As a referee, I enjoy seeing PCs set goals for themselves and achieve them. It’s most enjoyable for everyone when they “win”—at least partially— but when they lose—completely— it gives me confidence that, while I may have my bias, I am applying the rules fairly and that there is a meaningful level of risk in the game. Losing completely of course means that a PC, or all the PCs, get killed, and this is what happened in our less session.
This adventure took place at the ruined gatehouse near Hommelet (Yes, that Hommelet.) on the continent of Alyan (my own faux-Europe/Middle Earth kind-of-place) which is on the other side of the world from Zipang, Zhou Dang, and Khanbaliq. Three of the five players created new first-level characters. One of the players was playing for the first time, and two had never played in this part of the world. Bubu Singe was playing Rahm Sabine, a fighter who had previously explored the moathouse, but was still first level. White Bear played Aurelia, a cleric who had reached 3rd level in other adventures. The travelers met, as if by chance, at the taven of a well-known inn.
The trip out to gatehouse was uneventful; entering the moat house provided the first major challenge. Although Rahm had prepared his companions for the giant frogs in the moats, he was surprised by the pack of rabid dogs who had taken up residence in the courtyard. Rahm himself was severely mauled and they all had to return to Hommelet to rest before making their second sortie.
Once inside, they proceeded efficiently. Rahm helped them avoid the green slime as they entered the dungeon level and the new player (a thief) was a skilled mapmaker. They found the secret passage into an area of the dungeon where the uniformed soldiers of an evil cult made their quarters, surprising and dispatching two sentries. But not before the sentries raised a general alarm. The party retreated and organized a defense; they eliminated the first wave of attackers with nothing more than minor wounds. But when they stepped into a doorway, making plans for a barricade, they were surprised by the crossbowmen waiting just outside. And although this second and third wave of attacking cultists sustained heavy casualties, they provided sufficient cover for a spellcaster to incapacitate the party. Rahm himself and his henchman Dexter were killed; Aurelia, Chiara, and Mapper were held, and Ausric, a magic-user, surrendered, asking to join the evil cultists.
Lots of decisions for the DM. What do evil cultists do with captured prisoners? Do they have need of new minions? For what purposes? How do they test their loyalty? Some of the answers could be pretty nasty and others pretty boring. (Or both. i.e. latrine duty.) Is that the game we want to play, or is it easier to just call this a TPK?