One of the worst sins that any Game Master can commit is the Total Party Kill. Sure, I make jokes about TPKs all the time. But, in my actual games I would never wipe an entire party. A TPK ruins a game and can even ruin friendships. Luckily, I found an excellent resource for learning how to avoid that TPK; movies! Movies are full of tropes and plot contrivances that allow characters to escape certain death. All I needed to do was spend hundreds of hours of my life watching them. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!
Always Give The Players An Escape Route
Everyone knows that famous scene from The Fugitive. Tommy Lee Jones’ Deputy Marshal Gerard finally catches up with Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble and has him trapped at the end of a storm drain. Dr. Kimble goes back to jail, movie over, roll credits, right? Nope. The writers of the film didn’t cover that storm drain with a locked grate. They left it open thereby giving Dr. Kimble a way out.
You can carry this advice over to your games. I like to insert fights into my campaigns that the characters have no shot of winning. This is a good way to establish the power level of the baddies and let the players know what they’re dealing with. However, I don’t want these fights to result in a TPK. I eliminate this outcome by giving them an easily identifiable escape route. If they don’t take the hint, I use the actions of the enemy or the environment to push them towards it.
Reduce the Enemy Numbers
A pretty common action movie trope involves a superior enemy force having the heroes on the ropes. Just when it looks like the bad guys will win, the villain gathers up half of their mooks and takes off, leaving the rest of the crew to finish off the protagonists. Of course, our heroes are able to turn the tables on this smaller enemy force and win the day.
This strategy works in games. When a party struggles through an encounter you built because of numbers reduce the numbers. It’s as simple as having the enemy leader say “Half of you stay here and finish them off. The rest of you come with me so that we may continue on with our evil plan!” Then maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh, end scene. You have shifted the odds towards the players and prevented a TPK without breaking the story.
Call In the Calvary
There is a great scene in Terminator 2 where the T-1000 has John Connor dead to rights in that L.A. basin where all movie car chases take place. Just as Robert Patrick is about to crush little Eddie Furlong with a big rig Arnold smashes through the overpass on his motorcycle and saves the day. A similar scene plays out later in the movie when Arnold comes out of the elevator just in time to save Sarah Connor at the hospital. Great stuff.
You can absolutely use a similar device in your games. Maybe that mysterious ranger that the party met in town bursts through at the last moment to save them from certain death. Maybe the street gang that controls this part of the city shows up to help you fight the mafia enforcers. Not only is this a great way to avoid a TPK, but it’s also a dramatic way to introduce important NPCs to the game.