Thursday, May 12, 2011

Death and the Play-Den

Hand Me Your Character Sheet...
I've killed off characters. And characters have been killed in my games. I think there's a distinction. I have some brief thoughts today about dead PCs, dying in games, and absent PCs. This is to compliment an odd little geeklist I put together:

Dead PCs- a magnificently obscure geeklist

That list covers games or supplements in which the PCs are dead or consider how GMs deal with dead PCs. I thought there would be more, but White Wolf does seem to have a major chunk of the Dead PC market. I'm not sure what to make of that.

Killer vs. Care Bear
I don't like killing active PCs- for a couple of reasons, and I think it is worth being explicit about that. First, if someone's invested time in a game, more than a few sessions, I think the GM owes them some kind of payoff. That means that if they do die, that death ought to mean something and ought to come from their own choices. If the player has been pushed into the situation at all by me, then death isn't probably on the table. If they've had choice and made them to go in this direction, then it is. Second, death's too easy. You have a number of other consequences you can impose: wounds, losses, deaths of secondary characters, stolen stuff, bad guys escaping, and so on. There ought to be something at risk in any scene- even if it is a little thing. Third, players are human beings and get irritated. They don't like penalties, they don't like lost turns and they don't like losing their character- especially if they go out in a crappy way. That's a situational fact- and we can rail against it- that players ought to be prepared for that, but that's more in the ideal than the actual. A player who is smiling at the table when the GM punks his character isn't someone who is going to be as enthusiastic to come back and play again.

That's not to say I want to be gentle with the players- I just want character death to feel like something significant. As a GM, you have all the points. You can do anything.

I alluded above to the social contract at the game table- which of course varies from table to table. Different groups have different expectations. I think just as the GM should consider the meta-consequences of death, based on the player's time investment- players also need to consider and weigh the GM's contribution of time and effort before raising a stink. That social contract, of course, changes for one-shot and short-run campaigns. I want to be lethal in those- it should be tense. The later the session gets, the more lethal it should be. Things which might have caused a stubbed toe at the start of the game ought to lop off arms by the final scene. The social contract we have at the table is probably fairly different from game tables where fidelity to mechanics, prepared encounters and dice rolls is important. It think those rpgs, which focus on the game as game and a completely objective system for resolution can be quite fun. I think that its great that we can have a hobby that runs the spectrum from story-telling, narrative centered approaches to combat-focused, rules-heavy tactical simulations. There's been some discussion on this coming out of the question of the GM fudging his dice rolls on the RPG Geek boards. I'll steer clear of that- except to say that if everyone's enjoying themselves then you're probably handling things well.

The Worst Kind of Death
I have never seen anything good come out of one PC killing another at the table in a campaign. And here I'm talking about two active players at the table. Let me preface with exceptions- games like Paranoia, Amber, or short-run games. The former build that as a part of the setting, the latter mean less connection for the players to their characters. That being said, too much play in these kinds of games has a high risk of bleeding over into other games.

I believe there should be tension, strife and drama between players- so long as it doesn't cause arguments in the real world. And the only way you learn where that line is to learn over time and many plays. Some players have hang-ups- not liking certain kinds of characters, paranoia about their stuff, hostility to NPCs. As a GM I don't want to stomp on anyone's autonomy, but a player's right to expression and character ends when it negatively impinges on another player's rightful feelings. Note the phrase rightful- I've had some bad players in the past. In particular they could dish it out, but couldn't take it. They stomped on other player's scenes, plots and ideas, but became petulant and upset if the reverse happened. I've seen them run and hide behind the skirts of other players, yell at the table and generally work to undercut other players enjoyment.

That being said- inter-party fighting, in the lethal sense, is a excellent choice if you want to pare down your gaming group. And I've seen a lot of PvP at the table, each time with bad feelings and the poisoning of the game. I talk a little bit more about that in another thread on RPG Geek. I've killed other PCs myself as a player. And while it was satisfying in the short term, it always cost me in the long run. Killing here can be not just death of a character, but also forcing significant changes on another player's character without their input: mind-control, changing personality, killing loved-ones, negating their options without alternatives.

