Owning the TPK

So, a couple of days ago a friend who runs a D&D campaign contacted me and asked if I had any modules or adventures set in the land of the dead, Hell or the like. Now immediately my mind jumped to two places, Ghostwalk, a little used 3rd ed expansion that lets you play, unsurprisingly, as a ghost (comment below if you’d like to see a review of it) and, of course, to Planescape. What setting is better to use when you need to set an adventure in a character’s personal idea of Hell than the setting that actually has Hell in it (with the way better name of Baator)? This of course led me to wonder why, after all most of my players, as this friend has been on occasion, tend to shy away from the Planes (after a disastrous 4th ed jaunt there), and it turns out that, much like every one of us who has DM’d a game for any length of time, he’d suffered a TPK in his own game.

For those new to roleplaying a TPK is that most dreaded of DMing situations, it’s when something has gone wrong and, for one reason or another the party all die, you suffer a Total Party Kill. TPKs can happen for any number of reasons, bad dice rolling for the players, good dice rolling for the DM (whether a DM should ever fudge the dice is a debate for another day), an encounter gone wrong, bad planning, you are playing Shadowrun or the DM simply wants to.

I’ll start with the last point as it’s by far the easiest to address. The DM should never intentionally cause a TPK just for the sake of it, NEVER. If you are playing with a DM who just kills your party for the sake of it, call them on it and if they still do it, then stop playing with them. There are many reasons a DM might do it, to punish the party, because they are bored and want to end the game, or because they want to ‘win’ but none of these are a good enough excuse. If the players have done something to annoy you, call them on it but don’t abuse the power of being a DM. If you are bored with the game, tell the players, take a break, or round up the campaign quickly and if you want to ‘win’ then play a wargame because roleplay is about cooperative storytelling (unless you are playing hardcore basic D&D). I repeat, you should NEVER intentionally cause a TPK just for the sake of it.

That said, TPKs can and do happen, entirely by accident. This is what happened to my friend and it’s happened to me on numerous occasions. For me, most recently, it happened in Shadowrun after the players misjudged a very difficult encounter. The dice were against them and this led to them being ambushed and taken down, to a character. When this kind of accidental TPK happens it’s disheartening for the whole table, the players are angry at the DM and feel powerless and the DM is embarrassed and dismayed that it happened and that all their hard work and best laid plans have been for naught.

All this leads me to the point of this article, which is making TPKs work for you. It took me a good number of years to come to this realisation and more TPKs than I’m entirely comfortable with and so if I help just one other DM out and save them and their players from the scourge of the TPK, then my work is done.

The best thing you can do is see a TPK as an opportunity, another twist in the story that builds the legends of the characters. If you handle it the right way then the players won’t walk away from the table angry and upset, they’ll remember the session for being momentous and tell stories about it for years to come. It takes a little work to pull this off the right way but it’s worth the effort to keep your campaign alive and your group engaged in the story you are trying to tell.

The easiest way to own a TPK is to plan for it in advance. I know this sounds a little weird and smacks of intentionally causing the TPK, but as with all aspects of DMing, the key is preparation. As I’ve said, a TPK should be viewed as another plot twist and so by planning ahead for this possibility you can react to it quickly and make sure that a session doesn’t end early and on a somber note. It’s far better to end a game telling the party that they wake up, stripped to their loincloths in a dank dungeon lit by flickering light, with a masked jailer looming over them, than “everyone needs a new character for next week”.

When planning a campaign you should always have an encounter in mind for what will happen if a TPK happens. This just needs to be a very basic framework, something along the lines of being captured by the enemy, waking up as a ghost, waking up as a spirit in heaven/hell/limbo or becoming undead, whatever best fits your campaign and, most importantly, whatever you are most comfortable with.

The easiest and most generic is probably being captured as this fits the most settings and games, in Shadowrun it can be captured by Mitsuhama or the Ancients, in Deadlands it could be imprisoned on the Rock by Reverend Grimme, in Dark Heresy it could be captured and prepared for sacrifice to Nurgle and in Edge of the Empire the Hutts could have taken your party prisoner and plan on selling them as slaves! This is probably the most common ‘get out’ in TV, films and literature as well, just think how many times you have read a book and the hero has been beaten and captured only to have to effect an escape from prison. It’s often this defeat that makes a character reevaluate and come back stronger later and it adds depth to the story.

The point to take away from this is that planning for what happens if a TPK occurs puts you in control, it lets you keep the action moving and prevents all your hard work from disappearing in a few bad dice rolls. A basic framework gives you an idea of what you will do if the worst happens and then every level, or few sessions you can update the plan to fit the story. This just means making sure you have a couple of basic encounters planned and the power level is roughly appropriate as the detail can be filled in between sessions after the TPK has occurred. Once you have this ready then you never have to be left at a loss if the worst happens.

Now I know I said that a DM should never intentionally cause a TPK just for the sake of it and I mean it, but if you are comfortable with everything so far then you can turn the TPK into an interesting tool to add further depth to your campaign. We already know that a TPK can and will cause a severe emotional reaction in your players, and it should because that means they are invested in their characters and in the game, but what if you use that to your advantage? You could have the party think they have the key to killing Verrex the Necromancer only to have him surprise with a powerful item that disintegrates them instantly. Then, just as the players are about to howl in outrage, you describe their souls as waking up some miles away, hand out some XP and pull out Ghostwalk. All of a sudden the horror of a TPK gives way to intrigue and new tools to finally take down that pesky Necromancer and save the land of Generica forever. It can be a risky move but timed right it can make a campaign.

In the case of my friend I offered a little advice as to how I’d handle the situation, I said that I’d have their souls wake up, unarmed and unarmored somewhere in the Lower Planes, being prodded by a spear being wielded by a Baatezu before being dragged to a slave wagon. I’d let that sink in, maybe play the horror of it up a bit and then give them a chance to escape and grab some weapons, perhaps a Tanaari ambush. Then I’d let them explore a bit, learn where they are and eventually let them learn of a portal home. I’d then throw in a twist; to get to the portal, as well as get their mortal forms and equipment back, they’d need to make a deal with a Yugoloth, perhaps an Altraloth like Anthraxus or Bubonix. Of course as they need multiple favours they’d need to make multiple deals which invariably would be to owe the Yugoloth a few services, to be named later. Once the party was home I’d have have those favours to use later when I wanted to complicate things for the players. This way the TPK turns into multiple adventures for the players and becomes an exciting plot twist and not a campaign ending nightmare.

As I’ve hopefully conveyed, with a little bit of planning anyone can stop their game being derailed by a few unfortunate events. Forward thinking can turn the worst situation a DM can face into a great opportunity to mix things up for the players, maybe let them earn a few abilities that would otherwise be out of reach and to make a few new friends or enemies to complicate things later. Planning ahead put you back in control and lets you own the TPK.

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