Friday Favourite: Embracing The Total Party Kill

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 30, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. 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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1 Yora May 30, 2014 at 10:24 am

A Total Party Sacrifice does not have to be the end of a campaign. If their death allows them to achive their primary goal, the campaign is still successfully completed and the PCs have won.
If they don’t succeed in stopping whatever opposition they have been fighting, that opponent still needs to be fought and defeated. If not by the old PCs, then by new PCs. If some of the new PCs can be NPCs the old party has met before or are former followers and henchmen, then even better.
Just because the characters have died does not mean the story is over.

2 Brian Criswell May 30, 2014 at 10:28 am

I generally set my encounters medium to hard. Quite often, at least one character will fall unconscious. Two weeks ago, our Tiefling mage picked a fight with a gang of thugs 1 to 2 character levels highter than them by shooting him in the face with Magic Missile. The gang’s mage rolled highest on initiative and cast Melf’s Acid Arrow, which knocked him unconscious. The party’s monk and fighter beat up on the mage, but they did not take him down, and the gang started causing real damage. Without the cleric stepping in, healing the mage and talking the gang leader down, several of the party would have died or there could have been a TPK because of the actions of one party member. As a fun aside, the mage stood up, took the secondary damage from the acid arrow and fell unconscious again.

The party at this point is only level two. It hardly would have been a satisfying ending, and I would have had everyone roll new characters. Fortunately, that did not happen.

Your article reminds me of a post that Chris Perkins wrote about the sudden end of one of his campaigns.

3 hardi May 31, 2014 at 7:31 pm

when i DM’ed at my local game store with encounters i would get TPK’s a lot. it was never my intentions it was always the players having really bad tactics. like a wizard braking open a door acting like a tank. or a healer who will only heal himself. wizards who would use area attacks against their party. it was always players not working together and doing stupid things.
and if they spent 4 healing surges they could bring their character back to life, or simple role up a new one.

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