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I've been planning out an idea for a campaign to run with a group that would consist of both veteran and new players, and I'm unsure if I should follow a particular plot point. I would start the party off in some kind of tavern and there would be a ruckus about how a different village was being raided and "oh the humanity, won't some strong, handsome group of adventurers go and save them? (hint hint)".

On the trip to the village, the party would have a couple of encounters with low-level monsters, goblins and the sort, to help them find their group dynamic, before I reveal that the village is being destroyed by a goddess-like figure (the Big Bad Evil Gal) and her group of demon minions, culminating in an unavoidable TPK. At the very end of the session, I would describe how they are pulled down into the underworld, where a demon asks for their names, confirming that the campaign is not over. The plot would continue from there, the party collects McGuffins and eventually is put back in the normal world and imprisons the BBEG.

Is an unavoidable TPK a viable way to start a campaign?

The linked question is about making a TPK fair, but I'm asking about whether it's viable to use a deliberately unfair TPK in the first session without demoralizing my players. I believe that without the TPK, the party won't be motivated enough to go after the BBEG, whereas if they were insulted and "killed" by her, they would want revenge. However, my concern is that the party would be demoralised by the TPK at the start and feel unwilling to continue, especially the new players.

Some alternate options I've considered are simply pulling the party into the underworld from a nearby hill where they see the devastation occur; or to let/make the players approach and have the BBEG tell them how puny they are before smashing them with a big hammer or similar. Or some other option to form a middle ground that still makes them want to get revenge, but doesn't involve them "dying" in the first session. If possible I'd like to try and make it a surprise, but if I have to explain it to them at the start of the session, so be it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Highly related, in particular, my answer there probably applies somewhat to your question here: Creating a campaign that ends with a TPK by design \$\endgroup\$ Nov 17, 2022 at 18:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this is really a duplicate; merely tangent. The other question closes with "I am not asking if a TPK can be fun." Which seems to be what this question is more focused on. However, if re-opened, I'd still vote to re-close it as opinion-based (although I would have a frame challenge answer). \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Nov 17, 2022 at 18:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I'm not sure it does. That question is about the ultimate fate of the characters in their story, whereas this is just the first session of what will hopefully become a longer campaign, and the "death" would just be the first hurdle in the adventure. After that, the underworld is theirs to explore and cause havoc in. However, I do agree that railroading the characters into their "deaths" is not so desirable, even if its just for the one session to start the story going \$\endgroup\$
    – voidUpdate
    Nov 17, 2022 at 18:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ 1/2 Groody the Hobgoblin mentions Scourge of the Slave Lords, where the party will be captured and stripped of all their positions. At least in the A1-4 megamodule version, there is some commentary to the DM about why this happens, how to play the scene, and how to manage player expectations. Ifusu mentions Tyrant's Grasp, but I don't know that one... \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Nov 18, 2022 at 0:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ 2/2 There is a 2nd edition module that comes even closer to your premise. It actually begins with a TPK in the first encounter, and then resumes with a different set of characters seeking to avenge the first party. If it would be a useful answer to you, I can quote some of the commentary from that and from Scourge. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Nov 18, 2022 at 0:24

11 Answers 11

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Demoralization Is A Real Concern

Few things can demoralize a group more than a TPK or a near TPK. To put such an event in the first session (or very near the beginning) of a game signals a lot to your players, and none of them, in my opinion, are good. It signals that you're willing to put them up against vastly superior forces and follow through on the consequences. It signifies (and trust me, they'll know) that you're willing to contrive or railroad these situations. It will signal that you're telling a story into which they have little input, control, or agency.

None of these signals do good things for morale, over and above the morale effects of the TPK.

You are very right to be concerned.

This Is A Bait-And-Switch Premise

There is a fine line between a plot twist and a bait-and-switch, but I think you're on the wrong side of the line, here. What you're offering out loud (and through the initial arc of travel to the village) is a conventional heroic campaign where the characters face surmountable challenges, or at least get ample warning when they're getting in over their heads.

