Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #27 - Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4 - The Mortality of the Situation

Welcome to the roundtable ... once again the GM's gather and ponder the following:
There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?  
-Lex Starwalker
Claimer: Death Might Happen

Technically death could come for any of the PCs in my games at any time. I say technically because I don't design encounters to be deadly, nor do I run NPCs & creatures as an exercise in lethality. I don't have anything against PC death as such, but I also know that there is a balance between the threat of death and the fact that your character just died and maybe you suddenly feel a lot less interested in the game.

Tabletop play also differs from computer play (where you die and then reset) or play in game with non-linear storytelling (where you can go back in time and keep playing the doomed PC). Generally speaking having a character die in a table top RPG means one of two things; they are gone for good, or they are gone until they come back. The former can be both a positive and a negative. Having consequences and stakes is a good thing, but like I said above, losing your most tangible link to the campaign can be demotivating. For the GM it's best to know what your players are looking for going in. Do they want a game where death lurks around every corner? Or do they want a game where death could happen, but only in extreme cases? It also helps to keep in mind the latter half of the death equation: permanency.

A character who dies in a game of Dungeons & Dragons isn't dead. They're out of play for a bit, but there are well known and established way for the other PCs to get their buddy raised from death. Resurrections make death an inconvenience, it's almost a bug not a feature, because with potent enough magic anybody can be hauled back to life. The same goes for Supers games, where the comic book rules apply; nobody stays dead except Uncle Ben, and the Waynes. Your hero could, in the pulp tradition that comics stem from, create some highly implausible scenario of survival, they could be cloned, brought back from a parallel universe, freed from death, or any number of "outs". Impermanent death is nothing to fear, it's just a moment of dramatic tension, maybe the emphasis on a climax of a story, but it's ultimately just a bump in the road.

Death by Design

All of the above are part of a general state of games; death could happen (unless you literally decide that it cannot, at all). None of that considers the idea of death as part of the plan. Not indiscriminate carnage of the kind seen in OSR games, or the highly gritty and lethal sort of the post-modern noir cyberpunk. Those games are lethal, but that's just how they are built. There's a difference there with games where the GM and a one or more players contrive to have a character die as part of that character's personal story.

Let's take a fantasy game as an example; maybe there's something to be gained by a character's death, an opportunity for storytelling that won't work otherwise. You might even know that the character will be coming back eventually, but while they are dead there's a side character with an important role to play. Maybe the player is going to be unavailable for a good number of sessions and this is a way to explain their absence while making things exciting in game for the characters. Alternately maybe the character needs to die in order to gain some knowledge from beyond the veil. Regardless of the why a GM and a Player can conspire to kill a PC. This is obviously going to be somewhat anticlimactic for the GM and player, but maybe they can keep things secret from the other PCs and give the other players an evening to remember.

Death also provides a way to close out a long running character's story. When I played play-by-post style RPGs I was more than willing to write a character's death if I tired of them, or felt it was appropriate for the story of the game as a whole. In a World of Darkness inspired game my character was the only mortal in a game populated with vampires and werekin and mages. She didn't know exactly what was going down, and she thought she could handle herself. It was a fitting tragic end for the character after I decided to end my time in that game, and it impacted the other character's through her relationships with them.

Meat Grinders

There are other games where characters are meant to die. Not by design of story, or by simple odd on a lethal set of rule, but because death is part of the point. Horror games should see characters die, especially the ones who have sex or go into basements alone. It fits the genre, and it helps set the tone for the other players. Victims' Games like these can be great fun because there is no expectation for survival. Often these are one-off games as well, so playing the cheerleader who gets chainsawed to death is just as fun as managing to survive to the end with the nerd.

Other times the meat grinder may be there to ensure that the survivors are truly survivors. Dungeon Crawl Classics throws each player a handful of meat and asks them to just try and survive their first session; those who do are worthy to become a player character.

Ledger of Lethality

So what about me? As a GM I generally don't run toward heavily lethal play. I don't find it rewarding to kill characters. If the players are stupid and fail to keep themselves alive that's a different story. I'll kill you if you earn it, but I don't set out to fill graves.

Sometimes things just go poorly for a player, and no amount of GM fudging will save them without outright cheating. Accidents do happen, and when they are aiming for a six foot hole in the ground you can usually see them from a ways off. Depending on where things in the game are I will possibly use extreme GM Fiat to save a character. Crippling injury is often as effective as death when it comes to teaching players & characters a lesson, while also avoiding the negation of weeks or months of work roleplaying with a character.

On the other hand sometimes you just have to let death happen. Maybe there's nothing you can do without breaking any sense of there even being a game (at which point you have transgressed into happy fun time story hour). Let the player make a new character, maybe stopping play while they do so, maybe continuing onward while they do so, and maybe continuing onward and allowing them to run an NCP or even help GM. A character death shouldn't derail a session, and that is probably part of why I tend toward games where character creation is quick. By the time the player has a new character done I can have the others at a point where the new character can come into the show.

The end all be all is that death in our RPGs needs to serve a purpose, be it a lesson for the characters, or the players, a means to set the tone of the game, a way to tell a story that couldn't be told otherwise, or even as a means of creating characters who have memorable shared experiences. Death without a point is worthless, but if there is are consequences or a reason it can be a powerful tool in the hands of a good GM.


Got a question for the GM's? Ask in the comments or send it an email to and we'll put it into the hat for future round tables!


Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you'd like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

Want to see some other blogger's takes on this subject? Check out:

+James August Walls  at

+Scott Robinson - Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game at

+Lex Starwalker - How Lethal Are Your Campaigns? at

+John Marvin - TPK Anyone? at

+John Clayton - Fatality! at

+Peter Smits - PCs and the killing there of at

+Arnold K. - Lethality at

+Evan Franke - To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM at

1 comment: