GM Advice: 7 Ways To Dodge the Dreaded TPK

Things have not gone well. Once the clamour of battle has faded, the PCs lie among the bodies of the fallen. Slain by their enemies, who now pick over their corpses and loot their choicest treasures, the PCs are now nothing more than worm food.

Artwork by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

We’ve all been there at one time or another. Sometimes, the PCs fail and sometimes they fail so badly they all end up dead. So with the end of the campaign staring the GM in the face, what’s he to do?

Firstly, the GM has to decide if this is the end. Does he want the campaign to continue or is it time to try something new? If he wants to continue the campaign the following suggestions give him a plausible means of doing so.

  • New Characters: The players make up new characters that are in some way linked to their fallen heroes. Perhaps, the new band of adventurers are friends or relatives of the original PCs and are seeking clues to their fate.
  • Held For Ransom: Perhaps some – or all – of the PCs are not dead. Instead, their enemies realise the adventurers are worth more alive than dead and bind their wounds. The PCs may have rich friends or patrons that would pay handsomely to have their powerful servants returned (relatively) unharmed.
  • Left For Dead: Once the victors have looted the battlefield they leave. Hours later, one or more of the PCs regain consciousness. Badly injured, and no doubt missing much of their equipment, the adventurers are still trapped deep in the dungeon. At least they have a chance, however.
  • Held For Sacrifice: Many evil villains worship dark, malevolent powers that thrive on sacrifice. Once the heroes have been beaten into unconsciousness, the villain binds their wounds and carries them away to be ritually sacrificed. The ceremony is scheduled to take place in several days, giving the PCs a chance to escape.
  • Held For Execution: The villain wants to make an object lesson of what happens to those defying him. He saves the PCs’ lives, but plans to execute them in several days time when certain troublesome minions or enemies can witness the deed.
  • Sold Into Slavery: Defeated, the PCs are stripped of their gear and sold into slavery. Shackled and beaten, they must escape or end their days as nothing more than nameless slaves.
  • Rescued: This isn’t the greatest option, but if all else fails you can have some NPCs rescue the PCs. The NPCs could attack the PCs’ enemies as they loot the fallen heroes. Alternatively, the PCs can be rescued while they await sacrifice, being sold into slavery and so on. This can be a dangerously lame option to use – but if it is the only one available go for it. One way of making it more cool is for the PCs to play the heroic NPCs – at least then they have some control over their PCs’ fate.

Help Fellow Gamers!

Have you almost had a TPK in your campaign? Did it derail the adventure or did you carry on? Tell us your strategies in the comments below and help fellow gamers avoid such a fate!

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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43 thoughts on “GM Advice: 7 Ways To Dodge the Dreaded TPK

  1. We had a TPK a couple of years ago that felt very contrived; more and more new waves of monsters were being sent at us as we defeated what was at hand, hampering our rescue efforts to save townspeople from an invasion. Our motives were noble, our ideas were good, our die rolls were not that bad, and yet it kept coming and coming and there was absolutely no available place to retreat. Several times it had been mentioned that other groups were fighting within distant sight of us, including groups of clerics. We were finally trapped and overrun while trying to reach said clerics, and one of the last actions of the mages was to use magic to signal for help. And then we all died quite horribly and ignominiously against the villain whose goal was to enslave the known world with vicious tyranny… and not five minutes passed before the GM said, cheerily, “Oh well! So there’s this historical game I’ve been dying to run….”

    I and other players feel very strongly that he deliberately killed us because he was tired of his game and didn’t have the balls to say so. Our characters died ignoble failures of deaths, dooming the world, because he was jazzed about another game idea. Needless to say I will never again as long as I live play with this guy as GM. It was deeply upsetting (this had been a long running game with a lot of investment in character development and plot), it was pointless, it was cheap, and there was absolutely no closure. Two+ years later I am still angry. That’s what happens when DMs deliberately push for TPK for their own ends.

  2. Love your advice. I would tack one more one. Sort of a hell Mary pass… “This was all a shared dream” and take the players back to their last rest spot.

