This week we are going to address an often overlooked part of RPGs. Death. Specifically PC and NPC death and some things you can do with it.
Death in storytelling has existed long before RPGs ever existed and for good reason. It’s an effective tool in creating legends and giving rise to things that would otherwise never occur. A really poignant example of this to me is the little girl in “V for Vendetta”. When she is shot by a skittish Fingerman it sets the country ablaze, galvanizing the entire third act of the film. This is what a well-timed death can do for your game. Rally the players (or the NPCs against the players) into wanting to put your villain into the dirt.
A lot of what makes a death so powerful in your game is how it relates to the players. A beloved NPC is a gift from above that can do amazing things. But what is it about the NPC that makes them so endearing? For some it’s simple. A PCs family member is powdered instant motivation; just add tragedy or a threat. It’s enough to spur most engaged players into action with a fire for justice or revenge. Those players that prefer to run the hard-bitten mercenaries that are only in it for fortune and glory are a little harder. A well-crafted NPC can go a long way to bridge that gap. Think about using an NPC that runs with the party to provide support or a hireling that saves the party at some point, or a love interest that the player has developed. The villains can get wind of a woman (or man) that the player has shown some interest in and abducts them to apply leverage. Or just slits their throats while the players look on, powerless to intervene, and then pushes the unfortunate NPC at the player’s character before making their escape. If that doesn’t get a reaction, then you have some damn callous people at your table.
On the other end of things, what happens when a PC dies? When this happens it should be a powerful moment. Something that makes all the players sit up and take notice.
Now the way that this happens can vary from system to system. Some games are a little more casual about it. Where there are instant death traps and spells that boil down to a single roll before the character bites the dust. Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, and most of the D20 systems (especially their predecessors) are notorious for this. Spells and monsters cause this most often and are held by some heinous NPCs and traps but those types of rule systems reward the player for surviving. But just because the death is instant and sudden doesn’t mean you can’t put it to use in creating an exciting scene.
Flesh out the scene; describe the feeling of what hits the character when their life force is suddenly rent from their body. How the force of the spell “Powerword:Kill” pounds them in their chest sucking the wind from their lungs as they collapse to the ground. How the dust is kicked up to leave a shadow of their figure on the wall or surface behind them. Or their minds are screaming “STOP!” but their body refuses to answer as the fight is “Commanded” to turn their blade on the surprised party wizard. It is a crisis that you should not let go to waste. Make it matter, make it important. But don’t let it be bland.
And if you do it right, your players should have all the reasons in the world to be pissed and go after whatever set the sudden death of their companion up in the first place. A renewed vigor in clearing the monsters from the dungeon, or the crime lord from the streets.
But there are PRG systems where PC death is a little harder to come by. In those cases when a PC dies it should be a ground breaking moment that you have possibly worked out with the player beforehand. One of my favorite RPG systems, “7th Sea” addresses this. Early into your story or campaign ask your players what their characters would be willing to die for. It may throw a few people off to ask what they would be willing to lose their character to but it raises some intriguing questions. It’s not often that players take a long hard look at thing through their characters eyes and see what is important to them, and not themselves as a real person. Try it out; you may be surprised at what you learn.
All in all, Death should not be an unwelcome guest in your RPG sessions. Just know that you shouldn’t just let it happen with nothing to follow. And make sure you have a backup plan if things go sour.