Zombie Murder Mystery

TPK is only the beginning!

Written by Expy - Published on August 31, 2009

This is a guest post by Ben McFarland. Ben is an occasional contributor to Kobold Quarterly, and one of the contributing authors of the Ennie-winning Tales of Zobeck, which was recently released for public consumption.

Many adventuring parties end in a TPK, but why not start a party with one? Adventurers are notoriously cavalier about how they select traveling companions or why they continue to travel together. By utilizing the Death feats in Kobold Quarterly #10, you can create a group bound together by the desire to investigate a set of very personal and important murders—their own.

Many adventuring parties end in a TPK, but why not start a party with one? Adventurers are notoriously cavalier about how they select traveling companions or why they continue to travel together. By utilizing the Death feats in Kobold Quarterly #10, you can create a group bound together by the desire to investigate a set of very personal and important murders—their own.

The group might awaken in the well-lit dormitory of the local temple dedicated to the sun god, their gear and weapons nicely stacked nearby. Finding a note directing them to a nearby courtyard, the characters meet one another for the first time. Each one of them realizes they cannot remember how they arrived, or what they were doing just beforehand. Every party member was someplace different, at odd times during the day, and even then, it seems as if that might have been some time ago. A meal is brought, and during its course, an important temple official explains the situation.

“The nefarious villain thought that each of you would be a threat in his imminent plans, and so he had you killed. You must prove your murders and implicate this villain, or else he will likely have you killed again and take steps to ensure that no one will be able to return you from the dead once more. Certainly you each have your life, now it is time to earn your future.”

For this story arc, I’d suggest starting the party at a higher level, probably closer to 6th or 7th. Ask them to build their characters normally, but afterwards, have each of them select a Death feat. For added fun, provide them a bonus Death feat of your choosing, possibly coupled with a Death flaw. Then replace their 6th level feat with the Death feat they have chosen. Don’t let the replacement prevent them from utilizing a prestige class or some other feat dependency. The character still cannot use the feat, but they’re not penalized for that limitation.

The overview of the adventure is precisely what the temple official explains—although, for added entertainment, the adventurers’ investigation could discover the BBEG’s plot has progressed too far to be halted politically, and only their immediate response can stop the wheels set in motion. The heroes were each murdered by a different killers given different instructions and different motives, and each killer will require confrontation, gradually revealing a larger plot through this investigation. With luck, the basis itself provides characters with a bit of emotional investment as they start hunting with the coppery tang of revenge in their mouths.

However, what hopefully makes this campaign start more memorable than others, aside from the decidedly non-stereotypical initial meeting, are the Death feats. Death feats are are a collection of feats from the Kobold Quarterly #10 article, “Back and Better than Ever,” by Michael Kortes, which require the character to die before being permitted to take them. The underlying premise is that while the character was resurrected, something is different about them—they’ve come back bearing a sort of psychic or supernatural scar from the experience, for better or for worse, and the feat or flaw represents that difference.

To get a group excited about these options, you’ll want to provide situations where Death feats would be useful, encouraging players to test the feats and explore situations where the feats give the characters a bit of an edge they might otherwise lack. Bestial Specter or Weapon Avenger feats might seem obvious choices for a druid or a fighter as they provide concealment or a free momentary weapon enhancement, but a ranger who took Diehard might not have considered Death’s Door Warrior in order to prolong his combat effectiveness and a rogue might not initially recognize the utility of the Imageless feat until his picture fades from wanted posters across town. Certainly a cleric, druid, or wizard might pick the Spirit World Summoner feat to boost the efficacy of their summoned creatures with added holy or unholy damage, but try offering the Spell-Adapted feat as well, tailoring it to the signature spells of their murderers and giving the caster an edge as he shrugs off attacks while taking his revenge. Bards and tricksters will likely gravitate to the Irrepressible Vitality feat in order to take advantage of a high charisma score to gain more hit points as they advance, but think of the options available with the Shadow of the Afterlife feat and its unseen servant-like powers. Almost every class could benefit from the Reversal of Fortune feat and its power, very much like the ability of the Luck domain.

