Monday, January 3, 2011

DM Theory: Total Party Kill

In some campaigns it is merely a hushed whisper never given life, in others it is an all too harsh reality. The Total Party Kill. For the uninitiated it is just what it sounds like, the death of every player in the game and, by default, the current campaign. Now, I don’t think that a GM should ever kill a party deliberately, but I do think that there are plenty of situations in which the entire party gets themselves annihilated. Let us discuss.

At the end of one of our most recent Shadowrun sessions one of the players remarked, “I can’t believe that worked.” As a GM I liked that comment for a lot of reasons. For one, it was rewarding for the group to develop and execute a plan. They had a lot of fun with it and ultimately accomplished their goal. However, the reason that I really liked it was because it shows the outcome of the situation was genuinely in doubt. The players know that if they mess up there is a very real chance that they are all going to die. I can’t imagine playing in a game where the outcome is essentially predetermined, which I think is the case if there isn’t the actual threat of death hanging over their heads. I’ve talked to many fellow GMs over the years and I am shocked at how many of them never have PC death, let alone a total wipeout of the party. It blows my mind. Like I said, I don’t intentionally kill players but dungeon crawling and shadowrunning and exploring the far reaches of space are dangerous professions. If people aren’t dying from time to time then something is wrong. But the total party kill is more than just a death because it means the end of the game. But that’s just an opportunity to make new characters and get a new game started up. It’s like a forest fire. Sure, it seems like a gruesome and pointless thing, but in actuality it’s necessary in order to keep things healthy and moving along.

So, how exactly does a Total Party Kill come about exactly? Well, it’s just like one character getting killed but it happens a couple of times in succession. Which is actually plausible if you think about it. Characters rely on one another and they all fill roles, and sometimes if one or two of them are unable to fulfill their function (because they are dead) then the whole house of cards crumbles. It could be bad rolls that gets the ball moving against the party, or it could be a poorly executed plan. If it’s the result of the party coming up against a vast number of superior foes than I feel the DM is to blame. That seems like you are just setting up a party to be killed. Of course, running away is always an option but I find that it is one that players rarely go for. If the assumption on the part of the GM is that the party will recognize that they are outgunned, than it’s a bad assumption. But other times it just happens. Like I said, these are dangerous times.

I think that the biggest argument against the Total Party Kill is that it ruins everyones fun. Only a rotten GM would do such a thing. Essentially all of these nice people have gathered together to share in this fun, communal activity and now it is destroyed. All that they have worked for has been left unfinished, food for the crows of the battlefield (or the alligator filled pit or the underwater science lab, whatever it may be). So what? It’s a game and a new one can be started right away. But it gets back to the idea of accomplishing something in a roleplaying game. Now, treasure and levels and money and all the other rewards that players receive are all fake. We all know this. This is a game and none of it is real. However, success isn’t as fleeting when measured in accomplishments. If you don’t always win there is a chance for a real reward. Knowing that you and your friends looked at a problem and found a solution to a difficult situation is a lot of fun. So is getting some lucky rolls and feeling like you got by on the skin of your teeth. But sometimes it goes the other way. You can’t have one without the other.

And the other side of this is that “winning” does not necessarily mean you have had fun. Shockingly, I have seen smiles on the faces of characters as they are all being painfully killed one at a time, slowly becoming aware that their number is up. Everyone gets to go out fighting or empty their bag of tricks in a last ditch effort to save the day. Some die as brave heroes and others go out as chumps. But as players, rather than characters, we all get to try again some other day.

One final point is that campaigns, or any long term games, have to end somehow. I’m not a fan of the eight year campaign. Maybe it’s because we play every week and the idea of playing the same characters in the same world for that long would drive me insane. So assuming that a game has an end it really only leaves a couple of options. The players achieve what they were trying to do, the game just sort of dwindles away or everyone chooses to end it, or everyone dies. I have been involved in multiple campaigns of each variety and they all have their merits, but in some ways the TPK is the most memorable.

By the way, the Shadowrun game I mentioned above ended the following week with a Total Party Kill.


snow said...

Alligator Pit! Aghhh!!!!!!!! I am still mourning the loss of Seregwen, though she was not a victim of the TPK!

You would think though, with the number of times a GM reiterates: "Rocket launchers and other military grade weapons are pretty much the only weapons that are seriously illegal," a party would learn this. I have learned that you can't show us the delicious chocolate cake and expect us to just eat the broccoli. AUTOCANNON IT!!!

Fran said...

It's true that she did not go the way of a TPK, but a spectacular death none the less.

My job is to keep providing the cake, you need to learn to lay off. Or at least be sneaky at the dinner table.

Nick said...

Good point about the risk being needed for the reward, and Shadowrun is an especially lethal and risky world, making it especially rewarding. I have fond memories of Noodle's and the others' tragic last stand.

Lesson learned: plan the getaway too.

relautumn said...

I think that some of my most memorable and sickly enjoyable moments in gaming involve players deaths, and especially multiple deaths or epic total party kills. It is exciting to be so attached to a player for a while and fight tooth and nail to the bloody end, pulling out all the stops, and fail. It does make the victory of life more sweet! And makes us trust the GM that our victories are truly earned, not blindly given. And maybe in some way prepares us for our own mortality... TPKs as a buddhist practice in non-attachment?....