Once they reach the village, there's a radical shift in tone where the characters are annihilated without warning or recourse, and now all of a sudden they're in the lower planes.

The radical shift in the game, its position very early in the game with no foreshadowing, and the railroad nature of it are all signs of a bait-and-switch. You're promising one thing, but delivering another.

This almost never goes well, in my experience.

How To (Maybe) Fix This

What you have, basically, is a heavily scripted prologue to a game.

Be open and honest with your players. Give them the details on the game you want to run, and see if they are interested. If they are, great! You can probably even skip all the stuff leading up to the TPK and just start after that. You save time, your players are on board, you start at the correct moment, everything is great.

If they are not interested, well, you've at least avoided a potential disaster.

Will your players be interested in this? No one can tell you this except your players. It's highly subjective. Some groups will buy into things like this, some won't, and it's highly dependent on the specifics of what you pitch and the taste of the individual players.

But I would argue strongly in favor of talking to your people.

How To Motivate

But your real concern seems to be motivation.

There are lots of questions on the site about motivating players and characters. Have a browse, and if none of them are suitable, you can (and in that case, should!) come back and ask that specific question-- how do you motivate your players to tackle the Big Bad.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "How to maybe fix this" - I skimmed the answers to see if anyone had approached it the way I would, and you nailed it here. Manage expectations on the front end, and you won't have to manage disappointment on the back end. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 17, 2022 at 19:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the "Scripted Prologue" Option: This could allow for the newer players to get to play higher levels (maybe 5-6 vs 1-3 when they awake in the underworld? To give a small hook into upcoming power (without penalizing off-meta builds or anything of the like: it's just temporary) \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 18, 2022 at 20:16
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The way you've set this up, the PC players have no agency in shaping when/what/how they engage with the BBEG in the initial encounter. Suppose as soon as they see the village being destroyed, they turn tail and book it out of there; is the party still all dead? If so then this is just the intro narrative and not a part of the game play since there is, in effect, no player agency, in that scenario.

Beyond the straightforward lack of player agency in this scenario, springing character death on the players subverts the effort put into character creation (mechanics and background) by imposing a radical paradigm shift in the first session.

I would be more explicit. Explain that the overall campaign arc is one of having been killed and fighting your way back to get revenge and returning from the underworld. Let them make characters with that arc in mind. You might still use the initial conventional encounters as tutorial sessions for the new players in your group. Similarly you might play out the TPK encounter provided there are consequences for the PCs that depend on what/how they do; going into such a foregone battle, but still having potential downstream effects is a playable scenario.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with your first paragraph, however I may not have been clear enough in regards to your second one. The players would still be playing as the characters they created, just in a different environment to what they may have been expecting \$\endgroup\$
    – voidUpdate
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @voidUpdate then it's not really "death", or it's a very weak version of "death". At the very least, they'll be operating in the underworld instead of the real world, so that will radically alter how the characters can have pre-established relationships with NPCs \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @voidUpdate: the other side of that concern is "I surprised my players by moving the campaign to the bottom of an ocean at the end of the first session; they're still the same characters, just in a different environment". If the players had known that they'd be underwater, I guarantee you there would have been different decisions made during creation. \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @minnmass I wouldn't do that either, for related reasons. If you're worried about metagaming, you could be vague about this: "early in the campagin your characters will be moved to a radically different environment". \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dave if that's metagaming, then it's a good metagaming. Knowing enough beforehand to make character that's enjoyable for me to play is a must. Heck, if we'll take it to the extreme, even knowing your own rolls for abilities before you choose all of the starting options like class and race can be called metagaming. Yet everyone who rolls is doing it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:28
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First, consider running a Session Zero. You don't have to give away your plans, but two general topics of discussion would be character death and railroad vs. sandbox. I'll come back to these.

Risks:

  1. Lack of player agency.
  2. Perceived unfairness.
  3. Players believe death "isn't real" and won't take it seriously in the future.

