GMs view death in a game in a multitude of ways. You may be a GM that shies away from death in campaigns at all costs, due to the shattering impact it would have on the group’s story. You may also be a GM that slashes through characters with a Plot Sword of Character Slaying +5 on a weekly basis. But, I suspect that for the majority of us, the reality is somewhere between those two extremes.
Finding Your Death Balance
Trying to strike the right balance of death in you game can be tricky. If you include too much, your players are rolling up new characters every session. This can lead to a grind-fest where players cannot connect to a character or to the story. The players are not invested enough to worry about the consequences of their actions. If you have too little, your players could become convinced that their characters are immortal. This can lead to a game where the players are shocked and hurt when their characters do die or games where the absurd becomes commonplace.
The first step in finding this balance is to recognize that inclusion of death in your games doesn’t mean you are hunting for it. Just because you want to make it a possibility in your games, you don’t have to suddenly plan elaborate death traps and triple strength encounters. Or that you have to cut them out for that matter. Remember, you are looking for a balance.
The second step is to take some time for a self-assessment. You want to take a good look at your game and your style of GMing. Look for places you have been avoiding or searching for (consciously or sub-consciously) character death. Here are some things to look for. Do you fudge die rolls in a fight? Do you consistently plan encounters that are at extreme ends of the Challenge Rating? Do you routinely make choices in combats to give your players or the monsters the edge?
If so, take a step back and consider the opposite side of the spectrum. Harder encounters do have the potential for more death. But they can also be more engaging. Surviving them can be more satisfying. I also find that I learn more about the system, both as a player and a GM, from the tough fights. On the flip side, easier encounters provide an immediate sense of accomplishment. They are a great way to give players, and GMs, a way to learn new abilities or system content.
What I am searching for is a balance that instills my players with the recognition that death is a real and viable possibility, but without it looming over their heads. Like most things in life, striking a balance is difficult but ultimately rewarding. Where do you fall on the Insta-death to Immortal scale?
Next week we wrap up the death articles and I will announce my October focus.