Vince Florio has posted over at the Evil Gm regarding Total Party Kills (TPKs). TPKs are a natural part of many old school games as they unfold, and occur because of a number of different reasons, some of them down to the players, some of them down to the GM, some of them down to game content like adventures, some down to system, and sometimes down to just a pure mixing of circumstances that make bad things happen.
I’ve had a number of TPKs happen in games that I’ve ran, and hate it when they happen because they’re always such an abrupt way to end a particular story. I usually let them happen anyway, unless there’s a special reason for it, and I’ll often find some way to mitigate it, or retcon it. I’ve even pulled the revised Prince of Persia save point effect at times: “Wait, no, no no. That didn’t happen.”
Vince asks of the situation he presents in his post “doesn’t the DM have the right to play the monsters as he sees fit?” but I think that’s a loaded question. DM’s should be playing monsters not so much as they see fit, but as monsters should be played reacting to the circumstances that they find themselves encountering. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. The DM/GM is supposed to play monsters as living and breathing entities in the game that act and respond in particular ways to how they are pushed and pulled in accordance to events that unfold. Not all monsters are the same, so some may be more willing to talk or parley, while others are more willing to attack and fight. But if the trust level is high between the DM/GM and players, and monsters are being played as authentic creatures in the game world, then there should no issue with how monsters end up killing players in a TPK.
Vince also posts that TPKs aren’t all that fun (although jokingly in small print says: “except for the DM”) but I think that they can be great opportunities for learning if a proper postmortem of what happened to cause the TPK is performed after it. This has to be done without emotion or blame getting involved, and really has to be done in a methodological and analytical way. Old school play is also partly about developing player skill, so the experience of a TPK is something that players should experience so that they can then be sure to learn and to play games differently in the future.