The Art of the Total Party Kill
As a DM, I kill a lot of player characters, and I stand behind that as a good DMing practice. If the players feel that their characters can’t die, it removes the sense of risk and danger from the game, and when there’s no risk or danger, the successes and rewards aren’t really earned, just given away as a reward for rolling enough dice. But, when you kill enough PC’s at once, you get the dreaded Total Party Kill… the TPK. And, even though I kill a lot of PC’s, I only rarely have a TPK. Why? First, the lead-up to a TPK is almost always poor gameplay, and not just because everyone is dying. Second, a TPK breaks the continuity of an ongoing campaign or adventure, and that makes it very hard to recover and move on afterwards. So, how do you avoid the detriments of a TPK while maintaining a sense of danger? Read on, and take it from someone who really does this a lot.
How the TPK Ruins Games
Before we get into what to do instead of having total party kills, let’s take a minute to think about why we really want to avoid them. This will be a DM-oriented discussion, as with many things on this site, but there are no spoilers here for players to avoid. As noted in the intro to this article, there are two main reasons why a TPK is bad for everyone at the table, players and DM alike. Let’s break them down.
A Time of Prolonged Misery
First, here’s a basic concept for DM’s, drawn from literature and theatre and all of the other ways that we tell each other stories. It’s going to get a blue box, because it’s that important, both to this article and in general.
Every scene in a story has a dramatic question that must be answered. When the question has been answered, the scene is over.
There’s probably another article (or a book, really) that could be written about that, but for now let’s just talk about combat encounters that result in a TPK. These encounters start out with a dramatic question, and it’s generally understood without being spoken out loud by everyone at the table. However, if you’re the DM, it pays to articulate the question clearly in your own thoughts, because that’s how you’ll know the encounter is over.
“Will the party overcome the war band of orcs?” The players get it, at least in the sense of “here are some orcs, and they’re trying to kill us, so we’ll try to kill them back and see who wins.” They’ll keep up the attack until they win, and that’s really how D&D is played. However, the DM needs to be more deliberate here, and really pay close attention to when the dramatic question is answered. It’ll be clear, probably well before all of the orcs are dead, that the party is triumphant… and right there is when the DM needs to stop the battle. When there’s no longer any doubt as to the outcome of a challenge, there’s not a lot of enjoyment to be gained from continuing. That whole “mopping up” phase of D&D battles can be dispensed with entirely. But again, that’s another article.
The way this applies to a TPK situation is that somewhere in the middle of a battle that’s going very wrong for the party, that question of “will the party win” gets changed to “will the party survive”, and in a battle that’s headed for a TPK, the answer to that question becomes “no, they’re all going to die” long before every single PC is out of hit points, out of death saving throws, and otherwise completely out of options. It becomes a long slog towards defeat, and it’s easy to tell when the players have resigned themselves to that. From then on in, the battle becomes a tedious and demoralizing ritual sacrifice: everyone at the table just keeps taking their turns, round after round, because that’s what you have to do.
If you were wondering what makes a TPK so awful to be part of, as a player or a DM, I would submit that it isn’t only that the entire party dies. It’s also the fact that everyone sitting around the table spends precious game-night minutes as we gradually bludgeon each PC into mush. We beat them into pulp long after every hope for a comeback or turnaround is gone. You can even get the altered vibe from everyone there: they get distracted, bored, lethargic. Nobody is having fun anymore, just going through the motions of defeat.
If you’re sticking to the notion that the encounter should end when the dramatic question has been firmly answered, as you should, how can you justify dragging out an encounter that’s obviously going to end in a TPK? That’s one of the problems we’re going to need to solve.
Snapping the Thread
A total party kill destroys the continuity of a campaign, or a long adventure, or a story arc, or whatever you like to call yours. The idea is this: the party meets in a tavern, and they start having adventures together. They defeat enemies and hoard wealth, but more importantly they get involved in a story. (By the way, if you’re a beer-and-pretzels dungeon crawler, this doesn’t really apply to you, but it’s probably still worth the read.) And when the PC’s are involved in a story, there needs to be a certain amount of continuity. If the story is going to proceed meaningfully from beginning to end, there’s a thread of involvement that needs to be preserved.