Upsides:

  1. Characters learn that opponent is dangerous, and players learn that some opponents can't be beaten without proper preparation.
  2. Cathartic release of realizing they're "not dead yet".

The GM's roll is chief storyteller. Stories can involve setbacks. Of course, in a game, setbacks can be discouraging. But in stories, accomplishments that come after setbacks are the exciting ones. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if the heroes defeat Thanos at the end of Infinity War, that could be a very enjoyable story, but it is also a very different story, and it removes the pathos and triumph of Endgame. Whether one is better than the other is debatable, but as a GM asking players to commit months or perhaps years of play to a campaign, you should get a sense of what they would be happy with. Players should also realize that they won't all want the same thing. If two-thirds of your players want character death to be a real threat and one-third don't, the one-third that don't are going to have to choose whether to go along with it or find another group.

The lack of player agency is tricky, and one thing to discuss in Session Zero is the railroad vs. sandbox approach. Realizing that this is a continuum, and few adventures fall at the extremes, there is a tradeoff between storytelling potential. In a sandbox, players may have more agency, but a series of disconnected vignettes may not be very satisfying. A railroad gives the story the most structure at the cost of play agency, and at some point they may just prefer to watch a movie.

You ask about risks, but I do see upsides to this opening, the most important being learning that some threats are insurmountable, and will require planning and preparation to pull off successfully. Again, this is a question of what the players will enjoy that should be addressed in a Session Zero. You could throw 1st level characters up against an ancient dragon. If this comes without warning, it would be grotesquely unfair. But if you give the characters a way to find out how serious the threat is and avoid the encounter, or to beg or bribe their way out of a TPK, that could be a very enjoyable experience for the players.

How to Mitigate the Risks

There is no specific reason why your story is a bad story. It may not appeal to all players, but some will enjoy it immensely. There are several ways you can handle this, but again, do start with a Session Zero where you discuss some of the issues, while avoiding spoilers.

Skip the session and just go straight to the afterlife

Getting the story going is always hard, and you've described a very generic opening (sitting in a tavern, "Oh won't someone help us, etc.") that from your own description even you don't find all that exciting. Why not skip it? The characters open their eyes and are being questioned by a demon. Memories start to come back to them. You could provide memory fragments to the players ahead of time--everything up to just prior to the BBEG. Then you could narrate the confrontation and the characters' demise.

Tell the Story In Media Res

Begin as above with the characters waking up in the afterlife. Then, instead of having them remember what happened, have them play through the adventure, knowing that it will lead to their doom.

As an alternative, you could have them wake up in the afterlife, have them remember (not play through) most of the events leading up to finding the BBEG, then give them a choice--do you want to fight a losing battle to see how powerful your opponent is, or do you want me to just narrate it for you? Some players may very well choose to play through it, even knowing it is a foregone conclusion.

Don't Wait for the Reveal

If your Session Zero indicates your players are fine with dying, and don't mind occasional railroading in the interest of storytelling, you could play it the way you've described, leading to the TPK. However (a) don't let the fight drag out, and (b) have them wake up in the afterlife immediately. A BBEG may have multiattack or legendary actions, and any one of their actions may very easily kill a low-level character. This fight could end in one round. Don't drag it out. And then, don't let the session end and wait for the next session for the big reveal (even if MCU could let a year pass between Infinity War and Endgame). Have them open their eyes in the afterlife and take if from there.

Good luck!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Starting in the afterlife is in fact how the Pathfinder Adventure Path "Tyrant's Grasp" begins. The PCs are immediately killed in an event that destroys their entire village so suddenly that they simply wake up in the afterlife. In that, it also kind of serves as the reason that the group is adventuring together - something "went wrong" when they died, and it makes sense for them to stick together while they figure that out. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben S.
    Nov 19, 2022 at 2:16
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The light is not worth the candle here

Is it viable? Yes. It can be done. Is it a good idea? No. It is a weak idea.

Can it be done?

