I have twice before had a game in which, for story reasons, I wanted to kill the entire party all in one go. Once because I needed the players to enter the afterlife, the second because I wanted the players to be resurrected a while later in the future. In a "traditional" rpg where the GM is god you can simply inform the party they have been killed, but dungeon world has rules that the GM must follow.

The first time I did this I had the players ambushed in the woods by bandits and ended up playing the game as the antagonist. Seizing every opportunity to make the situation more dangerous for the players. This rather predictably was not very fun. I violated the "be a fan of the players" rule and we ended up with a very long fight sequence. Most of the players rolled last breath multiple times and it was just a complete slog.

The second time I had better luck, instead of having the party killed by ordinary characters I set up a front and had a being of unspeakable power as the antagonist. This made the build up fun and at least made their deaths feel significant. This time we were also playing the dungeon world hack Freebooters on the Frontier. This makes two changes that are useful for me: It generally makes the players weaker, and it allows me to skip the last breath roll if their corpse is unrecoverable. However I still didn't feel like this was handled perfectly. The fight was still a little drawn out and I think the players were reasonably ticked that I gamed the system to prevent a last breath roll.

If I'd like to do this again in dungeon world, without the advantages I receive from the freebooters hack, how should I do it? Do I need to communicate to the party that I intend to kill them all for the story? How do I avoid the mechanics of the game keeping my players alive when the story requires them to die?

Maybe this story beat is just a bad fit for dungeon world, but I'm still interested in techniques that could make this less of a bad fit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is "Rocks fall. Everyone dies." not an option for some reason? \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Commented Feb 20, 2021 at 7:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nick012000 it's against the rules of Dungeon World \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Commented Feb 20, 2021 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik I disagree. If it otherwise follows the GM's agendas and principles, in the situations given above, that would be "making a hard move." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 8:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CaptainDelano but it's clearly not doing so in the question above. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 8:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik The way it plays out in the second and third paragraph of the question are not in keeping with the GM's agendas and principles, true. But both entering the afterlife (1st example) and being resurrected a while later in the future (2nd example) sound pretty fantastic and full of adventure to me. As Glazius's answer explains well, these scenes just shouldn't be played out, which seems to be where the problem happened. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 8:15

5 Answers 5


You're most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned-out story.

-- "Agenda", from the GM section on the repo.

And you've felt that friction trying to make it happen, haven't you? Walking into a scene with a point planned for how it's going to end, and you have all this power to deal damage and put people in spots to do it. You feel a bit of a bully, and you should.

The thing with Powered By The Apocalypse games is that they're not great for telling stories "by accident", such that they arise as a result of fixed game rules interacting in unpredictable ways without anyone's intent to create them. Or "by 'accident'", where you as the GM contrive without your players' input or knowledge to present rules in such a way as to force a particular outcome, regardless of what your players do. They're for telling stories on purpose, with the full participation of all involved.

So how do you get your PCs to walk into their own deaths on purpose?

If it's the premise, you don't have to play it out.

If the interesting part of your campaign is going to be working as agents of cosmic powers in the afterlife or as time-displaced heroes in a strange new future, you can just start there. Even level 1 characters don't start at the very beginning of their heroic journeys - they've set up cons, guided each other through the wilderness, heard stories about each other.

If it doesn't make sense for an agent of cosmic powers or the last hope from the distant past to start out as level 1, they don't have to. You know what a higher-level character looks like, just add some stat points and pick some extra moves. Equipment and money and magical gear aren't nearly as important to Dungeon World as they are to other games, so your starting loadout there is fine to keep.

If it's important that some things have happened in their past that will play forward into the adventure - you know, like how exactly they died - well, that's what adventure moves are for. They were called "love letters" in the original Apocalypse World, and honestly I like that name a bit better, but you can read up on them in the Advanced Delving chapter. They differ from other player-facing moves in that they don't have to flow out of a player's narration of what their character is doing; in fact, they don't have to be freely available to the players at all. They reflect a unique circumstance, assume some narration, and influence how events play out over a longer period of time.

So for example, here's something you might set Wizzrobe up with:

Wizzrobe, your clearest memory before it all went black is one of Dark Jazerain unleashing some tremendous arcane calamity into the world. Describe its form - flood, pestilence, invasion, destruction? Then roll +Int, whatever that turned out to be after you put the points into everything. On a 12+, pick 3. On a 10-11, pick 2 and the GM picks 1. On a 7-9, pick 1 and the GM picks 1. On a 6-? Well, pick 1, at least.

  • You sealed the source of the calamity securely away. Tell us what it was (a forbidden tome? a malevolent artifact? an ill-omened portal?) and what you did to it.
  • You didn't need to break your treasured staff to see it done. Tell the GM what kind of power sleeps in it, they'll come up with something neat to give you.
  • You didn't leave a scar on magic with the power you wielded.
  • You struck a definitive blow against the calamity, and it will fade with time.

Or, here's something you might just hand out to everybody as an ongoing concern.

