Updated: Aug 23, 2021
I remember the first time, I finally killed my entire party. While I have never shied away from killing player characters in the past, I have never found myself in the situation of a total party wipe. However, pre-planning how it could be smoothed over, helped create a very memorable moment.
While you may be thinking, "You have won the D&D!" I was not feeling that great as it went down. I was worried I would lose players, throw out work I had done, and I was killing PCs I had come to love. Yet, none of my fears were realized - well, except the PCs dying, lol. The trust between my players and me enabled us to navigate this unexpected shift well.
It's important to note that despite the raging success of the slaughter of my group :P this is not an article on killing players as a group, so allow me to start with a word warning out: Do not plan TPK as a plot device, and always ensure it is used as a contingency plan.
I strongly advise against creating a specific moment where the group dies for narrative progression, which removes player agency. I understand you may want to create a tense moment, but not every player will resonate with that method. It can even backfire if you play out a combat piece and a few members of your party survive the fight. Now you have to place those survivors into the lore itself. Worse, if you declare, "rocks fall, and you die," the remaining members it cheapens their achievements.
If you were a player, could you imagine your PC going down in the first 2 rounds and combat going on another 15 rounds? You shift your busy schedule around, haul your dice, figures, and gear into the car, get all squared away to play, and yet your reward is a swift death and an eternity of spectating. That isn't a winning situation. To me, that is creating a bad experience for the members of the table. Then later, when the TPK moment arrives, the wait will feel that much more pointless.
I recommend long-form preparedness for a potential TPK (with the possibility it may never even happen) - a slow burn that may turn into a roaring fire that can shoot blazing embers into the stratosphere.
The Set-Up for a Slow Burn:
When I created my D&D Homebrew campaign, I knew it was going to be increasingly challenging as time went on. I also forewarned the players that I would not protect them from bad decisions. They were on board with this, so I had prepared well in advance for the potential of a TPK and create a slow-burn transition/provide a natural progression following a party wipe-out.
Here is how I framed my slow-burn - I created a recurring intro that started the same way every single time:
"Now these ashes have grown cold, and we open the old book."
After this opening line, I had variable sentences that I would read based on the prior session, whether a re-cap or hints of the future coming. These readings formed a multi-layered connection between the individuals listening to the story (the players), the PC's in the story they heard about, and the PC listeners of the tale (i.e., group members hearing a story about their PC who died, as a newly formed PC). In this way, I immediately immersed my players' new PCs into the prior campaign's framework for a seamless connection. Thus, while my table was not aware that new PC's were the silent listeners and attendants of the book and the dwindling fire (until after their TPK), all the while, their new PC's were being built into the campaign as listeners to the tale of history, playable in the eventuality of the TPK.
There is a key to this method - you have to stick with it.
To reap the reward of a long-standing pattern like the above, you have to keep reading this opening almost every time. Don't give up, and don't deviate. I read this opening for over a year straight. The players made jokes about re-lighting the fire as the ashes have grown cold, jokes about trying to take the book from the reader, or even saying they would leave the fire for a potty break when I read through those variable lines inevitably transpired. Still, each of these friendly jokes made the payoff that much sweeter when the ending was realized.
There are three potential outcomes to a TPK:
1) If your players manage to sunset the characters by beating the main campaign, the second self would have been attendees to an Epic (the readings above) that could lead to a Session 0 and a continuation of the world. This would mean the time invested as DM in world development wouldn't have to be scrapped. Not only this, but the players now have a huge chunk of history they also know and can call upon as the new characters.
2) If the players all died, the Epic would become a cautionary tale, warning of the failure of the former party that led to the current state of the world. This leads to Session 0 based on what they had completed in the first campaign with a new batch of characters.
3) A fresh start - My players could have opted not to stay in this world and do something fresh. This is always a possibility when closing out a campaign. While it would achieve neither goal I originally set, it would still be ok. Should the players wish to move on, there is nothing wrong with that. I would urge you as the DM to mentally prepare for that (shed a few tears for lost plotlines) and eventually come to grips with letting your masterwork go.
So, What Happened?
By now, you are probably wondering how I managed, after all of the above planning and contingencies, to kill my whole PC party. Do you recall last week where I spoke about using Audacity? Unfortunately, that is where things went south for the group.
As they navigated hell, they came upon a chamber.
They ended up splitting the party, unintentionally, when they hit the pocket dimension portal that puts members into their own rooms based on how they enter. The Rogue went in alone, the Paladin moments later, the Sorcerer, and finally, the Blood-Hunter and Cleric went in together. Doing this split them into 4 rooms. To travel between, they used a d4. Each number corresponded to one room.
Originally, I designed this fight, thinking they would have one or two rooms to work as they fought the creature and its shadows. While the creature would not be tough if they entered as a group (or as two if they scouted), they managed to split themselves into 4. Four rooms in which two of my squishy members were completely alone. This, coupled with poor rolls, not resting prior, and the DM rolling like he had a lucky charm jammed somewhere unmentionable, led to a wipe of the entire group.
And as the last piece fell, they received a final note from the reader of the book they, the second self, had been listening to.
A year-long open-ended plan had its loop closed as they all realized that this was a masterclass DM concept I had been long balling for over a year. Their long-faced expressions, shocked looks across the table, smiles, and even laughter were all gifts I received as the reward of my efforts of planning so far in advance came to fruition.
Not only this but they were immediately excited about what was to come.
At this junction of our long-form game, we had been playing for over a year in this world. We had players come and go, and party members die as the story had progressed. Each of these things created a history for the group that was a bit fractured. Of the original party, we only had two of the original PCs. (Told you I wasn't afraid of killing PCs ^_^).
With this TPK, they were given a fresh start, with old and new players getting a chance to roll up new characters to play. This put everyone on the same page and allowed for some new creative sparks to unfold!
Jokes, characters, questions, and new character relationships were forming, along with excited speculation about what the new world primer would reveal after receiving their epitaph.
Having heard the phrase in the setup above, my players understood we were going to be resuming in the same world—objective complete.
What was an intro that they joked and poked fun at suddenly had been realized as a promise that I had been making to them for over a year. This meant they would be continuing to play and enjoy the table without it fizzling out, as can happen when a campaign closes.
TPKs can be scary moments for not only the party but also the DM. They can also be painful as the content becomes irrelevant, emotions can be charged, and more work is ahead of you if you are going to DM the next campaign.
This is not something I normally practice and enjoy. However, what I am conveying to you (dear reader) is that you can mitigate and plan around potential TPKs in your own games through the long-form slow-burn setup. Just because your party died doesn't mean that it is the end of the world.