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So, my players' PCs were fighting 11 fifth-level orcs. They are five 5th-level characters in D&D 4e. It ended in an unexpected TPK.

Thing is, their bard was new (he was put in place of their cleric), with not enough magic items to be as strong as the others and, as everybody knows, a bard is not as powerful as a cleric.

It was a damn hard combat, though my players were used to it and they used to play very well together, making some combats easy even when they were meant to be overwhelming. This one was supposed to be quite hard, but not overwhelming.

What happened was: the wizard miscalculated his Color Spray, hitting the fighter, who lost his Rain of Steel stance. They didn't deal with most of the orcs during the crucial time they had with many dazed enemies, because of the Wizard's mistake. It was brutal. They didn't get a break after that for the whole combat and finally, were obliterated by the orcs.

Now I feel like I killed 5 characters, but only one had it coming. The other players were disappointed because they all feel like it was the wizard's mistake that killed them all (and I also believe it, BTW). And the one who plays the wizard was the only one who was "Yay! Finally I get to play my hybrid wizard/warlord!" which pissed me off a little bit more, I've gotta say.

They are all making new characters but they feel like the campaign ended prematurely. They also don't wanna go back to level 1, but for that matter, I don't feel like GMing for brand new characters that already start as strong ones.

So, how to deal with this situation?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Beware that accepting an answer signals that you don't want/need any more answers. If you want to see more answers and have the choice of accepting the best one, you may wish to hold off accepting any answer for a day or so. Of course, you don't have to wait if you don't want to. :) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 3 '15 at 23:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ "11 fifth-level orcs". How many of them were minions? \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Jan 4 '15 at 1:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well there's your problem. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Jan 4 '15 at 9:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ 11 fifth-level standard monsters gives you an encounter level of 9 for a party of about 5 or 6 PCs. While this enocunter level is within the DMG's guidelines, it is classed as a hard encounter and you're one standard monster over the exactly XP budget so you're already teetering on it being too hard. Not to mention the use of 11 monsters of the same role (a role that generally focuses on melee), so you've got no variation in tactics. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Jan 4 '15 at 10:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Side question: how do you miscalculate a Color Spray? \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Jan 5 '15 at 15:05
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As already discussed its far easier and subtler to reduce things before you reach the point of a TPK. For example some of the orks could have been weaker than others, let them die after just one or two hits. If the players have any friends or allies in the area then they could ride to the rescue (or indeed new friends could turn up, everyone hates orcs).

However it's too late now, so you have three main choices.

  1. Rewind time. Personally I don't like this option and I know my gaming group would hate it. If you do that then actions have no consequences, failing can never happen. If you can't fail then it takes all the risk and agency out of playing. It might work for some groups but it will not work for many others.

  2. Roll new characters, maybe let them carry over some xp or levels.

  3. A more minor retcon:

    • Give each of them a chance to roll to stabalize. (For example make two out of three fort saves). Each of them that makes the roll survived and woke up in the dirt surrounded by the bodies of those who failed and with all their magic items stolen. They can now go hunt down the orcs to avenge their fallen friends and reclaim their missing items.

    • As the previous bullet point, but instead of being left for dead the orcs took them prisoner and they need to make an epic escape.

Another option would be to do something like tell all the players that if they want to generate a new character they can sacrifice their old one (i.e. take an automatic failure) to give all the others a +1 on their rolls. This lets the wizard player who wants to generate another character anyway make it up to the others if he chooses by having the wizard die and give the others a better chance.

Maybe discuss that option with him ahead of time to see if he's interested before offering it to the group though. If the offer is there and he refuses that might make things worse not better.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I used your 3a. Actually, one of the characters was stabalized before the battle ended. Which means the Avenger of the group woke up between her dead friends and now she is the only chance they have to have their characters ressurrected. I just don't know how a single character will deal with so many orcs. \$\endgroup\$ – Davi Braid Jan 5 '15 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaviBraid Remember orcs are stupid, leave an obvious trail, poorly guarded camp, etc :) Just be careful not to do too much with a solo character if other players are there as they will have a boring time unless you give them something to do. (For example they could play the survivors of a caravan also ambushed by the orcs who team up with her to get revenge). Have the people from the caravan generate with NPC levels if they want to resurrect their old characters or PC levels if they are the new PCs. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Jan 5 '15 at 19:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's it. Thank you very much. This phrase here saved my game: "Each of them that makes the roll survived and woke up in the dirt surrounded by the bodies of those who failed and with all their magic items stolen." It reminded me how the Avenger was stabalized. I decided she woke up with nothing but her cloth armor and now she has a chance to save her friends. Since my pcs made good friends with some NPCs, they might actually have a chance and no Deus Ex Machina was used. I'll make sure something like this doesn't happen again. People die and even get desintegrated but this time was too much \$\endgroup\$ – Davi Braid Jan 6 '15 at 5:36
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It sounds like nobody was happy with the outcome of this game session. The point of gaming is, on its most basic level, to have fun together as a group. You aren't having fun. So, you need to change the outcome.

There are a few approaches available.

Ret-Con

This just didn't happen. Maybe you want to "rewind" the whole encounter to a certain point and keep playing. Or, you could choose to re-write parts of the events and outcome such that the characters (except, perhaps the wizard who's happy to die and might have had it coming) managed to get away.

Deus Ex Machina

The events of the past haven't change (much), but some amazing Plot Device comes along right after the fight and saves/resurrects the PCs. Again, the magic might run out before the wizard's turn, if you so choose. You can incorporate this into a new plot thread, with the thing/person which saved the PCs being a new ally, a side-effect of strange phenomena, or even a villain looking for recruits.