Think of this in terms of some highly troped adventure where the king hires the heroes to rescue the princess from the evil wizard. For the adventure to continue to completion, it’s important that the connection between the party and the king remain intact. To keep the example simple, this basically means that at least one of the adventurers who accepted the job from the king needs to be there at the end of the quest to deliver the princess and reap the rewards.
Now, I know that this is overly simplistic. At this point, some of you are thinking that it would be easy for a completely new party to take over the job if the original party was wiped out. Some of you are probably thinking about the Ship of Theseus (although you might not be calling it that), where maybe the party is still the party even though none of the original members are still there. And these are all reasonable ideas, and we can get good mileage out of them, up to a point.
Eventually, though, there comes a point where the integrity of the party is lost, and the balance becomes increasingly delicate as the PC’s have more exposure to the world, as well as influence on the world’s events. Maybe none of the current party members ever met one of the important NPC’s in the adventure. The original PC owners of the tavern or castle are all gone now. The characters who had earned status in the kingdom are all dead, and their heirs or replacements or whatever are a bunch of nobodies who would never be called upon to avert the coming apocalypse.
Yes, we can work around these types of problems, but eventually the story will begin to show the strain, and then to break under that strain. That’s what happens when individual PC’s are killed and removed from the story… and when all of them are killed at the same time, it’s worse.
It’s All About The Options
So, TPK’s make for bad gaming. Where does that leave us? Fortunately, keeping our options on the table is what we do here at Chaotic Neutral Dungeon Mastery, and there are definitely some options available for those total-failure situations other than a TPK. But first, some caveats.
Caveat Number One: PC’s Must Die
Avoiding a total party kill is not the same as avoiding a single-PC kill. If you’re a DM, don’t hesitate to kill player characters. Play fair, but play hard. There’s another whole article’s worth of material on how to roleplay D&D enemies, and I’ll probably write one eventually. For now, don’t pull any punches.
This isn’t as awful as it might sound. Fifth Edition D&D is heavily weighted in favor of the players. The PC’s are meant to get into multiple battles on every day of their lives, and they are meant to win every single one of them. The game balance is skewed in that direction, and it’s not something that we need to worry about fixing, because it’s too deeply ingrained in the rules to change without a complete rewrite and rebalance of just about everything in the game.
The point here is that it’s actually very difficult to kill a PC, and extremely difficult to kill one permanently. Most PC’s have plenty of hit points, for starters. When the hit points are gone, that’s bad but not dire, because in most circumstances it will be at least a few rounds worth of rolling death saving throws before that PC is all dead instead of mostly dead, and that’s assuming that someone doesn’t cast a spell or make a check to stabilize the dying character. And then there’s revivify to bring back recently-dead PC’s, not to mention various other spells that bring back characters in various states of dead.
Yes, there are situations where a PC can die very quickly, like that pesky disintegration ray that beholders have, or the kind of all-or-nothing traps that you can find in Tomb of Horrors-style dungeons. But mostly, PC’s don’t die, and when they do, they can come back. If you’re the DM, don’t worry about killing PC’s: it’s hard to do, it’s generally not permanent, and most importantly for this article, a single PC’s death doesn’t cause the problems that a TPK causes.
Caveat Number Two: Most-of-Party Kills Are OK
The next part of this article is going to get into ways for DM’s to avoid total party kills, and avoid the problems that come along with them. Not having a TPK absolutely doesn’t mean that all of the PC’s are going to survive. In fact, some of them should die. Probably most of them should die. You might even argue that as many as possible should die, as long as you avoid those game-wrecking problems.
This article isn’t about how to save individual PC’s… it’s about how to save parties of PC’s. If you use one of the dodges I’m going to suggest, that doesn’t mean a get-out-of-death-free card for everyone in the party.
Caveat Number Three: Not For Low-Level Characters
None of the dodges in this article are intended to be used on parties with characters below third level. I’m not going to get into my position on how D&D handles brand-new characters right now, but suffice it to say that first-level and second-level PC’s are extremely fragile. They are very easy to kill, to the point where they are actually difficult to avoid killing.
And yet, even with my unabashed PC-killing DM style, I go out of my way to keep brand-new parties alive. I tailor and modify situations, rebalance encounters and enemies, and even fudge dice rolls behind the screen, in order to get to the point where the PC’s gain some durability. And that’s even assuming that I don’t just start the party off at third level or so, which actually makes a lot of sense. But again, that’s another article.
