Total Party Kills (which are literally what the name says, i.e. the death of the entire adventuring party) are a radical move that the GM may perform on a group of adventurers, and as such either finish off a campaign, create a hook for a new one, end the player’s misery, or maybe all of the above combined.
It’s seldom done, at least by me, because of the sentimental implications that it brings about – anybody who’s roleplayed a character for more than a couple sessions already gets attached to them; imagine if not only that character but everybody else who’s helped them become what they are suddenly… ceased to be.
Even when it is performed, it can sometimes fall flat, being seen as just a whim of the GM, or the flicking of a switch just because the situation allowed for it. Sometimes it just happens because no matter how much the GM tries to keep the PCs alive, they keep trying to walk over molten lava wearing nothing but “enchanted” bunny slippers they got from the crazed hermit preaching self-preservation.
That being said, a TPK can be done in a way that makes sense, and even if it draws the ire of the group, can be explained to them in such a way that it suddenly becomes clear this was the end-all point everything was aiming towards – they were just too busy finding out what happens when you stick a goblin and a rabid monkey inside a Bag of Holding to notice.
Without further ado, here are a few ways you can TPK and still have your ass good and covered. At least until the polyhedrons start flying towards it at unimaginable speeds.
1. It’s the Apocalypse as we know it!
This one’s clear-cut and easy to pull off in campaigns that either start off as or end up being dark, dreary, hopeless affairs in which the heroes struggle to make ends meet and generally seem to be fighting an uphill battle that never ceases to let off. If every other rumour the PCs hear and every other hermit they come across speaks of nothing but doom, destruction, the reckoning, and they still don’t get that this is a one-way ticket to the next plane of existence… Well, that’s just on them.
This is not to say that any Apocalyptic campaign should end with a TPK, hell, not knowing what the fate of the PCs was, hinting at a TPK, and suddenly discovering they’re still alive in a future campaign is even more of a fun feat to pull.
Plus, they’ll feel extra bad for pulling all that voodoo on you when you first uttered those much-maligned words.
2. You’ve brought it upon yourselves…
Sometimes, just sometimes, players need to be reined in.
There comes a moment in a role-player’s life when they realise that they’re playing at make-believe, and that they’re getting out of increasingly difficult situations with little to no effect on the general outlook of things.
Now that may be your fault as a GM, maybe you’re too lenient. It could just be lucky dice rolls, I’ve had that happen with intra-party conflicts. It could be that all the stars in all the parallel universes align so that little to no harm can befall a character even when they’ve just accidentally beheaded the King’s favourite daughter.
Turns out she was adopted, a sleeper agent, and he had a fetish for chicken. But that’s another story for another setting. One that I’m now keen on exploring…
When everything else fails, you’ve still got the players’ former deeds to go by. Lies, deceit, theft, murder, impersonating a dog… All of these separately can be, and have been dealt with.
But maybe as their fame travels far and wide, their heroic actions are accompanied by disgruntled voices that blame them, despise them, and are even actively seeking revenge on them for various reasons. If you’re running an evil campaign, that’s just the norm, really.
Sit back and enjoy the looks on their faces when that one peasant they stole a horse from to hunt down some bandits has formed a posse, taught himself how to handle a bow, started actively hunting them, and went from village to village, town to town, dungeon to dungeon, in the wake of their exploits, gaining more support until finally being backed by a neighbouring kingdom in serving their heads up on a platter.
3. With great power come great screw ups.
A further twist on the previous entry can also be done at a late point in the characters’ careers as ass-kickers, bubblegum-chewers, and name-takers.
This works especially well with high-power magic-hokey-wielding dudes and dudettes, but may be applied to most cases provided the right creative lever is pulled.
The heroes may go beyond just pissing people off. Think along the lines of getting a ritual wrong, using a relic for extended periods of time without regard for the consequences, traveling to different dimensions and changing stuff around willy-nilly. Especially nilly.
All of these seemingly contained and dealt with items can also ramp up over time, and if the ramping up is done right – by the GM – the heroes may go from the 4 Paragons of Justice to the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the span of just a few sessions.
You can twist this even further by giving the players a choice of either offing themselves for the good of the land at large, or standing by their choices and taking on the combined might of the 175 Realms they’ve managed to upend with their “simple food conjuring spells” that they repeatedly rolled poorly on, and as such turned into “essence of blight charms” without even realising.
Or you know, whatever floats your maniacal-laugh-inducing barge.
So there you have it, a short primer on how TPKs can be brought about organically, make sense, and have the players learn something other than “you’re not supposed to bet on being able to take that dragon on with just a kendo stick, and a pack of razors while blindfolded after having drunk a dozen bottles of vodka, no matter how much of an actual troll you are.”
Plenty more variants, twists, and turns on the above can be done, but the main thing to garner from this is that no matter how bad the urge to just knock those characters’ teeth in via giant-rock-falling-from-sky-ness, there’s always a more sinister, devious, harsh, yet entirely fact-backed way to pull it off.
Which is exactly what I’m doing in my current campaign. Just don’t tell ‘em I said so.
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the OhBe Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.