were given no signals that the fight was too difficult for them (the DM didn't know), and running is rarely an option in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder (if it can kill you, it probably has movement modes at least as good as yours). That leaves surrender (and escape) or die, which is DEM, or surrender (campaign ends) or die, which is player agency but a very weak form of it. –  AceCalhoon Mar 8 '12 at 13:49
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Expanding a bit on @Sardathrion's answer, a TPK doesn't have to mean that everyone was killed. Generally in my games I play that PCs can choose to non-lethally disable their enemies instead of killing them (I just leave the mechanics the same), for example if they want to question them or have mercy on them. No reason why enemies couldn't do this as well. Perhaps the enemies have a reason that they want the PCs alive. After the TPK, the PCs wake up as captives. Perhaps they have been sold as slaves, or handed off to the BBEG, or are simmering in a giant pot in order to make them more palatable. Then just pick up the storyline again from there.

That said, I would recommend that there is some penalty for the TPK. Maybe they have lost magical items, or some plan they have been laying falls out from under them.

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If it is a DM error punishing the players doesnt sound fair but the capture not kill is always a good option –  Duncan Apr 20 '13 at 18:48
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A fairly simple solution would be to retcon it that the Witchfire wasn't disguised as a Nymph, rather the Witchfire had possessed the Nymph... and is only able to maintain control for so long (though maybe it can regain control periodically?). If the Nymph was friendly to the party, then they've got a new task of freeing the Nymph from Witchfire's possession.

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An approach that's not quite deus-ex-machina:

The creature is too powerful for the party--a mistake? Or is something else going on?

The creature is hindered in some fashion that hasn't become apparent yet. Perhaps it's got to get back to something or somehow can't sustain it's power.

Or perhaps it's operating under some sort of curse that limits what it can do.

One nemesis I used long ago: It was cursed to be unable to kill. No matter what actions it took, either directly or via summons or charms the target of the attack would not die. If he put you below zero you would be stabilized at -9 by the curse. If he attempted to damage you at that point he would miss even a coup-de-grace. A spell would fizzle. It also prevented him from taking anything in your possession.

He was still dangerous as the curse wouldn't stop you from dying from things he had no hand in. A scavenger could still eat you when you were down so long as he did nothing to cause it to be there.

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Amplfiying my comprade Sam Russel's comment from google+:

Do a side-game where you kill them, a lot, using disposable heros; right before the TPK probable incidents. Give them an awareness that you view the party as killable, and that you will follow a TPK through to the conclusion if they don't flee. Push it so that in the various side games, if they don't start getting it, you have a DMPC suggest flight strongly, in panic.

Set the characters into a Groundhog's Day like loop, especially if the local environment supports it. Allow the TPK to happen, then ring a physical bell on the table (to establish a mental pattern of reward and reset) and reset to the start of the fight. Iterate until the players establish interesting and creative ways to win... or just get lucky.

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What I do in this situation would be to fudge the dice; it's not elegant, and it's not terribly transparent, but I've often fudged dice for dramatic purposes. It lets the players have the achievement and keeps them from dying, and it lets you continue with your story like nothing happened.

I'd strongly advise against doing this if you award experience directly for combat, unless you decrease the rewards for this fight.

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I'd rather have an unjustly over-rewarded PC than an unjustly killed one. :) –  OpaCitiZen Mar 6 '12 at 16:03
    
In general this is good, but I don't think it will work in this case ... –  C. Ross Mar 6 '12 at 16:04
    
+1, fudging the dice is the simplest way to handle it. A few missed attacks and dealing out less damage should let them squeak out a win. Though you might want to take one or two PCs down just so they dont think they got off too easily ;-) –  GrandmasterB Mar 6 '12 at 20:09
    
From the sound of the description, fudging a few dice rolls isn't going to save the party here - sounds more like they're just not prepared for this critter. –  YogoZuno Mar 6 '12 at 21:42
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I'll say that dpatchery's answer is probably by far the best way to go.

But if you want the party to actually win this one or at least escape capture, perhaps the answer is Deus Ex Machina, but good Deus Ex Machina. For one thing, the particular witchfire might just have a unique vulnerability (perhaps tied to her previous life as a hag) that the players discover in combat and can exploit to at least drive her away. It could be even better if after driving her away the players need to find out the full extent of this vulerability and then track her down to finish her off. This ties it in nicely to a story, can seem preplanned if you do it right, and is a very common trope.

If you don't want to hobble the hag, have a good in game reason for why they are saved that ties in to the plot. One extreme form is that some incarnation of Death appears and strikes a bargain with the players. It will hand them the tools to survive or even win, but demands a price. Or a demonhunter that has been tracking this particular witchfire comes to their aid, but the witchfire escapes and the players need to prepare and then track it down.

This one is harder to make it seem preplanned and will definitely feel like DEM, but it can still work well and is a fairly common fantasy trope.

DEM exists to get writers out of situations where they have painted themselves into a cornor. I would have no qualms in using it in a game as a GM, but I would try to make it good (by which I mean both believable and leading off to new adventures).

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