Character Death and Your Game

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.

Tacklebox of the Damned

Ready to go plot hooks and problems to torment your players with.

1. Don’t stop the music – A local musician has been found murdered and their instrument stolen. The instrument has been passed down through generations and if it is not played each full moon, a terrible monster is released from its prison.

2. Rats, why did it have to be rats – The proprietor from an award winning brewery enlists the aid of the party in clearing the rat infestation from his cellars before the big festival where their title is on the line. The party discovers that the award winning brew has made the rats semi-sentient and they have built a sprawling society under the city, and believe the brewer to be their god.

3. Timmy fell down the well – Not really, the well is actually the remnants of a Wizard’s tower that was enchanted to grant wishes proportionate to the sacrifice made by the wisher. And the now suddenly wealthy farmer has been feeding locals to the well. For extra fun, have the farmer’s goons abduct a PC.

4. Redshirts’ revenge – The party is hired to quell an uprising from a mercenary company. Turns out that the Mercenary have a legitimate complaint as the local noble sent them on a suicide mission on a bet.

5. Do you like “Dags”? – The party is hired to eradicate a large pack of feral dogs. The dogs aren’t actually feral, they are the successful experiment of a local Alchemist hired to make better fighting dogs that got out of hand when the Alchemist wasn’t paid. The alchemist is leading the pack using potions to communicate with the intelligent canines.

6. Medusa for Mayor – The party comes across a fairly idyllic town that is led by a benevolent Medusa. And a neighboring township is preparing to wipe out the abomination.

7. Hot item – One of the players has been targeted by a previous foe, and is framed for stealing a local relic/artifact.

8. Mystery Meat – A plague has struck the livestock of the region where the players are passing through. But the butcher shop is chock full of “meat”. Start with one of the players’ horses, and then get steadily darker. Mwahaha……

Remedial GM’ing

Hello! My name is Patrick and I am a player and DM here on The Redacted I have been playing RPG’s for a few decades with 10 years of those as a GM in a number of different systems. Playing as a GM (DM, Storyteller, Control, etc.) is, to me, one of the more rewarding and challenging ways to enjoy role-playing.

As GM you spin tales and craft adventures for your players to enjoy and explore. Not to mention lay your best laid plans to ruin, albeit with a casual sounding action or unforeseen course taken. But that’s the game for a GM, to set things up and then adapt as needed. I’m going to lay out a few guidelines that I GM by. These are by no means hard rules that you should follow, just things I’ve learned through the years that I remember when I run things.

KNOW THYSELF – As a GM the first issue that you may run into is not knowing your own play style, or worse, knowing your play style but not being able to effectively convey it to the players. It’s a doozy of a thing to lead off with but it’s true.

If you do not know what you want from your game, neither will your players.

And it will make things suck.

Before volunteering to run for your group or committing to do so for an established one; Have a sit. Write out your thoughts for your game. Things like “What genre?” and “Do I want a high adventure with ye olde romance or thrills?” Asking yourself questions like these can help you understand what it is you’ll be doing and what gets you excited to play.

Even more specific questions should be asked, such as how many players you think you can keep track of, is dice rolling something that bores you or do you want more rolling to keep things extremely random. How far are you willing to go to retain your original plot, or are you more flexible? Do you like to use real-world physical aids like miniatures for combat, or prefer the old school mind’s eye style of describing distance. Introspection is a powerful tool, use it.

READ YO’ BOOKS – Pretty self-explanatory. You should reach each of the books for your chosen system cover to cover at least once. If for nothing else than to familiarize yourself with where things are in them. I have met few people that are able to memorize everything in their rule sets but enough to have a good grasp of which is which and what does what. It will make your life miserable if you are reaching for your book each time a rule is called out or a player forgets what their spell does. Plus there is the added bonus of getting all the neat little GM tips from the guide for GM’s. Yeah, the book can be as dry as hardtack or full of boring advice, but it’s all in there to help you be a better GM. Read your books, read them. And then read them again for good measure.

TALK TO YOUR PLAYERS – Players, we all have them. And they are a necessary part of RPG’s. And you know what? They are the greatest barometer for how you stack up as a GM. RPGs are at their most basic level a communication device between parties. You speak/type/sing/etc.. to your players and they do the same with you, why not listen? Before you start your campaign or story, have a session where everyone gets on the same page about what type of game you are playing. If you have not decided on a system yet, decide as a group. Or if you have a game system in place, ask what type of adventures they like and adapt as needed. After each session ask for feedback, see what they liked and didn’t like, make it collaborative. The things that you can do by knowing what your payers want and expect are invaluable when crafting a game.  I’m not saying pander to the point where what you want from the game is eclipsed by the players’ needs, but hear what they say and try to walk the line between the two. It’ll make for happy players and a rewarding game.

NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU BLEED – It’s a roundabout way of saying, “When you fuck up, the players should not know it.” No matter how much you plan, no matter how much you think you are prepared, the players are going to piss in your kool-aid. The goal is that you should be ready for it and simply smile when they kill your villain on the first hit and described how the previously laughing megalomaniac feels about having a bit of lead lodged in his heart. And then let them do it. Kill your main villain, let them pull the pin on the train and ruin two weeks of planning in the first five minutes of the session. It happens. But how you respond is what they’ll remember.

They shot the villain, ok, they just released him/her from their mortal form and are now a demon. Or their lover/paramour saw what the players did and vows revenge; becoming the new antagonist for your game. The point is, the players got lucky. Don’t break from character and show them that you were ready for that business and the game goes on. Give the heroes their win, and then remind them that you came to play too. And making them pay for it can be oh so much fun.

BEING PETTY IS UNBECOMING – Along with the previous advice, know this. No player will stay with an asshat GM. What is an asshat GM you ask? I’ll tell you, one that punishes the player just for being lucky or figuring out what the GM is up to. Looking at the players in an RPG as adversaries is a huge mistake that a lot of rookie GMs make. I did at one point, my game suffered for it, and my players (who were all seasoned GMs) let me know. Big time. I found myself benched, reading how to be a GM for a year. It was the definition of suck. If you do act as an asshat, expect repercussions. It could be players suddenly being busy on game night, to straight up calling you out at the table. If you find your temper about to get the better of you, it may be time for a break before continuing, or getting a drink, or bathroom. Just take a moment, regain your composure, and calm things down. You’ll be all the better for it.

PLAY FOR FUN, OR GO HOME – If you are not playing for the sake of having a good time with friends, why are you playing? Do whatever it takes to keep things fun. Cheat, lie, say you flubbed rolls when you didn’t. Say you made rolls, when you were way off. Drop hint, drop a crate of hints, smack a player character with an ugly stick. Make memorable characters with an outrageous French accent. If you couldn’t get what I’m driving at here, close your browser and find something else to read. Fun is the name of the game. Fun can be vampires hunting down an elusive human to eat. Fun can be a political discourse between players on opposing sides. Know what your players find to be fun and wring the fun juice out of it. FUN.

Well, that covers the main things that I go by when I GM. I hope you find this little article useful, or perhaps gave you some things to think about. If you liked this, let us know and maybe more content on GM’ing and running games will be added. Thank you for reading!