[generic] Total Player Kill

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The Guvnor
Staff member
Now, I almost TPK*-ED my D&D group last Tuesday, very close squeak.
We tend to not have the high level of low level combats that D&D assumes in it's underlying build, and so they tend to nova** combats and rarely feel challenged.
Now it's a beer and pretzels game.. so I don't want to make them have to overly focus on combat/system mastery.. but this was one of the campaign's climaxes, a "beat" of consequence.
So I threw two deadly*** encounters at them, with a short rest in-between. They tilted the whole thing to their advantage by poisoning their enemy first, but.. but.. they rolled shit, then rolled shit again, and maybe there were just too many enemies?
So, two down out of five, making death saves, all resources blown... and they make that final long-expected good roll and the BBEG goes down, the evil cleric flies off in his cauldron, and they all sigh a sigh of relief.
But not as big as the one I was sighing on the INSIDE..
So, when this happens.. how do you as a GM, cope, how do you keep that peril and how do you respond when it all seems to be going wrong?


Rune Priest
I rarely kill a player character in my games, as I don't see that as my aim when I'm running a game. The last time I did kill a player character it was off-screen because of their actions in game would have led to their eventual death at the hands of the other player characters for his betrayal - if the player ever returned to the gaming table. I have never experienced a total party kill in one of my games, but have been on the receiving end a couple of times. One was in Cyberpunk 2020 and I don't think the GM attended it, and the other the GM was fully aware he was intending to commit a TPK. The latter was a little dickish of the GM.


Level 7 Blingmaster
I don’t think I have killed a PC in twenty years! 😮

I have had some close scrapes with Firefly as they were all on the same ship and it was doomed to crash but the players were able to save the day.

I was pushing hard in my Alien games, especially for my home group, to kill off a few player characters. Trouble is they all managed to escape (sort of, about to go into cryogenic sleep when they see the looming Alien over their tube).

Perhaps I need to try harder? 🤔


The Guvnor
Staff member
Oh gosh the number of dead characters is very low, sorry @First Age and er RichCrawley, but it has happened.
In the game I have played with @Vodkashok or @AndrewW refereeing, we seem to come to that perilous balance often.. and have always just managed to swing back the edge to our side.
Part of that might be playing D&D 5e (difficult to kill PCs), or 13th Age (can always retreat with a campaign loss), both of which have quite reasonable encounter balancing rules that one can "lean into" as a GM. Much less the case in some other systems.. although I eventually found some formulae for Savage Worlds that seemed sound.
I want my players to come that close to utter annihilation now and then, when it's narratively appropriate (sorry Taurin), but gosh it's scary.

Of course *I* wouldn't have killed them.. it would be the story and the play of probability and dice and choices made..


Rune Priest
I don’t think I have killed a PC in twenty years!
I haven't directly killed a player character in a very long time. The last few deaths have been down to player stupidity.

Going back to the character I killed off-screen, Player A did try to kill one of the other player characters by luring them into a trap they had deliberately set. I must admit the player of the intended character victim played the scene marvellously and didn't metagame. In other words, Player B went along with it as if she knew nothing about it. Then when the attempt failed, thanks to some timely intervention, the other player characters turned on Player A's character. If Player A had turned up for the next session, it would kind of got messy and his character would probably have died as a result. That's one of the reasons why I no longer allow PvP in my games.
Really good question Tom.

For me, its a question of what sort of game you want to run. If you are running a game of 'D&D' - and by that I mean rpgs as a game of killing things and taking their stuff, with the only route to growth being killing things and taking their stuff. If you're running a game like that, with minimal story then kill them, kill them all. Every single combat has the Death Banner raised and live by the roll of the dice.

But rarely do I run games like that. I'm more interested in some genre emulation - either a movie or a TV series - and random deaths, especially of the entire core cast, are simply not part of those experiences. Therefore, I just don't allow them to happen in my games. There is a degree of system mastery, as a GM, required to make encounters dangerous enough to pose a real in the moment threat to the players, but not derail the story. And it is easy to make conflicts have far wider stakes than life-or-death.

I am very open to killing characters by agreement with the player, especially if they are bored with that character. I am also not averse to killing off characters at critical junctures of the story. However, the idea of our Heroes of Legend being cut down and slaughtered by a gang of bandits on the road, through a series of bad rolls? Why bother? Waste of everyone's time.
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Total PARTY kill. Naturally in my one-off, ephemeral games I can cope with it and have had it happen a few times. Especially as @Vodkashok says during a D&D type game.

I don’t know if you know but its damn near impossible to do it in one of my “Code” games - so it’s hard-baked into the rules. There are other consequences than death.

I came close to a character kill in a recent Superhero campaign but bottled it - changing one villain’s motivation on the fly too have him do Stun rather than Kill damage as ordered. That one decision created a whole new, unplanned for and unexpected final chapter.

