How do you handle TPK?

Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion

At low levels you could just make new characters but what if your party is high level and, say near the end of adventure path? I guess you could have someone stumble onto their bodies and resurrect them but obviously you would only want to do that once or the players will lose their fear of dying.

You try to avoid all the PCs actually dying, perhaps by being captured or something. Otherwise the game ends and someone starts another one.

depends on my relation to the players, in some cases, TPK can be the actual desired result... granted, you have to be playing with a bunch of unbearables who want an adversarial relationship for that, but I've known some morons of that kind, and I played the good old Ravenloft for them... with that scenario, unless you play it wrong, TPK is guaranteed... I guess there are similar scenarios in the Golarionsphere

Most cases, with a party of nice players, you want to avoid character death if at all possible (I've known exceptions, like when the player has to leave the group and you kill off his character heroically as a goodbye)...

Be careful about the good old 'captured and must escape' trope... it can become overused and tiring real fast, especially since it's also used as a starting point for any number of published modules. (starting with AD&D A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, and 5e Out of the Abyss).

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Honestly just seeing the potential of it should be enough to scare a group into retreat. Remind them it's better to rez their friends that died then suffer the same fate.

If they press on... then they die.

And that's ok. Even if the bad guys win. Even if the horrible unspeakable things happen.

Because maybe they can play a new game where they have to deal with the mistakes of old heroes. Maybe you just end the game there and they realize that death matters.

When it becomes trivial, when it is handwaved away as a thing that will never happen? Then the real TPK happens. The group just doesn't invest in themselves knowing there is no real consequence to their actions.

So my advice is let them no the costs. The stakes. And if they press on, let them know the outcome.

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In coming on 35 years of playing, I have encountered only a small handful of characters that didn’t fear dying. They were played by players who were pretty much burned out or otherwise disaffected due to IRL circumstances and ended up quitting the game before long or, extremely rarely—like count on one hand rarely—a player who was not enjoying a particular character but didn’t feel comfortable just walking away with it to bring in something more to their liking. Other than that, the people I play with universally do not want their characters to die.

We deal with TPK the same way that we deal with individual character death: write up a new character with good and interesting motivations to be doing whatever the character who died was doing. The new character must also have good and interesting motivations to have joined up with the other party members.

I don’t know where people get this idea that death somehow has no meaning in the game. It sucks to have your character die. You lose what you’ve invested in it for however long you’ve been playing it and you never get to see what it could have become had it not died (often the most painful part of losing a character for me—I am still so disappointed that my super cool casting-focused oracle died at level 4 before he became any good at what he was designed to be in an AP three years ago now). Or you spend wealth which could have been better spent elsewhere on bringing it back and restoring the built in penalties for death. For our group members, these are enough of a deterrent. I have not personally experienced any reason to make death meaningful by artificially creating circumstances that make surviving more difficult or having a character die more punitive.

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born_of_fire wrote:

In coming on 35 years of playing, I have encountered only a small handful of characters that didn’t fear dying. ...

Or you spend wealth which could have been better spent elsewhere on bringing it back and restoring the built in penalties for death. For our group members, these are enough of a deterrent. I have not personally experienced any reason to make death meaningful by artificially creating circumstances that make surviving more difficult or having a character die more punitive.

Various experiences. I have seen quite a few players that didn't care if their characters died. They always have 2-5 backup PC's ready and waiting. And if they bring in the backup PC, they don't even have to worry about the cost of the rez. {shrug} Not my favorite players, but they are out there.

Personally, I always have a few backup characters (just cause I lke making them). I also get invested in my PC's and don't want to see them fail. However, for some of them, I don't necessarily consider a heroic death to be a a fail.
And I personally hate it if the GM fudges the dice rolls or uses some stupid trope to make sure we don't die. No PC risk, no fun.

That said...

