TPKs Aren’t All Bad

Our Heroes RestThe other week our Star Wars campaign ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK). And you know something? It was awesome!

The game was a mini campaign while we took a brief hiatus from our Pathfinder Kingmaker game. We were all having a good time with it, but the dice fell as they did and with a few poor rolls the party died while trying to rescue a young Princess Leia. Things went south with a botched stealth roll and went rapidly downhill from there, ending with explosions going off everywhere and party members going down in a hail of blaster fire. Despite that, this will be one of the games that will be memorable for our group. This will be one we look back at and laugh at how quickly that situation went downhill.

Our group has others, there is the campaign I ran that got our group together many years ago, my return to DMing. That one is memorable for the wrong reasons, it was like running the PCs through a meat grinder. Not my best moments! It took a bit of time before I was allowed to DM again!

There was our higher level game that finally came to conclusion via TPK. Once again dice rolling was not going our way and we all fell in what was close to one of the final combats. We were disappointed when it happened, but even to this day it is still a campaign we remember fondly. Even a few years later we had a different set of characters in the same campaign world that sought out the heroes from that fateful TPK.

The threat of a TPK or character death is what helps make the successes in a game that much better. With no real threat of consequence it becomes routine to defeat the evil wizards and dragons of the world as there is no risk. The occasional TPK keeps that sense of risk around which sweetens the victories characters do accomplish.

There is certainly a fine line to walk. Too many TPKs as a GM and you get a reputation of being a “killer GM”. Never having a TPK or character death and you end up on the other side of the spectrum and you are the “soft GM” that never lets the dice fall the way they may. Finding the balance can be difficult, but in the end I think it leads to a more rewarding gaming experience with some risk being a constant presence. The risk is what helps make the game heroic!

So GMs out there, if the campaign you have been running results in a TPK, let it stand. Do not be tempted to roll back the clock and have a redo. Do not be tempted to rescue them via GM fiat. Let it stand. Chances are your players will talk about the campaign and the characters in it for many years to come! And it will add even more sense of accomplishment to future games you run when their characters are successful.

7 thoughts on “TPKs Aren’t All Bad

  1. My sandbox campaign is very explicitly “TPK friendly”. The whole point of this setting is that the safety rails are off, and if you decide (presumably as a group) to wander into Dangerous Territory there’s a good chance you won’t come back.

    Of course, another part of the premise of this setting is that there are a lot of PCs available (I expect each player to maintain a ‘PC stable’ of characters that can be drawn from for each session) so it’s not that horrendous a thing to have a TPK. It acts as a warning to the others back home.

  2. Excellent! I like campaigns where you can wander into things over your head. It always helps things feel more real to me and leave a party always gauging whether this is a fight or encounter they should be facing or trying to avoid.

    I have heard of folks tying together longer campaigns with a stable of characters. I haven’t tried it myself though.

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  4. I recently had a TPK in star wars that ended a mini-campaign well before intended. The group knew it was going to be a short one which helps prep them for anything bad happening. It was also a Dark Side campaign which I tend to make a little harder than my standard game. They would have been successful had they not tossed grenades into the room of some possible allies! The major benefit is this game finally convinced someone else in my group to run a game, so I can take a break from 2 years of non-stop GMing. Looking forward to getting to play as a PC again.

  5. Grenades were our downfall too! My character was sort of modeled after Blaster from Uncommon Valor. He was supposed to be a cross between Blaster and Murdock from the A-Team, but it turned out more like Blaster and Face from the A-Team. One of the other players discovered concussion grenades and I stocked up on them. A few bad rolls later and the party inadvertently took a lot of damage from friendly fire coupled with swarming enemies with blaster rifles. It was a good run though!

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