I know I said that a GM should be ready to TPK their players but that also means that, as the GM, you should have a plan to save your players.
Assuming, of course, that you not playing a game that expects TPKs, you might want a few plans in place to save your party. Unless they were being really dumb, in which case it is their own fault and the dice will fall as they will fall.
Backup NPCs to save your players from TPK
One way to prevent a TPK is to have seeded in a powerful ally. This NPC should have good reasons for wanting to keep the party alive but even better reasons for doing very little to make that happen most of the time.
For this safety net, you need to do a little preparation. Roll up a wizard NPC. I’d make him old, crotchety, and eccentric. Place this grumpy old wizard in a tavern where the players are.
You will also need some side quest “fetch item” that the wizard needs and a reasonable justification for the wizard not getting it themselves. Say, for example, the wizard is stricken with a magic illness that has nullified his powers.
I’d put the item in whatever dungeon the players are heading to anyway. This can act as a good steering clue (a nudge back to the story path for players that have gotten a bit sidetracked).
When the players turn in this side quest, you’ll need some appropriate reward items. Wands of healing, +1 armour items, or some gold are all good options.
To keep things simple – and the players guessing – I’d have the wizard act as the “shop” for magic items. Being a grumpy weirdo, he, of course, refuses to come with them. This NPC is also a way for you to slip the odd discounted item to a hard-up party.
Consider having the wizard give them an enchanted gem to use to call on him when they want to buy stuff. The party will almost certainly try to summon him with it so have him reply that he’ll meet them in the tavern.
As the party is all set to wipe, have the wizard show up in a blaze of teleportation magic and yank the party back to safety. He can then claim his debt is paid and leave. You’ll need a new way to save your players next time.
Introduce an oracle or prophet that predicts the party will do something important and good. Keep it vague. I mean really serious non-specific. That way you can keep her about for ages before you have her announce they have done the deed. (After which, she hands out bonus stuff and leaves).
Like the backup wizard, establish the NPC into the plot with some side quests. Maybe feed them some clues to get them back on track too.
Later, as the party is nearing an unavoidable TPK, the oracle wonders into the scene and throws a few heals about. How did she know to be there? She saw it happen that way, of course.
To keep things from being too “easy” you could then play the oracle as normal and have the remaining enemies attack her. Force the party to protect the new healer.
As you might expect, she will not want to continue with them very long. The reason “that is not her path”. This trick can also be used to provide random clues to the party when they lose track of where they are supposed to be going.
If the party only recently encountered the oracle, you could pull “it was just a dream”. They’ve had a vision of the future! Now you can make them re-do that part of the story. At least they know where things could go wrong for them… Yes, you did save your players from TPK but you may also have annoyed them too.
Sometimes it pays to send an NPC along with the party. Play this NPC (usually a mid-range fighter) in such a way that everyone likes them. Make sure the party meet his wife and children. Ensure that he has opportunities to be valued by the players. In short, make him part of the team.
Now we are approaching the TPK. The fighter pulls the super-not-to-be-used exploding vial from his kit and runs at the bad guys.
“For king and country!”
Dead fighter. Dead baddies. Party in shock.
Try to make the self-sacrifice and death epic and meaningful. The ideal way this should play out is that the players should feel his death in much the same way as they would the loss of their own character. Especially when they have to take his lifeless remains back to the aforementioned wife and children.
This can be a powerful way to save your players from a TPK as the (emotional) price is readily apparent.
Have an epic angelic outsider show up. Bonus points for this happening in a cleric’s dream. Have him give the party some grand-sounding but very non-specific quest objective. Ideally, this should be something the party will do much later (say, the final boss). They are no agents of higher powers (sort of).
You’ve not changes the party balance, nor given them much more than a hint of future quests. It is worth mentioning that the party may try to do the thing right away so be ready to keep the divine direction a bit foggy on details. I’d focus on something that directs the players towards their main objective.
