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I ran a game last night, a pre-written module (the game is not relevant) with a certain difficulty level (not so difficult in my opinion), and the party is composed of moderately experienced players and a newbie. The party had to face some enemies, and seeing that they had problems with previous encounters I decided to tweak the fight a bit to make it easier: removed some opponents, made the enemy reinforcements arrive late so the PC's had a little more breathing time between turns, made other enemies waste time boasting and taunting, removed abilities from the "BBEG" stat block.

It still ended in a TPK.

Mostly because the PC's rolls were just TERRIBLE, rolling so bad they ended in the impossible range of, like, 0.0009% chance of failure. What can a GM do in such a situation? I know this question is kinda connected to this other question, but suppose there is no logical/plausible way to save the party and the players might feel cheated if saved by stretching the rules, the world, the story or whatever else. Do we just accept the thing and move on? Personally, I always thought that a TPK was an ending too, although not a much satisfying one, but the players might beg to differ.

Reworded for brevity:

The PCs fight enemies, there's a TPK because of incredibly bad rolls and no way to save the group without it looking like cheating, not in the system we're using at least. Do I cheat anyway, talk to the group and laugh it off, explain that it can happen and change campaign?

Since someone believes that in certain games you cannot fail or die, let's say that we're talking about Pathfinder 2e.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm a bit confused here, you talk about seemingly a real scenario and then say player might beg to differ. Did your players greatly dislike the ending? You also state that the rules world and story should not be stretched but also say your yourself greatly tweaked the final fight(s). Are you asking about what to do after a TPK? Before a possible TPK? Or perhaps lessening and/or accepting the possibility of a TPK? Were your players upset with their rolls; how did the players react? What issue/problem occurred and cause unfun/unhappiness that you are trying to solve? \$\endgroup\$
    – Medix2
    Mar 22 '20 at 0:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ This will vary by system. Some have built-in mechanics where the GM can give rerolls or other benefits to help the players succeed. Other systems have optional rules for this. And others may assume that bad luck happens and a TPK is always possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeQ
    Mar 22 '20 at 0:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ The players might beg to differ because I did not really ask them, they were more focused on commenting their rolls. And while you're correct in saying that the fight-tweaking is already a stretch, it is a plausible one: for example, fighting 7 orcs instead of 10 is something that could be happening without anyone asking if it's right, while the sudden appearance of a dragon that makes said orcs flee is obviously "rigged". Anyway, the question is about the aftermath of a TPK, when the players are just astonished because of the rolls. You know, when they question their life choices. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    Mar 22 '20 at 0:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Such a question can not be system agnostic. Some games (Dungeon World and other PbtA games) explicitly use failures to move the story forward. Some (like Open Legend) allow turning a miss into a success with a cost. Other ones (like Savage Worlds) allow players to reroll. Some games do not use dice at all. You really should specify, what game do you play in order to get a reasonable answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Mar 22 '20 at 12:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it can. Almost every game has a way to just fail/die, Dungeon World and Open Legend too. But alright, I will specify. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    Mar 22 '20 at 12:44
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Different Systems, Different Solutions

This problem isn't unique to your group, or your game. How to handle failure is addressed in a lot of ways in TTRPGS (or RPGs as a whole). Here are some things you can put into most RPGs. There may be system-specific mechanisms you can employ or have things built in (like Dark Heresy's "Degrees of Success").

Let's take a look at some things you can implement in most systems, if they are not there already.

Fail Forward

This is maybe the best idea: fail forward. In a nutshell, fail forward says: "if you fail a roll, you still succeed (do the thing) but at some cost."

Some examples:

  • Fail Forward on an attack: your attack succeeds, killing the orc, but the orc managed to stab you as you recklessly went in. (This is actually common in low-skill weapon sparring: people focus so much on striking they forget to defend themselves!)
  • You find the trap door, but wasted an hour trying to find it. (Only effective when a time constraint is in place.)
  • You pick the lock, but bent up/destroyed your thieves tools in the process.

