The Day After the TPK

An anxiety many role-players, on either side of the GameMaster's screen share, is the possibility of a Total Party Kill. It probably doesn't happen often, and some gaming groups won't even let it happen (I myself gravitate to games where permanent death isn't really an issue). But in RPGs where death IS possible, a run of bad luck (i.e. bad dice rolls) and bad decisions could very well cost everyone in the "party" their lives. And many fear that moment when all the time they've invested in a campaign and those characters is wasted. No resolution to be had. And probably no motivation to make all new characters from scratch and somehow continue the campaign (assuming, of course, this wasn't a staged, "wanted" tragedy in keeping with a dark campaign).

A GM would probably think of allowing a Mulligan at this point, or ignore the results of the characters' actions and the players' dice rolls, perhaps pull a deus ex machina out of his ass. I've probably done it myself. But letting the TPK happen could conceivably provide fertile ground for gaming. Here are some options for enterprising gamers...

Total Party Knockout
You'll need sentient enemies for this most simple of solutions (if the party fell into molten lava, you're out of luck). Essentially, the characters weren't dead, just rendered unconscious. They wake up with a fraction of their hit points, captives, hostages, test subjects, or slaves. It's not a cheat, merely a PERCEPTION of danger. They'll be glad to be alive, and have new challenges to face.

It Was All a Dream
Now THIS is a cheat, and I've had a GameMaster do this to me after total party killing his long-standing group (along with try-outs like me; we never returned). Awkwardly hesitating while his friends screamed at him because their high-level characters were dead, then deciding to say it "all an illusion" DID seem like a cheat. So whatever you choose to do, keep your cool, that's a lesson I learned that day. How DO you make the dream work? Have one character wake up in cold sweat; it was the anxiety talking. So the other characters were just figments of the imagination in those scenes; that was surely done for effect, to make it feel real. The best version of this idea makes the dream premonitory. The action repeats and they realize it was prophecy - can they change their fate? Another version takes a page from heist movies and ends not with a character waking up, but with his or her plan shouted down by the others. If your group has just rested up, or if they're big planners, either of these options might work.

They died for realz, but are resurrected some time later. Undead? Clones? Divine intervention? Faked their own deaths the way superheroes and superspies tend to? That really depends on the campaign world. It might also come with new problems, that way, they really do pay for their blunder. A clone might need to build all that muscle again. Someone raised by a necromancer would have all the classic weaknesses of the undead. Don't be afraid of taking your story into bizarre territory.

The Next Generation
They died for realz. Again. And no raising the dead, this time. Instead, the villains have won, and some time later, a new generation of heroes rises up to take the place of their parents (grandparents? granduncles?). This formula allows the GM to change the campaign world for the worst and create loads of new opportunities for gaming. Not only that, but the one-scenario villain takes on an epic quality - he killed the realm's great heroes and changed the world in his image.
Come With Me If You Want to Live
A variation on the deus ex machina that might work in campaigns where super technology or high magic are possible is to have future versions of the characters be the instruments of their own salvation. You've just branded the time line one that's been tampered with and probably outed the villain as a time traveler, and that's bound the send the campaign spinning into epic territory. Wouldn't it be fun to replay the rescue from the other perspective when the time comes?

Oh You Thought THEY Were the Protagonists?
When characters are new and inexperienced, they may be more vulnerable to Total Party Kills. What do you do when the dead party was made up of neophytes the players hadn't fully invested in? Is it worth salvaging the campaign? If the players are open to it, how about using the event as the kind of twist we sometimes see in movies? We're following characters and assume they're the heroes. BAM! They're wiped out. And we realize the story is really about the group that killed them, or the people who investigate their murders, etc. And these new characters, I bet the players won't be making the same chargen mistakes they made when the system was too new to them, right?

Death Is the Beginning, Not the End
You liked the characters and their dynamic, but aren't married to the setting? How about this: The characters die and all wake up on another world. They are themselves as far as personality and general ability go, but the previous campaign was either an elaborate simulation, or they've been "reincarnated" (as adults) in this parallel universe. And maybe it's a jump they make every so often, cursed to sacrifice themselves again and again, going through the GM's large RPG collection...

Man, that almost makes me WANT to cause a Total Party Kill. What have I just unleashed?


Anonymous said...

My group throws tantrums when their characters die. They spend hours min-maxing and get so invested in their characters it really upsets them to see them die. I wish we were still teenagers but we're in our late 30's early 40's! Sad really...

Siskoid said...

Well that's a whole other kind of investment, not one my players indulge in very much at all.

If they were to lose a character, the shame of it would be in its personality and back story and future plans.

Craig Oxbrow said...

Nice work. I've never seen a TPK outside of horror or Paranoia, although my very first session came so close it may have scared me off the idea.

Siskoid said...

Paranoia is made for it, but I'm not sure I ever actually got there with it.

I've had it happen in Dream Park, but the characters aren't really dead in that, so I let it after some abominable decisions. The story deserves its own post, really.

So there's really just that one time I referred to when I was on the receiving end.

I just don't gravitate to games where it's much of an issue (DP, DrWho, HKAT, the supers genre), but I've played quite a bit of GURPS where the deadly system kept the players from trying anything too crazy (or else we plugged in cinematic rules).

Jeff R. said...

Close but far enough for a number from 6 is 7: In the Afterlife, in which they find themselves some form of land of the dead or underworld appropriate to their setting, come to the attention of the people in charge of it (or the most prominent rebel against those people, depending), and strike a bargain to do some major questing there or back home in return for a reprieve. Works better if they were pretty darn powerful when they died and the cosmology isn't set up to scatter them across a dozen different planes upon death. Advantage: you get to re-use any and all of your dead NPCs...

Andrew Gilbertson said...

My current (Star Wars RPG) group has almost managed a TPK, but in rotating cycles- 1-2 characters every session until only 1 original character remains, and the rest have all been replaced. We've gotten creative about how.why new group members joined the party, but were running at extreme risk that if the last legacy character died off, all the newcomers would have no logical reason to finish his original mission (that drove the campaign). It's gotten to the point that a character ended on a cliffhanger last session, and just went home and created a new player before finding out, to his surprise, that his character would be surviving.

Of course, given their record with flying vehicles (5 out of 5 vehicles obtained having been destroyed almost immediately over the course of 7 sessions), they risk a TPK every time the whole group gets on a ship. :-)

I did kinda mulligan out the wazoo to keep a 50% party kill when half of them took the equivalent of a flying Uhaul off of a dying atmospheric transport (a.k.a. passenger jumbo jet equivalent) to escape some TIE fighters... but mostly because a player who was off getting married (his droid had 'suddenly run out of batteries' to account for his absence, and was being carted around by the other players) was carried aboard, and it seemed unfair to kill him off while he was absent.

Siskoid said...

Any options here that might bail you out?

I hadn't thought of spaceship TPK, but it must be an important risk in space opera games!

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Yes, and a terrible one- five players, one pilot... and if he screws up his rolls, it can kill everyone without their being able to do a thing about it.

And yes... a few options I may be considering, especially the Knockout (obviously, not for the starship angle) or the 'Oh, You thought THEY were the main protagonist' options.

Siskoid said...

Haha, keep switching between Jedi and Sith teams.


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