After the Heroes are Dead

What happens to your game after a total party kill?

Eventually, despite all your careful planning as a GM, the players will lose. You'll be looking round at the blank or grumpy faces of your players after a TPK, feeling maybe guilty, maybe pleased with yourself - but realising that you've just stopped the game. Dead.

So - you've killed the whole player party. Now what?

You could of course play a different game - either a wholly different game (Monopoly or poker instead of an RPG), play with different RPG rules (Traveller instead of D&D), or play in a different setting (d20 Modern instead of d20 Future).

But if you've got all the gear in place to play your preferred RPG, you probably don't want to ditch that game just yet.

Here are a few options to let your game carry on in one way or another.

New party
The traditional solution to a TPK is a new party. The players start making up new characters. This was once considered the normal thing to do, just as killing the whole party was once considered fairly normal.
Of course, early RPGs tended to have simple character creation rules, so this process often only took a few minutes. Now we have two-page character sheets as the norm, and many options for customisation, the new party solution can be more of an ordeal, less fun.

If you're creating a new party, you generally have two options for continued play:
  • New goals: a fresh game in the same setting
    • The new party is unrelated to the old party, and will pursue different stories and adventures.
    • This will take a fair bit of work on the part of the GM - depending on when in the game session your TPK happened, you may get away with having some introductory hook before you get to take a break till the next session.
  • Same goals: pick up the pieces of the previous failure
    • The new party is a rescue team, or rival explorers, following the same or similar adventure path.
Captured, not killed
The bad guys have hauled the defeated and unconscious heroes away to some stronghold, where they regain consciousness. From this situation, they can think about escape ... regaining their McGuffins (and other necessary equipment) ...

  • Means of escape: how do they get out again?
    • You'll need to think about how often guards patrol and jailers visit, how difficult the lock is to pick, and so on.
    • You'll need a layout for the dungeon or wherever it is the heroes have been incarcerated.
  • Interrogation: how do you resolve torture and questioning?
    • Do the rules you're playing with have a mechanic for interrogation, or will you have to make one up? Can you just roleplay it - letting the player decide how stoic his character is? This will depend on your players, but it's worth thinking about this before you spring such scenes on the players.
    • Careful with this topic - your players will have different levels of enthusiasm for scenes of this nature.
Capturing the heroes can of course move them deep into the enemy base - which may have been a goal of theirs all along.

The capture scenario works best if the bad guys would realistically feel the need to extract information from the heroes, hold them ransom, or similar. It's not realistic if the bad guys would gain more by killing their enemies once they were at their mercy.
Remember though - even some dumb animals may store their fresh meat for later: like the spiders in Middle Earth

A variant of the capture idea is that one of the heroes gets away.
Perhaps the sneakiest of the hero party isn't found during the imprisonment of the fallen, and comes round by herself later. This gives us a cinematic episode in which you can jump back and forth between the gloating bad guys, and the daring rescue attempt.

The heroes become ghosts or vampires and continue a shadowy existence.

  • Vile undead: the vile bad guys re-use the fallen heroes as undead! 
    • A few more vampires for the evil army are always useful.
    • The players then have the option of playing as evil undead (which can be great fun in itself) or trying to regain their lost humanity.
  • Tragic spooks: the woe of the restless dead!
    • The heroes are insubstantial ghosts, trying to influence the world to right the wrongs they left unfinished.
    • This also marries up with the vile undead version, in that some players may wish to portray their monstrous undead characters as victims rather than predators.
You'll need to make sure you have some sort of mechanical method to resolve conflicts between the vile nature of the undead, and the resisting human soul. You'll also need to decide how - if at all - the heroes can be returned to life once they've become undead.
In less fantastic settings, for "undead", you could insert "hypnotised agent" - where the players' characters are returned as evil clones, cyborg agents, or Manchurian Candidates under the control of the evil mastermind. The outcome is effectively the same.
You may find that your players differ on whether they want to play as evil, or try to return their characters to life in some way. If this seems likely, you might find the group would enjoy playing these  factions off against each other.

The heroes are dead, and go to their appointed place in the afterlife.

  • Resurrected: you are our only hope!
    • The heroes are returned to life by some future earthly agents, perhaps to fulfil their previous mission, or perhaps to take on a new threat. Think of King Arthur and his knights, who will supposedly return to aid Albion in its time of need. Perhaps ages have passed, and the world is utterly different - the consequences of the heroes previous failure. Or maybe only a few months or weeks or days have passed.
    • In fantasy games, magic may raise the dead. In sci-fi, maybe cloning, brain download, or cryogenics allows the heroes to live again.
  • Fight for life: the Seventh Seal effect
    • the heroes are given the chance to defeat Death in the afterlife, and must argue their case  to return to life.
You'll need some ideas about how the afterlife appears in your setting, what denizens there are, bureaucracy and rules, styles and themes. Are there different parts for heroes of different ethics and morals? Different cultures?

Dream prophesy
After the TPK, return the game to a prior point in play, and continue as though the previous deaths were some sort of vision or dream.
The morning before the massacre, with the heroes waking and preparing for the day ahead, is a good point to revert to, but you can pick any time you feel like - even just a few minute before.
One (or more) of the heroes had a dream or vision of the death of the whole party - and armed with that prophetic knowledge, they can try to avert disaster.

  • One visionary: the Final Destination effect
    • only one of the party knows about the vision / dream, and must try to convince the rest of the heroes about the danger ahead.
    • This requires the rest of the players to separate their player knowledge from character knowledge, and play their roles well. The dramatic irony of such a situation can be great fun to play with - but if your players aren't up for the challenge of role-playing ignorance, then this may fall flat. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
  • Shared dream: the whole party recalls the vision 
    • This is obviously as far more magical event, and will tend to elicit proactive cooperation to avoid the TPK.

These method work well if the party were heavily overpowered - they get a chance to plan ahead and try again.

Death in action
Planning and preparation is required for all of the suggestions above - but you can leave that preparation quite generic until you need it.
For the Captured scenario, for example, you only need to have a sketch of generic dungeon or jail, with a few notes on guards and locks - these sorts of things can be handy whether or not you kill everyone!

Of course, it's a good idea when the TPK happens to talk about what your players want to do. It's no good trying to carry on if the players aren't on board, and it's no good trying to change the tone of the game suddenly in the middle of play - making them all spectres, or going on the spirit journey through the afterlife - if the players aren't up for that.
Remember as well to be sensitive to players personal beliefs, as far as you know them. It can be helpful to reiterate that you're playing a fictional game, not exploring religious truths.

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