Killing Their Babies: RPGs and PC Death

Violence, battle, and peril are a constant in RPGs. I’ve explored the why of this elsewhere on this blog in various places, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that such things are what make the genre tense and exciting in many ways. Few are the games that don’t involve some kind of man-eating monsters, bloodthirsty villains, perilous cliffs, and exploding doomsday devices. It stands to reason, then, that death and, particularly, the deaths of the occasional PC are bound to occur. When this happens, however, it can be a bit of a shock to the players. It can, if mismanaged, create bad feelings between the players and the GM. Of course, if the GM never allows it to happen, bad things also happen. So, how to manage this? Well, here’s my advice on the subject. 

Why it Needs to Happen

At some point as GM, you probably need to step up and kill a PC. The reason you need to do this is the same reason that cliffhangers and adventure stories have a tendency to kill characters from time to time: it makes the danger more real. If every time a player gets his or her character in a fatal predicament they are allowed, somehow, to escape it (through the GM fudging the rules, through random deus ex machina, and so on), the party is going to catch on that they are, in essence, invincible. This is very bad, and for several reasons. 

Firstly, the players will cease to feel threatened by the dangers that the GM places before them. Just like in a bad adventure novel, the GM has given the players ‘plot armor’ that they know to be impenetrable. This makes the game boring, suddenly. Obviously they’ll be able to jump over that chasm as the castle is collapsing around them. Clearly they can live through their death duel with that vampire lord. How do they know? Well, they know the GM hasn’t the guts to do anything about it.

Secondly, and derived from the first problem, the GM can suddenly become ‘bullied’ by their players. The players can have their characters do outlandish things in the utter confidence that, even if they don’t work, there is little risk their characters will suffer for it. This can begin to break the mood of the game (unless the *point* of the game is to be invincible and do outlandish things, like Toon and the like), and things rapidly become more and more absurd. The game begins to morph from a stylized, internally consistent story to a bad improv long-form show. As someone who has been in his share of bad improv long-form shows, they might be funny, but that’s about all they have going for them. The game goes from adventure to joke. I’ve played in campaigns like this in my time, and the novelty wears off quickly. 

Of course, how often and why to allow PCs to die depends greatly on the style of the game. Gritty, violent, and noir settings obviously feature death around every corner, and PCs become much more cautious in their play and less attached to their characters. Heroic or swashbuckling settings feature death much less often, and when it happens it represents a serious dramatic event. Still, even with the most heroic settings, death should be possible and it should be clear that they are possible if things go wrong. Even if the GM doesn’t really want to kill the character if they do something stupid, they should seriously consider permanent disfigurement, maiming, or similar permanent consequences. Consequences are important to create tension; tension is essential for adventuring fun.

How to Manage It

As mentioned above, how to handle killing a PC depends greatly on the mood of the setting of the game. The likelihood and frequency of fatal situations should be made clear to the players prior to the beginning of the campaign. The GM shouldn’t be setting quotas or anything (i.e. I intend to kill one PC every three sessions! Mwa-ha-ha!), but she should say things akin to ‘there will be no holds barred in this game–if you screw up, you’re dead’ or ‘I don’t intend for characters to die for stupid reasons, but they will die if dramatically appropriate or compelling’. This gives everybody a good idea of how dangerous the campaign is, and this is very important for the players to know when constructing and playing their characters. It also should preempt some of the bad feelings that might develop otherwise should a player lose his or her favorite character.

Beyond this, I have a couple rules of thumb:

  1. The Good Death: Unless the game you are running is exceptionally dark, grim, or violent, PCs should never be killed due to silly accidents, random events, or simply poor luck. They should be killed by important villains, by exceptionally deadly traps (that they are aware of and attempting to evade), or while knowingly placing themselves at fatal risk due to their character’s traits or behavior. In short, they should die thanks to their decisions (good or bad), not due to their luck. Their death should be dramatic, motivating to the other characters, and serve as a significant plot point for the campaign. It should mean something.
  2. Get Them Back in the Game: Unless the death occurs at the very tail end of a campaign (where it would be silly to introduce a new character that would be played for 2-3 sessions tops), always allows the player to make a new character and introduce them into the game as soon as possible. Death should not be a punishment of the player.
  3. It Isn’t a Punishment: This bears repeating–PC death is never, never a punishment. If you are a GM forced to use it as a way to regain control of a campaign, you have done something wrong and haven’t correctly set up the expectations of danger in the campaign in the first place (leading to bullying by your players, necessitating death). This is bad news. Ideally, players should think their PCs’ deaths are cool–they get a cool death scene, and they should be allowed to play it up. Then, they get to play a new character (that is every bit as advanced and powerful as their last character, more or less).
  4. Make the Death Matter: This is the hardest of the rules to manage, but also very important. A PC should not die and be forgotten. Their death should have a major effect on the campaign and the other players; when they die, something new should be revealed, they should be contributing to the story somehow, and something interesting should happen. Don’t kill for no reason (unless you’re running one of those super-deadly games where life is cheap, and then everybody should be on board with that so it shouldn’t be a big deal).

