Certainly during our first forays into roleplaying games the total party kill was a very real thing, and alarmingly common place. The sheer numbers of characters that we rolled-up for Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set adventuring way back in the 1980's would be hard to quantify. The introductory adventure B2 The Keep on the Borderlands was deadly, and total party kills happened frequently and often - I'm sure not helped by rolling for hit points back in the day, and rolling on the low end (a 1 really?!) very much cut your life expectancy dramatically.
I think we were more interested in the challenge of the adventure than crafting an in-depth character back story and engaging personality (this happened much, much later in our roleplaying journey). An adventure was something that needed to be explored and defeated, and treasure counted, before moving on to the next and the almost certain possibility of another total party kill. Looking back I think we were very much in roll-playing mode and not how I would describe my role-playing experience today. We treated our gaming as we would have a board game, there was no attachment to our characters: they were a playing piece or pawn that was moved down the dungeon, stopping and resting and healing, searching for secret doors every ten feet; slaying monsters and overcoming traps before being eventually defeated. Whereby a new adventuring party would take up the challenge and continue the adventure from where the newly deceased one left off.
The more I've role-played, the less I've roll-played. In my campaigns over the last few decades rarely has a player character died; the importance of the characters place in the over-arching story, intricately woven backgrounds and attachment to a character make a total party kill or even player character death undesirable to us. The investment of time we spend crafting characters and a thriving, living, breathing campaign setting means I've changed the way I play over the years; that is not to say that there is no drama, but the threat of a character dying has been consigned to history.
If you think about a roleplaying game as a fabulous novel or a captivating series on the gogglebox, the main protagonists rarely die, and for them to do so must progress the story further. I know there are one or two exceptions to this rule, Game of Thrones and 24 being a couple that spring immediately to mind. For me though, if I can compare them to the many campaigns I've run, it's the important non-player characters or NPC's that have died to hit home to the players the context in which we are playing and the effects their actions may have on the wider campaign setting. In the end the main characters have endured the many challenges they faced and survived to the final conclusion of the story.
That's not strictly true, but it's been a really long time since I've experienced a total party kill or even had a character die. It's been that long in fact that I'm struggling to remember the last time the whole party died, it's definitely going back three decades or more and right back to some of my first steps into our wonderful roleplaying hobby.
Although it has been very rare over the years it's not that characters I've been playing haven't died, rather that our shared story has twisted and turned taking a different direction. In one particularly long lasting Vampire the Masquerade campaign I was involved in, my character did die. It was all part of furthering the climax the story, with my characters particular adventure continuing on in ghost form over the last few sessions of the campaign.
You can introduce drama and threat in many ways without resorting to a total party kill. Very bad things can and do still happen without having to roll-up another character and loosing the connectivity to the campaign. Major NPC's that the characters have become fond of are killed during a particularly bloody battle, a beloved innkeeper that has kept a roof over the party's heads for many adventures suddenly passes away, the queen has been assassinated and the country's noble families are bickering over succession. All these create new roleplaying opportunities, hinting at the danger that is ever present to the player characters, rather than causing a reset to the campaign.
And what of the characters themselves? Instead of killing them off, why not try something else? Maybe instead of being killed they were incapacitated during the fight? What would happen next?
Now you've thought about not killing off those precious player characters, what do you do to them instead? Remember, very bad things can still happen that can cause suspense when everything is collapsing around them. Not to mention, a whole load of new adventuring possibilities and roleplaying opportunities.
So, those pesky player characters have been incapacitated. Maybe they're taken to the dungeons in the roots of the mountain like Thorin and the dwarves in the Hobbit? Maybe all their equipment and hard-won items have been stollen and they're left lying in the rain-soaked alleyway with just the clothes they were wearing on their backs? Maybe the monsters were scared off by a new NPC traveller who takes them back to her hovel in the darkest depths of the forest? They are all opportunities to move the story forward in a new direction with some interesting set backs that the characters may, or may not, be able to address as the story unfolds.
Can the characters find a way to escape the dungeons of their captors? They could be imprisoned with a once popular prince who disappeared mysteriously many years ago, only to be replaced by his despotic brother who has inherited the crown and whose tyranny knows no bounds. Maybe they decide to help the hapless prince and change the fate of a country?
Rousing from their unconscious state by police sirens and blinding blue lights, the characters wake to find their equipment and valuables stolen. After completing stolen property forms for what seems like hours using old-school paperwork, in triplicate, an overworked beat officer informs the group that their wares have likely been been sold to a smuggler, who probably is preparing to ship them off the planet in the next few hours. Can they uncover the identity of the smuggler and recover the lost items? Or will they ultimately fail and must look for local employment to raise enough new funds to chase down their next nemesis?
Is the woman who rescued the adventures a friend or foe? Is she good or evil? The monsters were certainly scared of her enough to run without stopping to add to their treasure horde. Maybe she'll provide shelter and healing, but at what cost? Why does she live alone in the middle of the forest? Are you the first visitors she's had for many years?
When things go very wrong you are presented with a wild variety of new outcomes and adventure possibilities, so next time the total party kill rears it's head, rather than stop everything - we need to roll-up a new party - take a minute or two to think about what would further your story (better still have a plan up your sleeve), would your players be more attached to their player characters if you took them down a different path... can they overcome the consequences? A whole new adventure awaits.