Total Party Kill – What can you do about it?
You’ve had a long running campaign. The players were really into the story. They’d spent a bunch of time planning on how to infiltrate this tower. You’d told them the wizard in it was too powerful to fight. Everything is going to plan…
The barbarian has now rushed the evil wizard. There is one way that this is going to end, with a TPK (Total Party Kill).
What do you do?
Now, there are plenty of ways that this can happen. The one that I gave above is actually one of the trickier situations because one player, the barbarian, has decided that the party is going to fight. And since it is D&D and the party will generally stick together, that probably means that you aren’t going to have them run away from the fight when the fight gets tough.
Before we talk more about what we do, let’s talk about a few other situations where a TPK might happen. The most likely situation is the final boss fight. It can go one of two ways, either the BBEG kills off all the player characters (PCs) or the PCs kill the BBEG. Another way that it can happen is that the players knowingly start a battle that is over their level. In the first example, if the whole party had planned to fight the wizard, that is the parties choice, and you can leave that choice for a likely TPK in the players hands. And finally, the players might be rolling poorly, and you might be rolling hot.
Let’s talk quickly about two of the examples I gave. With the BBEG or when the players know they are fighting above their level, those the players have chosen. It’s known that with the BBEG, the campaign either ends with their success or their failure, there isn’t going to be a next session, at least with the game world the way it is now. And if the players are fighting the wizard, for example, as a group decision, they know that they might not make it, or they should. So in both of these cases, you just play out the game, and you let the dice lie as they have been rolled. And you can get some epic stories of sacrifice or of triumph coming out of these scenarios, but either way the players are going to remember it.
Now, what happens in the case where you are rolling hot, or the player stumble across a conflict that is too dangerous for them, but they don’t know that. You’re in the situation as the DM where you have a few things that you can do.
First, you can pull your punches, if you want. There are two ways that you can do this, you could, for example, limit the power of a wizard. Maybe, in the example at the top, the wizard has already cast her high level spells for today, so she’ll be a challenge, but not as deadly for the player. And maybe, even the she’s down a few hit points. So this challenge that was clearly too strong for them is now going to be at their level. You can also pull your punches with your die rolling and strategy. If you don’t play optimally, and maybe turn a few more hits into misses or saves into fails, now the players are able to take on a higher challenge than they should be without the TPK happening. But this is a flawed solution, because it doesn’t teach the players that there are consequences for their actions. They are now always going to assume that they can fight anything. And, in fact, with new players who have mainly played computer RPG’s that strongly scale monster level, they are going to assume that in the first place.
Second option is that you can just TPK them. Or try to TPK them, make it clear that it’s so bad that they are probably going to need to run away. In the wizard example, have her target and take down the Barbarian. It’ll give the players a revenge story if they want, and hopefully it’ll remind the other players to just run away before they meet the same fate. And if the wizard takes down the barbarian quickly, you can make the reason that she doesn’t hunt down the rest of the PCs quickly is that they aren’t worth her time. So maybe pull your punches a little bit, just have her disintegrate the barbarian instead of dropping the fireball at 7th level on the whole party. This option, can work better, but is clearly harsh. You might end up in the situation where the players ignore all the road blocks and warning signs and still try it, and now you’ve potentially ended your campaign early if you do end up with the TPK.
So, is there a better option, is there something that you can combo together to make it work instead of a TPK?
I haven’t ever TPK’ed a party, but I have, on multiple occasions knocked them out. When they get into a fight above their level, you can just knock them out and take them captive, it might derail your story for a little bit, but it might be better than a TPK. Just come up with a reason that the bad guy is going to knock them out. This doesn’t work well if you come across a pack of ten wolves and the players are second level, but a pack of goblins, sure, they might not kill the players because they want to turn them into a stew later and everyone but the dwarf is too skinny. But, this can’t be the solution for every situation. Like I said, sometimes the creatures wouldn’t have a reason or the mental capability to think about just knocking out or down the players.
There’s also an option for divine or NPC intervention. With divine intervention, it can work in a couple of different ways. If you have a PC who is a Paladin/Cleric or deeply devoted to some deity, you can have their deity intervene. You can also have a deity intervene by making a deal, almost a warlock style pact with a PC. There’s also the option of just a stronger hero or NPC coming along and saving the players. Both of these should still be used sparingly because if you use them too often, again the players feel like they can just go in and fight anything and they’ll be fine if things start getting hairy. Or, you run into a situation where the players start to feel like you’re setting them up to fail just so you can have your NPC have the hero moment. Either case is less than ideal, so use it sparingly.
Finally, I do like the option of killing a PC. Again, this is used sparingly, because you don’t want the whole party to be new every few months because you keep on killing PC’s when they make poor decisions. But have the monster or villain they are fighting kill off one of them. If it’s a villain, they can kill one of them, and then get bored and leave because the party isn’t strong enough to entertain them. Or, if it’s more of a monster, like a pack of wolves, when the wolves get one of the PC’s down, let the wolves start eating that PC, definitely killing them, but that will then either allow the players to escape, or you can give them advantage on their attacks to finish off the wolves because the wolves are distracted. That one is definitely a bit grizzly (well, wolfy) but it would set the tone for the players that they aren’t safe.
With all of this, I think that you need to set the expectations up front. You need to tell the players that in your game, there are going to be things that might be too dangerous for them to fight and that they might need to run. And possibly remind them once in a while of that, because it’s likely that they are going to forget. And, really, sometimes, a TPK might just happen, if the players know what they are getting into, that’s fine. In the wizard example, if they all make the decision to try and fight, let them fight, don’t take that away from them, but maybe leave them nearly dead and trapped in a prison in that case.
Have you accidentally had a TPK? How do you do combat, is everything scaled to the PC’s level?
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