I find these feats and flaws very cool and worth using. They take an event that is, at its most trivial, a speed bump, or, at its worst, a character-defining tragedy, and offer the character a means to grow and evolve, adding a distinctive aspect while giving a mechanical benefit. That just drips with cool flavor, as your warrior isn’t just a warrior but a battle-scarred veteran who has come back from the Halls of the Dead forever altered by the trip. In that respect, these feats elegantly combine the roleplaying peanut butter in a crunchy rules-oriented chocolate cup that really leaves me excited to put them into action.

But even the Death feats may lose their shine over time, and so you need to provide a method for characters to restore their lost feats. Consider placing mundane items mixed in with the belonging of the killers, items like a skull, a mummified hand mounted on a short chain like a monkey paw, an eye in a crystal sphere, a scalp attached to a braid of hair, a necklace of fingers and ears, or a broad strip of preserved skin bearing the character’s likeness on it. When the character slain by the killer discovers the item, or even comes within 5 feet of the item, they feel the immediate connection—the item was once a part of their own body. At that moment, they could choose to restore their missing feat or keep their Death feat, and eliminate the Death flaw if you imposed one. Even if they keep the Death feat, the character should be permitted to continue developing without a penalty for their choice; the Death feat still substitutes for whatever feat it replaced. Additionally, so long as they carry the mummified fragment of their last body, the heroes could keep their bonus Death feat. The item has no other powers, and does not permit anyone else who bears the item to use the specific Death feat, but carrying the gruesome trophy of their killer does allow the character to continue using the bonus Death feat you selected while providing a reason for the character to keep a memento of his own mortality.

Hopefully, over the course of hunting their own murderers, exploring the possibilities of their Death feats, and seeking out the machinations of the story’s central villain, the party will better cement the reasons for continuing to travel together, becoming a group with a history forged through a shared experience. With their trust in one another established, they can press forward—possibly seeking to restore their tampered memories and ensure that it was only the night of their murder that was modified. What if the villain didn’t stop there, but sought to hide even more aspects of their pasts from them?

I’ll be providing more installments of this series over the next few months, with each piece taking a look at the different articles within Kobold Quarterly #10 and offering you a way to integrate them into your game through a story arc I outline here. Keep an eye out for my next piece, as I discuss the ecology of the Hill Giant and how you can turn this monster into the signature minion for our adventure’s villain.

Ben McFarland is an occasional contributor to Kobold Quarterly, and one of the contributing authors of the Ennie-winning Tales of Zobeck, which was recently released for public consumption. His love of scotch, beer, cigars, and good food might make him a candidate for one of the Death feats before he realizes it.

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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11 Responses to “TPK is only the beginning!”

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  1. Swordgleam Says:

    That sounds like a really fun game.

    You could take that starting premise in other directions, too – the characters all died for different reasons, but now they all owe the temple a debt. Perhaps they even died in wildly different places and times, and were resurrected for some greater purpose.

  2. Kensan_Oni Says:

    Also note, that this is an awesome way to start a Planar Adventure. The players all wake up in the Deadlands (Shadowfell, Random Outer Plane/Planar Isle of your choosing) as above, except that they are dead/dying and if they want to get back and get justice, they must complete tasks to let the God or Avatar of Death let them come back to the world of the living (As the whole adventure takes place while they hover at death’s door).

    Yeah, it’s a bit Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes with the Outer Planes instead of a Past Time, but that’s what makes it fun!