So, if you have a really low-level party, and they’re facing down a TPK, don’t use the dodges from this article to stop that TPK from happening. Keep it simple, and stop the TPK by cheating. Yes, cheating. Playing characters below third level or thereabouts is more of a training-wheels approach, where new players can add their basic class abilities a little bit at a time, and avoid being overwhelmed by too many options… and everyone dying is not a good training experience. Don’t do it.
OK, so now the dodges.
The Total Party Capture
The Total Party Capture, which for the sake of parallel terminology and brevity will be called a “TPC” from here on in, is probably the single best way to avoid a TPK. The idea behind the TPC is that everyone in the party gets captured by their enemies, instead of killed by them, and there are good reasons why this is a very effective way to end a lost battle.
Verisimilitude is our fifteen-dollar word for today, and it basically means that something is believable with appropriate suspension of disbelief. It’s not the same as being realistic, but it’s possible for us to accept a certain departure from realism for the sake of a game or story.
The TPC does extremely well on this count, because it’s possible to have the party captured instead of killed by almost any type of opponent. Drow capture you so that they can torture you in interesting ways. Goblins will hold you for ransom. Orcs and hobgoblins sell you or keep you as slaves. Even gnolls and troglodytes might capture their enemies to be ritualistically killed and eaten at a later time.
In short, you can reasonably have a TPC instead of a TPK under most circumstances. You just need a reason why the enemies would decide to take prisoners, and with a little creativity you can find a reason for just about any enemies.
One obvious exception here is non-intelligent adversaries. A pack of wolves is not going to capture the party, they’re going to shred and eat them on the spot. This isn’t so bad, though, because non-intelligent enemies aren’t usually going to have the tactical capability or the right type of combat abilities to overwhelm a competent party of heroes. Also, the sort of beasts that would count as non-intelligent enemies tend to be fairly weak and easily defeated; try looking for some CR3 and CR4 beasts for your moon druid to wild shape into, and you’ll see what I mean. In short, if the party gets killed by something as paltry as wolves or quippers, they probably deserve what they get.
Generally, the reason why a battle turns into a TPK is based on a failure by the party to defeat their enemies in combat. They get into a fight, and they lose, because they aren’t strong enough, skilled enough, or lucky enough to win. But combat ability isn’t all there is to a D&D character, and the TPC allows non-combat abilities to come to the front as a way to deal with a lost battle.
When the party gets captured, they basically get a second chance at the encounter, but not necessarily by continuing the fight. It’s possible to use diplomacy, bribery, or carefully constructed lies to get the captors to release the prisoners. Jailbreaks are possible, and can get very creative when the PC’s thieves’ tools and weapons have all been confiscated. If there are NPC prisoners being held at the same location, there’s potential for social interactions.
In short, even if the party can’t fight their way out of a situation, they might be able to bring their other skills to bear to get out of trouble, and a TPC allows that to happen.
TPC Example: Captured by the Drow
Mild spoiler here, if any players are reading this far. I’m going to reveal who the basic NPC factions are on one of the Undermountain levels. Not names, numbers, or strengths, just races… so if your immersion will be crushed by knowing that there are gnomes fighting manticores down there (there aren’t), skip the blue box.
During our Dungeon of the Mad Mage campaign, the party got into some serious trouble on Dungeon Level 3, which at that point was a battleground between drow and hobgoblins. Basically, the two PC rogues decided to sneak around drow territory, and were caught by guards just after breaking into the high priestess’ room and going through her underwear drawer. The rest of the party charged in to the rescue, and the drow used giant spiders to close off the party’s avenues of retreat while beating them up and poisoning them unconscious.
This would have been a completely fair TPK, but I went with a TPC instead. This didn’t go well for all of the PC’s, though, because it wouldn’t make sense for the drow to treat all of the PC’s the same. The rogues who looted the priestess’ boudoir were executed by shutting them away in unmarked graves with nothing but air holes and spiders. The one drow PC was ritually sacrificed to Lolth as a blood traitor.
The remaining three PC’s were rescued… but by the hobgoblins, who put them to slave labor. Being slaves of hobgoblins is probably better than being captives of the drow. One of the survivors ended up dying horribly anyway (telling you why here would be a big spoiler), and the remaining two managed to impress their hobgoblin captors with a show of strength against their slave drivers.
