It’s 7:03 p.m.
The rogue just natural 1’d a fireball. Sherry’s cleric has been down for 2 rounds. Rupert’s fighter can’t roll above a 4 to save his life. Howard just mumbled something about “realism”. The 3 fire elementals are still untouched.
And it is their initiative.
The mighty heroes are hard-pressed and their players are watching you wondering if you are going to fudge or pull a punch. You decide to let fly. And 12 seconds later Xaryn the Pyremaster stirs their bones in a gleeful cloud of ashes and smoke. The players are grief stricken. The party is defeated. Your casual Tuesday is a grim as a frost giant’s axe.
What do you do next?
This more than any event in a game is often the most difficult and unexpected hardship to navigate. The options are there and in organized play a spray of earned merits or traded favors can hand wave the impact of the event away but in a long-term or home game things can be a bit more complex. Here are some thoughts:
* All’s well that ends – The session is done, tempers are high and looking around people need a while to recover from the Elf God’s chosen and her friends filling ogre bellies. While this option is sometimes the only available one (especially if a play is upset enough to “flip the table” or leave), in the scope of a long-running campaign this option is often times a terrible choice as it leaves invested players hanging, particularly if you don’t revisit the party’s mission or goals ever again. The option is tolerable for one-shots and convention gaming where such abrupt ends are more common. Downtime: N/A
* Mad Science (or Magic) – If your story allows for it, consider exploiting a campaign mystery or magic system to allow the party to continue. This can be a bit of “hand waving” but sometimes is a solution for a quick turnaround game where you need the night to go on. The specifics might include:
Clone Saga – Yup. The party wakes up and everything is fine. Their gear may or may not be replaced (or replicated). They have been cloned from bits left behind and an alchemist or wizard has realized the necessity of their work. This can be particularly fun if they get back to the scene and find evidence of their own deaths… maybe even the original bodies. Sometimes you don’t even need to let on for months. The players just keep using their old character and don’t even change their sheet. Downtime: Storytelling to return to adventure site.
Replacement Killers – This method is great if you are A) limited on time and B) running a game with an “architect” (god/wizard/high priest) enforcing the plot. In this situation, the players each take their sheet and pass it the same number of players to the right or left (say 2 players to the left). Select a race, gender and alignment appropriate to the sheet in front of them, and then apply racial modifiers to their friends old character as needed. For the rest of the night they run the re-skinned version of their friends old character. The “architect” sent a second group (Giant Size X-Men #1 anyone?) as a back up. Reconciling the group post adventure might be difficult but can be a rewarding option (using the X-Men metaphor… a new team might result from both old parties) particularly if the original party is later raised. Downtime: Storytelling arrival of group two.
Into the Underworld – This method requires a lot of fast thinking on the GMs part. The party has died and is sent on to purgatory (or whatever similar area exists in your world). Depending on your strength as an improvisational storyteller you might keep this entirely role-playing or skill check based. In the spirit world the party faces off against the Guardians of the Dead and earns the right to return and fight again. This may even be an excuse to empower the party further (Liz Courts did this at PaizoCon one year with deliberate and MYTHIC consequences). After the party “defeats death” they may return to the adventure as planned. Downtime: Spiritworld events can happen in the blink of the eye, so it is possible this is THE SHORTEST classical method of dealing with TPK.
* Silver Lining/Now Serving – If you play enough chances you are talking about games you would like to run relatively regularly. You might even have an idea of another game or campaign you want to run. A more constructive approach to “All’s well..”, with this method you utilize the remainder of your game time to plan the next game, roll new characters and set up your next sessions campaign. While this method can be fairly abrupt it is sometimes a life saver if there is extreme player agitation at a character death or party “wipe”. Downtime: Zero, you beginning creating with the players right away.
* Mysterious Stranger – This can be tricky but sometimes you can have the party saved by unexpected aid. The mystery NPC shows up and either wisks their remains away to raise from the dead or maybe even goes so far as to slay the nemesis of the current dungeon. The party returns to life and is re-situated just in time for the NPC to vanish on another important message of intervention. Overuse or poor handling of this one can diminish a party’s sense of relevance. Downtime: Possibly none, depending on the severity of the intervention.
* The Unexpected – The party may wake up in a dilapidated version of their prior surroundings. Maybe now, eons later circumstances caused them to be resurrected in the world of their failure. They may have to search of a magic to right the past or sometimes more interestingly, survive in the campaign setting of this dark future. Or instead they are in the shadow realm of their own world, forced to fight reverse versions of themselves (and ally with a good version of their nemesis?) to escape back to their home world. This method requires MASSIVE amounts of improvisational skill but can yield incredible stories. Downtime: As long as your improv skills take to boot up.
Just remember, it is a game, and death like any other moment can further the impact of your story.