It is bad enough when one player character dies, so how do you address the unfortunate possibility of a Total Party Kill?
Many view it as a sign of poor skills in a DM. Others cast blame on the party for not understanding the severity of an encounter before it is too late. Sometimes, the dice simply refuse to fall in favor of the heroes. Thanks to the law of large numbers, the possibility of a TPK is present in almost any game, even if every single encounter in the entire campaign is balanced to be fair. Unless you fudge the numbers, TPKs seem to be an inevitability in any DM’s career.
How, then, do we handle the entire party losing in battle?
A-ha! Now that the heroes have been defeated, the villain has them right where he wants them. He cannot kill them off, however, since he needs their heroic spirit/special knowledge/physical strength/raw charisma to power the Armageddon device/unlock the planetary defenses/fight in the gladiatorial pits/make a nice pot of tea. The trope of the bad guys capturing the good guys is likely as old as fiction. While there are many silly or otherwise played-out examples of this behavior in movies, comic books, another media, it can still be handled well.
In medieval times, it was common to take exceptional opponents as prisoners and ransom them back to their families. A dead hero is of little worth, but surely the local lord would be willing to pay many, many gold pieces in exchange for the safe return of his prized adventurers. Instead of having the enemies kill all of their downed opponents, have the enemy capture the heroes so they can be ransomed. This can lend a great impact to your story, because not only does this leave the heroes in debt to the local lord, but it also creates the expectation that the heroes will do the same for their enemies. How will it be viewed by the population as a whole if the heroes wantonly slaughter the enemies who once showed them mercy?
Sold into Slavery
Surely, soldiers such as the heroes would make excellent slaves. Once captured, the heroes might need to go through one or more adventures where they escape their slavers, bargain for their freedom, or fight in gladiatorial arenas.
Prisoners of War
The heroes could be a valuable source of intelligence for their enemies. Keeping them in the dungeons is a much safer investment than outright killing them. No one has ever escaped from the castle dungeons, so what are the odds the heroes will? (Answer: Very good, but only because no one has ever done it before. Heroic fantasy metaphysics work like that.)
When dealing with the heroes getting captured, the game rules will sometimes stand in your way. Many games have rules where unconscious characters will “bleed out” until dead, and you may have one or more dead party members on the field while the rest are still fighting. There exist creative ways of dealing with this problem, and there is no one right answer. Often, it may involve fudging the rules a bit for the benefit of the story. Different players and DMs have different levels of comfort with this idea, so the :right” action in this case is highly dependent upon your gaming group.
While the Kingdom Hearts series of games is an odd amalgam that is not everyone’s cup of tea, Kingdom Hearts 2 takes an interesting stance on the TPK. In certain boss battles, a TPK results in Mickey Mouse, the Badass-in-Chief and King of the game’s universe, arriving to save the day. The player gains control of Mickey, and he can fight the boss as Mickey before eventually healing the party and resuming standard play.
Skip ahead to about the 43 second mark in the video below to see an example of this feature.
While the Savior Mickey approach works well in Kingdom Hearts 2, it might not be a fit for every tabletop RPG campaign. With proper structuring, however, it could be a real benefit for your game. Do the heroes in your game have some sort of powerful, all-seeing benefactor? Maybe the benefactor can show up to save the day, but is expends a powerful magic item that can only ever be used once. If you want to run with this approach, keep the potential savior printed out and ready to go in your game files. Taking a cue from Kingdom Hearts, do not play the savior yourself while in combat. Hand the character sheet – or monster stat block – over to the players and let them save their own hides.
We often see this approach scripted into various video games and tabletop adventures as an absolute moment in time – the heroes WILL fail in this encounter, so the savior WILL show up then. Having a savior pre-written as a backup plan allows the introduction of such a character to feel far more organic and less railroaded by the DM. If it never gets used, then just pat yourself on the back for good encounter design, and thank your lucky stars that the dice never rolled too hard against your players.
Time Goes On
Though this is probably the hardest option to pull off successfully, I feel it can be one of the most rewarding, in terms of story. Simply put, a TPK can mean that the bad guys win. The heroes have been defeated, and the evil forces now can operate fairly free of interruption for a time. New heroes will one day rise to challenge the evil, but not right away.
For this case to work, you need your players to be invested not only in their character, but in the story as a whole. The death of their party means that the bad guys won that round. Restart your campaign with a new party, maybe years later in the game world, after the enemy ‘s plans have notably advanced. Bards now sing of the heroic deeds of the old party, and how they were the best hope for defeating the enemy. Cut down in their prime, they are martyrs and have become an inspiration for a new generation of heroes.
You need the right narrative style and the right group of players to pull this off successfully, but the rewards can be pretty impressive. Epic stories are especially well suited to this style of addressing the TPK problem, and player buy-in can hinge on them seeing the advantages to picking up the story from a brand new viewpoint. The biggest key to success in this scenario is not simply pick up where you left off. As DMs, most of us have a certain idea of how the story will unfold, and this style requires a willingness to drastically alter that plan. Staying the same old course with a brand new set of characters is the exact kind of narrative inconsistency that makes the TPK so awful and leads to players losing interest in the campaign.
If handled poorly, a full party wipe can ruin a game. There is no one correct way to handle such an occasion, as so much is dependent upon the combined temperament of the players and their DM, the trust established between the two, and the agreed-upon goals of the story being told. Hopefully, the above ideas will spark your own thinking on this topic and leave you better prepared from when it happens at your table.
Have you ever ran a game that resulted in a full TPK? How did you handle it? How did the game feel afterwards? What advice can you offer on this topic?