The Problem with Killing Characters

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?


8 responses

  1. I flat out ignore it. When someone dies, a new character shows up, veiled by the thinnest excuse I/the player can come up with. I figure, why waste time trying to give the PCs a reason to trust this new character? In the time I run them through some contrived mess to force them to like New Guy, they could have gone on and done something the party actually wants to do.

    As for the whole Resurrection thing, I also ban Rez. Nothing seems quite so memorable to me as the paladin turning to his party and announcing “Alright guys, you go put the last shard of the McGuffin into place, I’ll hold the pass against the demonic horde for a few rounds. Here’s a sack of money to Rez me; tell me how the fight goes.”

  2. I rather dislike character death in a game. For me it’s the the anti-climax. You may have thought you were taking the role of a hero in a grand adventure, you had your share on the spotlight and… wait, no, turns out you were just an aside in the story, a minor character, and not the focus at all.

    That’s tough on the GM too. Surely there are NPCs already created who are involved in the character’s past, present and future – what happens to them? Aren’t the strands of plot and direction for the game (not set in stone, I know) already there in the GM’s notes and with the “main characters” in mind.

    Then there’s the challenge on the players. If Rob’s PC dies is Rob under “gamer best practise” to play a new character with a very different agenda, personality type and quirks? Is he a bad gamer if his next character is similar? What if you’re playing a game with a tightly knit set of characters – playing the few defenders of a village, the last monks of a temple escaping the evil warlord, etc, wouldn’t that mean any new PC would have to be very similar from the last one? What’s the story point of switching characters then? In plot terms the death is almost pointless and that’s a bitter pill.

  3. “Also, you can’t eliminate character deaths – it’s a consequence of playing the game (correctly).”

    There is no “correct” way to play the game. How any given group plays is their business, not mine, not yours, not WotC’s.

    How many movies have you enjoyed where the protagonist dies unfortunately somewhere in mid plot and the movie ends suddenly? It is no fun for the DM (as you recognize), and it is even less fun for the player.

    The fact is that most of us try to not actually kill the characters. The actions taken to avoid outright killings range from fairly passive ones, such as not playing the most tactically advantageous moves for the monsters, through outright telling characters that a particular move would be none too bright, all the way to fudging a die-roll when a hit would kill a character outright through no fault of their own. Mostly, we try to deliver a challenging experience that propels the plot forward. Killing the characters often derails the plot (as you have mentioned), as well as killing the fun for at least one person. Especially when it is serves no plot purpose, or is a particularly senseless or unspectacular demise.

    This is not to say character death does not have a place. I run games which are one-off (or a few sessions) where I will explicitly warn players that this is a no-holds barred killer game (and sometimes I suggest that they create an alternative character that has an in game-story reason to step in and pick up the pieces should their first character die).

    Character death should exists, but it should serve a purpose (as best it might). Players will remember the heroic last stand of Sir Alcazar as he alone faced off against the mighty dragon while the rest scambled for safety. I for one remember many a heroic death quite fondly. I also remember, not without some bitterness, a couple of ignominious defeats. I have always wanted to play a successful Paladin, but the various editions have always let me down. In 3.5, my 2nd level Paladin charged his warhorse into a small group of Hobgoblins as he led the party in a rush. I failed a ride check (anyone can roll a one), went down hard, failed a dex. check on landing, took a lot of damage, and was hacked to death by gleeful hobgoblins before I even made an attack. Is this realistic? Sure. Was it fun – not for me. Did it serve the story? No, and I had to sit out the rest of the session (3 more hours), and the DM never did think of a good way to introduce a replacement with the necessary back story, and indeed the campaign itself fizzled for other reasons. In another game, my heroic bard character neared the end of a dicey encounter, when a giant with a mere handful of hit points remaining, picks up a goblin with maybe 6 HP and hurls him at me (the giant had no ranged weapons, and no boulders were handy – although there were several other targets in melee range – no others were close to death). Somehow I was hit for double digits and killed, while the gobbo luckily survived. Again, it could happen. Was it glorious – not to me, it was somewhat humiliating. When a DM targets one specific character to get a kill using any means possible – it had better have a good in game reason that will, in the end, give the player something beyond a bad taste in the mouth.

