Gaming is meant to be all about the fun, but as anyone who’s been a GM can tell you, maintaining that fun can often feel like an awful lot of work. Balancing drama with dice rolling and player freedom with system fairness is a little like juggling baby turtles while riding a flaming unicycle: you have a lot of things to manage all the time, and if you take your eyes off any one of them for too long, somebody is going to wind up unhappy (and possibly on fire).
There are some GMs, great GMs, who have a natural talent for navigating the chaos and looking good doing it. For the rest of us, there are the tricks and techniques we use to fake it well enough to keep everyone having fun. And that is what Behind the Screen is all about.
So let’s start at the end: going out with a bang…
The Joy of the TPK
If you’ve never run a one-shot or convention game, you may not have first-hand experience with the TPK, or Total Party Kill. A TPK is often the most final form of death in tabletop games, where your colleagues could otherwise drag some minuscule fragment of your character’s pinky back to town and have her brought back to life.
Most GMs (despite how often we joke about it) try to avoid the TPK at all costs, because it typically means the end of the story coming entirely too soon, and under all the wrong circumstances. If the bad guys win because the ogre mage made eight critical hits in a row, or the sniper kept rolling tens on the hit chart, it feels more like a victory for mathematicians than for anyone sitting at the table.
As a result, many GMs won’t even flirt the TPK. Once one PC goes down, we start kicking over doors or fudging defensive stats to give the other players a chance to win or escape before it’s all over. That’s because most GMs are making two critical assumptions:
- Players don’t enjoy losing their characters, and…
- If the players don’t make it to the end of the story, they’ll be disappointed
Most of the time, both assumptions are perfectly valid. That said, there are definitely players who enjoy nothing more than watching their character go down in flames, and most players at one point or another have had a character at a moment where they would love to make a last stand.
The truth is, a good TPK can make for one of the most positively memorable gaming moments your players will ever have, the kind of story they’ll be telling and retelling for years afterwards, in part because it’s such a rare event for any GM to let happen.
Naturally, that’s a more common occurrence in one-shots and con games than in any long-term campaign, but don’t rule it out. If the moment is right, give your PCs the chance to go all Seven Samurai defending the small town of humble farmers or piloting their smoking wreckage of a starship into the maw of the Empire’s phazon factory, saving the galaxy and smiting their enemies in one brilliant fireball.
If you play with a regular group, a TPK has a few added benefits for future games. For many players, just knowing the GM is willing to let their characters go the way of the dodo can make their future successes feel that much richer.
If they believe you won’t just swoop in and deus-ex a way out if they get in too deep, all the future jams they will have gotten themselves out of will start to feel earned and deserved. Similarly, players who aimlessly flirt with character death because they’re so certain the GM won’t pull the trigger will have a reason to knock it off and hang back with the rest of the party for a change.
Either way, a TPK can pay dividends in the long-term if it’s done well, but only if it’s done well. The following questions make for a good litmus test if you smell a TPK coming down the pipe:
- Is the timing right?
- Are all the players on board?
- Do you have an escape hatch if this goes completely pearshaped?
The first question is for when it looks like the players are setting themselves up to go down in flames: is it too soon in the game for everything to go ‘boom?’ If it’s a one-shot and you’re only five minutes in, it might make for a hilarious “let’s try that again…” reset, but if you’re an hour into a five-hour game, players might feel cheated if you let them all blow up after they’ve put that much time in.
If you sense a likely TPK coming too early, the best solution is often to step across the fourth wall and warn the players away from the course of action. That very same warning should also serve as something of a promise that, if they want to go out with a bang later, you’re willing to go with them when the time is right.
Getting Everyone On Board
Many player-driven TPKs are actually the decision or bad luck of only a single player. While those moments are often still memorable, it can leave some players feeling frustrated while whoever was holding Mr. Grenade last might suffer some of the backlash directly, and not just in-character. Either way, it gets away from the fun, which is not the direction you want any game to head in.
A GM looking to avoid that needs to get buy-in from every player before the party goes down with the proverbial (or actual) ship. If it’s a campaign, you may be fortunate enough to be able to confirm with each player between the session where they plan the suicide mission and the session when it actually takes place. Bathroom breaks in a one-shot serve a similar purpose.
Barring that, be prepared to assist any player who makes a desperate attempt to get their character clear of the blast radius with enough environmental factors that anyone looking to survive to fight another day has a way to make that intention clear in-character. If enough players flee the scene or try to stop the TPK from happening, be prepared to fall on the grenade yourself, as a GM. Which leads us to…
Prepping an Escape Hatch
Before you start to let any TPK happen, make sure you have a way to pull the plug on the whole affair while it’s in the middle of happening. The same way GMs talk big about killing PCs without ever meaning to go through with it, many players will talk openly about riding the rocket all the way to the ground, but may change their minds when the bomb bay doors open.
Have lifelines ready for any and all of the characters, hidden behind the scenes. If the players rally behind their collective and elaborate demise, they don’t ever have to know that you were ready in an instant to come to their rescue (in fact, it’s often better that they never know). But if the countdown on the bomb reaches single digits before someone changes their mind about going out with a bang, be ready for some thrilling last-minute heroics to get them clear.
Hopefully, if you’ve gotten everyone on board like you’re supposed to, you won’t ever need those lifelines, but I highly recommend having them. Most players don’t know how they’ll react when things really come down to the wire for their characters, so it’s best to be prepared for anything.
Milk the Moment
Once the time is right and everyone is ready to go, there is no description too big to capture the glorious scene of the PCs’ final moments, whether it be holding the pass with their very bones or slamming on the gas to drive their van into the eldritch horror, sending it and themselves over the cliff. Savor the details, sing the moment, and be as dramatic or comedic (or comically dramatic) as the situation calls for.
Done right, yours will likely be the first of many, many times the tale is told, so start things off on a strong note by swinging for the fences, damning the torpedoes and honoring the reckless insanity that started this beautiful mess in the first place.