Beyond this, if you find your players getting into circumstances where they really should die, but it wouldn’t fit with the campaign and wouldn’t make much sense, really consider simply maiming them or otherwise afflicting them with a kind of permanent consequence that makes the character interesting to play, but doesn’t allow them to get off scott-free.

Anyway, whatever the circumstances, one cannot run a campaign without the possibility of fatal consequences. If you are GM-ing such a game, it is your narrative responsibility to allow it to happen. You should do it, however, with caution and care to guard the player’s expectations and to maintain the fun they’re happening. If you’re a player, you should also understand that the death of your favorite character is as important as his life in contributing to the fun of the game. Don’t get upset, just roll with it; after all, it’s just a game.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on February 24, 2012, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Respectfully disagreed.

    I suspect we both agree that an RPG is supposed to be a collaborative storytelling exercise with some game-like elements (I infer this from your comparisons to cliffhangers and adventure stories). In composing a story, the author knows whether a beloved character makes it out of the car wreck or not, but the audience doesn’t, and that’s where the tension emerges. In playing an RPG, the players are equal parts author and audience, so the dice-rolling injects tension. Players can be pretty sure that their PC will make it out of a car wreck, but not perfectly sure.

    You talk a lot about the benefits of PC death as a motivational tool, but consider the costs as well. A player whose character dies is removed from play. In any other game (Monopoly, etc), this happens often enough, but those are clearly competitive games where the fun emerges from testing one’s wits and risking in-game stakes on the outcome of a die roll. RPGs, despite the ‘G’, aren’t the same type of game. They’re a collaborative storytelling exercise (at least, they are the way we play them). The point isn’t a procedural march through a hostile Tolkien Vietnam where death is sudden and the stakes are high, but recreating an adventure.

    Being removed from play sucks. It especially sucks in the social context of gaming. And it extra-especially sucks for the purposes of collaborative storytelling. The players, as author-audience, get attached to their characters and each other’s characters. Suddenly, one of them’s gone. So as not to shun the player, who’s a friend, the player is allowed to bring in a new character who lacks the history and emotional investment of the decedent. Almost always, this feels like an anti-climax.

    This isn’t to say that PC death is always wrong, or even often wrong. But I want to challenge your assertion that it’s the only way to inject tension.

    You contend that players will cease to feel threatened and will start doing outlandish things if they don’t feel a risk of death. I disagree. PC death is a dead-end: if you succeed here, you live to fight another day; if you don’t, you stop. It’s a terminal box on a flowchart.

    In my experience, players who know that they have a backup PC waiting in the wings don’t take death that seriously. But what players hate more than anything else and will fight like dogs to avoid is not getting what their characters want.

    Stephen Lea Sheppard, a moderator and a regular on the RPG.net forums, observed once that, when designing adventure scenarios, you should never presume that PCs will pursue a goal with anything less then the tenacity of psychotic sharks. I’ve always found this to be true.

    Under the control of our (relatively sane) players, PCs have hunted people who slighted them to the ends of the earth, fought until unconscious, and thrown good money after bad to right a perceived wrong. It’s probably some mix of projection, wish fulfillment, and detachment from the fate of a fictional character. Either way, I have never seen a player say, “My character surrenders,” until they’d scanned their character sheet for 10 minutes, certain they’d exhausted all other options.

    Tell a player that his PC dies if he loses this duel and he’ll put everything he has on the roll. Tell a player that his nemesis gets away if he loses this duel and he’ll also put everything he has on the roll. But what’s more, if he fails, he immediately starts plotting on how to catch up with him. Rather than building up his emotional engagement to a fever pitch and then cutting it off, you build it up, heighten it even further with the frustration of defeat (the villain giving a mock salute as the airship sputters away), and then give the player avenues to channel that frustration into further action.

