Mining for Mechanics: TPK or not TPK – that is the question

RPGs are host a million different acronyms that can be intimidating for a new player, so I’ll state for the record that TPK means Total Party Kill. That is, something that the GM does kills every member of the party. Dead. Over. New character time. It’s got its own Twitter hashtag, it’s got products dedicated to it, and is about as ubiquitous a concept as you get in RPG games.

My mental meanderings for today about  why and how a TPK happens, and whether a GM should be allowing it at all. That’ll require us to touch briefly on what a GM is supposed to achieve before we get to the answer.

The GM’s role
Much has been written on the role of the GM, in fact I gather there are whole books on the subject. Baffling. As for my take on it, the GM’s job is to shape, guide and above all ensure that the game is fun. In an RPG that means drama, it means story, and it means achievement.

Creating drama does rely on a belief that the PCs could die, that there is real risk to them and the world they inhabit is a dangerous place full of conflict they can attempt to resolve. That means a world where a PC death or even a TPK could happen is a necessity. If there’s no challenge, there is no drama. The game can still be fun though good roleplaying, the meta-interactions at the table and the storytelling, but a crucial element of adventure is missing.

How and why a TPK happens
A TPK can be the result of a few things. Bad luck is an obvious ones. The players roll a few ones, the nasty thing you threw at them lands a crit on the healer in round two and all of a sudden, you are quite literally dicing with death. He is there at the table blowing on your dice and it is all going horribly wrong.

Another way is that the GM has put out monsters or NPCs that are simply way overpowered and the PCs are getting chewed up. This can happen, to err is human, and I find it hard to believe there is a GM alive who hasn’t got the challenge of an encounter horribly wrong at some point.

It is also possible of course, that the PCs overextend themselves. “Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear“. Yep, I’ve done that too. This doesn’t mean they’re bad players either.

A crucial element of allowing a TPK to happen however is a lack of GM intervention. It does not (generally) happen instantly. It generally takes a few rounds, a few dice rolls, and most importantly a few GM decisions.

TPK or not TPK, that is the question?
Let me be clear about this, I do not believe TPKs should happen in RPG games, unless there is an extremely good reason for it to happen and it brings the collaborative story you have all been involved in to a gripping and emotional end.

As the GM, you have ultimate control, you are the deus and the machina of the Deus ex machinaWe are all willing to accept these, quite amazingly so, to save characters we love from catastrophe. What better place to employ them than when we are literally faced with our story ending in the second act? Sure, let that first PC die, that’s our drama, but don’t let them all die. They must live to fight again another day and avenge their fallen comrade (or knowing my players, loot the lifeless body).

I’ve resisted the temptation of numbered lists thus far, but I’ll employ one here. I’ll also reject the idea of calling this article 4+ ways to save your party from TPK (#3 will blow your mind).

  1. Have another groups of NPCs arrive, one of them can even end up joining the group as the new PC if that suits. The world has other groups of adventurers and arrival in the nick of time is a trope almost as old as time.
  2. Have an environmental event disrupt the combat. Rain, wind, tunnel collapse, something. This lets the bad guys get away and have them show up again when your PCs are ready and can take the advantage. This event can even be magical as part of the meeting a new questgiver.
  3. Reveal a conflict within the group of enemies, a dispute between two of them comes to a head and infighting breaks out. One of them has a pathological fear of something about the PCs or something they do. As your PCs have wounded the orc leader, #2 sees his chance to rise to the top and backstabs him. Ooh, drama.
  4. Weaken the enemy. Make it turn out they have a disease, or are hungry, or tired and nerf their stats there and then. That dragon that they happened across is out hunting and has attacked the PCs instead of some goats because it is weak, and it doesn’t represent a full strength dragon.
  5. Have the enemy capture the PCs and take them to their leader/village/friendly local slave auction. If a bunch of goblins come across some people who put up a fight, maybe they think they’re more valuable alive than dead.
  6. Have the heroes spot a hidden exit, and get the hell out of dodge. The enemies can make chase, but give up after a while, shaking their fists and bellowing “We’ll get you next time!” (make sure there is a next time).
  7. I saved this one till last, because it may seem risky and counter-intuitive. Bring in more monsters. Are your PCs getting beat down by a load of Troglodytes in a swamp? A dracolisk hears all the commotion and fancies a couple of Trogs for lunch. This causes some chaos and lets the players slink off or take the upper hand.

I’m sure there are a million more ways to do this, and I’d like to hear about them for sure. Drop a comment down the bottom or if you’re interested in doing it in 140 characters, do it on Twitter.

