The “Total Party Kill” (TPK for short) is the sometimes controversial and always abrupt end of the game when everyone’s character is slaughtered at once. There is an understandable backlash against this sort of thing, especially in heavy story games, because this just isn’t a satisfying way to end a story! People invest a lot in their characters, the relationships between them, and their connections to the story and game world. To have all that snuffed out in an a few terrifying moments is off-putting.
I also think it’s crucial…within limits. First I’ll try to justify why it should happen. Every story-telling medium has advantages. An outfit that is iconic in a comic can look silly in a movie. An intricate narrative that was fantastic in a novel is just tedious elsewhere. That visceral thrill from the movie doesn’t even register in text, and so on. Catastrophic failure is pretty unique to games, and is something that the other forms don’t do often or as well. That feeling you get in Walking Dead or Game of Thrones where your favorite character is at risk, because you know there’s a chance that the character might actually be lost for good? You have that tenfold in every game session.
And apart from the tension, it adds to accomplishment. Shane Hensley noted that when the TPK is a real possibility, you have stakes. And so when you do win that difficult battle and save the world without dying it means that much more. I experienced this first-hand in a 50 Fathoms game. We were enjoying the setting, rolling along, but the players had been really pushing the risk factor for awhile. After a series of close shaves they finally didn’t pull off a spectacular save and the whole crew was murdered by savage Octopons. I was afraid that would be it for 50 Fathoms, but we discussed it, liked the game enough to start up again, and the next party did much better. They still took risks, but they did more planning and mitigation. Eventually they defeated the Sea-Hags and there was a palpable sense of achievement that they had pulled it off, and pulled it off without any of them getting killed. You just can’t get that feeling in a game where you know you’re protected.
But there are limits. As a GM you have to earn that TPK. You must have the absolute trust of the players to get positive effects. If you just hand-wave deaths at a whim or stack the odds too far against your players, then you probably aren’t going to have players for long. If the players are killed because of a mistake that they could have avoided, or just bad fortune, that works. They can learn from the mistake (even though the character can’t) or curse the dice and try again. But if it’s a mistake that they couldn’t avoid because they didn’t have information, then that’s on you. Likewise if you’re killing or nearly killing the party consistently, it’s probably your problem, not theirs. If it’s a challenging fight, is there even an option to flee? This would come up for us in Dungeons and Dragons 3.0. Tactical movement was sweet, but it also meant that you knew with mathematical certainty that the dude in plate-mail couldn’t possibly outrun those wolves, so it made more sense for him to stand and fight than it did for him to try to flee. Fate Core’s concessions are a massive help with this kind of situation, as are systems that use a Talk/Run/Fight turn order.
You can rescue a party from a TPK, but this requires some care, and again a fair amount of player trust. If it’s too carefully choreographed the players can feel like you set them up, intentionally putting them into an impossible situation just so you could ride to the rescue with some heroic other character. Gratitude is seldom the emotion that comes out of that kind of encounter. What can make that situation work is if the help is a consequence of a previous good deed. If a rescue is just paying back a favor owed it feels more natural. Likewise if they are helped by a new character, put that character in jeopardy to give the players a chance to even the score. An even trickier solution is to engineer a change to the scenario that doesn’t directly benefit the players, but does mix things up enough to give them a fighting chance again. That armored dude couldn’t outrun the pack of wolves that had his number, but then again nobody can outrun the avalanche that just started. And another important tip, don’t initiate the rescue after one or more characters have died. It just makes their deaths retro-actively cheap. If you’ve gone far enough to kill one character, then the others should have to earn their survival for themselves.
It’s a fine line. If the party can’t be killed, or know that if they really get into trouble outrageous fortune will intercede and save them, then they will tend to make very impulsive and dangerous moves. The sense of danger dissipates because they can see the safety net. On the other hand, too much danger and the players may react with outright cowardice. You can talk to your players and shift from game to game based on the tone. When I ran Cliffhangers I’d call out the chapter numbers, and let the players know that rescues and false deaths were in effect during chapters 1-11…but during chapter 12 all bets were off. That added a lot of tension and drama to those finales! This can even vary from player to player. Some players thrive on the challenge and accomplishment, but others really just want to tell a story. Have that conversation, and it’s generally not an issue catering to both types at the same time.