Overall result: four out of six PC’s horribly killed, and two more pressed into slavery. As I said before, avoiding a TPK doesn’t mean good outcomes and happiness for all.
A last note on the TPC… it’s best not to emulate video games here, where all of the party’s confiscated gear is conveniently waiting for them in an obvious chest that they pass by on their way out of the cell block. A TPC comes with consequences, and losing your favorite gear and magical items is a natural consequence of being taken captive. Some of those items might resurface again, but for the most part everything of value is lost.
By the way, items confiscated should include everyone’s arcane focus and component pouches… let your spellcasters have fun trying to do without them if the escape takes a turn for the violent.
The Curtain Drop
The Curtain Drop, which I’ll call “the Drop” from here on out, is another way to dodge some of the undesirable consequences of a TPK situation. However, unlike the TPC, there are certain special conditions that have to apply to use the Drop effectively.
Essentially, the Drop is used when the party is facing completely insurmountable odds, and a TPK is imminent. I’ll define what I mean by “completely insurmountable” and “imminent” in a moment. When the party is in that situation, the DM allows the figurative curtain to fall on the scene, leaving the ultimate fate of the party as a whole, and the PC’s individually, as a mystery.
The action then jumps immediately to a different group of heroes, who will try to discover the fate of the original party. This can take the form of a rescue mission, or a mission to succeed where the original party failed, or any other scenario that you like. All that’s needed is a connection to the original party, and that action and excitement begin to happen at the table right away.
The Drop and Player Agency
The biggest problem with the Drop is that it’s very close to a TPK by DM fiat. When the Drop is used, the DM is effectively saying “so now you all die,” and then moving on with a new direction for the adventure. However, the Drop isn’t as bad as the classic “rocks fall and everyone dies” fiat TPK, and that’s because there are serious limitations on when the Drop can be used.
Those limitations, as mentioned in the Drop intro a few paragraphs ago, are completely insurmountable circumstances, and an imminent TPK. As promised, I’ll explain both of those now.
In order for the Drop to work, things have to be going so badly for the party that there is no reasonable way for the PC’s to survive. Short of divine intervention or some other deus ex machina plot device from the DM, the situation is not salvageable.
A key consideration here is that it needs to be readily apparent to the players that the situation has reached that no-win-possible state. If it doesn’t seem completely obvious to everyone that there is no chance of either success or survival, the Drop won’t work. That includes crazy plans and desperate strategies of all kinds… the Drop is only for hopeless situations.
Furthermore, the Drop only works when the hopeless situations have gone so far that the TPK is imminent. The specific meaning here is not so much that every one of the PC’s is already dead, or unconscious, or almost out of hit points; what I mean by imminent is that the long slog toward defeat has either begun or will begin soon, and everyone at the table knows it.
Proper Execution of the Drop
If the situation the party is facing is severe enough to make the Drop a viable option, there are still some specific requirements that have to be met and handled properly if the Drop is going to work.
Player and DM Trust
The Drop will absolutely not work unless you have a high level of trust between the players and the DM. The players have to see how terrible the situation is, and they have to trust the DM to tell them that there is really no getting out of this one. If that relationship is not there, the Drop will fail miserably: it’ll just be another version of “rocks fall and everyone dies,” where the players feel cheated out of a possible last-minute miracle victory because the DM didn’t let them take it that far.
Don’t try the Drop with a new group. Don’t try the Drop with any group that is paying you to DM for them. Don’t try the Drop too early, before the players realize how bad things are, because you probably won’t get a second chance at the Drop if you mess up the first try.
Basically, the players have to trust the DM to manage the situation off-screen. They’ll be in suspense as to what happened to the party after the Drop, but they need to know that whatever happened was done in a reasonable and equitable manner. In fact, the suspense is one thing that can work in favor of the Drop, because the Drop by necessity implies that there will be survivors from that hopeless situation. Who will the survivors be, and what happened to pull them out of the fire? With a properly done Drop, it’s that exciting feeling of suspense that will compensate for missing the last part of the fight.