We have rarely had an actual TPK, (except in something like Raveloft). Even then it was usually due to a GM error. Once I threw an NPC ambush together pretty quickly. It had quite a few opponents picking their ground, but they were also much lower level than the PC's so I didn't think too much about it. I didn't really realize how well the various abilities complimented each other in actual play. All of a sudden in round 3 or 4 I asked the guy keeping track of the initiatives who was next and he said, "Uh I think we're all dead or unconscious." I was like "What? Really?!?" When the TPK is due to my mistake as GM, I would always ask the group what they want to do. We all eventually decided to just pretend that night of gameplay was just a bad dream. I took the next week to plan something completely different (and a little more well thought out).

Usually at least 1 PC has the opportunity to get away. At high levels, he may have to sell most of his gear, but he can get the cash for true resurrection if needed. Then the group needs to be very careful (and play a bit smarter) going back with what they learned the first time to get their gear and accomplish the original mission.

If nothing else, at high levels I "make plans" as a character when doing something stupidly dangerous. Make a deal with a church that if my body shows up in the next X days, raise and heal it. Then have a contingency teleport to send my body there if I die.

But if the party dies, well then the party dies. We decide as a group what to do next. Usually the group would decide something like 'a bunch of friends and relatives decide to go avenge their deaths.'

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One of the campaigns I am currently running all but guarantees frequent character deaths, and all players are supposed to bring at least one backup.

In the event of a TPK, a new group of adventures is assembled.

While it was in D&D4, not PF, I've seen a TPK end a campaign: the same DM and gaming group remained, but the DM insisted on abandoning the scenario that had been going on (the TPK was his responsibility, he had overdone an adjustment in monsters due to the party being 5 or 6 strong rather than the 4 the scenario as writtne was designed for), and so we started afresh on a Dark Sun campaign.

I've only had one TPK, and it was in the latter days of 2e. The fight was with a beholder that had taken over the temple of a good-aligned deity. I ruled, mostly because I felt bad over it, that the goddess that the temple belonged to raised them all from the dead.

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I must admit that the last time I met a beholder (in Out of the Abyss, D&D5) we managed to beat it with no deaths, and we only lvl 10 or 12... I was surprised, given the disintegrate and petrifaction rays.

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

It depends.

I've been involved with only a few TPKs in my 35+ years of gaming. Some we're good endings, others... not so much.

Once, the PCs decided to sacrifice themselves to stop the BBEG's plans from coming to fruition. It was a very satisfying ending to the campaign. (D&D 3.5)

Once, the PCs acquired a deck of many things. Only one PC survived drawing from the deck. The group decided that was the end of the campaign. (AD&D)

Once, the PCs set things in motion that caused Azathoth to be physically summoned to Earth. They were unsuccessful in stopping the ritual, and the world was destroyed. (Call of Cthulhu)

Once, the PCs failed to disarm a nuclear weapon, and it detonated while the PCs were nearby. End of campaign. (d20 Modern)

Once, the PCs decided to press their luck in a space battle after their starship had been hit a few times, and their engines took a direct hit, causing the ship to explode. No one got to the escape pods in time. End of campaign. (GURPS: Space Opera)

When I GM, I try to avoid TPKs. The PCs might be captured, or raised from the dead by their enemy, or saved by a plot device.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

It all depends on the story. Recently I ran a game where everyone died. I wasn't expecting it at all, and it was mostly due to bad tactics by the party, including only sending in half the party to fight what turned out to be the boss, when they started disrespecting her in a way that her write-up said she wouldn't tolerate.

Most of the time when I've been really deep into a campaign and everybody dies, the game ends. Enough people feel really irritated that nobody wants to continue.

Then again in the groups I run with its very rare for us to have a TPW. Most of the GMs try to avoid that. We've had a few situations where we thought for sure it was going to be a TPW (Looking very hard at you, Iron Gods AP. Why you give town guards 12 rocket launchers?), but somehow we muddle through with only a few deaths.

