What’s everyone’s philosophy on TPKs (Total Party Kill)?

What’s everyone’s philosophy on TPKs (Total Party Kill)?

What’s everyone’s philosophy on TPKs (Total Party Kill)? It seems many gaming communities try to avoid them at all costs. But if we’re letting the dice decide fate, it’s got to always be a possibility, right?

I’ve never been one to actively avoid the TPK. I feel like it can open interesting new direction that no one planned for. At its worst, the players create new characters and avenge the last party. At its best, Last Breath rolls can be involved and the party could be driven through Death’s domain on a really cool adventure.

How do people here handle TPKs? Do you avoid them at all costs? If it’s happened in your game, what did you do with it?

35 thoughts on “What’s everyone’s philosophy on TPKs (Total Party Kill)?”

  1. TPKs happen. That’s my philosophy. I don’t glory in them and I don’t try to prevent them. I suppose the only thing I “force” is to somehow try to make them exciting or meaningful.

  2. I generally don’t like to kill characters, because the reason I play the game is for the characters, and it’s just not an interesting stake to me to see a character die only to be replaced as soon as someone rolls one up.

    I also hate GM gotchas, so will always tell the players if I suspect something might kill them. Character death needs to be something the players know could happen. Accidental death is just frustrating.

    tl;dr it’s fine if they choose it, but I try to suggest alternate courses – when it does happen it’s an important, impactful choice, not an accident

  3. I love everyone’s responses so far. I tend to go pretty easy on my players so this rarely comes up in my games anyways, but I definitely like to tell my players the stakes of the things they’re doing. Sometimes I even go so far as to let them know what will happen on a 10+, 7-9+ and 6- on their roll. I figure if the play is meant to be a conversation, might as well discuss what the stakes are.

    I also like how Jason Cordova in his podcasts will often let the players narrate their own results. Like a player rolls a 7-9 or a 6-, and he lets them describe for themselves how their own action was complicated or what interfered. I don’t think the players feel cheated when they know what’s at stake.

    Making death interesting and dramatic is always helpful as well. I’ve found this to even be the case for NPC deaths that the players care about, so doubly true for PC death.

  4. Personally I don’t like them and I think the majority of my game group would agree. Fourtanetly with Dungeon World it’s easy to avoid a TPK by putting the players in a situation much more interesting than taking a dirt nap. To some degree I think “be a fan of the players” kind of backs not having TPKs. I’m sure there are those who like the fact a TPK is possible as it hightens the stakes. In this case a TPK would fall under the tag line of being a fan of the players.

  5. I agree with Ray Otus and Charles Eichman. Although I don’t seek it, I actually find character death to be interesting, particularly meaningless death. Not interesting in itself, but interesting in the sense of what it says about the world, about fate, and about consequences. It makes player choices meaningful — not least, the choice to go adventuring at all. You hear about tragic and useless deaths all the time in the news, and it happens to NPCs constantly. Every adventuring career ends in death. Once you’ve accepted that nobody survives this career, the rest is just details, a question of when at at whose hand.

    As a player I find death can be an enjoyable part of the cycle of play, as it is an opportunity to do something different. Not too often of course… once I died about two dozen times in the same session and the same room, and that did get tedious. Then again I usually DM and am accustomed to briefly playing dozens of characters, many of whom die within minutes, so it may be an acquired attitude.

    The TPK is an odd duck, as it effectively ends that segment of a campaign and disrupts continuity. In the fiction, it likely results in a rumor that “nobody has ever returned from [X]”…. even if they have in the past, the recent tragedy will color everyone’s perceptions. All who hear of it will adopt an attitude about it: sad, judgmental, fascinated, apathetic, gloating, etc. I find TPKs are rare, because usually at least someone survives unless the monsters are murderous or hungry. If it does happen, its a good hook for a follow-on adventure to “find the lost party.”

  6. Mike Harvey Yes. I feel like a TPK is something the game controls, not me. If it happens (and it is rare, especially beyond level 2) it is almost naturally interesting. The next group wants to figure out what the hell happened to the first group.

