Character Death, woe or wow?

Last night I played a particularly long session of my weekly Pathfinder RPG game. During this game I killed a player character. Well that’s not quiet accurate. I wasn’t gunning out for him; it was a mixture of chance and strategy.  Scar, the half-orc dragon blooded sorcerer rolled a 1 on his saving throw and died from the maximized Acid Ball (the enemy wizard’s version of Fireball). This was actually a replacement character of the player; his regular character got transported to the other side of the world and was pretty much out of the picture. Which means his character was not strongly integrated into the campaigns plotlines so his loss, while sad (he was an interesting character), is not disastrous. There was a time when I felt like that, when the death of a player character was a disaster. Now I like to see it as an opportunity.

Come and take a walk with me down memory lane…

I didn’t use to be a killer DM! When we played Basic D&D, or AD&D, 1st or 2nd edition, I rarely killed characters. I can’t remember any death back in the day that did not serve the story. I used to give lots of breaks, the dice might have killed a character but I’d use DM fiat and leave the character badly wounded. Somebody would get the chance to help them just in the nick of time and they would survive to fight another day.

The only random death I can remember was late into my AD&D 2nd edition campaign when a player character, an avariel wearing a Helm of Brilliance, failed a saving throw after a fireball and then had to save for the helm, he rolled a 1 and he just blew up like a small tactical nuke. The explosion not only killed the character but most of the undead around him and an NPC. To this day the moment is a memorable one at my table, fondly remembered as the “Fried Chicken Incident”!

(Coincidently the same player that rolled the 1 for the avariel was playing the half-orc that died last night, sorry Pierre…)

My campaigns integrate a lot of character’s back stories, so the death of a player can truly affect the flow and feel of the campaign.  Up until 2000 I looked at character death as something that should only occur to serve the story, never randomly. When I was planning my new D&D 3rd edition campaign I asked my players for feedback on what they expected of the new campaign. One player put his thoughts in writing and something shocked me. The player told me he would like for the campaign to be more lethal, to allow the death of characters; otherwise he felt there was no real danger.

I took a long hard look at my DMing style and decided to embrace change and became a Killer DM, ever since I decided to “let the dice fall where they may!” Over the last ten years I’ve killed at least one character for every player that’s sit at my table. One of my players has the record of 13th character deaths over ten years. Don’t think I relish this. I still hate what a character’s exit from a campaign does to storylines. That’s why I’ve slowly integrated ideas and tools to help characters survive.

My current campaign is a pirate inspired, high adventure, swashbuckling romp (or at least that’s what I’m shooting for). We use action points and the excellent Swashbuckling Cards (with judicious weeding mind you!) to allow players swing from chandeliers, jump from balconies, and for raging barbarians to pull down wooden scaffoldings (tip of the hat to Carlos for last night’s daring!). We have house-rules in place that allow players to use those resources to turn certain death into a near death and survive.

Still some players don’t like to do this and believe that if the dice have dictated their death, they shall stay dead, no last minute rescue through the use of action points, no resurrection. To them dead is dead. I used to go crazy when this happened, but now I try to think of this as an opportunity, a chance to integrate a new character into the campaign.

It may take some rethinking strategies; some reworking of plotlines, but it can be done. I’ve begun to integrate ideas from script writers in ensemble TV series and build in exit points into plots so characters can exit the campaign gracefully without too much fuzz. It doesn’t always work, but any campaign is a work in progress.

What do you think? How do you deal with character death in your games?

PS – I’d like to dedicate this post to my players, past and present, they make it possible for me to tell these tales and do that which I enjoy so much.

5 thoughts on “Character Death, woe or wow?”

  1. I'm usually of the opinion that characters shouldn't die due to a roll of the dice, but sometimes, the dice really work against a player, and there's no way around it.

    I think for my next campaign, we'll leave in the lethality and see what happens.

  2. I spent a good portion of the late 90s playing Vampire LARPs. The games that I really remember. The ones that get retold. Those were all the ones where my character either died or came within a dice roll (ok, RPS throw) of dying. That danger is what gets the adrenalin pumping.

  3. My opinion: if a character comes to a fairly-played and fairly-adjudicated death, then that's fine. But death from some GM sadism or grudge is not good at all. And if a player knowingly throws a character at a suicidal endeavor, he probably wants to roll up a new character anyway.

    IMHO, character death should probably be rarer than it actually is in most games, and should be the ultimate decision of the GM. The GM's biggest job is a good story, and whether or not a death serves the good of the campaign and the morale of the players.

    I never was a killer GM, and don't think I ever will be. I am currently playing in a game where the GM seems like a killer GM, because of the apparent glee he takes in kicking character's a$$es and the fact that the other players told me how often they've had characters killed (a lot!). BUT, it seems the characters rarely stay dead. They are resurrected pretty quickly and easily after encounters (the GM fast forwards time and just says "ok, do you have the cash to pay the cleric? great, character resurrected. Moving on…)

    I disagree with this approach, because death becomes cheap instead of meaningful and dramatic. Death as a minor speed bump in a game, as something only dealt with in terms of game mechanics, seems really pointless.

    Sorry if this was rambling, I'm at work but I wanted to make a comment…

    Thanks for a great blog! Happy gaming!

  4. The Fried Chicken Incident: I've witnessed a couple of those — my favourite is when a buddy of mine used a spelljammer helm to convert a large rock into a tactical missile. His plan: to teleport clear "just" before impact with his target (a metal golem in the form of an armoured robotic flying tank). Needless to say he failed his initiative roll and the rest of the party spent "hours" collecting his remains in order to do a resurrection / heal. We couldn't find enough of him to do a full resurrection so we had to shape-shift him into a much smaller person for him to survive his ordeal… Hee hee hee! Oh, how we laughed!

  5. I am of the opinion that character death should be meaningful, though what has meaning will various from campaign to campaign. For example, in my current Legend of the Five Rings campaign, death is always a risk, because anything less would devalue the samurai ethos that underpins the campaign world.

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