TPK. "Total Party Kill." An acronym usually preceded during gameplay by WTF, OMG, and GTFO. The TPK is generally seen as a failure, either on the part of the GM for making an "unbeatable" encounter, on the part of the players for misjudging an encounter, or both. But that's not what I'm here to talk about today; an actual TPK, regardless of how it happened or how it's deals with, often halts the game at least temporarily. I'm here to talk about the TPK as an abstract tool for the GM.
The best combats I've ever run, the ones that were remembered and retold countless times by my players, were those were a TPK was imminent. IT was obvious, glaring everyone in the face. Even I, the GM, doubted the party's chances, and I'm supposed to be a master. Yet, in the stories that get canonized in the lore of my players, these battles end not with the untimely slaughter of the party, but with all the PCs escaping alive. This is a technique, of which I am by no means a master, that I'd like to dub the "Near-TPK."
In most of my campaigns there is a major element of horror, and because of this I take note when my players are personally afraid. The Near-TPK is the best way by far that I've noticed to get the players scared. It hits them in a primal spot, gets their brain's survival instincts pumping adrenaline through their veins like nothing else. You can smell their fear.
But I digress. The reason the Near-TPK is so hard to master, or even perform, is because it cuts so close to a full TPK, which you (usually) want to avoid. So how does one go about performing a Near-TPK without crossing the line into TPK territory? There's no sure-fire method, but I can give you a few tips from my own experience:
- "Your Reputation Precedes You"
If the PCs don't know how badass the evil necromancer or the troll-king is, how are they going to know how easily they could get TPK'd? Remember, the Near-TPK is all about the perception of an inevitable TPK, not an actual TPK. In that light, building up an enemy to be essentially unbeatable, no matter its actual power, is one of the easiest ways to create a Near-TPK. Just make sure you don't create a paper tiger here; the enemy in question still needs to be tough as nails, but the difference between a tough encounter and a Near-TPK can sometimes just be the players' perception of the enemy, not the enemy itself.
- Power Differentials
This tip is related to the first in that it also deals with player perception. Sure, the troll-king is tough, but imagine how much more tough he'd look when compared to a horde of mooks. When the PCs a finished wading through a bunch of minions that go down in one of two hits, and the troll king is still looking chipper after three solid blows, he doesn't look tough, he looks like a TPK waiting to happen. The added advantage of this is that the mooks will most likely soften up the PCs somewhat, even if it's just by drawing their fire for a round or two. However, make sure you don't underestimate your mooks! The only thing worse than getting TPK'd by your archenemy is being TPK's by his nameless minions.
- Whittle Down Their Numbers the Nonlethal Way
Give them the feeling of allies falling like flies around them by using nonlethal methods of taking the PCs out of commission. In D&D, this can be accomplished by just whacking a PC into unconsciousness, though that can be risky since you might accidentally deal a killing blow. In D&D 3.5, the confusion spell is a great example, as it removes a PC's ability to reliably participate in combat while keeping the player engaged, watching over his or her PC and waiting for a chance to jump back in.
- Use Glass Cannons
Powerful enemies that deal a lot of damage but can be knocked out easily are a great tool if used properly. As a GM, you have to ensure that the glass cannon has a chance to properly blast the PCs once or twice before the PCs get a chance to effectively retaliate, forcing the PCs to sweat it while they try to get through whatever obstacle stands in their way. Be careful, though, to tone down the attacks the glass cannon is making once the players are already scared, as you could easily kill them if they take longer than expected to reach the glass cannon. Likewise, if they reach the glass cannon too quickly, don't panic; as a GM, you always get a second chance with things like this.
- Employ "Combat Aftershock"
The PCs have just slain the last of a horde of enemies and a taking a short breather. Now's the time to hit them with a second wave. Maybe the zombies get back up if not killed with holy energy; maybe the spellcaster is feigning death while her spirit attempts to possess a PC; maybe twenty more guards show up out of nowhere. This can take many forms, but follows the same basic principle: The PCs think they've achieved victory, and they haven't. Nothing says "inevitable TPK" like an enemy that just won't stay down.
While discussing TPKs, there's one final note that must be made. Every once in a while a combat ends with something that falls between a Near-TPK and a full TPK: The T–1PK. In this scenario, one PC is left standing (or running, as the case may be) while the other fall in glorious combat. In some cases, a similar situation may appear where more than one PC survives, but I'd hesitate to categorize that as a form of TPK, as that's more of a "partial party kill." While, superficially, the T–1PK may seem as halting as a TPK, if handle properly it can be quite rewarding. If you decide to carry the campaign onward, have the survivor arrive in a nearby town (or what have you) and tell the story of his or her fallen comrades. This gives the players of the dead PCs closure, and may get them thinking about what to play next. Additionally, it gives a perfect place for new PCs to enter, as they may be among the crowd listening to the harrowing tale.
In conclusion, I think it's only proper to note that a real TPK, unless you've got a damned good reason for it, is a serious problem. Most players pour themselves into a character and don't feel "right" re-playing a past build, and thus must trash that particular character sheet for good. Because of this, attempting a Near-TPK is like playing with fire, so I recommend practicing in one-shots and delves, where there's less attachment to a given character.
That said, and good (Near-)TPK stories out there?