  7. Ray Otus, I feel like the GM has a lot more control over player death with DW mechanics than in games like D&D. Our GM moves allow us to pick a lot of options other than dealing damage that just aren’t options in many other types of systems. That’s really why I wanted to ask that question here because I feel like DW GM’s have a huge amount of control over it, yet it’s pretty clear so far that we don’t seem to fret over it too much at all.

    But in other communities where the mechanics are more restrictive (for lack of better wording), a GM doesn’t have as many options at their disposal to avoid PC death, the monster simply deals its damage over and over. It’s an oversimplification, but I wonder if that tends to leave GM’s more worried about player death and TPKs, because as GM they really don’t have as many ways to react to player actions.

    D&D forums are littered with concerns about balance, but with DW I’ve almost never worried about such a thing. If action is getting tense, it’s easy to threaten a player’s position instead of their life, and the scene only gets more interesting to boot!

  8. In DW, I feel like Last Breath is an “obvious” go to in every case. The fiction takes you there. No one goes … LB, really? And TPKs are basically nonexistent.

  9. In my own game Shadow Lords, which is what I mostly play nowadays, in the standard rules heroes die only if their player chooses so, and then they get to do one last heroic thing to help their group overcome whatever they are after (even just giving them a desire to avenge him that boosts them). This way no death is meaningless, and a tpk would occur only as an act of great sacrifice to save the world or something like that.

    Anyway, even if pc rarely die, the consequences of being bring close to death, or even just be defeated at a duel of wits, can be gruesome and last for a long time, or even become permanent character traits, such as “without an hand”, thus the feeling of danger is preserved without the need of killing pc,

    Back to the question, I really hate tpk or any pc death unless is meaningfull for the story, because players usually hate losing a character they developed with love just for a roll, and sometime it can be a “campaign breaker” when new heroes have to be introduced, who are less involved in the overall plot because they are new, or maybe have been even created in spite of it because the player has a sense of revenge and repulsion against what killed her previous hero.

    Human nature is so, and unless you are playing an OSR where you roll a char with no background or depth in a few seconds, just like how you would pick a new mini for heroquest, people get attached emotionally to their pc and want to see their story go to a meaningful conclusion, not a casual death in the middle of the story with no meaning

  10. I’ve had player deaths but I’ve never been in a position where the whole party could be killed.

    I guess this is why I like to have monsters with objectives other then kill everyone.

    Basically if the player fails it usually doesn’t lead to everyone dying it’s just the monster has the crystal now and bad stuff.

    I feel something like that 1)makes the combat more dynamic because soft moves and fails become really interesting. And 2)prevents tpks

  11. james day, I totally agree! I often find in my combats these days that the players are rarely threatened with just damage, but instead have to contend with rescuing NPCs, protecting one another, losing their advantageous position, and returning their resources. This really makes combat feel dynamic and fluid, while at the same time rarely leads to character death.

    Giorgio De Michele , Shadow Lords sounds really cool! I’ll have a look at that sometime soon. I really love the idea of a player being able to do something influential before dying, even if that death is rare. And I agree that players rarely want to re-roll new characters unless it’s known from the beginning that that’s the type of game being played, and everyone is in for that. Otherwise, we get really attached to our characters. And that’s not a bad thing at all, especially when there are so many ways to increase tension in scenarios besides just threatening bodily harm.

  12. How do you decide what is “meaningful to the story” in a game like dungeon world? It strikes me as the ultimate non-railroad game where the players have a great deal of freedom to act as co-authors. By railroad I don’t mean coercion necessarily, but the idea that the GM is feeding then his own story and leading them along a path rather than letting them choose their own direction and rolling with it. It seems that “play to find out” is the antithesis of this. And player death or TPK is the ultimate expression of “finding out”.

  13. I’m not sure anyone used the phrase “meaningful to the story”. But I can tell based on tone that you believe that having a “story” automatically implies a railroaded game, and that’s pretty far from the truth.

