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A campaign I was GMing in the past abruptly stopped because of stuff IRL, with characters trapped in a tower in the center of a city that is being destroyed by a huge demon. When the group gets back together, I want to make a side-campaign about warriors of a neighbouring empire rushing to save what is left of the city. In the end, I want players to save their characters from the main campaign and die, reclaiming control over them.

My question is: how do I make a finale to score a TPK, whilst making it look like the TPK wasn't planned?

The setting is a dieselpunk-ish city, magical crystal and light-magic based empire. Invasion of empire's dragoons to save their neighbours from army of darkness that emerged from within.

System: homebrewed tactical role-playing war game (think XCOM) based on FUDGE.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If my GM did a Planned TPK on us how we'd react as players would depend. If we do not know (but it eventually leaks anyway: we'd all be p**d about him and might not necessarily want to have him be the GM. If we know about it and know why, we will go over the top hand have *FUN. \$\endgroup\$ – Remi Letourneau Jun 15 '14 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ My problem with this question is that ultimately in any RPGs that I've ever had a good time playing, the decision of whether to live or die is ultimately in the hands of the players that control the PCs and not the GM. If you give PCs insurmountable odds, they should have the choice to walk away from the situation. In fact, if they don't have a choice and just fight, they aren't even being brave, any more than a marionette is brave to walk around a puppet-stage. \$\endgroup\$ – NotVonKaiser Jun 20 '14 at 3:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why do you want TPK? I mean, instead of just retiring any surviving new characters, sending them off to a different plane, or however the game actually goes. \$\endgroup\$ – WakiNadiVellir Jan 21 at 12:01
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Tell them that the side campaign ends with an epic, glorious, TPK. Making your players co-conspirators in the shape of the finale means that they will help you drive it to that epic conclusion.

There's no value, in the scenario you describe, to making a TPK a surprise or look unintentional. Save the energy that would be spent on smoke and mirrors designed to trick your friends, and invest it instead in making it awesome with your friends. Make those deaths glorious and inspire song, but do it together.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You can even foreshadow it in the fiction. Throw a gypsy fortuneteller or something. "The Mark of Kibosh is upon this group: there is nothing you can do to avoid it. The gods have spoken." "What does that mean?" "It means you're all going to die. Tonight." They can have their characters disbelieve her as much as they want, but finally you reach that glorious moment when the tower is collapsing and there's no way to make it out alive, and one of them gets to say: "It's just like that old gypsy said!" \$\endgroup\$ – As If Jun 14 '14 at 21:27
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As a fellow GM, what I usually do when I want to do something like this (which isn't often!) is present the group with an impossible choice in three steps. Let me explain.

A small disclaimer

In my opinion, players and groups are roughly divided into two broad groups: (1) plot-oriented players; and (2) system-oriented players. The solution below is targeted towards plot-oriented players, for whom it should (read: will) be very satisfying. This will not work as well for system-oriented players, who will probably enjoy a very challenging boss fight more, at the end of which they manage to free the old characters just before succumbing to their terrible foe. So plot lovers, this is for you.

Step 1: The Setup

Something the group has done in the past (something that can have been inserted into the campaign for just this purpose, but should never be obvious) comes back to bite them in the ass. It's their fault, and they know it. At the point in which you reveal this, make sure to make them feel guilty about it.

A few days after rescuing that important-NPC-who-has-an-important-piece-of-information- they-need-to-enter-the-city from a group of maddened monks (who would do anything to keep the group from releasing the prisoner), the group thinks they have found the great demon's hiding place: a hut deep in the local marsh.

They storm the hut's proverbial gates, only to come across the rescued prisoner again, now appearing in his true form: the great demon's boss, who had just sacrificed a dozen innocents to summon his army in order to wipe out the last shreds of resistance from the city and further his conquest to further lands.

Shocked, they realize they have played right into the (smaller) great demon's plan, and have in fact unleashed a terrible horror upon the realm. They have possibly doomed the entire world. They have additionally personally massacred everyone in a monastery of a good and nice god of light, who has kept the demon in chains. The monks were maddened by his dark and terrible influence.


Step 2: The Buildup

Good so far? Onwards!