I did role-play my son and this friends through a long A,D&D campaign as they were growing up only to pretty much see them TPK’d in the first encounter of the Fire Giants module. (They didn’t check behind the tapestry.) and there was nothing i could do to stop it. Nearly did the same running Queen Victoria and the Holy Grail for them. I mean, I co-wrote the f@cking game and there was bugger all I could do to stop Marcus’ leopards and demons tearing their characters apart.


Rune Priest
I guess it depends on how well you know/can read your players. In a casual/con situation I will try quite hard to use the players poor rolls (or poor decisions) to ramp up the obstacles rather than directly piling on the characters. Keep the threat present and potentially overwhelming, but not automatically deadly. On the other hand, if I know the players I will hopefully be able to judge whether they feel they have 'earned' their extreme peril and possible character death.

There are few things I dislike more as a player than having obviously earned a grizzly, senseless death (by bad luck or misjudgement) and having the GM just fudge their way around it instead of sticking to the guns they were waving around a minute ago. If you are going hard, go hard. It's a bit like raising kids - don't make threats you can't follow through on.

Although it's been about a decade since I last ran any sort of D&D, it's mostly wishy-washy indie games, so I tend to have more wriggle room anyway.
I can't think when I've had a TPK, though I think we came pretty close in the Mythic Britain: Logres playtest. I'm usually in the "GMs don't kill characters - players kill characters" camp. After all, they pick almost all the fights. Funny you call it 'total player kill' - I've been tempted to do that a few times.
I thought TPK was total party kill. ;)

It's happened in con games, albeit in the final encounter. When it has it hasn't detracted from the enjoyment, especially when it was horror-themed.

As for continuing campaigns, no, never a TPK, though plenty of individual PC deaths. I'm pleased - a TPK is a campaign ender, and ends it on a down note unless something is accomplished on the way. Though I'm nervous about the One Ring finale on Tuesday.

As for PC deaths in general, well, it depends doesn't it? In a horror game, where survival is part of the peril, it's good to have on the table. Or in a game where grit and consequences are the thing but combat nonetheless happens. Ideally in those it's where PCs choose to take the risk - even if the consequences of not taking it are just plain fleeing and looking cowardly, not something that honourably could be done - but it's still a decision. If a player chooses to put their character's life at risk, give them that risk!

But... not everything needs such consequence. Sometimes a lighthearted adventure is called for. Sometimes things are suitably dramatic and consequences can be offered more interesting for the story than death. Sometimes it's fun to play with the risk, sometimes not.

In my recent Cthulhu Apocalypse game there have been two PC deaths, and they've both been very deliberate choices made by the players. There was a poignancy as well as a horror - the intensity meant we need a break from that game, though we'll certainly return.


The Guvnor
Staff member
I find that I have to learn the system lethality slowly, and match it to the players and the characters competence and/or interest. I first consciously did this with 13th Age and learnt how to do it with Savage.

Slow incremental increases in threat.
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However.. what tricks of the trade are there to create that peril (and @Vodkashok creates it in Symbaroum) but not TPK everyone.
1. Be very aware of the system and the boundaries it has for death. If you have a system that has one-shot kills PCs then the drama is taken out of your hands. Avoid them.
2. Be aware of the status of your PCs and your NPCs in a combat. In Symbaroum, for example, I know that Iago can take two hits and is then down, Lupino is more likely to be three to four, assuming I can lay a claw on him.
3. ALWAYS make failure about more than death. In my mind's eye, no combat in an emulating game should be about 'die or proceed to .. nothing'. That's why I don't do attritional combat or random encounters. Everything should mean something. So the stakes for the players are higher than living (because death isn't really an option)
4. Have a fallback position in case things go totally bad for the players. Sometimes, especially in a game where the dice are player-facing, there is nothing you can do. The dice decide you're dead. In those situations I always have a fallback - unconscious, not dead. Captured. Han Solo swoops in after a change of heart. Something. If it happens all of the time, its horrid but once or twice across a campaign is fine.

Moreover if you can create a game where the players care so much about their characters and the story that even the threat of threat is enough to get them hot under the collar, they will be far more invested and ready to buy into the danger. In such I'm a big believer in making fights bloody dangerous!

Oh, and have ninja-skilled rules maestros as well, who have characters and games mastery so you can go full bore on their ass and they can respond in kind. That helps too....


The Guvnor
Staff member
I am thrilled by your replies. The choice of running a cotton wool game is great and dandy, and clearly an option I can take.

However I am likely to still want to run Mythras or D&D or Savage or Traveller, all of which have the statistical probability of character death.

It's that fine tuning in those systems that seems a real blend of art and craft.
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