Like the unfettered dawn shall he blind us, and burn us, yet shall the Dragon Reborn confront the Shadow at the Last Battle, and his blood shall give us the Light. Let tears flow, O ye people of the world. Weep for your salvation.
– Wheel Of Time Series, Prophecy of the Dragon.
In the ongoing debate of killing of PCs and total party kills, one aspect of PC death is often left out: The Plot Kill. Having turned Plot Kills into defining campaign moments and having received some memorable Plot Kills myself, I think the concept warrants discussion.
First, to define Plot Kill: situations in which the DM plans for a PC death and executes either with or without mechanics. Examples could be playing out a “Last Stand” against a never ending horde of minions (played out to see how long the other characters actually have to make an escape) or requiring a PC to sacrifice himself to contain the essence of a mad god (no roll required). In this article I am going to discuss the guidelines of planning a Plot Kill, advise DMs on how to handle these occasions, and make a case to DMs for turning EVERY PC death into a Plot Kill.
Death, sacrifice, and prophecies of doom are fantasy mainstays. The problem many DMs approach in a D&D game is that these acts tend to single out one player and put him on a sacrificial altar. For the story-telling player friendly DM the thought of singling out someone to die is horrifying, but that is part of the point. The sacrifice should be both great and terrible. There are compelling reasons for ANY DM to use the plot-kill. Here are a few guidelines:
- Make it Count: If a PC makes a heroic last stand, make sure it gives the party the opportunity to do something truly awesome and world-altering. Maybe the major epic villain is vulnerable (and paragon power leveled) for 10 minutes after a powerful ritual. Really play up the heroic death and make that PC’s noble sacrifice meaningful. With death on the line, you’ll find that the tension (and fun) is ratcheted up a notch.
- Have Something New for the Martyr To Do: There’s no reason for the player that chooses the heroic sacrifice to be bored afterwards. Assuming it’s not the campaign finale, have a role for the player to assume. It can be as simple as being a bad guy for the rest of the adventure or having them assume control of a favorite NPC. After all, nothing is more delicious than having the former big bad join the PCs to fight an even bigger foe…
- Choices: Do not remove decision from the PC’s sacrifice. It’s hard to resist if it’s a pivotal plot point, but having the Player choose willingly to die makes it more riveting for a few reasons. The first is that it involves the player consciously deciding to kill the character. Regardless of the character to character reaction, the players at the table will all have to give props for it. Secondly, the greatest heroes in this situation become heroes by willingly making the ultimate sacrifice. Lastly, it lets the player bow out of it. This SHOULD be an option you prepare for. Maybe the heroes all live, but they fail dismally. Maybe the other characters brand him a traitor. Who knows! Sometimes this sort of option leads to out of the box thinking from the character in danger and turn a certain death into an unexpected victory of the ages. Regardless, be prepared for plan B and even an unexpected twist.
- Know your players: Some Players are just not going to like being thrust into the limelight and having to decide whether or not to off their character. Others would never let their beloved character die. The best players for this unique situation are storytellers and world-builders themselves with a fully rounded character that they role play well. Sacrifice should be a difficult and frightening decision to be sure, but making a power gamer consider this is probably the wrong tact.
Finally, there are times when PCs die in battles that they aren’t meant to die in. You can fudge the rolls, which sometimes work for the best. You can have it be a brutal reminder of the danger of adventuring, or you can hastily make it a Plot-Kill. Maybe the PCs needed a conduit to another plane, and their departed companions spirit can provide it. Perhaps someone the PCs cannot venture certain places due to powerful wards against the living, hence the return of the dead character as a revenant. The point is that death is a part of life and an enormous part of fantasy. Rather than grappling with how to avoid it with your players allow it to be an opportunity to take the game in bold new directions. It’s a fantasy game, it could be that death is just the beginning…