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Chapter 1: Gamemastery Basics / Resolving Problems

Total Party Kills

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 30
Perhaps the most feared of any outcome of a gaming session, a total party kill (TPK) can spell the end of an adventure or campaign. In a TPK, every member of the party dies. Think in advance about how comfortable you are with TPKs and discuss them with the other players. This can provide valuable insights into not only how you should handle one but also the implied level of lethality the players expect.

TPKs are rarely unavoidable. Usually it becomes evident at some point during the session, whether to everyone or only to you, that disaster looms. What the players do with this insight is up to them, but you have more control and can take steps to avoid the TPK. For example, perhaps the PCs’ foe gets distracted by something, an ally arrives to help the heroes, or the villain captures them instead of slaying them outright. The simplest path is to just allow a clear escape route the PCs can take—perhaps with a few characters still falling along the way. It’s not entirely your responsibility to defuse the TPK, but offering such opportunities gives players more say in their characters’ fates.

Should a TPK occur anyway, the kind of game you’re running should influence your approach to the situation. For example, in a campaign centered around dungeon crawling, a TPK is less of a problem—the players simply form a new adventuring party and take up where the dead ones left off. If you are running a story-intensive game in which each PC has a personal stake in defeating the villain, saving the town, or the like, a TPK could demolish multiple plot threads. Here, you might use the story you have in place, having the NPCs take up arms to find or avenge the slain group—or raise them from the dead.

Note that the game should continue only if the players want it to. The premature end of an adventure or campaign isn’t always a bad thing. If the group is interested in moving on, there’s nothing wrong with ending the campaign and starting something different.