Characters die in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. This isn’t Scooby Doo. Sometimes a knife in the dark, a well placed arrow, or the grinding teeth of a monster puts an end to the bold deeds of our mighty heroes and murder-hobos. Yet, the greatest risk is when a situation becomes so bleak that it escalates to the possibility of not one party member dying, but the entire adventuring party. This is the Total Party Kill or TPK.
The TPK is nothing new to players of role-playing games, especially those who play Dungeons & Dragons, any edition. There are plenty of reasons that a TPK may happen in a gaming session, however the most insidious and sometimes petty occurrence is when a Dungeon Master (DM) decides to do it just for bragging rights. This should never happen. A DM is a storyteller and arbitrator for the game. The goal of a good DM should never ever be to simply seek to kill playing characters.
As the DM, you have the most important role—facilitating the enjoyment of the game for the players. You provide the narrative and bring the words on these pages to life. You should always gauge the experience level of your players (not the characters), try to feel out (or ask) what they like in a game, and attempt to deliver the experience they’re after. Everyone’s character should have the opportunity to shine. Everyone should have fun.
I’m not saying that a TPK can’t be fun. Being a part of a TPK can be a great experience. As I have said many times before, I remember many of the characters who died during gaming sessions more often than those who survived. In fact, my very first character was a Ninja in AD&D Oriental Adventures who died by being stomped to death by an Ogre with Boots of Speed. The same Ogre hunted us all down and murdered us all. It was exciting, fun, and best of all: memorable. So the key is that a TPK should be fun and exciting. A good DM will make sure that a TPK serves a purpose in the storytelling aspect of the game and campaign.
ART OF THE TPK
Sometimes the TPK is planned and other times it just happens. But as the DM, you can choose to fudge or jut let things unfold. There will be times were a player’s character will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the unpredictable roll of the dice will kill the character. Many times the DM should just allow this to happen because on the flip-side, the PCs will from time to time manage to defeat a monster or Big Bad through the same sort of freaky roll. But as the DM you do have the right to arbitrate the situation.
You can rule that the PC, instead of dying, suffers some sort of injury (minor or major) that may inflict more harm and annoyance in the long run than would a character’s death. The 5th edition Dungeons Master’s Guide (DMG) suggests possible “Lingering Injuries” on page 272. Alternatively, you could mix it up by using the Injury charts provided in Critical Hits Revisited or even spend less than a dollar for access to the Dynamic Critical Hit Table from the DM’s Guild. I’d also suggest using “The Critical Hit Table” or “Good Hits & Bad Misses” from Dragon magazine.
It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well. When they have done something
stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may! Again, if you have available ample means of raising characters from the dead, even death is not too severe; but remember that the Resurrection Machine is a danger for any campaign.
TPKO, THE NEW TPK
I have been playing the 5th edition of D&D since it’s beginnings as D&D Next. I have found that the Total Party Knock Out is just as effective as the TPK during gameplay. The best part about it is that the characters are knocked unconscious instead of killed so there isn’t the difficulty of seeking resurrection or outright making a new character. Essentially, as written in the Basic Rules, When you drop to 0 hit points, you either die outright or fall unconscious.
Massive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.
For example, a cleric with a maximum of 12 hit points currently has 6 hit points. If she takes 18 damage from an attack, she is reduced to 0 hit points, but 12 damage remains. Because the remaining damage equals her hit point maximum, the cleric dies.
If damage reduces you to 0 hit points and fails to kill you, you fall unconscious. This unconsciousness ends if you regain any hit points.
Whenever you start your turn with 0 hit points, you must make a special saving throw, called a death saving throw, to determine whether you creep closer to death or hang onto life. Unlike other saving throws, this one isn’t tied to any ability score. You are in the hands of fate now, aided only by spells and features that improve your chances of succeeding on a saving throw.
Roll a d20. If the roll is 10 or higher, you succeed. Otherwise, you fail. A success or failure has no effect by itself. On your third success, you become stable (see below). On your third failure, you die. The successes and failures don’t need to be consecutive; keep track of both until you collect three of a kind. The number of both is reset to zero when you regain any hit points or become stable.
When you make a death saving throw and roll a 1 on the d20, it counts as two failures. If you roll a 20 on the d20, you regain 1 hit point. If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death.
The best way to save a creature with 0 hit points is to heal it. If healing is unavailable, the creature can at least be stabilized so that it isn’t killed by a failed death saving throw. You can use your action to administer first aid to an unconscious creature and attempt to stabilize it, which requires a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check.
A stable creature doesn’t make death saving throws, even though it has 0 hit points, but it does remain unconscious. The creature stops being stable, and must start making death saving throws again, if it takes any damage. A stable creature that isn’t healed regains 1 hit point after 1d4 hours.
GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY
So now you just have to give it a try. Understand that players who come to believe their characters are invincible and unstoppable because of very low risk of character death begin to play D&D vastly differently than those who believe that in any encounter their character might be outright murdered. Your players should know that within your game death is possible and they should fear it. If your players don’t fear death for their characters there is no adrenaline rush when they’re in knee deep in crap during a big battle. That rush is something you can’t replace. Your players WILL catch on to you going easy on them. SO DON’T. Challenge them. And if the TPKO happens, so be it. If it turns into a TPK … that’s the life of an adventurer. If there wasn’t danger involved then every buck-toothed farm boy would be wading into the dungeons, right?