GM Advice: 6 Ways To Spin A TPK Into Adventuring Gold


"On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."
 ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

It is something that players and Game Masters alike fear. A strange, haunting, terrifying thing that seems more inevitable as time stretches on. Something so horrible that even a three-letter abbreviation still manages to convey the heavy doom that fills the souls of all those who have seen one in their lifetime and dread to see one again.
I am of course talking about the TPK, or Total Party Kill, to those not savvy with the lingo. This traumatically memorable event occurs when every member of the adventuring party dies during the course of a single instance (combat, trap, natural disaster, or Black Friday sales). This could be the result of several amazing rolls on the Game Master's part (hereafter referred to as Ass-Hat the Merciless), several bad roles on the part of the players (whose dice are now forever shamed), or just a brutal event that went the wrong way. 

The fact of the matter is that now everyone is dead. And with no one left in the party to start slicing off fingers for possible resurrections, it looks like our player characters are deader than disco. But fear not, my friends. This might be the end of the line in one respect, but it doesn't have to be game over. Death is but a new beginning, and here are six ways to ensure that the party keeps going, even after that final fireball has dropped.


1. Battling Back From The Clutches Of Death
  "Scythe to meet you."

The party is dead, but that doesn't mean they need to take it laying down. Their souls retain much of their previous potency, and as they find themselves standing in the boneyard, awaiting judgment to pass into the hereafter, they may decide death is not for them. The only course of action is to brave the land of the dead in search for the God/Goddess that judges souls and helps them to transition into the afterlife and strike a bargain to return to the world of the living. 
There are several powerful beings in the hereafter that deal directly with souls, be it for good or ill. The player characters could find themselves in the crosshairs of devils and demons that wish to enslave them or destroy them outright. Other creatures may not take kindly to the characters attempting to bypass the natural order, and may take steps to correct it and ensure their demise remains a permanent fixture, especially if those entities are in league with the creature or creatures that killed the characters in the first place. There could even be beings that wish to lend a hand to the PCs, and others that will help if they agree to strike a deal, though to what end is up to the Game Master.
And if the PCs can make it to the God/Goddess who oversees things in the realm of death, will this powerful being hear them out? Perhaps it has a deal of its own, promising a return if the player characters perform a task. What would happen if the PCs were to become Grim Reapers for a day, taking lives that had met their end, innocent or not? Could they do it in order to return to their lives?


2. Brave New Worlds
 "The afterlife is only in 1080p, I'm afraid. Still pretty, though"
Sure, things ended poorly on the material plane, but that is only one in a massive number of planes that dot the multiverse. This could be an opportunity for the player characters to explore different worlds and realms they would otherwise not have access to, having adventures they couldn't have dreamed of in their mortal forms.

They could venture to the realms of angels and Gods, experiencing the indescribable beauty and majesty that these immortal creatures live in. They could take a grand tour of the nearly infinite number of heavens and meet legendary heroes of old. 

They could plunge into the depths of the Nine Hells or the Infinite Layers of the Abyss, fighting demons and avoiding the terrifying power of the Archdevils and Demon Lords that rule those places. There they could run afoul of the most nefarious and dangerous villains who ever lived. Villains desperate to escape.

The characters could explore and interact with the various societies that dot the planes, and meet the Gods that rule them. They may even find a means of gaining new bodies and a way to travel from plane to plane in a never-ending adventure, or even just a new method to get back to the material plane.


3. The God Squad 
 "Kicking ass for the pantheon!"

Perhaps the player characters went out in  a blaze of glory. Maybe they managed to save the day in the end, but at the cost of their lives. What if someone was watching? Sure, the characters are dead, but there are powerful entities that still may have plans for them; The Gods.

In this scenario, the PCs are chosen by a God or Gods to become champions, vassals, or even diplomats. They are sent on missions by their divine benefactor to quell the diety's enemies, represent the God, or treat with another God on their God's behalf. 

It may sound like typical adventuring fare until you realize how big the stakes are. Failure could mean the end of millions of lives or be the cause of a war between rival Gods that will shake the very heavens. And since each God is unique, with their own quirks and personalities, you have a plethora of interesting NPCs and Villains.


4. Haunted
"Intangibility doesn't make you less of a badass"

Dead, but not forgotten. The player characters find themselves as ghosts, trapped outside their bodies and unable to move into the afterlife. What do they do now that they realize they are disembodied spirits doomed to wander the world forever?

