Not literally, of course (unless yer talk’n about some undead campaign), but the ever-present honest-to-Istus looming threat of the real possibility that the Game Master (GM) will let it happen and the party is dead forevermore, no NPC white-wash-find-the-bodies-and-Raise-Dead, etc., etc.
Now, before I go further, this isn’t an original concept for moi. Entire product lines are predicated around TPK threats in encounters and advocating tough games. So, not blazing fresh territory here, at all.
But I have a Griffon Lore Games spin. This post is part one of The Campaign Imagination Engine blog post series.
Deaths and the Game Master
That section title sounds like a bad early-80’s sitcom. But I digress.
Before going into the TPK, let’s talk about the GM (DM in D&D speak).
What’s the main function of the GM in the fantasy Role-Playing Game? There’s a bunch of attributes we can slap on to that, but let’s prioritize. The GM:
Lays the foundation for the game by populating Non-Player Characters (NPCs), monsters and villains in a fantasy setting in order to:
Be the role-playing arbitrator of the story the PCs are telling in order to:
Be the conflict arbitrator of the conflict the PCs are creating
I’m talking campaign play, not off-the-shelf one-offs, living campaigns or gaming societies. Once the GM and the players are going to venture forth on their own by playing in a campaign world, well, that’s when the magic starts happening!
The GM Hierarchy of Giving goes like this—a campaign has a start. The GM determines where that start is based numerous things that need to be determined ahead of time. Many DMs purchase campaign worlds to help them with this start, some roll their own, just as many take a world and heavily modify it.
Once the campaign world is set and the game starts, the GM, at that point should be the arbitrator of the narrative the PCs are creating. For themselves. Sure, there may be an adventure, or adventure path tossed in, but GMs should rise above their own narrative desires and embrace the story-telling the players are creating.
And once that occurs, the GM really is the neutral third-party to the conflict going on at the game table. The GM has no skin in the game insofar keeping everyone alive so the players can have fun. Fun isn’t just winning at the game table. It’s heroic wish fulfillment. And a PC can’t be a hero if they don’t have a stake in the game and if they don’t have the consequences of failure.
And once that occurs—the TPK falls under the story telling auspices of the PCs. The GM is no longer responsible for that TPK.
The party did it to themselves.
It was a TPS: Total Party Suicide. Oh, sure, maybe the GM screwed up and flubbed the difficulty by accident. More than likely, the PCs in a game where they are the drivers of the story, failed at combined arms. Or just had some bad dice. Or, a combination of the two.
It took me years to understand the real role of a GM. Years of GMing, years of playing, years of playing MMO. Feedback from players, feedback from GMs.
Being the GM using a Campaign Imagination Engine means letting go of the story. Stepping back, and letting the players run with it.
The larger benefit of that philosophy is player deaths are a blip in the player’s world, not yours. Your shackles have been removed. You are now free to create encounters that have weight and meaning.
TPK Where the PCs Drive the Story Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
So, with an understanding of the GMs real role in player death, encounters that have a chance of killing PCs bumps up the game a rather large notch, doesn’t it? But if we have most combat encounters like that, aren’t we becoming too formulaic? Isn’t there some drama to the lead up to the Big Bad?
That’s just it. Once the GM lets go of the baby, the lead up to the Big Bad can be just as interesting as the Big Bad. Here’s a look at hard encounters leading up to a TPK encounter. Which is like, but dramatically different from, the resource draining encounter leading up to the only real challenge.
PCs have a talky-talk encounter that leads them to an area.
On the way, the PCs encounter some Bad Guys that are super motivated to prevent them from getting to that area. These encounters have the capability of killing some PCs. The NPC motivation: prevent PCs from going forth. This has nothing to do with draining 25% of a player’s resources. It has everything to do with preventing the players from getting from point A to point B.
Maybe Bob the Ranger dies on the way. Now the PCs have some handy information. The Big Bad can kill them. Heck, someone else could die on the way!
Arrival. The virgin is in the cage, waiting for darkest hour to be sacrificed. The Big Bad is angry. He has everything to both lose and win. So, he goes at it with everything he has. Now it’s the PCs who have everything to lose or win–this encounter has the capability of killing them all!
But, but, but, what if this is a neutral party with no paladin. Maybe they don’t care about the virgin, they care about how much money they can get when they bring the virgin back to the Baron, her father. Maybe the Big Bad sleuths this out and simply gives the PCs a greater reward to turn around and pretend they didn’t find the Big Bad.
Well why would the PCs simply not take the reward and then kill him, and then return the virgin, and cash in?
Because, the Big Bad is really a Big Bad. Your mercenary PCs know this. They came here for the money and they are now being offered to leave with the money. Maybe they really, really need the money to do something Super Important. The Super Important overrides the virgin’s desire to live and her father’s to have her back. Or maybe they remember how Big Bad Minion Ganked Ranger Bob. Maybe the players are looking over at Dead Ranger Bob’s player looking forlorn about not being at the Big Bad encounter.
Let’s pretend the PCs take the Big Bad up on his offer because they have bigger fish to fry.
And the Baron finds out and sallies forth to kill them all in an encounter that has a chance to kill them all.
Get it? The TPK this scenario was based on the GM not moving the story along but simply arbitrating PC role-playing:
The PCs KNOW there is a Big Bad coming up because his minions are the shiz-nit and are formidable, and difficult, opponents.
The Big Bad sits there enraged when confronted, but his goal is to sacrifice the virgin. That’s his motivation, and he’ll do everything he can to meet it, including humbling himself by offering a bribe. If not accepted, all bets are off. It’s do or die time–welcome to the chance of a TPK.
The Baron can dole out his own TPK. Bonus points if the Big Bad, still smarting over losing all that loot, drops the hints on what really happened–welcome to the chance of the TPK.
Ah! But maybe there is a paladin in the party. And the paladin needs that coin for the Big Bad his god cares about, and, wait for it, there is a ticking clock. Well then, that makes the Virgin Sacrificing Big Bad offer (VSBB) all that more interesting, does it not? Your PCs free actions in a long-running campaign have more narrative weight than all the Game of Thrones episodes combined.
The above scenarios are dramatically different from the typical module scenario because the typical module scenario is predicated on a narrative, rather than narrative choices.
TPK means never having to say you’re sorry, because it’s was never your story. It was a great run, PCs. Let’s try a 20-point buy on the new characters. Sorry not sorry.
But I Feel Bad Because Everyone Died
That’s a given and natural. There is a point, however, where that feeling is recognized, acknowledged and then dismissed. Your players will go through life without the actual, real thrill of rescuing (or not) the virgin from the VSBB.
They can, however, play D&D or some game where they can find that thrill in a campaign world.
And thus, I’ve concluded, that the GM that doesn’t let their player’s risk going the Ultimate Splat still has narrative control over their stories. It’s less about the PCs all died, and more about your baby, the story you are trying to tell, is now at an end. You don’t want to let go, so, as the GM, you aren’t going to put the players in a position where they can fail because their failure is just a reflection of you.
The Campaign Imagination Engine
This is Griffon Lore Games design philosophy. This is hard fantasy not just as defined by the wikis, but as the foundation to the wonderful difference between an RPG campaign and an MMO where death is simply a re-spawn. Curse of the Lost Memories presents a world in which the GM simply provides a structure for the PCs to start driving their heroic fantasies. There is structure, yes, but there is just as much opportunity to do the hard thing, because the PCs thought it was the right thing.
The best module adventures have the looming threat that the Game Master will let a TPK happen and the party is dead forevermore. Its more than the stakes, it’s a story. Their imagination, kick-started by the GM’s campaign start, made it all possible.
It’s the PCs story.