Have you ever had a campaign that was specifically designed around killing off player characters? Not 'death is possible', 'one of you WILL die, no ifs about it'? How did it go? How many characters did you toss into the meatgrinder?
Is this just something that's a little too meanspirited for TTRPGs, or something that has potential?
Yeah, nah. I guess if you build a campaign around dying heroically and everyone builds vikings that can work. But if you just want to score a TPK? Run Tomb of Horrors as a one-shot. Tell your players to make new characters for it, and to not get too attached. You'll get it out of your system.
If you really wanted to build a campaign around this idea, what I'd suggest is putting together some sort of reincarnation mechanic where you get points towards permanent bonuses for dying in a hardcore enough way.
Example: Oh, you died to buy Beowulf enough time to unbend his sword against that dragon? That's some hero shit right there! Here, have enough points for...I dunno, a legacy weapon that follows you through lives. Or a +2 to a stat. Oh, you got swept overboard before you could even reach Paris to sack it? Unheroic death. You get fuck-all bonuses for ongoing lives.
I think that may be the entire point of character creation and family trees in the Pendragon system.
You will spend about an 1-3 hours rolling up past histories and checking what comes of them for chargen. You also can die pretty damn easily and encourages you to die every so often to build more glory.
Yes it was two stages, the first stage was a normal campaign more or less with character deaths being supposedly permanent. Once the entire party perished after our second session, I revealed the hidden phase two:
They are trapped in a Greek/Persian inspired under world and must now journey out of it.
A horror or tragedy story seems the best way to go about it in my opinion. The impending death and futility of fighting would be the point. You just don't tell them that at the start.
No, you need buy-in for something like this to work. Tell 'em it's a horror show and they should come up with some guys who are going to die.
There's an RPG called Phoenix: Dawn Command (not to be confused with Phoenix Command) that plays with this. Players are immortal beings who can come back from the dead, but only a number of times before they're required to move on from the mortal plane.
Dying is thus a strategic choice, since you can sacrifice yourself for the rest of the party, and what's more, each time you come back, you get stronger in ways that depend on how you died, so dying in one mission can be handy on the next.
I have made an extended scenario around this, and it seemed to work well.
The campaign was a real meatgrinder, and so each player had anywhere from 1 to 4 old characters who had bit the dust in some way or another (or had otherwise fucked off and dropped contact with the party). It was getting close to the end of the arc and the players knew that something big was coming, but there was no clear BBEG that they could reasonably face. And so I made a rather convoluted scenario that would place one of the two big players in mortal peril and essentially gave them the choice to fuck off, aid them, or put them down.
It centered around this strange eldritch cave which had some strange slime that HATED magic. However, detect magic on it pinged nothing but a strange purple light to momentarily blind the caster. None of the players put it together, but at every point somebody had died I had described their sight fading to black before resigning to a peaceful shade of purple as they passed.
Anyway, a helpful (if extremely secretive) wizard who had been lightly guiding and informing the party was caught in this cave. However the slime and shit was really active. That purple color seemed to everywhere as a dense miasma, that is until they reached the cave's heart and found the wizard locked up and being thoroughly level drained by some fucked up creature (which had shadowy tendrils grafted with a few strange prismatic petals which dropped some nasty spores).
Through the course of the fight they managed to free the wizard before the creature coalesced into a blob of the same purple color rooted to the ground by an amalgam of flesh and gems.
I kept their character sheets. Made it look like I ripped them up when they died (for dramatic effect), but I later pieced them together and advanced them in a way suitable to the character. This is the part where guaranteed death comes in.
The wizard told them that letting this thing go about its business could really fuck many things up since it had drained a substantially number of levels and was already pretty strong. The party, despite knowing they were totally outgunned trusted the wizard and fought.
It only took a round for the party to enter panic mode. The thing spawned tentacles everywhere that grappled, tossed, and provoked attacks of opportunity. Despite admirable crowd control, on turn 2 one of the heavy melee was KO'd and a caster soon followed.
The (now level 14) helpful wizard attempted to stall the fight while the party recouped, but it didn't seem to help. On the next turn another member was KO'd and the 2 on the ground were attacked with a strange coup-de-grace by the tentacles which seemed to pierce them before enveloping them in that same purple mist. I described to the players how peaceful that purple seemed now, and how they lamented on their failure. And then I asked them,
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend to succeed where you have failed?”
Obviously both said yes, not knowing what I was getting at. I opened up my notes and handed them their character sheet from a previous character. Fully built and ready to roll. I then describe how as they sigh their last breath that shade of purple seems to grow less peaceful, and begins pulsating. They begin to feel the pain of their injuries again, only for it to fade and finally to open their eyes and –
Assume a new character, somehow informed of the situation and with seemingly false memories of why they’re here and fighting.
