Thursday, February 9, 2017

The case against killing player characters

It's kind of a truism that practically every gamesession of roleplaying involves combat at one point or another. That combat has, via reduction of health points and the suffering of wounds, the general possibility of death for everyone involved. Usually, a lot of NPC are getting killed, but the rules do allow for the same fate to befall the player characters as well. 93,6% of roleplayers think this is a good idea, according to a study I totally didn't make up right now. 
And it makes kind of intuitive sense. The threat of dying infuses suspense into the combat, it sharpens the senses, it gives the exhilarating feeling of having escaped death in the last possible moment. For gamemasters as well as players, it also offers a kind of insurance against dumb player actions. You insist on summersaulting that Goblin? Congratulations. He stabs you. Critical Hit. And you had a botch trying to acrobatically land, suffering damage, ooooh, crit. You're dead. Drama! After all, doesn't combat derive its suspense from the danger of stuff like this happening? 

Not at all. 

When I say it makes intuitive sense, my case is by necessity counter-intuitive. But I trust you will come around to my position, even if you, right now, belong to the 93,6%. As a gamemaster, since taking on that mantle in 2001, a total of two characters dies on my watch not wanting to. And I consider these total failures on my part. The last one happened in 2002. So, there's that. For about another decade, we always kept the illusion that, yes, in theory, a character could die, but we would try to avoid it. I've come around to telling players explicitly that I will never, under any circumstances, kill their characters. 

So why do I do this? And how does it improve my game? It self-evidently does, else I wouldn't do it. So let's start with the intuitive idea first and show why it's wrong. 

You would imagine that an inherently dangerous occupation such as adventurer (or researcher into Cthulhoid horrors or whatever) carries a heightened risk of unhealthy incidents, and you would be right. I'm a pretty mainstream gamemaster, and I tend to include at least one combat in every game session, and several isn't exactly unusual. So let's compare an adventure that I would run with the next best thing, a run-of-the-mill action movie. 
Imagine rugged Bruce Willis or handsome Tom Cruise or whomever you want in the leading role. The movie has a runtime of 96 minutes, as a good action movie should, and we're at the 24 minute mark. Bruce Cruise or Tom Willis are in a hard fight against many goons. It's dangerous, and they're hard pressed. You're at the edge of your seat as the camera flips back and forth and fists hit chins, making that satisfying crunching sound. Do you for one second fear that our rugged, handsome protagonist is going to kick the bucket? Unlikely. Yet it's suspenseful. Why is that? 

It's because of the presentation, for one. If the movie is competently made, the camerawork, the stuntcrew, the choreography, the location, all will combine into the visual marvel that is a fight scene (and more often than not totally ruined by shaky cam). However, there are quite a lot bad action movies, and many competently staged action scene fail to be suspenseful. When were you at the edge of your seat when you watched Transformers 4, provided you did? Come to think of it, why did you watch that monstrosity? But I digress. 

What makes combat in movies suspenseful is the emotion that goes in it. If it's not there, combat fails to engage the viewer. Perhaps some side character's life is on the line (think Boromir). Perhaps the sanity or health of the character is in danger (think Frodo and Gollum). Perhaps something needs to be rescued (think the medicine in Mission Impossible 2), or some inner struggle resolved (think Star Wars Episode V). The same is true of roleplaying games. 
Suspense in combat does not come from the danger to the character's life, it comes through other movitations. You want to rescue a village, rescue some person, safe some trinket, protect your sanity, avoid losing stat points, trying to regain an artifact - there is a myriad of reasons why someone would get engaged in combat. Maybe you want to save your provisions, because it's the middle of the winter and you're a few days from the next village. Who knows? None of these situations needs to involve the character dying. 
Allright, you might say now, I get all that, but on the other hand, why not improve these situations even more, raising the stakes by the danger of imminent death? And here comes the answer, to which all the above as only a long-winding introduction: 
Character death ends role-playing. 