If the party actually TPKs they could find themselves in “the afterlife” face to face with a disappointed angelic being. From there it is not too hard to “send them back” to finish what they started. Instant total party full resurrection. The party had better make the most of the save to finish the bad guys.
Once they know they can get an instant resurrection the party might be less risk adverse. Make it clear that this was a one-time thing. Perhaps suggest that the angelic being has the power to reverse their deaths only once.
It is not just NPCs that can save the party. Sometimes inanimate objects can too.
Backup sword of true resurrection
Remember that large angelic being that showed up for no good reason (or maybe that the party saved at the end of a dungeon)? If you timed things right the being would have been around at an appropriate kit upgrade moment for the cleric (or paladin or something). A holy flaming sword of undead bane (or something equally epic sounding) is likely to be held onto by the right player. Give the item a cool name.
Just make a note that it also has contingency – true resurrection cast on it as a single use. You could hint that the sword has hidden powers – especially if one or more characters “fails” an appraisal check when assessing it or uses detect magic near it.
Gem of escape (contingency)
This tends to be a short-term get-out-of-death move. It works if the party has recently looted some magical gems that they have not been able to identify. As the character carrying the gem hits single digits HP it kicks in and teleports everyone into the nearest town. PCs and enemy alike. From there you can charge in as many town guards and other NPCs as you need.
This is only good for one rescue for one party in one adventure.
Fail and live approaches
Just because the party wipes, does not mean they are dead. Most systems allow for a range of HP which counts as knocked out rather than dead. This allows you to play out the fail as a story element.
These methods can also be used when you failed to have any sort of backup or escape TPK plan in place.
Left for dead
The party awaken later. All their kit is gone and they are on 1HP. Ouch.
This can then allow a wholly unnecessary side-quest to go and get their stuff back. You can bet your bottom character sheet that the players will be keen to do that pretty darn quickly.
Variations on this include “found by a kindly farmer” and “discovered by a passing cleric”.
This can be spun out by forcing the players to acquire low-end kit and go on a series of raids where they get enough assorted junk put together to go and save their stuff.
The downside of this approach is that you will have to copy all their possessions into a giant list of stuff sheet. As punishment for sucking, maybe only let them find most of it and not quite all their gold.
Those that did not actually get killed can wake up in a cage, cell, or tied to a tree. Let them figure out how to escape and then recapture their stuff. Assuming that you are playing Pathfinder, you should give them 1HP per character level (that’s not much to work with).
If they let some characters get killed off for real, you might be nice and let them find a scroll of resurrection or two. A good GM should always seed a path back tot he main plot. If you are evil, let them find one fewer scroll than they need. Mwa-ha-ha-ha.
Some fights are plot heavy. That means, the outcome is important tot he plot. Usually, these are boss battles, but not always. If this was a plot-heavy battle, you can have the party tied up at the site of the battle. This allows them time to figure out how to get back on track.
You might want to have the players wake up to find they are not the only prisoners. However, you play this make sure that there is some hope of getting out. You may need to call the session to a close and make them wait until next time. The players will be worrying for a week about their characters but it gives you time to plan the escape encounter.
Deus ex machina
If all else fails, send them to the afterlife. Here you can run an encounter with a diety, temporarily incarnate them as halflings in another timeline, and then send them back to life with a boon of some minor kind and a mission to go do something useful (but ill-defined).
Honestly, as you’ve just dropped of the edge of reality, you might as well have some fun.
Other ideas include discovering that the afterlife is a red-tape bureaucratic nightmare. Wherein they must fill out a lot of paperwork and resolve some afterlife politics to get back to their own lives.
Given you are really just making this stuff up as you go, anything could happen here. To keep things epic and to make the players feel like they “won” make them earn their life back.
Getting killed and kicked upstairs should not be the prefered option, ever. There should be a price to pay for getting saved. I suggest an annoying and largely loot free side-quest. The reward, next time they get killed they can go live in the deities realm as minor servants (or something equally unappealing).
Over to you?
Okay, what have you got? How would you save your players from a TPK?
Let me know in the comments below.