It’s a constant threat, but every so often it happens for real: every single PC is dead, petrified, or possessed by demon lords.
That’s a TPK— a total party kill.
The good news is that, as a Game Master, you’ll robably see the TPK coming before the players will, simply because you’ve got more information. You’re seeing all the dice and stat blocks. But the bad news is that the players will be demoralized, and possibly angry with you or each other— and they’ll be looking to you, the guy at the head of the table, for guidance. You have the power to “fix” the broken table while making sure that the TPK stings a little so that the PCs might be more cautious next time.
For starters, give everyone a break once the last PC balls. Either end the session or at least send everyone to the kitchen for snacks. Some “Monday morning quarterback” analysis is inevitable and probably cathartic, but the players don’t need to do that in front of you. Besides, you’ve got work to do. You want consequences to matter at your table—that’s one of the great things about RPGs. But you also want your friends to have fun, and you don’t want them to stop playing. So you’re looking for a way forward that makes the TPK matter, but keeps the momentum and desire to keep playing alive.
Send in the Next Party: The stereotypical solution to a TPK is to have everyone make up new characters on a mission to find out what happened to the original group.
That gives the new group direction and a basic reason for cohesion. The players might be eager for a rematch—and it’s probably a good idea to soften the table’s stance on player knowledge/character knowledge in this instance so they don’t just repeat the fate of the first group.
When the second group succeeds and finds out what happened to the first group, the players can pick up the ongoing narrative where they left off. If resurrection is possible in your world, you can have the second group bring the first group back to life. It’s possible that some players at the table will like their new characters better than the old. Mix it up—let a composite group tackle the challenges of your campaign together.
Meet Your New Boss: If new characters don’t work with your story (or players balk at creating new PCs), it’s time to call in the cavalry. Have a powerful patron or mysterious presence somehow resurrect the PCs (or restore them from petrification, etc.) for some greater purpose. The resurrecting agent might be on the up and up, wanting the PCs to continue their campaign efforts (though you should make sure the players know they won’t always be bailed out). But the mysterious power might also have a divergent or sinister agenda, or demand tremendous compensation.
I Want Them Alive: Perhaps your villains were actually swinging for non-lethal damage on their last rolls, and instead of being dead the players wake up hours later in cells, stripped of their gear and forced to engineer a daring escape.
Let Failure Be Failure: If the PCs failed at a climactic moment, consider letting evil seize the day—let the players see the consequences of failure when they make up their 50 new characters. If mid-level characters suffer a TPK when investigating the actions of a demon cult, tell the players to show up at the next session with high-level characters.
Then reveal that those characters have recently been taken out of suspended animation by a ragtag band of humans— scattered remnants in a world utterly ruled by demons and their army of tortured slaves. The demons conquered and enslaved the world due to the actions of the cult the PCs couldn’t stop. Now your players get to see the consequences of their previous failure, and the new PCs have their work cut out for them.
Rewind: Sometimes accidents happen. Someone reads a rule wrong, you design an encounter that’s unfairly lethal, or the game otherwise goes off the rails. If a fundamental misunderstanding or error led to the TPK, don’t feel like you have to let it stand. Just hit the rewind button and play the encounter over again. You want decisions at your table to have consequences, but simple errors shouldn’t steal everyone’s fun.