Don't Fear the Reaperby Walt Ciechanowski
Don't Fear the Reaperby Walt Ciechanowski
By: Walt Ciechanowski
Don't Fear the Reaper
One of the hardest responsibilities of a Game Master is allowing player characters to die. All of us have had a character fall into a situation where the logical course is death and the GM has to make a decision whether to let it happen or "fudge" game reality to save the character. There are times when players feel the GM has cheated when he spares a character, and there are times when the GM is derided as unfair when he lets a mortal wound stand.
So what is kosher? The answer isn't simple. Every situation is different, and there are a variety of factors that must be considered. Some gaming groups expect a high body count; other groups expect that characters will die only under extreme circumstances. Still others don't expect their characters to die at all and, should it happen; the affected player would seriously consider leaving the game (or at least become apathetic). Today's article explores some of these factors.
The television model
I tend to run my campaigns like an ongoing television series (and yes, sometimes I get pretentious enough to call my campaigns "series" and my adventures "episodes"). The players are the stars; they get their names in the opening credits. I weave my plots and subplots around their characters, and I enjoy the twists and turns of life-altering decisions that the players make for them. For me, a player character death is a dramatic moment that will forever alter the campaign. This reflects television reality. We don't expect anyone in the permanent cast to die unless there is a behind-the-scenes reason for it (an actor quits, a limited contract, an executive decision to shake up the series, etc). As a result, I generally don't let my characters die either, except for metagame reasons (a player is bored with the character, I feel a change is needed, a player leaves the game, I consider the death a dramatic end for a story arc, the player agrees that the situation calls for his character's death, etc).
However, it is important to remember that an RPG campaign is not a television series, and some of the rules don't apply. When the time comes for the final filming of an episode, the director is not surprised by the actor's responses. They are both following the script. Assuming no dramatic death scene has been planned, the actor will be sure to perform the actions necessary to keep his character from dying and finish the episode. There are no such assurances in a roleplaying game.
A GM is not a director. She creates the story, runs the NPCs and prompts the PCs, but she cannot force the players to follow the script (it is more accurate to say that she wouldn't force the players to follow the script, as any attempt to do so would raise accusations of railroading). While the GM would normally like to see the players make all the right decisions, it is up to the players to determine their courses of action.
What the GM does have control over are the rules and her own judgment. The rules allow each player to design a character that fits within the parameters set by the GM, and he is entitled to expect that the GM will craft her stories accordingly. The rules encourage good decision making, as nasty things can happen to an unprepared character. It is the GM's job to implement these rules as fairly as possible. Above and beyond the rules, the GM should also be prepared to use her judgment to enforce the style and tone of the campaign.
Death is the ultimate motivator. Players tend to pay more attention and make better decisions if they feel that their characters' lives hang in the balance. They won't be so eager to tip their hand to the bad guys, or jump into situations that their characters are woefully unprepared for. Even in a television series-styled game, the possibility of permanently losing a character must remain at the forefront of the players' minds, and it must occur when it is kosher to do so.
Style over substance?
Ultimately, the style of the campaign is in the GM's hands. The rules may call for a gritty cyberpunk campaign where life is cheap and characters are regularly killed by random acts of violence, but if the GM wants to run her cyberpunk campaign as a light-hearted romp it's entirely within her province to do so. Some games actively discourage unfortunate deaths (usually the results of bad dice rolls) by either watering down the lethality of "unnamed" thugs or skewing fate in the PCs' direction by offering some version of luck points (a prime example of this is in 7th Sea, where PCs are only considered "knocked out" unless the opponent makes a separate coup de grace move).
If you want to keep your game kosher, you need to understand the style of the game you wish to run and communicate it accurately to the players. You must also ensure that the character sheets reflect that style. Telling the players that your game will be lethal is not enough. The players' knee-jerk reaction will be to pump up their combat abilities at the expense of other areas. This can be a problem if you were planning on running an investigative campaign where any resort to violence will be met with extreme prejudice.
Once the characters are created and you start the session, you need to enforce your style early and often. I'm not saying that you should kill characters straight out of the gate (character creation is often a long, arduous process, and it isn't fair to let the player get invested a character only to lose it in ten minutes), but you should ensure that the consequences of player actions fit the style you wish to promote. If you've warned them that any firefight risks character death, and lo and behold when the first fight does break out it results in a character death, it is healthier for the future of your campaign to let the death stand than to save the character.
As a general rule, it's fair to rescue a PC from death if that death was the result of a metagame misunderstanding. In most cases, this is clear. If a player misinterprets a rule or misunderstands its application, allowing her character to suffer for it is unfair (unless the player chronically misinterprets the same rule, or had been put on warning prior to the incident). Misinterpretation is not the same as probability. If the player thought there was a chance the character could die, but placed the odds of survival at 60% instead of 40%, there's a stronger argument to let the death stand, and you should use your style as a guide.
Misunderstanding the scene is a related issue. Although props are becoming more common and sophisticated in roleplaying games, most games still rely heavily on the mind's eye. The player forms an image of the scene based on descriptions given by the GM as well as other players. This is especially true in combat scenes where no props (map, miniatures, etc.) are used. Sometimes, a player can see the same scene very differently from what the GM is visualizing. During scenes like this, I err on the side of caution. If I feel a player is about to try something stupid, I'll walk them through the scene again prior to rolling. Most players take the hint. If your game relies on a lot of combats, I do suggest props (even a rough sketch on a sheet of paper helps a lot). If the player still decides to go forward, then let the chips fall where they may.
The lucky shot
One of the hardest decisions to make is whether to let a PC die in a relatively unimportant scene. If your paladin is gearing up for the battle of his life against the demon lord's army tomorrow, you don't want to lose him over an arm wrestling match gone bad at the tavern the night before. You don't want to see your private investigator plunge to his death when he stepped out on the windowsill of the 11th floor to prevent detection by the bellboy. If a player must lose a character, they would much rather it be meaningful than a spot of random bad luck.
This is where the GM needs to use her best judgment. She needs to take the style and tone of the campaign into consideration, as well as what the consequences will be. She should ask herself two separate but related questions. First, does the death tell the story, and second, did the player tell the story? We'll start with the first question.
In some campaigns, the lives of characters are cheap. Most of us who played RPGs back when character sheets were chiseled on stone tablets and dice were made of real bone cut our teeth on dungeon-cleaning. We faced a challenge in almost every room and were rewarded regularly with treasure. The dungeon itself was a test of our party's mettle. In such games a character's death five rooms into a thirty room dungeon tells the story. Same goes for a search and rescue mission behind enemy lines. Having a PC picked off by a random sniper before the team makes it into the compound tells the story. On the other hand, if your players are police investigators trying to stop a master vampire from taking over the city council and a PC gets killed because the prostitute they tried to pry information from gutted him with a pocket knife, you should probably give the PC a pass (and maybe keep his arm in a sling for the remainder of the episode). Why? The prostitute was a routine stop on a gumshoe investigation. The story being told was whether the PCs could piece together the clues and stop the vampire in time, not whether they could survive the investigative process. It can be a fine line sometimes, but not impossible to see.
The second question can be tricky. Do the player's actions tell the story? In other words, is the player acting "in character" within the parameters of the story? Let's look at the prostitute scene again. The GM wants the PCs to get the information from her. She knows something, but she is too afraid to share. She's no expert with a knife, only intending to brandish it to get the PCs to back off. The GM expected the PCs to quickly and efficiently disarm her and then encourage her to share her information. If the player had his character attempt a quick disarm and botched his roll, resulting in a fatal stab, the player was telling the story. If, however, the player drew his gun and attempted to blow her shoulder apart and botched his roll, he's not telling the story (unless he's supposed to be a psycho cop). In the second case, the GM should let the ruling stand (as well as lecture the player on the tone of the campaign) as an object lesson. Good fortune should not favor the foolish.
Going on the offensive
If a player's actions don't tell the story (or even resisting the story), then you may want to proactively encourage good behavior. While you don't need to contrive to kill characters, you could put obstacles in their way to remind them of what they should be playing.
As an example, a police investigator who routinely disregards police procedures is going to garner a reputation real fast. The investigator may be reassigned, put on probation, or even suspended. Criminals he arrests may be regularly set free because a judge determined that their rights were violated. Other officers may not want to work with him, and actively keep him at arm's length when delicate action is necessary. If this character manages to catch a bullet during a routine traffic stop, the GM is probably not going to cut him a break.
As a GM, you decide the style and tone of the campaign. When the possibility of a character death occurs, keep that style and tone in mind. Make sure your decisions help foster that style and tone, rather than detract from it.