How often do you know the outcome of your adventure before you even begin playing? Almost never. But, what if you did know the way the adventure was going to end? More importantly, what if you knew – before you ever sat down to play – that the PCs could only achieve victory by sacrificing themselves in the process?
I’m not talking about a typical TPK. This isn’t just a really difficult encounter where the PCs, through bad luck, poor rolls and dismal tactics end up dead. I’m talking about an adventure that’s specifically designed as a no way out scenario. The PCs, and more importantly the players, know at the beginning of the campaign that they won’t be coming back.
This kind of set up makes for a very different D&D adventure. Normally the players assume (and rightly so) that their characters will survive everything that’s thrown at them. No one plays D&D and expects for their character to die. Where’s the fun in that? Well, I’m going to tell you.
If a creative DM wants to run this kind of adventure then he first needs to ensure that all the player know and understand the parameters. Throwing an unsuspecting party into a campaign that you know will end in their deaths and not telling them about it is wrong. I know that as a player if I got to that final encounter and realized that there was no escape I’d be angry at the DM. But if this hurdle is clearly spelled out at the beginning then I think I’d be ok with it.
There are plenty of reasons that the PCs would take on such a mission. Perhaps they’re members of a military organization and they’re ordered to do it. Perhaps they’re prisoners facing execution anyway and a suicide mission is more appealing than a firing squad. Perhaps they’re divine characters who each receive a premonition directly from their deity. If all else fails, you can always appeal to the PCs morality and convince them that they need to do what’s best in the larger struggle between good and evil.
Regardless of how the PCs learned about the mission, the stakes need to be pretty high to warrant this kind of no return mission. Think of the story from Frank Miller’s 300. In this retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, all 300 Spartan soldiers know full well that they won’t be coming home. They’re motivated by their duty and loyalty to King Leonidas, but they also know that if they don’t stand up to evil their way of life will be forever destroyed. They choose to fight and die to protect their way of life for future generations.
After getting the players on board with this kind of campaign, there suddenly becomes a rich opportunity for some unique role-playing. Knowing that they’re facing their own death, the PCs are likely to question their own mortality and their own value.
Think of how differently you’d play a character who knows that his death is just over the horizon. Does he begin to notice the little things in life? Does he turn over a new leaf and try to live a better life, if only for his few remaining days or weeks? Maybe he faces his death with grit and stoicism and appears cold to others?
If the PCs know that they won’t be returning after completing their task they may also take on different tactics than they normally do in D&D. If their quest leads them into the bowels of a dungeon, they have less reason to clear every room along the way. They don’t have to worry about the possibility of encountering some of these creatures again on the way back up. Their goal is to get deeper and deeper and face the final monster. Getting there fast might be more important that fighting all the monsters and stealing their loot along the way.
The Set Up
This kind of adventure can certainly work as a short-term campaign. The players make up characters knowing that they’re essentially just throw-aways. At the end of your short arc the PCs sacrifice themselves, destroying both themselves and the villain in the final showdown. However, this doesn’t give the players a lot of time to get to know their characters.
I see the true richness of this kind of story emerging if the players have a long time to really develop their PCs. Span the adventure over a longer period of time and across multiple levels. There are likely other events that need to be set up before the PCs can actually accomplish the ultimate goal. Have them work to achieve these tasks, all the wile knowing that if they fail then bad things will happen. If nothing else, their failure will result in another group of adventurers being assigned to take over the mission.
The goal of the quest needs to be world-shaping. It needs to be something so important that the PCs agree to walk into death’s domain to accomplish the task. Assuming that the quest is indeed this momentous then there are likely peripheral events happening that coincide with the PC’s actions. This gives the DM a lot of room to keep the PCs busy before they have to get to it and sacrifice themselves. It also gives the players more time to role-play these PCs.
One option is to have the PCs involved in the preparation for this momentous quest and then be given the no-return assignment later in the adventure. Suddenly they realize that they are the ones that won’t be coming home. This is pretty much what happens to Frodo in the Lord of the rings. He agrees to carry the One Ring to Mordor where it can be destroyed in he fires of Mount Doom. It isn’t until much later in the story that he and Sam finally realize the importance of completing their quest, even if it means their own deaths.
If the PCs are having second thoughts about whether or not to complete the task, make them aware of all the other things that are happening to assist them. There are likely multiple events that all coincide with their PCs final push for victory. Again, we looking to the Lord of the Rings. The forces led by Aragorn don’t believe that they’ll emerge victorious from the final battle, but they understand that they need to keep the forces of evil distracted long enough for Frodo to destroy the One Ring.
This kind of adventure is certainly different. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I believe that some groups would eagerly accept the challenge that playing this kind of adventure presents. It may initially sound like a short game, but the more I think about his idea the more and more detail I see this kind of game taking on.
It’s one thing to embrace a TPK if it seems like the right thing to do at the time, but in this case you know that there is no other option. It takes a big player to create a cool character and then willingly agree to sacrifice him. But D&D is all about courageous heroes doing heroic acts. I can’t think of anything more noble or heroic than giving one’s life for to save the world and make it safe for the people he loves.
- Embracing The Total Party Kill
- Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat
- Designing Encounters That Can’t Be Beat (Part 1 | Part 2)