RPG: Everyone’s Dead, Now What?

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Just because the whole party died, doesn’t mean your campaign has to…

Sometimes, the party ends up dead. Maybe that monster you threw at them had a weird corner-case ability they weren’t prepared for. Maybe nobody made their saves vs. the ghoul’s paralyzing touch, so they sat around watching helplessly as their characters got killed. Maybe the wizard risked a fireball on the middle of the party, hoping to nuke a powerful monster, and the monster made his save, but the party didn’t. Or your ogres got a little crit happy.

Whatever the reason, sometimes you end up with a TPK and you weren’t ready for it to happen. Well, rest easy friend, because this article, much like Mandy Patinkin in the 2003 hit, Dead Like Me, is here to help.

Why does everyone keep asking about my father?

Dead vs. Defeated

First things first though, let’s make sure the party is actually dead. I know, I know, you’re all no doubt familiar with the difference between characters being dead and merely just dying, but sometimes it’s easy to write off the party as dead before anything’s said and done. Consider, you’ve got a party of four, and two are already on their last failure, the third went down one round ago, and the ogre just took out your fourth player with a well-timed crit.

Just because the party is down, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out. The rules for stabilizing a dying opponent are a two-way street. NPCs/enemies can stabilize a dying player just as easily as your PCs. You don’t even have to tell your players that’s what they’re doing if you’re worried they’ll think you’re soft-balling them. Just make a few checks without saying why, and then figure out why the players might be saved after being defeated.

This is a great time to have them taken prisoner–being stabilized doesn’t make you conscious again. It’s the perfect time to have the villains tie up the PCs and start dragging them off. It’s a pretty easy transition from, “and down you go…” to “you wake up in a cold, dank dungeon, chained to the wall…”

Does that have skulls for feet? I think I’d rather be dead now please…

I’ve mentioned before about how being able to have failure that doesn’t end the game can really heighten the stakes and immersion in your game. This is a prime example. Your players will learn that it can be okay to lose a fight–their characters aren’t gone. Not in the best state, perhaps, but not gone.

And boom, just like that, you’ve got the next adventure planned, as your players either work out how to escape from their predicament, and why they were spared in the first place. If you really want to ham it up, have them come to in the middle of a weird cult ritual, and then move immediately into a fight–the stakes are still just as high, and if the players win it’s all the sweeter.

Okay, but they’re actually dead though

But all I did was stand on the stairs…why game…whyyyyyyy

Fair enough. Sometimes there’s no avoiding it. Your luck runs out in a number of ways and a character (or indeed, the whole party) dies and it’s random. There’s nothing dramatic or meaningful about the loss, it’s just very sudden and seemingly out of your control. And while this may jive with the way the world works sometimes (man, that got dark fast), you’re there playing a game to get away from that.

If I wanted random character deaths, and sad reminders of my all too fragile existence, I’d turn on HBO Go.

Now obviously this is where spells like resurrection and the like come in–but say your party doesn’t have access to these things. What can you do? Especially if it’s not just one character, but the whole party that ends up dead.

Well, you can take advantage of the fact that you’re in a magical world where there’s all manner of things that happen in the afterlife. After all, there are a number of stories about heroes fighting their way back from the underworld. You can use this as an opportunity to play up the mythology of your campaign.

Maybe this is a chance to dig through all the extraplanar monsters in the manual and throw together a few encounters that represent them wandering the plains of Limbo. They could go on a bogus journey, pursued by monsters, as they try and find their way back to the land of the living. If you really want to play up the consequences of their death, let them watch what’s happening in the world while their spirits are hanging out like a bunch of Class V Free-Roaming Vapors.

Divine Intervention

Speaking of mythology though–odds are good their are gods in the world you’re playing with. Or other powerful creatures who are just as capable of bringing the dead back to life. While wandering the planes of limbo, their souls could end up coming across a beatific avatar of a god, bound by archaic rules that forbid them from directly intervening in the world, but now that the players are dead, they can sort of skirt a gray area of the rules for the games of divinity.

Or maybe there’s something darker that binds their souls and breathes life back into them, but at a hidden cost the players did not consent to. Like a certain Raven Queen–or any of the other gods of Death. The point is you can use the death of the players as an opportunity to further your story by adding an unexpected twist.

I’m not saying bring the characters back just for the sake of continuing the campaign, but rather, take some time to find a purpose within the story you’re telling to bring them back. When a player dies there should be consequences, but the loss of a character isn’t the only possibility. Having an obligation or geas to fulfill could make things interesting when the party’s mission comes into conflict with it.

We’ve been geased to be excellent to each other…

Or if they’ve learned some terrible fate about to befall the world, you could have every excuse you need to get the next part of your campaign kicking. When done right, it’s a little like a magic trick–you are juggling things behind the scenes, and maybe you didn’t plan for everyone to die–but having a little bit of a framework there at the back of your mind can make your follow-up seem planned.