    I would suggest that rather than play the game “correctly”, we discuss with our players before the game, before characters are even created, what kind of game they are expecting. Even resurrection has its place in game – I like to attach it to deific hooks such as quests, or more or less onerous restrictions on the character’s behaviour after accepting resurrection. Some players may even refuse after hearing the consequences. At the very least, the cost may involve significant sacrifice – perhaps a magic item that is near and dear to the character in question.

  4. Well, here’s the dissenting opinion… I actually appreciate character death, both as a player and a GM. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t go out of my way to make it happen — but I also think that the risk/reward ratio of allowing character death at any point is part of the fun. I like making the PCs think about the fact that they might die… that they might even die in the less than glorious manners described (awesomely) by Dominic. (And Dominic, I fully agree that when a DM is ‘targeting’ PCs just to get a kill, that’s no fun.)

    On the other hand — I think character death can always serve a purpose. Yes, it might be harder to integrate a new PC if someone dies, but it’s worth it. This new PC opens up new avenues, new opportunities, and changes the storyscape of the game just by existing.

    I’m very much a story-oriented player and GM. When a PC dies and a new PC joins the party, I’m going to have fun roleplaying the interactions while we get to know this new character and learn to trust them. It’s like getting a new guy at work, or having a new player join your gaming group… you get to know them.

    And the story of the game can involve a new character just as much as it can continue without any one character… I mean, one guy’s playing the Prince of Zamboodia? He dies? Killed by a goblin? Okay, so, what does that mean for the story? It doesn’t have to mean that the Prince’s storylines die. The storylines move in new directions. Maybe the player makes a new character who is involved in the royal court of Zamboodia and seeks out the Prince, finding him dead, he tells the rest of the party that old King Ransidon is mighty upset and the party has to deal with the fall-out. Maybe they seek out another heir? Maybe they flee old Z-land and never return? The possibilities are endless.

    In my opinion, PC death should happen, should be part of the story, and the consequences of a PC dying should improve the roleplay that follows instead of hindering it.

  5. I do believe PC death should be a possibility. If however, it should be entirely at the vagaries of the dice – or even someone’s interpretation of realism is another matter. Sure, it is realistic that a knight should die of an infection after a slight cut from a lucky chop from a dying goblin, but it isn’t fun, so we don’t do it.

    We play RPGs (or at least I do) in part because in them we can do fantastic things. Things that in some way we yearn to do (or shrink in horror from) in real life. So from that point of view at least, we are throwing “realism” out of the window. The other piece that is unique to RPGs is the notion of the co-operative game. No-one actually wins. The game plays best when each character is vested in the idea of propelling the story. The story is not the DM’s story, nor any one player’s story, but it is a collective effort of all participants, with the DM’s primary role as the chief facilitator and plot consolidator. If a player wants to be a part of a dark and gritty adventure where the dice fall as they may and to hell with the consequences, then by all means run such a game. However, since I have started the habit of actually asking my players whether they want me to play by the dice and impose the best strategies (within the creative limits of the creatures they are up against), very, very few have actually opted for the dangerous game. By far the majority of players want me to actually go a little easy on them. This is something which, as a father, I have no problem in doing. RPGs are not, by and large, some kind of competitive game. There is no such thing, individually as winning. Character death however, is definitely a kind of losing, and as such, it is definitely a hard thing to go through. I would think long and hard about whether I was being some kind of a slave to “realism” or “competitive spirit” if I find it necessary to kill characters because “the dice say they must die”.

    I am not saying that characters should not die. I am saying that if one is a slave to the dice, then as often as not, death will be ignominious and petty as it is in real life, and will seldom serve the plot. I have found through countless games and actually asking people about their preferences that in general people do not play RPGs to enjoy a realistic simulation. They play them to feel special and heroic.

    Now I agree that danger, even mortal danger is a necessary ingredient to excitement and the feeling of accomplishment when one conquers an adversary and fulfills a quest. However, such mortal danger should come at the hands of significant villains, not some minor footpads along the way, or some accident of falling from horseback. Sure, these things happen in real life, but books were not written about the would-be-hero who died at 17 after being thrown from his horse just before the battle. Books are invariably written about those who arrived at the crucial battles, whether they won or lost in the end. I personally consider that I have failed as a DM if my players end up dying in some minor incident through no fault of their own just because of bad die rolls. It does not serve the plot or the players’.

