[RPG] How to kill the party


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.

Best Answer

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.

Related Topic