Fatality!

Welcome to April’s “Gamesmaster’s Roundtable of Doom”…

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

I can only recall one fatality in my time as a GM.  Jeremy, the player of the Gnome Wizard in question, had botched an “Identify Magic Item” roll.  The Gnome believed he was in possession of a “Wand of Polymorph” with a single charge left.  Furthermore, the natural 1 rolled had conferred the knowledge that the transformation would turn the target into an adult white dragon.  The player, and the rest of us, knew it was a “Wand of Fire and Ice” and that pointing it at yourself and triggering it was, er, not advisable.

Come the fight with the red dragon, the party figured that they could do with a white dragon to help.  Several seconds – and another natural 1 later – the party was down one Gnome and up one Frosty the Snowman.

And that’s that.  One fatality.  It was planned, it was prepared for (Jeremy wasn’t going to be around for a few weeks, and deeper in Undermountain was a good place to introduce a new PC to the party).

I’ll fudge dice rolls, give players as many last-chance saves as they need to pull through.  Because killing characters, unless it’s really dramatically appropriate (or bloody funny or, preferably, both), isn’t what roleplaying is about for me.  It’s about getting the players together to tell epic stories – or just fun, silly, stories.  And you can’t do that if you’re spending a decent chunk of time creating new characters.  Or sitting around the table joking because your character has been killed and you’ve nothing better to do for the next half an hour.

I’d rather plan out a brief campaign, run it through to the end, leave the characters – and the players – on a high, itching to return to that world but looking forward to the next game.

It’s all about game tone.  DC vs. Marvel movies.  DC movies are usually dark, grim, gritty, and depressing.  Sorry, but that’s how they’re coming across.  With the exception of Batman Forever, there’s precious little humour in the DC movies I’ve seen.  A game with that sort of tone would have PC death as a very real option.  I don’t own any DC movies, they take themselves way too seriously (but I have a soft spot for Batman Forever, Jim Carrey’s delivery as The Riddler is superb and find myself quoting his lines often)

Somebody tell the fat lady she’s on in five.

Marvel, on the other hand, doesn’t take itself seriously at all.  The tone is lighter, jokier, more fun.  I’ve got most of the new Marvel movies and I love them.  PC death in one of these is unlikely – not impossible, but unlikely – and would be far more significant.

That man is playing Galaga! Thought we wouldn’t notice. But we did.

Or think of it like your favourite TV shows – they don’t have a revolving door cast, new characters ready to step in at a moment’s notice to take the place of the lead character who’s just been gunned down/disintegrated by aliens/eaten by zombies.  Character death is approached methodically, it’s planned for, it’s prepared for.  You don’t (usually) wipe out a lead character without letting the audience know what’s coming.

My games, for the last few years, have been universally Marvel in tone.  13th Age, Dr Who, the Strange/Al Qadim hybrid I’ve got planned…  Big Damn Heroes kicking arse and taking names.  Not that most of the Orcs, blobs, elementals, djinni, giant Egyptian-themed skeletons, or trolls have names.

I’m not saying my way is the best way to run a game, it’s certainly not the only way.  Given the opportunity to run, say, Cabin in the Woods as a one-shot, I wouldn’t shy away from killing off the players PCs.

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about player death. Read on!

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.

One Reply to “Fatality!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *