Chances are, if you have sat on either side of the screen for any length of time, a character has died. It may not have been your character, or it might have been your fault! In every game I have played in, death was a scenario that had a real possibility of occurrence. Yet how often does character death shock or surprise the players at your table?
I am writing these articles for GMs and players who want to understand the impact that character death has when it occurs in games. Some GMs avoid character death like the plague, while others seek it out at every turn. Some players don’t care if their character dies, yet some cry at the merest hint that their beloved character might not make it. Death is a risk and a consequence in gaming, but I don’t believe that it should lurk around every corner. As a GM, you should contemplate character death in your games because how a GM handles death at the table has an immense impact on how it plays out in your games.
Why include it at all? What is a good balance? What should you do if it occurs? These are some of the questions that I will attempt to answer over the next month – starting with acceptance.
Coming to Terms
Characters die, and it is ok. If a character dies, it is not necessarily your fault as the GM. Nor does it make you a bad GM. GASP!! I know a dozen gamers who would take offense to that statement. They want think that character death is solely the fault of the GM – that it is the result of a bad GM at that. This is just not true. In some ways, characters are designed to die. I mean, most of the game systems have rules for death and dying in them. The single stat that most players are invested in are their Hit Points, which is just an abstraction of how close to death they are.
You as a GM have to find the right balance of death for your games. And it is different for every table and every player. You have to accept what character death means to you, and to do this requires you to look at three different pieces of the game play experience: system, consequences, and choices.
What Does the System Say?
The first step in understanding where death fits into your game is to look at your system. Understanding how your system of choice handles character death mechanically will give you an insight into how death will be perceived by your players.
In some systems, like RuneQuest or ACKS, death is a sword-slash away. Your characters are never so far removed from death that you could consider yourself free of that worry. In other games, like DnD 4th ed, death is farther away. It requires a level of investment on the side of the GM to even make the players sweat.
Your players will come to extrapolate from their interaction with the rules, as well as your presentation of said rules, how pervasive the possibility of death is. There are ways around this (see my article on Plot Immunity), but the first step in understanding how death works in your game is to….well…. understand how death works in your game.
The second part of acceptance is understanding that sometimes players will engage in actions that consequentially lead to their character’s death. Risk is what makes games interesting, and for there to be risk, there has to be consequences. One outcome of fighting a dragon is you might die. I have already talked about consequences in gaming, but it bears repeating here. I have found that having consequences to actions in my games is what keeps people interested in them. It adds verisimilitude to the experience, and a realistic consequence in a game is death. Why? Well think about the lives most characters live: brutal lives of fighting in outnumbered battles, exploring deathtraps left by an age’s most powerful wizards, being embroiled in the game of thrones. Any of these activities have an obscenely high attrition rate. I have seen games play out with no consequences to deadly actions, and they end poorly.
Remember, heroes are not always rewarded, but heroes always pay the price. Sometimes, in the course of gaming, you will have a player [let’s call him Chris, after the Chris in my gaming group] who will put the needs of the group ahead of his own. Sometimes, when the chips are down and the oni are pouring over the hill, this player will look at you and ask if he can plug the gap, or jump on the grenade, or stall the balor so that the party can flee. Let’s be honest, Chris knows that his character is not going to make it out alive, but he also knows that the game ends unless someone steps up. So he steps up. The party lives at the expense of one of its members.
The third step in acceptance is understanding that sometimes your players will choose for their character to die, and that denying them of that moment robs that player of their glory.
I will let you in on a little secret. I am not always good at accepting death in my games. Sometimes I negate a sacrifice, either by bringing the character back or torturing the group with its corpse. Sometimes I avoid a killing blow because I don’t want a player to cry, or because I don’t want to hear the whining. And sometimes I don’t treat a death with the reverence it deserves. But part of why I am writing this series, despite how hard it actually is for me right now, is that I am trying to figure out where I truly land on the topic of character death, and to figure out how I would like to ideally handle it at my table.
[End Part 1]