Total Party Kill (aka TPK or Wipe) is the colloquial term for a single encounter in a roleplaying game which results is the death of all the characters. On Friday the Dagenham Dungeon Delvers met for our regular bi-weekly 4E D&D game, and I almost achieved TPK. Which is quite an achievement when you consider I'm not the Dungeon Master.
Our adventuring party are on a side mission on behalf of a local Dwarven City that has found its subterranean trade routes infested with undead. Our investigations have seen us battle through miles of tunnels towards the source of this necrotic infestation and Fridays game was the culmination of that mission. We now found ourselves in the heart of a volcano facing a Skull Lord and his minions.
The battle started well with several skeletal warriors being killed very quickly. Our wizard used his spells, particularly an enlarged Incendiary Detonation and Hypnotic Pattern - [...KABOOM!!!...] to immobilise the Skull Lord and his bodyguard then the Swordmage and the Dragonborn Fighter and his brother the Warlord closed in for the kill. Our characters took a lot of damage but one by one we killed the Bodyguards and hacked lumps off the Skull Lord. Victory, it seemed, would be but moments away.
What we didn't realise was that the Skull Lord had an escape plan. Just as we thought victory was imminent he retreated to a lower level where his toughest allies were waiting. It was in effect a trap... and we sprung it like a group of bumbling 1st level characters. When I say we I should point out that I mean me. I run both the Dragonborn characters and the Fighter, Kharthek, is a bit impetuous. So he leaped down the shaft that lead to the lower level and tried to land on the escaping Skull Lord. He missed and the resulting fall sent him into negative hit points. One character down and bleeding to death, five to go.
With little other option (short of watching the fighter die) the Eladrin Swordmage, Cealathalus, used one of his abilities to swap places with he unconscious Dragonborn - and soon realised that the really dangerous undead were not the ones we had killed in the level above! He quickly tried to negotiate a truce with the Skull Lord but the discussion is cut short by a thrown hammer (from my Dragonborn Warlord, Uthek) which whistles down and smashes the Skull Lords head in. Battle is resumed in short order and within a couple of turns Cealathalus is also unconscious and bleeding to death in the corner and now we are two down and four standing.
Meanwhile Kharthek has healed enough to stand up again, but now he and his brother Uthek are standing around the shaft watching the possible end of Cealathalus below. So they leap into the hole again determined to battle to the end on the lower level. Although they survive the fall they are now prone in front of the enemy and by the end of the turn both are unconscious and bleeding. Three down and three to go.
The two halfling brothers, Janek & Jarped now have to do the unthinkable and get into the heart of the combat. They also jump down but land rather more gracefully than their Dragonborn companions. Their entry into the fight however cannot turn the tide of victory and soon Janek is also unconscious and Jarped, fighting for his life, soon follows. Characters now start to fail Death rolls and one by one all edge towards the afterlife with only the Wizard, still on the upper level, alive and firing spells at available targets.
Then something amazing happens. Both Dragonborn brothers roll natural 20's on their Death Rolls allowing them to use a Healing Surge and return to positive hit points. In one last round of attacks the remaining undead are killed and at the end of the battle a severely mauled Uthek is the only one standing. He quickly rushes around trying to perform emergency first aid but Cealathalus and Janek have failed three death checks and their characters have died.
Opinion amongst the players was understandably divided (and I expect a few choice comments to appear below in due course) but for my money that was one of the most exciting and enjoyable combat encounters we have played in a long time. There was a very real sense of danger in that encounter that often seems missing from 4E combat. The ability to use healing surges makes our characters incredibly hard to kill so most combat situations have no real threat about them at all. I realise that this is D&D so of course it isn't really the end. Now that we have destroyed the undead infestation of the trade tunnels I expect that the remaining party members will be setting off on another side quest, this time to get our companions resurrected.
And looking on the bright side, those of us that did survive have just levelled up!