Game Masters' Roundtable of Doom #4 - How Lethal Are Your Campaigns?

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker, who poses the following question:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

This is an interesting area of GMing where my thoughts on the topic have changed quite a few times over the years, but the way I actually handle it in play has remained consistent.

I have a little secret (ssh, don’t tell my players!): I almost never kill PCs. Most of the times that I have killed player characters have been when the player is no longer part of the group. When I was a younger GM and a player stopped playing with us, I used to delight in killing off their characters in spectacular ways. I no longer do that.

Usually, when a PC’s death is imminent I find another solution.

My Perspective

Before I delve into this topic, I should put my position into perspective.

First, I prefer to run campaigns. Just as I prefer novels to short stories, I enjoy building up the characters and stories of my RPGs in long arcs that span many sessions. Often my campaigns are open-ended, with no end in sight, which is to say we play the campaign for as long as we’re all still into it.

I like as much verisimilitude as I can muster in my games without it infringing on fun or the heroic aspect of the genre. I don’t try to make my games simulations of reality, but at the same time I try to avoid things that fly in the face of reason.

While I do my best to be impartial, at the end of the day I’m an advocate for the players, I’m not playing “against” them.

Purposes of PC Death

When thinking about PC death in an RPG, the first question to ask is, “What purpose does character death serve?” PC death can serve a number of purposes in you campaign.

First, a PC death can do a lot to enhance the feeling of realism in your campaign, and it can help a great deal if you’re wanting to have real suspense, tension, and a feeling of danger in your game. We’re all familiar with stories where the main characters never die. Although these can be enjoyable, it does pull the fangs out of any tense scene, as we know the character might die. Now, this tension can be achieved other ways—maybe the character will suffer greatly, lose a loved one, etc.—but none of these possibilities are as frightening as losing a beloved character forever. This tendency is our fiction is so omnipresent in the fiction of our culture that it’s become the default. A show like Game of Thrones is noted as extraordinary because any main character can die (and many have).

A PC’s death can also establish that there is real danger in your campaign. Again, the default assumption in a story is that all the main characters will live to see the end of the story (or at least most of them will). Killing a PC early can let your players know in a very visceral way that they’re not playing that kind of game. It raises the stakes and lets the players know you mean business.

A PC death can also establish that there are consequences to the PCs’ actions. This can be especially helpful when you have players in your group you’ve never gamed with before. As I like a feel of realism in my games, I like to reward player decisions. I reward good decisions with favorable consequences and bad decisions with unfavorable consequences. In this way you can teach the PCs about your world and about what you expect from them as a GM. Nothing leads the players to put on their serious gamer hats like a PC fatality.

PC deaths can also establish that you, as the GM, are an impartial judge. This may or may not be important to you. There’s a great article by Adam Lee in which he discusses running a game in what he refers to as a cinematic mode or a “DM as nature” mode.

In the old days of gaming (when I came into the hobby), the DM as nature was the default assumption. The DM was an impartial judge of the game, and character death was not only possible, but often likely.

The other mode Adam describes, the cinematic mode, is one that’s become more popular today. This is the style of play in which most any hare-brained ideas the PCs come up with work, as long as they add to the fun of the story. I really recommend checking out Adam’s article, as he has some great ideas about how and when to transition from one mode to another depending on the dynamics of what’s going on at the table.

Although I appreciate the value of fun at the table, and I see fun as the number one objective of any RPG, I also value realism and cause and effect. If a PC proposes something that breaks the laws of physics, it’s not going to fly in my game (unless he’s got a magical or other way to make it work). I don’t enjoy running a game so far on the cinematic side of the spe-ctrum that players don’t have to think about their actions and choices. Without a real chance of failure, success is meaningless.