Some possible ideas:

  • The characters are actually just unconscious. They can wake on their own, or be revived by a helpful NPC.
  • The characters are dead, but appear together in an underworld. The story continues with a chance at resurrection (see comments from Iwillnotexist)
  • A curious magic in the area brings them back, and now it's time to investigate

Make new characters and start over?

Yeah, you can. If your group really enjoys the gamist aspects of D&D encounters and loaths "breaking the rules", you may decide to live with the results. Changing this event after the fact can reduce the sense of risk for the future, diluting the experience.

If you do want to keep the results and start over with new characters, you may consider starting with a higher level. Maybe go down to 3rd or 4th, so there is a real loss, but you aren't stuck all the way at the start.

However, your dissatisfaction suggests that keeping this outcome isn't satisfying. I don't like do-overs in my stories if I can avoid them (in almost 15 years, I've seldom changed a major event), but in extreme cases it's worth it. Just don't reach for this kind of tool unless there aren't good alternatives.

Involve Your Players

The problem you're trying to solve is a problem for your whole group. In order to solve for everyone, you should get their input on the results. Present the basic options above and discuss how people feel in order choose something that everyone will be happy with.

The GM's Part

As the GM, you're still in the driver's seat here, even with your player's collaboration and input. It's up to you to guide the discussion, hear people out, and end it when you've heard enough to make a final call.

You can still keep some amount of mystery and control over the story. If the players want to rewind, you get to prepare new material to replace the old events. Add in a surprise that will make the new encounter feel fresh and important, instead of a retread. Be extra careful about balancing things and adding in contingencies so that the party feels challenged but isn't going to die again.

If the players want a Deus Ex Machina, you've got lots of creative freedom on what the plot device will be and how it will play out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yep, I guess that's pretty much it. \$\endgroup\$ – Davi Braid Jan 3 '15 at 22:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaviBraid There exists a middle way between a straight retcon and a deus ex machina intervention. Why not say that the deaths dropped the party into a new world that can be played out of and into the original world, soon before the accident? This new world can be either ghost/death-themed, or it can be a time-reversed one where actions are undone rather than done. In either case a dramatic event intentionally triggered in the alternate world flips you back to the old one. This allows escaping the situation through further play, not through simply giving up on the events as they now stand. \$\endgroup\$ – Iwillnotexist Idonotexist Jan 4 '15 at 9:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Iwill Comments aren't for answering or discussing ideas, just for discussing the answer to help clarify or improve it. You should post new answers as answers. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 4 '15 at 19:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I just submitted an edit request which integrates @IwillnotexistIdonotexist's proposal (plus a link to this trick being used in the real world). \$\endgroup\$ – JasonSmith Jan 5 '15 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I added my ideas in a separate answer, for posterity, because I think it's noteworthy that this exact technique was used by Chris Perkins. I hope that sorts all this out! Thanks again. \$\endgroup\$ – JasonSmith Jan 6 '15 at 5:03
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A side quest to return (i.e. "Return from Hell")

Neither a retcon, nor a deus ex machina: you can have the party dropped into a new afterlife world. From there, they (or their souls, mechanically the same thing) must find their way out. This is satisfying because they can resolve the situation through playing forward, rather than returning to something in the past.

This trick was done to good effect by "DM to the stars" Chris Perkins in the PAX 2010 Penny Arcade DND Celebrity Game (Aquisitions Inc Season 5).

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Jessa's answer is great for what to do about the TPK that's already happened (or didn't happen, depending on what option you take).

As for avoiding such a situation in the future, I'd advise reexamining how you build your combats to avoid a setup where one mistake by one player in one round creates an unavoidable TPK. Now, it's entirely possible that the rest of the party got demoralized by that mistake, or didn't adapt in time, in which case, they are partly responsible for the outcome.

As the DM, you have the ability (though not the obligation) to provide more than one avenue for your players to take to resolve a situation. Also, since you control the opponents, you can also adapt your/their strategy on-the-fly to account for changing "battlefield" conditions (incl. non-combat encounters). Admittedly, it can be more involved, especially if you want to do it in such a way that your players feel fairly challenged.

But if you see things going pear-shaped, use your DM's discretion to tweak them back within a range you feel comfortable with. Maybe your PC's get "spanked", coming within a hairsbreath of a TPK, before the orcs move on. Maybe the wizard gets knocked into negative HP for his poor aim, and has a "near-death experience" that could be used as roleplay fodder for his warlord fascination. Whatever suits the situation - you don't have to keep things tightly under control, but you don't have to let them happen as they may either.

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When you want some negative consequences for losing the encounter but you consider a TPC too much and a rewind too much of an immersion breaker, you could bend the rules and judge that the player-characters are only knocked out and captured. Even when the rules-as-written say that the characters are dead as doornails, your players certainly won't complain.

The party wakes up in a not very well-constructed cage in the hideout of the orcs and after role-playing the escape the campaign continues where it left off. This also offers you an opportunity to kill off the old and introduce the new character of wizard-player: they might be another prisoner who shares the cage with them.

When someone asks: yes, you totally had planned that they lose the encounter and get captured and that ridiculous escape plan was also what you had in mind the whole time.

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I once played in a fairly party which often made bad decisions. Luckily we had a great DM and he very naturally came up with a solution when we lost a fight with a group of Orcs.

The party was tied up, our wounds patched to stable and weapons confiscated, and we were brought before the Orc Chief, who was willing to allow us mercy in exchange for swearing allegiance to him - so we ended up helping him establish himself as a major force in the region. Or trying to, anyway. We didn't do a great job, but it was good fun.

The same might would work for you. In this case, I wonder if the Orc Chief, might also demand that the Wizard remove AoE spells from their spell book.

If any of your players do feel like it's time for their character to bow out, now might be a good time... provided they're happy rolling up a new orc/half-orc.

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