The Prequel

TPKs usually do not feel good, but you can use that to fuel a new adventure. Those dead adventurers can be used as a "prequel" to a second set of adventurers.

Surely these adventurers have families and fiends! After a bit of time, people will wonder what happened to their half-brother/aunt/step-mother/etc. These characters have a built-in plot hook to find out how their sister/uncle/father/3rd cousin/etc died.

Additionally, if this is some sort of regional or larger conflict, so many more people than a rag-tag group of adventurers will be interested or involved in combating... whatever is going on.

This also lets your players have a second chance at the adventure. You, as the GM/DM, give them permission to meta-game a little, too. Placing notable items from dead characters in the new party's ways (or their corpses) can be a great touch. You can even "retcon" a bonus or hidden item in the adventure for the new party to stumble on. (You can take this a step further and let each character leave behind a clue or a bonus item.)

Discretion is the Better Part of Valor

Sometimes your players need to know when to use any other tactic than kick down the door and brutalize everything within. Yes, some games like D&D 5e reward this sort of play, but maybe your system is not like that (like Call of Cthulhu). Having a session 0 can help.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you consider the "prequel option", then also include the "I'm not dead yet!" strategy. Losing in battle doesn't have to end the adventure. Perhaps instead the heroes have been captured, or face some new setback, but can continue as their characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeQ
    Mar 22 '20 at 2:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was going to write an answer about failing forward but @PipperChip got to it first. Matt Colville, a famous GM, has done an excellent video about failing forward, I think it will help the OP: youtube.com/watch?v=l1zaNJrXi5Y \$\endgroup\$
    – Aventinus
    Mar 22 '20 at 10:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you update the answer considering the OP's party plays Pathfinder 2e? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Mar 22 '20 at 14:20
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Depends on how strict you are to the rules

I am a DM for 3.5 and I am extremely strict on rules, so if the enemy rolls critical 5 times, so be it, if the players fails 5 times same thing.

However

I might offer multiple choices to the players:

  • Another group of adventurer (if they are still low levels) might succeed at their place and they could have the option to be resurrected...for a price (favor/gold etc.)
  • They can reroll other characters and continue/start a new adventure.
  • If the players really liked the adventure and their characters, I offer them the chance to get back somewhere during the adventure (''Quick save reload'') but I won't offer this chance many times, they did die, they know it, and ''A parallel universe is then created and they may try again''

I haven't been a DM for very long so I might try other methods such as: the enemy might target another character or If they are extremely unlucky I might ''cheat'' on a roll if they deserved it (Good RP, they were invested in the game etc. A lazy player will never get this chance from me) After all I'm the god of their Universe, I'm above all the Deities (Even Pun-Pun) so being devoted might give you a temporary blessing... (but I take no bribes lol)

This Answer on the question: Total Party Kill - What do I do as a GM? might help you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, you could also steal the "Inspiration" mechanic from D&D 5e forr that "Good RP" situation, such that they carry a point of inspiration and get to roll 2d20 and expend that point for a selected roll ... and some DM's allow the Advantage 'second roll' happen after the first one fails (which is the 5e Indomitable class feature for Fighters) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 '20 at 14:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I'll definitely try that! \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23 '20 at 5:34
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When the group I DM for started playing D&D again after a 15 year break, the first game after session zero I wrote a fairly simple investigation / dungeon crawl for 1st level players. A few goblins with a bugbear leader, which was spread over three encounters. First encounter went well, but the second the party came up against 5 goblins waiting in ambush. The party rushed in pretty confident, totally screwed up all their attack rolls and I had a potential TPK in the first night. I remedied the situation by bringing in a NPC cleric who just happened to be in the neighbourhood who saved and joined the party for the rest of that game. I didn’t want to TPK on the first game, especially when it was more bad luck by the dice than stupid actions on behalf of the party. The party also learned from this that I’m not just out to try and kill them and that it’s about furthering the game. If one or two PCs had died, I would have let it play out as it rolled, but not a TPK. They’re more experienced now and more balanced, so if it happened again I may just let them die, but a TPK on a night where it’s no one's fault but the bad roll of the dice, I’m not for that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting it made me think a bit ''a TPK on a night where it’s no ones fault but the bad roll of the dice, I’m not for that.'' sure inspired me! thank you. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 '20 at 9:15
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Mitigate