    The group I recently played in group that had a tpk where the Dm gave us quest and then tossed in a “Oh! Shiny!” npc. Instead of following the quest we followed the npc under the collective thought that we were going to find our some information that pertained to our quest and then we would return to our quest objective. This ended up no being the case. Our party was converted by a machine god and turned into machines, therefore basically we were killed. The party I think has yet to fully forgive this. Haha. I tossed out the Idea to the DM to help save his game but the other player at this point had become discourage, or worse, with this particular game campaign and wanted to self it at this point. I actually thought a few of our group wasn’t even going to return.

    A good DM can run a game that been derailed off the plot point tracks but a great DM knows when to alter the course of the game when he see’s the player are heading for the cliff and are not turning around!

    • I played the hell Mary once before, but always felt it was too contrived/lame, so when I felt the players going in the wrong direction, I had them see a dark horse on a foggy night, if they had lived, it would have been a strange encounter that did nothing.. as it turned out, they TPKd themselves (guys seriously you want to charge into that place, without checking for traps?) and so I could ‘recall them’ to the night of the “night-mare”..

  3. Maybe TPKs are more in the nature of systems like D&D and PF but I’ve never really been in one except at con games and once at the end of a pal’s homebrew (it was meant to be the climax of the campaign and we couldn’t roll for the sake of it). Other more less heroic systems like WFRP and Rolemaster just have a slow attrition of characters – especially if they have some kind of fate point mechanic.

    Have you read any Lamentations of the Flame Princess stuff? Now that’s a deadly series of adventures and the ethos is adventuring should be dangerous. In fact my blog post on the subject recalled you needing my goblin archers in a battle interactive 🙂

      • If you go to http://www.lotfp.com you should be able to get the rules and Free RPG Day scenarios for 2013 and 2014. The scenarios are much more interesting than the rules and would give you a feel for why it is Weird Fantasy. However a lot of material is NSFW and uncensored, especially the artwork – One module is called F**k for Satan for example.

        Monolith Beyond Time and Space is one of the most sacked out modules I have ever read and the Death … Doom series is very grim.

        • Also lotfp’s publishing model is unique – their crowd funding let’s them take part in Free RPG Day despite being a 1 man company, he runs Pay What You Want at con’s and on indiegogo. I bought a ton of beautiful hardbacks at UK Games Expo for 50 quid.;-)

          • Definitely.

            As a con there is less emphasis on RPGs, more on general gaming, though PFS had their own massive hall and demo stand. I had no problem finding interesting games.

            That said the trade hall is immense. As in 3 large gymnasium/hotel exhibition rooms in size and then some. You can also playtest in-progress games and lots of EU gaming companies like Cubicle 7, Z-Man Games etc. have their own stalls.

            And a Bring and Buy so full of stuff you need to queue to get into it. Well worth it!

            My advice though – dress for the summer. It’s a bit airless in the Hilton with several 1000 nerds.

  4. For my part, I hate to rescue any party, unless the TPK is my fault (and most GM’s will have to admit that this does happen). I always loathed the stereotypical greek mythology style of ‘the gods show up and save you’. I don’t have any issue with recovering the party, with dark and nefarious purposes in mind, but my preference is simply to accept what happened and move on. In my campaigns, where the party tends to play a major role within the world setting, this can have disastrous consequences on the game world. For example, my last campaign ended with the party preventing a lich from unleashing hell on earth, at the last possible moment (literally – they had one final action, boom or bust). Had they failed, the party would have died, and my next campaign would begin with new characters in a radically changed world, in which the names of the former party would be reviled as those who helped damn the world. As it is, well, I can’t really say to much, as I’m hoping that the campaign will continue soon, but there is every possibility that the new party will encounter the remnants of the last.