There is historic precedent for campaigns that start out with the characters being defeated, going all the way back to first edition with Scourge of the Slave Lords, where the characters are captured on page 19 of a 128 plus maps adventure. Apparently, some old-schoolers even liked and enjoyed that adventure.

What are the risks?

Many players however detest plot railroads where the outcome of an encounter is a forgone conclusion, and with good reason; it strips them of their agency, which is all a player really has in the game, and it smacks of a wannabe-novelist DM who instead of collaborative storytelling is using the players as a captive audience while they are telling their story.

Players also universally (and unsurprisingly) hate it when they are slaughtered or otherwise decimated without a fighting chance. So the risks here are real, and straightforward: demoralizing your players, killing their enjoyment of the game, all to "motivate" them. You risk that they end up not having no ill feelings towards the big bad, but rather towards you, the DM, after pulling this off. In the worst case, they might even not want to continue playing.

Especially the new players, who probably come to the table with the expectation of playing heroic adventurers and having fun might be traumatized by such an opening.

Players own their reactions

Keep in mind that the player's desires and motivations are theirs. You can offer experiences, but how they react is up to them. Trying to dictate what they must want to do, like revenge, is outside your control as a DM. Don't try to force it.

If you really think that you need a pre-story to play out as you want, narrate the whole thing. Don't give players the false hope that they can influcence something. Just open with the entire made-up story of how their characters are slaughtered, pulled into hell, and start from there.

You have no need for this

It also is entirely uneccesary to do this. You write

I believe that without the TPK, the party won't be motivated enough to go after the BBEG

And that is just plain wrong. There are many, many ways to motivate the players just fine to go after the antagonist without needing a total party kill. Countless campaigns are testament to this. You can capture someone that is dear to them, you can have encounters with the survivors of the evil one's attack in all their misery, you can have things start low key with bad goons doing bad things that need to be stopped and escalate from there organically.

It is better to give the players options on why their characters might want to engage with the adventure, so they can find a reason that speaks to them. This is why many published adventures offer a menu of plot hooks to pull the players in. Yes, you can kill of someone dear to them, or humiliate them; but you also hint at have secrets to uncover, a powerful item the players could win, or treasure or titles offered by the authorities to those who stop the threat.

Lastly, Sauron in the Lord of the Rings is scary, not because he steps in on page one to kill a couple of hobbits, but because you never get to meet him. An antagonist of whom they hear terrible things in hushed voices over months of play, of whom the most scary opponents they face are scared themselves, builds a lot more tension for the encounter at the end, than one that bested them on day one, when they were hapless beginners.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer, but you might improve it by focusing in on the impact this has on the new players also, given that the DM has a mix of veterans and new players. Up to you. You already got the +1 from me. 😊 \$\endgroup\$ Nov 17, 2022 at 19:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ You've left me with the kinda fun idea of attaching this to an existing plotline, where a character near-and-dear to the player's hearts has been kidnapped by demons and dragged into the underworld, and the players need to find a way there, fight or talk their way through that hellish realm, perhaps fight a major demon and rescue their friend. The ways and means of doing that are up to the players. Perhaps they seek out learned scholars who tell them that the dishonored dead end up there, so they need to find a way to die dishonorably... Or perhaps there's a secret gate somewhere. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rowan
    Nov 18, 2022 at 8:36
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Let the players use the pre-TPK session as "practice mode"

Others here have suggested that you treat the pre-TPK part of the story as the semi-interactive cutscene that it is, and then start the actual gameplay afterward, which is a pretty good suggestion for all the reasons. However, you mentioned that some of your players are new to the game (and maybe TTRPGs in general), so that pre-TPK section could be put to another gameplay use. If you tell the players that their defeat and death is guaranteed at the end of the opening, then to an extent, nothing they do during the opening matters. That could be demoralizing, but it can also be liberating, because it takes away the fear of consequences for "messing up". Hence, I would suggest that you make it clear that this is the players' opportunity to practice and learn the mechanics and flow of the game without worrying about mistakes or consequences, because they're all going to die anyway no matter what they do. Then, once they die, proceed with the other suggestions and start the "real" story in the underworld.

