Game Master Tip#3 – Death Options

Dying in the big boss battle is heroic – sacrificing your character to save the rest of the party from a worse fate is downright epic in its scope.  That is the type of death that the party will talk about for years (RIP Corporal Declan).  But nobody wants to die to the easy mobs leading up to the big battle – sacrifice a well-thought-out character to the random encounter or the inept gate guard (a combination we call “crunchies”).

But sometimes, the dice just are not in your favor – and the inept guard gets a lucky shot in.  Fear not, Intrepid Game Master, for killing off a player character here is not the only (or really the best) option you have!

Fear of Death –

Far too often, game masters (myself included) are afraid of killing their party and their game suffers as a result.  By employing weaker monsters, fudging dice rolls or just flat out changing the outcomes of encounters to save your player characters you are not helping them, you’re doing them a great disservice.  When you take away the player characters’ fear of death and danger, you remove a level of challenge and excitement that makes games more fun rob them of the immersive atmosphere you’re trying to create.  Player characters should fear death in a fun way, game masters should not.  Remember that above all else as we’re going through the rest of this tip.

I hate for my player characters to die and they know it.  I spend a lot of time and effort writing and re-writing my stories to include the characters in my party and the histories they’ve provided to me, generating encounters that use all of their skills and balancing monsters to be challenging but defeat-able if the party works together.  On top of that, building a new character takes time and incorporating them into the party takes even longer.  That break in game and loss of stride can literally ruin a session, if not an entire campaign.  And some players will get upset or even downright angry if their characters die in a meaningless fight or random encounter.  However, if my players know I will not make good on death and that they will always win, no matter what the odds it robs them on the excitement that comes with risk and strips the sense of accomplishment that comes with victory.

This does not mean that you should set out to kill your player characters.  As a game master, it is sometimes difficult to strike a proper balance between challenging and lethal, but under no circumstances very limited circumstances should it be the goal of the game master to kill the player characters.  Your goal is to present them with a world and enjoy exploring it together, dangers and all.  If you just want to rack up a kill count, play an MMO.

Striking a balance – Death Options

Before we delve into a few of the many ways to handle death, something needs to be clear.  Your “boss” type battles should result in player character death if death is earned.  If the spirit of the scene or the intensity of the role play is fitting, then death is apropos and the player character should die when their “life meter” runs out.  If the player characters decide to take a big risk or follow a hermit on  some damn fool idealistic crusade like their father did, the potential for legality should be present on that encounter.  If they know what they’re doing and do it anyway, take the kid gloves off and let there be consequences.  Chances are, that’s why their doing it in the first place.  If you are hoping to use this article to justify sparing a player character from a legitimately earned death, you have come to the wrong place.  Sometimes – indeed, often – death is death.  At first the player will likely be upset – people always are when something they care about is gone.  When it is all over they will tell stories of the life and heroic death of their beloved character.

I add a special classification to the top of all of my monster cards which indicate monsters that are “Killing Blow Active” or KBA.  This is not a field on the sheets that I print out because I reuse my cards and not every goblin is going to be a killer, so I indicate it by penciling it in at the top right of the character card at the start of the encounter.  This term – like crunchies – comes from my Live Action Role Playing days, and it indicates a monster (usually a boss) that was actually allowed to deliberately kill a player character.  All others fall under what I call my “Alternative Death” house rule.  Dying by a KBA monster, whether it’s a town guard or a dragon, results in actual death.  I handle that death however the system dictates but generally it is the loss of the character or the extreme expense and risk of some resurrection spell.  Note:  Monsters with some story significance or related to a dramatic interaction should always be KBA.

I know what you’re thinking;  but where are we going to find a latex glove and 30 gallons of Jello at this hour?  Later.  For now, the real question you should be asking about are the monsters that are not KBA?  What happens when/if one of them kills a player character?

“Death” as a new beginning.

When a totally un-heroic death happens, it is your job as the Game Master to turn it into something more fun!  Below are several of the options that I’d consider if one of my characters died to a monster that was not KBA.  This is in no way a complete list – so post other alternatives in the comments!