Now, this obviously is a strong statement. But think about it. The death of Boromir in "The Fellowship of the Ring" is obviously a strong moment, full of raw emotion and beautifully ending a character arc while driving home a central theme of the whole story. So, that's cool. But if it were an adventure, and the sobbing around the table after "I would have followed you everywhere, my king" had died down, the gamemaster and everyone else would face a dilemma. Only a third of the overall story has been played out! So, what happens to the player of Boromir?

Why, he takes on a new character, of course! To stay in the example, he could be Eomer, or perhaps Faramir. But do you remember how late these came into the narrative? And do you really equate their characters with the original fellowship? Neither of them ever reached the depth that Aragorn, Pippin, Merry, Gandalf, Legolas or Gimli would have at the end. You need new introductions, and your characters need to form ties anew. Whatever investment there was in playtime and emotions in Boromir is now gone.

And all that assumes the absolutely best-case-scenario: that the character dies concluding his arc in the service of the major themes, not because of a botched dice roll against some random encounter on the road. And that's the rub. I'll give you your Boromir, but imagine Aragorn rolling really bad on those stairs in Khazad-Dum. Or Gimli not quite managing that throw/jump in Helm's Deep, plunging into an orc army. Legolas being stomped by the Oliphant instead of expertly climbing on it. Frodo missing his willpower roll, succumbing to the ring and walking straight up to Minaz Morgul. All perfectly valid situations in adventures where a character can very reasonable bite it. All of this is preposterous, of course, and does nothing to enhance the story.

So why do people insist on killing player characters, or at least dangling the possibility of such a death? In my experience, it's mostly an insurance against player doing stupid things. Throwing Gimli or jumping that Olihphant usually qualify (we have to assume Legolas and Gimli are level 30 or whatever, so they can actually pull that off). But unfortunately, this is the equivalent of threatening Iran to release the hostages, or else they'll get nuked. It's a threat that's either not credible or ends up hurting everyone if actually carried out.

So imagine Gimli's player wants to be thrown at the invading orcs. Gimli's level 3, and you as GM think this is a rather stupid idea, so you say "This will likely get you killed" or something to that effect. The players, riled up by their quote-on-quote "brillant idea" decide to go along with it regardless, so you set a high difficulty (as befits the task), the player fails (as expected) and you're kind of in a bind to follow through. After all, your hands are tied, right?

Wrong. You hurt everyone now. Gimli's player lost his character, so that's an investment of weeks and months wiped out right there. Aragorn and Legolas lost a trusted friend, and while this opens up the possbility of roleplaying mourning and melancholic tales about Gimli's bravery at the campfire, that's something you do once, maybe twice, and that's that. All the preparation you as GM made for the adventure, all the plans you had for the character and his arc (you do plan arcs, do you?), wiped out. The narrative gain? "If you jump over great distances and deep chasms, you may fall to your death." Wow. That's worth it, huh?

That was rhetorical question.

So, what can I do to not threaten death to characters? How can I keep the stakes up credibly when I don't have the blunt instrument of character death? You need to work out finer instruments. Think about what your player really fears. Because that's another misconception right there: players don't fear character deaths, usually. Characters fear to die, but not players. If their character dies, the game is over then and there. There's nothing to be gained nor learned, because the game is over. Again for emphasis: this character isn't in the game anymore.

So what do players fear? On a very basic level, most players really don't like to regress in stats. So Gimli loses against these orcs defending Boromir, you don't kill him, even if the rules say that he's dead now. Instead, let him lose a point of constitution, because these wounds really permanently damage his bodily integrity. Legolas falls from the Oliphant? Break his ankle, and for one adventure (absolutely the maximum, usually two or three hours playtime suffices for that kind of thing) Legolas can only walk with a crutch. Sucks to be you, Legolas!

And that's only the extent of the rules. You remember Game of Thrones, do you? Tyrion doesn't get killed on the Blackwater, but he gets a permanent disfigurement to remember it by. I find that the thing players fear most for their characters is mutilation. But you need to look no further than Jaime Lannister to see that it can become an instrument of the most potent character growth, even if you allow the character to become as proficient with his left hand as he was with his right in the span of two play sessions.

