Monday 5 September 2016

Hints & Tips - PLAYED TO DEATH

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Let’s take a look at the sobering subject of character death in roleplaying games

One of the worst things about being the all-powerful GM in a roleplaying game is looking across the gaming table and staring into the eyes of someone who just died. Not you’re friend actually keeling over at the table, of course, but the player’s character in question. After many games, actually biting the big one after being shot/ stabbed/ blown up/ dissolved/ vaporised/ minced/ spaced/ gassed/ strangled/ beaten/ sliced/ diced/ pushed/ made very depressed and left with only one drastic, stupid option.

The character is, to be blunt, dead.

Oh, dear. There is never a worse time in a game as when a carefully designed player character actually makes one too many mistakes, or one too many low dice rolls, to be allowed to survive. There are many things that you have to consider before, during and after a character being killed.


Oh, please. We’ve all sat down and designed the ‘mother of all deadly locations’ with pitfalls and lasernets and security systems to die for. Literally. What you’ve got to realise is that the players won’t take the risk if they think that it’s simply too difficult and then all your evil work has gone to waste.

You don’t want to get to the point where you’re saying ‘that’s Bill, Bob and Brenda out of the way. That just leaves you, Belinda'. So Belinda turns round, looks at her dead friends and says something along the lines of ‘screw that’. Oh, spending that two hours drawing the floor plans was worth it, eh? It’s not only that, what are your players going to think? ‘This evil b*****d is out to get us!’

There is nothing worse than losing a well-cultivated character to a simple throw of a dice, especially when you’re told ‘no, that’s not good enough, you’re dead’. You have to make sure that the players either have a) a logical way out or b) several sets of rolls they can make to limit the damage. Make sure that whatever you’ve designed has a weak spot or an escape route that is tangible. There’s no use the players battling a killer ‘droid for an hour only to get pasted, and then for you to say ‘People, you had to use a high-frequency signal to disrupt it’s carrier wave so that the defence screen drops’. If you hadn’t alluded to that earlier or given that option then it makes the deaths pointless. You want the player’s to go ‘Oh, of course, why didn’t we remember that?’ instead of ‘How the hell were we supposed to know that?’


But what do you care, right? You can’t hold the player’s hand through a scenario, all you’re doing is presenting the material and it’s up to the player to get through it. Hey, if they get vaped that’s their own fault, right?


It’s very true that you can’t direct the player on the path to success. It’s also true that part of the game is the fact that they are taking risks and giving them the obvious way out of every situation is a no-no because it destroys the illusion of risk.

You don’t want the players to walk away from a situation where they were blatantly doing things that were so dangerous, so reckless, that the chances of getting killed were high. You don’t want to tell them ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ continuously because that makes them far too wary and not only makes them a lot more cautious, which slows the game down, but it also virtually guarantees them survival. What you want to do is allude to the fact that it is a dangerous situation. If the player is still on a road to destruction then quickly throw in a reminder of their predicament. If they continue then it’s the final jump for them if they fail. At least you can’t be held responsible for the death of the character. Don’t remind them all the time, just when the encounter begins and maybe a quick mention at variable points.

Also, the biggest no-no, is when the player states their actions and you have to make the response. Don’t look at them with a smile and an evil twinkle in your eye and say ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ What an evil, egotistical thing to do! If the character does die then the player is going to think it was pre-ordained by the GM. Oh, that’ll bring them back for more.


No, I don't mean blow them up (unless it's called for), I mean make sure that their deaths mean something. Make sure, after twenty games battling the evil enemy, after saving worlds and thwarting plots and being generally pleasant, that they don't simply die in a corridor after getting blasted by a lucky shot.

‘Luke Skywalker. You destroyed the Death Star, fought a rearguard action to defend Hoth and defeated Vader and the Emperor - oh, dear, you've died a stupid pointless death. Ah, well, that's life, eh?’

Yes, it may be life but it's not very high adventure, is it? Don't listen to those people who say, 'Well, anyone can trip over a root and break their neck, just like in real life'. It's not real life! It's a game of exploding starships and laser fights, of bright shining swords and dashing heroes. Compare these two facts:
(a) Real Life.
(b) Faster than light travel, lasers and magic.
Oh, please. If you wanted real life you'd go to the shops or something and then get skill points. 'Oh, that's a high skill in grass cutting, now...' Get the point?

When a roleplaying character makes a last gasp you've got to make sure it means something. Maybe they get to pilot a starship into a marauding warship to save a planet - fair enough, the character may not have survived a hit but you can just say - 'look, you've got a few rounds to live, what do you want to do?' Then that'll give them time to throw defiance at their enemy, gasp their last, poignant words or save a life. Of course, knowing that they're going to die, some players might take the mickey and say 'I'll shoot the other player characters' or 'I'll tapdance and shout “don't fight, dance”!' At this point you should just say 'too late, you're dead.' If they're going to mess about with what should be a dramatic moment then they probably won't have minded simply dying, anyway.

Character death can be annoying - it can be a little upsetting to the player if the character is a well-cultivated one - but it should never be trivial. After the game there should be a few moments to reflect on the character and whatever they attained in their career. Remind the player what they played and why so that they will try to emulate or rekindle what they lost. Players should be able to create their next character with the knowledge that they will get a fair deal at a game and that they can create a personality that will have a beginning and an end. It all makes good roleplaying.