I have a working hypothesis about what differentiates classic fantasy adventure games (old school renaissance games, if you prefer) from more contemporary approaches. One of the attributes of the old school gaming mindset is that the games tend to be “milieu centric.”
What does “milieu centric” mean?
OD&D and other games in its tradition are designed with the assumption that the game master is running long term campaigns in persistent campaign worlds. There is little disruption to the the flow of time or events of the milieu when characters die, or players stop playing. As long as the referee continues to offer the game and players keep showing up, the campaign continues along even though the characters have died.
EDIT: I wrote “As long as the referee continues to offer the game…” I had a realization later on that this isn’t a limiting factor in some cases. Some of the people who played in Blackmoor with Dave Arneson are still getting together to play Blackmoor. In some cases, even the death of a campaign world’s creator is not enough to end the game.
What holds the campaign together is the game master and his “milieu”; the fictional setting of the campaign world.
In this case, the entire party was wiped out. While it sucks to lose a whole party of characters. The campaign will continue and the setting will chug along much as it did before.
If they were playing an adventure path style campaign typical of contemporary FRPG’s with pre-planned events and plots, a TPK is catstrophic to the campaign. The players have to start over, retcon the situation, get plot armor of some sort, or maybe event drop the campaign and play something else entirely.
When you have a milieu centric game, the characters matter to the players during the time they are playing them. When those characters die, retire or disappear from the setting, the campaign continues with only a brief disruption.
In a sense, the players and game master have zoomed into that group of characters from 30,000 feet to play them for a while. The world around them keeps turning, things continue to happen, kingdoms rise, empires fall, and when that group passes from the scene, a new one takes their place.