Total Party Kills

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.

7 thoughts on “Total Party Kills

  1. Scott

    Brilliant thoughts as always, Darrell. As usual, you think things out and express them so well. Although I certainly fall more along the side of wanting to “tell a good story”, I do understand and appreciate the benefits of TPK’s. I think it’s a great idea to have a warning, or that it’s established before that individual game that this is a real possibility. Either the setting demands that kind of grittiness, or this is just the way we want to play this one. I’m all for it. Characters aren’t THAT precious. You can always create another one. Hell that’s almost as fun as actually playing. On the other hand, they are precious enough that you want them to succeed, and you certainly don’t want to see them killed. And the raised stakes can contribute to making the game more rich and interesting.

    On the other side of the coin, I LOVE the story creation process, and character development. In that way, in some games, it’s more INTERESTING to take stupid risks, or just do crazy things. Embrace it, I say (and we certainly do, which is one of the reasons why I love our group). With that has to come an understanding from the GM, and the other players, that this is the kind of game where risk taking or thinking out of the box in terms of character driven action is rewarded, not punished. This is what FATE is about, and it’s why I’m coming to really love it so much. The creators do a fantastic job of setting the mood for that game system, and it really resonates with me.

    I certainly tend to prefer the latter type of mentality in general (largely because there’s more freedom in it), but I’m absolutely on board with playing more realistic settings / scenarios that require more care from the player to make it through. The kind of game where you need to avoid combat unless it’s absolutely necessary–because the simple fact is, there’s a very good chance you’re going to get seriously maimed or killed–can be great fun in it’s own right. And it can also teach (certain) players to be more cautious, and in some ways, to learn a new way of playing than they are accustomed to.

    Like you say, I just think it’s important to know the stakes before you go in. What kind of game is it going to be? Is it a Savage Worlds Deadlands campaign where every move you make is a risk to life and limb? Or is it an outrageous FATE campaign that is embodied by remarkable characters, where fun and interesting, regardless of risk, is what is most rewarded? I’m totally on board with both (although the jury is still out on Savage Worlds as a system for me), I would just want to get myself in the right mentality before the game begins.

    One other thought about TPK’s, and I think you touched on this–if my character is going to die in the course of an adventure, whether by a consequence of my own action or simple bad luck, I think I would like it if (where possible) there remained some connection between the dead characters and the world they were killed in. Maybe there’s a connection between the new party trying to the same adventure to the old party that died trying. I think it’s cool that not only the players learn from their mistakes, but that maybe the new characters can learn from the mistakes of those before them. Again, this can’t happen all the time, of course, but if my character’s death could… have some kind of impact on the game (even a small one) I would find that more satisfying than simply death followed by a virtual “reset” with new characters starting at the same place in the same adventure as if what we did before didn’t happen. By no means would this be critical or anything (or even possible in a lot of cases), just maybe another thing to think about for those higher stakes games.

    1. Frameworker Post author

      You make a great point about connection to the dead characters. In my 50 Fathoms game their very first adventure was a salvage mission to find the wreck of the first party’s ship…and they met the ghosts of their previous characters who got to bring them up to speed on the plot. I think I overlooked just how important that connection was.

  2. Scott

    Ok, ONE other thought. You have to have really special and secure players to do this, but I also like the idea of character conflict. A variation on total party kills is that one person in the party does something that pisses another character off so much, that they either come to blows about it, or the group is partially disbanded over it. That’s a totally plausible scenario, especially in the higher stakes games, and I think it could be a cool event.

    Like I said though, you have to have players that can easily separate themselves from their characters, and this can be a delicate situation to handle in the gaming group. It another thing that might be worth discussing with players in the group before hand, especially for the grittier campaigns.

    1. Frameworker Post author

      Heh, I can’t wait until you see the “Loyalty” stuff for Adventure Frameworks. I think open party dissolution is really extreme, actually more extreme than a TPK. But the fact that it could go that far adds the same kind of tension that physical danger does.

  3. Jeremyg

    The “game” factor has to play into it as well. Roleplaying has a much stronger story element to it, but you also have the core aspect of it being a game. It’s not a game unless you can loss. Ideally you want ot ride that edge of always feeling the threat of loss but not quite getting there. The best games were the ones (typically AF) that we were in a fight and felt like we were totally screwed, but we managed to pull it off somehow.
    And like in parenthood the threat of the loses it’s meaning if you don’t follow through occassionally. Even in the cliffhanger false death situation there always felt like there was a price we paid even if it wasn’t TPK in the early chapters.
    To serve the drama and the feel there is risk in your actions you need the results to have purpose. Save or Die rolls suck. Oh there is a trap, you die, situations aren’t fun. Fighting for something but lossing, that can be fun. Choosing to do something risking and biting it, that can be really fun.

    1. Frameworker Post author

      My caveat is ideally you’d only ride that edge occasionally. Like some encounters would be no problem, some you’d feel, some would be extremely challenging, and some you have to assess as impractical and back away from. If they are all nail-biters then it sort of loses something. (Which is kind of a shout-out to one of my favorite techniques, an encounter that the players can absolutely crush just to establish their credibility as bad-asses. Even better if it’s against villains that used to be challenging but the players have outgrown.)

      Save or die is a personal pet-peeve, but where it has its place is the decisions that lead up to that coin toss. Do you have opportunities to mitigate? Is there another way? Do the players even know that another option exists? If so then hey, tossing the coin was a decision and die is a legitimate outcome.

  4. Scott

    In keeping with Darrell’s thought about constant nail biters, I think there’s something to be said for the player characters in a role playing game (ANY role playing game) being special. Meaning they are not like you average Joe. We used to call it the “main character power”. And to establish that in a real sense (whether it be a fight against inferiors that they can easily win–or some other encounter or situation that proves their usefulness and competence in a general sense) is very valuable, especially for the more realistic / gritty campaigns where death is a possibility. Without that, you are simply fighting for your lives every time, and the players don’t feel their characters are special at all. They just feel like they’re barely surviving and maybe don’t belong there in the first place.

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