    Since this is waxing long, I’ll close with the insistence that I don’t keep my PCs alive because I’m soft on them. I keep them alive because it’s crueler. If your goal is to threaten player characters, then take away their favorite bits of gear (especially if they spent points on them). Slander their reputations. Put their nemeses in unassailable positions of power. Break them down to nothing. Then give them a hard choice and watch the players sweat.

    Death terminates suspense; choice prolongs it. I’m always looking for ways to give players more choices, not fewer.

  2. I agree with more of what you said that I disagree with, but let me lay out my counterarguments here.

    First, games can and often are ‘procedural marches through a hostile Tolkien Vietnam’. Not all of them are, and indeed the one’s you typically run are never such, but to claim that aren’t and can’t be is false. It is perhaps not the way the industry points at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and aren’t fun or can’t be considered quality RPG experiences.

    That said, I do have a keen appreciation for the cost. It is not something to do lightly, and if I’d suggested anything of the kind, I regret the suggestion. I also don’t really mean to say PC death isn’t the *only* way to build tension, but it is a very powerful one. Granted, not for the character in question, but definitely so for the tone of the campaign on the whole. When dealing with a particularly collaborative campaign in the fashion of various games you and I have run, killing a character ups the stakes. There are other ways to up the stakes, yes, but not always. There are times when to create alternatives is to create a false tone to the scene. There are times when I’ve had PCs die when, at the moment of death, there is a unspoken but grim acknolwegement between myself and the player that to do otherwise and let them live would not make sense–it would break the reality. You can’t have people running around making death threats and not have anyone ever die.

    As for the loss of choice on the part of the player, what we’re really talking about here is the difference between arbitrary fate and catharsis. In the case of the former, obviously death is in appropriate–nobody should lose their character just because of bad luck. On the other hand, if players have dispatched their character down a perilous road and, at every opportunity to change their path, have kept heading towards their doom, at some point the doom must come. If it does not come, if you continue to artificially amplify tension for the sake of retaining a character (who can indeed be successfully replaced, and enjoyed, by all present), you have gone from actually increasing tension to perpetuating a charade. If a player puts his character in a hole so deep that there is but two options–succeed or die–die must be on the table.

    Finally, you are right, of course, that keeping their characters alive is crueller. The point, however, isn’t always to be cruel. It is to keep things consistent, be true to the story and the stakes you’ve laid out, and give the characters who have gone down the dead-end road the catharsis they seem to seek. Their deaths, in those instances and in campaigns of this nature, aren’t surprising–they are expected, important, powerful, and enhance the mood a great deal.

  3. The best death is the one that happens when you’re running Bobby’s character.

  4. Well, it’s easy to recall moments of character death in Battlelords, since they are the most frequent event that actually occurs in the game.

  5. On the other hand, if players have dispatched their character down a perilous road and, at every opportunity to change their path, have kept heading towards their doom, at some point the doom must come.

    This is a fair point: if a player is steering their character down a path where the only plausible alternatives are “kill them” or “wreck the cohesion of the story,” I’ll probably kill them. That said, I’d still prefer to reach out to the player at some point – either after a session or in an email – and say, “Hey, you keep this up and Lothar’s likely to die; is that the end you’re envisioning?” If they say yes, then bring on the tragic end; if not, then we hash out what’s going on.

    The one thing I want to avoid the most is varying expectations: the player thinks an outcome is plausible and heroic; I think it’s implausible and tragic. If PCs do die mid-campaign, I want it to be an epic death (the pic you choose for this post being an excellent example) and I want the player to have equal responsibility in authoring it.

    • Very much agreed. This is very much why communication and understanding about the possibility and liklihood of fatal outcomes should be constant and consistent during the campaign.

      I’m reminded of when Josh’s character in my 7th Sea Campaign, Etienne, started working with the Thalusai hiding in the Montaigne court. He (Josh) knew Die Kreuzritter would be after him, he (Josh) knew that Helmut, his character’s friend, was in Die Kreuzritter, and, therefore, he knew by pursuing this relationship with the creepy dude in the Montaigne nobility would likely lead to his death. He pursued it anyway, and his eventual assassination was one of the best moments of the campaign. Even better, his next character was *fantastic*–even better than the first, frankly–and added much richness and depth to what the campaign eventually grew into. It was a good thing I didn’t flinch from killing his character, because it was a wonderful moment for the campaign to shift gears, for things to get more serious, and for a lot of plotlines to suddenly be opened up.

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