Two last notes: 1. If you're going to have interparty fighting in a campaign, you'd better have a tremendously objective and mechanics-rich system. 2. Anything which happens at the table is ultimately the GM's responsibility. Always- no excuses.

PCs Who Leave
A trickier question is what to do with the characters of players who leave. If they left under reasonable circumstances and left behind a group of players who enjoyed playing with them then the question is relatively easy. Generally I resist the urge to continue playing those characters as NPCs. On the one hand it creates an expectation about that NPC's power and interests. On the other hand, there's always the risk that you'll diminish the character. You don't want a player coming back to find that something awful has happened to their character- or that they've done something they never would have. I've had that happen a couple of times and learned my lesson. As a GM you're in a lose-lose situation here. Your best bet is to simply retire the character, far off-screen so they don't become an issue.

More difficult would be player who leave behind a table where they've burned bridges with the players, GM or both. If the campaign's early enough along, you can simply excise them out of the story: they never existed. If I can do that, I do. It does have some risk- especially where the group has been forced into choices by that problem player and now have to live with them after the player has left. Other players at the table may want revenge or even just a measure of satisfaction. I played in a game where we spent many sessions absolutely focused on one players plots and details, to the exception of any other players wishes. Once that finished up, the player wasn't interested anymore and quit. We then had wasted a half-dozen sessions with no progress. I think the GM has to avoid having players "finish off" remaining characters. That can set a bad tone for the game.

You have three decent choices. 1. Simply retire the character and not address them again. This can be done by GM's fiat. It takes them off the table and doesn't make it an issue. 2. Continue to play the character as an NPC, but in a distinctly different way. Make clear that this is your version of the character- a kind of do-over for them. If a character had plot lines invested in them, this may be the best option. 3. Kill the character- do it before the players can. Do it coldly and quickly, without dwelling on it. If you as a Gm do gain pleasure from it, don't let it show. In my experience, playing out former PCs characters in anything but a cursory way can create group dynamic problems- even with the worst of players.

Any Final Words?
1. I talk about not liking death, but in a couple of campaigns, we played pretty heavily with it. In both cases we were playing Rolemaster (or its little brother, MERP) and we opted to play as strictly by the rules and rolls as possible- no rerolls, no fudging, no additional options. Needless to say, we went through characters at an unparalleled speed. A player would be lucky if they could gain a level or two before dying. It was gruesome. In one game, the final fight was against all the PCs who had died during the course of the campaign (the GM had picked up the character sheets of the dead throughout).

2. Has anyone ever really gotten away with the "This is my late character's twin who has all the same equipment and stats" gambit?

3. In my fantasy games, I don't usually allow resurrection. Dead is dead. Perhaps they'll revisit as a ghost, and you can say goodbye. That's allows me to make objects which do raise the dead important plot items and McGuffins. It does mean that when I adapt materials over from Glorantha, I have to be careful. That setting has easy, cheap resurrection, a detail with wide-ranging consequences for the campaign.

4. Some of my favorite moments from campaigns have been character deaths. They're often talked about and recalled fondly. A cheap death in a game irritates, but a great and heroic death is a story you'll hear about for years.

5. The best killing session I had was late in a campaign. They'd fought, had close calls and lost a couple of players- but generally it was a low-death fantasy campaign. Then they got into a big fight, and I started gakking them left and right. The first couple of players had their jaws drop when they took the full brunt of a heavy Rolemaster critical. By the time we got to only one player left, they knew something was up. Essentially it had been a magical ritual to get them to cross over to another place. They went through some stuff there, then returned and replayed the fight with better strategy, knowledge of the situation and extra weaponry. But the shock I got from the PCs in the first fight...that was delicious.


  1. Like you, I find PC death to be a rather inconvenient speed bump on the highway of fun.

  2. One of my favorite gaming stories is how my friend's character tried to kill mine. I knew there was no way to win, but I had C4. So I triggered the C4 as my action, killing us both and destroying an entire ancient mayan temple. Twas a good death.