  14. It was something Giorgio De Michele said. I do tend to associate story with “railroad” or “path” (not in a coercive sense), since story implies progress toward a conclusion, and usually it is the GM’s job to keep the secrets of such things. Thinking about it, I suppose I’d define Fronts as stories, since they are pre-plotted.

  15. Mike Harvey You could indeed say Fronts are railroaded stories. The thing that keeps it off the tracks is the players. So yes the goblins will attack the village/recruit orcs/ attack the castle but players can alter this at any point and in any fashion.

  16. Fronts aren’t really railroads, I think. Rather, they’re (supposed to be) logical consequences to player inaction, another codified old school conceit that the world reacts to the PCs. A railroad, if I have this right, leads to a specific, scripted end, no matter what you do. Fronts, on the other hand, evolve over time. They can change (or should). Further, I think any of us who have GM’ed for long periods of time (or at all) have basically run something like a “Front” in that we have in mind what will happen if the characters take certain steps. As long as they’re deciding where those steps land, it’s not a railroad. The best word I can think of is “scenario.” I know the expectation is to set up a series of steps leading to the endgame, but I consider those steps as “plans.” The end point of the Front can therefore be thwarted or morphed early on, depending on what the PCs do.

  17. Anyway, since I am never certain what the players will do, and because I don’t force them down any specific path, I would say the campaign isn’t a railroad. There are threats that will change things a great deal, if never addressed. But nothing is set in stone, so I think we avoid the railroad, if not the scenario.

  18. Mike Harvey to answer you, in Shadow Lords it’s a PLAYER (not GM) driven decision to let their Hero die, the GM has only the duty to always present a “fatal blow” (or whatever) with some shadow of uncertainty, so that the following player decision can fit in the narrative.

    For example, you don’t say (as a GM) “The Titan takes you by the arms and rips you in two” but “The Titan takes you by the arms, you are about to die, ripped in two…will you Hero die and it’s death be of example for the others (and create an AVENGE XY DEATH D12 Scene Trait for them), or will it just cripple your whole body, all your bones splintered but you still (barely) alive, barely able to move and watching your teammates maybe drop like you have too?”

    This is an extreme example on purpose, but as you see, it’s just a matter of the GM framing what is happening in a way that is not “you are dead for sure”.

    Anyway, Shadow Lords is a robust system but is also somewhat flexible: when you start a new Saga (campaign) you can put down some “house rules” straight into the Saga sheet, to tweak some aspects of the system to make it suit your genre or style preferences.

    For example, if you want to include death with less player-driven decision, for a more “OSR” style of game, you can add the “Deadly” rule and thus the Hero in the example would just gets the first option.

    If you want to make a “Chtullesque” horror-driven campaign, you can introduce the Sanity Rules, etc.

    This way the core game is geared toward epic Sword & Sorcery (in any subgenre, from sci-fi “astounding stories” to Conanesque fantasy up to Jack Vance Dying earth style fantasy and works greatly as it is. But you can thinker it a bit, without much hassle (much easier than create an Hack for a Pbta, for example), by just adding some of the special rules to your saga.

    I did this because I myself like to play a lot of different genres and settings, though all with the same style (heroic, fast action, very visual and improvisational), thus I wanted my system to be flexible enough while conveying my personal style (thus giving similar-minded GMs the tools to do that).

  19. About railroading in general, I don’t like it when I’m a player and neither when I GM, but for me railroading is when the decisions of the players don’t matter/impact the setting and the story, NOT whenever the GM prepared some plots/adventure or not.

    For sure it’s easier not to railroad in completely player-driven story, or when you use things like Fronts, who are more open, while it’s harder to not do it when you plot a complex backstory and then put your players in.

    However, you can also take something “set in stone” like Dragonlance or the WoD, put the players in and then stop railroading and ask them “what do you do”? But you must be very open to their ideas and inputs, don’t have any “sacred truth” behind the story/screen, and only “push” the story around them when they are not actively engaging/moving it.

