The permanent death of a character may have an impact on the party, and on the players. The death of the entire team in an encounter (affectionately called a Party-Wipe) will have profound implications for your storyline, your campaign as a whole, and perhaps even your tenure as DM.
A DM is wise to avoid the Party-Wipe. You are telling a story, one with a beginning, middle, and end. The players have progressed their characters through your story-arc and hopefully have engaged with the adventure and are active participants. As much as your campaign is about your story, the story is about your players’ characters and their role in the adventure. If all of these “main characters” die, your story is ended. Consider the challenges of bringing a fresh team of heroes into the middle of what was effectively someone else’s hero’s journey.
As well, a Party-Wipe raises serious questions in the players’ minds about the DM. Did the DM kill all of the characters out of spite, whimsy, boredom ? Or was it just bad planning or lack of foresight and control ? Few players like to see their characters killed. Besides investing effort in fleshing out a fictional character and making it unique and enjoyable to role-play, the players also put a lot of time into researching, rolling up, and writing the character. There is a level of trust and expectation of fairness demanded by players of their DM. A Party-Wipe that did not have to happen, or worse a Party-Wipe that was planned and intentional, may jeopardize a DM’s ability to attract players to the current, and future, campaigns.
There is an exception to be noted for the Forced Fail; this is a storytelling device in which the characters intentionally have no chance to succeed in an encounter, so that the DM may lead the players to believe that all hope is lost and the party has been wiped out. Then, either at the last minute or by means of magic after death, the party is saved or brought back to life by a benevolent NPC.
If a DM uses the Forced Fail / Party-Wipe plot device, it must be planned well in advance and used as an Inciting Incident or Act Climax. If pulled out of the DM’s pocket to fix an unintentional, random Party-Wipe situation, this plot twist will feel like deus ex machina – an unrealistic and improbable rescue.
How does a Party-Wipe come about ? Bad planning, bad strategy, bad luck.
Bad planning – the DM has created an encounter that pits the characters against too many enemies or enemies that are too powerful; the DM has made the enemies too aggressive; the DM has not left the characters a means of escape or retreat; the DM has not readied helpful NPC’s or 3rd-party antagonists in the wings to join the fight if the odds tilt too severely against the heroes.
Bad strategy – the players fail to avoid what is clearly a suicidal course of action; the characters do not effectively play their specific or intended roles in combat; players fail to take adequate defensive measures for their characters; the characters underestimate their enemy or overestimate their own strength; players wait too long to retreat.
Bad luck – quite simply, the dice roll very well for the DM and her antagonists and they roll poorly for the players and their characters.
The Party-Wipe can happen in an encounter that seems like a slam-dunk for the characters. As when a battle is all but won when the characters outnumber their enemies, so too can the tables take a drastic turn when characters themselves are incapacitated or killed and the antagonists gain momentum. A smart DM will see which way the fight is going, and adjust the enemies’ tactics and strategy (or introduce outside assistance) as appropriate to the context of the fight.
A good DM should not delight in a Party-Wipe…but a good DM must also take care never to prevent a Party-Wipe from happening if it comes about as a logical outcome to the players’ decisions. A DM may provide ample warnings against a course of action, and these warning may be ignored. The party may engage a foolish fight, and quickly become the underdog. Helpful NPC’s may arrive to even the odds or cover a retreat, only to be ignored or misused. Dying characters may stand their ground or take aggressive posture instead of falling back or healing up as possible. In cases like these, the DM is obligated to play out the scene as logic dictates, and based on how he or she believes the antagonists would act in the situation.
The players’ characters are too important to your story and your campaign to let the party be wiped out in a single encounter. A properly planned battle, with balanced enemies and plausible “outs” for the heroes in the form of external assistance, is crucial. Players should be encouraged to role-play intelligently (and in-character) with poor tactics openly questioned by the DM. As luck is unpredictable, the DM should be responsive and flexible and adjust the encounter to reasonably prevent a Party-Wipe.