Keeping the Action Moving
If the Drop is going to work, it has to be done quickly. Have your narration ready, and be ready to sum up the situation at the moment of the Drop. Be clear as to what’s going on, and make sure to emphasize the reasons why the situation is hopeless. If the players don’t realize exactly how bad things have gotten, the pre-Drop narration is where the DM has to sell it. Give the details, build the drama, and then fade to black. And I mean that last bit literally: actually narrate the loss of awareness, either by describing events growing blurry and out of focus, or zooming out from the battle until it grows small and dim, or even just talking about a stage curtain coming down. That’s the Drop.
And then pause exactly long enough to take a breath before jumping into the hook for the follow-on adventure. However the new party is going to get word that an investigation or rescue or whatever is needed, get to that right away. Don’t stop for anything here: not character creation, not conversation about the battle that was Dropped on, not even a bathroom break. Lay out the new situation, and get it rolling, and then everyone can use the john and shuffle character sheets and bellyache about how things went wrong.
The Drop has to be immediately followed by what’s going to happen next, because giving everyone time to think about the defeat and ask a lot of what-if questions about how things might have gone differently defeats the purpose of the Drop in the first place. The Drop closes the book (albeit temporarily) on the bad things that just happened, and allowing people time to dwell on that failure can make the Drop begin to seem more and more unfair.
After all, if the players can think of a brilliant strategy that would have saved them (even though we know, according to the conditions needed for a proper Drop, it wouldn’t have), then they can start to feel cheated for not having been given the chance to try it. Nevermind that they didn’t think of it then, or that it probably wouldn’t work… once the “if only we had gotten four more rounds to save ourselves” has begun, even the most justified Drop will quickly lose the goodwill needed to sustain it.
The Drop Example: Sahuagin Slaughter
DM’s need to remember that the players are sometimes going to latch onto the thing you said that you didn’t expect them to, and the whole show goes sideways. This is how my group ended up fleeing from mind flayers through the Underdark. I’ve never been one to pull punches, and this was a harsh situation.
Eventually, the party ended up owing a favor to a sea hag coven, who wanted them to rescue a merfolk princess from the sahuagin in the nearby underground sea, so that they could kill her in retribution for being too beautiful. Sea hags are like that. The assault on the sahuagin stronghold went poorly, and those circumstances led to a Drop.
At the point when I let the curtain Drop on the situation, the druid who was crippled by a fomorian’s Evil Eye had dragged the dying monk away from the main battle. The rest of the party was hemmed in by a dozen sahuagin warriors, with their hunter shark companions, and the blood in the water was attracting swarms of hungry quippers. Also, the lack of swimming and underwater breathing abilities for the party was placing them in a very bad position for fighting a strong and organized aquatic enemy, not to mention that all of the party’s spellcasters were limping along without the ability to cast spells with material components.
And let’s not forget the mind flayers chasing after the party… just as I let the Drop happen, the mind flayers had arrived at the sea hags’ location and would soon know exactly where the party had gone, at which point our unfortunate heroes would have nowhere to escape from the sahuagin even if they could get away from them.
This is what I mean by “completely insurmountable” and “imminent”. There was no way for this to turn out OK for the party, and everyone knew it. Therefore, the Drop.
A final note on the Drop is that the DM needs to figure out right away who the survivors will be, and how they managed to survive. This isn’t something that needs to be decided immediately at the table, because even under the best circumstances the players won’t be finding out who made it and who didn’t for a few sessions at least, but it’s important to come up with a reasonable and equitable post-Drop scenario before you forget just how things stood at the moment of the Drop. Deciding who lives and who dies fairly means looking at the battle at its last moments, and then projecting how things probably would have gone if the encounter were played out to its TPK ending.
It’s fine to have some dice-rolling to determine survivors, as long as there’s a reason why some of the PC’s would have escaped, but others would not have. Remember that not all of the PC’s need to be involved in randomly determining who survived, and it’s perfectly reasonable to say that certain PC’s are definitely dead, others definitely escaped, and the survival of the rest will be decided by random chance. You might also consider some negotiation about this, when you eventually reveal the post-Drop outcomes; if there’s a player who wants to trade places between their surviving PC and another player’s dying PC, a retrospective “she would have given her life to save her comrade” might not be too much of a stretch.
