Game OverGame masters walk a razor’s edge. On one hand, we’re tasked with pitting our players against ever-mounting challenges. The threat of death and loss needs to feel real. The greater the danger, the more satisfying the victory. But we don’t want to make it so tough they won’t survive. So we try to hit that sweet spot that lies somewhere between mashing the PCs to paste in the first room and having the dreaded Bandit King hand over his stolen loot without even a fight.

But sometimes, even with the best of planning, everything goes south. A session filled with unlucky rolls combined with poor choices can end with all the members of your party either taking a dirt nap or running for their mommies. Unless you’re playing a game like Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu, few things grind an adventure to a halt faster than the dreaded Total Party Kill (or TPK, for short).

TPK Avoidance

When faced with the threat of a TPK, some game masters might try to tip the odds back in the favor of the players. Maybe one character has a sudden “eureka moment”, where they realize that the giant titanium robot who’s about to obliterate them has an access panel within easy reach. Or maybe that old, hapless farmer the party paid to lead them to the Bone Lord’s tomb conveniently turns out to be a Divine Cultist of Light in disguise. Perhaps a sandstorm suddenly springs up, obscuring the faltering heroes from the deadly aim of the relentless Telltale Assassin. Or maybe the game master just “fudges” some enemy die rolls.

While these tactics can work to keep a session from going totally off the rails, they have drawbacks. Having the cavalry roll in to save the day can feel like a letdown. Last-minute reprieves can cheapen the experience. And even when you’re crouched behind a game master screen, many players can still pick up on when you’re fudging numbers (“Hey, what do you know? The Archduke’s poison blade missed again!”) Frequent use of these sorts of tools can actually spoil the game for your players.

Prepare to Fail

Simply talking about handling TPKs can make the danger more “real” in your players’ minds.
An alternative to these types of tactics is to sit down with your group and plan for the worst. Before beginning a campaign, I’d suggest you discuss how to handle epic failures with your players. Not only does it make the game master’s job easier, but it lets the players get back up and running more quickly after such a catastrophe. As a bonus, simply talking about handling TPKs can make the danger more “real” in your players’ minds. Even if your game’s challenges are about as lethal as a paper cut, the fact that you have a post-mortem plan in place can convince your players that you won’t hesitate to mow them down, given the chance.

Options for Handling TPKs

While bringing in new characters is usually the first idea that pops into everyone’s head, it’s not the only viable recourse. Some other options for handling epic failures include:

  • Rewind The players re-try the same adventure with the same characters with no penalties.
  • Penalty The players re-try the same adventure with the same characters, but each pays an agreed upon “penalty” from the character’s wealth, goods, or other assets.
  • Change-up The players re-try the same adventure, but with some differences in the challenges; the game master switches up the adversaries, and shuffles things around a little.
  • Push on The PCs move on to the next adventure, foregoing cash and items that would have been acquired during the failed adventure.
  • Lose In this more challenging option, the PCs pay a penalty and move on to the next adventure.

Typically, PCs should forfeit any cash, abilities, or items gained on a botched adventure, regardless of how you handle it.

Post Mortem

epic fail

Epic Fail – Nemo Frenk

At any rate, when an Epic Failure happens, it’s important for the game master and players to assess what went wrong. If it was just a combination of bad luck and poor decisions, then there is probably no need to change the way things are going. If, however, the party failed despite heroic efforts and decent rolls, this may be a sign that you’ve made the difficulty too high. In this case, consider scaling back on future challenge levels.

The Joy of TPKs

No matter how you slice it, TPKs are rough going. Even though the risk of failure is part of what makes victory so sweet, no one likes to lose. That said, botched adventures can be quite memorable, especially if the players know it’s not the end of the road. I’ve had PCs pull all kinds of crazy last-minute stunts when they knew that they literally had nothing to lose. Some of our wildest stories come from our most epic failures.

So, what about you? Have you come up with a good way of handling TPKs? Got any memorable TPK stories?