    In Shadow Lords I adopted something very similar to fronts, in fact the “Shadows of the Saga” are threats, villains or even just “themes” that the GM wants in his story. He can create them by himself or with the players, but then he uses these Shadows to spring ideas for new scenes, or to put down a “DOOM” (sort of like a clock in AW) to show what is happening in the world and what will happen if the PC don’t take action.

    For example, in our current Saga we have an ADVENT OF ANUBIS Doom created by the players (since they are a cult intent on making the God Anubis reincarnate, in fact one of the SHadows is Anubis itself), but since there is a Shadow representing the “Status Quo” that they are hitting with their actions, I took a Doom from it and put down an HELL IN TOWN to represent the fallout of their actions. So, every time they do something flashy to reincarnate Anubis, such as blowing up one of the temples of the New Gods, the city spirals a bit more into chaos, and when “the clock will be full” the Sorcerer-King of the city will take drastic measures to fight them and restore “order”. Of course all of this is player driven, since it’s their choice to be flashy and destructive instead of being secretive and using a more subtle way of following their goals 😀

    I have no “story” set, just a setting/background and “problems” going around.

    For the previous Saga, which was a picaresque “people on a ship in seek of adventure”, one of the Shadows was TREASURES & PARTIES, to show how they and their crew were in search of money and at the same time spending them like water. Thus part of the story revolved around the debts they had to endure with this or that guild, merchant, etc.

    One of the recurring jokes was that the true villain of the story was “that smith”, who started as a nameless smith which one of the PC tried to bargain over the provision of a very rare metal, but when he badly failed the roll I decided that he was going to get what he wanted, but the smith had the better part of the deal, so he was now INDEBTED WITH THE SMITH D12. Later, when the PC who was the captain of the ship (and a powerful merchant) tried to take the debt out, he also became indebted with the witty smith 😀

    In the end they leveraged their contacts with the Byzantine court to frame the smith for something they stole from Hagia Sophia, and told the smith that they could find the real culpright in exchange for their debts to be condoned.

    It was very picaresque and fun!!!

  20. There should always be the threat of death in the game or players will know that no matter what they will always survive. I have never actively tried to kill of the PC’s but sometimes player stupidity leads to an untimely demise. The game has a mechanic for PC deaths so there is an expectation it should happen if only rarely.

  21. Aaron Griffin Think youre being a little harsh on Adrian. Sometimes players make bad decisions and also sometimes roleplaying means the character will do something foolish. Thats why DW had the Golden Opportunity rule.

  22. As a GM I don’t care that’s the player’s responsibility to avoid if they want.

    As a player, I try to keep my character alive due to the efforts of the GM and the game group’s enjoyment, including my own that is. I think TPKs are epic, but is mainly the result of masichistic or stupid players, as they should be pretty avoidable.

    ————— — ————-

    One of my coolest games ever was in Earthdawn were our two brothers lasted 15-20 minutes.

    Arrived in City.

    Got a mission in the Broken Sword Inn.

    On the way to the mission met an ogre who demanded silver. Tried, and succeeded in tricking him, but the little brother started a fight.


    Looked at eachother in disbelief: Then grinned an made new characters with a glee we’ve never had!

    —————– — —————-

    GMs who think they’re responsible for keeping my character alive rubs me, and players who think the same is some of the worst players to play with.

    In Dungeon World there’s nothing about principles like: “Keep the characters moving through the story unscathed”, “do not let the players make though choices and calculations” or “Never let the players’ pulses rise in dangerous situations.

  23. I call it player stupidity where despite the broadest of hints that something they are about to do could end in their characters demise they go ahead and do it anyway. Bad die rolling can be mitigated for, walking up to a dragon and punching it on the nose for the hell of it should really only have one outcome!

  24. Michael Esperum well, it’s for sure a matter of personal taste, but in my opinion what you described never gave you any opportunity to tell the “story” of those two brothers, just this small funny anecdote

    Nothing bad about it, but what would have happened instead if the Ogre beat you two to a pulp of blood and then took you as slaves?

