One the perennial questions that I’ve seen come up online when it comes to running Lost Mines of Phandelver is “How can I avoid a TPK when the party faces the green dragon Venomfang?”
There are certainly some ways you can do this, but the first question you need to ask is, “Should I try to avoid a TPK at all?”
As a newbie DM, I was afraid that a TPK would completely demoralize my players. I felt that forcing my players to start all over again would perhaps scare them away from coming back to the table. However, after giving this issue some thought and reading how other DMs have dealt with Venomfang (and the prospect of a TPK), I realized that my fears surrounding a Venomfang TPK were misplaced.
Essentially, there are two ways you can deal with it. The first is to address the prospect of character death and TPKs in a session zero and the second is to be prepared with narrative escape hatches should the party be facing near certain death.
Address character death and TPKs in a session zero
Because I was so eager to get started with Lost Mines of Phandelver, I only spent about 10 minutes with my group establishing ground rules and expectations for the game. Although I have a wonderful gaming group and all of us seem to be on the same page as to what we want to get from a game, I still wish I had spent more time to ask my players more questions during a session zero.
One thing I failed to ask about was how my players felt about character death. As a player who had initially spent hours writing out the backstory for my first few D&D characters, I became very attached to them. I dreaded character death and assumed my players would too.
I was absolutely wrong. I remember a point in one of my games where the players were facing the prospect of death and a conversation started up about how they were excited to try out new characters should their current ones die. I hate to admit that I may have pulled some punches before this conversation and now I absolutely don’t.
TPKs, however, are a different issue than character death. While it’s easy to slot in a new character should one die, a TPK is disruptive to the narrative. It forces the entire party to roll new characters and it forces the DM to come up with a slightly contrived reason to connect the severed narrative thread with a brand new party.
I believe TPKs are avoidable in most cases. However, if the party decides to do something incredibly unwise, it may happen. It’s best then to be upfront to your players about it. During your session zero explain to them that a TPK is rare but should the party make a very bad decision that results in a TPK, they can start again as a new party and pick up where the old one left off. Either that or the players can start a new adventure at level 1. Ask them which would they prefer.
I missed this discussion during session zero, but as we approached Thundertree I did discuss the TPK issue with my players, and to my surprise everyone was on board with it. All of them felt that decisions should have consequences, and if their decisions resulted in a TPK, so be it. This is what sets D&D apart from other games, after all. After this discussion, I prepared the Venomfang encounter to make it as challenging as it deserves to be.
Preventing a Venomfang TPK
While the first step regarding TPKs is to discuss them in a session zero, there are a couple ways that we can prevent a TPK with Venomfang that fit with the story and aren’t a Deus Ex Machina.
A Hostage and a Favor
Remember that Green Dragons more than anything relish the thought of corrupting the heroic and pure hearted. While they would prefer to do this through deception, they wouldn’t be against using a hostage to force others to do their bidding.
Should the party engage Venomfang in combat and should a TPK become inevitable, Venomfang can grapple a fallen party member in its claws and threaten to kill them if they don’t parley.
“You have come into my home, sought to kill me and steal my treasure, and now I hold one of your lives in my claws. I am well within my rights to tear the flesh from your bones and no one would fault me. However…if you listen to what I have to say, perhaps I will let this one live”
Should the party agree with Venomfang, you can move out of initiative. Venomfang then proposes the following deal: he will hold a party member hostage and kill them should they not do a favor in return.
The hostage will most likely be a fallen party member, but there could be other ways to resolve the issue (drawing straws, etc). The fallen party member will then have to roll up a new character to replace the one being held hostage.
What might Venomfang ask the party to do? Here are some possibilities:
- Drive Reidoth out from Thundertree (Or Kill Him) – If you really want to put the party in a tight spot, you could have Venomfang pit them against Reidoth. If the party is smart enough they could possibly convince Reidoth to leave temporarily.
- Kill Cryovain, the White Dragon – Cryovain kicked Venomfang out of his territory and Venomfang wants revenge. This option would require buying the D&D Essentials Kit, but you could easily substitute Cryovain for another dragon or monster of your own devising.
- Steal a Magic Artifact – Perhaps Venomfang heard of some valuable object that could grant him the ability to polymorph into a human (green dragons love subterfuge, so being able to assume human form would be a dream). Of course, Venomfang would lie about the nature of the artifact, but it’s possible a canny party member would see through the deception.
What happens after the party delivers what Venomfang wishes of them? If I were Venomfang, I wouldn’t want a group of heroes wandering loose who I couldn’t control and who could potentially become a liability. If possible, Venomfang would devise some sort of trap for the adventurers and kill them after they have completed the task. Of course, Venomfang may feel that the outcome of a fight is uncertain and so decide to honor the agreement, In this case he would turn on the charm and graciously release the hostage. The characters should feel as though Venomfang is letting them off easy. Green Dragons, however, never forget a slight against them, and will spend years or even decades to even a score. The party who insulted him shouldn’t fare any differently.
Another way of avoiding a TPK involves a little setup. For this, I took some inspiration from a post in the Lost Mines of Phandelver Facebook Group. If I remember it correctly, the post essentially described a magic elixir which the party drank (Likely as a reward for rescuing someone). This elixir essentially has the effect of bringing the party back 10 minutes before making a decision that lead to a TPK. The party would fall to Venomfang and later wake up with an incredible hangover, the elixir bottle which had been half empty now completely empty.
Of course, you don’t have to use the idea of an elixir. The basic premise of TPK insurance is to have set something up so that when the party finds themselves in a dire situation, the DM has a way to get the party out of it that they aren’t aware of.
TPK Insurance: A Foray into the Feywild
I really liked the elixir idea myself and decided to extend it a little further. On the way to Thundertree, the party encounters some Ghouls assaulting a Gnome family. Should the party rescue the family, they are brought in to see the village elders who live in hollows of a massive tree about three times the diameter of the largest tree on earth. The elders give them the sap of the tree to drink as thanks for saving them.
The sap of this sacred tree has the unusual property of transporting a recently deceased soul to a lifesize wooden statue in the feywild. Once imbued with a soul, these wooden statues have the ability to move as though they were flesh and blood. The party wakes up in a workshop full of these statues and are greeted by a fey servant of Baervan Wildwanderer, the god of the forest Gnomes. In order to return to the material plane, the party must find a way to turn their wooden bodies back into flesh. When they return, whoever killed the party will think that they are dead.
I plan to write a more detailed article about the Forest Gnome adventure soon, but I thought I’d share the summarized version as an example.
Don’t let the party off too easily
A TPK is a big deal, and you don’t want the party to get off lightly for it. In the case of the forest gnome adventure, I felt that a few sessions lost in the Feywild felt like a reasonable consequence for whatever unwise decision they choose to make.
In both sessions I’ve run Phandelver, both parties defeated Venomfang. I still have the TPK insurance ready to go, though. It will likely activate at a time that they have completely forgotten about it 😉