Turning a TPK Lemon Into PC Lemonade

So, I killed a party.

We were running Curse of Strahd, and they stumbled into a vampire nest at 3rd level, and it was literally a bloodbath. Technically, it wasn’t a TPK; three PCs died and the other two fled. The point being, it was effectively a campaign ender. I walked away from the table frustrated and annoyed that I’d let my players down.

Except … my players didn’t want the campaign to end. They were enjoying Curse of Strahd and they wanted a chance to redeem themselves and conquer Castle Ravenloft. Two PCs were still alive. Couldn’t they gather a new group and continue on?

I was heartened by their desire to push forward, and so I eagerly agreed that they could. But this being Ravenloft, they couldn’t just head to the nearest tavern and hire on a few stalwart sword-swingers and spell-slingers to their cause. Where would they find fellow adventurers in the grim, soul-starved streets of Barovia?

This is where I decided to be creative. Honestly,  while I love the new edition of D&D, one thing I kind of miss from my days of 3.5/Pathfinder was the granular way each character could be made unique. As a DM, trying to keep track of all the player options and subraces and hybrid classes in Pathfinder can be a huge hassle; but as a player, it’s meant over the years that I could really craft a page of stats that made my character wholly my own and unlike any other.

D&D 5e is many things, but eminently flexible in its character customization isn’t really one of them. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for novelty. I decided that the best way to introduce novelty was with the Backgrounds system. I have always encouraged my PCs to eschew the premade backgrounds in favor of a’la carte backgrounds if they so desired; they simply had to pick two skills, a couple proficiencies and a background trait that would fit with their story and character. As a character-driven person myself, I love helping my players come up with unique traits. Background traits have a catch, though: they never, ever affect die rolls. But what if they did?

IMG_0583 (1)Since this was Curse of Strahd and since the module establishes that Strahd draws PCs into Barovia all the time, I decided that each new PC in the group would be, like the two remaining PCs, the sole survivor of a prior party killed in a nasty way by the horrors of Barovia. I then wrote out the “death story” for each PC — the moment where it all went wrong — and devised both a beneficial Trait and a hindering Flaw that each PC would have as a result of their harrowing experience.

Here, for example, is what I wrote for one of the two PCs who survived the encounter with the vampire nest.

You know the story. The problem wasn’t that your inexperienced party stumbled into a vampire nest that was beyond your skills to challenge; the problem was that you went back in expecting a different result. Now your friends are dead, and you are haunted nightly by the horrors you faced in that dark attic. The mere thought of facing another vampire sends waves of fear and revulsion shuddering up your spine, but you know that, if you ever want to free yourself and this land from the Mists, you will have to face them again eventually.

Sanguivoraphobia [flaw]: When facing Vampires, you must succeed at a WIS or CHA saving throw, DC 10 + the CR of the creature, or all attack rolls against that creature are at Disadvantage that combat. If you fail the saving throw, you may use your Action in any given round to try and shake off the Disadvantage (by making a second saving throw).

Revulsion (Vampires) [trait]: When facing Vampires, you make all Saving Throws against vampire abilities and spells, as well as all opposed Ability Checks, at Advantage. In addition, you add your Proficiency bonus to any Knowledge, Investigation, or Insight check concerning Vampires.

Here’s another example: one of the backgrounds I wrote for one of the new characters.

It was supposed to be a simple adventure: clear the abandoned church of its foul undead inhabitants … but then the floor gave way, dumping you all into the basement crypts and waking what lurked there. There were so many of them. The walls began to cave in as rotting undead pushed through, and the crypt seemed to hold an endless number of mindless, shambling, hungry things. Your party was overwhelmed by their grabbing claws, their fetid breath, their incessant moans.

Somehow, someone started a fire; you think it might have been the mage, and you’re almost certain you heard the rogue’s oil lantern shatter first. Unfortunately, not only did your companions not make it out alive, but the last zombies you saw as you pulled your way out of the basement and fled before the fire consumed them, was the face of your dearest friend, the one you’d adventured with the longest, staring up at you with hungry, lifeless eyes. You mercifully put a blade through their skull and watched as they dropped back into the flames.

To this day, the memory of their zombified face haunts your dreams. It has placed in your both a fear of death and a hatred for the mindless undead.

Thantaphobia [flaw]: During combat, if you drop below 10 hp, but are not yet at 0 hp, you must make a WIS Saving Throw [DC 20 minus remaining hit points]. If you fail the save, you gain the Frightened condition against all foes until you are healed to10 hp or above.

Horde Breaker [trait]: When facing mindless undead, you gain the Horde Breaker ability: Once on each of your turns when you make a weapon attack, you can make another attack with the same weapon against a different creature that is within 5 feet of the original target and within range of your weapon.

As you can see, these traits and flaws are a step above what a character background would normally allow, in that these all affect dice rolls — something the designers were careful to avoid with the PHB (and other officially released) backgrounds. But I like the idea of a traumatic incident in the PC’s past having a real effect on their ability to survive inside of Barovia. This being Ravenloft, I decided that using phobias was a fun way to give a nod to the old fear and horror checks of the original campaign setting.

I presented the backgrounds to my players at our first session post-party kill, and  so far the traits have been met with approval. They’ve slipped into role-playing, helped sway combat, and generally given the players one more thing to draw on as they navigate encounters. One thing I’ve been sure to do is to keep the backgrounds in mind as I plan the game; a trait like this is useless if it never comes up in the game, and so it has forced me to make sure I’m using a variety of encounter types that give each player their moments to shine (and to cower in fear).

All in all, I like the idea of traits and flaws in 5e. It’s a way to bring in a little of that Pathfinder flare without significantly unbalancing or rewriting the core classes. That is also encourages characterization is also cool; in fact, in the future, I may allow my players to select traits and flaws themselves … provided the can also come up with a cool background story to go with them.

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