TPK – Total Party Kill
What is a TPK or Total Party Kill?
When all player characters die in a single scene of an adventure, this is called a Total Party Kill, “TPK” or party wipe. A TPK is never planned in a story or by the game master. It is always an accident, but one that can be prevented by the GM.
There are different reasons for a TPK. Often the characters die in combat or because of a trap. Fights between player characters or in a natural disaster can also cause a total party kill but are less common. In any case, it’s a combination of the GM not sufficiently signaling the risks and the players being too careless about them.
Why you should avoid Total Party Kills
Losing all player characters with a TPK usually always means the end of your campaign and storyline. Everything your players have achieved so far goes down the drain. You either start again at the very beginning with a set of fresh heroes, or you need to create a totally new scenario. Not only this, but you also lose the whole backstory of all player characters. All their achievements, character-related stories, friends, and foes are gone. And this can be quite a dramatic loss if you’ve played over several months or even years. That’s why a total party kill is the worst outcome in practically every story (if it is not a one-shot). Both you as the GM and also your players will be pretty frustrated by a TPK.
TPKs are always the GM’s fault
Let’s cut to the chase: If there’s a total party kill, it’s usually the GM’s fault. The bigger part of the narration lies in their hands, they know the story in advance, and they can even bend the rules if necessary. That’s why avoiding TPKs is mainly the GM’s responsibility. Consequently, unlucky dice rolls or silly coincidences should not be the main cause of character deaths.
The GM is already familiar with the story and all its pitfalls before play. Additionally, the GM usually also knows their players well enough to judge how they are going to react in the face of these situations. Equipped with this knowledge, they can either adapt the story during preparation or signal potential hazards to the players during play. If that’s not enough, the GM can also tweak dice rolls as a last resort.
How to avoid TPKs
First of all, try to adapt your campaign to the playstyle and experience of your players. Make sure the characters don’t get themselves in big trouble without your players knowing it. Always signal dangers well ahead of time. For example, if there’s a monster hidden in a cave, tell the players about the skeletons near the entrance, have them find the monster’s trail, or place an NPC in their way who was wounded by the beast. If your players don’t get your in-game clues, it’s totally fine to inform them out-of-game about the danger they’re in. A well-placed “Do you really want to go in there?” usually works well to let them know what’s at stake.
As a last resort, it’s also okay to tweak dice rolls in favor of the players. This is often looked down on by some GMs, as it’s seen as a way of cheating. But if it helps to avoid a TPK, it’s absolutely justified.
Some games or rule mechanics allow for an emergency switch like a resurrection or divine intervention. But these approaches can feel dissatisfying for the players, as they somehow take away their freedom of choice. It’s always better to properly signal risks and dangers to the players instead.
When a TPK is justifiable
There are a few rare cases, where you might want to consider a TPK.
(A) To maintain a credible setting
If the players ignore all the GM’s warnings, both in and out-of-game, and rush head-on into danger, you should not protect them from the consequences of their actions. If this results in a total party kill, then it is necessary to maintain the credibility of the setting. Things like trying to defeat a full army, fighting a god, or jumping from a cliff should, under normal circumstances, result in the player characters’ death.
(B) To emphasize a big sacrifice
There’s often an epic final boss fight at the end of a long campaign. If some of the characters meet their makers during these combat scenes, this could be beneficial to the atmosphere. It would stress the great sacrifices the player characters have to make in order to reach their goals or to defeat the big bad villain. Make sure to get your players’ permission for the deaths of the player characters first. Otherwise, an unexpected TPK will be very frustrating for them.
TPKs should only happen with one-shots
One-shots are adventures that are played in one single game session, usually with a set of pre-generated characters specifically made for this session. In these scenarios, a TPK can be okay and even support the atmosphere. This is true for many horror settings (Cthulhu, Kult, etc.), in which the characters die or go insane at the end of the story. For these genres, the high death risk is part of the thrill. And as the player characters are only meant to be played once in this adventure, the players are not overly attached to them.
Roleplaying games with a high risk of TPKs
Call of Cthulhu
This very popular horror RPG is known for its one-shot scenarios with deadly finales. Fighting nameless cults and eons-old gods from outer space makes survival very unlikely. Even in longer campaigns you should have some backup characters at hand.
Don’t Walk in Winter Wood
In this atmospheric horror game, inhabitants of a 17th-century rural village in New England set out to recover something or somebody lost in the nearby woods. They need to face the unforgiving winter climate as well as the dark spirits that haunt the forest. Certain death is just a botched dice roll away.
It’s the end of the world. No light, no sun, no stars. Only darkness remains. And the things out there are determined to hunt the player characters down. In this play-to-lose story game, the player characters will die at the end of the game, no matter what. It’s the players’ task to give each character a reason to hold on and to prepare a dramatic ending. This is currently the no. 1 indie game for tragic horror.
This old-school dungeon crawler set in a corrupted and dying world comes with a doom metal attitude. Multiple options for character death are baked into the game mechanics. Additionally, the end of the world has been foretold, which means the inevitable end of all player characters.
Further reading on total party kills
Check out these videos for additional information and advice on handling or avoiding total party kills.
Tabletop RPG veteran Bill Alan shares some good tips on how to avoid TPKs.
Rockstar GM Matt Mercer has some advice for how to handle player deaths in general.
This parody of tabletop RPGs has the players go through the same adventure over and over again after suffering a TPK.