If I was running and we had a TPW someone else would want to run next, but I'd be tempted to run a parallel game that is based like 1 town over and runs into things from the old game. Then when the PCs are ready run the encounter that killed the last party, with the old parties gear there. I think the players would be into it.

In general, I try to kill PC's only because of stupidity, but sometimes they die from a critical hit or a really bad saving throw.

Every once in a while, my players get very close to death, like they did at the end of the first book of Skull & Shackles. If it wasn't due to rank stupidity, then I cut them some slack and make the monsters a bit dumber. I think the last time a monster got distracted from some shiny thing on a PC's body. It was in character, since it had a low Intelligence.

I felt a little bad about it, because one of the players was stupidly being excessively heroic by chasing an enemy that was choking a PC and carrying it into another room, and didn't bother to stop and check the room before entering, basically falling into the trap that the book's writer had set for them.

Then the swarm came into the fight, they started dropping. The Cleric couldn't keep up healing. I didn't want to nail the whole party simply because a newbie player with the Fighter made a mistake.

So, I had the choker get distracted by a shiny object and dropped the unconscious Wizard, and they killed the choker via missile damage with my advice. The Ranger dragged the Cleric out, and the Cleric healed him up with the last of the healing stores, then the Ranger ran in to get the Fighter, with the ghoul munching on the choker and distracted meanwhile. He made a second run to pick up the Wizard, and the next day they nailed the swarm via Burning Hands, and found they still had to deal with a bad case of ghoul fever, 3 out of the 4 had it and took heavy Con damage.

Even after using all of what they had to heal up, they still had trouble with the rescue, although they dropped half of the monsters, the enemy Druid was screwing them over. I played her a mite dumb, obsessed with nailing the party instead of just fleeing. I figured the PC's were still in bad shape due to the ghoul fever and the marathon string of encounters in the 2 days they were just in.

Basically, when I hold back, it's in enemy strategy, not in the actual game mechanics. But I don't hold back when the players do stupid things, like charging into a position where they will immediately be flanked several times over. Or getting launched several times by the same pair of guys with a catapult. etc.

TPKs almost never happen, but they do occur. If it was due to just a series of bad dice rolls, then I declare a do over or claim sudden blindness and let them reroll. If it was due to lots of player mistakes, then I use it to teach them, ask them what would have been a better way to do things. If it was due to stupidity, like I warned them several times and they still did it, I have no pity.

Usually, I just run APs, but I run them as ruthlessly as possible, since the villains really ARE villains. Some players don't like that. I just try to read up on each one, and run them according to their characters.

We were way too early in an AP for the TPK, so I ruled it a vivid, prescient dream of what could come to pass and retconned everyone from the previous day.

I only enforce them when they are the result of a series of stupid player decisions.

Meirril wrote:

We've had a few situations where we thought for sure it was going to be a TPW (Looking very hard at you, Iron Gods AP. Why you give town guards 12 rocket launchers?), but somehow we muddle through with only a few deaths.

Glad I swallowed my distaste for mixing medieval fantasy with science fiction and bought Iron Gods, then! I love forcing my players to think fast, to come up with the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. If the encounters are roughly level appropriate, I have no problem whatsoever with nailing the PCs with whatever I can.

I must admit however that there is an encounter that worries me in Plunder & Peril. The book says it's a CR 11 encounter, and that's way high given their projected party level (L19, aka Fearsome Tide, in the Black Coral Cove 3rd adventure) being seventh at the end. Since that's not fair, I intend to make sure they are fully rested, healed, and ready to go for the encounter. If they seem overwhelmed, I will try to give them hints as to who they need to nail first.

How do I handle a TPK?

Well, first if figure out the party's weak points and--oh wait, you meant--nevermind.