Downsides of PC Death

All of that said, there are quite a few downsides to the death of a PC, not the least of which is that it’s often not much fun for the player, especially if the player is attached to the character. Because the number one goal of the game is to have fun, this is a pretty big downside. I encourage my players to make well-developed characters, and enjoy building on the characters from there. The death of that character can often invalidate all that effort, turning it into wasted time.

Another downside is that PC death is often not very heroic or epic. This may be more or less of a problem depending on your game and campaign, but as the PCs are the main characters of the story, the death of one should at least be meaningful and not just a “red shirt” death.

Another issue with the death of a PC is the question of what to do with the player at the table? Unless player has a premade replacement PC ready to go, you either have to pause the game to allow the player to make a new character, have him make the character while the rest of you play, or end the session. You also then have to work the new character into the story. Depending where you’re at in your campaign, this can be a huge pain in the ass.

Another big problem is that you not only lose the history of that character that you and the player have worked so hard to build, but you also lose any plans you as GM had for that character. This is honestly the single biggest reason I’ve often “saved” PCs in the past—I have cool shit planned!

So, as you can see, there are a lot of drawbacks to losing a PC, and many of those affect the GM as much or more as the player. For this reason, PC death in my campaigns is never arbitrary. I never have “red shirt” deaths of player characters in my games. Not only is it not very heroic, if I have anything planned for that character in the future, I’m throwing out those ideas for no good reason.

Alternatives to PC death

I’ve listed a number of benefits to your game that can come from the death of a PC, and I’ve also listed quite a few downsides. Luckily, there are ways to achieve most of the same ends as a PC death without actually killing a PC (thereby avoiding the headaches).

One way you can establish the lethality of your campaign and your willingness to enforce consequences is to kill off important NPCs that the PCs have become attached to. This is especially effective if the NPC death is a direct result of PC action or inaction. You don’t want to over-use this technique, but it can be extremely effective. The more developed the NPC is, and the more the players like that character, the better. The death of a beloved NPC can have a very similar emotional impact on the players as the death of one of their own characters. Sometimes killing an NPC can be even more effective in establishing lethality of a campaign than killing a PC would be. If you are willing to kill off an NPC that you and the players love and that you’ve put a lot of time into, many players will reason that you’d be equally willing to kill off one of their own characters, maybe even more so. If you’re willing to off “your” character, surely theirs aren’t safe. This can really raise the “pucker factor”, which is what you’re going for.

Another technique that can work very well is instead of killing the PC, give the character a major setback. This could be loss of equipment and magic items, a permanent injury or maiming, some kind of stat penalty, etc. This could be something that can eventually be overcome, or it may be permanent. This keeps the character in the story, and avoids many of the downsides of PC death, while at the same time dishing out consequences. This is especially effective for bad PC decisions, as the character can learn from it. Overcoming the disability (if that’s even possible) can also become a story hook that helps drive your campaign and increases player buy-in.

How to Avoid Character Death

Due to the nature of RPGs, everything isn’t always in the hands of the GM. We can’t control the choices players make, and we can’t control the dice. Because of this, PC death can often loom on the horizon, even when you don’t want it to. Luckily, there are numerous ways to avoid it.  

First, you can always fudge the rolls. This was my chosen method in my early days of GMing, but I almost never do it now. In fact, in my current D&D campaign, I make all my rolls openly, so fudging them isn’t an option. I think this is the worst way to avoid character death, and it should only be used as a last resort, if at all.

First, it’s basically cheating. Yes, the GM is boss, but if you’re rolling dice at all, then you’re telling the players that you’re allowing randomness to affect your side of the screen just as it affects theirs. If you fudge rolls, you’re effectively cheating and breaking that trust. Yes, the dice aren’t are the boss, and you shouldn’t let them ruin your game. But you should always think twice before you fudge a roll as GM, and if you do do it, the players should never know. If you fudge a roll once to save a player’s character, she’ll expect you to do it the next time. If you’re in a situation where you’re going to fudge a roll if it doesn’t come up the way you want, don’t roll to begin with. Some of the easiest and most common ways to fudge is to ignore a critical hit, decrease the amount of damage an attack rolls, or have an NPC fail a save or defensive roll.

