So You Want to Be a Game Master? Issue #4a: Character Death

As Game Masters, we present dastardly villains, terrifying monsters, and devious traps to our players week in and week out. They’re forced to overcome these challenges through cunning, prowess, and occasionally a bit of luck. Usually the heroes are up to the task, but sometimes the unthinkable happens. Sometimes a character is overwhelmed, the Fates turn against them, and they die. Your player poured their heart and soul into the creation of this character and you’re sitting there holding the smoking gun that took them away. What do you do?

Character death isn’t a hopeless situation, and it’s certainly not the end of the game. I myself have been killed in dozens of games over the years. Some of those deaths are good memories, some of them are cautionary tales, and some are just indicators of the sort of GM I don’t want to be. The thing to remember is that character death is just another tool in your box. When handled well, death can elevate your game to the next level. Players love to tell stories of times their characters made noble sacrifices to save the realm. A poorly handled death will only frustrate the players, making them disengage from your series or even abandon your table entirely. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get started!


The Role of Character Death in Roleplaying Games:

Heroes die for all sorts of reasons in stories. A death can showcase the heinousness of the antagonist, motivate the fallen warrior’s comrades, make way for new characters, and that’s just in stories you have complete control over. The game element of roleplaying games adds another slew of reasons a character might die. They might pass on thanks to bad dice rolls, untimely critical hits, or poor strategy on the part of the players. But you’re the supreme ruler of the universe in which the game takes place. Why does anyone have to die?

This largely boils down to a couple of factors. Death is a grave consequence for failure. The threat of death adds a sense of urgency and tension to your game. That danger keeps them on their toes and keeps them invested and immersed. If the players knew that they would succeed all the time, there would be no urgency in their tasks. Actions should have consequences in any story. Consequences add weight and gravitas.

Death is also an excellent tool for conveying tone. Different genres of games call for different attitudes toward death. A high fantasy game where the laws of physics are arguably turned down and dashing adventurers mow through hordes of goblins without breaking sweat is going to approach death differently than a grim frontier fantasy game where society is barely clinging to life against an uncaring universe. These two games could be run using the same system, so how death works depends on your execution. (No pun intended) Aligning the likeliness of death with the tone your seeking to convey is an excellent idea. As always communicate that tone to your players before they create their characters.


Impact on the Player:

The death of a player character can be a traumatic experience for some players. People spend a lot of time in character creation, as they should. It’s taxing thinking of who this hero is going to be. How are they going to act? What do they want? What do they fear? And many players pour pieces of themselves into these characters, long before they ever see action on the table.

As writers, we know the pain-staking process of creating a character that we enjoy embodying. It’s a lot of effort, it’s a lot of soul-searching, and sometimes it’s a little bit of whiskey. However, there is still a disconnect in the Game Master’s character creation process and the players’. We go into our NPCs with the knowledge that many of them won’t survive their exposure to the heroes. Our villains are built with a sort of planned obsolescence, kind of like an iPhone. But that’s okay because we have dozens of other characters we need to control.

Player characters are like Nokia flip phones, the have a longer shelf-life. The player designs them with the intention of playing out an epic story as that character. They are hoping to step into this person’s shoes once a week for the next few months or years. Of course this leads to attachment. Players get comfortable in that character’s skin. Some of them draw pictures or have custom miniatures built. Vin Diesel has a tattoo of his D&D character’s name. They love their characters, and then we kill them.

It’s kind of like you reached into their soul, plucked out their imaginary friend, and threw them in the fireplace. That character represents a ton of creative and emotional energy on the part of the player. A poorly handled death can make that exertion feel like a waste.  It’s understandable that some players will react negatively to the idea that their character is gone. Give them a little time to mourn the passing of their hero and before you know they’ll be excited to roll up their next plucky protagonist. It’s the circle of gaming life.


Total Party Kill:

The only kind of character death I see as a true failure on the Game Master’s part is a Total Party Kill (TPK). More often than not, the confluence of events that have to come together to make a TPK possible are so extreme that when they do occur, it has to be because of a malicious, incompetent, or inexperienced GM. Killing all of the player characters effectively makes all of your work in vain. Every subplot you wrote, every adventure hook, every character arc from the past weeks, months, or years gone with only dust and ash to show for it. Usually, the GM will have to start over from scratch, and even if the new game is set in the world of the old one, these new characters don’t have the investment in the original plot. It also reinforces the negative idea that the GM is against the players in some capacity. If it wasn’t clear, I’m not a fan of killing all the players.

That being said, I do have my own TPK story, and I think every GM has at least one. It’s one of the growing pains of adventure design. I’m not proud of it, but it was a great learning opportunity. Essentially my party delved into the lair of Azt’lok the Artificer, a mad scientist beholder, who was causing trouble for a great dwarven city. This was a B plot to the overarching story for the campaign. They needed the aid of the dwarves and the only way to secure it was to kill this beholder.

The first step on their road to annihilation came from over ambitiousness on the players’ parts. This is the one part of the process over which the GM has no control. The party pushed through encounter after encounter and didn’t rest to replenish their resources before the final fight in Azt’lok’s lab. The second issue I had rested in monster design. I didn’t test Azt’lok before I unleashed him on the players and frankly he was a little out of their league. At full strength with very good rolls they could have maybe taken him, but with their resources drained from the dungeon it wasn’t possible. The final part was the most damning one, I rolled my dice in front of the players at their insistence.

Ordinarily, and I know this is going to be controversial, I will pull a punch or I will punch up a punch depending on the ebb and flow of battle. I do this, because I believe the Game Master isn’t beholden to the dice the same way they players are. My job is to make sure the game is entertaining, that everyone is having a good time, and to make sure segments of the game don’t devolve into a slog. I couldn’t do that rolling my dice in the open. So the combination of party ambition, inexperienced monster design, and lack of GM control led to a TPK. Eight months of game design flushed away. At least it would have been if not for some quick thinking.

Death as a Dramatic Device:

I solved the TPK problem by turning it into part of the story. Instead of making everyone roll up new characters and starting a new series, I had the following week’s adventure take place in the afterlife. They got the chance to prove to the God of Death that it wasn’t really their time and learned a little of the central conflict’s history that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access. As a result of that adventure they gained a level, making them tough enough to take out the beholder when they returned to the land of the living.

I didn’t have to do that. I could have let the story end and began a new one, but I saw an opportunity to make the character deaths mean something to the story. That is the central method of making a death feel meaningful to the players. Give the death some weight in the story. Make sure it’s a noble sacrifice, a proper send off to a friend who can’t stay with the group anymore, or something that the plot pivots around. Cheap deaths as a result of random chance or to prove you can kill them will only frustrate and alienate players.

There are some games and genres where death doesn’t have to have that kind of weight. Horror games in particular come with a certain expectation that everyone is going to die (everyone except Sigourney Weaver or the traitor anyway). This post isn’t for games with cannon fodder characters in mind. I will write another post about that.

Character death in general, should be a possibility that the players are aware of to raise tension and engagement, but it should be a rare possibility. If death is going to be common, make sure you communicate that fact to your players. There needs to be a level of respect and care in regards to the time and effort put into creating stellar player characters and allow your players a healthy amount of mourning when they pass on. Avoid TPKs when possible and make sure death pushes the story along in a meaningful way.

To be continued...