As mentioned at least once above, just ask what everyone wants to do. Spitball a few ideas (friendly wandering druid with a staff of reincarnation; adventures in Heaven, or Limbo, or wherever as petitioners trying to make their way back (and maybe back together if they are all on separate planes); unfriendly necromancer in need of native bearers and then a time jump to some distant land or dungeon where something releases the party from the wizard's control and maybe even returns them to life; etc...). Throw down a few options, probably with consequences--GMs make mistakes, but given the apparent high-level of play individual PCs probably had methods of escape but didn't--and that's fine for particularly close or blood-thirsty PCs. Either way death is a thing and some modules specifically allow enough rope for PCs to hang themselves given bad luck, low on resources, or low on Wisdom scores even with GM hints. 'I wanna go fight the Stag Lord right damn now!' Either way unless you are planning on changing GMs, I'd talk it out with them and the other players to see how best to include the TPK in the game rather than pulling a 9th season of Dallas scenario.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Depends on the group and the situation it arose from. If it's stupid choices, well hey, that's the way it crumbles. If it's from bad dice rolls, I'll take stock and see what is the best way to resolve it.

I've had adventures where the BBEG was way overtuned for the party and after the dust settled told the players "yeah, we're gonna say this never happened". I've had instances where the dice turned against them and never relented, but the characters were able to stabilize and the enemy was intelligent enough I could say "they ransom you back to your friends instead of killing you". And sometimes the warehouse burns down around them and the BBEG escapes, leaving the absent party bard to find the bodies and drag them back to the temple for rezzing.

TriOmegaZero wrote:

I've had adventures where the BBEG was way overtuned for the party and after the dust settled told the players "yeah, we're gonna say this never happened".

I've done "you wake up with great relief from this horrible dream in which you all demonstrated the tactical competence of a toasted teacake" but that's something you can only do very infrequently.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Hence why I just flat out tell the players "this ain't canon, all of your gear is back to the way it was when we started".

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"You gasp as the blade plunges into your heart, the grimy bandit grinning with malicious delight as he watches the light fade from your eyes. Everything turns black, and your soul leaves your body to face Pharasma's judgement."

"An untold time passes as you drift through a sea of souls travelling the rivers of the afterlife, when with a pain that sears itself across your very essence, you find yourself yanked back through the void, plunging into your still-cold corpse. You retch and convulse, your half-rotten body twitching with exquisite agony unmatched by any experience you've ever had the misfortune to encounter."

"As the pain finally fades, you perceive your surroundings, noting your your companions are laying next to you, all of you naked and barely alive. A soft cackling laugh draws your attention behind you, where a shriveled crone stands watching you with milky white eyes, her toothless mouth curled in a cruel smile at your suffering."

"'Not yet my pretties,' she croons at you, waggling a black-nailed finger in your direction. 'You're not finished yet, not when others have claim on you. Such silly children you are, thinking you could escape your duties so easily. Oh no, you've far more work ahead of you yet before you get to rest, hehehe!'"

The TPK decision usually is just up to GM discretion on where he envisions the story to go. I agree that it can be incredibly difficult to generate reason and motivation for a fresh set of PCs after 2 years of playing through an Adventure path. Sometimes it just seems force and fake for 4 new "random heroes" to just pick up the flag and keep going. The power of the GM screen allows you to fudge a roll or two if necessary, but ultimately the Do I or Don't is something that you can't retcon after the fact.

Depending on the enemy and situation, the evil guys may be able to offer surrender. Perhaps they don't want to risk their own death via continued combat. Perhaps they think that they will be able to recruit, extort, or make a better "example" of these heroes.

You could apply a bigger fish scenario. The giant starts moving upon the last two standing PCs, but the noise from combat as attracted another creature. A giant wyrm erupts from a nearby tunnel and devours the giant (the PCs are too small and insignificant to even be noticed). Maybe two of the four PCs actually die as a consequence, maybe they don't.

Divine Intervention. Or an unknown greater purpose scenario as described in wonderful flavor by JDLPF.