Ultimately, though, the Drop only works when the players trust the DM to provide a fair and reasonable projection of the outcome of a hopeless battle, off screen. Be sure to do a good job, because eventually the players will be finding out what happened after the Drop… screw that up, and everything from the Drop to the moment where the fate of the party is finally made known will be tainted.
The Premonition of Death
I’m including the Premonition of Death in this article mostly because it’s a last-ditch way to save a party from a TPK, and it works immediately. No captures, no rescues, just a TPK reversal that gives the party not only a second chance to overcome a situation that was fatal, but a significant head start towards forming a better strategy for that situation.
The caveat here is that you can only do the Premonition of Death once. That’s once per group of players, ever. You might have a group that sticks together for years, and it would still be a serious mistake to do the Premonition of Death twice for that group.
The way the Premonition of Death works is that the party ends up in a fatal situation, and the DM declares that everyone is dead. This should probably follow the Drop guidelines, but it doesn’t have to. In this case, it doesn’t even matter if the party is destroyed by DM fiat, because they won’t be staying dead for more than a few seconds anyway. Point is, everyone dies. Total party kill, game over.
And then, the DM waves a hand over the table, and we find out that the fatal encounter never actually happened! It was just a vivid and prophetic vision that one of the PC’s happened to have as the party was approaching the place and time of the TPK, and now everyone has a second chance to either avoid the situation, or go at it differently and not die.
As I said, you get one of these. You’d be better off to never do this, but sometimes a TPK at a certain point in an adventure would wreck your carefully constructed and minutely detailed story arc in such a catastrophic fashion that there could be no way to adequately recover from the loss and get on with the campaign. Pull the Premonition of Death out of your toolbox, apply liberally, and then throw it into the incinerator.
Honestly, I would question as to whether it’s a good idea in D&D to design a story or a world that’s so extremely intricate and fragile as to be unable to survive a few hard jostles, but that’s just my personal opinion. If you want to create a Faberge egg of plot that won’t survive the fall of the Romanovs, that’s your business. Now you have a way to cushion it from breaking when your players knock it off the table… once. After that, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t do you any good.
Repetition and Credibility
At the very beginning of this article, I said that if players believe that their characters can’t die and will always succeed at any task they put their hands to, then their achievements will eventually seem hollow and meaningless. Without risk, there can’t be any rewards worth having. That’s why a DM has to make sure that there’s a feeling of danger, and the best way to create a feeling of danger is to actually create danger and then allow everyone to partake. It’s not like real people are actually going to be injured if your D&D game is too hazardous for the PC’s to survive. The worst that can actually happen are bruised egos and some papercuts, so go wild.
The TPC and the Drop are solid ways to avoid a total party kill. They’ll get you around the worst parts of a TPK, and make it easier for the adventure to continue. And, unlike the Premonition of Death, both the TPC and the Drop can be used more than once. But they can’t be used all the time, and they can’t be used lightly, because neither one of them is actually a TPK. Not really. Even if most of the party ends up dying anyway, there’s a difference somewhere in our brains that says that the TPC and the Drop are somehow not legitimate kills.
That means that a DM can lose credibility if the TPC and the Drop are used too often, or used carelessly. The players will manage to get the idea that the PC’s can’t be killed, and that their success is a foregone conclusion, because the DM is too gutless to kill the entire party. “We never get killed, we just get captured and stuff.” It’s a significant problem, and one that’s worth taking the trouble to avoid.
Fortunately for most of the DM’s out there, TPK situations don’t happen often enough for us to wreck our credibility with dodges like the TPC and the Drop. It’s important, though, to keep up the sense of danger even when TPK’s aren’t necessarily on the menu. With a little care, it’s not hard to do.
Player Characters Must Die
As I said before, I kill a lot of PC’s. My players show up with backup characters already created and ready to play, because they know that any game session might be their main character’s last. A TPK is of course a more dramatic end to a failed battle than the death of a PC or two, but I think a PC death without a TPK is actually a more powerful moment for the story. If everyone dies, then we all shrug our shoulders and roll up new characters. If only one of the PC’s dies, then there’s a hole left in the party where that PC belongs, and having a replacement character ready to step in doesn’t really fill that hole. Think of it as survivor’s guilt by proxy, where moving on after a loss is more difficult than starting over after a total loss.
