Greatest Hits 2010: Embracing The Total Party Kill

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on December 28, 2010

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2010. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

Until recently I’d never played in a game where a character, let alone an entire party, was willing to accept their own death in order to ensure the accomplishment of the greater good. When Wimwick wrote this article I thought it made for an interesting discussion, but I never expected to ever see it happen during play. After all, you work so hard and so long to earn XP and build up your character that I just couldn’t see anyone willing letting that character die. And then I actually saw it happen. Twice.

The first time I saw this kind of self-sacrifice was as the DM. Our campaign was about to reach its final climax. The PCs were about to complete a quest that spanned 20 levels. However, in order to accomplish their task someone had to sacrifice them self in order to stop a powerful evil from escaping an arcane prison. As the DM I had three important NPCs ready to step in since I knew none of the PCs would willingly make this sacrifice. I was stunned when everyone in the party agreed to do it. I only needed one volunteer, but all the players were willing to give up their PC to accomplish this goal. In the end the Wizard, the PC who had been with the campaign the longest, made the ultimate sacrifice. I never expected any of the players to feel so strongly about the story that they’d be willing to do this, yet they all stepped up. I finally understood what Wimwick was talking about in this article and it was awesome.

The second time I experienced this was as a player in a one-off game. Although we just met these characters and liked them a great deal, it became evident that our mission was too important to fail. We didn’t set out on a suicide mission, but when certain events transpired and we realized that our own mistakes were going to spell failure for the mission we decided to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. In the end that meant a total party kill as we took on a task that we knew we’d never return from. It was one of the most exciting adventures I’d ever played in and even though I’d only played that character once, I’ll always remember him.

If you’re the DM and you make the players care enough about the story then there is always the chance that they’ll make the ultimate sacrifice and embrace the TPK. It’s one thing for a party to face overwhelming odds and get wiped out, it’s an entirely diffident circumstance when the players realize that they’re facing death and do so honourably in order for good to prevail.

From June 18, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Embracing The Total Party Kill

It’s not something we like to think about, the death of the party, the end of the campaign. On occasion it is the right thing to do. Earlier this week we discussed Avoiding The Total Party Kill. This task falls jointly on the shoulders of the DM and the players. Embracing The Total Party Kill, falls on the players and is a decision that only they can make.

The rational for that is simple, no DM should be deliberately designing encounters that cause a TPK. It just isn’t fair to the players. The exception being if the campaign is a test of survival where the DM and the players are battling it out to see who will prevail. In these instances the PCs are normally disposable and there is little story to the campaign, just combat.

With a normal campaign, one that balances story, role playing and combat together the idea of a TPK is usually in the back of everyone’s mind. It’s locked up in the closest, best forgotten about. However, there are instances when a TPK just makes sense. The occasions are usually related to the story telling and role playing aspect of the game.

There needs to be a compelling reason for the players to justify a TPK and it’s rare that the whole party might agree on the issue. After all several players might really enjoy playing their PCs. After months of playing and levelling up a PC who wants to throw it away just for the sake of the story? I would imagine few players are truly willing to do contemplate this, never mind executing on the idea.

Recognizing The Disconnect

Part of the reason embracing a TPK is unthinkable is due to the disconnect we have due to our social circumstance. For the most part we live in a free society that is relatively safe. We don’t have the perils that faced society five hundred or a thousand years ago. We have health care and sanitation. We have elected governments, not Kings who could send us off to war at a moments notice.

Further, we’re playing a game and we want to keep playing this game in the way we understand and that we find comfortable. Character death, let alone the complete party’s death is not usually a comfortable experience, it also leaves the DM with a shattered campaign to deal with. For more on how the DM can handle the PCs ending the campaign read our article on When Players Kill The Campaign.

Overcoming the disconnect between the comfort of our modern life and the disappointment of character death requires a level of immersion. Embracing the TPK is a role playing decision and as such it requires strong in game motivation. Think of the movie 300, those men marched off to what they knew and understood to be certain death. They also understood why they were making that decision, beyond their loyalty to their King.

Building The Immersion

Ironically a player led initiative to end the campaign through a TPK is most often going to occur because the DM has done an outstanding job at making the players care about the game world. The level of immersion and the buy in from the players provides the necessary rationale for them to execute a TPK.

The players aren’t going to make this decision lightly and it isn’t going to happen early in the campaign. The players don’t know their PCs well enough early in the campaign for them to initiate a TPK. Also, it’s doubtful that any plot devices of significant consequence exists that would warrant the PCs to make this type of decision. It’s only as the story is built upon and the players become involved that the notion of a party driven TPK becomes remotely possible.

Committing To The Action

A player led TPK will occur when two critical elements align. First, the drama or point of action needs to be at a critical moment. A random encounter of no consequence isn’t going to generate this type of action or sense of purpose. More likely this moment will occur during a climactic moment of the campaign. Second, the encounter is just enough to push the PCs to the edge. They might begin questioning if they are going to survive at all. Healing surges are low and daily powers are expended.

It’s at this point that the players might wonder if they’d like the campaign to have an epic ending. By sacrificing themselves for the sake of the story or campaign an event will have been created that they will discuss at the gaming table for years to come. It’s a rare eventuality, but if this combination of events comes to pass so too might the party driven TPK.

More likely you’re going to have one player who decides that his PC will make the sacrifice allowing the party to complete its objective. While this will make for a heroic death it doesn’t have the same impact as the entire party deciding to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

Has your party ever made the decision to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the game? Has the story the DM created been so compelling that it warranted the death of the entire party.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liam Gallagher December 28, 2010 at 12:09 pm

What is your take on a TPK that could come about as a result of the party’s (preceved) failure? Say you as the DM build a fortress that the party wants to raid, but even though you do a good job of telegraphing that they are out numbered 100 to 1 by a garrison of well trained guards who are lead by a tactical mastermind who has a powerful weapon on his hands that the party is aware of, and they still decide to use the kick in the door approach. Would you say that at any point the party “has it coming”?

2 Ameron December 28, 2010 at 3:57 pm

@Liam Gallagher
This sounds like the discussion raised from one of our other Greatest Hits articles, Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat. If the PCs end up with a TPK because they did something dumb or just didn’t understand that they were outmatched then yes, I’d say they had it coming. However, if the DM created a scenario whereby the party never had a chance at victory (let’s say because the opponent was designed to be unbeatable) then I wouldn’t be as quick to say they deserved it. If the DM did everything in his power to indicate that this was an undefeatable opponent (short of saying don’t fight this monster) and the PCs still choose to fight then I think they have to live (or die) with the result. If it’s a TPK, then that’s too bad for them.

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