During one such imminent TPK scenario, The last standing party member (a paladin) was grasping at straws and requested a perception check. I described that in his last minute scan of the room that he managed to make out a break in the wall.. Small enough for a human to crawl through, but surely not the large demon. It provided a real morale conflict. The player had to make a decision.. flee, survive, and lose your powers or die fighting a lost cause.

Of course I knew the player didn't want to make a new character and that he also saw an opportunity for cool story development. Later on that character met up with his old allies as undead slaves of the BBEG. "the ragged figures greeted their old friend with empty stares from clouded white eyes. Though without expression or life itself, he could feel nothing but shame from their cold accusing gaze".


Usually I just laugh maniacally.

I haven't had many TPKs, because the players and I all work hard to avoid them.

I once (very loosely) converted an adventure from a Call of Cthulhu supplement for a D&D 3.0 campaign. The party was only 2nd or 3rd level, and encountered a couple of lacedons in their native element. The fight went south very quickly, resulting in everyone but the squishy elf sorcerer being paralyzed and in danger of drowning. It was still really early in the campaign and I didn't want to start all over, so I had them get rescued by a monster they'd met earlier in the adventure (a Deep One that was chained in a well, where it was starving but couldn't die; one of the PCs had thrown some food to it over her companions' objections). It was a pretty bald-faced "whoops, I screwed up, let me fix this" moment, but that one player did appreciate that her character was rewarded for embracing her quirks.

Actually a TPK in a call of Cthulhu scenario is hardly a screw-up. The same goes for many tables, not my preference, but it is just a preference. There are as many ways to deal with the issue as there are tables. How you play this game is your call. Do you believe that a failed adventure is a real world failure? Are you concerned with "wasted effort".

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In Call of Cthulhu, a TPK is basically a win, as it means you avoided a TPFWTD. In fact, the best possible strategy is for the party to immediately kill themselves upon character creation.

In 3e D&D I accidentally got a TPK by introducing a predominantly Evil party to "The Head of Vecna". It was an ordinary mummified head with no magic properties at all placed in an ancient shrine to Vecna, yet the party kept coming up with more and more outlandish ideas about how to "activate" it, resulting in a mass (and in multiple cases self-induced) decapitation for literally no reward.

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MidsouthGuy wrote:
In 3e D&D I accidentally got a TPK by introducing a predominantly Evil party to "The Head of Vecna". It was an ordinary mummified head with no magic properties at all placed in an ancient shrine to Vecna, yet the party kept coming up with more and more outlandish ideas about how to "activate" it, resulting in a mass (and in multiple cases self-induced) decapitation for literally no reward.

...If your name isn't Mark Steuer, prepare to be pointed at and laughed at.

There is an old ravenloft adventure that start with the PC getting TPKed and decapitated by a headless horseman. The adventure continue when the Pc awake and discover they are head in a jar.

heads in a jar? never heard of that one.

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I can't even get one of my characters killed, let alone the whole party.

Klorox wrote:
heads in a jar? never heard of that one.

"From the Shadows".

That one sucked. In the way it should, I mean.

Once had a TPK originate from a Mindflayer dominate a PC Ninja.

Sneak attack, death attack, and mind blasts ended that game. lol

Depending on the stakes of the adventure path it could range from virtually nothing happens in the universe and some new heroes eventually take over in the task (the new PCs) or this particular universe ends and you start a Golarion Universe B. With perhaps a 20th level adventure that involves going between universes (not planar travel, but actual different universes and timelines) and potentially picking up just before the pivotal moment in the previous campaign.

But that's a reallllll long game type situation.

Quantum Leap Pathfinder Society?

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As a GM:
Obviously can (and do) scale the challenges, so that a TPK is highly unlikely. At least for long running campaigns, where players are heavily invested in their character(s). A serious beat-down that stops short of a TPK can be just as dramatic and exciting, as permanent death-all-around.