Bonus idea: time investment vs emotional investment
All players have put time into their characters. Even a Hero Lab ninja with a gift for instant backstory has spent a bit of time crafting his latest PC, and for many GMs, there will be players who have taken the plunge and made their very first PC, which is no small achievement.

If that PC dies in session three of your campaign, was the time invested in poring over books picking spells and abilities worth it? Remember that deliberation over how to allocate the dice results as stats? Remember that 20 minute discussion about buying a longsword vs a falchion? All that is dust in the wind. It is washed away into the aether and the ratio of time invested vs fun may not have been worth it. As a GM, an arbiter of enjoyment and a custodian of fun, you should be avoiding this.

Equally, you’re a year into your campaign, and your PC has some exploits under his belts, a couple of baller magic items, and a blossoming relationship with this handsome farmer’s son they met at the tavern, and then a lucky goblin lands an arrow in the eye as his pal sinks a dagger into their leg and catches an artery and its all over. Was that fun? Or was it just sad? As the table’s curator of pleasure and guardian of good times, you should be avoiding killing PCs that will upset players.



Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Jon Greenreply
April 10, 2017 at 4:49 pm

A great article. However – I don’t agree that PCs should be effectively immortal. Death is as important a part of a PC’s story as their life. They put themselves in dangerous situations, and those situations *should* be dangerous. A PC death every now and again should be expected. However, the way that death is handled is so, so important. Give them a death that can be fabled for character generations to come, and for the player’s playing career. Make it memorable.

“OK, Fred’s dead. You’re out of this combat. Start rolling another character, and we’ll come back to you when the combat’s done.” Yeah, that is a truly bad way to handle it. Unfortunately, some GMs do do this. A better way might be:

“Fred, impaled through and through on the lych’s sword, slowly slides off it, and slumps to the ground, his body wrecked beyond hope of repair, and cursed beyond hope of resurrection. But Neydara does not forget her own, and Fred was faithful to the end. As the last light extinguishes in his eyes, a faint, ethereal blue nimbus envelops his ruined shell.

“After a moment, that nimbus moves extends to envelop the lych too – but now it’s a pale red, and the lych has a look of abject, stunned horror on what is left of its face.

“Gronk, you’re up next.”

NOW the player has a tale to tell! So does the rest of the party, and Fred’s demise might have saved the others.

April 10, 2017 at 8:49 pm

The first TPK I averted was a one -PC party. Maybe there were two characters, but one player. Anyhow, the character triggered a gate trap. I hadn’t read the pre-fab adventure and the character should have had help. There were files, but according to the dice, it didn’t work.

Long story short, the character, a second level character, found a portable hole. He slid it under the gate, and slipped under the gate and went on to dominate my campaign.

The game would not have been the same without the survival of this character. Giving a portable hole out like that seems silly now, but hey. People win the lotto now and again, right? Besides, later we learned (Decided) that he was heir to a literal Empire and it was his destiny to destroy the dynasty. How could he do that if he were alive?

(He destroys it by becoming Chaotic Good as he runs from his destiny, then returns to find that his government is Lawful Evil. So he abolishes it and institutes a form of Democracy. This is post-campaign/epilogue, however.)

Matt Sandersreply
April 11, 2017 at 12:23 am

Hi Jon, I definitely agree PCs shouldn’t be immortal. I think the party as a group should be much tougher though. I believe that allowing a PC or two to die creates drama and this fabled end effect you speak of, which I really like. I think killing the party can make a story fall flat. Not always, but sometimes.

A suggestion to consider from someone else who read this. When a PC is about to die, give them an additional heroic death action as an effectively free round, in which they automatically crit on what they do. I think this has potential to create some good stories.

Hi James,
Cool to hear your story, and just goes to show, keeping PCs alive can make a big difference.

scott hetrickreply
April 11, 2017 at 12:25 am

I really hate TPKs I’ve had them as a GM and have to wonder if its my fault or the players, Sometimes mine and sometimes theirs, but sometimes you have to let the dice decide and if the players are playing stupid games then they should win stupid prizes. However. if its just a bunch of bad roles I’m more than likely to fudge the roles and give the players a chance. Either way it sucks.

The Trenchcoat Dwarfreply
April 11, 2017 at 12:27 am
– In reply to: scott hetrick

Hopefully some of the other ways I suggested will help you fudge a bit less.

A big thing coming out of the discussion on Facebook was that a lot of players don’t like fudged rolls, but do accept storytelling fudges more willingly.

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