  5. the one tpk i experienced, the players rolled up siblings and cousins to avenge the initial party’s death. (families and other backstory bits are part of character generation.) the villain was defeated, but it was discovered that she was only a minion, not the great hazard to the kingdom as originally thought…

  6. Just because the party is dead does not mean their adventures are over.

    They might easily wake in the afterlife, in the eternal queue for judgment. Their should take their places in line and they wait for decades. During the uneventful wait they re approached by a devil with a promise. The PCs can return to life, even at the very moment of death, in return for a deed. Perhaps the PCs will not bargain with a devil, any outside will do. The outsider is an emissary from a more powerful outsider. It is in need of an item, or a person, or some information, the options are limitless. Once the deed is performed the PCs may return to life, for a limited time, just long enough to complete their quest or long enough to overcome the threat to the world.

    The only trick is that the outsider patron does not want to be associated with the quest. So the PCs are recruited from amongst the dead.

    The experience gained from the adventure to return to life can be used to counter the level lost upon resurrection, allowing the adventure to pick up right where it left off.

    In fact this method can be used by a GM to purposefully kill off his party. Maybe they need to gain lost esoteric knowledge and they can only learn it through death… whatever the reason a TPK can be a lot of fun.

    • I like the idea that a TPK can be fun. That’s certainly something to consider, particularly if the TPK occurs in a very long running campaign in which the players are very invested in their characters. While there should always be the chance of TPKs – it’s a fun challenge to make it (or the aftermath) fun.

      • I have run with something similar to this, but in the afterlife the party had to perform tasks (quests) for a particular deity in order to regain the right to life. Their xp was used to pay off their death debt and once that debt was paid they were returned to life. The deity had brought their bodies into the care of the nearest church or temple to the site of their death…this turned into a really good little side campaign which wasn’t planned at all, but the party really enjoyed being ghostly adventurers! I kind of got the idea from the death penalty one gets from some online games, most notable a nod towards City of Heroes defeat debt. 😉

  7. A couple years ago I was involved in Erik Jensen’s Wampus Country campaign. The underpinning logic is something I characterize as “Tall Tale Spectacle”, full of unlikely happenings and oddities that normal people would never see. That it is set in something of a “fantasy wild west” probably led me to that description.

    If it helps, Baron Munchausen is very much a similar attitude. The primary characters (the Baron himself, or the PCs in Wampus Country) experience strangeness and unlikely things few others would, and return to tell their unbelievable stories.

    It is a setting made for poor decision making. Good decision-making skills, prudence, and caution are for the staid, boring people who stay at home.

    As I recall Erik uses Labyrinth Lord for the underpinnings of the campaign. This is a system that does not lend itself so well to the kinds of carefree bad decisions needed for the campaign tone. You need someone who will go for it, PCs that will poke the wasp nest and expect it work out okay despite the actual (dice) odds.

    We devised the concept of “It gets Worse“. “PC Death” largely went away, barring player agreement. Instead, anything likely to ‘kill’ a PC gives the opportunity to take the PC offstage for a while and things ‘happen to him’ while away. Player — of the PC or not — suggestions are welcome and encouraged, or the PC’s player can make something up when the PC returns.

    In the meantime the player runs another PC.

    This is not without consequence, though. Someone ‘falls to his doom’ because he fell while climbing the ropes around the outside of the balloon, trying to fetch a lady’s hat that blew off? He landed in the river far below and was swept away to an underwater kingdom of fairies, to be bound in servitude for a year (or however long it takes the other PCs to gain a level, simulating the “level lost” as a consequence of a raise dead spell… and the ‘monetary cost’ by not gaining treasure in that time. Or he crashed among the trees and was saved from fatal impact with the forest floor by landing in a roc’s nest, where he manages to ingratiate himself to the large beast and it’s brood, and only manages to escape after a similar amount of time.

    And so on. This can be extended to the entire party. “TPK” against a band of ogres? You wake up in a surprisingly comfortable stewpot. Thankfully not skinned and boned, but you’re going to have to talk fast….