    Sure, the DM can always explain the death of one of the heroes, and explain the introduction of a replacement. However, in the end, will the player feel particularly accomplished when Harald the Cautious, the replacement (and one time henchman of) for Erlic the Happless, who replaced his brother, Theoderic the Unlucky finally arrives at the mission’s end?

    Would it not serve the story just as well if Erlic is restored to life by the intercession of the church that he served non-too-well in prior life, with the stipulation that he be bound (even geas’ed) to recover a powerful item sacred to the church, and that he furthermore be required to live a new life of piety and devotion (in the manner appropriate to his deity). Now we have an interesting story possibility – he could toe the line with a gusto – perhaps at the irritation of his comrades in arms, or he could go along reluctantly, perhaps even refusing in the end to feel bound to the agreement, thus (perhaps) jeopardising either the success of the overall mission, or sacrificing his own borrowed life at the final encounter as the deity withdraws favour at the last. This would supply both some awesome role-playing hooks as well as providing classic story lines for the DM to exploit.

  6. Oh boy, the end of the world is coming. I’m about to agree with Morrison.

    If we’re actually talking about character death, and not just how to integrate new characters…

    I just run a world. Things happen in this world. People have schemes, and hopes, and desires, and they try to follow these motivations. Some of these people are PCs; some of them are NPCs. Some of these people die with dreams unfulfilled. It doesn’t bother me at all.

    Adventuring (or whatever you want to call it) is a dangerous profession. If it wasn’t, why would anyone farm? Go kick a goblin in the face, get 500gp, and retire. In order for adventuring to actually be dangerous, people need to get killed/maimed doing it.

    Above all else, I am a fair GM. If a PC is teetering on the edge of death, and a blind goblin manages to roll well enough to shove them down the stairs, they’re dead. If the Evil Overlord narrowly escapes the PCs, but then fails a secondary poison effect and passes out face down in a mud puddle, it’s dead too. I don’t fudge anything.

    As a player, I feel vaguely insulted (at least condescended to) when my character really should die and is miraculously saved. I play to see what happens if a character is put in a particular situation. If “what happens” has already been determined to be “the characters live” before we even entered the situation, I don’t see any point to playing. If the PCs accomplish their goals, it should be through their own luck/guile/strength/decisions and not because the GM gave them no option but success.

    But yeah, I get the feeling that my take on games is a distinct minority. I just felt compelled to point out that Morrison and I are sorta coming from the same direction.

  7. My post seemed to touch upon a lot more subjects than I initially thought.

    * The use of ‘correctly’ – I probably should have used a different wording for that. I merely meant if a GM is using the monsters/creatures as written, at an appropriate challenge level for the party, and not fudging die rolls. Everything else being equal, this combination of factors could cause a character to die. As anything else in gaming, this doesn’t work for all groups – however, I am talking more from my experience with the groups I have played in.

    * The arrival of new characters – This will really come down to how much the group wants to role play meeting and bringing in the new character. This could be part of the adventure, or it could play out more like a coincidence (new character is at the right place at the right time). Again, it does seem to be a matter of what the group wants to do.

    Also, some situations are easier to integrate new players into than others. I have played in a game that had a situation that Andrew had mentioned – the main reason all of our characters were brought together was because we had the same mentor and had more or less grown up together. Some of our characters died or left, and it became almost comical with how the new characters were being brought in – people who also were connected to our mentor began popping up and saying “Oh, yeah. Remember me?”.

    * Resurrection – This is definitely a taste based issue. Some people like to play with resurrection and others don’t. Both ways bring their own problems and benefits. Personally, I’m not fond of it – however, I think I don’t like it because of how common it can become in a game. If a character is resurrected after every other adventure, it doesn’t seem like there is real downside to be killed. When resurrection becomes a mechanical ‘out’ for character death, that’s when I object to it.

    However, there are good story telling reasons for resurrection. Dominic’s example was pretty good and I think that would be an interesting direction to have a game go in. I guess my general rule of thumb is that resurrection should be special, perhaps something that has never happened before but there is a good storytelling reason to allow it. If April just wants her character to come back because she doesn’t feel like rolling up a new one – that’s not a good reason for resurrection. Of course, this is just my opinion – YMMV.

