Wisdom of the Masters: TPKS: How, Why, What to do
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Seven on 22nd July 2020.
Ostron: Technically the robe is glowing. And the chainmail underneath it.
Lennon: How…you’re not even proficient with chainmail, how are you going to cast spells.
Ostron: First of all, let me worry about that, second, it never seems to matter if I can cast spells when she’s around.
Lennon: Actually, yeah, where is the KDM? I figured she’d want to jump into this with both feet.
Ryu: You guys still don’t get KayDee, do you? I asked her what she does when there’s a TPK and she just said:
Killer DM: I laugh, and laugh, and laugh, then I have a drink.
Ryu: When I asked her what she did after that she just seemed confused, so yeah, KayDee’s not going to be much help here.
Lennon: Putting aside the disturbingly accurate impersonation that *still freaks me out*, do you have a different perspective?
Ryu: Oh definitely.
So in the course of running a game, almost every DM has encountered the TPK, or total party kill. There’s really nothing ambiguous about this; there was a party of adventurers at the start of the encounter, and now there are a bunch of bodies on the ground with no hit points and fewer death saves.
It might seem like a fairly definitive state of affairs but there are actually quite a few options for how to proceed from that point.
The first thing you have to do is figure out how your players are reacting to the situation, because that more than anything else will inform what the best possible response is. Groups of players can respond to TPKs in a wide variety of ways. Some groups will be laughing hysterically at how colossally badly things went. Others will be fairly blase about it and will start immediately thinking of how things will progress. It’s also possible there will be anguish and literal tears from players who desperately want their character or characters to live.
It’s also very likely you’re going to have a mix of these responses depending on the players. The barbarian player could be really attached to their character’s story and progression and doesn’t want to drop it yet, while the cleric could be so worn out trying to keep the rest of her party alive that the sweet release of death is the ultimate relief.
The optimal responses to each reaction aren’t that hard to figure out, but you’re going to have to flex your storytelling and improvisational muscles to do it. For the people who either don’t mind or actively wanted their characters to die, rerolling new characters is the easiest and most obvious next step. What you as the DM have to figure out is whether these new characters pick up where the last party left off and continue the story, or if this becomes the start of a totally new and separate adventure or campaign. If only some of the characters are being replaced, it’s not hard to continue the campaign as-is, but if the entire party was literally wiped out, you have to figure out how the new group got involved with the quest. Some options include “promoting” NPCs and now having them be player characters, if the players are interested, or having them be a part of the same organization the original party was working with, if that’s applicable. If it makes sense, it’s even possible to have one of the former characters inform the new ones about what’s going on; perhaps there was a letter or message left or the character is now a hopelessly wounded invalid passing on knowledge from their deathbed.
If players desperately want their characters back, fortunately there are a lot of options there too. As we’ve mentioned in the past, actually dying in a permanent fashion if you don’t want it to happen in D&D is kind of hard to do. Even if you drop to 0HP and fail all your death saves, there are four resurrection spells, and even if they aren’t dragging a long-suffering cleric around, mundane D&D has them camping out in temples in most major settlements. It’ll set the party back a bit of gold, but they’re probably swimming in that anyway, and if they aren’t, hey – free plot hook!
If you don’t want to abuse the semi-permanence of death in D&D, there are options there too; just look to any of your favorite movies or TV shows. If the enemies are intelligent, there’s always the possibility of being held captive rather than killed, and you can contrive the reason on the fly. Maybe the soldiers were under orders from the big bad to take them alive, in which case you have to make sure they can plausibly do that, so stay away from permadeath spells like disintegrate.
If it’s a more independent group, perhaps they suddenly wanted to try their hand at slavery. Or maybe they actually have some sort of a quest they need the characters’ help with.
One of the favorites, though, is having the characters wake up after dying with absolutely no clue about why they’re still alive. You could transport them to another location and immediately have someone walk in and exposit to them about why they were rescued, but it’s more fun to just let them wake up exactly where they fell down, except whatever was trying to kill them is gone. Now they get to wonder what got rid of or scared off their attackers and why, and you can keep that going as long as you want.
Regardless of how it’s resolved, when a TPK happens it’s worth having an out-of-game discussion about the results with the players and analyze why it happened and how everyone feels about that. If it was just a string of horrendous die rolls by the players coupled with the DM suddenly rolling max values on everything, that’s just probability deciding you needed to live at the end of a curve that day so there’s not much you can do about that, although it may bring up a discussion of whether players would prefer you as the DM fudge results or be a bit less ruthless with the enemy tactics.
If the TPK was the result of a string of poor tactical decisions (or just a single tactical decision, like not running away when the word “tarrasque” was mentioned at level one) it’s worth pointing out to the players how the encounter could have been handled differently, particularly if your group has a lot of new players in it. This may also divert into discussions of the players’ expectations as far as encounters go. If everyone agreed that encounters would be difficult and poor choices would result in death, no one should be surprised, but if the players expected more leeway with survivability, you as the DM need to account for that. Relatedly, if not engaging in an encounter or just immediately running is something the characters need to consider more often, that should be brought up too.
Which brings us to the other possibility that could have resulted in a TPK; was it a fatal encounter? Did the characters ever actually have a chance of surviving? This is mostly on you as the DM; you know the full details of the encounter and how the characters got there. If you were surprised that the characters had such a hard time with the encounter and it was one you mostly designed, figure out what assumptions you made that didn’t pan out. Were you expecting the characters to succeed on Athletics checks when all of them made Strength their dump stat? Were you expecting the party cleric to actually make an effort to heal the other characters? Were you using an official module and expecting that Wizards of the Coast made balanced encounters for low-level characters? Figure out what assumptions you had and keep them in mind for the future. Assuming those characters have a future.
Lennon: Is anyone else noticing an undercurrent of “bitter cleric” in these notes?
Ostron: I think Gath is still a little put out since the last time KayDee showed up.
Ryu: She’s been around for two years, I don’t understand why everyone is still having problems with her! It’s not like she’s subtle or secretive about her motives.
Lennon: Well, I’ll agree with you that “Subtlety” is not one of the main complaints against her.
Ostron: Speaking of complaints, RaeRae sent me a note that we need to deal with the scrying pool, so, shall we?