Writing a novel is a balancing act. You’ve got to balance exposition with action, description with dialogue, you’ve got to balance multiple character arcs and the needs of the external conflicts and the internal conflicts and lots of other stuff, too. Go too far in one direction and you wind up with a book that is either boring or one that is too frenetic to follow. It will come as no surprise then if I tell you that doing this well is hard, hard work.
When I write a novel (and, I would guess, when a lot of people write novels) there are certain scenes, sequences, or sometimes even specific lines that I know I want to show up in the book. They are the tent-pole scenes – the ones that hold up the rest of the story. The pivot points of tension and reward, of strike and impact (to borrow a phrase from this excellent craft thread from @dongwon) circle around those scenes.
Now, really intense reads – the books that really have you turning pages, that have you staying up late to finish them – have the best tent-pole scenes. They are constantly drawing you from crisis to crisis, giving you a helpless sense of being drawn along through events. A book, though, can’t be nothing but those scenes – it’s impossible. You can’t have nothing but car chase, because very quickly the chase scenes stop mattering (for reference, watch the second Matrix film). You need to build tension and you need to set the stage for the chase. The more understood the stakes are, the more powerful the payoff will be.
The trouble though, is how much buildup do you need? When I’m writing the first draft of a novel (as I am now), I get bogged down sometimes in preparing for the big scene to happen. I know it needs a stable platform to stand, so I just keep shoring up my foundations, over and over and over, until its clear I’m wasting time. In revision, I trim a lot of this buildup out, keeping the bare essentials – balancing set-up and payoff, essentially. This is a challenging process because it is difficult for the author (who has had this pivotal scene in their head for possibly years) to know if the scene is landing for a stranger.
Often I feel I’ve missed the mark – I get feedback from readers and editors who say things like “why is this happening” and I’m like “DUH, CAN’T YOU READ MY MIND?” Naturally, I’ve got to go back then and fill in blanks that I didn’t know were there. This sometimes feels frustrating – I feel like I’m back where I started, wasting everyone’s time. Let’s be honest, if it were possible, we’d like to write nothing but chase scenes and pivotal battles and emotionally wrenching death scenes and stuff. “All Killer and No Filler” as they say.
You can point to various thrillers and action-packed reads and say “see! They did it!” What isn’t commonly realized, though, is that the “filler” – the set-up, the build – is still there. It’s just done so elegantly that you don’t notice. They have just enough to make the action land, but not so much that you get bored waiting. In other words, they balance it perfectly.
I can’t say I quite do this to my satisfaction, yet. But I’m working on it.
Let’s face it: anybody old enough to remember and love classic action movies admires John McClane. The flatfoot New York cop who, with his wits, grit, and wise-cracking mouth manages to foil professional mercenaries, terrorists, and renegade special forces operatives.
All by himself.
That’s the key, right there–himself. John McClane needs nobody, because everybody else is an idiot or a screw-up or actually working for the bad guys. Granted, the other cops in Die Hard: With A Vengeance had his back, but they were always a couple steps behind McClane. He was the real show. He made it all happen. And it was awesome. When I was a kid and, admittedly, even today, I often sit there and think to myself: if there were terrorists with machine guns storming this building right now, how would I get out of it? How could I get myself a machine gun (ho ho ho?)?
The Die Hard Effect
In RPGs, when a PC winds up having to go it alone against the bad guys with limited resources, I call it (and have heard it referred to as) ‘the Die Hard Effect’ or ‘Die Harding’. It can frequently be a lot of fun–it lets the player who is Die Harding feel both stressed out and really cool at the same time, and the other players who are playing second banana get to, essentially, watch a really suspenseful couple minutes where they hope their buddy has the chops to rescue them/find them/win the day, etc.. It has to be used responsibly, however and with caution, since there are a lot of problems with doing this without forethought.
Problem One: There is More Than One Player
It is pretty rare that you’ll be running a game with only one player present. If you’ve got a room full of people, spending a couple hours with only one of them playing is a bit rude at the worst or potentially boring at the least. Even the player getting all the attention can feel bad about it, sometimes.
The solutions for this problem are two-fold: First, limit the period of time the Die Harding would take. Less than an hour and you can probably get away with doing it in one shot and not overly ruffling anyone’s feathers. Second, have things for the other players to do, even if they’re less essential. Break up the Die Harding with other stuff (and there was other stuff going on in those movies, you know).
Problem Two: It’s a Big Challenge
Sometimes, even though you did your best to keep things fair, the PC who is Die Harding is hopelessly over their head. This sucks for them, and has the opposite effect intended. This becomes a prime opportunity to use the Idiot Ball or, conversely, give the player time to think out of their situation by switching to what the other players are doing (heck, the other PCs may even be able to help somehow). Whatever you do, don’t have the player feel embarrassed or stupid or like a failure–bad plan. If they fail, at least try to make that failure dramatic, cathartic, or spectacular in some way so that they will be talking about it for weeks to come.
Problem Three: “How Can The Same Shit Happen to the Same Guy Twice?”
Don’t Die Hard all the time. Just don’t. It’s a once-in-a-while thing to change the dynamic of the game for a session and make things exciting. If everybody is off doing their own Die Hard thing all the time, the end result of the Die Hard effect (feeling awesome) is diluted. It winds up being like at the end of the third movie, when McClane says ‘Yipee Ki-ay Motherf—cker’againand we all roll our eyes and think ‘get a new line, dude.’ Die Hard sparingly, and only in extreme moments where the stakes are high enough to justify the departure. I’ve found getting the rest of the party captured is a good excuse, or having one player get captured and have to escape alone. There are lots of other ways, too, but make sure whenever you do it, it is a departure from the norm rather than the norm.
I’ve had players Die Hard in my games frequently over the years, both in good ways and bad ways, both successes and failures. When it works, it’s some of the best moments of the campaign. When it doesn’t, you look around the room when you’re done running the session and see a lot of bored people and disappointed faces. I do recommend trying it, but do it right. Think ahead. Get everybody on the edge of their seats, and you’re doing fine.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.