It’s also a fact, though perhaps an unfortunate one, that occasionally being a dick is good for cut-throat DM credibility. There are rules in the books that allow for some rather unpleasant behavior on the part of monsters and villains. For example, if a PC is unconscious and making death saving throws, and an enemy walks up and sticks a sword in them as they lie there helpless, that’s the same as having that PC fail two death saving throws. It’s an automatic critical hit, and it gives that character about a fifty-fifty chance of being fully dead on their very next turn… and that’s assuming that they haven’t already failed one or more death saves. If they have, then they’re dead right away.
It’s not a very nice thing to do, even if it’s something that completely makes sense for the enemy being roleplayed. In fact, it almost certainly shouldn’t be done unless it definitely makes sense for the enemy being roleplayed. But if one of the PC’s is flinging insults at a ruthless adversary, and then ends up helpless and dying under that enemy’s boot…
Anyway, the point here is that you don’t need TPK’s in order to have a sense of danger and the potential for hard losses. You do, however, need to kill PC’s from time to time. At the very least you need to hit them for half of their HP all at once, or even put them on death saving throws; as previously noted it’s really difficult to actually kill a PC under anything like normal circumstances, but don’t let that stop you from trying.
If that’s not your style, you’ll just have to come up with some other way to convince the players that you mean business, and that’s a personal problem for you to solve yourself.
Dying Off-Screen Means Dying Horribly
If a PC is going to be killed as part of a TPC or Drop, make sure that the death is really terrible. Use your imagination to come up with something plausible and awful, and then narrate the hell out of it. Remember the blue box with the TPC example, where the thieves who raided the priestess’ unmentionables were just executed? The bit about how the drow entombed them alive with air to breathe and thousands of spiders for company is not courtesy of the Dungeon of the Mad Mage hardcover. I made that up just for that TPC and for those player characters, and it’s deliberately over-the-top gruesome.
The point here is that a normal TPK generally involves the party being slowly ground down until none of the PC’s have any hit points or death saves left. That’s something that we’re deliberately trying to avoid with options like the TPC and the Drop, but avoiding it can cause a different problem: taking all of that time to methodically slaughter the party is like putting the defeat in boldface text with a fat underline. Once the TPK is over, everyone has had the reality of defeat bludgeoned into their heads. It’s undeniably final. Getting to that point is miserable gameplay, don’t get me wrong, but there is that fringe benefit.
If you’re going to avoid the tedious but emphatic defeat of the TPK, you’ll need some other way to firmly establish the deaths of the party members who don’t make it. That’s why PC’s can’t just die quietly off-screen: you have to go for effect. Those thieves didn’t just die… they were reduced to shrieking insanity, until their gibbering madness was ultimately silenced by the spiders that poured down their screaming throats to devour them from within. That’s what the drow do to their captives, and that’s what the DM needs to do to make PC deaths real and memorable.
Again, if that’s not your style, then come up with some other way to make sure that character deaths from a TPC or Drop don’t get overlooked. And bear in mind that the TPC and the Drop were both formulated as described in this article with horrific off-screen PC deaths as a design element. If you decide to leave the terror out, your TPC’s and Drops might not work, so fair warning.
Some Final Considerations
That basically wraps this article up. Ultimately, a TPK is just bad gameplay, and that’s what really accounts for why everyone hates them. It isn’t that all of the characters die, it’s that getting to the point where all of them are dead is so damned tedious, and that moving on afterward requires a lot of uncomfortable plot stretching and story patching. Now you have the TPC and the Drop in your tool kit, and also the Premonition of Death as a bonus option that I hope none of you ever needs to use.
However, you need to be very careful not to remove the sense of danger from the adventure by giving the players the impression that you’ll go out of your way to stop the party from being wiped out. You actually need to give the opposite impression: if PC’s are in obvious danger, and if TPK dodges like the TPC and the Drop are handled in a way that emphasizes their negative outcomes, then you should be fine.
As a final note, there’s another way to avoid TPK’s in an even easier way than replacing them with better options… you can just make it possible for the party to lose a battle without everyone having to die (or be captured, or executed, or lost, or whatever). Take a look at this article on retreating from combat, because there’s no reason why every fight in D&D needs to be a fight to the death.
Besides, when you’re the DM, there are so many fates worse than death that are within your power to inflict…