The past isn't dead. It's barely even past, and you'd be surprised what you run into. Once per session, each of you can take one of the following options:

  • When you come across a traveler or enemy you've met before (your call), tell the GM of your last encounter with them. The GM will tell you how they've changed since then.
  • When you come across a marked grave, tell the GM who they were and how you knew them.

If it's a development in the middle of an existing campaign... you still don't have to play it out.

It might be a bit harder of a sell to people who are invested in their characters and the world as it exists in front of them, as opposed to just starting a campaign with that premise. But you'll still need to sell it to them, and you'll need to be willing to walk away from your idea if your players don't buy into it, because you're still telling this story on purpose.

The adventure moves are still how you'd make the transition to the new form of your campaign, because otherwise you'd be walking into a scene where your players could theoretically act freely with a plan for how it's going to end, and we've already established that's a bad thing. Adventure moves that you deploy in this way are at once easier and harder to write than they might be for a campaign setup. Easier because you've been playing in this world for a while and you know what kinds of things your players care about that you can place in the crosshairs of a "how you died" move. Harder because the adventure moves are part of the sell and you need to be more open to negotiation with your players about what's ultimately at stake.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are the by accident and on purpose in your 3rd paragraph in the wrong place? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ They seem to be in the right place (the second last paragraph also references telling stories on purpose) and that usage is consistent with what I know about Dungeon World. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 20:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM Have clarified "by accident" and included a version with sarcasm quotes, hope this clarifies things. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 20:59

You cannot do this if you will only accept the outcome that the party is killed. A central agenda point for both GM and players in Dungeon World is "Play to find out what happens!". If the outcome is predetermined, this tenet is violated. On a mechanical level, successes, failures and successes-at-a-cost are supposed to be interesting precisely because they shape the story and influence what will happen. If everyone's going to die anyway, what's the point in rolling Last Breaths?

Anytime you feel the urge to say "the story requires X" in Dungeon World (and most other "Powered by the Apocalypse" systems like it), you're violating this tenet. The rules were at one point extremely explicit about this, since when explaining the GM's agenda they said this twice:

You're most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned story. That one deserves repeating: you are not here to tell everyone a planned story. [emphasis in the original!] Don't ever plan a storyline. You do not know what will happen to the players' characters any more than they do. Your job is to portray a fantastic world, not provide a canned plot.

If you want to impose specific story beats in this system, you need to think about how to make the players complicit in making them happen and you need to accept that it might not happen at all. Nothing is written in stone before it happens, and if you reach a point where the players goal is "survive" and your goal is "kill their characters", you've gone very far away from how this system is intended to run. GM and players work together to create a fictional narrative, not against each other.

If you want everyone to die, don't try to make it so that they cannot escape death at all. Instead, try to offer them interesting choices where death - or at least probable death - is what they want to choose. The hero sacrificing themself so that others may live is a common trope for a reason - try to use it. And if there is an afterlife and resurrection magic, why not telegraph this to the players, showing that death is not the end? Let an NPC die and come back from the dead, telling tales of what they saw, and the player characters might get interested in exploring that on their own or at least be a little more accepting of death.

But do not resist attempts by the players to evade whatever situation you may set up - the fidelity of the fictional world comes first, and if their way of resolving the situation without dying is in any way reasonable (or even awesome!), you have to grant it. Being a fan of the characters involves rooting for them to live as well as wanting their eventual demise to be awesome and meaningful. A pre-planned death by falling rocks is neither.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Where in the rules are you quoting this from? It's a nice passage, but I didn't see it when I went looking for a pull quote, and I couldn't find it when I searched the rules github (for "canned"). Is this from an ancillary book? Is there a second edition I never heard about? Because I'd really like to read one or both of those! \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 3:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Glazius It appears the PDF I have sitting in my rules folder is for some reason an old beta version of the rules. The passage I quote is there in the initial Github commit and was later rewritten. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 11:13

Why not make death an option they want/need to take?

For example, let's say to complete their quest they need certain information. That information was known only to someone that is currently dead or maybe they were captured by some evil force and imprisoned in the afterlife (or some other place/plane they can only get once they are dead).

Lead them to various NPCs to reveal these breadcrumbs to them. Maybe they find a group that will help them die and then agree to resurrect them after an agreed upon period of time. Once they put all of this together, they broker a deal with said person/group, all drink poison (or whatever method of suicide works with the story), they accomplish their tasks in the afterlife, and are resurrected later to complete their quest.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Gives me Romeo and Juliet vibes, but with a whole party ;) But I also think that this is the best option. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 7:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Persuading the party to follow an NPC they like/trust into a dangerous situation" is something that should be feasible in almost any RPG; it's certainly worked for me in Dungeon World. And it can certainly work without any reliance on mechanics, purely via narrative means. But this answer would be improved by relating it to Dungeon World, e.g. how you'd use bonds, fronts, or whichever PbtA elements to accomplish it. \$\endgroup\$
    – recognizer
    Commented Feb 14, 2021 at 10:20

After totally agreeing with the excellent answers from Glazius and ACuriousMind, I'd like to offer my two cents on how I'd approach this if I had good ideas on an adventure on the other side of the black gates.

