Saturday, January 19, 2013

Total Party Kill

9 characters died in my Expeditions in the Northlands campaign tonight (Saturday). Total Party Kill.

I haven't had a death count that high since I ran the Tomb of Horrors over twelve years ago. 

They again, those were character of 12th and over. Those who died where zero-level characters. 

Even wikipedia has a list of TPK situations. 

Let's take a look at that list and compare to what happened:

  • The players refuse to consider surrender or flight as an option against a clearly superior foe, and fight to the death.  No. They ran when they need to. And the foe wasn't clearly superior. It wasn't really superior at all. 

  • The composition of the party makes it unable to deal with some specific foe, even though the challenge rating is correct. For instance, a low-level D&D party may have no magic weapons and simply be unable to hit an otherwise weak incorporeal monster. The foe didn't require magic weapons to hit, nor was it incorporeal. The characters, as mentioned, were all 0-level. 

  • The players have a string of unlucky dice rolls or the game master has a string of lucky rolls, causing the combat results to shift against the players. Yeah. That did it. 

  • The game master fails to properly balance an encounter against the party's abilities. Balance? This is an old school game. How can I fail to provide balance when I didn't attempt to provide balance in the first place?

  • A single player in the party makes an extremely unlucky roll, resulting in his character's death and triggering a domino effect that results in the deaths of other members of the adventuring party. If this doesn't kill the whole party immediately, it may make the rest of the encounter impossible for the survivors. No. That didn't happen either.

  • One of the players in the party talks the rest of the group into attempting a reckless or dangerous course of action. This may occur when a player is bored with his character or with the campaign as a whole and turns to reckless behavior to add excitement. Nope. 
  • One or more of the players undermines the party's ability to fight an otherwise non-fatal foe. Not really. 

  • The GM intentionally slaughters the party for some perceived personal slight (for example, a meteorite falling on the party, ending the campaign abruptly), sometimes accompanied by the words "Rocks fall! Everyone dies!" It wasn't intentional. 

  • A TPK can be scripted and fit within the game's unusual milieu, as they are in Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia. In the latter, TPKs are to be expected and the players are compensated by having extra clones, which enter play whenever a previous player character is killed. Well, sort of. They can roll up three more 0-level characters...

  • A TPK can also be a scripted element of the adventure in which the deaths of the party are not intended to be permanent, or is illusory (the party is resurrected by a powerful entity and is given new identities, the scene was "just a dream", or the players' characters read a diary kept by a party whose members were all killed, and the Game Master decides to make the players "play" the dead characters' adventures until the expected end whose exact nature may be unknown). Definitely not!


  1. It happens, sometimes, in the best of gaming groups. It happened to me once: a four-year long campaign ended in a TPK because of a string of unlucky rolls and reckless behavior of some players who underestimated their foes - I was running "Night of the Living Dead", a 1st-level Ravenloft module for four 3rd-level characters and veteran players.

    1. "Night of the Living Dead" is a classic module. I own it and have run it before. I can see how players can underestimate the foes in that module. In my case, the PCs actually split up(!) a couple went to the plantation house and the others to the cemetery. You can imagine what happened next.

      Not a TPK, but close.

  2. My current campaign started with a TPK. Partly bad rolls and partly bad tactics (they split party, and ended up fighting on two fronts against opponents they could have avoided or defeated in detail).
    The newer player was a little shocked but in the end they all agreed that if you can't possibly die from bad rolls, there is no reason to roll the dice...

    1. Whoops.

      "Well, I told you guys we'd have a short session after you rolled up characters." ;)

  3. Haven't had a TPK yet, but I warn the players to have extra characters rolled up.

    If you have a story arc going in your campaign, how do you handle the continuity break?


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