They could attempt to re-enter their bodies, but they are going to need the aid of a powerful priest who already has a warm, fleshy body. Perhaps a recurring NPC may be of some assistance in reclaiming their corpses and helping them track down the priest they are looking for. All manner of adventures could happen in between. What if someone steals the wagon the bodies are in? What if someone robs or kills the NPC? How much effect can the player characters have over the physical world?

Ah, but there are other dangers. There are any number of things lurking between life and death that can still attack the characters. Hungry things. And what of some random necromancer, who has control over the dead? How ould the player characters fare if they ran afoul of such a creature?

Perhaps the players have no desire to return to their bodies yet. Maybe they want to become vengeful spirits with a vendetta against the creature or creatures that took their lives. With a series of hauntings and possessions, they could work their way into the inner sanctum of the vile villain or villains and enact their revenge.


5. Unlikely Resurrections
 "Death is like underwear; totally reversible."
 The souls of the fallen party members feel the tug of resurrection and answer the call, only to find themselves in an unlikely situation. It seems that someone or something has raised our heroes from the dead, but for what purpose?

Perhaps there is a faction that is set against the creature/creatures that killed the party or wants something in the area where the party fell into a trap. Their motives could be just or entirely selfish. They would even be too weak in body or numbers to accomplish the task on their own but secure in the kind of resources and magic to bring several people back from the dead.

Alternatively, there could be something more nefarious at play. The creature that killed them (or at least owned the trap that did) wants the characters alive for some reason, though that reason may not be entirely clear to the players. They could awaken in a dungeon (the actual kind), or bound to a stone altar. The villain may want to know information only they have, like the location of a McGuffin or an important NPC, or even how they learned of the evil master plan. More sinister is the thought that the villain or villains used the PC's returning souls as a sort of extraplanar cab service, calling forth darker things to hitch a ride on them as they returned to the material plane. at some point, these extraplanar entities will manifest, either through possession or some manner of physical manifestation and cause all kinds of new problems. At that point, the player characters have served their purpose as incubators and have worn out their usefulness.

The worse case, however (or best case, depending on who you talk to), is that the player characters are raised, but are no longer living. A powerful necromancer could draw a portion of their souls back into their bodies and animate their lifeless corpses to serve as powerful minions. With a portion of their free will still left intact, they could fight against the necromancer's control and either defeat it or flee, searching for a way to restore themselves to what they once were. Unable to walk freely in populated areas, the characters would need to find a way to move about, interact, and find the help they need. A wrong move could summon a mob of angry villagers or worse... paladins and clerics sworn to wipe out the undead scourge. And honestly, what priest will help the undead return to life? It may take some searching.


6. The Next Life
 "Life and Death, now that's a power couple."

Everyone is dead, but death is just the beginning of a new adventure. In this scenario, the characters are reincarnated, becoming something else entirely. However, as these new, reborn incarnations grow and age, they begin to remember their former life. It starts slowly, through dreams, but eventually it hits them like an epiphany. 

This is one way of letting the party roll up new characters, but still continue the campaign you were running before. It requires a few tweaks on the part of the GM. Firstly, you will want to turn the clock ahead a few decades from the point the player characters died. This allows for all sorts of fun opportunities.

Did the villain that killed the party go unopposed? Did they "win" in  a sense? How does that affect the region or world? Is the villain the new supreme ruler, or at least a major player now? Are his lackeys openly raiding the countryside? Has the BBEG captured, enslaved, or brainwashed beloved NPCs? There are a lot of fun aspects to explore in this scenario.

Are the player characters remembered? Are they considered heroes, or reviled as villains?

If the PCs died from a trap, did something from that area, a magical artifact of some sort, fall into the wrong hands? Is someone using its awesome power for nefarious purposes, and if so, has anyone been powerful enough to challenge them?

The time jump lends itself to a plethora of exciting, future-imperfect, days of future past, dystopian shinanigans. Hell, there could have been an apocalypse in between death and rebirth, leaving the world a Mad Max-style wasteland with various factions vying for control.  Or you could flip it and create a perfect utopian future of peace and harmony. But how was this peace attained, and how is it maintained. There could be a dark secret waiting beneath the surface linked to how the player characters died in the first place. 


So, there we are. Six ways to keep the game going long after your players have died horrible, untimely deaths. They might even add a new aspect to the campaign you had never considered. Either way, they will at least make entertaining one-off adventures. 

Keep those heads up, and on. Weird things happen when you die.

Roll well, my friends,

+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic Adventurer-Level Patrons
Levi Davis


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