I run long campaigns, and players develop deep connections to their characters. That means that dying can have a large impact on the player and the team, so I try to avoid killing characters in a random, meaningless way. No more Tasha Yars! I want deep character development and back stories, so I try to avoid character deaths as much as possible. Killing characters discourages character development. Think of all those war movies where the battle-hardened soldier tells the new recruit, “I don’t want to get to know you, I’ve lost too many friends already.” I’m also becoming more interested in story development than I once was. In part, that has come from the MERP campaigns we are playing, where the world and the rules are solid, and the improvement of the game has to stem from the stories being told. I spent a lot of years designing my system and the world, and allowing play to be very sandbox in nature. Now my system is quite complete and the world is quite well fleshed-out, so now storytelling is rising in importance for me.
So, my guidelines for killing player characters are as follows:
- Character deaths should be rare: Sarah Lynne Bowman’s article on Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities demonstrates that there can be significant emotional damage to players from tragedies experienced in a game, especially when the character involved is loved by the player. And it is not just the player who suffers, but the whole group, including the referee. Death in the game is not real, but it still hurts, so we should work to keep it rare.
- Death should be meaningful: Character death should the consequence of the character’s actions, not a pointless death. The death should add interest and drama to the story, or achieve some character or party goal. If a character dies, the player must roll an entirely new character. He can’t just take the old character sheet and say, “I’m playing my brother.” Hiding behind the pile of dead bards as in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (2008) doesn’t happen. If the death seems unavoidable for the story, you might make the death an honorable sacrifice, and the character might choose it gladly. You might also ask for dying words, which can also ease the sting.
- Death should be avoidable: There should be plenty of warning for the character and ways for the player to avoid his death. Always be on your players’ side.
One solution might be to use a “countdown to death.” Set the countdown at five or six or whatever you like. Each time the characters create difficulties or fail a mission, you countdown one point, and take a preset action associated with that level of danger. At five, there might just be increased rumors of the foe in town, at three there might be attacks by underlings of the foe, and at 1 the boss fight might begin.
Fortunae (“Bennies”) can be used to change player roles but not those by a foe, but three Fortunae can reduce a blow from a fatal attack to a survivable one.
A player can earn his character’s death by ignoring the various warning signs given by the referee, either through blissful ignorance (he’ll learn) or through stubbornness (it is his character after all), but it should move the story forward, or be memorable and heroic. No more deaths like Tasha Yar’s!
Here are three situations where a meaningless death might occur, and ideas about how to deal with the situation:
- The character activates a trap that is lethal and should die instantly. The Tomb of Horrors is famous for this. If this is expected for that game, it is ok, and I’ve played that way before. I loved some of Grimtooth’s Traps. The problem was that my players got very cautious and play slowed to a crawl while they checked out every possible danger. It got in the way of the story, and that wasn’t good. The lethality of your traps is something to talk to the players about. Do they want Raiders of the Lost Ark (move forward and avoid them by instinct), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (move forward and figure it out as you go), Home Alone (move forward & take damage, no chance to figure it out) or simply move into the horror genre (instant death).
- The character runs into a random overpowered monster. Usually I roll for the foe’s efficacy (1d6), which I describe as the Referee’s Safety Switch.
- The character is playing well and acting intelligently, but just happens to go the wrong way at the wrong time. You might talk with the player and strategize how the encounter and the character might interact.
- An NPC takes the hit instead, either by leaping in front of the player, or by having the trap activate in a different spot than you planned. I remember a scout trying to deactivate a very deadly trap and failing, only to have the ten ton weight drop ten feet behind him, crushing an NPC. He was relieved and the entire party got a lot more cautious.
- “Death” need not be fatal: Instead of simply killing the character, the referee could rule that the character had a serious wound or setback. Some examples include:
- The character awakes to find himself alive, against all expectations. Over the next few days, he begins to hear disturbing noises and voices that the others cannot hear. These increase in volume, and he finds he has new abilities but less control over himself. He has become the receptacle of a power spirit that daily takes control of him. He must quest for a cure.
- His foe spares his life, but only if he and his friends serve him. Use this one only if the foe’s goals are somewhat in alignment with the party’s own.
- The player is told his character is not only dead, but has been replaced by a monster who has taken his place unbeknownst to this comrades. In reality, he is not dead but instead is held a prisoner close by. The player is told to play the monster, preferably to undermine the party and hopefully kill the rest. Ensure that enough clues are dropped to the other players that they can figure this out, slay the monster and either save the character or be surprised when he runs into camp screaming that a monster took his place.
- The character is not dead, but received a crippling wound. The wound has left lasting damage. Damage to the head might result in a raspy voice, a badly scarred face, hearing damage, etc.
- The character is dead, but if the player feels strongly that he died with a goal not completed, he might come back as undead (ghost or vampire) or be reincarnated as a Faerie creature (if the party is in Faerie at the time).
- TPKs should be avoided above all else: If the death of one player is devastating to a campaign, imagine the death of them all. A TPK stops all action, ends the mission, and depresses everyone playing. When it looks like the party is about to make a decision that could prove fatal to most or all of them, I tell them, “This would be a very dangerous move.” That is my signal that they might want to reconsider. If the combat only looks like it might kill one or two people, I don’t use the safe phrase. If they are surrounded with no hope of escape or survival, I give them a means of escape: a hidden tunnel, a route up a cliff face, etc. I try to avoid Tolkien’s method of giant eagles coming to fly them away.
- TPKs need not be fatal: As with single character deaths, a TPK can be replaced by a substantial change. Some possibilities are:
- The players were not killed, merely defeated. The foe pulled his punches and gave minor stunning wounds. His overwhelming power is now obvious and he demands an explanation and apology for the attack. The players must offer convincing apologies and sincere regrets. The least convincing player will be killed.
- The players were not killed. Instead, their foe lays a geas upon them to complete a quest for him in exchange for their lives. If they complete it, they will be rewarded. If not, he will slay them if he sees them again.
- The players were not killed. Instead, they were defeated and sold into slavery, preferably to an evil organization that the players can then struggle against. It is three years before they have a chance to escape, and all they have is the rags on their backs. The escape might turn into an entire campaign, or perhaps it is the beginning of one where revenge or recovery of items is the aim. The AD&D module In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (1981) is an example of a possible adventure like this.
- The players were killed and now are in the afterlife (heaven, hell, faerie, etc.) and must somehow struggle back to the mortal plane.
There are also some rules that should be used by the party to reduce death’s sting.
- Show Respect for the Dead, but Remember It is Just a Game. This avoids causing other players pain but also emphasizes to the player whose character just died that it is just a game and should not affect them once the game is over for the day.
- No Stealing from the Corpse. Either the belongings of the dead character go to the character’s family or they go to his successor in the party, who needs to power up if he is going to stay alive. He’s just a newb, after all. If there is stealing from the corpse, it will be by a character who is probably not going to be getting any Fortunae from his comrades, and therefore may die sooner than he expects.
I hope these ideas help make your game more enjoyable, and your players’ lives more pleasant.