It finally happened: the nightmare scenario.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. The party was between arcs of the main quest, on the road from one recently-saved town to one they’d heard was having a spot of bother with orcs.
The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and all was right with the world.
Then, without thinking, the dungeon master rolled for a random encounter.
A shadow blotted out the sun. Spiraling down toward the terrified adventurers, a black dragon descended, jaws spewing noxious green fumes, its claws like zweihanders gleaming in the sun.
A few very chaotic moments later, the DM looked around at the sullen faces of their players and said, “Well, I never thought you’d actually try to fight it. I guess that’s our first TPK.”
Welcome to our guide to dealing with the aftermath of a total party kill (TPK).
In this article, we’re going to break down some techniques you can use to figure out how to learn from your TPKs, how to move past them, and how to make sure that a total party kill doesn’t mean canceling D&D night.
What Is a TPK?
A total party kill is the name for what happens when every single one of the players’ characters dies.
Whether it’s an epic defeat at the final climax of an adventure or a random encounter with a wandering monster that got out of hand, TPKs are the sort of thing that either give dungeon masters the absolute galloping heebie jeebies, or (and this is less common, thankfully) are viewed as some sort of badge of honor to be earned as soon and often as possible.
Now, there are different schools of thought on whether it’s really a TPK unless you then roll up new characters or even start a whole new campaign.
At some tables, a TPK just means the whole party was knocked unconscious only to awaken in the villain’s dungeon a few hours later.
Sometimes, you have to actually die, but resurrection (or some other new direction for the campaign with the same characters) is on the table.
Sometimes a TPK means you keep playing the same story with new characters, or play a different story with different characters, or even the rare different story with the same characters (if you’re on a multiverse or Christopher Nolan timeline kick).
If handled badly (by players or the DM — usually it takes both), a TPK can even mean the demise of a gaming group.
Hopefully, this guide should help you realize that, just because everybody’s dead, it doesn’t have to be a huge downer.
Talk to Your Players About Your TPK
In a successful Dungeons & Dragons group, just like in a relationship, communication is everything.
It’s the grease that keeps the wheels turning. It’s often the difference between a fun, happy, long-running game and a post on r/rpghorrorstories.
As a DM, check in with your players after the dust settles. If everyone feels that the TPK was just bad luck or their own silly fault, then you can start talking about what to do next.
If there are some sore feelings (maybe players are mad at players for “getting their character killed,” or maybe they’re all mad at you for killing them), then now is the time to address them.
Don’t beat the players over the head with your omniscience, though. Talk openly and honestly about what you thought was happening, and try to figure out how everything went so wrong.
A TPK should be a learning experience for everyone involved.
Then, once everyone’s on the same page about what happened, it’s time to talk about what happens next and what that means for your characters and your campaign.
Why Did That TPK Happen?
Now, as far as I can tell, TPKs happen for one of three reasons.
- The DM messed up and put the players in a position where they “didn’t deserve to die.”
- The players messed up and “deserved to die.”
- Fate’s a cruel mistress sometimes.
There are probably other edge cases, but stuff like “one player is a douchebag and purposefully got everyone else killed” are probably more to do with who you all are as people than to do with D&D.
As long as you’re not in one of those kinds of scenarios, figuring out which of the three options just happened to you can be super important.
How do you figure that out? By talking to each other.
I cannot stress enough the importance of getting your entire group on the same page after a TPK.
It might sound a bit funny (“it’s just a game, after all, right?”), but losing a character in a roleplaying game can be genuinely traumatic, especially when the player is of the opinion that they didn’t deserve to die.
Now, to clarify, I don’t mean “didn’t deserve to die” as in “oh, the tragic injustice of the wrongly accused paladin being executed by the cruel tyrant didn’t deserve to die.”
I mean in the sense that the player feels like, if only they’d been given the right information or the game had been “fairer,” their character would still be alive.
Maybe they feel like the DM didn’t give enough warning that a CR 14 Adult Black Dragon was more than a party of 5th-level PCs could handle.
Honestly, in a lot of 5e games where combat encounters are expected to be meticulously balanced to the PCs’ power level, players forget that running away is even an option.
If you’ve steamrolled every single encounter up until that point and then a few dozen tons of acid-breathing death drops out of the sky on top of you, you might be forgiven for feeling like the DM “cheated”.
So, as a DM who’s just presided over a TPK, it’s important to ask yourself “was that an accident?”
Now, I don’t mean, were you trying your hardest to kill the players and you succeeded? A TPK can be unexpected and still not be an accident.
An accidental TPK happens when there’s a misalignment — usually through giving players bad intel (as well as the party misinterpreting something or just plain coming to the wrong conclusions) — between what the players think is going on and what the DM knows is going on.
This can be a hard line to walk because, at the end of the day, your players’ choices are their own.
The line between a player who makes a bad decision because they don’t have all the facts and a player who has all the facts they need and makes the bad decision anyway is sometimes hard to pin down.
This is another reason why it’s important to check in with your players about what they think just happened.