First of all, let's put one thing aside. This is not death. Not in the game-mechanical sense of Dungeon World. Death as in the last breath move is practically game over for the character. This is far from that. It's the beginning of a new adventure. So all the moves that apply to a deadly situation don't apply here. Sure, in the fiction it may look like death, but in the game, it is just the GM move put someone in a spot or separate them, which conveniently puts them beyond the gates.

Remember that you can make a move as hard as you like, as soon as someone misses a roll, or they look to you. So as long as it flows from the fiction, you can send them beyond just like that.

Fightgar, as you were just about to put your blade through the lich's undead heart, you accidentally hit and shatter the emerald amulet around its neck. Fiery green tendrils emanate from it in all directions, striking every beating heart as far as the eye can see. As your bodies crumble to dust, you all feel the darkness enveloping your souls. Then an eerie glow from beyond a cold mist fills your vision. You have no clothes that can protect you from such a chill that comes from your bone marrows. Wizzrobe, what have you read about this mist in the great library?

This may be the quick and dirty method of killing them without killing them. But still, it may even be better to prepare a move for something like this in advance, as a part of one of your fronts.

The crimson ballad

When you draw a breath in the crimson mist, you instantly hear the siren song of something beyond the black gates. You must follow it now, but as you do, tell us your greatest fear and roll+WIS. On a 10+ pick three, on a 7-9 pick one that you can bring with you:

  • your belongings, as useful as they were in the mortal world
  • your memories, more vivid than when you were alive
  • a friend of your choosing, united in death
  • a vision of what lies beyond, tell us what you saw and it will be true

On a miss, the GM will pick one for you anyway, but it may be something that you'd not rather bring with you.

So the basic idea is the same. This is not death, but adventure.

One important thing: Do not in any case shoehorn something like this at an unrelated time in the adventure. Have your ideas ready, but play them when it makes good sense in the fiction. Do not plan too hard, be ready to improvise. Your great adventure beyond the gates may never happen, and that is fine. :)


Think of it this way:

This particular kind of game is a bunch of prompts and levers to help you to (1)work together, (2)in the moment, to build compelling fiction.

This style of play still has room for prep work (e.g. coming up with interesting locations and characters outside of play, and mapping out how they fit together — your "fronts" or "threats") but you're not prepping what happens, because everyone is going to be working together to decide what happens (c.f. "play to find out what happens").

On top of that, this specific thing — the fate of the player characters: boom, dead in the ground, all together, finito, the end — is a very extreme outcome. Their physical state and survival is a major locus of narrative tension in all those combat scenes and adventures. Keeping that tension going without anyone suddenly, clumsily snapping the thread and de-facto ending the game isn't just the goal of the game mechanics, it's also the goal of the conversation — the other players won't let you.

Just forcing through won't work. (You may "win," but it's going to be ugly and tedious getting there.)

So, instead: have a different conversation.

Alright. Imagine you're all writers on Star Trek or something, and you want to make that episode where the Enterprise blows up and then everything gets reset over and over again by Time Particles until they figure out how to stop it from blowing up. And you walk into the writers' room and you say: "I've got it! The Enterprise blows up. Everyone's dead."

Okay. Aaand? You need to give them more or they can't actually help you write it. Even to just write that "Enterprise blows up" scene before you get to all the Time Particle stuff, they need more information or it's going to come out wrong — you're in "Surprise! The end… or is it? Haha!" first-act mode and they're in last-act "Well, this is the end, bring out the big guns and really earn it" mode. Doesn't work.

Holding your cards close to your chest for the sake of the cool surprise works when you're presenting the story for an audience, it doesn't work when you're co-creators who need to build the story together. (And, even then, your audience understands narrative cues, too, so when you kill the entire crew of the Enterprise five minutes into the episode, they absolutely know you that's just the hook and you're not suddenly going to roll credits and fill up the rest of the hour with a Kung Fu rerun.)

No, what you do is you sell your big twist as part of your pitch. "I've got it! The Enterprise blows up. Everyone's dead. And then it happens again and again and again." Now you're on the same page and you can work out the details together.

There are a lot of approaches you can take.

You could just tell them straight-up. This is what you want to happen, here's why, let's work together to build it. You might actually have an absolute blast with this because the players can suspend the usual stakes and work together to describe cool stuff about their dramatic-but-temporary demise.

You could hide your big twist a little bit and still get buy-in. Just say "Hey, can I take over the storytelling for a few minutes, I've got a big twist idea that'll be worth your while, I promise?" — Just be prepared for them to say "No." (Or "Why??")

You could even loop them into it more directly. One example is "Gamechangers" in (another PBTA game) Apocalypse World: Burned Over, which has everyone agree to a narrative or procedural twist (anything from opening up a new part of the setting to "we rotate GMs now" or "we change game systems") that's unlocked by players spending advances.

I honestly think the finer differences between specific choices aren't that important here. Just recognize this:

  1. You are defying the normal flow and goals of the fiction-building conversation at the table — that's a problem for the group (you pushing one way while the other players, unknowingly, push the other way) rather than just you vs. game mechanics.
  2. The problem will almost-magically disappear as soon as you and the other players get on the same page about this deviation from how the game normally works.

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