Luckily, my group also consists of mostly old-timers (self included), with multiple decades of gaming each. So they are both unlikely to foolishly get themselves into such a scenario; and if it should happen, are mature enough to handle it, and move on with new characters/campaign, etc.

As a player:
One of my favorite games involved a TPK. No, really.
We had an excellent DM, famous for his creativity, and ability to spontaneously come up with things that should take weeks to prepare.

We had a moderate length campaign going (Forgotten Realms), with Chaotic Neutral/Chaotic Good party. Primarily humans and half-elves, who styled themselves as freedom-fighters. Many great adventures freeing slaves and the oppressed, and toppling tyrants. Real fanatics on the whole individual liberty and freedom thing.

Well, through some bad decisions, and worse die rolling, a TPK happened when we were around 12-13th level. Expecting to roll up new characters, Tony (DM), instead starts to describe in detail, the part of the plane of Arborea that we end up on.
Yes, he actually (on the fly) continued the campaign, with us as new petitioners in the after-life. It was very entertaining.
Well, at least until we got kicked out.

Yeah - funny story.
Turns out, that the afterlife had a lot of rules. Which didn't sit well with out freedom loving PCs. So eventually the powers-that-be (mostly servants of Tymora), got tired of our "rebelliousness" and they sent us back.
They true-res'ed the lot of us, and dumped us back on the material plane.
Then, spread out over the next few adventures, we kept getting enticed by other faiths to convert. Eventually noticed that even those of our faith (including priests and church leaders), didn't seem to be opposed to it.
Turns out, some of those beings in Arborea were pulling strings to try to have us change faiths, so that we wouldn't end up back there again.
Good times.

Moral of the story: If the GM is up to the challenge, a TPK doesn't have to be an end at all. Just move the campaign to the outer planes.

It kinda depends on *how* they died. If at all possible, all the PC's get captured and they wake up in jail with all their possessions missing. But if the PC's all died in a trap or fell into lava or something, then the campaign is over :(. There's only so much you can do as a GM to "save" the group.

Edit: I like PodTrooper's example of sticking it out after a TPK though. If the PC's all die, you can continue the campaign in the afterlife or on a different plane of existence ;)

Once in PFS i had a rogue archer/oracle kill the BBEG at the beginning of a large boss fight with a natural 20 and confirmed crit using a bow at long range. It was awesome. The Convention DM even rolled morale for the minions that could see the BBEG go down. Encounter lasted 8 minutes real time, 4 rounds game time. . . moral of the story; BBEG shouldn't have monologue'd. ;-)

there was a campaign in Forgotten Realms- Undermountain to be precise. we were playing 2nd edition. I was a half-elf fighting monk (priest)/wizard. let me tell you i was having the time of my life, kicking the ass of these thralls to some Otyugh's and beholders. just finished riding on top of a beholder, ripping out its eye stalks. just as the beholder and i crash into the ground, the main Otyugh comes out and monologues for a minute while i heal myself a little. the ranger in our party rushes up to engage it and i run up to join him. the Otyugh attacks and scores two critical hits, one for each of us, killing us both instantly. i don't remember what happened to everybody in the party but at least one was disintegrated by a beholder and our dwarf dagger throwing badass was turned to stone (years later in the game we (as a new adventuring party) found him decorating a different BBEG's front lawn). but that's another story. we were TPK'd in that beholder/otyugh fight and still talk about that fight some 20 years later.

I want the encounters to be memorable!! And if the DM has it all planned out, let there be a SEQUEL. The big bad ran away but he's come back in an even badder way; he'd never been beaten before and this is a desperate grab to regain his power or whatever the narrative, I want it to be memorable, even if it ends in character death. That's what as a Player, I care about.

And as a DM, that's what I want; my player's to talk about and reference the game I ran for year's to come.
Who cares if it was a TPK, as long as it was Memorable.

Shadow Lodge

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Challenge is not the only way to be memorable.

I can tell you that my party will remember the foul mouthed skull of a dwarven priest they encountered.

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