A D&D TPK is when you have a total party kill. This is fine in some instances but for the majority of the time, a TPK is best to be avoided. So what do you do?
When you end up having a D&D TPK do not panic. Make the encounter not TPK the party if you can or make a game where it is okay. Otherwise, discuss it.
While I gave you the answer on how to deal with a TPK you are probably wondering how to do it. How do you not make an encounter TPK the party when they are already in too deep? After dealing with a lot of TPKs when I was younger, I will happily give you the answers you seek.
When to let a TPK happen
Before we answer everything there are some times when a D&D TPK is actually okay. If you have just committed a TPK then you do not necessarily need to panic yet. Just check to see if either one of these steps has been followed and if so you are fine!
- This is a one-shot.
- The players knew that this was a deadly campaign in session 0.
- It is completely justifiable based on their decisions.
In a one-shot, you should be able to TPK your party because there are almost no consequences. You won’t get to play those characters again so if they die oh well. This is explained a little bit in the one-shot article but if you want to learn more about running a one-shot read the article here.
The one-shot is pretty obvious but if you stated in session 0 that this is a brutal world and death is a thing it is okay to TPK your party. You should still follow the other rules about how not to TPK your party below but if they all die they will not get too mad since this was always a possibility.
Having a session 0 discussion where the campaign would be lethal is nice, but what if they die based on their decisions? I know some games where dungeon masters have kept people alive forever even when they should die. People cannot die in these games and some people like that. I do not.
If you are like me and like death to be a possibility then make sure you tell your players that they can die. If you don’t then it can come as a shock when they assault 50 guards as a prisoner and die. When you tell them that they can die players become a bit more cautious.
My point is that as long as players know they can die they will make smarter decisions to avoid death. If a player makes a really bad decision or series of decisions that lead to death they are not mad. You can read about it in the article on player death since these subjects are so directly tied together.
This applies to the whole party. If the party as a whole makes a bad decision and dies they understand. They understand that they were dumb and don’t even need you to trace back the steps. Usually, they know. They know when they screwed up and it leads to their death.
Now players understand when their decisions lead to a D&D TPK but what should you do when a TPK is about to happen?
The first thing that you must do when you see a TPK coming is not to panic.
Your party might want to go fight an ancient gold dragon at level 2. I would suggest if they do this to just kill them since death is justified based on their decision. If you don’t want to kill the party and think it will do more harm than good to kill them, you have options.
The first way to avert a D&D TPK is to sway the party with logic. You should not tell the party directly as a dungeon master that this is a bad idea. If you do so they will get discouraged. Instead, use your NPCs. Have every NPC they talk to tell them that this dragon will kill them. Talk about the heroes who could conjure fireballs and lightning bolts from the sky dying to it.
This can be applied to any creature. Most players know about fireballs and other magic that is higher than their level even if they are new. Use this to convince your players that they shouldn’t fight something that can squash more powerful enemies. If logic doesn’t work, you still have some options.
Only a few of your players will want to go the opposite route and fight the enemy. They might say this is because they have a plan or that they are better than those previous heroes. Whatever their justification is, some people just have a deathwish.
In order to stop these players from carrying out this stupid decision, you must use personal experience. Did the players fight a troll recently? Great, make the enemy destroy a troll while appearing bored. In fact, make it kill three trolls while it is bored. Make the creature not take a scratch of damage and let it play out like a movie scene.
If there is no creature that you can think of have the dragon or other monster destroy a place the party is visiting. Make sure that the creature does not end up killing anyone personal to the party. If you make it personal by destroying the player’s home or friends they will go after that creature no matter what.
Just make a show of how bad this creature can be and have a person they know who is strong die to it. Not personally connected to the party, just someone they know like the captain of the guard.
This should sway them but it can excite them. Think about your players and if this horror show doesn’t work you still have some options.
The last attempt to keep the party away
The party is now going for that creature no matter what you have done. Everyone has decided that they want to die and you might be panicking since a D&D TPK is imminent.
Do not panic yet! You can still stop this from happening. Layer the area before the creature with progressively creepy things. A note from a dead group of people, impossible odds like an entire village dedicated to worshiping the evil, etc.