    • Some of the things you describe in your post sound pretty cool, Keith. I love the image of the PC falling into a roc’s nest instead of going splat. That said, I like death in my campaign – or more accurately I like the possibility of death in my campaign. I’d do the kind of things you list if the PC was dying through to a stupid mistake (particularly if it was someone else). I wouldn’t do it the compensate for the normal ups and downs the dice throw our way. That, to me, is part of the game.

      • Oh, I agree. I’m planning a sandbox campaign and have no particular reason to protect anyone. I aim to have any ‘plotted’ material resilient enough to cope with a PC dying — if nothing else, the Evil Duke has seduced the Princess to his cause and married her, bringing him closer to the throne.

        “It Gets Worse” is ideal for Erik’s Wampus Country campaign, though, because “tall tale spectacle” more or less demands bad decision making. This in turn requires that PCs not be punished for it.

      • (woken up by someone having followed the link to “It Gets Worse”)

        Death is still a possibility, but the player ‘has to agree’. In many campaigns this is implicit, death is always an acceptable option

        Wampus Country is, as I said, ‘tall tale spectacle’. The PC penalties of ‘death’ in It Gets Worse are commensurate with death+raise dead effect (“lose a level” vs. “don’t gain a level” is close enough, plus enforced downtime) without actually having the character die. In that particular campaign you need the freedom to make bad, bad decisions.

        Despite its origin in a Labyrinth Lord campaign, It Gets Worse is not a great fit for most old-school campaigns because it doesn’t align well with the gritty heroism expected.

        That said, the idea behind It Get Worse can still apply to old-school games, if toned down a bit. ‘Rocks fall, everyone dies is buried under the rubble and the kobolds dig you out to offer you a deal’ might be a valid situation in place of a TPK.

  8. Good article! I once had a group of PCs have to retreat leaving two of their number behind, dying. They just could not get to them to get the bodies back. Rather than killing them the monsters I was running (Kobolds as I recall) bound their wounds and let them recover a little then sent the Half-orc back to town naked to bring back a ransom for the Half-elf. He did that (avoiding any encounters on the way back to the Keep) and though both characters lost their stuff they still survived. And as I recall they bore a grudge. They came back a few games later, and a level higher, and took their revenge on the Kobolds (even got their stuff back).

  9. Sadly, I’ve heard of more and more fellow GM’s who have taken glee in a TPK. It’s like a merit badge.

    I have always figured an “out” for the characters. I’ve employed some of these techniques. Great advice.

  10. You know what? 2nd Edition AD&D advised keeping the PCs alive, and it nearly destroyed the game for me. It started a spiral where the PCs continually survived bad decisions, and therefore made worse decisions, which they also survived. Only when I returned to “let the chips fall where they may” with 3rd Edition did the game improve.

    I now play Dungeon Crawl Classics. If the party dies, they die. It is the job of the players, not the judge (GM), to keep the characters alive. All of my attack rolls are in the open, and if a PC is hit, the player rolls the damage. The judge needs to provide adequate context for decisions, and then impose consequence as required, both good and ill, or those decisions are meaningless.

    Not every creature who defeats the PCs is going to kill them. This is 100% true. But, if the PCs are not killed, it should be because of the nature of the creatures that they face. And, if you want the PCs to spare foes, you should make sure that some foes spare them. If they have a reputation for sparing the fallen, some of their foes may extend the same courtesy. If they have a reputation for clearing the field, only stupid foes will give them another chance.

    Besides, as Joseph Goodman says in the Dungeon Crawl Classics core rulebook, a TPK need not be the end of the game. Now the PCs are in hell…perhaps they can fight their way out!

  11. I let the dice fall where they may and TPK is just a part of that, though I mostly run Call of Cthulhu and entire party wipeout is a common part of that game.

    The first game of CoC I ran ended up a TPK. The players were more used to playing D&D so the “kill the monster” mentality was still strong. One of the characters was an x-cop/now-security guard at Miskatonic University and, when the terror appeared (a blob-like thing in Crack’d and Crook’d Manse) he drew his sidearm and opened fire, even as another character went mad, forgot everything that was happening and wandered into another room. The math professor also drew and fired (mistake there). Both of the gunmen were dead in seconds. The other character sat down in the next room on the bed, donned a pair of slippers he’d found, and read the book he’d found, oblivious to any danger and thinking he was still in the dorm. When the creature came in through the chimney and felt him out he slapped it away until it attacked and killed him, even as he remained oblivious to its presence.

