How to Avoid a TPK When GMing Intense Encounters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0771

With the Encounter Intensify Technique you increase the stakes during an encounter to give your players a jolt of adrenaline. Just when you think it can’t get worse or more desperate, it does.

A reader asked me how to avoid wiping the party, because I advised picking a moment when encounter outcome seems dubious. Pick a low moment for the PCs to ramp up that intensity.

It’s just like in the movies. Something bad happens to the hero. As the hero struggles, something even worse happens, putting the audience on the edge of its seat.

Choose Your Moment

My answer for avoiding a TPK is two-fold.

First, pick a moment just before the party is about to rally.

For example, unleashing a second wave just before the wizard casts fireball. You create an intense moment of panic and fear and excitement this way as foe numbers double and fresh meat joins the battle.

Then the mage steps up and cuts down half the enemy. Pulses drop a bit and hope returns.

What you’re doing here is changing how your players think about your game and the tales they tell about it afterward.

Non-intense version: “Yeah, we battled some hill giants. Wiz mopped them up with fireball and we moved on.”

Intense version: “Holy crap, we almost died! It was epic. We were fighting evil giants and they were kicking our butts. Then a shaman and his champions snuck up on us and started clobbering Broghan and Kira. We thought it was going to be a party wipe. Then Wizban stepped up and blasted them all with fiery armageddon! Half the giants died and we ganged up on the shaman and put him six feet under. Wiz really saved our bacon because we thought we were giant meat there.”

Same combat, in essence, but totally different player experience.

The key is picking the right moment. And I find this one of the best parts of GMing. Like a performance artist, you read the table, read the situation, and then Intensify at the perfect moment for maximum mayhem.

Intensify Perception

The second way to avoid overwhelming and killing the PCs is to work at the perception layer.

You make it seem like the odds are now terrifying for the party.

But in truth it’s not so dire.

Brave, smart, and perceptive players can survive without fleeing.

For example, the PCs battle gnolls in the middle of a henge in the wilderness.

Intensify: Suddenly, the wind picks up and painful embers from the nearby forest fire start hitting combatants doing extra damage.

Intensify: A tongue of forest fire backed by the wind reaches the henge, causing more damage from heat, smoke, and burns.

However, standing in the lee side of the tall stones protects a combatant from the ember missiles.

And discovering the dungeon underneath the henge allows escape from the forest fire.

Another, simpler example: the second wave of foes is weak. Each only has one hit point. Their numbers scare the pants off the PCs, but in truth, the combat isn’t much more difficult.

What Did You Think Of The Challenge?

With the Encounter Intensify Technique, just when things couldn’t get worse for the PCs they do. You shock, surprise, and excite your players. You provoke player emotions for memorable gaming experiences.

I challenged you to intensify your next encounter and share how through a Google Form. After adding your idea you got to see everyone else’s.

I was hoping the form would speed things up for me, and it did.

And getting to see all the responses without waiting for me to process and share them back out gave you instant inspiration and ideas for more ways to Intensify encounters.

As I write this there are 167 ideas gathered from you and your fellow Roleplaying Tips Readers! If I had run this challenge by email I’d still be stuck in my inbox processing all the entries. But the form lets you see all the responses right away, and I can now scan entries for future Musings without holding you up.

So what did you think of this experiment? Can I run future challenges this way? Did this approach work for you? Feedback and ideas are welcome, as I’d like to run more challenges in the future. It’s a way for you to try out these techniques and GM tools.

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