I just received a long awaited birthday present in the mail on Monday: back in March, I was given a pre-order for the Dragon Age: Game Master’s kit. It’s been forever (the delivery date was pushed back at least twice, I’m guessing because of the new DC game using the new Mutants and Masterminds system), but it’s been worth it: I like the GM screen (first time having my own! yay!), and the adventure looks like it will be interesting. However, I haven’t been able to actually run the system yet, so I can’t give any impressions on it yet. Next to my Savage Worlds obsession, it’s high on my list as wanting to try: I just need to find a group who will play in the Dragon Age world.
However, thinking about the games I want to run, I’ve been pondering an issue that confronted me multiple times when I was running my first game. When I ran my D and D 4th ed. game, I had three character deaths, and one character that left the party. Now, I don’t know if this is a high rate of character death – I don’t think so, as the other games I’ve played in also had about the same amount of death. When I was on the player end, it sucked. I had put so much effort into the character and started to really love her….and then she was dead. I was actually so in love with a character that died that I begged my GM to let me play her again (to be fair, we were ‘restarting’ the game anyways, so it’s not like I was trying to cheat death). However, when I finally ran a game, and encountered character death, I realized how many problems it produced for the GM that didn’t occur to me as a player.
Now, before I continue, I know that D&D 4th ed. (and other games) often allow resurrection. The GM I usually played with didn’t allow it, and I had more or less just co-opted that rule for my game. I liked it – and there were times that it actually made good story telling sense (in one of our games, the GM allowed a character to come back as a Revenant, but we weren’t expecting him back at all, which gave a new layer to our campaign). Even if you (the GM) allows resurrection in your game, character death can still produce many problems, even if some of the ones I mention do not apply directly to you.
Now that context is out of the way, there are two big problems that pop up when a character is killed. The first is the party’s isolation. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to put it, but when a character is killed, it’s usually because they fell in an encounter. This encounter is usually in an isolated area: the dungeon the party had to travel 5 days to get to, the sewer system that the party has been following for hours and are lost in, on the road in between cities, etc. Also, most adventures have an implied time limit – something bad is going to happen (the princess will be killed, the town will flood…whatever) if the party doesn’t continue. So, now the GM is faced with multiple problems: can the party handle the rest of the adventure with a man (or more) down? What does the player whose character was killed do? If he rolls up another character, how does the GM introduce them into the adventure mid-stream (And you come across a lone figure…it’s Guy Stargazer and he has randomly decided to meet you here and help you on your quest). In some games this is handled by assuming that you are traveling with allies or minions of some kind and the player with the dead character would just play one of them until the party got back to town, but it’s not common in most games today – so that doesn’t really help.
But, in my opinion, a bigger issue is how to get the new character to integrate with the party. I mean, the party has a goal and they have bonded and learned to trust each other over the time it’s taken to reach this goal. One of their comrades die and a new person comes up and says “Hey, I want to join you. You can trust me!” Life (even in fantasy worlds) doesn’t really work that way. The group honestly has no reason to trust the new character, the new character doesn’t really have the motivation to stick with this group for any reason, and the new character has no reason to go after the same goal that the party is going after. Now, I will concede that creative background work could make some of this go away, but unless the new character decides to be a long-lost cousin of another party member and just happens to have a grudge against the villain, it’s going to be hard to create a background that would cover all of these issues.
Another issue that is somewhat related is that the group of players will usually automatically trust the new character, because it’s a PC. I have heard a story from a GM friend where one player’s character died/left (I can’t remember which) and she created a new one. The head of guild that the group was working with told them to take the new PC along with them to go on this super dangerous mission that needed every member of the group to trust each other implicitly….and the group was just like “Ok, we don’t need to question or see if we can trust this person at all. Let’s go do this.” Just because it’s your friend Bob across from you, that doesn’t automatically mean your party should trust his character.
So, why should any of this matter? I mean, the game still goes on, even if there is a little bit of hand waving about character deaths and arrivals. For some groups, that works fine – it doesn’t matter that Sir Percival died and hear comes Sir Percival II to take his place. However, in a role playing game, the story and the relationships between the characters should matter more than just having enough bodies to complete the encounter. Isn’t that why we play role playing games over board games or miniatures games? To have a cooperative, storytelling experience? Well, I guess that’s why I play, at least.
Also, you can’t eliminate character deaths – it’s a consequence of playing the game (correctly). In order to eliminate death, the GM would need to soft-ball the encounters – and really, what fun is that? That is the reasoning behind the GM that I mentioned above banning resurrection – it makes the game have larger consequences and hopefully gets the players more involved with their characters. It easier to have your character run head long into disaster if you know he can respawn at the next checkpoint (forgive the video game reference). But if you character could die and not come back…well, maybe we won’t try to take on the 30 heavily armed guards with only our 5 man party.
I’ll be the first to admit that the character deaths in my game were handled not so great: When one character died, the king forced a random PC into their party and when another one left, the group saved the new PC from a hostage situation. Not the most creative ways to add new players, and it really didn’t the group a reason to trust the new characters. However, I think I did as well as I could with a bad situation.
How have you dealt with characters deaths? How do you deal with the new PC’s that join your party (either after a death or with a new player joining)? Is this an issue that anyone else had trouble with, or is it mainly because I’m a new GM and don’t know how to ‘roll with the punches’ yet?