Now instead of being 7 lowbies against 1 super creature it was 23 on 1. Several rounds and a handful of deaths later the party stood victorious over the monster that could supersede time, death, and causality. However, as the dust settled the party (both in and out of character) began realizing there is now some serious continuity errors and paradoxes going on. By defeating this boss they had inadvertently placed themselves in another jam.
This was the end of the arc, but it lead nicely into the next arc of getting the wizard back up to strength and figuring out if it was possible to collect their other characters through their broken frame of reference and understanding exactly what that creature was and where it came from.
Using the mechanic did have the intended effect though, so I’d say you can make it work as long as there’s something more than “You get rekted before your initiative comes up to prove how amazing this boss is, re-roll.”
Since it's not really related to the thread, I'll give the short and sweet version.
Each character who had come into the fight had a frame of reference that worked well with the situation that they had come into. However, if someone else died the new character would have a frame of reference that worked, but the others would not be updated. By the end of the fight the only person with the "Correct" frame of reference was the wizard while the others were left extremely confused about what was and wasn't real. Of course there was some retroactivity at play, and I sent each player the way that their world differed from the normal and how divergent they were over skype during the week break between sessions.
First thing they did was figure out how fucked they were by comparing their stories and asking their friends who died only to morph into another old acquaintance (or stranger) what the hell was going on. It was a rather chaotic session.
After that the wizard realized that a lot of his divination was funky and that they were shifted in time somehow and that they'd have to make a call on whether to get their friends back or try to salvage this timeline. Naturally, the party chose to go deeper down the rabbit hole and collect their characters.
Mr. Secretive Wizard had several aces up his sleeve which he spared no time in showing. Several of his cache's and hideouts were slightly off, but they did the job and got the party suitably outfitted and him back up to snuff for the most part.
After this, the party briefly returned to one of the other original big players (the foil to the secretive wizard) and learned that he had some manipulation of this fucked up time bullshit, and presumably used it in the original timeline to fuck with the wizard (inadvertently fucking the party too). Some adventuring for the timey-wimey guy later they raided his lab for notes, bailed the fuck out, and found the wizard to hopefully figure a way back "Home".
The notes were quite useful, and it allowed them to move to other timelines with ease if someone present was from the timeline, and with certain difficulty if that was not the case. Through the course of the fight 12 alternate timelines were opened. Only 6 members remained of these timelines, so they hit them up to recoup some members, but every time they did it was less "Grabbing a friend" and more "Kidnapping somebody from their timeframe".
Eventually they had 15 or so members before they pissed off another one of those creatures. However, this time they were able to communicate with it due to their familiarity with the time travels shenanigans and being so displaced. It explained that it was a world anchor that holds timelines together, and while technically it was the only of its kind (and therefore a force of nature rather than an entity), every death it faces causes a huge divergence that must be headed off. However, every timeline which is tilted off course contributes another instance of a World Anchor to empower the big one.
And that pretty much brings you up to date. They quickly got the fuck away from that (post-epic level) creature and are trying to contact deities of time to unfuck up what they did. In addition to this, the party came up with several goals that needed to be covered quickly, so there's 5 teams of 3 adventuring around and getting shit done to hopefully slow down how quickly the World Anchor can track them/wreck them and increase their likelyhood of survival. So that means there's a rotation of 5 different "Campaigns" that are being played which keeps things interesting.
I played a game called We're All Going To Die where a single player is randomly chosen to survive, unless they do something intentionally stupid, and everyone else is destined to die. It's was pretty fun for a one shot, but the game just doesn't feel that satisfying, because no matter how well you do, you die in the end.
No, the closest I've came to it is when the DM sent us through literal hell and my PC had a stupid save or die moment when an apparently massive stalactite or a stalagmite fell from above and I only got one reflex check before I got 36d6 dumped on me.
Lived, I was like level 12 and a Centaur so I'm pretty sure it was just a combination of luck and sheer, rippling horse beef. Also once we abandoned a campaign after the DM left and when he came back we did a dungeon showing how all our old characters died.
My DM just told me that there's a 50% chance my character's end story will involve self sacrifice. As a character who's literally a saint I fully agree with this course of action. Its totally something my character would do, and a great way to end the campaign if I survive that long.
I average around 1-2 character deaths per game
Not out if any maliciousness I just roll combat in the open and have a habit of critting
But havin said that the groups I have are veterans and this usually doesn't slow down the game all that much
I ran a campaign where for a while most PC would die in about 2 days
but we were in the heroric domain of ysgard so they came back the next day anyway
Or at least I prepared one it sort of fell through
Playing a WOD vamp with penitent has been great. the party jokes about how edgy and pessimistic he is, yet small achievements feel like actual progress.