Un-doing things?

There’s also another alternative. One that requires a little more rules juggling and tweaks to the characters, but you could always have the players rise as undead. There are, after all, a number of monsters out there that turn creatures into different types of undead. There’s nothing that says your players have to lose all their character traits just because they’re undead.

Did your paladin die in a death tyrant’s negative energy cone? Well, take a look at the zombie, make a few adjustments to the character’s stats (this is where it gets tricky. You don’t want to screw them over, but also you want to still play up that they’re undead now), figure out if you want them to still be able to cast spells or not, then write the word “Zombie” in front of whatever they have written under race on their character sheet, and you’re good to go.

I think one of the best things about the collaborative storytelling aspect of roleplaying is discovering all the little moments that come from unintended outcomes. Your paladin might never have expected to be a zombie–but now they have a ton of questions, what does it mean to be undead and a paladin, can they still serve their god, what happens if they try to turn the undead? How can you undo what has been done?

Once you’ve got players asking questions like this, you’ve got them immersed in the game. Then your next few sessions might write themselves.

Burying the lede

Of course, sometimes it’s okay for characters to be dead too. Pull any of these options too much and you risk turning your campaign into a comic book, soap opera, or comic book soap opera (not sure if that’s a comic book about a soap opera, or a soap opera featuring comic book characters, either way, you get the idea).

So if the players all die–take a little time ,figure out if you want to advance the plotline a little–or maybe you flash back and introduce a new party that’s been adventuring elsewhere in the world while the heroes were doing whatever and now they have to deal with the consequences of the original party’s defeat. It can be nice to see touches of the legacy of that first batch of characters still affecting the world, making it unique–even giving them a little ownership of the world, and by extension the game you’re all playing together.

Anyway, these are just a few things you can keep in mind the next time things start to go poorly at the table. It might take a little bit of work on your end, but these can be great ways to keep things from skidding to a stop–and can even add something to your campaign.

Got a TPK story, as either player or gm? How was it handled? Let us know in the comments!

  • euansmith

    That was a smashing article; full of good ideas.

    This reminds me of the Bottomless Pit Problem; where the party have to cross a bottomless pit. Normally this would be a roll against Dex or Str to make the jump, with failure meaning death. This is, of course, rubbish.

    The only time the GM will let a player fall, screaming in to eternity is when they are running a Zero Level Funnel in Dungeon Crawl Classic. Any other time, failure will be fudged with a bunch of progressively more desperate rolls, until the character escapes this ignoble fate.

    However, jumping a Bottomless Pit is a classic trope of fantasy stories and games, so just leaving bottomless pits out of adventures isn’t a good option. Instead, the GM phases the question as, “Do you make it across the bottomless pit before…” Now failure just makes the characters’ lives more difficult and creates more opportunities for carnage and looting.

    “Do you make it across the bottomless pit before the pursing Goblins turn up to try and to capture you?”

    • That’s assuming the pit is actually bottomless. Personally, I like to take the Portal 2 approach to “bottomless” pits: It’s not about falling in, it’s about figuring out out to not die on the way down.

    • Old zogwort

      Just wait patently until your wizard figures out a way to study and prepare spells in weightlessness. Who cares if it takes a few years for him to learn to teleport out, he will eventually get you out for sure.
      You did put on your ring of sustenance this morning right ?

      • euansmith

        “Right, we all get into the bag of holding, except for the barbarian. He then throws us out of the pit the next time we loop around.”

        “Und vot of me? Who do I ged out?”

        “I’m sure we’ll thing of something, Thungar.”

  • Drew

    EXCELLENT article. More like this, BOLS crew!

  • Xodis

    If everyone died….you must be playing the 40K RPGs lol.

    Seriously though TPK’s happen, it’s best to start fresh in a new game with a new group and then later on return to the game/setting and loot your corpses after things have gone even further downhill a bit.

    • euansmith

      “That mysterious stranger who hired the previous party is back in the Tavern looking for another party…”

      • Xodis

        We tried that before, just seemed too…..fantasy really lol. When a group of adventurers set off to save the day, and fail, there should be repercussions. We usually pick up the same game after so many years have gone by (in game) so players can see how their failures affected the environment.

      • EnTyme

        “So I hear we aren’t the first group you’ve asked to help with this.”
        “What happened to them?”
        ” . . .”

        • Old zogwort

          They must be incompetent fools like most of our competitors. You haven’t paid them in advance have you ? Also where is this “Tome of horrors” you speak of.

    • Old zogwort

      Any 2nd edition dnd adventure module will do ; )

  • Old zogwort

    Time to collectively make new characters and a good excuse to switch campaigns if the team is up to that.

  • Lawrence Phillips

    In deathwatch, after my party failed so spectacularly, I engineered a chain of events that threw them into the warp. Abused them for a session to teach them not to be so stupid and then made them convert their characters to black crusade and played my adventure from the other point of view