TPK (Total Party Kill) is one of those concepts that all DMs know, even if they have never done it before. While the goal of a DM should NEVER be to kill the entire party, TPKs can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons, such as:
- The DM creates an unbalanced encounter
- The party goes into a fight unprepared
- The party rolls really REALLY badly (happens more than you think)
- Things just go wrong...
Sometimes, a TPK is no one’s fault. It is a combination of bad player rolls, great DM rolls, and unexpected difficulties. Is it really fair in those cases to kill the entire party?
If you are wondering whether or not you should let the party death stand, consider the following:
- Was the encounter unfair or unbalanced?
- Did the party feel like they had no other option but to fight?
- Where their extenuating or unexpected circumstances, such as bad rolls at critical moments?
- Will this TPK destroy your players’ trust in you as a DM?
- Will this TPK make players quit your game?
Only once you have considered all of these factors should you decide if a TPK should stand.
Death in Dungeons & Dragons
The first question you need to ask yourself is this, “Do I want death to be a real possibility in my campaign?” Most DMs never consider the fact that they, are in fact, in charge of the world and have the option to exclude death from it.
If the purpose of your campaign is character development and your group is extremely attached to all the players and their stories, then you can exclude the death from your game and focus on the aspects you and your party enjoy. You are allowed to do this. Does this mean your world has no consequences and lacks challenging elements? Of course not!
If you choose to exclude the death element from your game, there are other ways to make encounters challenging and tense. Check out and try using some of these non-lethal methods.
What to Do If You Made a Mistake
What if the party is wiped because you, as the DM, didn’t do your homework? You accidentally made the encounter too difficult and killed everyone as a result. Whoops! What happens now? Well, you have a few options if you don’t want all those deaths on your conscience.
Also, to avoid having this happen, I highly recommend you check out my post of “Building Balanced Encounters.” This step by step guide will make sure you never accidentally kill your party.
Instead of letting the deaths stand, you can pull back and say something like this:
“As the last of you falls to the monster before you, eyes lifeless and still, your vision begins to pull back. You feel yourself being pulled out of the room, your vision blurs, when everything clears, you find yourself sitting in the darkened room of the soothsayer. All your friends around you, still alive, but shaken, just like you. You all look from one to another, confused, afraid. The old woman at the head of the table covers the crystal ball. ‘This is the fate that awaits you, adventurers, should you be careless. Walk carefully.'”
Of course, your party won’t remember ever going to a fortuneteller and you will have to do some backtracking, but it is a good way to undo the TPK while still maintaining reality.
It was Just a Dream
Some might think this is lame, but if you truly made a mistake and killed the party because you created an unbalanced encounter that the party felt they had to fight, then this can be a good option.
Basically, this happens just like it does in movies. After everyone dies, you pick one player (I would recommend the last player killed) and tell them:
“As the monster’s jaws close around you, you sit up, screaming. You flail your arms and look around, wildly. But all you see are your friends, sleeping around the campfire. You breathe hard trying to calm yourself. It was just a dream….just a dream.”
Other Alternatives to Death
Even if your party died because they were careless and reckless, it still doesn’t mean you have to let the TPK stand. If your party members are extremely attached to their characters or if the TPK will cause players to quit your party, it might be better to find alternatives to death.
TPW (Total Party Wipe) is a bit different from a TPK. With a TPW, the players all fall unconscious and you can find ways to keep them alive while still making them suffer the consequences of their actions. Below are some options:
Unconcious Until Healed
Sometimes, it is easiest to just say that everyone is unconscious. Have the party healer wake up and have to take the time to heal everyone. I would then make the party rest, giving them multiple levels of exhaustion from the failed fight.
If you are not using exhaustion in your games, you really should be. It is a great mechanic that is underused. If you want to know more about it and how to use if in your game, check out this article “Why You Should be Using Exhaustion“
Saved by an NPC
If you want to introduce a new friendly (or not so friendly) NPCs, when the party all falls unconscious they can found/rescued by NPCs. These NPCs can be friendly helpers, such as an old druid or cleric, or enemies, such as a group of kolbolds or grungs.
I like this option because it allows for role-playing opportunities that can even play into the plot of your story arch. Some options to get your thinking could be:
- Powerful, but cranky, Druid or Wizard
- A necromancer, who is very upset you aren’t actually dead
- A monster society (Kolbolds, Grungs, or Goblins)
- A crazy NPC who lives there
- A scavenger that “cleans up” after monsters picking items off of dead adventurers
Saved by Their Patron
Another option to avoid killing the entire party is to have one party member’s deity or patron show up to save them for a “purpose.” This could be to advance the plot of the overall campaign or be a side quest.
For whatever reason, having a powerful patron show up and save the day could make for some awesome role-play and hooks.
Make a Deal
While deities can be great, I much prefer to offer players a much different option when they are on the brink of death. A deal with a Devil.
If you have never done this in your game before, I highly recommend giving it a try. Making deals can create really fun and interesting situations. If you want more information on exactly how to present deals from Devils to your players, check out this post “Making Deals with Devils.”
Finally, however you choose to avoid death, your players should still have consequences for the failure. Some of my favorite non-lethal consequences are:
- Multiple points of exhaustion
- Loss of limb
- Temporary or permanent insanity characteristics (See this post for the insanity chart!)
- Loss of magical weapons or armor
- Loss of all items
After Life Adventures
If you want the TPK to stand but you also want to keep playing the same characters, why not have all the players wake up in the afterlife and have to fight their way back to the material plane?
Perhaps all your players find themselves in the 9 Hells or in the Feywild and they must fight, talk and think their way back home. This is a great way to keep the TPK if you feel like it should stay, but allow the players to continue to play the characters they love.
Allowing the players to play through the afterlife is a creative option that will provide incredible and new experiences for your players even after death.
Should You Ever Wipe the Party?
There is no right answer to this question. It is really up to you and will depend on your players and campaign. And don’t let any of the harsh DMs online tell you otherwise.
I, personally, do not like to kill the entire party. We are all working together to create an epic story, to just end it like that feels cheap. I would rather work around the situation with the options above than kill our story.
The point is, do what feels right with your group. Now you have options and ideas in case this situation comes up but, most importantly, feel confident that you can do whatever is right for your campaign.
After all, you are the DM.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!
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