I killed a PC a couple weeks ago. And it has really changed my game for the better.
Not “you’re unconscious and dying, make your death save this round” kinda killed, not even “man, if someone doesn’t heal you soon, you’re in a world of hurt” kinda killed. I’m talking about “give me your character sheet so I can tear it up in front of you and laugh in maniacal glee” kinda killed. I’m talking about full-on character dead. Final dead. In this particular case, it was eaten-by-a-lesser-dracolich kinda dead. And you know what? Both games I run have gotten better for it.
This is not a Killer GM (warning– timesucking TVtropes link) kinda post. I am not advocating deliberately putting yourself in an antagonistic position against your players, unless they KNOW that’s what you’re going to do and that’s okay by them. At that point, if those are the kinda players you have– then go for it. However, I am not advocating that playstyle.
What I *AM* advocating is two things: making sure that the story you are telling is bigger than any one PC, and show the characters that though they (and you, as GM) might be attached to their character, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t play carefully and with a thought toward keeping their PC alive.
Tell Stories that Dead PCs Don’t Destroy
It took me a long, LONG time to learn this one, and I’m kinda surprised that I haven’t blogged on this before. Simply put, you as GM need to build whatever plot you’re running so that it’s tied to more than one PC. This way, if one of the PCs dies in a fight (as happened in my game), the plot hooks you have so carefully sown into the game don’t suddenly amount for nothing. I’m not saying that your PC-specific subplots should all be linked like octopi on meth. It’s good if a PC has a quest or plotline that is theirs alone. But those should be limited to ONE per PC, in my opinion. That way, if a PC starts pushing up daisies, only their individual plotline goes away, and the storyline for the rest of the group will continue.
Here in Afghanistan, this is an especially important truism. With players getting shipped home unexpectedly, moved to other FOBs, or even just coming to the end of their time in the warzone, I’m always on the lookout for ways to tie PCs into the main plotline that won’t fall apart if they suddenly don’t show up again. Example: my Gold Team recently got handed a charter to go explore an untamed area and, if they are successful, found a colony they will be able to rule on their own. That’s the main plotline right now. Each of the PCs has a reason to be tied into the plot: the dragonborn wants to claim land for his people to help rebuild their culture. The noblewoman wants to reclaim her family castle which lies north of where the PCs have been given leave to explore. The primal hunter wants to… well, he wants to shoot things, but that suits him fine, and I’m not worried about Grunthar’s desire to go kill stuff with his friends. 🙂 A couple of the characters have subplots of their own— the dragonborn warlord just got handed a sentient artifact that is going to be causing him issues, the human fighter has a soft spot for peasants… that kind of thing. But if any of them drops dead next session due to bad die rolls, the main plot (explore, subdue and conquer) won’t die just because one character does. Each character has ties to a plotline that is bigger than just them– and that plot will survive damn near anything short of a TPK.
“Let Them Hate, So Long As They Fear.”
The above quote is far more extreme than my desired level of PC fear, but it gets the point across nicely. Simply put– if your players have never seen you ruthlessly slay a PC, they have no evidence that you ever will. This is an axiom that I had forgotten in my Bagram D&D games, and the death of the Xanathan the elven scout has reminded me of it full-force. I had been running games here in Bagram for over a year now, and by the whim of the dice I had never dropped a cap in a mothertruckin player character. Several PCs had come REMARKABLY close, but we had never been forced to hold an in-game funeral for a PC. And when Xanathan died–finally, really died with no hope of resurrection (when its so hard for PCs to die, the easy-out of Raise Dead or Resurrection seems stupid, so I don’t use it at all), the game kinda came to a stop fora moment, and everybody looked at me–the GM– with a universal sort of befuddlement on their faces. The mental process was unmistakeable– “Holy $%^&. He really did it. Xan is dead, and his player will have to bring a new character. The character isn’t coming back–ever.”
Since that one single moment, the players in both of my games have lost some of the reckless edge they had before Xan’s death. Because of player cross-pollenization, some of the players in Gold Team (where Xan died) have characters in Red Team as well, and they brought the story of Xan’s death with them. Killing that one PC has had an incredible effect on both games– there’s a lot more thinking and planning going on now because they KNOW, without a doubt, that I will not protect their PCs from pointless death. Their hard-earned level-ups are in real, true jeopardy and nobody wants to have to put aside a character they’ve dumped a great deal of investment into in time and mental effort.
Thus, the effect on my players has an effect on the characters they play– watching a comrade fall in battle makes you more careful about your own life.
Subplot: Killing PCs in 4E is Hard… and Rewarding
As a side note to this post, something I had heard about through many 4E bloggers is that it’s really hard to kill a PC. I hadn’t really given it any thought until I had an actual PC die, and realized that it had been almost 3 years of playing this edition before I had managed to put a PC six feet under. That’s good for me, because like my favorite gamer girl crush Sarah Darkmagic I ‘m not a fan of “a housecat killed my wizard” kinda gaming, but it does say something about the system itself. What I noticed is that because healing works so well in 4E, and because the mechanics make it hard to kill a PC stone-dead, it means that when a PC does die, the party has likely gone out of their way to try and save the fallen comrade. Thus, there is a great deal of emotion hanging on that last death save– the entire party has had at least 3 rounds to try and keep the PC alive, which is a REALLY long time in combat rounds. Which means that there is is a great deal of real emotional letdown when that save comes up bad– there is a real chemical reaction of disappointment and sadness going on in your players’ brains over the bad die roll. And I think that’s a good thing.
See, in previous editions till 3.X, it was incredibly common for a single attack to have the potential to kill any character at any time. [clatter clatter], “You’re dead.” was not uncommon in any case. 3.X made PCs far more resilient, but still, instant death was fairly commonplace with the Massive Damage rules and whatnot. In 4th, PCs start out and remain remarkably resilient to death– which I as GM appreciate because it means that I can inflict all kinds of hardships on them without fear of killing them off TOO quickly. It also means that pretty much any character death is going to have several rounds of combat to build up the emotional impact of that death. And I like that a whole lot– anything that affects my players as well as their characters is a win/win as far as I am concerned.