Another way to avoid PC death that should be used very sparingly, if at all, is divine intervention. This can be appropriate, however, depending on your campaign. Divine intervention is actually hardwired into the cleric of D&D 5e, which is nice. If the PCs are working directly to further a deity’s goals, or are very devout to that deity (and high level), then divine intervention can be a possibility. Even then you must be careful, however. This is what’s referred to as deus ex machina, and it can ruin your story if you don’t know what you’re doing.

A variation on the divine intervention is allowing the PC to die, but then they’re sent back by their deity or another force. This should come with some kind of price or condition. Most likely the deity has something he wants the character to accomplish, and the character may then die after that is done. This can also work in a situation where the whole party dies if their quest is important to a deity. A fun spin on this is to have an evil or opposing deity offer to return the PCs to life, but they must then work to that deity’s ends.

Another method that’s often overused is an NPC comes in and saves the day. This can work if you’ve set it up and foreshadowed ahead of time, but it has similar drawbacks to fudging rolls and divine intervention—namely that the players can come to expect it. When this happens, it has the opposite effect of all the positive aspects of PC death. It ruins realisms, spoils any suspense or sense of danger, and kicks the players out of your story. However, used once or twice in a campaign, and done well, this can be an effective way to turn the tide in the PCs favor.

One of my favorites is instead of killing the PC or PCs, have them be captured instead. This works great when you have a TPK (total party kill) on your hands, and can open up a whole new type of game play. Now the PCs are imprisoned in their foe’s lair and must either escape or cut a deal. This is super easy to do in the new D&D, as any killing blow in melee can instead render a foe unconscious. If the PCs can do it, so can the NPCs.

Another possibility is instead of killing the PC, have the attack knock them out and lead to some kind of permanent damage. Perhaps the PC loses a limb or an eye or forever has a limp. There should be some kind of permanent mechanical drawback. You could also come up with some other major setback that’s appropriate to your story.

Exceptions

Even if you’re going to do your best to avoid PC death in your campaign, you should allow for the possibility. When death is looming, don’t step in and save the day. Leave it up to the PCs. There have been many times I thought one or more PCs would die, and I was tempted to step in but didn’t, and the PCs managed to salvage the situation somehow. Those are extremely dramatic and satisfying sessions, and they’re ones the players will remember for a long time. They’re even more satisfying for you as GM because you know they did on their own without help from you.

Personally, when I’m running a game, anytime a PC does something foolish or reckless, the gloves come off, unless I’m a fan of what the player is doing. Sometimes reckless behavior adds to the story, and that’s great. However, the rest of the time reckless behavior and bad choices result in the “safeties” of my game coming off.

Conclusion

As I said in the beginning of this article, I have very rarely killed PCs in the past. Usually the reason has been that the character’s death would not have improved the story. I had plans for that character, plans I wanted to see unfold. Also, you have to gauge how you think the player will react. It’s one thing if they player will shrug and pull out another character she has ready and is looking forward to playing. It’s a very different scenario if the player will be heartbroken over the loss of a favorite character.

There are many alternatives to killing a PC, and many of them can deepen your story in a way that the PC’s death wouldn’t. The important thing is to handle the situation in a way that doesn’t leave the player with the feeling that you stepped in and “saved” his character. Believe it or not, this actually destroys player agency. Players need to know that they will enjoy the consequences of their decisions and actions, good or bad. Our job as the GM is to find the consequence that works best for our story and takes the campaign to a new and exciting place.

Other Articles Exploring This Topic

To be or not to be...a Killer GM by Evan Franke
PCs and the killing there of by Peter Smits
Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game by Scott Robinson
The Mortality of the Situation by Marc Plourde
TPK Anyone? by John Marvin
Fatality! by John Clayton
Lethality by Arnold K.