For bonus points, keep track of some notable cool things the PCs did or said before the TPK and figure out ways for those to have noticeable impacts on the material plane when they finally return. For example, if one of them goes out with a particularly good one-liner as their last words, you could let that phrase become a rallying cry for "the resistance" that they eventually meet up with later.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great idea and the TPK would also be a good point in the story to allow for changing classes or abilities, in case some of the new players want to do so. After all, who’s to say you can’t be reborn in a different body? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Nov 18, 2022 at 8:22
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This is viable.

That's not saying much, though, since basically any setup is a viable start to a campaign (I have a pre-gen adventure sitting around somewhere where the party wakes up in the BBEB's dungeon and have to try to get back to the tavern).

So, what are the risks?

I see four major risks:

Nothing is unavoidable.

It's possible that the party won't take the lead. It's possible that they'll see the scale of the invasion and bolt. It's possible that some of the PCs will bolt after the first one or two die. Heck: they might even get preternaturally lucky and take out enough of the demons to turn the tide!

This might not be fun.

D&D, ultimately, is a game that's supposed to be fun for all involved. A TPK - especially a forced one - can be a real downer; starting the campaign with it may leave a bad taste in your players' mouths. OTOH, waking up in the underworld might be enough to reverse that. I don't know your players, do I can't guess where on the spectrum from "this is horrible" to "this is amazing" they'll fall.

This might be frustrating.

D&D, ultimately, is a game about agency. Losing agency is (IME) generally viewed as a frustrating thing. It's bad enough when an NPC lands a charm or fear effect on a PC, but a forced resolution to an encounter is another level of loss of agency. If thee PCs can't run away and can't win, the players may just leave the table.

The amount of trust the players have in the DM will weigh heavily on how much said DM can get away with when it comes to potentially-frustrating events.

This might make your world's cosmology weird.

In many versions of D&D (and related RPGs, like Pathfinder), the afterlife one reaches varies depending on one's alignment. Having all of the PCs wake up in the same afterlife may make that cosmological assumption invalid, which may have other weird side-effects in your world. Or, maybe not (eg., maybe they wake up in a processing center that's just not talked about because most people don't know it exists, or it's only for those who died under particularly weird circumstances or something).

This is the vaguest problem, to be sure.

This GM's Recommendation

I like the idea of starting in the underworld, even though I have some reservations. My personal suggestion is to simply narrate the defeat of the PCs ("as you come within sight of the hamlet of Everything's On Fire, you're surrounded by the minions of BBEB; you fight valiantly, but are ultimately no match for her overwhelming power and fall one by one. <beat> You wake up seated on a comfy couch...".

Assuming your heart's set on actually running the fight, my suggestion is to reveal the "this will be a TPK" bit right after the first fight with the minions starts. I would be clear and explicit that "there is no way for your characters to beat enough of the minions to run away, let alone turn the tide of this invasion; however: your characters will get boons depending on how many of the minions you defeat". I don't know what the boons would be, not least because they'd be pretty campaign-specific; they don't need to be earth-shattering or anything, but they should be at least somewhat meaningful (especially either in the first couple of levels and/or in the BBEB fight at the end).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the answer. These are good points, and I was considering a few of them. Do you think it would be easier to say during character creation "your character died at some point, and you are now in the underworld, add something to that effect to your backstory", and then to add some motive for revenge to the plot, have relatives appear every so often that were killed by the BBEG or similar? \$\endgroup\$
    – voidUpdate
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ This mimics what I would have answered as well: narrate the battle and start in the afterlife. The DM can use the afterlife to do the same function as the tavern and minor skirmishes they had planned previously. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @voidUpdate: yes; I might run it as "your party was killed by minions of the BBEG, and the campaign will start with their waking up in the underworld", to keep the flavor I think you're looking for. (nb.: I do tend to agree with others that "the BBEG killed me" is unnecessary for the players to target them, even in a "revenge" scenario: "they looked at me funny" is often enough, IME, to make the players want revenge against the BBEG) \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:44
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The major risks that I see with this is that the players will feel a) betrayed, and b) like you wasted their time