    The next group of players (all different from group one) went in search of the first – at least in search of the student. When his corpse was later spotted inside the horrible monster as it was being digested, the woman in the group (playing the student’s cousin) fainted dead away. Good times. That second party fled the beast instead of trying to kill it, though they later returned with a truckload of salt and managed to destroy it.

    I’ve run only one convention game that ended in a TPK. It took place in 1942, during the Doolittle Raid, when a squad of Japanese soldiers investigated an island where contact had been lost. The creature I chose for the scenario was a type of Japanese vampire that could completely reform itself after being killed. Anyone it killed, it could raise as a servant of itself. As more and more of the soldiers fell, others committed suicide rather than become slaves to the beast. When the npcs tried to escape in the airplane, the players took great delight in following orders to shoot it down. One even flung himself and his rifle into the approaching plane’s propellers to stop it!

  12. Once, I had to resort to a little creative Deus ex machina to avert a near TPK in the final encounter of The Ashen Crown. This one was mostly attributable to vexing die rolls… (Enter Ashurta’s tomb in the Cogs below Sharn): Sia and Alphie leaned on each other for support, each battered and bloodied, while taking in the carnage around them. Dear friends and close companions, brave survivors of the Last War and the brutal calamity on the Day of Mourning, lay either dying or dead on the catacomb’s flagstones, interspersed with the crumbling remains of nearly a dozen goblinoid wights, mummies, and revenants. With no healing draughts remaining, with all prayers of mending spent, there was just no hope to get the grievously wounded back to the surface. That grim thought was interrupted by the change in air pressure and the tingling sensation both soldiers immediately recognized as the harbinger of an imminent arrival something big via teleportation. “Quickly!” Alfie ordered, “Back to back! Get ready!” With that, a crimsoned-hued spatial-temporal hypervarix appeared in thin air, and with a blast of frigid arctic wind, an ogre-sized insectoid horror stepped into view. “By Host and Flame,” Sia whispered breathlessly, “a Gegulon-” Giving what he surely believed would be his final command, Lt. Alphaues Bakerson tightly clutched Ashurta’s Blade and calmly stated, “I’ll engage it. Run for your life, Sia!” And then with a shouted divine challenge, the paladin intoned, “BY THE SOVEREIGN HOST! TO ME, THOU GORBELLIED BEETLE-HEADED DEWBERRY!” defying the terrifying hellspawn, to strike at any other but he. Death would surely come swiftly…

    The ice devil stood to its full 15-foot height and regarded both adventurers with its inscrutable, unblinking, multifaceted eyes. Then, with a shrill, mandible-clacking trill, it hissed, “Greetingssss mortalssss. I am Sss-straxx-bol-fetch of Cania, former Lord of Torture and Carnality, but currently sssssworn in sssservidtude to the Sss-septon of Garunagar’ssss Roost. Ssstand assside, your friendsss have woundsss in need of mending.” With that, the hulking fiend knelt by your prone squad-mates and gently began to heal their numerous hurts. After several long moments, and the repeated application of what you unmistakably recognized as both mundane and holy, divine healing, the hellish beast regarded you once again. “Perhapssss you wonder why I haven’t crussssshed your puny huumaan formsssss and ssss-supped with glee on the terrified esssssencccce of your immortal sss-soulsss. In truth, I dessssire thissss above all elsssse, but I losssst a contessst and a gilded lute to an infuriating little man withhhh two heartssss and a flying blue boxxxxxxsss. Azssss my pennanccccsse, for the next ccccentury and a day, I mussst care for the weak and the helplessssss. Make sssure to change thossse bandagesss to prevent infecccction-” Straxx-bol-fetch paused and tilted its mantis head to the side as if listening intently. “Excussse me, but I sssssense another mewling weakling in dire need of assssissssstanccce.” With that, the Gegulon discorporated into a whirlwind of snowflakes, shining motes, and multi-colored butterflies, each of which popped like tiny soap bubbles. Suddenly, the horrid thing was gone as quickly as it appeared, leaving only the faintest whiff of brimstone in its wake…

