GM Advice: The TPK

I have written about death in your game in a previous article and with recent event in my own game I thought it was time for me to write about the dreaded Total Party Kill. TPKs happen, often unexpectedly, but they don’t necessarily spell the end of your carefully crafted story.

First I want to take a look at the probable causes of the party’s demise. When a single player character dies on their own it is often boiled down to a poor decision on a player’s part. I myself have fallen victim to the “I got this.” mentality when my characters died more times than I can count. Other times a named monster or villain gets a lucky shot in at just the wrong moment; or worse it comes down to a failed save versus something deadly; just poor luck there really. But what about when the entire party bites the big one? Where does the fault lie?

A die roll or a series of rolls?

GM fiat?

A string of poor decisions made by one player who is having a bad day and has decided to blow it all to the ninth circle of hell?

It could be all of the above really. The first thing you want to do as a GM is derail the train of thought about placing blame. It will lead to the dark side and can drive a nail into the heart of the most hard-boiled groups. Break things up by taking a break, get snacks or drinks while you think on where to go next. When the game reconvenes, talk to your players and get their perspective on what they want to do next, and then plan accordingly. If the TPK happens early into your game night, spend the rest of the evening playing a different game (Zombicide often hits my table) and get everyone back into a good headspace. After the night is over, plan your next move.

And what move should that be? With an (almost) fresh start it can be whatever you want it to be. The sky is the limit. Why (almost)? Well, just because the party is dead it doesn’t have to mean that you are done with them. In a fantasy setting you can now run an adventure of an indeterminate length of the party trying to fight through the underworld for the right to live again and continue where they left off. And if they succeed, a time jump to a few years or even decades from when they died can be a possibility. In a more modern or sci-fi game may be the party is captured by the evil scientist or group and brought back to life with “enhancements” insert devious giggle here. Heck it doesn’t even have to be the bad guys doing the experimenting. Perchance your players own employer dispatched a group to retrieve the bodies of the party and then goes to work on them. You can even have the players play the rescuers.

I also like the idea of the next group of adventures living in the world that the old characters failed to save. You can make the world as dystopic as you want. Or maybe even the changes that the old party turned out to be for the better but it is now a totalitarian society that new party is rebelling against. You have a wealth of opportunities when the party suffers a total kill. Even a random wipe.

Now that you have ideas to work in a random TPK and not have everything go to heck. Why not try a deliberate TPK. You don’t even have to tell your players that you are planning it ahead of time. Just drop it on them at a moment of high tension. Have your story guide them to a point where victory almost seems at hand and then push them off the cliff with a backup plan to screw things for them. At the time it may seem like all their effort was for naught and could lead to some hard feelings so the purposeful party wipe is not for the faint of heart. Your group needs to have faith in your ability to weave a story and not leave them out in the cold.

One thing that worked for me as a player is that my GM brought me in on the plan and my character was to turn traitor in the battle that lead to the “wipe”; after the things happened we handed in our sheets at the end of the session and there was a few days of radio silence from the GM. Then when we were about to get together for our normal game, the preceding day we received our characters back. The other had slight modifications, extra perks or enhancements whilst I made a new character. My original one had become an NPC and the new focus for the party to hunt down. Good times.

If you really want to go the distance and have the mental fortitude and dedication you can have several TPKs or wipes. Even if they don’t involve the party dying; really, a wipe is simply starting over. If your party is particularly successful you can have the original group of characters retire or start their own long term plans and run a multi-generational game where the new party is their descendants or servants. The options are whatever you want to make them. Talk it out with your players outside of the game and see what they thing about long term goals, they may surprise you.

In short when faced with a TPK, remember this:


Until you say it is.

Thank you for reading and happy rolling.

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