Interlude: Character Death

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One of the hardest things about rpgs [sic] isn’t prep, or out-maneuvering fire-breathing dragons but keeping a group of players engaged in what you are doing on a long term basis. – Advanced Gaming & Theory

Part of the challenge of any game is that you can lose. People tend to be competitive in many endeavors, not just games, and they want to win. If they know they can win, most games, and roleplaying games are no exception, become boring and stale very quickly. The very real risk of losing keeps a game fresh and interesting.

While most roleplaying games are not the game master versus the players, they are the players versus the environment.The environment challenges the players and in the form of actual terrain, monsters or villains presents the players with the challenge to beat it and achieve the goal thereby “winning the game”.

There are many ways to lose. If the characters have a goal of getting the Mining Pick +8 vs Adamantine, then not getting it will be a loss. A monster they choose to avoid goes around them and ravages the village they base their operations from and becomes a less concrete loss as it affects their ability to use that base of operations but its a loss nonetheless. Even a miss in combat can be a loss if they care enough about winning the combat. And of course, they can die.

Character death should be a normal part of a well balanced but challenging adventure with natural consequences for poor choices. – DND Corner

I disagree. Character death is the worst way a player can lose. Either they have to roll a new character and completely lose all the investment they’ve put into the one that just died, both emotional and in terms of time, or they’re out of the scene and can just sit there and watch everyone else have fun.

In addition, I challenge the entire premise. Books and movies are excellent examples of my point of view. The main character isn’t going to die and you know it the entire time. No matter how steep the cliff, how deadly the bullets, how invasive the poison, the hero lives and we still have engaging blockbuster films and New York Times Bestseller novels. Why? Because the Story is Just That Good.

I don’t kill characters. Let me amend that – I don’t kill characters who are trying their best. Someone who’s being stupid will die in a heartbeat in one of my games. But a player who really tries to do his best, even though he sucks at it, has the reassurance I will make him fail in any other way than killing his character.

This has the added benefit that my players aren’t afraid to try new and imaginative solutions. The ideas might not work but if they put real effort into it, death won’t be the penalty. Players will always think of things GMs won’t – that almost an axiom at this point in gaming. Voicing the things they think of should be encouraged.

A party who ignores the bright yellow sign saying that there’s a poison cloud in the canyon dies. The party who tries to find a way to survive by circumventing that cloud will live even if they might not get the Mining Pick in the hut at the end of that canyon.

But the longer I played the more it became apparent that the players in my game also knew I didn’t want to kill anyone.  That became a downhill slide that eventually removed any attempt at “realism” in my game.  The players developed an attitude that was even cockier then most adventurers.  They were unafraid, unchallenged, and eventually became uninterested in what was happening in the game. – RoleplayingPro

If characters are cocky about dying, the story isn’t good enough. There is no emotional investment in what is going on. The challenge shouldn’t be in if a character lives or not but in if they can acheive other goals. If they don’t care about those goals enough then even character death won’t make the game any more interesting or keep it from getting stale and boring.

So instead of killing the character destroy the goal, kill the NPC, ravage the village. But leave the PC alive to try another day and even more importantly – suffer the consequences of failure. The players are your heroes.  A hero should live long enough to save the world.

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13 Responses to “Interlude: Character Death”

  1. TheLemming Says:

    A very nice read – character death is for sure one of the toughest challenges to handle in a game…
    Although I do not agree on letting the players live all too long I think the key is giving them either a fair chance to succeed or more importantly give them something really powerful in their end, no one likes dying for a botched saving throw, but I think most will enjoy having their death some special “function” for the world to come.

  2. viricordova Says:

    If there is some greater good accomplished by the death, then yes, I can see how it would serve both the player’s enjoyment and the story itself. Take Sturm Brightblade of the Dragon Lance Saga. Before his death, most readers would probably have identified him as a main character. Yet his death was tragic and terrific all at the same time.

    But that is the kind of thing you can’t do all the time, and I personally wouldn’t try without having talked to the player about it beforehand and gotten their active agreement.

  3. Joshua Says:

    I don’t play for story, so having it be a feature of the world that the characters enjoy immunity from death because they’re the protagonists of a story interferes with my enjoyment.

  4. viricordova Says:

    Then this blog will probably not interest you much.

  5. Ripper X Says:

    Hey, thanks for the link back.