  13. Another time, the party’s pack mule turned out to be a benevolent polymorphed Druid who made an appearance during another unlucky rough spot…

    Said pack animal became a raging fire elemental (burning most of their supplies) and then a crotchety nearly naked, bearded, bird-chested man who walked off after helping dispatch what ended up being an overpowered encounter. Think, “those are my juniper bushes!” and “they don’t let you live, they don’t let you breath!” (Monty Python’s Life of Brian & Mel Brook’s Moses from the History of He World, part 1). Quizzical, what the? looks from the party. It was , like the third session with that animal…

  14. Another alternative to TPK is just like several mentioned here the players awaken after being looted however though they survive, they do so with permanent injuries (lost eyes, limbs etc.) They live to fight another day but will never forget the devestation of that battle.

  15. The old Amazon Mutual Wants You from Dragon Tree press presented the Amazon Mutual Life Assurance, Inc. (AMLA). For a yearly fee plus other fees, they will send in teams to recover your bodies and bring them to a cleric for resurrecting. It’s not exactly cheap but it is certainly handy when all goes wrong.

  16. There’s an older edition book called ghostwalker I believe.
    My plan is if I ever TPK my players to adapt it. Have them find each other in the afterlife and be brought back to life by an NPC ally. However, the NPC is much older than they remembered. Many years have passed and whatever consequences for their failure have applied for the world. Now they must try and save the world once more from the evil they could not stop before (or something like that)

    • I love this idea! Having them deal with the future consequences is awesome. I’ll have to keep it in mind.

  17. I was GM during an encounter when the PCs faced off against a beholder. Four PCs. They all failed their saves. Suddenly, I have an entire party turned to stone. I had been running this party for years. These characters had families, businesses, deep personal backgrounds. No way that was going to be the end. So, the four statues ended up decorating a beholder’s garden. Fortunately, it had already been determined that the cleric’s son was a powerful psychic. He began having nightmares about his mother being trapped in stone. The cleric’s husband put together a party (characters the players played), found them, and got them turned to flesh. All of that took over a year in the character’s world. The bad guy they were after had that much more of a head start. My players were just thrilled the game didn’t end. So yeah, maybe having them rescued was lame- but I used the character’s backgrounds and families. It made sense to everybody. (The cleric loved getting to play her husband- paladin), and we still had fun. But the look on their faces when they realized everyone had failed their saves and was turned to stone….

  18. This is a good one. I had a situation recently where my players split with their rogue, leaving her in town (while they tended to some business I did not have planned originally), and headed to a place noted for its perils. I warned them through NPCs, tried to divert them with other side quests, and still they went. It would have killed them all. I was left with a situation where I did not want a tpk (but maybe it was necessary?). It was awkward handling it. I used two of these options, one to help steer the players away from feeling total despair and to urge them to think around their problem using what they had at their disposal (which was ample. I don’t know why some folks don’t think to look around and search for options, even when hints are given). They didn’t heed any of my warnings, went into the deadly woods without supplies or thought of getting lost, blundered into a region of mist that swirls higher than a man, and ignored their past experience with the place (it almost killed them in several instances the last time they were there, and they had a clear trail. This time they were lost and had no idea where to look). I had an NPC ‘rescue’ them, but not necessarily in the sense that he killed bad guys. They in fact rescued him from the clutches of choker vines. His gear contained supplies they could use to help them survive, but no one looked in his belongings, despite his urging them to (with his hands, pointing at his bag. His neck was badly damaged from the choker vines). The one conscious character’s player was convinced they were all going to die. Maybe I should have killed them all? I did everything but hit them in the face with many reasonable answers.