The Guilt-Free Total Party Kill

This was inspired by a conversation on Mastadon with Eric Nieudan & Augury Ignored and then my incomplete draft was given the final kick it needed by this blog post from Augury Ignored.

Bird skulls to either side and skull with plants in the middle by Perplexing Ruins

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Do you want to erase all guilt about Total Party Kills?


Total Party Kills, known as TPK’s, are a spectre at our gaming tables. They lurk behind every die roll. Terror at the idea of TPK’s can be seen in full throttle in online communities where new GM’s and DM’s seek advice. 

“How do I balance encounters?”

“Should I save the characters after a series of terrible rolls?”

“How do I save the game if I TPK in my first encounter?”

When we make our characters, we don’t know where that character will end up. We don’t know how going out into the world and entering monster-haunted pits will change this fictional person we’ve created. Will the pressure of adventuring create a hero or will they succumb to pressure and become a kind of villain? Will they be generous or selfish? Will they earn glory and inspire ballads or perish and inspire cautionary tales?

The first two clickbait-inspired lines of the essay – let’s do it. Let’s erase all of that guilt. Ready?

While your friends are making up their characters with dreams of treasure, glory and ballads, ask them this question:

If your character were to perish in a monster-haunted pit, who would come to find them or avenge them or set their ghost to rest?

You could even make a space for it at the bottom of the character sheet. Ask the players to write that name down while making the character just in case your character perishes. 

And this isn’t even getting really weird. We could really delve into some weird fantasy and ask the players about their character’s belief into the afterlife. What kind of journey do elves go on after they die? What do the orc gods demand of their dead before they are allowed into orc-heaven? What does your heretical Sun-God cult believe about feasting in the Bright Halls after one dies? Who in your mythology has returned from the dead and how did they achieve their goals?

If you want to keep playing with the same characters, death is no barrier.

The world is broken after your heroes failed to stop the lich. There is a prophecy that the heroes who failed to stop the Bone Emperor are said to be reborn in a generation. Make characters, it is decades after your character’s death and the sun is a bruise in the sky. You are the prophesied heroes reborn…

Bird skulls to either side and skull with plants in the middle by Perplexing Ruins

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Less Than Total Kill

Folks who fear character death often don’t think of the amazing character moments they can bring up. If the killing of the party isn’t total, suddenly there are wakes, contacting your late friend’s family and letting them know how it happened and it changes the party dynamic. Suddenly, rookies might become old-timers, welcoming new adventurers into the group. Care-free rogues might become cautious, having seen first-hand what happens when treasure-hunters aren’t careful. 

Bird skulls to either side and skull with plants in the middle by Perplexing Ruins

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What did I do when I saw an actual T.P.K. in a recent game?

The last hope of this rebellion was quashed, killed in dragonfire. The Dragon’s scales kept the worst of the damage from drawing blood but the rebels perished as the beast landed and rampaged, making sure that nothing could grow in that valley. The gryphon-riders who were going to arrive too late would inter would they could find of the bodies.

In the decades to come, this valley would become famous, known as Black Glass Valley. This is where future rebellions would be born. This is where people would gather to bring about the downfall of the Dragon’s fell rule, inspired by Draven, Aedler and Drifter.

Maybe they will succeed. We can’t know that but we know that they will damn well try.

Dragonslayers: Seeds of the Black Glass Valley Rebellion
Bird skulls to either side and skull with plants in the middle by Perplexing Ruins

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Even Death May Die

But let’s look at the Total Party Kill, not just a character-death but the whole party going down. Suddenly, the characters are a part of the story of that place forever. Forests become haunted, back-alleys gain dangerous reputations and villains are known hero-slayers.

The post TPK party has a united drive and will get to re-walk some of the same places the previous party did but in a totally different context. You’ll get to reference the games that came before. The quest-giver in the tavern becomes suspect – did they send your friends and family to their doom on purpose? The town that needed saving has suffered. Places and people the players have met before can be familiar yet forever altered from a different player character’s point of view.

We know that getting together with friends and rolling dice and creatively solving problems is going to create some kind of a story. It comes off the table like exhaust comes out of a car (but it is far better for you). We don’t know what kind of story it will be. It might be a heroic journey. It might be a picaresque fantasy romp. It might be a cautionary tale. Be open to whatever it might be and that Total Party Kill fear will fade away as we realize that whatever happens, the worlds we create at the table are interesting enough to continue to be interesting no matter what blood the dice demand.

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Link to Guilt-Free T.P.K. T-shirt design

Link to Play Fearless Awards on Substack

One thought on “The Guilt-Free Total Party Kill

  1. Pingback: The Guilt-Free TPK – Augury Ignored

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