You can almost always mitigate the dice results in a way that makes things interesting. If the players are rolling terrible and doing badly in combat, then the enemy may wish to take them captive instead of killing them. This is actually very believable if the enemy is intelligent because there is almost always some way of extracting value out of a live enemy. The captors may want to question them (very common in modern societies), may want to ransom them back for more money (this was incredibly common during the middle ages), may want them as slaves (very common in many ancient societies), or may want to kill them later in a ritualistic way as a sacrifice to a dark deity (not so common in real life, but it did happen and very common in some fantasy). But capture can create interesting scenarios and allows for escape.

How you can mitigate depends on the exact scenario, but there is almost always some way that is plausible.

Deus Ex.

When you cannot find a better option you can have Deus Ex step in. In fantasy, you can literally have a deity step in to intervene for the characters. Even in other genres you can have the cavalry ride in with medical supplies to save the characters.

In my opinion, this should be a last resort. Done badly, it can feel like cheating. Even done well, it takes the spotlight off the players and you generally want the spotlight firmly on the players.

However, it avoids completely ignoring the dice or blatantly cheating and is probably still better than a TPK if everyone otherwise likes the game. It can also still create interesting characters. If something steps in to help the characters, it may very well want something in return before too long.

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Depends on how much fun everyone is having

Sometimes there is humor to be found in failure. If your group is able to laugh about the string of bad luck and write a humorously fitting end to their players, then everything is fine. If not, then I believe it is the DM's job to change the situation so that it is fun again.

If every die roll by the players is a 3 or less for 3 rounds, you're outside the realm of normal. Breaking the rules in such a situation isn't cheating, it's restoring balance. I believe that you should feel empowered to do what it takes to make the situation fun again, while acknowledging the bad luck at the table and setting the expectation that the rules will only be bent when necessary.

In such a situation, here's a list of things that I'd recommend:

  • Swap dice. Surely you have extras hanging around. If not, just trade with your neighbor.
  • Free rerolls. Maybe give everyone 1-5 rerolls that they can use when they want. Gives the players some agency in when to use them.
  • Automatic successes. Every third attempt is a success. Probably still below a statistical average for their stats.
  • Divine intervention. Surely the party has gotten on the radar of some goddess who'd rather not see the party die.
  • Unexpected ally. One of the enemies is a double agent, or sees an upside to turning their coat and helping the party. Or maybe someone the party met in a recent village happened by at just the right time and turns the tide.
  • Take prisoners. Everyone knows adventurers are wealthy and have lots of friends. Ransom and retribution (or lack thereof) are great motivators for that party wipe to not be lethal.

In my personal experience, swapping dice is usually enough to end a player's bad streak. At the very least it changes the psychology by giving the player something external to blame. Lately for DnD 5e I've become more generous with Inspiration, which is basically a free reroll of the player's choosing, and it's been much better received than when I've treated every third failure as a success. I guess it feels less like cheating.

In the past when I've used story reasons to fix bad luck, the success has been dependent on how reasonable it feels to the flow of the story. I've had direct divine intervention work out well because of plenty of setup and foreshadowing.

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Let it stand / Let them die

Sometimes the dice are against you. Sometimes your best isn't good enough. Maybe it's a bit more of an old school mentality, but if there's no real danger, if there's no real threat, you could just as easily be playing Cops & Robbers, except there's a DM who can tell you that you're not allowed to imagine that.

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