Running an encounter for which the outcome is determined is advance makes pretty much everything the players do during that encounter meaningless and takes away all player agency, the fact that this outcome is a TPK is just adding insult to injury, your players will very likely feel demotivated, betrayed and consider the encounter a waste of time, you just killed them all in a cutscene after all. If the TPK is supposed to be unavoidable, then this makes the entire session you’re planning just an extended campaign hook, I would just treat it as such and narrate to the players their character going to the village, putting up a heroic fight but eventually succumbing to the overwhelming enemy forces and being pulled into the underworld, then start the campaign for real from there.

If you really, REALLY want to do it your way, then you have to tell the players what you’re planning in advance and get their buy-in. I have seen this sort of thing done successfully (very few times) and the thing those instances all shared was that the DM made it very clear to the players that the first session is intended to be a sort of prologue to the story, that will end in the death of the PCs and then the campaign would begin for real the next session.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 yup, been there got the t-shirt and left the table. Fickle murderous DMs are the worst. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Nov 21, 2022 at 17:29
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Fighting a losing battle -- like, a multi-hour battle where you try your very best, use every trick you have, and still inexorably lose -- is no fun. (I say this based on experience.)

If you do that to your group on the first session, the risk is they'll notice they're not having fun in your game and they won't come back.

If you had to do this, my advice would be to narrate the battle. You could even actually say: "Okay, there's a cutscene here. You guys get in a fight and you all die." I've had narrated cutscenes happen to me once or twice, and it was a bit annoying, but much less annoying than attempting to play it out would have been.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was essentially going to by my answer. The Pathfinder Adventure Path Tyrant's Grasp handles a session 0/1 TPK pretty well with a cutscene. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Nov 17, 2022 at 23:38
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The best thing to do is to narrate what you consider to be the first session and treat it as back story. In fact, make a hand out of it.

As others have pointed out, bait and switch campaigns are bad in the eyes of many players.

Also, they invest in the plot in the first session. If everything they do in the first session is for naught, they will likely feel that it will be the same way in the rest of the campaign.

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Your players (probably) won't like it

If you open the campaign by tricking your players, they will be annoyed at being tricked, and they will probably spend the next few sessions trying to avoid being tricked again.

You are undermining your future self

Your players might not take threats seriously if they think it's all a "supposed to die" vignette.

My suggested improvement

Keep the same story, but start in the afterlife. The only change is that the characters arrive in the afterlife alone, and need to explore to find the demonic dealmaker. The first thing that happens is the characters wake up in hell, with no memory of how they got there. As they try to figure out where they are and what to do, the memories start to come back - the tavern, the goblins, whatever. Periodically give a prompt, and ask the players how their characters handled that scenario. They don't need to roll anything, just say "I charged the goblins head on" or "I hid in the bushes and picked them off with my bow", that sort of thing. Make sure to give each player a turn or two. You might give prompts like "A goblin managed to hurt you in the fight - how did that happen and what did you do about it?" or "You were at a tavern - why?".

By the time they get around to remembering the town being attacked by demons, and realizing that they died, the players should have the hang of it. At that point, you can ask them "what did you do?", and then tell them one by one how they died.

This way, your players don't feel cheated, but still feel like the BBEG killed their characters and want revenge. It's also just a low stakes way to let your players show what their characters are like without any dice getting in the way.

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Most new players will not like it.

I want to emphasize that you really should think about the new players here.

Maybe you know them very well, and you know they will enjoy it. But most likely, they expect a standard adventure. They expect standard plot twists, like our employer betrays us, but we fight our way out of the trap.

From my experience, DMing for new players I highly suggest that you at least ask them what they kinda expect from the game. And then you can see if they would be onboard. You can steer their expectations a bit, but also adapt your game.

(To answer the question directly, the risks are that your new players will not like it, and may even be turned off from Role playing games)

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