How Will You Die?

Contrary to what a certain commenter would (probably) have you believe, I’m not that much of an asshole. I’m opinionated. I’m generally right (until proven otherwise). These traits are overblown on the internet because there’s no good way to present a strong opinion about something and come across as understanding of opposing views without appearing contradictory. And I have an annoying habit of saying (or doing) something that pisses somebody off, and then trying to engage in conversation like nothing happened.

I should probably work on that last one…

That being said, I don’t consider DarkEagleGames to be a “bad” person. Childish? Yes. Bad, no. Which is why I have no problem reading his posts one-on-one, in their own right, to see if there’s anything worth considering. And there is, right here, where the topic is the necessity of PC death ~ or more specifically, that player character death has to be a real, viable threat in your game.

Imagine playing a game of Monopoly where you are allowed to grab money from the bank. You hit a hotel on Boardwalk; you just pay from the bank. It wouldn’t take long to realize that there was no situation where you could lose. As a novelty, this might be fun for 10 minutes, but after that, you will immediately lose interest in the game.

As a GM, if you remove the possibility of the Hero’s death you are playing an elaborate version of the Monopoly mention before. Because an RPG is so intricate, it might take a long while for the players to realize they are playing a game that they cannot lose. But once that idea subconsciously enters their mind, you have begun an erosion process that will make them lose interest.

I completely agree with this idea. It aligns all too well with my views on the game. But while reading the post, a certain thought struck, in a moment of fridge logic: how do we handle the death of a PC?

In the short-term, it might make sense to a GM to go out of the story’s way to save a Hero’s life. After all, no GM or player enjoys the heartbreak that immediately follows a Hero’s death. Then there is the hassle of making and introducing a new Hero. Whenever a Hero dies, there is also the risk that you will lose a player either in the short-term or long-term. It just doesn’t seem worth it, so the Hero lives.

The emphasis is mine.

Dark Eagle is correct: there’s a strong, visceral, painful reaction to the death of a player character. The character is the player’s personal creation. Their very existence in your world is an intimate thing ~ an expression of the player himself, a work of art (in a way) ~ and if the character has survived for any appreciable amount of time, the player’s connection with his creation will be all that much stronger.

So what happens when it comes time to say the words, “I’m sorry, but you’re dead.”

The scene is a battle, chaos all around, the DM bouncing from action to action, player to player, round to round, keeping up a steady pace of action and excitement, keeping the players on the edge. Rebecca’s making dice rolls and quickly adding up numbers, adrenaline pumping through her body as much as she hopes it’s going through theirs. A few lucky hits and some well-played tactics forces a character away from the group. Dave’s isolated but he has a decent defense and some hit points left. then it happens. Blow after blow, in rapid succession, three critical strikes and each of them dealing near maximum damage. the character is down. Past the point of no return: so far into the negative that he’s dead-dead. playing by the rules, the DM can’t fudge this moment, even if her ethics allowed for it, even if there was an opportunity in the framework of the story ~ he’s dead and there’s nothing that will change that fact.

Does she pause? Is there a break in the action? Are the players given time to process this information? Dave’s character was their tank. He was the beefcake that protected them, that carried their fight time-and-time again. Will Rebecca slow the action as she realizes what’s about to happen? Will she lift her head long enough to ask, “How many hit point are you at again?” Will she shake her head at the answer, frown at her dice, cast her eyes to the ground? Will her shoulders slump and the life drain from her as she looks up, her face barely hiding back the pain as she says the words, “I’m sorry Dave, you’re dead.”

Or will Rebecca take the opposite approach? Sure, the other players are going to take a moment go, “Well fuck us, dude!” but the DM doesn’t have to stop the action. A brief pause, a quick reminder that it’s Martin’s turn and the game continues. This is a fight! A battle for their very lives! Yes, one of their comrades ~ who has been with them from the very beginning, a childhood friend, a close confidant and a trusted ally ~ has fallen before the enemy. But when that enemy is still before you, brandishing steel with that glint of madness in his eye, you don’t have time to grieve for the fallen. Sorrow comes later, after you’ve survived and you’re able to bury the dead. Before that, you have to survive! So pick up those dice and keep surviving, maggot! Give ’em hell! For Dave!!!

These moments will happen in your game. How will you use them? How will you convey them to the players? How will you deliver the message that death is real, that it comes for us all, but that you are just as sympathetic to their loss as they are. How will you take the opportunity and turn it into the stuff of myth and legend that will be told for ages to come?

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