  3. Harvester Says:

    Starting parties as re-born or resurrected can be a great way of introducing them to a new environment with no personal histories to get in the way of your new campaign. I have done it several times, but always with new groups as level 0. They include:
    1) the players die in this world and are re-born in a fantasy setting…… this allows you to re-visit the wonder of seeing the world a new for those old gamers who have seen it all before.
    2) They wake up in individual tombs on the grey planes and have to arm themselves with stones and deadwood and then navigate towards a portal to somewhere more hospitable.
    3) They are captured souls put into created bodies and set on a task by their creator – although my parties tend to dislike the increased structure of this type of campaign ( or they generally dislike the slavery feel)

    But another point is any TPK situation is a sign of a bad DM – a poor party – or both – and i am glad to say that after 22 years of D&D I have only experienced it at gaming clubs (with Bad DM’s and strangers trying to play a party)and then only twice.

  4. Thasmodious Says:

    I did something similar before as well. The PCs awoke naked on cold stone slabs in a cave somewhere to the sounds of armored men killing unarmed, robed men. When they awoke, someone shouted “dammit, they finished the ritual, kill these abominations!” And the armored men attacked. The PCs had no memory at all, other than their names. It was a fun start.

  5. Start Your Campaign With a TPK « Kobold Quarterly Says:

    […] take on turning that into a campaign starter instead of a campaign ender, visit our friends at dungeonmastering.com and see if your next game will skip the smoky […]

  6. Mazetar Says:

    I can’t see why TPK is such a bad ting?:P
    the DM should be able to kill the party, I mean ofc he cheats a few rolls to keep his party alive, but somtimes the whole party dies, or most of them dies, it’s a part of the game and life, and if there is no risk of a TPK, then there wouldnt be any risk to do anything at all:P

    anyways great Idea, especially I liked Harvesters lvl 0 idea, with players starting out in “the Real world” and by death getting sent to the fantasy world:D
    ((Let’s just hope this dose NOT make any of my players try jump in front of a buss or something in real life xD))

  7. Fistandantilus Says:

    This gives me a really good idea to start up a game where the PCs don’t start out as dead, but at the very beginning of the campaign going up against the main villain, who is appropriately way more powerful than the PCs, making it impossible to win, and they all die at his hand. (like what happened in one of the Final Fantasy games, I think it was FFII, but I’m not sure)
    BUT, for whatever reason, they were chosen to be resurrected and now have a really good motivation for going after him and his minions

    and Mazetar, unless you are playing Dark Dungeons (link: http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp ) I would expect that wouldn’t be a problem ;)

  8. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Sunday Seven: 2009-09-06 Says:

    […] TPK is only the beginning! This article is a great twist on an old experience. Instead of ending a campaign with a TPK (total party kill) perhaps it’s time to start a game with a TPK. What a great twist that gave me several ideas for some adventure ideas, and maybe even a campaign. […]

  9. Capt_Poco Says:

    This is a good way to get the PCs to all have something that ties them together. Curse of the Azure Bonds did this in a simular way: The characters were all defeated and robbed (though not killed) and branded with tattoos that compelled them to do horrible things. The adventure concerned itself with erasing these Bonds, which was accomplished by, among other things, killing a bunch of dragons and clearing out a few dungeons.

  10. forged Says:

    I used a similar mechanism in my current campaign. It was that the characters (who knew each other beforehand) and travelled to big nearby city as favor to one of the town elders.

    That night in the inn, they had a vivid dream. When they woke up, they each possessed a set of courtier outfits and a masterwork ring (which tied into the dream). As a group, they also 2 ivory plaques symbolizing fate. In the downstairs of the inn, they found those in a ritual circle. Everyone else in the inn was dead.

    In the dream, I made the most veteran player choose why the group had been arrested without being clear as to whether it was real or not. I wanted him to help shape the group.

    The dream started with them being in a dungeon, being cleaned up for a feast, waiting for a ruler that never showed to bless them, and then going to the feast. They woke up great the next day. Although that quickly turned to panic when they realized they were prime suspects of a series of murders!

    Every once in a while in the campaign, they have been running into people from the dream. They know their names without talking to them, and why those people were arrested.

    They are still working to figure out what is going on in relation to the dream. :)

  11. Failing Your Way to Fun! | Dungeon Mastering Says:

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