Death in RPGs

I am a big Raymond E Feist fan.  His Magician was given to me for my twelfth birthday and goes down in (my) history as the first fantasy book I read.  Pug, Caroline, Martin, Arutha, Tomas, Sword Master Fannon, Kulgan, Jimmy the Hand and the list just goes on.  Characters I really loved and enjoyed following.  Then there was Silverthorn and finally A Darkness at Sethanon to round things out.  He spent some time with Janny Wurts building the Empire series and then came A Prince of the Blood. My friends also read this series after I finished with them and I remember clearly that A Prince of the Blood was really poorly received by them, although I really liked the new idea.

My first fantasy novel

They disliked it because the old cast started to perish.  The uproar that was heard from one of my friends in particular when he read Swordmaster Fannon fell down some steps, broke his hip and died of complications a little while later were resounding.  Here was one of his favourite skilled characters bought low in what he saw as such an ignoble death.  To me I saw the death as poignant.  Fannon had lived so long because of the ingenuity of his companions.  His death mattered to me in relation to the story because it was saying that what happened in those other three books mattered.  The actions of the heroes allowed the characters to live a normal life.  It allowed them to grow old and die.  My friend would have preferred Fannon died defending Aruthra from some creature or assassin.  He wanted him to have a heroic death.

Death matters in a story.  I do feel I was in the minority when I was completely happy at Fannon’s death, but I feel I saw what point Feist was making with his fate.  As a storyteller you soon realise that there is too little room to add in meaningless extras so you can be assured to the writer of a novel, as with the narrator of a story that each word matters.  More importantly, the death of characters need to matter.

I will admit it here loud and proud.  I fudge dice rolls in favour of my players surviving meaningless deaths.  But I do let my players die too, not by fudging die rolls though.  It is a balancing act that I use and I weigh the options of a death at the time that it looks likely.  Take last nights game of the Skull and Shackles Pathfinder adventure path (AP).  Captain Lem leapt out to take on some advancing Giant Wasps while the rest of his crew cowered back for a round.  He ran in and took a swing doing a miserly three points of damage.  I countered with a sting that easily caught him and did twelve damage in return and successfully poisoned him.  Lem’s player looked concerned at the severity of the hit and I looked at the damage he had done in return, barely a scratch.  I decided to let it ride for the next round but my mind was already on task, is this a worthwhile death?

Seleca died many times during Serpent Skull

In regards to the story it would have been a catastrophic death.  Sure, Lem leapt out all noble like, but he is not overly noble.  He was seeking to look strong in front of the squib crew.  If he went down all it would bring is humiliation to the crew that they could not handle a few giant insects.  Next round things looked even worse after the wasp did maximum damage but I let it ride as his companions (the other players) got in to help.  In this circumstance I would likely have fudged rolls to keep Lem alive (or any character that got into difficulties).  There is no real chance that they could be raised at this stage and they really are just hitting their straps as characters.

Had it been a pivotal battle rather than just something to connect the players to a meaningful NPC then I perhaps would have allowed them to suffer that death.  It could be used to further their notoriety and the group would move on.  In other words, I do not allow crappy rolls be the sole reason for death.  i weigh things up.  Does this suit my story?  Will things moving from this point result in a stronger or weaker story thread?  Does the death serve the party somehow to further their understanding of the campaign as a whole?  These are the questions I ask for allowing the death to occur.

Counterpoint to those questions I ask are they dying because of bad rolls?  Have they used their hero points in a wise fashion leading to this or have they frittered them away on trivial matters?  Hero points really do hand a lot of life and death decisions over to the players.  If they have two saved up then they can save the character by default.  If I see a player wasting a hero point because they want an extra 5% gold whilst haggling I would consider that a real waste of this valuable resource.  Have they recklessly flaunted their own characters life without basis?

After considering these things I gain a feeling one way or the other.  Allow dic to fall where they do or fudge damage rolls to increase the likelihood of the character surviving.  I am fairly certain that my players would be comfortable in this knowledge.  They are very aware that I let characters die at times but at least they know I don’t allow it on cheap rolls.

You have to know when to roll ’em, know
when to fudge ’em, know when to throw the
screen away, know when to run!

Having said that I am going to clarify one death that I allowed in the Serpent Skull AP that I may get yelled at by a player after reading this (plus it illustrates my point!).  In the second module the players stop off at a town on the way to find the pillars of light.  They meet up with a contact and stay the night in his house.  Through the night they are attacked by assassins.  My players set a watch, (never comfortable and rightfully so) and I asked for a perception check.  He rolled a natural 1 so I said that he was so focussed on the map he was drawing (he loved his cartography did old Kaleb) that he knew nothing until a blade was drawn to his throat.  He was tied to the chair and after questioning him the assassin committed a coup de grace on him.  Failing his save Kaleb passed into the great unknown before being raised later.

So, the clarification is this.  It perfectly suited the story for a kill to occur.  Sure, Kaleb got a natural one which sucked for him but these were also skilled assassins paid to kill them.  They were well planned and had the drop on him.  The other factions meant business and the message that this was punctuating in the story was that they meant business and this was an active race between groups of factions.  There was a cleric in town of suitable skill to raise Kaleb at a cost and the longer term message it sent was valid.  I felt bad doing it in this manner (I think it is the only time I killed a character using coup de grace) but it suited the story so I let the dice fall where they did.

I know a lot of people get worried about death in their games.  The GM worries how the player is going to react, the player is all connected with the character and then the character is a corpse and not a character.  I would really push for you as the GM (because you know what is coming and if this sends a good warning or message) to really consider it for the story.  I have had players in game sacrifice their characters for the good of the story so we as GM’s need to have a similar responsibility and step up to the plate in that regard.

Feel free to share stories of where you have sacrificed your character in the comments if you are a player, or if you are a GM and do the same thing.  Heck, hit me up in the comments and tell me I am wrong, I am always keen on feedback and differing opinions.  It is how I broaden my knowledge of gaming!  Until next time keep rolling!

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