The topic for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival is Life & Death in RPGs, hosted by one of my all-time favorite blogs, Campaign Mastery. Nevermet Press has been kind enough to archive each blog carnival going back to 2008. Here is my contribution.
When I sat down to write this post, I didn’t know what I was going to write. I didn’t have a clue. Then I realized that the best parts of RPGs are when real life is put center-stage and then amplified. I have plenty–too much, I’d say– experience with death and grief and loss in real life to let this pass by without talking about it. If done right, it can be a POWERFUL tool in your arsenal to tell a story.
Loss and Grief in the Party
Even if we know the story of The Lord of the Rings by heart, seeing the movie version when Samwise begins to grieve for Frodo in Shelob’s lair is utterly heartbreaking. After everything they’ve been through, all the trial and tribulation and heartache and sacrifice, Frodo “dies.” To Sam, everything they have worked for and struggled against has suddenly been for naught, and even more importantly he has lost his best friend. He’s deep in enemy territory, leaderless, low on supplies and suddenly and utterly alone.
Samwise Gamgee is about as low as he’s ever been, and the audience goes there with him thanks to the awesome performance by Sean Astin. As a GM you can promote this kind of attachment to NPCs and even other PCs in your game so that when the time comes for you to remove them from play (or the dice land wrong and they just plain croak), the effect can be powerful and even campaign-changing. I’m NOT advocating intentionally killing off your PCs here (that’s for another post, I think). However, I think you as a GM miss good opportunity if you don’t intentionally murder some NPCs now and again. The kind of conflict and drama you can build in to your game by slaying someone the PCs hold dear is really amazing.
As a GM, you have the power of life and death over every single thing in the game environment. You can run about doing horrific things and slaying innocent townsfolk all you want. But it will have absolutely no effect on the PCs or their players unless you spend a good deal of time building their relationships first. As such, I highly recommend that you never kill off an interesting NPC until he has been encountered at least three times. Three is a magic number (literally, if you’re into numerology and the like). It has power in literary and theatre circles too. If you want an audience member to remember something in a movie for later, mention it three times. If you want your PCs to gain an emotional attachment to an NPC, have them encounter him three times. It’s like magic. The first and second time they encounter that stereotypical musclebound dwarven blacksmith, he’s a cardboard cutout–but for some reason when they meet him the third time, something clicks in their brains and the PCs are MUCH more likely to have a meaningful interaction with him and they will remember him. I don’t know why it works, but after 20 years of GMing, I know this as an utterly incontrovertible truth: if the PCs encounter and NPC three times, they will remember him.
I heartily recommend following this advice all over the place. If you have several quest seeds/adventure hooks floating around in your game, bend them in such a way that they come from the same 5 NPCs so that the players encounter thoe NPCs repeatedly. Great ideas for these include:
- Town Gossip/Bartender/Barmaid: These are the kind of folk to get all the good juicy info on town politics on a human level. In the words of Alan Jackson: “Who’s cheatin’ who, who’s bein’ true, and who don’t even care anymore.”
- Town Watch/Guard Captain/Local Priest: This is the next echelon up from the local guy, giving the PCs access to quests and adventure hooks originating from outside the town’s walls and involving travelers, merchants and folks in the outlying farms or villages.
- Mayor/Sheriff/Magistrate/Noble: Again a step up in scale, these guys have the benefit of seeing a larger picture for their area. they know what’s going on in the next major settlement over, across the nearby mountains, etc. They might have some inkling of what’s going on at the King’s Court or the like when the PCs get up to that level of importance, too.
To build a relationship with these NPCs, let the PCs use them as an information source the first two meetings, and on the third encounter have the information source ask the PCs to do a favor for *them*. They’ll hook onto the NPC, guaranteed. Suddenly the guy giving info about other people is giving it about himself. That warrants attention, and your players will notice it.
Places Are People, Too!!
It’s important to note at this stage that locations, just as much as actual NPCs, can have emotional impact on the players and PCs too. Whether it’s the castle they cleared out at 1st level, the local tavern they frequent, or the farmstead of a friendly villager the pass on the way back to town after most every adventure in the wilderness, the rule remains the same: if you want the PCs to develop an emotional attachment to a location, have them go there three times, describe it in detail, and give them some kind of meaningful interaction to do while there that interacts with the environment. I’m not talking about just a fight, either: let the PCs meet someone important there, or help a farmer rebuild his fences after his crops are burned, etc. Let the PCs do something memorable at the place that will stick in their brains, and do it three times.
Killing Them Off
So you’re several adventures in and your players have a dozen or more NPCs and places with whom they have begun building relationships. It’s officially time to start hitting them where it hurts. Like a good strong kick to the dice bags, killing off a favorite NPC or destroying a favorite location can be a huge red flag to the players that the stakes just got higher. It can also be a fantastic way to introduce a new villain, bring an old villain to the forefront, or to deliberately increase the animosity between the PCs and a particular badguy. It’s effectively putting a big “KILL ME FIRST” sign on a badguy who you want to focus on.
But make sure you do it with style. If you are going to use an NPC the PCs like as villain-fodder, don’t just slaughter the NPC and be done with it. Make sure the death has fallout (which could be literal if you’re playing Gamma World).
- Frame the PCs: It’s a classic because it works. The villain knows the PCs and needs them out of the way but doesn’t have the time or resources to devote to destroying them personally, so killing a known associate in a gruesome manner and letting the authorities do the dirty work is ideal. This also works for politically-minded villains, and even more so if the victim NPC is of the villain’s rival faction. In that case the villain gets double for his money: a faction rival is dead and his powerful allies are out of the picture.
- “It’s YOUR Fault!!” : This is likely to be the reaction of a town or village if they get attacked because the victim NPC is known to be their affiliate. If everybody in town loves the blacksmith andthen he gets slaughtered as a message sent to the PCs, it’s entirely likely the PCs won’t be welcome in that town anymore, and with good reason. The PCs got one of their friends killed, AND nobody wants to be friends with the PCs now for fear they might be next themselves.
- Obliteration: This is NPC extinction on a mass scale. If the PCs have four good friends in a town, you as the GM then obliterate the ENTIRE TOWN. Let the PCs find the bodies strung up in the center of town so the PCs know exactly who did it. This is a great way for a villain to set a trap; get the PCs riled up and charging forward before they think about what they are doing. This also works well if the PCs have to hide for any reason. Like the Agent in the Serenity movie, if the PCs go to ground, have your bad guys start obliterating all their known affiliates one by one. Make the cost of hiding so great that staying hidden becomes a moral choice for the PCs.
Killing off NPCs is easy. As the GM we have the power of life and death over everything. doing it in such a way that your jaded, adventure weary players and PCs actually give a damn is the harder part. If you intentionally build the connections between your NPCs and the PCs, it makes the emotional value of slaughtering your NPCs like autumn sheep farm more visceral. As the old saying goes, “Go Big Or Go Home.”