Back when I was still LARPing and playing an NPC in an army of evil, I soon learned the lesson that shouting "kill them all!" did nothing to the player characters on the other side. That's expected. They know that NPCs are there to try (and fail) to kill them all. I found that I could inspire real fear into the ranks of the enemy by singling one out ("Bring me the head of this one!") or by threatening a fate other than death. The most useful thing was pointing to one random player character and shouting towards some especially menacing looking fellow NPC: "I want this one alive!" The reaction you get is fear in that player, and solidarity by the rest. They always closed ranks and protected that guy, even if he was a lowly foot soldier and nobody knew him. Great emotions, right there, and no need to actually threaten character death.

As a side note, don't venture too deep into capture and mutilation territory. Both are game-enders in their own right. If you cripple the foot of a player character without a real short-term solution at hand how to heal the dang thing you can as well kill him in most cases, and you should never ever take player characters prisoner, because either that player will be locked out from his rescue attempt, or everyone else watches the torture/interrogation without being able to do anything. But it can be a last resort if you really want to punish a player without killing his character.

So, this got sort of long and rambling. I want to close with another practical example of where killing a player character is really a dumb idea even if it makes a lot sense on the surface, and it's LARP once again. I have player Vampire: The Masquerade LARP for a decade, and in case you don't know it, it's a pretty competitive cut-throat game. But I found that if you had a real beef with some character going, someone who held a position you wanted, killing that character was a really dumb idea. It happened all the time when we played Vampire. Almost no play session without at least one character dying. High stakes, right?

Not at all. Because everyone had factored in the likely death of their characters anyway, there was little to no actual investment in them or their relationships. Characters need time to move from cutboard clichee to rounded character, because we usually lack the efficient writing skills of a screenplay. So if a character needs three to four game sessions to develop meaningful relations, goals and a sense of belonging, and the average durability of a character is three to four play the math. That's what drove me out of Vampire.

The solution, again, is to keep up the game. It's over once you kill a character, and that serves neither you nor the other player (it serves your character, but who cares, they're fictional anyway). Instead, publicly humiliate them. Cut off a limb (Vampires grow these back in like a minute anyway). Sentence them to do menial labor. Anything that keeps the game going. Will they have a grudge and come after you? Sure! Is this dumb from the character's point of view to allow? Sure! Is it keeping the game going? Emphatically yes! If no one kills each other, the game continues. And that's the whole point.


  1. I killed off all but one of the PCs in a CoC game once, back when we were 17. They forced me: ignored every warning, behaved recklessly, acted like losing sanity was fun - in short, they acted like the chaotic neutral characters they had played until a few weeks earlier in our two-year long D&D campaign.
    It was worth it. Every crazy cultist afterwards was met with due respect, a shoggoth would cause outright panic - as they should. Never had to kill anybody again, ever.

    So, in short, I fully agree with you, but it's a deal for both sides. Your players have to learn (if that's even necessary) that you'll only make them "immortal" if they don't act as if they were.

    1. I get the idea, and with 17-year-olds, this may be different. But I tend to have a conversation with the players in such a situation and to explain to them that this is not a desirable playstyle for me, and why, and that if they insist on it, they need to find another gamemaster. Obviously not something you can do with your friends, but I've already written about the problem of finding a good group.

  2. In D&D life is cheap and resurrection is probably available, so in one sense, killing a PC hardly matters. Still, I tend to aim to almost-nearly-but-not-quite kill the PCs. I pile on the monsters until they're soiling their britches, then I throw in a few more for luck. Having just one or two players who are prone to panic and alarm can be a great asset in creating an atmosphere of threat. Killing them only means that the threat is ended. I only kill PCs when their player has done something so grotesquely stupid that it's unavoidable. Of course, if you want to see both players and high-level characters freak out, just add a couple of rust monsters. Terror!

    1. I found killing PC a bad medicine against stupid stuff. It can also lead to players being overly cautious, sapping momentum and fun out of the game.