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Information for players on different ways to approach playing games, including character creation and role-playing ideas.

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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Backstories: Working them for GMs and Players

One of my favourite parts of building a character is writing the backstory. Sure, I know that it’s a fourth level gnome fighter, sure I know he’s 3’4″, has green eyes and pink hair, sure I know he’s more nimble than strong, more charismatic than wise… But why? What led young Henrick Von Flufferbottom or whatever his name is to be a fighter? Why is his hair pink? Why is he doing anything he’s doing?

So you write a back story… You craft a detailed epic of gnomish royalty who escape a violent coup, only to give birth to their son in the wilderness. They raised their son together until Troglodytes raided their caves, killing the former king and capturing his wife. Only young Henrick, the true prince of the land, escaped capture by hiding in his mother’s knitting basket. Alone, Henrick had to slay a swarm of Trogs to save his mother… Alas, it was too late, and she died in his arms. He did manage to help a wounded prisoner escape. That prisoner, though disabled from the loss of his leg at the hands of giants some twenty years ago, was still a cunning warrior and trained Henrick in the arts of being a warrior…

And then none of it is ever mentioned again.

So why do we bother? What’s the point of making detailed, rich backstories if they’ll just get ignored? Well, there isn’t one… So you have to make sure the backstory doesn’t get ignored or forgotten. But here’s the catch: yes, it’s important that the GM works with you, and it’s nice if they manage to bring some part of your backstory into the game. They could give poor Henrick a chance to finally avenge himself on the usurping ruler of his ancestral kingdom, for instance. But it’s not only up to the GM. Even if characters or events from a player’s backstory are never mentioned in the game, there is still every opportunity for that player to make the backstory matter. Let’s look at how both GM and players can make the backstory work again.

A GM’s Job

In theory, if you’re running an RPG, you’re trying to make the experience fun for your players. At least, I hope you are. If not, maybe you should look into a different hobby. Or maybe you have masochistic players. Either way, no judgements.

If you are trying to make the game fun, then you need to think about what your players want. Is Henrick the kind of player who wants his backstory to come into the game, then it doesn’t hurt to do it. Obviously, you have to be careful… If you let Henrick reclaim his throne and be in charge of a kingdom at level 4, it’s going to really change things like the player’s resources and allies; but that doesn’t mean you can’t give him his backstory fix at all. Maybe a Trog escaped his first rampage, and is hunting him down. Maybe his old, one-legged teacher is in trouble and needs help. Maybe Henrick gets a chance at revenge, if not against the usurper of his parents’ thrones, at least against the treacherous adviser who helped the usurper.

One thing to keep in mind if you do this as a GM is the rest of the party. If the characters are all legitimately friends, then it’s probably ok to have an adventure that is just helping poor Henrick. But if they’re a band of mercenaries, thrown together out of convenience and love of gold rather than loyalty, you’re going to need a better reason than Henrick saying please for them to do anything. One way to think about this, then, is using someone’s backstory as an adventure hook rather than an adventure goal. If Henrick’s old teacher needs help, maybe a party would be reluctant to drop everything to go help (even if Henrick would). But if Henrick’s teacher shows up and says he needs help because he learned of a valuable treasure, but that he is too weak to get it himself, and is willing to split it with them in exchange for their help… Well, then we have a character reference from Henrick (“you guys can trust him, I know him”) for a new adventure.

Also remember that bringing backstory elements into your game doesn’t have to big massive. Something as simple as having a wandering tribe of Troglodytes recognize Henrick and attack is enough to make Henrick’s player know that you paid attention to his story without stopping your whole game for one player and making all the others wait their turn for exposition.

A Player’s Responsibility

Alright, so that’s how a GM can work in some elements of a character’s backstory, but it’s not just the GM’s job. If you’re a player and you want your backstory to matter, make it matter! I’m not saying it needs to be your main focus… No one will want to team up with Henrick if he spends all day weeping about his dead parents and swearing bloody revenge against all Troglodytes. But if something major happened to affect a character’s life, some part of that needs to show up in the character’s life, right? Play your backstory. Play your character true to your backstory when it benefits your character and (and this is important) play your backstory even when it hinders you.

Henrick knows he should be a prince. Maybe he is arrogant sometimes. Or maybe watching his father’s death from the knitting basket left him with an irrational discomfort around yarn balls. It’s a simple thing you can play (don’t overdo too many negative qualities, or other players may get annoyed), that links back to your character.

Henrick doesn’t have to spend all day hunting Trogs. But maybe, if he and his party comes across some, he has a particular dislike for them. Maybe when a Trog surrenders and throws itself on the party’s mercy, Henrick wants to execute it despite his friend the Paladin’s wishes. Don’t make it a stopping point – don’t break your relationship with the rest of the party because “that’s what Henrick would do.” But make the fact that it bothers Henrick clear.

Henrick doesn’t have to spend all day being mopey about his parents having been killed. But maybe when he learns that the villain that the party has captured and is bringing back to be tried and executed has a five year old daughter and no living spouse, and all of the villain’s crime spun from trying to support her, Henrick has to struggle with what he should do. Does he go with his heart and let the villain go, refusing to make another child an orphan? Does he deliver the villain to justice and try to find some way to support the girl? Does he try to convince the jury to punish the villain through imprisonment rather than death? Obviously the safest plan for the party would be to let the villain face his fate… But all of these thoughts are better for Henrick’s story. Not only that, but they also give the GM something to work with. Does the villain (or his daughter) come back? Maybe they are grateful? Maybe they aren’t. Either way, Henrick, in playing his story, has lead to the possibility of more story.

Working Together

So if you’re a GM and your player put work into a backstory that they clearly want to matter, throw them a bone. You can show that you see and value their backstory without having to completely work the game around it. And if you’re a player who wants your backstory to matter, make sure you play it. If you don’t show that you care about the backstory enough to play it, why would anyone else care?

And if you’re not sure? Talk to each other. There’s nothing stopping a GM from saying “Would you like something out of your backstory to come into the campaign?” or a player from saying “How would you feel about my character’s past coming into an adventure?”. Even if you’re not always on the same side in play, you are a team when it comes to the game. Work together, you’ll have more fun that way.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2015 in Role-Playing Games

 

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