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Deadly Decisions: Should a GM Kill Off Player Characters?

No.

Ok, so I was once told that, when writing (specifically for school, but we’ll count it here), if your thesis asks a question that can be answered with only a yes or no, you shouldn’t bother writing it. So, with that in mind, I’m going to go into a bit more nuances than a straight no. But should, generally speaking, a GM kill of a player’s character?

No. Just… No.

I┬ácan hear the cry of RPG purists now. “The rules!” they yell. “If the dice say they die, then they should die!” I’ll remind those people of two things: (1) It’s a game; it’s supposed to be fun, and the rules of most modern editions of D&D and the like point that out; and (2) My blog has a running theme of fudging rules in order to make a game more enjoyable; if that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to much like anything that comes next.

Yes, in the rules of most RPGs (my experience is mainly in D&D and Pathfinder, so that’s what I’m going to refer to most), characters can die if things go badly for them. A bad decision, an unlucky roll of the dice, a particularly poorly-planned encounter… These things could kill you. And, yes, if you’re playing by the rules, characters will probably die, eventually.

But it’s a game, folks. It’s supposed to be fun. And do you know what’s not fun? Watching your roll to stop yourself from falling into a bottomless pit come up a one. Or, conversely, watching the GM roll a critical hit on you for the third time in a row. These things happen, it’s just probability. And probability can be a boring, vindictive, jerk sometimes. So there are times when it’s important to tell probability to go have a long walk in a dark, monster-infested woods, while wearing bright colors and beef-jerky flavored body spray.

In other words, lie. It’s sort of why those GM screens exist. That third critical? Aw shucks, it was actually only a 3. That bottomless pit? An illusion, tied to a reverse gravity trap that suspends your character helplessly in the air (real bottomless pits are expensive, after all). We’re all good. You don’t want to let your players get off completely free; you want it to feel like the game has risk, has consequences. But you can walk a line between making the game feel dangerous and actually making it deadly.

And again, the purists rail, “that’s not the point of the game!” Ok, if that’s how you like your game, fine. I have a friend who likes a quote that he heard… somewhere (neither of us know where; if you do, feel free to comment): In games like D&D, you treat a character like a car in Grand Theft Auto; ride it hard and, when you get bored, crash it into a wall. I disagree, not with the idea that you can play a character that way, but that you should. There’s no right way to play, really. If you want to play your character recklessly and to heck with the consequences, go for it. If your group wants to play hard ball with the rules and kill people, go for it.

But don’t force it on anyone.

If your players are attached to the characters (lots of people are) or otherwise don’t like them dying, don’t kill them. Even if you have to cheat, fudge dice, make nonsense up, don’t kill them. Threaten them. Hurt them. Make them think you’re going to kill them… But don’t kill them. And for the love of peanut-butter, as a player, don’t kill off your own character as a player by playing so recklessly you endanger everyone else. Your character diving headfirst into an unwinnable battle or making dumb choices can impact the rest of the party and, if they’re not ok with that style of reckless play and having to make new characters, there’s going to be resentment.

You want to drive your car into a brick wall? Don’t do it with the rest of your party in the back seat.

Again, I’m not saying you have to listen to me. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for player decisions or that you shouldn’t be somewhat beholden to what the dice say. But, if your players don’t like the idea of their characters dying, why put them through something that they don’t think is fun? It kind of ruins the whole “game” part of “role-playing games,” don’t you think?

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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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