Now, the next step is to guilt-trip the group. You want them to suffer for their actions. You want them to feel very guilty, but also very angry at the BBEG and\or accomplices. This step is crucial for the third and final step to work.

The BBEG hurts people they love, or on whom they are sworn to protect. He intends to destroy their empire next. Perhaps he makes it personal and kills off important NPCs in the group's (or, if appropriate, in individual characters') past. All of this is their fault, and you should have them feel terrible about it.

(I know that this sounds a bit brutal, but my experience shows that players more often than not greatly appreciate the emotional stimulation, if done in good taste.)

Having escaped from the hut (more or less in one piece), the group decides to leave the city to visit an old and sacred church a few days' travel from the city, where they have stopped to rest on the way to the city a week earlier. They are close friends (possibly students, children, admirers, etc.) of the kind and elderly bishop who runs the church.

One of them fell in love with a local priestess. Another spent the previous stop there browsing through their huge library and vowed to come back some day. Another spent his previous days there eating to his heart's content of the many delicacies they have served him. Also, they were on the verge of finding a cure for cancer. In short, they are extremely emotionally invested (and battered, from the previous step) in this church, and are anxious to return there.

Upon their arrival, they discover the halls barren and empty, and are instantly aware of a pungent, sickly smell they can't quite place. After exploring for a short while, they arrive in the main hall of the church to find the many residents of the church in cages. Some have been lashed to death, and some have died of thirst or of grief. They all look sickly and wan. They find the bishop, who makes them swear to kill off the demon, no matter what it takes, before finally dying.

Then the lesser great demon shows up and sends goons to stall the group while he burns the church down. They manage to escape just in the nick of time. They feel somewhat depressed but more set than ever to kill of the demon.


Step 3: The Sacrifice

Having done all of this, now you have to bring the group to sacrifice themselves for their higher purpose: namely, killing the BBEG. Secondary goals (such as releasing the old group from captivity or rescuing them from certain death) should be done either before the battle, or just after it or in the end of it, with their dying collective breath. This makes it very rewarding for the players, who have given up their lives to save the world and get revenge, and nicely ties everything off.

Returning to the city, they discover the actual location of the great demon's hideout, and make their plans to attack it. Once they're inside, the find the great demon and start fighting. He's incredibly powerful, and they quickly realize they can't hope to defeat him straight on. However, next to them is a room full of barrels filled with black powder that has been amassed for ritual or warfare use.

So they try to hold him off while the resident rogue works on opening the door. In the meanwhile, one of group mysteriously disappears. Finally, after having suffered a few losses, they manage to barge into the room with the barrels only to find it to be a dead end. They can't get out of there, and now the demon blocks the door. Cue flashback to the old bishop saying the god of light watches over their souls, they (from lack of choice, but still heroically) blow everything, including themselves, up, dead great demon.

Meanwhile, the one who mysteriously disappeared has fallen down a long chute, to a hidden cellar, where he finds a group of scraggly prisoners. He's heavily wounded from the fall, and just manages to spring the lock on their cell before a piece of the stone ceiling collapses on him and he dies.

The GM whips out the old character sheets and tells everyone how after a month of seeing no one but the imp slave who gave them food and drink, a heavily wounded man with a haunted look in his eyes walks up to their cell and breaks the lock before a loud explosion rocks the room and he dies from a large stone falling on him and smashing his head. Cue end session. Exeunt.


This should do it. I hope this answer will help you, even if it did come out a bit long. Best of luck to you!

P. S. For bonus points, I'd throw in:

  1. A prophecy at the beginning about them releasing the harbingers of peace, who are destined to [insert next plot hook here], and-

  2. A theme of madness, that increases the more they progress through the plot. Ties in nicely with the mad monks. Also, have the last character die from a falling chunk of ceiling and other wounds, but when you describe it to the old characters, say he seemed manic and was mumbling nonsense, before collapsing to the floor and foaming. By the time they get to him, he's dead.

Best of luck!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi and welcome to the site. This is a really neat idea, and I really like it, but there is one problem with it: you let the players know that this TPK was pre-planned. Sadly, this makes your great idea into an answer that doesn't fit as an answer to this particular question. Can you add a section or two detailing maybe how to make it seem not pre-planned? \$\endgroup\$ – Yosi Jun 14 '14 at 18:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see exactly how this seems pre-planned. Can you elaborate? \$\endgroup\$ – Eden Landau Jun 14 '14 at 19:11
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Well, I have no experience what-so-ever with FUDGE, not to mention the homebrew hack you've made to it, so my answer will be solely in terms of techniques to use. I do hope that it will be useful still.

While I will suggest a way or two to achieve what you're asking, I strongly advise against it and because of that I'm suggesting two more ways to achieve the same dramatic effect, without making it seem like you're cheating them.

Killing them without letting them know that the TPK was pre-planned.

I know of only one option for this, and this option is to kill them with the demon. They go all the way, fight the monsters, (almost) save the day and then they come to the fight against the demon and die while fighting. The demon dies with them, maybe his/her death causes them to die by exploding or something, and this releases the original characters…

…But if I were to plan this, I will let each player play both the new and original character and let the demon kill only (or almost only) the new characters. Make it look by mistake, the demon attacks all of them, and knocks unconscious a few original characters, but (s)he only managed to kill the new ones.

Achieving the same dramatic effect while they do know that you pre-planned something

My number one suggestion is to make the players decide themselves to sacrifice their current and temporary characters for their original PCs. Now doing it, though, is much more difficult. I would go for a rite, or a riddle or something. True, they'll know that you planned to kill them, but they will be able to decide for themselves thus making it far more acceptable.

My second suggestion is to do it without killing them at all. Make the battle against the demon in the heads of the characters. They get characters that are aspects of the personality of the particular character they try to save this time, and they have to defeat the demon in each battlefield or mind. Being mind-creations it won't feel like a cheating to not continue with the new characters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for making the battle against the demon in the heads of the characters. My DM pulled something similar to this off (we had to escape from mind of the BBGE, a powerful mage, before killing him in the real world) and it was pretty epic. \$\endgroup\$ – Mitharlic Jun 14 '14 at 17:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or a situation of "So this lever slows down the swirling blades, but one of us is going to have to stay behind to let the others past". Dumbledore drinking that mysterious goop to find the Horcrux, pretty much every episode of Dr Who ever, there are plenty of traps that require someone to die, which is going to be a lot easier than designing an encounter exactly difficult enough to kill the new characters, but only after they rescue the old characters, but that will be killed by the old characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Jun 16 '14 at 4:28
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Love your plan!

Have you played Halo: Reach? That does this beautifully. One by one your teammates fall, until you sacrifice yourself allowing John-117 (the main protagonist of the series) to escape. The first couple catch you by surprise, but then you realise what's happening, and – for me – it committed me to the plot.

If I recall correctly, the first teammate falls to a lucky shot, but later they deliberately sacrifice themselves as it becomes clear they're not going to get out alive. The player, having successfully defended John-117's escape, is then dropped post-credits into unrelenting waves of enemies with no ability to heal; replayed that many times to see how long I could last.

So – that worked well in their plot. What can we learn?

Make it clear that their deaths are not "planned", but inevitable

Halo: Reach makes it clear before the end that survival is not possible, but invests the player in the story none the less. Don't give them false hope they'll get out alive. The question becomes not "Can we survive this?" but "Can we sacrifice ourselves to save the original PCs, or will our deaths be meaningless?"

You could build this up through briefings etc "I'm sending you to die, troops!", but it's much more effective to show not tell. Halo Reach achieves this by slowly killing off the team.

Obviously you can't just kill the PCs one by one over the weeks of your side-campaign, as they'd be sitting doing nothing for the rest of the campaign. But can you kill them anyway? Could they re-roll as new characters? Or let them grab an NPC, and rejoin the party? The thief dies, and they trawl bars looking for an NPC thief to help... roll the character they find. Or they can encounter a surviver from another team of adventurers for the player to play.

Or you could leave them all alive until the end, and require them to do a dramatic sacrifice...

  • "We smuggled in the nuke, but the timer is broken, so one of us will have to stay and trigger it manually" is a good old staple of movies... rework it with a spin appropriate for your world.
  • One player has to destroy a mcguffin, and the rest of the team fall one by one as they defend them.

Hopefully that's enough to get you going?

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