Last Updated on October 31, 2023
TPK is an acronym for Total Party Kill. A total party kill is what happens when every single one of the players’ characters in your party dies.
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.
TPK Scenarios and Differences
A shadow blotted out the sun. Spiraling down toward the terrified adventurers, a Green 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.”
After your whole party wipes, you can handle it in different ways. Perhaps your party:
- Is just unconscious and revived
- Die but are somehow resurrected
- Roll up new characters for the same campaign
- Roll new characters for a new campaign
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.
How do you figure out what happened? 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.
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.
So, as a DM who’s just presided over a TPK, it’s important to ask yourself “was that 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).
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.
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…
What to do After a TPK
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.
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.
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.
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.
If people are dead, it should be respected.
The Hard Reboot
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 games other 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.
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.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.