Once you have your haunted battlefields and creepy crypts set up, you need to dismay your party further. Make progressively tougher traps if you want to use traps. For a trap guide look at our article on traps here, but I would say in this instance to use monsters.
Using these deterrents can make the party realize that they should not be here. They should leave and never come back! Your party, however, isn’t going to think things through most likely. They will see the signs and view it as another challenge that their invulnerable selves will come out on top of.
You lastly can attempt to make the creature that they are fighting weak. Perhaps the creature is incomplete, injured, or something happened. This weakens the creature to make it possible for your players to kill but should only be done if you are building up lore reasons before they go in.
If your players go into the monster’s room and find it injured out of the blue it makes no sense. Your players want to feel good about a kill so make sure they expect a weakened creature. Make the servants mention something about letting the master heal. Just don’t make this happen out of the blue.
Changing the stats on a monster should be known about beforehand and should be a visible thing. If you just give it 30 more or less hp that might not be a big deal but make sure significant changes are told beforehand.
But either way, your party might end up all getting knocked out or at worse end up dead.
A TPK has happened!
Despite your best efforts to keep your foolish party alive, they thought they could take on that ancient gold dragon as invulnerable level 3s. Alas, they did not survive attacking the gold dragon. A D&D TPK has happened.
Here you have a few options. You could let them die as they deserved in this scenario and hopefully learn about mortality the hard way, or you could save them.
I generally would prefer that the party dies if they are low level, but this can be a problem higher on. If the whole party dies the campaign ends. You have worked a lot on this campaign and don’t want it to end when they are level 7 and above when they have worked their way up from level 1s.
If you want to save them after they all become unconscious you have a few options.
Stereotypical TPK options.
You can go for stereotypical party saves maybe once a campaign. You cannot overuse these but then again if there has been a 3rd TPK you might have bigger issues.
One stereotypical approach to a saving the party from a D&D TPK is to have them all wake up in jail. This jail can be for the law, their enemies, or whatever.
If they ended up in an enemies custody they should end up in the custody of the enemy they were trying to kill. This enemy will want to use them because of their connections, how capable they are, etc.
If an enemy does this they have to make sure that the party will follow what the villain wants. This could be where some are kept hostage, they have a magical bomb placed inside them, geas, whatever. The evil villain has to make sure the party will follow his/her rules or they will die.
This gives a believable reason why the party would be saved from death. They are more useful alive and now you have an interesting game. The party is being ‘evil’ and they have to find a way out of this control or die.
If the party is found dead at a higher level they probably will have enough money to be resurrected. Perhaps the church takes a ‘small fee’ and makes them pay extra for retrieval and resurrection. Even if the church didn’t retrieve them.
On top of this players who are past level 5 probably have connections by now. A person who is employing them or mentoring them might spot the bill for 1 or 2 people to be resurrected. You know, the ones he/she actually likes.
You can also have the players just be unconscious and ‘found’ by some villagers or merchants wandering by, but this is unlikely. It also gives the idea to the players that you cannot die. If they realize this and do not suffer any consequences for death except to try again then death has no meaning. You want death to have meaning or the game gets boring.
Lastly, you could just say screw it and have them be resurrected 300 years in the future where the villain they tried to kill won and re-shaped the world/region.
The other stereotypical approach is to have the villain not care about the player’s pathetic attempts. Your players come in and try to stop the big bad enemy but it, he, or she just bats them aside and laughs.
A dragon might find this amusing for a time unless the players persist, but most players stop when a dragon catches the blades and uses it for a toothpick.
It is much harder to do this with a sentient being, but you can add pressure to your villain. My villain in one game didn’t care about the players. They just wanted to finish a ritual and ascend to godhood. The villain thought the players were not after him and were just some wandering dumb adventurers. He blinded one and left them thinking that he had seen the last of them.
He, unfortunately, did not and did not go easy on them the second time. It gave the party a nemesis and made for an interesting story.
Now onto the nonconventional ways.
Nonconventional TPK resolutions
Flinging your players into the future from resurrection is a nonconventional solution to D&D TPKs but I have more for you.
You need to make sure that resurrection always has consequences when they are not resurrecting themselves, so you can have fun with this.