  1. Capture –  Not every monster is looking to kill them.  Maybe those Kobold Bandits see the value in ransoming an obviously important member of an adventuring party back to his fellows?  Or the Mad Scientist and his henchmen may need a hostage to ensure their safety?  Or perhaps the giant spider may have already eaten her fill of juicy Orcs today and will save this scrawny looking human on her web for her children to enjoy when they hatch…
  2. Death Timer – Several games have something akin to this in their default systems, including many of the Live Action Role Playing game systems that I have observed.  When a character dies, a timer starts (usually in rounds – though I have considered a system where their time is based on some type of Stamina or Constitution roll) and if the character is successfully healed or stabilized before that timer runs out, they can return to the action.  After that time, they either die or pick up some long-lasting character effect as outlined in the next item.
  3. Disadvantages – Most of the gaming systems that I have encountered have some means of applying negative modifiers on a character.  Some call them “Flaws” or “Disadvantages” while others just call them “Traits” but in all systems with stats that I have yet encountered there is a method of modifying those stats conditionally.  I’m a strong supporter of that and if I were to find a system that didn’t offer it (does Star Wars: The Role Playing Game from West End Games?  We have so many house rules for that system I cannot recall if the system itself actually has it.  Tell me in the comments, Internet!) I would probably create one in a house rule to make the characters more realistic.    I am currently testing in my D6 Fantasy (WEG) Campaign a soft death system with Disadvantages.  On character death, the character collapses to the ground completely incapacitated.  After the fight, with medical attention, they can be “stabilized” but they are not able to continue without intense physical therapy lasting a variable period of time based on a dice roll (1d6 weeks, in our case).  After the intense therapy they have a lasting and noticeable Disadvantage related to their injury – also based on a dice roll.  A character that was injured on the face might suffer a significant (-1d or more) reduction in Charisma rolls due to their facial scarring.  One injured on the extremity might suffer permanent nerve damage or even complete amputation resulting in decreased Agility or Coordination scores, even with a prosthetic.
  4. Loss of Gear – An idea that comes from RPG Musings would be particularly useful in those campaigns where new gear is hard to come by or expensive.  If the player characters have invested a great deal in a particular set of power armor or that amazing new sword that they bid all their liquid assets to acquire, that equipment might be a real life saver.  With it’s destruction, they are saved – but if life really worth living without that 6000 SUX that took a bullet for them?  Just be sure that whatever damage is done, it is not easily overcome – otherwise the fear of death goes right out the window.  Sure, a good mechanic could put that power armor back together again, but it will never be the same…
  5. Infection or Disease – Less severe than amputation or facial scarring, but a step up from losing a flashy new toy would be a lingering infection or disease.  This can really get creative – maybe the monsters attacking them were rabid, or those wolves that bit them were actually Lycanthropes?  The insectoid alien may decide they’d be perfect hosts for the Queen’s eggs or maybe the reason those street thugs were so aggressive is because they had some mind-altering disease that the party would need to quest to resolve.  Whatever the case, they are now inflicted with some character-altering malady that they will need to address before they can move on – probably with great time and expense.  For added creep-factor, you can make it appear that you simply altered the outcome of the attack – the characters black out when they “die” and wake up a few hours later some distance from where the encounter originally happened.  At first, nothing seems amiss – but soon the symptoms start to reveal themselves…

Perhaps in a later post I’ll go over some example systems, but I think this will get you started.  Get creative here – and be sure that the effect cannot be simply magic’d away and that there is some great cost – either in time or actual monetary expense or both – to their death to keep the fear of death alive.  If done well, over time these death effects will become a part of your player’s characters that they will actually enjoy!

Got more ideas?  Disagree with me?  Take it to the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Game Master Tip#3 – Death Options

  1. This subject can be a little touchy, but I agree with Drop Anchor here when it comes down to role play medium/heavy game. In games where combat or comedy is more prevalent, the rules might be a bit different though. Usually death is a revolving door or an issue of little consequence in those sorts of games.

    It’s mentioned elsewhere that my favorite part of pen and paper is character creation..truth is, my love of making new characters started off as a joke that I adopted to communicate to my DMs that I wouldn’t get super upset about a character death. I tend to find that part of the reason my past DMs shied away from killing PCs was due to their wanting to avoid the drama of a player being upset with them. I’ve suffered from that conflict avoidance myself, on the rare time that I ran a game. Best advice I have would be to make sure your players know that you’re willing to kill their PCs, and just try not to be squeamish about following through. At leas they’ll be forewarned.

    As a player, I prefer my character deaths to come from either dramatically appropriate moments, horrible accidents, or on the rare occasion both acting in concert (Poor, poor Declain, we hardly knew yee).

  2. Pingback: The Golden Rule Part 3 – Rule in the Players’ Favor | Thirdwalling

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