    What interesting, epic tale could you have told? One of slavery and a fight for their own freedom in spite of their bodies being now damaged and broken?

    The return to the civilization as very different people? Their growth or their descent into madness under the tiranny of the ogre?

    For me, this route is more interesting and funny to explore than “you are both dead, let’s roll new characters”. But as I said, is a matter of tastes!

  25. Adrian Coombs-Hoar that’s called “different expectations”, is a common GM-player problem in rpgs, due mainly to the fact that everyone at the table envisions the game, the story, the characters and even the situation you just finely described in a slightly different way (it’s the way our brains work!).

    Thus while you think you have given your players “plenty of hints”, they could have overlooked them, or just have a different sense of the game and what is about.

    Maybe they are used to playing games where they can at least TRY anything, even poking a dragon…

    For example, in my last Shadow Lords campaign a giant PC entered the cave of an ancient Dragon despite his brothers warnings that it was a VERY BAD IDEA.

    It ended in an epic scene with him in the grip of the dragon, flying in the sky while the other PC tried to send the dragon back to the cave before he would destroy the city.

    The giant was maimed, dropped, and barely managed to scratch the Dragon’s wing with his giant spear. But while he was hanging there (the Dragon ignoring him while he was incinerating the walls of the city), the priestess of Anubis PC invoked the help of the God and threw herself from a flying carpet in the eye of the dragon, exploding it in a bloody mess of supernatural energy and scaring it enough to give time to the other priestess to banish it to its cave.

    All this because the game ALLOWS and ENCOURAGES players to take risks. Did the giant got what he wanted? Not at all, he damaged the city, his own reputation and his group’s relations with both the city and the priestesses. Thus his foolishness didn’t won him a prize, but he was allowed to TRY (and had dice rolled differently, maybe he would have been able to tame the dragon, who knows?).

    For a player used to this kind of games, it would take some sessions and maybe even deaths to align his expectations with yours.

  26. Adrian Coombs-Hoar have you considered it’s not stupidity but a different understanding of an imaginary world?

    The common example is jumping over a chasm. If a player says “I try to jump it” and the GM says “lol you idiot, it’s 300 ft across, you fall and die”, you can assume the player is not killing their character on purpose, and did think they could make the jump – they just had a different idea of the chasm than the GM did.

    Would it make you feel good to call this GM stupidity?

  27. Well, having GM,ed RPG’s since 1976 I have very simple expectations. If, after every possible hint is given, a player still insists on carrying out an action that places that players character at risk of death then they must be prepared for any consequences. In the chasm jumping example I would have milked it for all it was worth saying something like ‘Despite your brave but ultimately foolish effort you plummet down the chasm. The fall sends you hurtling to certain doom but lo, as you see the ground looking close a pair of talons locks abound your waist, whisking you high into the air…what do you do?’

  28. What is better than the story of two adept brothers eaten by an ogre on their first adventure? Their story is told, but it’s retold closer to a hundred times!

    There is a short way from “following the needs of the story” to status, popularity and favoritism. Why should I save Pete’s character from the Bridge Troll when I let Brian’s die when they confront the lich?


    Anyhow: A TPK will not happen in DW, or is so rare it’s hilariously interessting when it happens.

    A good idea a GM did in a game I was in was to give us amulets +1 forward to last breath.

    Player’s should take some responsibility, though I agree with the “I didn’t know it was lethal to fall down the rope bridge” isn’t cool. Tell consequences, right?

  29. One of the most memorable games of 2nd ed AD&D I ever played ended on TPK. We were all Thanoi, played a few sessions and the DM got board of the setting. He threatened our tribe with a frost worm. We went to take it out and protect our families knowing we were severely under level. Fast forward a brutal fight and one of my friends is the only one left alive, dives off a cliff onto its head while its eating one of our corpses and finishes it off while dying from the fall damage. After that I’ve always thought TPK is OK.

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