The most common nonconventional way to bring back a party is through some agreement with a diety. It is not their time to die and a diety brings them back for some purpose.
You can make the party either die when their task is done or live on, but either way, they are bound to a higher power and you can use this. The party is now on a leash and there have been a few dungeon masters who have taken this approach but I didn’t like it. I have tried this once and found it lacking. I could do better and so I came up with more solutions.
You can bring the party back as slaves. Are they in the same area that they adventured in? Up to you, but they should be slaves to someone powerful who can control them.
The party now has to find a way out of servitude. You as a dungeon master have to find out why that person wants them. My suggestion would be as collector’s items. The collector keeps them as pets and shows them off to people for entertainment. Perhaps they have to fight, who knows. The important thing is to make their resurrection worth the cost.
If you want to make a really interesting campaign you can make everyone undead. Normally there are only corporeal entities with no soul and incorporeal with a soul. Why not have fun with this? There are revenants in the world so have a necromancer reanimate them as a revenant or something akin to it.
The players are still slaves but now the campaign has taken a dark turn. It is a little edgy I admit but you can make it interesting.
These are some nonconventional ideas but once again they are nonconventional ideas. If you want to think of something clever I would love to hear about it in the comments below.
Sometimes though there shouldn’t be a TPK
A D&D TPK is bad, yes but what is worse is when it is completely your fault. You put the party up against a creature that was way too hard. You rolled amazingly well and everyone died. Whatever you did to cause a TPK it isn’t good.
You can run games where dice rolls can kill the party. If you do so make sure to tell them that in session 0. If you are curious about what a session 0 is read about it here but you should definitely have a session 0.
I generally tell my players that they can only die by decisions that they make. If they decide to be captive and then fight off 50 armed captors while bound they will die. That is a stupid decision and every time a party member (or whole party) has died they understood why.
If your players are dying to a creature that is too powerful and you gave them no indicators, it is your fault. Do not have them walk into a fight that has a ridiculously powerful creature without some forewarning.
If you kill the players due to bad dice rolls this is also not okay. The player should generally kill themselves by poor decisions, not dumb luck. Yes, you can die by dumb luck but no one likes it. No player is happy with dumb luck deaths unless you roll out in the open and everyone wants the game played that way.
Even then, some players don’t want to die due to being extremely unlucky. If you do 3 crits in a row and nothing is going well for the party give them an exit or make something else happen like a villain recall. The villain can scream ‘I’m not done yet!’ and then poof. This adds depth and lets you expand the story more. Just don’t do it when only 1-2 party members are alive.
You should also not cause a TPK when you misinterpret what a player says. If they say that I cast fireball on the big bad you clarify. Don’t say okay and have them fireball half the party. Say okay and ask the player where they would like to place it. The whole decision to kill the party has now been put onto the player’s shoulders. If they fireball on the villain it is their fault not yours.
Now onto the last sad part of D&D TPKs.
When to let them all die
Not every story has a happy ending. I talked in the beggining about the 3 times you should let a TPK happen. If those criteria are met your players can die. It can be over.
In life there is not always a happy ending and there doesn’t always need to be a happy ending in D&D. If the players made poor decisions or knowingly went way over their head without a plan they can die. Everything can fail, and that is okay.
I have had campaigns end like this and it actually made the players want to play more. They felt like they could have done better and it seemed like they wanted to make up for their failure.
A failure is a powerful tool that can motivate your group. I am not saying that you should kill your party. I am only saying that if it is warranted it is okay for a TPK to happen.
It sucks, but not everything goes the way we want and a new adventure can begin.
We have covered almost everything about D&D TPKs.
We have gone over when it is okay to have a D&D TPK, how to help players avoid a TPK, and lastly what to do when one happens.
You have many ways to stop a TPK, but sometimes it happens. When this happens as long as it was done correctly a TPK can be an opportunity. If the players made bad decisions and got in over their heads they can do something interesting.
Be reanimated as edgelord undead, slaves to a diety/collector or work for the enemy. Possibly even be transported into a sort of dystopian future.
Anything is on the table as long as you didn’t unfairly kill the party.
Sometimes stories and a TPK is the best way to do it, but I hope that you have learned a lot about D&D TPKs.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!