There are three letters that are more frustrating to a game master (GM) than any number of rules lawyers, power gamers, or cheating players: TPK. These three letters are the common abbreviation for ‘total party kill’. A TPK is the term used when every character in the game dies or is permanently incapacitated at approximately the same time.
The reason that a TPK is so frustrating is that it immediately ends the story being told and has a good chance of preventing the story from ever being completed. Except in very rare circumstances, dead characters can not continue experiencing the story and the players of dead characters can no longer interact with the game. This almost always causes a gaming session to end and can easily lead the end of a long running campaign.
The following tips should help you handle a TPK if you are GM when one occurs.
Proactively Prevent the TPK – The deaths of multiple characters is often like a row of dominoes. The first death creates a situation that causes the second death. The second death precipitates the third death and so on down the line. Conveniently, in the majority of role playing games, due to how the game play mechanics work, this domino effect is usually predictable and occurs all at once. If you are experienced enough as a GM, you will probably be able to recognize when a character is about to die and when that death is likely to start a chain of character deaths. The simple solution is to prevent the first death. You can do this with narrative control or by giving your players a chance to withdraw or escape from a deadly situation. Since you know the characters should have died, you should penalize the characters in some way, but at least you can continue telling the story.
Tell the Story of the Dead – Some role playing games include fantastical elements that allow you to continue telling the story even if the characters die. For example, dead characters in a White Wolf game may continue on as wraiths. Alternately, in a game of D&D, deific intervention may allow the dead characters to continue to act on one of the celestial or infernal planes. This may require you to completely rewrite the direction of the story or may only require a slight detour before the characters find a way back to life. Either way, your players get to continue playing their characters, although not necessarily in the exact same way as before.
New Characters – If you don’t want to give up on the story you are telling, you can allow the players to create new characters and continue to the story with the new characters. These new characters may have background ties to the old characters or may be entirely unconnected. Either way, simply make sure they are connected to the events of the story and have a good reason for continuing the story. Players generally enjoy the character creation process and usually have a lot of good ideas for characters. So, unless you have a player who is very attached to their character, you probably won’t lose any players using this option.
New Campaign – Sometimes the bad guys win. That is just the way life is. Depending on the story you were telling, it may be appropriate to simply start a new campaign, possibly even using a new role playing game system. If you have a really good idea or ideas for a new campaign and your players are willing, you may just end the old one. Most likely this means that something bad happened, since the heroes of the story died, but that isn’t necessarily a bad story to tell. Make sure to narrate some closure to the old story and then have your players make new characters for your new story. If you do use this option, you should definitely try to avoid having another TPK occur too soon after. Players lose interest when the story resets rapidly.