- 2009: in the wake of the H1N1 scare, I tackled a Zombie Apocalypse micro-setting for a Modern RPG.
- 2008: in the grip of rising depression symptoms, I concocted a creepy post about the Nightmare fuel trope.
- 2007: I started the tradition (so to speak) with a Trope post about mixing it up in your campaign by putting costumes on common mechanics to make new, strange monsters/treasures.
This year again, I’m sitting at my kitchen breakfast counter while the kids (now 8 and 7) are out terrorizing the surroundings for some sugar-cane based spoils of war. Once again, I’m the guardian of the dungeon, sitting over a chestful of delicious Coffee Crisps candy bars, bags of Trans-fat free 95 calories chips and fiendish sour gummy-zombies packets.
In the mean time, what better topic on All Hallow’s Eve than tackling a recent letter by a reader inquiring about dealing with the ever throny issue of character death.
Dear Grim Reaper…
My name is Tom. I’ve been reading your blog quite a bit over the last few days, and I’ve found it to be a really useful source of information and inspiration. You also seem like an approachable sort of guy, so I thought I’d, well, approach you with a question.
I’ve been running my first campaign for a few sessions now, and in this particular campaign, there’s no resurrection when a PC dies– something we all agreed to going in, as it seems to add a meaningful sense of risk.
This has made the few combat encounters– the focus of the campaign has really been more about exploration, puzzle-solving, and character interaction– pretty intense, with some characters coming close but narrowly escaping their demise. Which has also made it very exciting and a lot of fun for me and my players.
So far, none of the characters have actually died, and I’ve given the characters a magical item that can help save another character from their fate.
What I’m worried about is when, eventually and inevitably, someone’s character does die. It’s not that I’m worried about how they’ll handle it– they’re all a pretty mature bunch, so I don’t expect any tantrums. It’s, what if a PC dies half-way through an adventure, with two or three hours of dungeon or character negotiations or puzzles left?
I don’t want anyone to just sit there being bored while all the others are having a ball, nor do I want to abruptly halt the adventure. I’d like to keep the deceased character’s player entertained and engaged in some way. Do you have any suggestions?
Of Death, Drama and the value of one’s Free Time
Among the recurring themes of RPG forum and blog posts, setting the lethality level and handling the death of PCs is way up there. I’m willing to bet there was at least one article about that in the first few issues of Dragon magazine.
Now the range of answers to Tom’s inquiries are about as large as there are pundits and writers pondering this, here’s mine.
It all comes down to how much the free time of your players is worth to them and how much you value it when they sit at your table. Dear GMs, in the unlikely chance that you still haven’t learned that fundamental lesson, in this day and age of MMORPGs and Skype remote playing, players don’t have to be unilaterally grateful to have a spot at your table, it goes both ways. I wrote a post about that way back when that’s still very relevant today.
So while loosing one’s PC in the middle encounter of a long night of playing is a likely outcome of any RPG, having it occur in a game where making a new PC takes a long chunk of time (and possibly the DM’s attention if electronic tools aren’t available) can put a serious damper on everyone’s fun.
Of Death and other Inconveniences.
So Tom, my first suggestion is to ask your players what they expect in the likelihood that character death does occur mid-encounter, with plenty of time remaining to play out other encounters? Maybe they’ll tell you that they’d rather stop the game until their fallen comrade builds a new character, opting to play a quick card game like Dominion or Three-Dragon Ante.
Assuming Tom plays D&D 4e, I also suggest that he has the D&D character builder (or equivalent software tool if you play Pathfinder, Savage World or any other OGL-based RPG) installed on a nearby computer and hooked to a printer. Thus, that gives his down-on-her-luck player the best tools to come back as fast as possible.
I would also question the finality of death in your game. If you play 4e or Pathfinder, a game where character creation is a complex process, requiring the player to make a lot of choices and invest significant energies, you may want to rethink your initial decision. There are other ways to create that sense of risk that you are trying to simulate by making Death final.
For instance, I’d consider making the success or failure of certain ‘turning points” of your story hinge on key PCs not dying at all during the adventure. Maybe the cleric bears a divine mark (needed to complete a ritual in a dungeon) that will dissipate if she dies, regardless if the Shaman raises her after the fight. Maybe the Paladin needs a flawless reputation to gain the trust of the local lord and can’t afford to be slain by dishonorable Wererats (leading to a great RPing moment, should the fallen and raised LG paladin lie to achieve the party’s goal).
Follow the Other Light…
Alternatively, If death is so final in your game, you should explore or create story reasons for that. Is it possible that the realm of the Dead (e.g. 4e’s Shadowfell), where souls can be plucked for resurrection, is closed for some specific reason? Is it possible that the soul of a deceased character remains on the material plane but slowly dissolves over the next few minutes (like Terry Pratchett’s recently deceased characters)?
What if, during those next few minutes, a slain heroic soul could still help its comrades? What if it could play in some sort of combat-based skill challenge, with a ghost figurine on the board, that can interact with the challenge at hand? In fact, what if the Arcane, Religion and Nature-based PCs could perceive the ghostly PC and share action in a new etherial challenge?
For example, what if the deceased PC could yank the souls out of monsters by grabbing them or cutting them loose with an appropriate skill check or Weapon attack? Maybe if the Ghost PC fails 3 times… it dissipates. Thus, even though the PC’s dead, there’s still a stakes at play. The living PCs sensing the ghost could support it with minor action rolls of the appropriate skill.
The Road More Traveled
Otherwise, if that’s too far fetched for you, turn the table and give the control of the monsters to the players who just lost a PC, involve them in your story. Listen to their suggestions and try to work them in your campaign.
Or just give him the keys to your car to go and get the pizza, or allow him to leave the table to go play with the PS3 or flirt with your significant other…
What about you guys, how do you handle death. Anyone has used clever tricks to make the experience less of a drag while still making it a significant stake in the game? Is it an issue in your game or did you address it up front? Let us know!