If you get a lot of questions like, “Well, what were we supposed to do?” and “How were we supposed to know that would happen?” then maybe the fault lies with your distribution of information (or the players’ ability to pay attention; D&D is a two way street, after all).
It’s also very possible that your players agree that the TPK was their fault. You told them that this area was inhabited by an incredibly dangerous beast that recently laid waste to an entire army.
You showed them the melted farmhouses and the injured soldiers returning to the nearby town, and you told them all about the party of high-level adventurers who were recently eaten.
Then, when the beast showed up, the party took a calculated risk. But, man, are they bad at math.
Whether we’re talking about a single character death or a TPK, the best case scenario is when the players can turn around and pinpoint the informed decisions they made that led to their deaths.
No DM trickery, no “gotcha” moments – just lovable goofballs adding two and two together and getting “let’s fight that dragon.”
And then, sometimes, it all just goes wrong. Maybe the encounter was perfectly balanced (whatever that means) for the party. Maybe they had a good plan.
And maybe none of them managed to roll above a 10 in five rounds of combat, while every single one of the monsters crit at least once, and the cleric was the only one with healing spells, and she went down first and… oh dear, everybody’s dead.
Sometimes, the dice just don’t go your way, and that’s okay too.
So, once everyone’s on the same page about what happened and why it went down that way, it’s time to ask…
Just like figuring out what happened to cause a TPK, the key to figuring out what to do next is a matter of communication.
If you and your players are all still invested in the story and world of this campaign, then there’s no reason the next session shouldn’t open with a fresh-faced band of adventurers sitting down together in the tavern just down the road.
I’ve seen that work really well, especially when some of the new characters have had ties to the old ones.
I’ve also seen groups go through a TPK and happily abandon D&D 5e altogether for another tabletop RPG, board games, or the nearest bar.
Think and talk about what’s important to you all.
Generally, though, the next steps for a post-TPK gaming group tend to break down into two categories: the Soft Reboot and the Hard Reboot.
The Soft Reboot
The soft reboot method of moving past a TPK involves finding a way to preserve one or more elements of the campaign up until that point.
There are a bunch of different ways you can do this, and some of them are really interesting. For example…
- The dead PCs wake up in hell, the celestial plane, the shadowfell, or somewhere else and either have to start new lives there or break out to return to the original story.
- A powerful NPC pays to resurrect the party, informing them they now owe them a sizable debt that must be paid.
- One or more PCs reawaken somehow changed. Maybe they’re undead, or their souls have been placed inside a warforged, or they’re a ghost riding inside a Kalashtar, or the demon prince Orcus dragged them out of hell… In D&D 5e, death is only the beginning.
- A new group of players with backstories tied to the dead party pick up the main thread of the campaign where they left off.
Have a think about ways to soft-reboot a campaign that interest you and make sense. Obviously, the ruler of the realm paying to resurrect a party of 3rd-level nobodies is weird — you’d better have a good reason.
However you do it, it’s important to make it clear to your players that coming back from a TPK (especially one that was their own damn fault) should come with some strings attached.
In general though, the soft reboot can be a great way to either send your campaign off in a new direction (working for a group patron who owns your souls, for example) or to stay on track.
The one thing I would urge you not to do, however, is to Dallas your players out of it.
Unless you as a DM really, really screwed up and are the only one responsible for a dissatisfying TPK, do not retcon your story to keep your players alive.
No one wakes up in the shower or on the bloody Skyrim cart on their way to prison. If people are dead, it should be respected.
Bring them back as a rotten zombie or imprison their soul in the astral plane with some dignity. Your players will know if you’re patronizing them.
The Hard Reboot
Whether you’re just excited to explore a new part of your world or your players feel like they’ve had enough of pretending to be wizards and want to go play a charming diceless game about moles and rabbits having tea together, the hard reboot can go a number of different ways.
Keep the world but the characters, the location, and the events are new. Everyone rolls up new characters from 1st level and gets back into the action.
The miserable demise of their previous characters may serve as a cute moment of dramatic irony when they’re told the tale in a tavern, but for the most part this is a whole new story, albeit with a similar style of play.
Similar but different. A new campaign can mean throwing out a Ravenloft setting for Planescape or deciding to try a new style of game — switching up a classic dungeon-crawling adventure set in the forgotten realms for a city-based intrigue campaign set on the Dark Sun world of Athas.
You’re still playing D&D 5e, but everything else is subject to change.
There are so many other games than D&D 5e out there, and a TPK can be an ideal opportunity to try some of them out, either for a new campaign or as a series of one shots while whoever’s DM-ing next figures out what on earth is going on.
So, to recap: whether a TPK was a horrible mistake, a cruel twist of fate, or a thoroughly deserved consequence of very bad decisions, there are a bunch of ways to move forward.
You can find ways to keep your beloved characters in the story (although dying and coming back should still exact a heavy price), pivot toward a new story, continue the story with new characters, or head off for something totally new.
However your TPK happened and whatever you want to do next, just remember that talking it out and making sure everyone is on the same page is the key – if not to your characters’ survival, then to your group as a whole.
Until next time, happy adventuring, folks.