    Character death is just something that happens. I too am a player, and I’ve had characters die. It wasn’t no big deal, it was the end of them. The end of their story! Sometimes, when fighting really tough stuff, which come with great rewards, it also comes with a high casualty rate. It would be an insult if this wasn’t so. It gives true boasting rights, “Yep, I killed Tiamat, 10 of us went in and only 2 of us escaped with our lives, but we got the job done. We had 2 hitpoints between us when all was said and done, but we did it!

    I have had to sacrifice characters for the good of the party. I have made totally foolish decisions which I knew would end badly, just because I knew that it was something that my character had a weakness for. I’ve been assassinated, burned to a crisp, and my favorite character of all time was turned into a vampire, the one monster she hated above all things. I wasn’t to happy about having to roll up a new character, but as far as my memory of the characters that achieved RIP status, they all had good deaths.

    Death is a state of mind. It doesn’t always mean that you are a bad player, or give you the right to get upset because something didn’t go your way, it means that you get to roll a new character, and find out what happens to this one.

  6. Killstring Says:

    Hmm. Not certain I agree, although I like where you’re coming from.

    My favorite tabletop PC ever died because of poor (read: Incorrect) rules calls, and another player kind of being a jerk.

    And that PC’s death did more to kick-start the other players’ investment in the game more than anything else had up to that point. Rules were bent a little for a dramatic sort of goodbye sequence, and the other PC’s suddenly gave a crap – not because the Big Bads were wicked men terrorizing the kingdom, but because Those Were the Mofo’s What Killed Our Friend.

    This worked so well, that I suggested it to another DM (Full of first-time players, most of whom were trying to wrap their heads around the idea of Roleplaying), who was happy to mutilate my poor little cleric. Similar result – Vengence can be a powerful motivator, especially if the PC’s don’t know where to direct it. Canny NPC’s can pick up on this, and steer them back onto whatever task is at hand, so long as they can convince them that this is ‘so their friend’s sacrifice is not in vain.’

    It says here that especially with newbie groups, they will never be as attached to an NPC as they will another PC.

    Hell, next game I run, I may have a plant among the players, for just this devious purpose.

    Just my three cents worth.

  7. viricordova Says:

    Ripper: Being polite always pays off 🙂 I try to trackback automatically but I’ll leave a comment by hand when that doesn’t work.

    Tiamat would be a case much like Sturm Brightblade mentioned above. Tragic death is something I must admit is an amazing tool. As for the rest, my point of view is that of DM, not player although when my own party killed me 6 times with lightning… well, it got old fast.

    What got older, faster, is that my GM said I over-reacted. I felt that my feelings were invalidated and ignored. And yet, when his miniature he’d spent 6 hours painting was harmed…. well. Characters are also products of considerable time and work in a hobby and I think people lose sight of that.

    Killstring: No, I didn’t expect everyone to agree 🙂 I like discussion of varying opinions!

    That’s an interesting perspective and one I’ve never actually seen used in a game although I might explore it myself. I do have a plant in one group (it could be argued in both groups) who might do very interesting things later…

  8. TheLemming Says:

    You’ve got a point, killing a character without talking to him before the game (or mentioning that possible outcome) will not be a fair thing to do – especially when you’re planning to do some really lethal stuff it’s always good to work with your players not against them.

    and regarding Killstring’s comment: Vengeance is indeed a powerful motivator – that’s something to keep in mind if you want to steer your players into a direction without being to obvious. But as a prereq you’ll have to have a party that stickts together and there has to be a bond inbetween them.

  9. viricordova Says:

    I highly recommend reading the Rambling Bumbler there. It was a well written article.

  10. Tommi Says:

    WordPress was nice enough to offer a link to my post as a related article, so I’ll summarise here: In a story-focused game I prefer to have rules that don’t allow player character death unless the player decides to risk that.

    For example: Combat always carries the risk of death and combat is never necessary. (This is probably not a good idea if playing D&D, since it kinda assumes combat happening pretty often.) Or: If you choose to risk your character’s life, get this significant bonus. Or: Sacrifice your character to achieve this particular goal.

    This means that character deaths always happen when players care about the situation, since they would not be risking the character otherise. Hence, dramatic deaths.

    As a contrast, in my dungeoncrawling game the dice roll as they may and all battles are potentially lethal and all monsters likewise. And there’s instadeath poison and such. Different outlook for death when playing in different way.

  11. viricordova Says:

    Obviously, my preference is for games focused on a good story. And of course, before starting either game, it’s a good idea to sit down with the group and see what everyone wants to play.

  12. Tommi Says:

    Agreed on the second point. (The first one being of personal nature.)

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