    * Character Death – My problem with eliminating character death entirely (or eliminating it in all but end-battle type circumstances), is what Paul mentioned – adventuring is dangerous. Therefore, there should be real consequences for characters for choices that they make. In an encounter, this means that challenging the dragon could end with a party member or two being burnt to a crisp. Even going up against a group of goblins or wolves can be dangerous – it’s part of the life.

    Now, I’m not 100% on the ‘rules-as-written, all die roles stand’ end of the spectrum. I do believe that there is room for occasional fudging of rolls or ‘looking the other way’ in the name of story telling and player fun. As previous comments mentioned, it is not fun for a character to go down because of a lucky critical hit from a below-level goblin. However, a GM fudging a roll to give the character a chance to remove himself from the situation or for the group to save the character is different than the GM continually fudging roles with that goblin so that the character can wail upon goblin with impunity.

    The main point of role playing games, for me, is to tell a compelling story with the players and the GM working cooperatively to do this. However, role playing games are still games – they have ‘success’ and ‘failure’ conditions. As a player, part of the fun of the game is not only telling the story, but ‘succeeding’ at the game. Part of the fun as a GM is to create challenges for the players to ‘succeed’ against. However, if there is no chance at ‘failure’, then what is the point at playing a game?

    Notice above that I put quotes around ‘succeeding’ and ‘failing’. I do not always believe that character death is a ‘failure’ condition. It does suck. It creates a lot more work for both the player and the GM. However, it does open up more story telling possibilities – how do the characters deal with that death? How do the loose ends of that character’s story get tied up now that he is dead? What does the new character bring to the story? It’s not unlike fiction that focus on a group of adventurers: some of them die, some of them leave, new ones join – that’s the ebb and flow of the story. I guess that’s what I would compare role playing games to, rather than fiction with a single hero.

    I guess my main problem with character death is that in most games, there is only a binary set of consequences (mechanically) for a character: the character either survives or doesn’t. There are no other mechanical consequences. Yes, the character may have to use resources to get up to full health again; however, the consequences are still the same: either the character has enough resources to survive the next encounter or doesn’t.

    I don’t know if the above was clear, so let me use an example. In Warhammer Fantasy 2nd ed. when a character runs out of wounds, they start having to roll on the critical hit table. Now, many of the consequences on the critical hit table are death (especially as you continue to role on it), but there are other consequences as well: scars, losing limbs, being knocked unconscious, gain injuries that take longer to heal, etc. Savage Worlds has a similar type system – once a character gets Incapacitated, the player has to roll to see if the character dies, or if they gain a Hindrance like a scar, a lost limb, or whatever.

    Something like the above gives GMs more to work with than just Character Death or not. It allows them to have real (mechanical) consequences for a character’s action, without outright killing him. Perhaps that’s a compromise for the two extremes.

    Anyways, thanks for everyone’s comments!

  8. :Mara-Kai: “I don’t know if the above was clear, so let me use an example. In Warhammer Fantasy 2nd ed. when a character runs out of wounds, they start having to roll on the critical hit table. Now, many of the consequences on the critical hit table are death (especially as you continue to role on it), but there are other consequences as well: scars, losing limbs, being knocked unconscious, gain injuries that take longer to heal, etc. Savage Worlds has a similar type system – once a character gets Incapacitated, the player has to roll to see if the character dies, or if they gain a Hindrance like a scar, a lost limb, or whatever.”

    I like the idea of “unconscious” being basically that you are completely disabled and out of the combat. This could mean you have lost a limb, your guts are falling out, you have a gaping rift in your skull, you have a sucking chest wound, you have been knocked unconscious (and may come to with memory loss and other concussion symptoms) or any other completely disabling condition, and you are unable stand, lift a finger, utter a spell or prayer whether in the defense of another or yourself. It might be cool to have a table of the possible conditions graphically laid out (with modifiers according to the type of damage dished out).

    If the character is healed before dying, there could be some minor consequences of the damage. Perhaps a gimpy leg (-1 to speed), or temporary partial deafness (-5 to perception) or other condition appropriate to the injury, until the character has leveled or taken an extended rest (whichever comes last). If the character dies and is revived, the same consequences could persist indefinitely (unless the character is revived with some divine bargaining of the type I mentioned before).

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